Saturday, July 26, 2014

Wager's PARSIFAL Premiered July 26, 1882

Parsifal is an opera in three acts by Richard Wagner. It is loosely based on Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, the 13th century epic poem of the Arthurian knight Parzival (Percival) and his quest for the Holy Grail.

During the first act, Parsifal, an apparently witless fool, sees the suffering of the wounded Amfortas, King of an order of knights who guard the Grail. In the second Act Parsifal wanders into the domain of Klingsor, a magician who is trying to corrupt the Knights of the Grail and who has stolen from them the spear used to pierce Jesus Christ during his crucifixion. There Parsifal meets Kundry, the slave of Klingsor, who attempts to seduce him. In resisting her, he destroys Klingsor, and recovers the Spear. In the third Act, Parsifal returns to the Grail Kingdom to heal Amfortas.

Wagner first conceived the work in April 1857 but it was not finished until twenty-five years later. It was to be Wagner's last completed opera and in composing it he took advantage of the particular sonority of his Bayreuth Festspielhaus.
Parsifal was first produced at the second Bayreuth Festival in 1882. The Bayreuth Festival maintained an exclusive monopoly on Parsifal productions until 1903, when the opera was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Wagner preferred to describe
Parsifal not as an opera, but as "ein Bühnenweihfestspiel" - "A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage". At Bayreuth a tradition has arisen that there is no applause after the first act of the opera.

Wagner's spelling of Parsifal instead of the Parzival he had used up to 1877 is informed by an erroneous etymology of the name Percival deriving it from a supposedly Arabic origin, Fal Parsi meaning "pure fool".

Image &

I was in the offstage chorus for the San Francisco Opera production of Parsifal starring Jess Thomas.

A re-posting from November 8, 2008:

A brief return to the Bayreuth-like acoustics of the top balcony at the San Francisco Opera: when I saw Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love last Saturday night, I was somewhat surprised and amused that Adina’s story of the elixir was actually a version of Isolde’s love potion – and was written decades before Wagner’s supreme creation, with a very different outcome, indeed!

Last year I finally joined the local Wagner Society –many years after I probably should have. I figured it’s the only way I’ll ever afford to go to Bayreuth. The year before last, my Australian friend Jeffrey Hardy looked into my getting tickets to the Bayreuther Festspiele in August before returning to Venezia with some of Dennis’ ashes. It turned out the price for a single ticket was greater than the roundtrip airfare from San Francisco to Munich! But as a member of the Northern California Wagner Society, I would actually be able to afford to go someday. Next year’s program would be ideal:
Tristan und Isolde, Meistersinger, the complete Ring, and Parsifal, of course (which was written especially for that theater, and for many years restricted to be performed only there.) Alas, this year won’t be financially feasible or fit into my planned schedule! I also haven’t been a member long enough to be eligible, I think.

A few months ago at coffee hour after the Sunday morning service at Grace Cathedral, I mentioned to Dr. Jeffrey Smith, organist and choir director, that I noticed he had quite a collection of books on Richard Wagner and Bayreuth. He stopped and beamed and then began an extended discourse on the wonders of Bayreuth. He had been there a few summer’s before with his wife, Elisabeth, who is a journalist. Almost all the Wagner operas are long – indeed endurance events for the singers and for the audience. But at Bayreuth, the operas begin in the early afternoon— with hour intermissions between acts for lunch, tea or dinner— so even though extending throughout the day, there is sufficient rest between acts for singers and audience alike to appreciate the grandeur and majesty of Wagner’s art.

At Bayreuth there are no center or side aisles between rows of seats. Instead there are separate doors for each row, I imagine a little like the doors on English trains. Dr. Smith described how at the end of each intermission, patrons silently line up in order, and then return to their seats without a sound. Whenever I go to a performance here in the States and hear hacking and coughing, particularly at quiet moments— when I conclude the audience is really only bored— I think how that would never happen at Bayreuth. Patrons who are actually sick choose not to attend. And others, who need to cough, somehow do it in a way that is totally inaudible! (Reportedly Igor Stravinsky was once severely frowned upon by surrounding patrons for daring to withhold a sneeze at Bayreuth.)

