Sunday, November 30, 2008


Today, November 30, is Saint Andrew’s Day. He’s the patron Saint of Scotland. Supposedly he was crucified on an X shaped cross, hence the flag of Scotland is a white diagonal cross on a blue field, which is implied on the British Union Jack. There’s a graphic painting of his martyrdom at San Andrea della Valle around the corner from Piazza Navona in Rome. It’s the location of the first scene in Puccini’s Tosca and is across the street from the convent Falconieri, where Dennis and I stayed several times.


Last night was the annual St. Andrew’s Day Dinner and Ball celebrated by the St. Andrew’s Society of San Francisco. I didn’t go this year, but for many years Dennis and I did. I have a wonderful photo of Dennis and me and our nephew Matt Collins with our dear friend Lyle Richardson – all of us in our kilts. Matt was wearing my Dad’s Gunn tartan and I, the Bell Family tartan kilt Dennis had made for me in Edinburgh.


Matt was visiting us for Thanksgiving in 2004. We had dinner at our friend Deb’s as usual. The Friday afterwards Matt went with Dennis to Santa Rosa when he bought his beloved Fiat Spyder. Dennis drove the rental car, and Matt the convertible back to San Francisco. After Dennis died I gave the Spyder to Matt, who now has it in New York (though I think he keeps it at his Dad’s place in New Jersey).




Today is the first Sunday of Advent. I’m subbing at Grace Cathedral choir again for John Kelley, who is just returning from a European holiday, which included a few days in Istanbul. He may or may not make the Advent Procession of Lessons and Carols, since he’s scheduled to arrive only last night. So I’ll either join him or sing in his stead.

Thursday, November 27, 2008



(Edited repeat of a Thanksgiving email to members of my grief-research support group in 2006.)

I've just begun the Joan Didion book, The Year of Magical Thinking. Even though I've barely started, it resonates with me already. I had been reading David Fromkin's book Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914 (subject of one of their last conversations) about the same time that Joan's husband had his cardiac arrest, and for some reason it's one of the books I have on a pile to continue some day, but so far have not. And my Australian lawyer friend, Jeffrey (who stayed with me for a few months at the start of our sessions and will return in a few weeks for a few days before his return to Brisbane) had been an actor in London in the late '70's and early 80's and had had a role in the first episode of the BBC production Tenko, remembered fondly by Joan Didion. Jeffrey played a British officer, who befriended an attractive young Eurasian woman- a curious world of connections.

My last message was rather cursory, for which I apologize. I HAVE been busy, but wanted to communicate in some fashion just to say hello. It's strange though, I wrote that message early in the morning after a restless night, when I woke up a little after 4:00 a.m. I was restless and agitated without knowing why. Later I realized that it was seven months to the day after Dennis' death. He had died a little after 5:00. But the time had changed in the middle of that night, so it really had been a little after 4:00 a.m. It's amazing how the subconscious mind works and remembers!

This Thanksgiving will be the first in many years that I haven't spent the Wednesday night before cleaning cracked crab for Dennis to make his marvelous crab cakes. It traditionally was the first course at Thanksgiving dinner with a table full of friends. My job was just to prepare the crab. I'd clean my hands very thoroughly and sort the crab at least five times. After the third sort I'd think I was done, but then I'd always find a few tiny shards of shells and give it one more sort and inevitably find one more. You need bare fingers to feel it. Then Rose and Rupert would get to lick my fingers. It was a special treat for them. For many years we had Thanksgiving dinner at our friend Deb's place. We'd return the favor at Christmas. Last year Dennis just wasn't up to hosting dinner at home so we had dinner both times at Debbie's. Next Thursday I'll return to Deb’s with my sister Julie and brother-in-law Tom from New Jersey on their way to Hawaii. I'll bring some wine and two carving sets. Dennis had always sat opposite Deb and carved the turkey. Tom or I may do it this year. I've asked Debbie to come back to my place for Christmas. No doubt she'll help out. She makes amazing salads.

The last time Dennis had dinner with friends in our dining room was just after his elaborate liturgy of last rites the week before he died. Joan from Seattle came down. My nephew Matt was in town. Deb of course, was there. And our priest friend, David Sheetz, performed the most amazing service based on various traditions. Afterwards we had a formal dinner. Dennis had especially wanted cracked crab and roasted asparagus. He sat in his wheel chair at the head of the table and conducted the conversation in his own masterful, ironic style.

