Quote for Today: Albert Einstein

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Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious.

Albert Einstein to Alfred Kerr, 1927

Public Domain Image via PxHere

Quote for Today: Steve Maraboli

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It is surprising to me that one of the great crimes of history has gone unnoticed; the abduction of god by religions. This slight-of-hand has been the cause of countless blood-shed and has been found at the root of innumerable acts of evil. The argument continues today, as to which religion the true god belongs, when what would be most healing and empowering is to free god from the shackles of religious limitation and judgment. It is by emancipating god from the ignorance of our ancestors that we become empowered to explore and express our own relationship with what god may or may not be.

Steve Maraboli

Image: Sunrise Thailand Ko Samui © Lisa Tancsics with CCLicense

A Quiet Revolution: Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience

We classify ourselves into groups which give meaning and order to our experiences. What happens when those groups inhibit growth?

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Ronit is the daughter of an orthodox Jewish rabbi, living a secular life as a successful photographer. Disowned by her family and cut off from her roots because of a teenage romance with a young woman, her life is thrown out of balance when she receives a call that her father has died. Returning to her community in order to attend the events surrounding his funeral, she finds a mixture of forgiveness, suspicion, judgement and sympathy. Esti, the girl that Ronit had loved, has grown into a strong but tightly wound woman, married to Dovid, their best friend growing up, a man who trained with Ronit’s father to become a rabbi. Indeed, he has been selected to succeed the celebrated Rav Krushka. Dovid and Esti are poised to take on the most important position in the community. But something is not, and has never been quite right under their roof. Now that Ronit has returned, the fragile life they have built together is rocked to its core.

In making Disobedience, it would have been easy to pit people of faith fully against homosexuals and require us to choose one side or the other. That is not what Sebastián Lelio has done in this adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel. Jewish tradition is honored, the beauty, depth and expressive power of its theology and, especially, of its liturgical music is depicted. Neither does the film shy away from the shortfalls of the faith’s adherents, nor the uncontrollable desire that binds Esti and Ronit. Clearly their romance has troubled the waters in this small Jewish community. There is not much sympathy and no support for homosexuality here. Most of the reactions to the unsanctioned romance are lacking in compassion. All are at least somewhat ignorant. And yet, there are enough ambiguities in the faith, in the sacred writings themselves, to create space for new interpretation that may lead somewhere in future generations. The place where we see this revolution of faith is not within the community itself, but within Dovid. I don’t want to spoil the film. The first time I watched it I had no idea how Dovid would reconcile the interior crisis of faith caused by the realization that his relationship with his wife is based on the premise that he, through his caring nature, would be able to convert her to heterosexuality. He has not, and their relationship has caused psychological damage to Esti by making her feel obligated to have sex which she does not desire. His community has required him to violate her personhood and now implies that he, as Rav Kuperman, should require her to completely give up her feelings for good. But is this what God requires?

One of my favorite scenes is of Dovid teaching from the Songs of Solomon. He postulates that surely there is something higher in the love between man and woman than physical sexuality, while the young men in his class agree that the text, bold in its passion, says otherwise. The trouble is understated, as is almost everything in the film, but you get the sense that Dovid is aware that his passionless marriage, as respectful as it is, is not what it should be.

imagesThis is a quiet, intimate movie. There isn’t screaming and railing. Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola, who is nearly unrecognizable behind a full beard, all give sensitive portrayals of complex individuals that never behave in cliché fashion. Ronit, Esti and Dovid are controlled people, quietly torturing themselves in their own private solitudes. They are living their experience moment to moment, not knowing where they are going. The cinematography enhances this, as does the musical score, which often goes dead silent. There are many closeups of inscrutable faces and the camera constantly catches small awkward gestures and movements. This renders the erupting passion between Esti and Ronit incredibly powerful in its decisive boldness. The only scenes which are not understated are the physical encounters between the women, culminating in an intense extended love scene. By contrast, the scenes between Dovid and Esti, while containing more nudity, are clinical and cold. The camera reinforces the emotional and spiritual climate that Esti must navigate.

Disobedience gives me hope that there can be space for dialogue within the most conservative faiths. It is in our best interests to expand our definition of ourselves and how we relate to others rather than allowing our institutions to do it for us. No group is a monolith: be it race based, gender based or faith based. It is often said that we join groups or causes to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, but it is also true that how we live our lives enriches and imparts meaning to the causes and groups we embrace. Speaking of our inward beings and granting each other freedom are the very first steps in allowing ourselves and our beliefs to grow. We may not understand each other, but we have to start the conversation somewhere. The healing and wholeness of our communities depend upon it.

