Archive for the ‘history’ Category

A Very Short Video History of “Bel Canto”

My submission to La Cieca’s You Can Ring My Bel Cantocompetition, over at was deemed one of four runners-up, from what must have been close to 50 submissions, I’m guessing.

The challenge? To post a youtube video that serves as a sterling example of the art of bel canto, including narrative explaining why. Enjoy it here:

A Brief youtube History of Bel Canto

It includes offerings by Orgonasova (‘94), Baltsa & Gruberova (‘84), Pavarotti (‘68), Steber (‘58), Gigli (‘33), and Barrientos (‘18, pictured above). I will always jump to the defense of my favored, and less touted bel cantists!

Many submissions honored the greats: Muzio, Callas, Kraus, Sutherland, Horne, Caballé, Sills, and so on. However, this offering, by Shirley Verrett, although not a winner or runner-up was the most exciting new find for me:

Now, please share your bel canto favorites!

Rare Gems: A Dramatic Soprano Meet ‘n Greet

Underrated. Forgotten. Neglected. Unknown.

Spanish Soprano Angeles Gulin

Call them what you will. Re-discovering such divas has always been the pride of Opera Queens the world round, just like hipster punks staking their claim on discovering the coolest, unknown bands. But, back in the day it took the divining powers to wade through the sea of “pirates”! Today, we all know a quick click on youtube takes us places that it would require months of recording research to get to in the past.

So, I’m pleased to share a series of some notable, and some great “would be stars today” divas, suffering from varying degrees of neglect in posterity. No, I’m not talking about Gencer, Cerquetti, Souliotis, or Deutekom…they’re too easy, and hardly forgotten any longer. I’m focusing on dramatic and spinto sopranos (plus a bonus mezzo and baritone), billed by me as Divas With Cojones! Since they are among the rarest operatic fachs these days, and offer the most visceral thrill, they also deserve our greatest honor and sentiment. I hope these discoveries provide you the same pleasure they do me.

Why aren’t they household names?

They were either of a more eccentric type, dimmed by health problems, from smaller countries that offered less intl. exposure, or denied recording contracts of perhaps more “refined” singers. All this contributed to their lack of attention or fame, but conversely they now offer more unique pleasures. I just started to scratch the surface when I touted lesser known contemporary divas Anne Schwanewilms and Paula Almerares.

So, I now introduce (or, perhaps reintroduce) you to these fine Wagnerians, Verdians, and Mozarteans:

Anita Välkki (b. Sääksmäki, 1926)

This Finnish hochdramatische’s (heroic-dramatic) tone and tireless technique bears a resemblance to another more famous Scandinavian, although it’s even more dark and pleasing to my ears. Judging by these samples, it appears that perhaps only a lack of a leading role in the Solti Decca Ring (ie: Third Norn, instead of Brünnhilde), or the rumored onset of a short top (evidenced by later mezzo roles) kept her from becoming the household name that Nilsson did. What a crime. Amazingly, she began her career as an actress, and in operetta.

Enjoy her and the outrageously loud prompter in this “In Questa Reggia,” from Turandot (Puccini):

ThisO Don Fatale,” from Don Carlos (Verdi) is an unexpected treat, outside her fach, but VERY satisfying!

And, finally, Brünnhilde’sHo-jo-to-ho!,” from Die Walküre. This also offers some great video clips of her offstage, and of NYC.

Continue This Engaging Meet ‘n Greet!

Olympics Pictograms Through the Ages

The NY Times presents designer Steven Heller, as he traces the evolution of these iconographic Olympic symbols, since their first appearance in Berlin in 1936. (This is the perfect follow-up to mySeeing Whistler stats icon illustration from my last post!)

Enjoy this fascinating overview:

Kudos go to: Lance Wyman (Mexico, ’68); Roger Excoffon (Grenoble, ’68); Otl Aicher (Munich, ’72); Sussman/Prejza & Company, Inc. (LA, ’84); The Image & Identity Department (Athens, ’04); and BOCOG (Beijing, ’08).

Vancouver Olympic Schwag: Can You Resist?

One of my most curious and amusing memories of attending the Salt Lake Games with friends was the fast emerging and potent addiction to Olympic schwag, particularly collectible pins! I remember running from shop to shop, table to table, in Park City, seeking the most stylish, most beautiful, most perfect pin(s).

I liken it to going to an auction, or taking part in a raffle. Somehow you get roped up into thinking you MUST have the targeted item, and that your very happiness depends on it. Thankfully, I’ve enjoyed wearing the pins I purchased then to later skating events, and around big competition time, so they proved themselves worthy purchases.

I thought I’d share a little taste of this addictive smack with you! I have no association with the Vancouver 2010 Store, and am only sharing these images and links for your enjoyment. Just think of me as your schwag enabler.