Even though I won't be making crab cakes this year, I thought I'd get a cooked whole crab for dinner this Wednesday. Then Rose and Rupert can again enjoy licking my fingers. At least one-half of a tradition will be maintained.

Tonight to the Opera; tomorrow, the Symphony; Sunday, dinner with friends; Monday, taking friends to dinner; Tuesday, ACT; Wednesday, cracked crab at home with the Cavaliers.

Have a blessed Thanksgiving. As difficult as it seems at times, we all have a great deal for which to be thankful. I certainly am for you.


This year–2008—I’m returning to Deb’s for Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve invited my cousin Clae and friend Juling from Starbucks. Tom and Julie invited me to go to dinner in New Jersey, but I don’t have the time or money to get away. I almost always work the Friday after Thanksgiving. Having been in retail for many years, the last thing in the world I would want to do is to go shopping at Union Square on Black Friday. I would just as soon go to my regular job and allow others to have the day off.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


This afternoon I went to the matinee at the Castro Theatre to see the restored film Lola Montes (French spelling). If you read my first blog postings back in September you would know that I have had a particular interest in Lola Montez, especially her California connection.

Max Ophüls’ 1955 “Lola Montès” was a box office flop, butchered by its producers, then restored as much as possible by producer Pierre Braunberger in 1968. And, now, 40 years later, his daughter Laurence has overseen a superb state-of-the-art restoration. Ophüls’ last film and first in color is the most baroque of his sumptuous period pictures – and to many critics, his greatest.

It is framed by a fictional device, an elaborate circus, in which a dying Lola (Martine Carol) participates in a series of tableaux dramatizing her scandalous career as an internationally popular Spanish dancer with a notorious private life. Montèz was actually born Eliza Gilbert in 1821 in Ireland, the daughter of a British soldier who died of cholera in India, leaving his daughter at the mercy of her cold, calculating mother. Headstrong and disillusioned, Eliza, admiring the freedom and passion of Spanish dances, takes to the stage as Lola Montèz.

If Lola was known more for her affairs than her dancing ability, Carol was known more for her glamour than her acting talent. The producers thrust Carol on Ophüls, but he turns Carol’s clear striving to do her best into an expression of Lola’s determination to live life as she pleases while underneath actually longing for love and security. With typical boldness, she lands it at last as the mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria (a dashing Anton Walbrook), but her notoriety threatens a revolution.

As the circus ringmaster, Peter Ustinov is the ultimate showman, stylish and ruthless, literally cracking a whip, wresting the last centime out of the fading Lola, but his remark that “she gave her body but kept her soul” reverberates through the film. By the end, she’s attained the transcendent spiritual dignity of Mizoguchi’s Oharu.

The film doesn’t deal with Lola’s American adventures, which included a two-year stay in a Grass Valley cottage, where she dreamed of being crowned queen of California but more constructively guided the young Lotta Crabtree into becoming one of the country’s most beloved entertainers. Lola turned to religion and died poor in New York at the age of 42 – Martine Carol herself died at 46.     Kevin Thomas  Los Angeles Times 10/08/08.

Peter Ustinov (with whom I share a birthday) is superb as the circus ringmaster in the opening and closing scenes reminiscent of the recent Rock Musical Moulin Rouge (or should I say the influence came from the other direction). A young Oskar Werner (later the doctor in the thoughtful film Ship of Fools and the hero in Fahrenheit 451) plays a Bavarian student who rescues Lola from the mob at the time of the 1848 Revolution.  

One of my few disappointments with the film plot is that it severely truncates Lola’s time and influence with Ludwig I in Bavaria. It seemed as if she had been there only a few weeks or months at most, when in fact she virtually ruled Bavaria for several years. (Refer to my Blog posting “California’s Connection to Wagner’s Ring Des Nibelungen” 09/07/08.) This leads to my other frustration, that there was no mention of Lola’s two years in Grass Valley, California during the Gold Rush. Her tragic comedown is made abundantly apparent, however, with her depicted humiliation in the circus.

Lola is somewhat effectively portrayed by Martine Carol, Franz Liszt by Will Quadflieg and King Ludwig I by Anton Walbrook. The sets –frequently surreal— are ravishing, and there were several nice touches, including a fleeting but accurate view of a model of Ludwig’s Bavarian Maiden in his first scene with Lola in the royal library. One possible anachronism was Lola’s portrait being painted while sitting in a sleigh. I’m certain that sleigh was made for Ludwig’s grandson, Ludwig II, a few decades later.  