 

 

 

 

Quote for Today: Alan Watts

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Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.
Alan Watts

Public Domain U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Samuel Morse

Quote for Today: Michel de Montaigne

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Now, to return to my subject, I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason, than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things.

Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays

Quote for Today: Suzy Kassem

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Cultural and religious traditions that forbid cross-cultural unions prevent peace on earth. Instead of rejoicing that our sons and daughters are heart-driven and love other humans outside of their familiar religious, social or cultural domains, we punish and insult them. This is wrong. Honor killings are not honorable by God. They are driven by ignorance and ego and nothing more. The Creator favors the man who loves over the man who hates.
Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Quote for Today: M.E. Thomas

When you grow up as a girl, it is like there are faint chalk lines traced approximately three inches around your entire body at all times, drawn by society and often religion and family and particularly other women, who somehow feel invested in how you behave, as if your actions reflect directly on all womanhood.

M.E. ThomasConfessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight

Reverent Strength: The Soulful Mbira of Hope Masike

Competition is distilled from survival instincts. Ironically, it may destroy our chance for survival. Can the arts help change this?

The mbira, or thumb piano is a traditional musical instrument found in many places on the African continent. It consists of a wooden board fitted with metal tines which are plucked with the thumbs, producing a sound not unlike a music box. Due to the rhythmic complexity of mbira music, some listeners get the impression that more than one instrument is being played at the same time.

Mbira dzavadzimu in a deze (Calabash shell) © Alex Weeks with CCLicense

Mbira dzavadzimu in a deze (Calabash shell)
© Alex Weeks with CCLicense

The national instrument of Zimbabwe is the mbira dzavadzimu, or voice of the ancestors. It originated among the Shona people and is identified by them as a sacred instrument, used in ceremonies that communicate with the dead. These ceremonies are called bira. Led by mbira music, participants enter a trancelike state in which the dead speak through them and may answer questions that pertain to the welfare of the tribe.  Buttons, shells or bottle caps called machachara are attached to the mbira to create a buzzing sound that is purported to call ancestral spirits. For greater resonance, the instrument is placed inside of a hollowed out calabash squash, called a deze.

During the course of Zimbabwe’s history, the mbira dzavadzimu was taken up by missionaries and converts to Christianity. A genre called mbira gospel resulted, as people combined their traditional music with new beliefs, enlisting the soothing power of the thumb piano to spread their message. This has created two camps of mbira musicians: Shona and Christian, both of which consider themselves the traditional art form and both of which are resistant to new, western inspired innovation and technology.

Here is a traditional performance by mbira artist Hope Masike. The song is called Hondo, or War, and is a lament for those who have suffered from political unrest, military action and AIDS/HIV. It is heartrending in its understatement and transparent beauty, highlighted by the calls of animals along the lakeshore in Johannesburg, South Africa. It makes me misty-eyed.

Video via Werner Puntigam on YouTube.

Hope Masike is a marvelous singer and gifted song writer. She is steeped in the traditional music of her native Zimbabwe, specifically mbira music, but reaches out to include more modern elements, incurring the wrath of those who would prefer to keep the traditional art “pure”. She is Christian, but sees great value in reaching across the divide to unify mbira music and to move people of differing faiths to prayer.

Video via Hope Masike on YouTube.

This song is Huyai Tinamate, or Come, Let us Pray, a stirring example of mbira gospel. The video couples words from the Bible that exhort the believer to pray through hardships with African mythology concerning the struggle between good and evil. Masike portrays both a benevolent spirit in white and a dark witch companioned by a serpent, as if to say that our best self is always at war with our worst self. This stunning video crosses borders. The world of the Shona and the world of the Christian is acknowledged to be the same world. Both groups seek survival and peace. Can we not find common ground as human beings? Could we pray together?

The requirements for our evolution have changed. Survival is no longer sufficient. Our evolution now requires us to develop spiritually – to become emotionally aware and make responsible choices. It requires us to align ourselves with the values of the soul – harmony, cooperation, sharing, and reverence for life.

Dressing the Story: A Gallery of Operatic Set Design

Scenery is more than mere background or decoration. It has power to determine our rejection or acceptance of a story.