Friday, July 25, 2014

CONSTANTINE ~ Declared Emperor of the West ~ York, England ~July 25, 306 C.E.

Caesar Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus (27 February c. 272 – 22 May 337), commonly known in English as Constantine I, Constantine the Great, or (among Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Christians) Saint Constantine, was Roman emperor from 306, and the undisputed holder of that office from 324 until his death in 337. Best known for being the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine reversed the persecutions of his predecessor, Diocletian, and issued (with his co-emperor Licinius) the Edict of Milan in 313, which proclaimed religious toleration throughout the empire.

The Byzantine liturgical calendar, observed by the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches of Byzantine rite, lists both Constantine and his mother Helena as saints. Although he is not included in the Latin Church's list of saints, which does recognize several other Constantines as saints, he is revered under the title "The Great" for his contributions to Christianity.

Constantine also transformed the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium into a new Imperial residence, Constantinople, which would remain the capital of the Byzantine Empire for over one thousand years.

Image &

Below is repost from October 28, 2008

[Thirteen years ago [this October 28th] I stood in the middle of the Milvian Bridge in Rome and listened to a tape of my song of the same name, from a music drama about Constantine, I had written originally for the Bohemian Club as a submission for a Grove Play. The lyrics had been written a few years before, but I didn’t write the music or record it until after the play had been rejected by the Jinks Committee, following previous acceptance by the Reading Committee. When I retire in a few years, I intend to complete this and another play now on the back burner. But these won’t be resubmitted to the club. Instead, I’ll see where else there might be a place for them. More importantly, I plan to complete multi-media presentations on DVD.

Song: The Milvian Bridge

By the Cross of Christ I conquer.
~~ I am Caesar ~~ Imperator ~~
No longer ~~ merely One of Four,
But Ruler of the Western World.

With flags unfurled & standards raised,
My legions march to victory:
~~ (O’er the grave?
~~ Who knows?)

With power supreme~~
which grows far greater
than any peasant
e’re foretold~~

The world is weary,
and bodies ... cold;
But Roman might

By the Cross of Christ I conquer.
~~I am Caesar ~~ Imperator ~~
No longer merely One of Four ~~
Soon ruler ~~ Augustus of the World.

Dennis and I had been in Venice and were in Rome before starting a ten day Mediterranean cruise ending up in Istanbul on Election Day 2000. (That was the only time I have voted by absentee ballot. I’ve never missed an election; but I like to vote in person.)

This was my second time on the Ponte Milvio. The first was in 1997 after dinner on a Sunday night with the choir from St. Dominic’s in San Francisco on a concert tour in Italy. We had just spent a frustrating day in Rome with little opportunity to go sight seeing on our own; so after dinner near the Vatican, I walked to the Victor Emmanuel monument at the Piazza Venezia and from there strode a power-walk about five kilometers up the Via del Corso in a straight line through Via le Tiziano, Via Flaminia to the Milvian Bridge and arrived just before midnight. (I returned to our hotel in the outer hills by taxi.)

One-thousand-seven-hundred-one years ago [this October 28th] in the year 312 C.E., Constantine defeated the Emperor Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (then at the northern most boundary of the city) and became sole ruler in the western half of the Roman Empire.

What initially interested me in the story of Constantine was the sheer scope of the geography. Even today it would be staggering for a single individual to affect events in places diverse as York, Rome, and Istanbul, let alone found one of them (now the largest city in Europe). Constantine —the Great— born in Dalmatia, accomplished all that. CONSTANTINE, the play, is based on actual history, legend, and a good bit of fiction. The major character is the hero Constantine. He is the real figure who changed the course of history. In the beginning we hear about his exploits second hand from other people when he became one of four tetrarchs after his father’s death in York, England. But at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, he demonstrates his valor, his stubbornness, his ingenuity, and his ability to exploit the situation.