The scene before, leading to the portrait's painting was utterly charming. King Ludwig wanted to find a painter for Lola’s portrait and interviewed a number of artists in the palace studio. As he examined the various paintings, his repeated question was: “How long did it take you to complete what you’ve already done?” He ended up choosing a rather inferior painter, who had taken the longest time. Clearly he just wanted Lola to remain in Munich.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Continuing last week’s discussion of civic affairs, I spent the day at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco. I was called to jury duty. This may have been the sixth or seventh time I’ve been summoned. I guess after thirty-five years in SF, that’s not excessive. Come to think of it, I don’t recall how many times I’ve been called, but I’ve actually been on six or seven juries over the years. Twice I’ve been jury foreman. And all but one case reached a verdict. With the added factor that federal employees are paid their full salaries while on jury duty, there’s a decent chance I may be selected for this case provided my name is drawn for voir dire. If so, I’ll have to reschedule some Kaiser appointments for next week.

I was impressed with the two slickly produced orientation videos played for us prospective jurors. That was something new from the last time I was at the Hall of Justice.

On the whole, my experience with the jury system is a variation of Winston Churchill’s comment about democracy: that it’s highly inefficient… but better than all the other options.

Sometimes juries reach questionable verdicts. A few weeks ago my boss at work put out various donuts and sweets with coffee. Among these were packages of Hostess Twinkies. I took one, but probably won’t eat it. I took it as a souvenir. I couldn’t help but think of Dan White’s voluntary manslaughter verdict in his murder case for assassinating Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. The defense had claimed that former Supervisor White’s mental capacity had been diminished by a sugar rush – from Hostess Twinkies!! It was called the “Twinkie Defense” in the local press.

Months later on May 21, 1979, I exited the Opera House after going to a comedy show by Peter Schickele, aka P.D.Q. Bach. The scene was surreal. Smoke was everywhere. Sirens were screaming. It seemed like dozens of police cars were on fire. The streets were packed with rowdy, violent demonstrators chased by police. The Dan White verdict had just been announced. Chaos surrounded City Hall. The reaction-riot was called “White Night.”

The thirtieth anniversary of the Moscone–Milk murders is coming up this Thanksgiving Day. Life occasionally delivers mixed messages.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


Jerusalem Cross :

Today was a day of rituals and remembrance. I went to the Mozart Requiem performed as part of the regular service at Grace Cathedral. Initially I wasn’t sure why the All Souls Day commemoration had been postponed a week; but then it made sense. All Saints Day was on Saturday November 1, but was celebrated a day later. So All Souls had to wait a week. I didn’t sing today, but I had rehearsed part of the Mozart a few weeks ago when I subbed for John Kelley, fellow Yalie and Bohemian. In any case, I wanted to hear it and had given a donation in memory of Dennis.

I thought at first to wear the suit I had worn at Dennis’ funeral, but instead wore what had been my everyday outfit on our last trip to Venezia for Carnevale in 2006. So I wore olive corduroys, a black turtleneck with the gray, rust, olive and black Harris tweed Orvis jacket Dennis had given me as a final Christmas present. Since it was chilly, I wore the Woolrich logan coat I had bought for Dennis at the company store the day we were in Woolrich for Mother’s interment. Then with a muffler, tweed cap, and Dennis’ Cartier wristwatch, I headed to BART. It was a clear, beautiful, sunny day, particularly after the rain yesterday. As Charles Agneau— the late verger at Grace Cathedral— had recommended to my Dad, I took BART all the way to the Embarcadero stop and then the Cable Car up California Street to the cathedral, rather than walking up Powell Street as is my usual custom. At the coffee shop downstairs I bumped into former Chanticleer alto Jesse Antin, who was going to be one of the soloists today. He said he hoped to do an adequate job. He was utterly superb!!

I sat on one of the stack chairs in the left front of the nave with a perfect view of the choir and orchestra in the North Transept. Els Holt, a parishioner I hadn’t seen in several years, greeted me and asked how Dennis was. She was shocked to hear that he had died two and a half years ago – embarrassed that she hadn’t known.