Figure Skating Pins

These two are available here and here. Other figure skating pins include: hanging skates, glitter skatesladies’ spiral against Canadian maple leaflayback spin, Mukmuk mascot on Zamboni (hilarious!)Quatchi & Miga mascotspairs’ silhouette (garish), dimensional skating figure (tacky!). And, if you just MUST have an Olympic “Happy Easter” skating pin, it is available here.

jcm’s Favorite Vancouver 2010 Pins

This left pin features an Aboriginal salmon illustration. This is part of a beautiful, larger series. To be honest, I had no idea there was Aboriginal culture or history in Canada. I only knew of it in Australia. Whodathunkit? These pins ALSO educate!

The right pin has a cut-out of the Paralympic logo in silver. I actually prefer the Paralympic logo and pins to the Vancouver Olympic logo and pins. I also like the looks of this simple pin quite a bit, and for other sports, this Canadian maple leaf ski pin is the coolest!

More Figure Skating Schwag

Other figures skating schwag that is not yet out of stock including this hot pink luggage tag, a rather drab looking magnet, and poster.

Even though Christmas is past, I’ll be placing my order for the top left skating pin, and likely the Aboriginal salmon pin today! You see any favs on the store site?

Olympic Reigns Ending: Likelihoods or Naysaying?

While I’m on the subject of Olympic pairs skating (ie: Shen & Zhao), I was doing a little poking around to see what kind sort of history-making we’re likely to witness in Vancouver, barring any miracles…which I’m always open to! That’s why I’m calling these “likelihoods”, not “predictions”.

2010 Olympics Logo Ice SculptureMy focus here is just on medal trends per country, and which countries have historically reigned in various divisions. (It’s WAY too early to purport any individual medal predictions.) A lot of these thoughts have certainly been floated online, but I really wanted to dig up and share the stats, to express the gravity of it.

Frankly, I prefer to see the spotlight passed around. For example, I think the recent upsurge (a new reign?) by ladies from Asian countries has been a welcome evolution, giving them their “moment”, but also offering the sport and other skaters a healthy push towards further growth.

Russian (URS/EUN) Gold Reigns

Russian Flag

The only complete stranglehold any one country has had on a single Olympic division over three or more decades is in pairs. However, unless the chinese teams and Savchenko & Szolkowy (GER) spend the competition on their asses, it will likely be the first time since 1960 that the pairs champions are not Russian (URS/EUN), discluding the ’02 Skategate scandal, in which two sets of gold medals were awarded. (Yes, Savchenko is Russian by birth, but that doesn’t count.) Just to clarify, I’m not a Russia-hater, but I’d prefer a single country (including the US) not to completely dominate a division like this.

Also, we are likely to see the end of their impressive five-Olympic reign of the men’s title. The recent champions have been: Victor Petrenko (EUN, ‘92), Alexei Urmanov (‘94), Ilia Kulik (‘98), Alexei Yagudin (‘02), Evgeni Plushenko (‘06).

Torvill & Dean (‘84) and Anissina & Peizerat (‘02) already put a kabosh on a Russian reign in ice dance. (Yes, Anissina is Russian by birth, but that doesn’t count either.)

US Podium Reign

American FlagAnd, finally, it may also be the first time in 11 Olympics (40+ years…yes, that’s since ’64) that an American lady doesn’t make it to the podium. I hate to be a naysayer, but the top four ladies at ’09 Worlds looked unbeatable. And, PLEASE proove me wrong!

BTW, I spied some cute Vancouver Games wallpaper here.


Barnyard Golf or Love Making?

After my City Grazing double-take last week, I wouldn’t have guessed another groovy neighborhood discovery was lurking so closely. Having lived in my hood for about 15 years, it’s rare to come upon something entirely fresh, within a few block radius…let alone something on a grand scale. The northeastern tip of Golden Gate Park alone is rife with history, but I thought I had covered pretty much every path. El wrongo!!!

Well, around noon today, I headed out on my lunch break to practice a monologue for my callback in the out-of-doors. What other show is better suited to a rustic park setting than Hair? Me thinks there isn’t one. I knew it would help put me in the right state of mind, and help my characterization of hippie leader Berger take flight (hopefully).

I wandered onto a narrow dirt path just off the paved walking path winding down from the intersection of Fulton and Stanyan, and hung my jacket on a eucalyptus branch. Just as I was preparing to start, I discovered someone sitting quietly on a nearby bench and writing, so I continued my search for an empty glade. Our homeless neighbors also love this region of the park, so I figured I would likely have a few of them as an audience. Maybe they could even offer some hippie tips?

