Friday, November 22, 2013

Happy Birthday, Benjamin Britten!

Edward Benjamin Britten
An Homage to the Composer
by BLO Music Director, David Angus

Some of my most treasured memories are, as a boy chorister, singing with Benjamin Britten conducting. I sang regularly in Chapel 6 times a week, with Sir David Willcocks, but, every now and then, we would supply a boy’s choir for major orchestral concerts. These included trips to work with Britten at his Aldeburgh Festival, often with dress rehearsal concerts in beautiful venues such as King’s College, Cambridge, or Ely Cathedral. I remember, even at that early age, being completely mesmerized by works such as his Sinfonia da Requiem and his Spring Symphony, pieces I would have the opportunity to perform many times since. The Sinfonia da Requiem is one of the deepest and most moving works I have ever heard – written in memory of his parents – and it was a performance of this work by Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra which led to the commission for Britten’s groundbreaking Peter Grimes.

Britten was a typically reserved Englishman, but when he made music, one sensed that he burned passionately inside. He was kind and gentle, his rehearsal manner very respectful toward everyone, and he insisted on getting precisely what he wanted musically—something I have always tried to emulate. I also remember that he was an expert pianist and even a virtuoso whistler, which greatly impressed us as young choristers. (My only regret was that my voice broke during rehearsals for the War Requiem, so I wasn’t able to participate in the performances; instead, I was bundled straight off to secondary school!)

At that young age, I didn’t fully realize how fortunate I was to be a part of such exciting projects, with top orchestras and soloists, and with Britten himself conducting. Through those experiences, and through years of exploring his remarkable music, I became a lifelong Britten devotee.

It is a great coincidence that Britten’s Centenary coincides exactly with the Bicentenaries of both Wagner and Verdi, because Britten’s music has the same powers of dramatic and passionate expression that move audiences so deeply. Performing his music as a young boy was such an inspiring privilege, and now, many years later, it remains that way still.


Lizzie Borden: Open House

Saturday, November 23, 2013 | 11am – 3pm
The Castle at Park Plaza
130 Columbus Avenue, Boston
FREE for all ages!
Lead Sponsor:

For the first time, Boston Lyric Opera hosts its free Open House with our Opera Annex production, Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden. Investigate the Borden murders, discover how an empty space is transformed into an opera space, and experience opera in a casual, exciting way.
Performances: Inspired by Lizzie Borden, see a selection of famous, musical murder scenes featuring BLO Artists.
Meet the real Lizzie Borden: Hear from Borden case expert Stefani Koorey, Ph.D., about the real woman suspected in one of America’s most infamous crimes.  Join the grand jury and explore case evidence and witness testimony in a special exhibit. Cast your vote of guilty or not guilty.
Backstage Tours: Get an inside look into the production with set models, costume displays, and make-up demonstrations.
Want to volunteer at BLO’s Open House?  Contact David Lucey at for more information.

Boston Lyric Opera gratefully acknowledges funders who make our Education and Community Programs possible:
Lead Sponsor:
Wallace Minot Leonard Foundation
Amphion Foundation
Special thanks to Stefani Koorey, Ph.D., and the Fall River Historical Society.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dr Von Lyric : St Cecilia

November 22  ,of course,  now denotes  for us a day of catastrophe and anguish but ironically it is  also St Cecilia's Day celebrating the celestial  power and harmony of music (and the birth date of Benjamin Britten - more on that next week)
  "Hail Bright Cecilia...Fill every heart
   With love of thee and thy celestial art"

   Purcell's Ode -  elegant music  accompanied by some of the many paintings of St Cecilia

     from Handel's exuberant and stirring setting of Dryden's Ode   - and  one of his most irresistible works

     from Haydn's St Cecilia Mass - with a beautiful performance by Lucy Crowe

    and appropriately enough  a  lovely tribute from the birthday boy himself   - a performance from a Finnish choir

Friday, November 15, 2013

Lizzie Borden: An American Icon

Lizzie Borden: An American Icon
BLO Dramaturg Magda Romanska talks to Cheree Carlson, a professor of Communication and Gender Studies at Arizona State University. Professor Carlson is an expert on issues of gender and media representation, and the author of a book, The Crimes of Womanhood: Defining Femininity in a Court of Law, that analyzes the ways in which cultural views of femininity exerted a powerful influence on the courtroom arguments used to defend or condemn scandalous women on trial in turn-of-the-century America.

MR: Lizzie Borden’s case generated a lot of national attention while it was happening. The reporters attended the proceedings and telegraphed them to newspapers across the country. Most recently, television and the Internet have helped to boost interest in the trials of Jodi Arias and Casey Anthony. What do you think contributed to Lizzie’s case becoming a national sensation?