The altar frontal was the ivory and gold mosaic-like fabric with the Jerusalem Cross motif that former Chanticleer singer Sanford Dole had sewn for Easter many years ago. It inspired me to find the gold Jerusalem Cross pendant Dennis had given me at the time of my confirmation. I nearly threw it away by mistake. He gave it to me right after Bishop Swing blessed me. It was wrapped in tissue paper, and I thought it was for a runny nose or emotional response. Dennis had it engraved with my name, the date 28~9~86 and a reference to Psalm 46 verse 10 :  “Be still and know that I am God.”

A few days before I was confirmed, Dennis almost retracted his sponsorship. We were having a heart-to-heart theological discussion, when all of a sudden he exclaimed: “I don’t think you’re a Christian!” But he deferred until I had had an opportunity to discuss the matter with our then pastor Dr. Lauren Artress, founder of the Labyrinth project at Grace Cathedral. Lauren and I hit it off pretty well. I think her own perspective is more universal than most Episcopalians’ and is open to Hindu and Buddhist influences.

I was being confirmed at Dennis’ insistence in the first place. He didn’t think it right that I was a 'music mercenary.' If I were going to sing at Grace Cathedral, I should be a contributing member. After all he was on the Board of Trustees and the Stewardship Committee.

I have one of the few 18 carrot gold Jerusalem Cross pendants that Dennis had designed and made especially for our then Dean David Gillespie to give to the visiting Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, a few years before. In 1987 Dennis and I had a private visit with the Archbishop on the grounds of York University when we were in England together for the first time. (We had hoped we might be invited to tea at Lambeth Palace instead, but the Archbishop wasn’t in London when we were.)

Anyway, this has been a day of remembrance. The Mozart was glorious. I particularly liked the 1994 completion by Robert Levin of Mozart’s incomplete final work. Afterwards, I visited Dennis’ plaque in the North Tower Columbarium. Dennis died without knowing that I would have the space next to his. I’m still paying a monthly mortgage on my Nob Hill condo.

Last night’s concert was excellent, though I’m afraid I have to agree with S.F. Chronicle reviewer Joshua Kosman, that the Brahms Violin Concerto was fine, but not outstanding – despite the soloist Nikolaj Znaider’s Guarneri violin once owned by Fritz Kreisler. The Nielsen Symphony No. 3, however, was absolutely grand. Herbert Blomstedt certainly knows how to interpret the symphonies of Carl Nielsen.

Tuesday is Veterans' Day and my late friend Gary Murakami’s mother Toki’s birthday. Since she’s allergic to fragrant flowers, I always send her an orchid plant. Her living room is full of them.

Friday, November 7, 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, 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 through-out 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!

Tomorrow night I go with my friend Max to hear the Brahms Violin Concerto with Nikolaj Znaider and the San Francisco Symphony. It’s one of my all time favorites!


Thursday, November 6, 2008


Sadly, but not unexpectedly, California State Proposition 8 passed by a clear majority – 52 percent to 48 percent. I say not unexpectedly, because millions of dollars from the Mormon Church poured into California for slick, misleading television ads. The purpose of Prop 8 was “to enshrine bigotry in the state’s constitution by preventing people of the same sex from marrying. The measure was designed to overturn May’s State Supreme Court decision, which made California the second state to end that exclusion of same-sex couples. Massachusetts did so in 2004. The firmly grounded ruling said that everyone has a basic right ‘to establish a legally recognized family with the person of one’s choice,’ and found California’s strong domestic partnership statute to be inadequate.” So proclaimed the New York Times editorial this morning.

It continued: “We wish that Tuesday’s vote of 52 percent to 48 percent had gone the other way. But when those numbers are compared with the 61 percent to 39 percent result in 2000, when Californians approved the law that was overturned by their Supreme Court, it is evident that voters have grown more comfortable with marriage equality.”

As I wrote on October 19 with my Blog posting Ballot Initiatives, Amendments & Taxes, the major issue for me is procedural. I think it is completely out of kilter that it takes a two-thirds super-majority to pass an ordinary California State Budget, yet it requires only a majority of a single citizen’s vote to amend the state constitution, and in this case take away a civil right. In the federal constitution, one of the major objectives of the Bill of Rights is to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority.

A curious sidebar: although Great Britain still has no written constitution, the precedent for our own Bill of Rights came from the 1689 English Bill of Rights, a result of the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. My Schola friend, Sam Smith, referred to it as the “Bloodless Revolution,” but I would contend that name wasn’t used until after the bloody French Revolution of 1789 and particularly the “Terror” of 1793-1794. (Refer to my September 21 Blog posting Evolution of Meaning and Two Flip-Flops.)