After seeing angled rays of the sun through clouds the day before the battle, followed by a vision of the cross in a dream later that night, and then adopting the symbol of the Chi-Rho (the first two Greek letters of the word for Christ) to be painted on his soldiers’ shields, Constantine was able to win a victory against great odds. This victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge was the significant event in his life. It led to Constantine’s later conversion and the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire – an event which has had continuous impact on Western culture ever since.

Constantine becomes a Christian, yes, but primarily as the means to win the battle in order to gain absolute power. Later he insists on unity at the Council of Nicaea, again not so much from a religious standpoint as from a concern for conformity. His principal goal is to maintain order and hierarchy with himself at the top. He also wants family unity. This is the major source of conflict in the play. The single idea unifying the plot is the oftentimes difficult relationship between fathers and sons. The central irony is that Ossius saves Constantine’s life only – mistakenly – to recommend the execution of Crispus, Constantine’s son.

So the secondary major character is Lucius Marcellus Ossius, essentially my invention. He evolves from being a naive idealist to become a politically astute prelate. Ossius uses Constantine to gain acceptance of the Christian faith. He succeeds, but at the very moment of victory, he compromises the essence of that faith. Ossius becomes my metaphor of the Church as an institution and how it was changed by official recognition after the conversion of Constantine. This was a crucial intersection in history. Before that time it took great courage to declare oneself a Christian. Ever since, it has often been the reverse. In becoming an established institution, the Church lost sight of its original mission. This is not to imply that there is no truth in the Church, only to suggest that the great truths are hidden beneath the fabric of ritual and organization, and need to be rediscovered by seekers in each generation.

Ossius is basically a composite. There was a Bishop Ossius from Spain who advised Constantine on Church matters, may have interpreted the dream at the Milvian Bridge, probably presided at the Council of Nicaea and presumably counseled Constantine about the fate of Crispus. One fact I changed is having Ossius baptize Constantine. This act rounds out their relationship. (It’s unclear who really did baptize Constantine. Rome insists that it was Pope Sylvester, but he had already been in his tomb for at least two years.) It is fully documented, however, that Constantine was baptized just before his death.

Color photo of Rob Bell in front of colossal head of Constantine 1997

(Refer to post on November 1, 2008 for my comments on the Council of Nicea.)

Thursday, July 24, 2014



The Kitchen Debate was an impromptu debate (through interpreters) between then U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the opening of the American National Exhibition in Moscow, on July 24, 1959. For the event, an entire house was built that the American exhibitors claimed anyone in America could afford. It was filled with labor saving and recreational devices meant to represent the fruits of the capitalist American consumer market.

My Dad, Sherry Bell, was in Moscow with the Harrisburg Chamber of Commerce at the time of the Kitchen Debate. He told me that the Russians were absolutely convinced that the 1959 Cadillac was purely a mock-up made for the show. They couldn't believe that anyone actually owned one. They thought it was an American version of a "Potemkin Village." [Potemkin villages were purportedly fake settlements erected at the direction of Russian minister Grigory Potyomkin to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787. According to this story, Potyomkin, who led the Crimean military campaign, had hollow facades of villages constructed along the desolate banks of the Dnieper River in order to impress the monarch and her travel party with the value of her new conquests, thus enhancing his standing in the empress's eyes.]


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Jacques Soufflot ~ July 22, 1713 ~ August 29, 1780

Jacques Germain Soufflot (July 22, 1713 – August 29, 1780) was a French architect in the international circle that introduced Neoclassicism. His most famous work is the Panthéon, Paris, built from 1755 onwards, originally as a church dedicated to Sainte Genevieve.

Image &

My brother Sherry and his family lived right across from the Pantheon at #1 Place du Pantheon, when he was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Paris in the early '80's. I visited them for my 31st birthday. Below is a re-posting from October 3, 2008:

For my 31st birthday, Mother and Dad gave me a week in gay Paris Ah, April in Paris…..but ………….with Dad and Mother! We stayed with Sherry and Sallie at their wonderful apartment (rented from Georges Clemenceau’s granddaughter) at Nombre 1, Place du Pantheon. My birthday dinner was at café Le Procope, the oldest coffeehouse in Paris (possibly in Europe) and a favorite hangout of Jefferson and Franklin’s.