CC: There are a lot of reasons. Why Lizzie Borden’s case became a sensation in the 19th century was partly because in those days, trials were a big form of entertainment. There were a lot of trials that were covered by newspapers, and people read about them with great passion and consistency. Why Lizzie’s case in particular generated so much attention was that Lizzie was a woman from the upper class, from a wealthy family, rooted in her community all her life, and women like her just didn’t commit ax murders. She was the closest thing to a celebrity Fall River ever had. The case continues to exert so much fascination because there are all sorts of people who love mysteries and who are still fascinated by the fact that we don’t know what really happened and we never will.

MR: Like the rest of Americans, the media was reluctant to see a woman sentenced to death, or to admit that a woman with her background and in her position was capable of such brutal murders. How did gender influence the outcome of the trial?

CC: There were actually a few  newspapers that were as anxious to see her guilty as there were ones that were eager for her release. The sentiments were divided along party lines. Political factions were divided along their attitudes towards the status quo: the rich being rich and the poor being poor. Depending on their attitude, people either flooded to her defense or were eager to bring her down a notch, as a rich woman who deserved it. Plenty of women were being hanged, but never such fancy women. So the attitude of the media in general was more of a class issue. It’s not to say that gender didn’t play into it. By the end of the trial, gender played very much into it—particularly the image of Victorian femininity that came with all sorts of baggage. The defense had used the gender argument, trying to say that she was a good daughter, she worked for the church. She exhibited all of the characteristics of a “good” Victorian woman of her social and economic background. This was the gist of their argument that she was a typical woman. Since Lizzie did a couple of things that were considered “weird” for a woman of her class, on the opposite end, the prosecutor was saying how “unwomanly” she was, how “unnatural” she was. He was trying to say that whether she was a woman or not didn’t make a difference.

MR: In the decades since the trial, Lizzie has become a figure of American folklore. There are many stories about her, told and re-told in different forms: plays, books, movies, ballets and operas. Why do you think her story exerts so much fascination for the American public? What about the story has captured our imaginations?

CC: A lot of people love unsolved mystery. And, after all, fighting over gender and class and whether a woman is capable of doing certain things—that battle is still going on. So, we’re coming back to Lizzie. Today, we still say things like “women can’t be serial killers,” or “a good mother wouldn’t kill her child.” She’s relevant to things we still argue about: the role of women and the ‘nature’ of femininity, how it’s constructed, perceived and judged.

MR: The story fits very well in the genre of American Gothic, a style ascribed to Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In the stories of American Gothic, an individual psyche becomes a battlefield of contradictory social, cultural and sexual impulses; in particular it is a site of unresolved tensions between Puritan ethics and morality and the Freudian view of sexuality. The genre of American Gothic fiction has been quintessential to the development of American identity. How do you think Lizzie’s tale fits into the structure of American Gothic storytelling?

CC: I don’t think the trial did, but everyone who came afterwards trying to make sense out of it by telling all sorts of stories—these types of explanations definitively fit into the American Gothic tradition. These stories were trying to explain what had happened, why she did it, et cetera. You can’t resist a New England spinster who suddenly goes crazy and kills two people. As you said about the American Gothic tradition, the whole point is that the normal New England family is suddenly a hotbed of these different tensions. All the things that came out during the trial—the father keeping the door locked, keeping the ring that Lizzie gave him, the ‘wicked stepmother’—all of the things that made this supposedly normal family suddenly appear not normal at all. I think that even today, people who come from all sorts of families can think about all the weird stuff—hopefully, no illegal stuff—that goes on in their families behind closed doors. People are fascinated by the Borden family because what happened in that family defied appearances and expectations.

Interested in seeing BLO's upcoming production of Jack Beeson's Lizzie Borden? Visit the BLO website or call Audience Services at (617) 542-6772 for ticket information.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Dr. von Lyric: Epic Lizzie

It seems a bit strange that the epically received and enduringly  notorious real life crime of Lizzie Borden has not had more  significant reverberations in the arts. No movies of any consequence (Hitchcock,  where were  you?) There is of course Jack Beeson's opera which BLO is about  to present in a new one act version.  Premiered at NYCO ( alas - of  fond memory - ) in 1965 (there is a CD of that production ) and was revived very successfully  in a completely different production  at Glimmerglass and then again at City Opera. It is that full length production that is linked below. The title role is portrayed by Phyllis Pancella ( in a decidedly  more malevolent mode than her crisp Despina in the recent  BLO COSI) . The set is by BLO's Artistic Adviser John Conklin  

Perhaps the most famous of the Lizzie re-tellings is the Agnes de Mille ballet FALL RIVER LEGEND - first performed by Ballet Theater at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1948  The Youtube link below is to a performance by the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1989 (this also exist on a DVD) The score by Morton Gould suits the telling of the story  without having much personality of its own.  The de Mille version is to my taste a bit too full of jolly townspeople in hoedown mode (shades of last week) - de Mille had just done OKLAHOMA. Likewise the striking and very atmospheric sets  by Oliver Smith (based on the original designs) also seem more  redolent of the expansive west with their stormy skies and endless horizons rather than the claustrophobic atmosphere of a small  New England town. But the piece has moments of real power (as well as some excessive melodrama) and Virginia Johnson gives a powerful and eloquent  portrayal of Lizzie expressed in pure movement