Photo by Octoferret/Flickr

Photo by Octoferret/Flickr

I walked up a dirt path that branched off to the left of the main path, where I had never gone before. It’s always looked like a vehicle path for the park worker’s use. As I came around the bend, a stone wall and some steps became visible. Once even closer, a huge cement courtyard opened up before me, with a giant 20-or-so foot wide horse sculpture on the opposing wall, formed by a natural cross-sectioned hillside about 50 feet high. The inside of the horse sculpture had crumbled away, leaving only the outer features and details. This gave it a real feeling of antiquity…although, I was pretty sure I hadn’t just uncovered a lost ruin.

Horse Sculpture: Before & After

Horse Sculpture: Before & After

Frankly, it was the perfect site not only for my personal run-through but would be just right for an entire production of Hair (I’ll get on that)! It became clear from multiple vertical metal rods (and the horse sculpture sealed the deal) that it was for horseshoeing. However, it was in such shambles and disrepair, it felt haunted. I could easily imagine countless romantic trysts, late-night drug-induced adventures, and homeless encampments here. In fact it’s been counted as the Number 18, in “Best Place to Make Love in Golden Gate Park”. A “For Screamers” category is even included…although this locale didn’t make that list.

Horseshoe Pits: 1930s

Horseshoe Pits: 1930s

These “Horseshoe Pits“, as they are called are also on the National Register of Historic Places in San Francisco, noted with the year 1922. And, to be exact, there are 16 pitching courts of this largely out-of-fashion game, also referred to by the nickname “Barnyard Golf”. I’m hopeful for the sake of this landmark alone that there is a burgeoning horseshoe following. The Golden Gate Horseshoe Club website reveals that this court is used for periodic special annual events, but most likely not regular weekly or even monthly use. Since there is a well kept, grassy horseshoe court down near Stern Grove, it doesn’t appear the city can fill up and upkeep more than one court, with its largely aging fan-base.

Aerial MapNot surprisingly, I discovered online that a skate park had been proposed for this area, a perfect usage of the space, in my mind. But, apparently the poor site lines, thanks to surrounding hills and trees, were deemed less than ideal, since it would be inhabited largely by youth. That park has instead been (or will be) built at an Upper Haight, Waller Street site.

The book “San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park: A Thousand and Seventeen Acres of Stories” by Chris Pollack & Erica Katz helped the big picture of this locale’s history come together. The courts construction was in 1926 (later than the National Register record above), and the GGHC tended the courts. Previously it was a rock quarry, from which San Francisco streets were built.

The Horseshoe PitcherThe two concrete bas-reliefs, created on the face of the largest rock formations, include the horse, but also “The Horseshoe Pitcher”, a sculpture by Jesse S. “Vet” Anderson, who was a member of the GGHC, and a cartoonist and caricaturist for the Detroit Free Press.

“The sculptures had been overgrown and long forgotten but were revealed in 1968 by Youth Corps volunteers…The hill above the courts rises 384 feet above sea level to what was once a 100,000-gallon water reservoir that doubled as an aquatic garden for irrigating the Panhandle and nearby park areas. This hill has been known by many names: Mt. Lick, Plateau Hill, and Reservoir Hill.

The site was further developed, in 1934, as a Depression-era Works Progress Administration venture; hand-hewn stonework was laid to define the court area. The work included a raised gallery for spectators and a star lined with large red rustic boulders from Conservatory Drive East.”

Hmmm, a game of Barnyard Golf anyone?! I’ll leave the GG Park lovemaking to you and yours!

History in the ‘Nati

An Outing of Conscience

This post is a sequel to Art in the ‘Nati, and covers my continuing adventures in Cincinnati over Easter weekend.

Exterior: Travertine DetailSomehow, through over five years of regular visits to the “Queen City” I failed to get to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. It opened in August ’04, on a very prominent site, clearly visible as you speed down I71, through downtown Cincy. Each time I made that drive I would bookmark the Center for a visit “next time”. Finally, “next time” arrived…and the
Center became the second stop on my
touristic adventure.

It is billed as part of a new group of “museums of conscience,” along with the Museum of Tolerance, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Civil Rights Museum. The exterior features rough travertine stone from Tivoli, Italy on the east and west faces of the building, and copper panels on the north and south (from Wikipedia). The rough hewn nature of the travertine feels very akin to the stories held inside.

Annie at the CenterSadly, because of the debt the museum has accrued, and low attendance, a dark cloud seems to hang over it. None of my Cincinnati family or friends had really said anything unsolicited about it, and certainly didn’t tout it as must-see. Despite that, I was determined to experience it. I headed down with my folks, sis and her children, Annie and Brian. I was interested to also see this history through their younger eyes as well.