Sherry drove me to Fontainebleau so I could see the famous horseshoe staircase, from which Napoleon delivered his farewell to the troops at the time of his first abdication. I took the metro and walked to La Malmaison— an extraordinary house and furniture collection. Unfortunately the rose gardens have not been maintained.

[Did you know that Josephine's given name was Rose? And that her first cousin, Aimee du Buc de Rivery, was captured by Barbary pirates, sent to Constantinople, put in the harem, and was either the actual mother, or guardian of Mahmud II, Turkish Sultan at the time of Napoleon's invasion of Russia? There's a recent novel, "Seraglio," by Janet Wallach, who doesn't explore the possibility— but I've read an earlier book "The Veiled Empress" by Morton, who suggests that Mahmud II secretly broke his treaty with Napoleon soon after the Josephine divorce – the old blood is thicker routine – and that this may have been the critical difference in Napoleon's defeat in 1812. Counterfactual history is fascinating speculation, but, of course, guarantees absolutely nothing. I wrote a separate post on Aimee on May 28, 2009.]

I had spent my first day in Paris, as part of a fortnight holiday in Britain, a year and a half before. So I figured I could do the reverse, and spend a weekend in London to see my friend Jeffrey, as part of my week in Paris. Remember that this was a gift from Mother and Dad – and it came with strings. Mother had wanted me to go along with them to Mont-Saint-Michel that weekend. So I telephoned Jeffrey to say that I wouldn’t be able to make it.

As a result, I was available to have dinner with an ex-girl friend of Boyd Jarrell’s, then baritone soloist and cantor at Grace Cathedral. He had given me Lynn Davis’ phone number. When I called to take her to lunch, she invited me to dinner instead.

Sallie said it was a very good address, and recommended I take a potted plant, rather than cut flowers, since a hostess preparing dinner wouldn’t want to have to deal with them. The florist shop insisted otherwise. And when I got to the door, and was met by a liveried servant, I realized that it was not an issue.

Lynne had invited me to dinner at the home of her friend—whom I later learned was her fiance— Pierre Firmin-Didot, a publisher, and chairman of the Chartres Cathedral Organ Competition. Lynn was a church and concert organist, originally from Michigan, and had met Pierre the year she won the organ competition.

At dinner were several other guests, including an Australian photographer. That turned out to be a very fortunate coincidence. As I related to Dennis many times, this dinner was one of the few occasions in my life that my table manners matched my surroundings. I must have thought of Mother. I think I was actually the last one done. But partly that was due to conversation.

Learning that M. Firmin-Didot was chairman of the Chartres organ competition, I talked about my first day in the Cathedral the previous year. As a preface, I related a story I had read about the Persian Room nightclub at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Evidently the policy had been to overheat the room, and then suddenly drop the temperature several degrees immediately before a performance. That had a tendency to wake up the audience. And the chill down one's spine wasn't entirely a result of the music.

At this point, the conversation came to an abrupt halt. What was this foolish young American talking about? But I managed to pull it out of the fire. I said that when I entered the front door of Chartres Cathedral on a glorious, warm May afternoon, the temperature inside was immediately cooler; but the chill down my spine was due entirely…to the splendor of the stained glass and the magnificence of the architecture within. There was an audible sigh……. then conversation resumed.

M. Firmin-Didot had a wing in the Hotel (townhouse with a courtyard in front) originally built for Louis XV's finance minister. His family owned the building, and he shared it with several relatives. Hearing that a professional photographer was among his guests— and had his camera in the car— M. Firmin-Didot offered to show us his entire section of the house. He had needed to have some photographs taken for insurance purposes.