Public Domain Image via Open Clip Art

Public Domain Image via openclipart

Storytelling began with the human voice. No props, no set, just a trusting relationship between the speaker or singer and the audience, who used their imagination to envision what was being described. Over time, it became more exciting to have the characters acted out. As those characters became more vivid and found their own voices, the narrator was often relegated to a secondary role and even dispensed with entirely. The loss of the storyteller meant that descriptive information had to be communicated in new ways. Scenery, which has been evolving as a theatrical device for centuries, has become a primary vehicle for this information, giving important clues as to the time and place of the action as well as shaping the mood of the piece. It accomplishes this quickly and silently, saving words to communicate the physical and emotional journey of the protagonists rather than employing them in lengthy narrative descriptions. Here are a few production stills from four leading scenic designers of the world of opera, along with quotes from these artists. If you would like to know more about the folks who work closely with directors to design productions, please click on the set designer’s name or any other links included. Josef Svoboda (1920-2002)

When I sit alone in a theatre and gaze into the dark space of its empty stage, I’m frequently seized by fear that this time I won’t manage to penetrate it, and I always hope that this fear will never desert me. Without an unending search for the key to the secret of creativity, there is no creation. It’s necessary always to begin again. And that is beautiful.
–-Josef Svoboda 
Rusalka, Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 1958

Rusalka, National Theatre, Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1955.

Rusalka, Teatro la Fenice, Venice, 1958

Rusalka, National Theater, Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1955

Famous for his multimedia installations, Svoboda was a major technical innovator. He was among the first to combine live actors with film projections and a pioneer in the use of plastics, hydraulics and lasers. He invented lights that were both bright and soft at the same time (click here to see a version currently marketed by Chromlech) and this light became one of his signature effects, capable of remarkable elegance and dreaminess.

Rusalka, National Theatre, Prague, 1991

Rusalka, Dvořák, National Theatre, Prague, 1991

Rusalka,  National Theater, Prague, 1991

Rusalka, Dvořák, National Theater, Prague, 1991

Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsy, Houston Grand Opera, 1982

Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsy, Houston Grand Opera, USA, 1982

A successful set will usually travel between opera houses, either rented or jointly owned, tied to the production for which it was designed and associated with the director of that production. It may be in use for several decades, constantly modified to fit into different theaters. This beautiful set for Verdi’s La Traviata is no exception. The impressionistic, painterly like effect created by the tremendous sloping mirror behind and above the stage is mesmerizing and very much in line with Svoboda’s earlier work. He was always in love with light.
La Traviata, Sferisterio Opera Festival, Macerata, Italy. Mirrors mounted at an angle behind and above the set create a beautiful, impressionistic effect.

La Traviata, Verdi, Sferisterio Opera Festival, Macerata, Italy, 2012

La Traviata, Sferisterio Opera Fetsival (outdoors), 2012

La Traviata, Sferisterio Opera Fetsival (outdoors), 2012

La Traviata, Teatro Comunale, Stagione Lirica, Sassari, Italy, 2013

La Traviata, Teatro Comunale, Stagione Lirica, Sassari, Italy, 2013. Note the mirror above has been sized down to fit the indoor theater.

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The Flying Dutchman, Wagner, Teatro Comunale, Bologna, Italy, 2008

For me, scenography is like Moby Dick.
–Yannis Kokkos
The Flying Dutchman, Wagner, Teatro Comunale, Bologna, Italy, 2008

The Flying Dutchman, Wagner, Teatro Comunale, Bologna, Italy, 2008

Like Svoboda, Kokkos is no stranger to elaborate mirrors or projections. His images are sharp edged and akin to those of modern film. Sections of the stage are frequently unlit, creating gaping darkness. Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, designed for the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, is a perfect example. Note the relationship of the helmsman’s wheel to Senta’s spinning wheel and the implications of the closed window reflected over the community.
The Flying Dutchman, Wagner, Teatro Comunale, Bologna, Italy, 2008

The Flying Dutchman, Wagner, Teatro Comunale, Bologna, Italy, 2008

King Roger, Szymanowski, Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Italy, 2005

King Roger, Szymanowski, Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Italy, 2005

King Roger, Szymanowski, Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Italy, 2005

King Roger, Szymanowski, Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Italy, 2005

Many designers use dreamlike images in an attempt to speak directly to the subconscious mind of the viewer. Darkness, light, fog and all sorts of special effects are employed to convey the director’s vision. Even the shape of the deck, or floor, be it flat, sloped (raked), even or uneven, makes an impact. Details draw the eye and simplicity is powerful. Kokkos possesses a fine talent for surrealism partnered with a lovely sense of restraint, making good use of that paradox.