Still, we’ve made progress. Thirty years ago we celebrated the defeat of Proposition 6, the Briggs Initiative, which would have banned gays and lesbians from working in California's public schools and came on the heels of a highly explosive conservative campaign in Dade County, Florida to repeal one of the first gay rights ordinances in the U.S. With Anita Bryant as their spokesperson, the initiative temporarily passed. I remember how thrilled we were with the defeat of Proposition 6 and celebrated with a march in the Castro. Only a few weeks later we marched again with a candlelight procession down Market Street to City Hall after the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk— and that was only days after the horror of Jonestown!

I heard on NPR this morning that there have been disruptive marches in Los Angeles in opposition to passage of Proposition 8—also, that there has been a legal filing to the California Supreme Court to overturn the ballot initiative. One had been filed before the election to remove it from the ballot, but the court decided to defer until after the election. I think there could, in fact, be valid judicial reasons to overturn Prop 8, but the State Supreme Court has now let itself be subject to even greater rightwing criticism if it rules against the ballot initiative after the fact. It would have been much cleaner to act before. Again, I strongly assert that ballot initiatives passed by a simple majority are no fair or proper way to amend any constitution!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008



Well, my apprehensions were misplaced! Senator Barack Obama won a convincing victory, with about 52% of the popular vote – the largest Democratic margin in a generation— and an Electoral College vote of at least 349, well above the required 270. With Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia and even Indiana, he demonstrated a cross-party appeal he’ll need to govern in these difficult times. (North Carolina and Missouri were still in play as of this morning.) One commentator on CNN said that Obama has inherited the “in-box from Hell!”

President-Elect Barack Obama’s speech in Grant Park was somewhat subdued— perhaps in part because of the recent death of his grandmother just the day before the election— and more importantly because of the enormity of the task before him and us as a country. I believe that Senator Obama has already shown the steadiness and temperament needed for the job.

I recall how impressed my Dad was with President-Elect John F. Kennedy in 1960. Dad had not voted for him, but he was amazed that the morning after the election, Kennedy had the confidence and steadiness to shave himself with a straight razor.

The scene last night in Grant Park was so different from forty years ago at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. I had just returned from Latin America with the Yale Glee Club, and had dropped off my friend Mary Saxon at home and was invited in to talk to her parents, who were watching the riots in Chicago on TV. I ended up staying over an hour – transfixed and alarmed by the violence.

Senator John McCain delivered one of the best speeches of his life in the courtyard of the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix. He was gracious, eloquent and spoke from the heart. (Had he only conducted himself as well during the campaign.) McCain is a great American hero and his concession speech has restored and enhanced his reputation.

(Dennis and I were in the same courtyard three years ago last month. We were in Phoenix for the installation of our Bohemian friend Carl Noelke in the Roman Catholic Order of St. John of Jerusalem. We went to a marvelous party at the Biltmore after the church ceremony. This was the last trip Dennis and I took together before our final return to Venice in February 2006. I’m still sorry I convinced Dennis to take BART to the airport instead of being picked up by SuperShuttle. I hadn’t realized how near the end Dennis was. I thought it would be faster to take BART at rush hour, but it turned out there was construction on the line and we were delayed between stations for over 45 minutes and ended up missing the flight. Fortunately, we were able to take a later one that night, but the whole experience was a severe drain on Dennis. Nevertheless, we had a wonderful time in Phoenix, and Dennis really liked the Biltmore.)

Monday, November 3, 2008


On my way to the opera Sunday afternoon, I bumped into fellow Bohemian Tim Santry, who does makeup for the Club and at the San Francisco Opera. I mentioned that I had seen Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love the night before. I said the singing was really excellent, and I loved the fixed set—though it reminded me more of New England from Carousel rather than Napa Valley as advertised. He said it seemed to him more like River City in The Music Man. I agreed. Then he commented that the star of the whole production was a white balustrade, which seemed to outshine all the singers. This afternoon I left Tim a voicemail to check out my Blog posting for September 18 about Judith and the Baluster.

Ramon Vargas was outstanding as Nemorino. (Though I prefer my recollection of Jose Carreras back in 1975— my third year in San Francisco— and well before he was struck with cancer). Inva Mula was very good as Adina, though she had intonation problems with her parallel thirds in the duet at the end of Act I. She was much improved in Act II.