There are some quite interesting Youtube postings relating  to  aspects of the Lizzie legend

       a good  documentary

         and two alternative theories as to the real killer

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Lizzie B: digging deeper

Not unexpectedly there is a  lot of material out there on this most  notorious, ambiguous, shocking (unsolved?)  crime . 
 a few choices:


     Youtube      Lizzie Borden Documentary
                       Arnold Brown's Theory of the Lizzie Borden Case
                       Lizzie Borden - Ed McBain's theory

       Another Lizzie   
            Agnes de Mille's ballet  FALL RIVER LEGEND  premiered in 1948. There is a DVD of a  1989 performance by The Dance Theater of Harlem with Virginia Johnson giving a powerful and eloquent portrayal of Lizzie expressed in pure movement.  The ballet with a somewhat generic score by Morton Gould is perhaps too often redolent of OKLAHOMA (choreographed by de Mille) with its jolly hoedowns and  at times a bit overly melodramatic  but  it has its strengths and it is definitely worth a look   This same performance turns up on Youtube  DANSE THEATRE OF HARLEM "FALL RIVER LEGEND"


Lizzie B: FACTOID 3

SNAPSHOTS of LIZZIE  ( truths ? rumors?  interpretations after the fact? )

"She was a very solid lady, short, heavily built...You wouldn't have thought twice about her except for her jaw. Enormous. The largest jaw I ever saw in a woman"

"Her expression was not a pleasant one. Not a face you would voluntarily address."

"She was always neat and plainly , but smartly dressed.  She favored blue. During the grand jury hearings she wore a tip-tilted hat with cherry- colored ribbons and when traveling a blue veil to conceal her face.. Her shoes were shined each morning"

"Her laugh (although rarely produced) was memorable - unexpected, mirthless and very loud"  

"It was only after the crimes that people began remarking on her oddities. At school she was a fair but not exceptional student, her chief interest, it was later recalled, in vivisection, preferably on live frogs."

" Ex-Governor Robinson of Massachusetts and one of her defense lawyers summed it up. ' Gentlemen to find Lizzie Borden guilty you must believe that she is a fiend. Does she look it? The prisoner at the bar is a woman, and a Christian woman, the equal of your wife and mine'  And  indeed there she sat in her neat blue dress, a little brooch in the shape of a pansy, Sunday School teacher, devoted worker for Temperance, Christian Aid and Foreign Missions, a small bouquet on the table befoire her brought by her minister." 

"Her eyes were huge and protruding, the irises an almost colorless ice-blue. They were strangely expressionless. I have heard many speak of them as dead eyes, but the eyes of the dead are dull; Lizzie's had the shine of beach pebbles newly bared by the outgoing tide" 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

DR von LYRIC: Lizzie's new faces

 Well....BLO is in its second week of LIZZIE BORDEN rehearsals and things are getting pretty grim - so interject a note of humor (however dark) I propose the following


   The   fabled review   NEW FACES OF 1952   opened on Broadway , ran for nearly and year and was made into a movie in 1954. It introduced such performers as Paul Lynde, Alice Ghostley,  Carol Lawrence, Ronny Graham  and Mel Brooks

   One of  the  hit numbes was "Monotonous" sung by Eartha Kitt (born in the year Lizzie Borden died

   and all you lively Bostonians .... who can forget  the incomparable Alice Ghostley?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Lizzie B: Factoid 2


  Fine Dining  with the Bordens (decline at your peril)

   For breakfast that fatal August morning  , the family had the remains of their  last night's dinner  mutton, hot mutton broth, bananas, johnnycake, bread, coffee, and cookies. The temperature outside was already 80 degrees by 7:30. All the windows were (as usual) tightly shut and locked. An  incipient taint  of corruption  (both metaphorical and literal) seems to  hangs heavy in the humid air . At the turn of the century  such a meal was considered  perhaps  "ample" but not particularly  unusual. To our sensibilities (and stomachs) it seems remarkable enough in itself but has been made immortal by the events of The Day - a kind of "gastronomical catalyst for whatever strange passionate killings were soon to take place."  

Monday, November 4, 2013

Lizzie B: a word from team stage management

Our fabulous stage management team on halloween
Lizzie Borden rehearsals are really starting to heat up as we dive into staging the final act of this hair-raising opera.  The tension is building and Lizzie is getting to her breaking point. History already tells us the horrific outcome, but what really was going through her mind on that bloody August morning? Seeing this story come to life each day has been quite the journey. So far we have had axes spilt into tables, singers rolling and crawling on the floor and Lizzie starting to lose herself in her own mind. Getting this glimpse into Lizzie’s world really helps you get to know this character a lot more than just the rhyme we all heard growing up. With a week left in the rehearsal hall before moving into tech, everyone is working very hard into developing their characters and learning this tricky but fascinating music. Looking forward to seeing what tomorrow holds.
        - Taylor Ruge -