So I saw Voltaire’s death mask in the library, and an extraordinary marquetry commode given to Madame de Pompadour by Louis XV. I counted at least twenty bergeres and fauteuils in the main salon—with its beautiful boiserie. And with the groupings, the room didn’t look crowded. I think I also recognized several paintings…..which did not appear to be copies.

All in all, it was an extraordinary evening – thanks to Mother’s insistence that I go to Mont-Saint-Michel with them, instead of London to visit Jeffrey.

I regret I thought I couldn’t afford the airfare a few years later, when I was invited to Lynn and Pierre’s wedding in Michigan. I’ve seen her only a few times since.

The weekend in Normandy at Mont-Saint-Michel was indeed glorious. It wasn’t that I hadn’t wanted to go. I had just wanted to wait to go with Gary someday. But it’s a good thing I did then, because I have not yet returned.

I remember Sallie’s eating mussels at every possible occasion at Mont-Saint-Michel. Sheridan says she still has a passion for them. I also have fond memories of playing with Sheridan and Morgan around the cloister, in the turrets, and on the walls.

Lynn and Pierre were married for nearly a quarter century. I understand that Lynn is now a widow. But Pierre was considerably older.

Monday, July 21, 2014


The "Scopes Trial" (State v. Scopes, Scopes v. State, 152 Tenn. 424, 278 S.W. 57 (Tenn. 1926), often called the "Scopes Monkey Trial") was an American legal case that tested the Butler Act, which made it unlawful, in any state-funded educational establishment in Tennessee, "to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." This is often interpreted as meaning that the law forbade the teaching of any aspect of the theory of evolution. The case was a critical turning point in the United States' creation-evolution controversy.

After the passage of the Butler Act, the American Civil Liberties Union financed a test case, where a Dayton, Tennessee high school teacher named John Scopes intentionally violated the Act. Scopes was charged on May 5, 1925 with teaching evolution from a chapter in a textbook which showed ideas developed from those set out in Charles Darwin's book On the Origin of Species. The trial pitted two of the pre-eminent legal minds of the time against one another; three-time presidential candidate, Congressman and former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan headed up the prosecution and prominent trial attorney Clarence Darrow spoke for the defense. Scopes Trial: In Dayton, Tennessee, high school biology teacher John T. Scopes is found guilty of teaching evolution in class and fined $100. The famous trial was made infamous by the fictionalized accounts given in the 1955 play Inherit the Wind, the 1960 film adaptation, and the 1965, 1988, and 1999 television films of the same title.

Image &

Sunday, July 20, 2014

APOLLO 11 MOON LANDING ~ July 20, 1969

The Apollo 11 mission was the first manned mission to land on the Moon. It was the fifth human spaceflight of Project Apollo and the third human voyage to the Moon. It was also the second all-veteran crew in manned spaceflight history. Launched on July 16, 1969, it carried Mission Commander Neil Alden Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin Eugene 'Buzz' Aldrin, Jr. On July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin became the first humans to land on the Moon, while Collins orbited above.

The mission fulfilled President John F. Kennedy's goal of reaching the moon by the end of the 1960s, which he expressed during a speech given before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961:

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

Image &

July 20, 1969 was also Gary Murakami's 24th birthday; though this was seven years before I met him. He died three days before his 36th. (For more on Gary, please see my post on December 7, 2008.)

HELEN & EVELYN ~ July 23rd

Today is the birthday of two of my favorite people: Helen Heisey and Evelyn Graham. Helen is now ninety years old!!! Born July 23 in '23.

Helen was my Father's best friend and a surrogate mother to me. Evelyn was Dennis' step-mother --and after Dennis' death seven years ago -- almost another surrogate mother-- along with Toki Murakami, Gary's Mom.

Helen lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in St. Michael's. Evelyn lives in Clarence, Iowa. That reminds me of my surrogate grandmother, Marie Bronson, who was Mrs. Clarence Bronson, Yale Class of 1900.

I have been blessed indeed to have several grand ladies as a significant part of my life!

Helen Heisey on a ferry to Oxford, Maryland. Evelyn Graham in front of the old Iowa state capitol.

Titian in the Frari (Venezia)