That role for years was the property of Beverly Sills. I never saw her sing Adina live, but I believe it was one of her signature roles at New York City Opera. I have heard several recordings and seen some programs on PBS.

I remember the first time I heard Beverly Sills in person was as a soloist with the New Haven Symphony back in 1971 or 1972. Afterwards I was invited to a party in her honor at a music professor’s house.

Beverly Sills’ career nearly started in San Francisco. She had been selected to be the protégé of San Francisco Opera’s maestro Gaetano Merola. She was in her late teens and was to live with his family and be featured with the San Francisco Opera. She traveled cross country by train and arrived at his house, only to learn that he had died the day before! Nobody was expecting her. Beverly had only enough money to stay in a cheap hotel for several days and she survived on canned beans. Then in despair she returned home by train to New York. Her jump start career was still born. Years later, however, she concluded that it had actually had been to her advantage. Otherwise, she might have done big roles too quickly and burned out at an early age.

Miss Sills related how she had had a long career, that she had carefully paced herself in order to prolong that career, and that going forward, she wasn’t going to hold back any more, and that she expected to sing only another two or three years. About a decade later, I heard her sing I Puritani in San Francisco, and wished she had kept to her stated intention. I guess it’s really difficult to let go, especially when contracts are signed years in advance.

I met Beverly Sills and her family several times at La Traviata, an Italian restaurant in the Mission District not far from where I live. She had a disabled daughter, who was completely deaf. What a pity…she never heard her mother sing.

Tim Santry told me to look out for the Simpleton in Boris Gudonov, the matinee on Sunday. Tim said he had great hair, but you’d never know from the role.

San Francisco’s production of Boris Gudunov was absolutely superb! I stood downstairs in the back of the orchestra until intermission, and had a marvelous view of the coronation scene. For the second half I stood at the back of the top balcony. The acoustics at the War Memorial Opera House are really peculiar. The very best place to hear is standing room in the balcony. The orchestra is perfectly balanced and the singers project gloriously over the orchestra, almost like a Bayreuth acoustic, where Wagner placed the orchestra under the stage to give the singers a fighting chance to be heard.

In an attempt to economize this year (something I’m not very good at, for those who know me) I gave up my season seats at the opera. For the price of a first run movie, I can get a standing room ticket to the San Francisco Opera, and change locations between acts. For some acts you want to see the stage, and for others it’s more important just to listen. (I did keep my season subscriptions to the San Francisco Ballet, ACT, Chanticleer & a shortened Symphony season.)

Back to the production on Sunday, the three basses were simply wonderful. Samuel Ramey, Boris, is celebrating his thirtieth season with San Francisco Opera. He’s had an extraordinary career. His voice has a little more wobble than it used to, but it suited the role. His power was overwhelming.

San Francisco performed the original version as orchestrated by the composer, Modest Mussorgsky. A number of Nineteenth Century critics thought his orchestration lacking. So the brilliant version by Rimsky-Korsakov is probably performed more often today. But Mussorgsky’s appropriately dark orchestration is very effective and extremely moving.

After buying my standing room ticket on Sunday, I had two hours to occupy so I went to the Asian Art Museum a few blocks away for the Afghanistan exhibit: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul. I was amazed that so much Hellenic art had escaped destruction by the Taliban. And the gold jewelry was stunning!


Josh Brolin as George W. Bush & director Oliver Stone. Photo:

Tomorrow is the Election!! It looks very good for Obama and the Democratic Party as a whole; but I’m still apprehensive. I can’t wait until tomorrow night for the results. (Though in 2000, I ended up watching CNN at my friend Umur’s condo in Istanbul every night I was there, and, of course, didn’t find out the results until December!)

To get in the mood for tomorrow, I went to see “W” at AMC 1000 Van Ness on Saturday afternoon. On the whole it was pretty good. It was a typical Oliver Stone format with flashbacks and time juggling throughout. Josh Brolin did an amazing job as ‘Jr.’ (The ads for coming attractions showed him as Dan White in “Milk,” and it looks as though he really got that character down too. More about Harvey Milk, Mayor Moscone, and Dan White later in the month.) Back to “W”…. I thought the scenes at Yale were somewhat exaggerated, and as I wrote in an earlier posting, nobody I knew in New Haven would ever sing the Whiffenpoof Song (reserved for the Whiffs); but then most of my friends were in undergraduate a cappella groups and may have been more sensitive about the issue than Fraternity jocks.