It is positioned in the perfect spot, historically and conceptually…on the banks of the Ohio River, on the Ohio side, within plain view of Kentucky (Covington). As you enter the Center, you have the view that former slaves had as they set foot into their newfound freedom. There is a sinuous “river” crafted out of flat slate rocks, which you walk cross while entering the Center, symbolically crossing into freedom yourself. The “river” rocks are a blueish-grey tone, so the color aids in the illusion. The same undulation seen in this “river” is echoed in the walls of the building itself, also illustrating the fields and rivers that were common on the road to freedom.

The audio tour introduces you quickly to the unforgettable story of William and Ellen Craft, a slave couple who escaped to freedom due to his cunning and her daring. Thanks to her light skin, she was able to pass as a male slave owner, also feigning injury by putting her right hand in a sling to avoid having to write or sign anything (since she didn’t have those skills). Their creative hoax paid off. I hadn’t remembered being taught about this in grade school. A “tranny/drag” ex-slave! I should have known cross-dressing was one road to freedom. Here are further details on their story, and other cross-dressing successes.

img_3848The giant The RagGonNon quilt by Aminah Robinson is the first featured piece in the collection. It tells the story of the slave trade, from Africa to America. The button and shell eyes on some of the sewn slave faces were haunting…like something out of Coraline.

Slave Pen: A Horrific Reminder

The principal artifact of the museum is a slave pen (built in 1830), which was discovered on a farm in Mason County, Kentucky. A larger tobacco barn had been built around it in the early 20th century, hiding it from plain view and giving it the appearance of any other barn. Thankfully, it protected the pen from the elements for a century. Not, surprisingly, there are apparently hundreds of log (slave) pens like this hidden in tobacco barns all over the country. See this fascinating step-by-step of how it was dismantled and reassembled.

The cramped one-room pen tells the story of a generation of slaves who were kept inside, on Captain John W. Anderson’s farm, waiting to be taken to the auction block.

Slave Pen, from Mason County, OH

Approaching the pen, and walking through its belly is a haunting journey. With the help of the audio tour, you not only imagine the horrors that occurred here, but hear stories from both a slaves’ perspective, as well as the slave traders’. It certainly called to mind my visit to l’île de N’gor (“Slave Island”) in Senegal.

“The pen was described by an ex-slave as “worse than a dog hole.” Men were chained to the straw-covered floor of the second story, while the women, charged with taking care of the men and cooking, were free to move about the house. Human waste and garbage would fall to the kitchen from cracks in the upper floor, and the close quarters led to outbreaks of cholera…the men were tethered two-by-two to the central chain by shorter shackles that allowed them only to sit or lie down. The smothering sense of confinement, barely breathable air and lack of privacy drove some mad.” (By Marilyn Bauer, The Cincinnati Enquirer)

Road to Freedom

Fortunately, after experiencing the pen, we experienced some levity and hope in the form of a movie, previewed in the beautiful theatre. It is an artistic vision portraying the road from slavery to freedom, rendered by three different artists. The first was an abstract, mostly pastel rendering of themes of oppression and darkness, moving into soaring freedom and colorful light. The second was a more literal story-telling of a journey to freedom. This artist actually partially erased her drawings to create each animated frame, as well as a sense of almost blurred movement. She used primarily deep browns and blacks, to create a stark palette, but with some warmth and hope. The faces she depicted were rich in character and stories, but exhausted, and seemingly hopeless.

“There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted.”
— Harriet Tubman

Levi Coffin's WagonIn ESCAPE!, an exhibit which needs no real explanation, we learned about the brave abolitionists, and methods to freedom. An Oskar Schindler-like man named Levi Coffin created a wagon with a false bottom, which allowed him to hide multiple slaves under supplies.

Karen Heyl SculptureWe enjoyed multiple marble wall sculptures by Karen Heyl, the same artist that at the beginning of her career created The Wall of Creation, a hundred-plus foot wide sculpture in Good Shepherd Parish, where my folks and grandpa belong. I love work like this that allows light to play along its surfaces, and create the rather subtle definition.

I was very pleasantly surprised that the museum also pays tribute to all efforts to “abolish human enslavement and secure freedom for all people.” So, there are inspiring references to and portraits of Harvey Milk, Gandhi and other heroes of justice and champions of civil rights movements on the top floor of the museum.

Critics of the Center (and there are many) feel that a more affordable, existing building should have been re-fashioned to serve as its location. Also, the public money the Center has received has come under fire, as there are MANY other sites that educate about the Underground Railroad that survive without that aid, and yet are now threatened by the existence of this Center. I hope the qualms will subside over time, and that the Center will not only survive, but come to thrive, as this is a story that NEEDS to be told, and has potential for more impact in this civic setting!

The bonds are broken!