George W. Bush and I overlapped one year in New Haven, 1967/68 (along with Garry Trudeau). I think I recall seeing George in April 1968 on Whiff Tap Night. I know I saw Don Schollander and think that somebody pointed out George as a friend of Don’s, and as the son of the new Congressman from Texas, though my memory may be somewhat blurry on that point. (On the whole, my recollection of people and details of past events is fairly good. If only my short term memory would improve; but I’m afraid it’s only getting worse!)

I know I did sing at Bush’s baccalaureate service at Woolsey Hall just before his graduation. Among other things we sang a TTBB version of Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus. I was back in New Haven rehearsing with the Glee Club before departing on a six week tour of Latin America.

Hillary Clinton was criticized a few months ago re: her comments about late primaries for her reference to RFK’s assassination. But I can empathize with her. I think her point was that even in June the Democratic candidate had not yet been selected. And even after the assassination of President Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., my initial reaction – as I sat eating breakfast at the Yankee Doodle on Elm Street – when I heard that Kennedy had been shot, was to think that he had been shot down…. that is, had lost the California primary. I didn’t want to imagine the truth… and didn’t learn the facts for another ten minutes or so. Again, I don’t think Hillary was suggesting that Senator Obama might not survive the campaign season, but that historically candidates were frequently selected late in the process. Heck, I remember when they weren’t selected until the actual convention! Isn’t that what they were for?

The rest of this past weekend was fairly cultural with two standing room tickets to the San Francisco Opera and the opening of the Afghanistan Exhibit at the Asian Art Museum. More about these in a later posting.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

CONSTANTINE (continued from 10/28/08)

The Emperor Constantine seeks absolute power…with Unity of Empire, Faith and Family. Ossius wants Christianity to breathe the fresh air outside the catacombs – to be established and accepted in the open. Each uses the other as a means to his own goal. Each achieves that goal – but as is often the case in real life – gets more than he bargained for as a result of the new cliché: the “law of unintended consequences.” The scene between Ossius and Constantine just before the Council of Nicaea is the heart of the play.


It is essential that we deal with this Arian heresy.


Yes, his ideas are dangerous. Arius preaches that Jesus is our brother— that we are all brothers.


Exactly! If Jesus is not Divine, on what basis do we owe him allegiance? If all men are brothers, on what basis do they owe ME allegiance? Anarchy- that’s the result of his ideas. The very integrity of the Empire is at stake.


I agree. We need hierarchy to maintain order. An ox will submit to his yoke, if he knows who's in command-- and if there’s a dog beneath him can kick.



Things are not always

as they seem.

The DREAM was

full fraternity;

But the folly

of that ideal

has only now

become too clear.



too disorganized.

It would be



The need...

is for



With recognition--

The Church has responsibilities

for Stewardship of resources.

We cannot afford

to squander Authority.

Hierarchy enhances Power--

Power for the

Greater Good.


Would that it were different.

The Situation’s changed.

Constantine: TRUTH is an ABSOLUTE

Ossius: (Though in practice it is not.)

Constantine: Truths, perhaps, are relative.

Ossius: (Indeed, some can be bought.)

Constantine: POWER is a process.

Ossius: (A means for good or ill.)

Constantine: UNITY is our purpose

Ossius: (Meaning submission to HIS will.)

Constantine: UNITY of EMPIRE

already is achieved.

Ossius: UNITY of FAMILY --

substantially, believed.


is the matter here at hand.

Without IT, all may crumble...

to blow away like sand.


(C): One EMPIRE, (O): One EMPEROR!

(C): One FAMILY, (O ): One FAITH!

Duet: Our DREAM is Salvation (Subjugation)

for the whole Human Race.


Good friend, I would like you to chair this Council on my behalf.

It is of utmost importance that we reach consenus. Above all--Unity.

Constantine puts on his crown and an elaborate robe and leads Ossius to the main stage set up for the Council.

Soldiers with swords drawn flank the entrance for the procession of Bishops.

At the beginning of that scene, each of the two main characters has already accomplished most of his principal goals. Constantine has absolute power in a unified empire (after his son, Crispus, had won a great naval victory in the Hellespont, where he defeated the superior fleet of Licinius, Augustus in the East). Ossius is a bishop in a recognized and powerfully established Christian Church. But here is the fatal flaw— hubris. Constantine’s quest for Unity had three elements: Empire, Family and Faith. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The operative word is foolish. Consistency in itself may be a noble goal; but the word ‘foolish’ implies an unreasonable consistency. By imposing conformity at the Council of Nicaea and excommunicating those with whom they disagreed – by being exclusionary with people and texts – Constantine and the Church cut themselves off from collective wisdom. Selecting four Gospels may appear to be balanced; but prohibiting other writings is a foolish consistency. Arius may indeed have been a heretic and worthy of excommunication. It is clear to me, however, that the Church has not had a monopoly of those seeking truth. Further, it appears that some of the most profound thinkers have been rejected and persecuted by institutions. The classic example is Jesus.

In the play, the character Arius is one of my heroes. His view is that Jesus is a great man, and not a deity. His song is one of the few that I chose to write in a regular –almost sing-song – rhyme scheme… largely because the historical Arius was known to preach in such a style. I called Arius’ piece “Heretic’s Song.”

(Dennis didn’t like that title and preferred the first line “Jesus is our Brother” and thought the theology expressed in the lyrics was actually fairly mainstream. I’m not so sure. In any case, as he lay dying, Dennis asked me to play Robby’s song— and along with The Bach unaccompanied 'cello suites— was one of the last things he heard. Dennis also requested that my recording be played during communion at his funeral at Grace Cathedral. The sound person at the Cathedral, however, got a mixed signal and didn’t play the CD at the right time. I had to get up and go back to the sound booth more than halfway down the nave to ask her to begin. But it probably turned out for the best, since then there wasn’t the clicking sound of high heels and shuffling of feet during communion).

Jesus is our Brother

He teaches us the way

To reach our heavenly Father

By learning how to pray.

Note well, he says OUR Father

Not merely his own.

To be a model for us mortals

What good is a God alone.

Oh yes, Jesus is our Brother,

Jesus is our Brother,

Jesus is our Brother

But more than this

Jesus is our Friend!

Jesus is our pastor

A shepherd to his flock.

Not only is he master

But paschal lamb; take stock

Of what he offers

A means so we’ll atone—

Be one with God creator

Round an inward heavenly throne

For the kingdom is within you

The kingdom is within you

The kingdom is WITHIN YOU

And through the end

Jesus is our Friend.

Our Brother Jesus

Is our Friend!

The tragedy for Constantine in terms of the play is that by insisting on complete unity in matters of faith, he depends more completely on Ossius’ corrupted, incomplete wisdom. Arius is truer to the ideals expressed by the younger Ossius in his song “Blessed are the Poor” but Arius is excommunicated and his writings banned. So complete unity of faith leads eventually to disunity of family and the tragic execution of Crispus. Therefore, the Fausta/Crispus story in part four is a necessary dramatic consequence to the scene at the Council of Nicaea.

The main external villains are the anti-Christian Emperor Maxentius, defeated by Constantine at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, and his sister Fausta – Constantine’s second wife – who plots the downfall of Crispus, Constantine’s heroic, virtuous son. The Crispus/Fausta story is based on legend. What is clear is that Constantine ordered the execution of both. For my play, I chose to adapt a variation of the Greek myth about Hippolytus & Phaedra, that is: the virtuous son, who rebuffs the sexual advances of his step-mother, and is then jealously accused by her of rape. Constantine learns the truth too late, after his son is already executed on his command. Fausta is then crushed beneath shields as in Richard Strauss’ opera based on Oscar Wilde’s Salome.

No doubt one of the most controversial elements of this play is my choice of Sophia as the name of the third part of the Trinity. It may sound like New Age or feminist jargon. I believe, however, it is correct historically that it was not until the latter part of the Fourth Century (two generations later than the events of the play) with the translation of the Bible and liturgy from Greek to Latin by St. Jerome that spiritus sanctus acquired its masculine character. In Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and other Middle Eastern languages, the equivalent word is feminine. Hagia Sophia, Justinian’s great church is Constantinople, does not mean Saint Sophia, but Holy Wisdom. And so I have used the names Holy Wisdom and Sophia interchangeably as the third part of the Trinity, which gives a rather Zen-like balance to the concept.

The play ends as it began— with Constantine’s baptism on his deathbed. In death Constantine is finally reconciled to his executed son, Crispus. The anachronistic, bejeweled Byzantine angel from the vision the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge returns and stands in benediction above a kneeling Constantine and Crispus to form a visual tableau of reconciled Unity—a Father, Son and Holy Wisdom.

Chi-Rho image:

Titian in the Frari (Venezia)