Don Quichotte, Mariinsky Theater, Saint Petersburg, Russia, 2011

Don Quichotte, Massenet, Mariinsky Theater, Saint Petersburg, Russia, 2011

Les Voyages de M. Broucek, Janacek,  Grand Théâtre, Geneva, Switzerland, 2008

Les Voyages de M. Broucek, Janacek, Grand Théâtre, Geneva, Switzerland, 2008

Les Troyens, Berlioz, Grand Théâtre, Geneva, Switzerland, 2015

Les Troyens, Berlioz, Grand Théâtre, Geneva, Switzerland, 2015

Les Troyens, Berlioz, Metropolitan Opera, New York, USA, 2012

Les Troyens, Berlioz, Metropolitan Opera, New York, USA, 2012

It mustn’t just sit there like an empty box.
–Maria Bjornson
Les Troyens, Berlioz, Metropolitan Opera, New York, USA, 2012

Les Troyens, Berlioz, Metropolitan Opera, New York, USA, 2012

Bjornson is most famous for her flamboyant and iconic designs for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical The Phantom of the Opera, but there is much more to this sensitive and powerful artist than can be seen in a single show. She sought to present complete realizations of dream images and the collective unconscious onstage, not as background or detail, but as drama. Her images were not static ones, but implied motion, illustrated in the stills from Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The cast is dwarfed by huge dynamic scenery just as the characters are dwarfed by their own fate.

Macbeth, Verdi, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy, 2008

Macbeth, Verdi, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy, 2008

Cunning Little Vixen, Scottish Opera, 2011

Cunning Little Vixen, Scottish Opera Glasgow, Scotland, 2011

Don Giovanni, Mozart, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, England, 2012

Don Giovanni, Mozart, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, England, 2012

Bjornson’s death at the age of 53, suffering an epileptic seizure in the bath after working a fifteen hour day while infected with Chicken Pox, was tragic for opera, ballet and theater alike. A month before she died, she delivered the designs for The Little Prince, a magical jewel of an opera by Rachel Portman,  based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The work premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 2003 to rave reviews and would later be filmed by the BBC. Houston Grand Opera will present this delightful production, full of childlike wonder, again next season (December 2015).

The Little Prince, Portman, Houston Grand Opera, 2003

The Little Prince, Portman, Houston Grand Opera, 2003

The Little Prince, Portman, New York City Opera, 2005

The Little Prince, Portman, New York City Opera, 2005

Johan Engels (1952-2014)

Parsifal, Wagner, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2013 Parsifal, Wagner, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2013

Parsifal, Wagner, Lyric Opera of Chicago, USA, 2013

You may be the most brilliant designer in the world, but if you cannot communicate your ideas, you’re lost.  –Johan Engels

Parsifal, Wagner, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2013 Parsifal, Wagner, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2013

Parsifal, Wagner, Lyric Opera of Chicago, USA, 2013

Parsifal, Wagner, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2013

Parsifal, Wagner, Lyric Opera of Chicago, USA, 2013

Johan Engels grew up addicted to drawing and to movies, especially the Biblical epics which were so prominent in the 1950s. This influence is clearly present in his work, which is not afraid to take on religious imagery, although it does so with a degree of ambiguity and thoughtfulness that might alarm someone with a fundamentalist bent. Ecstasy, devotion and corruption are placed before the eyes and writ large. I am particularly moved by the images below, from a production of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler. The relationship of the tortured body of Christ to the characters is mind-blowing. We are given a new interpretation of what it means to be at the feet of Jesus and see Christ’s action mirrored by the cast. Finally, Christ’s agony is depicted as embracing and encompassing everyone onstage. Powerful, to say the least.

Mathis der Maler, Hindemith, Theater an der Wien, Vienna, 2012, image by Werner Kmetitsch

Mathis der Maler, Hindemith, Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria, 2012, image by Werner Kmetitsch

Mathis der Maler, Hindemith, Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria, 2012, image by Werner Kmetitsch

Mathis der Maler, Hindemith, Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria, 2012, image by Werner Kmetitsch

Mathis der Maler, Hindemith, Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria, 2012, image by Werner Kmetitsch

Mathis der Maler, Hindemith, Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria, 2012, image by Werner Kmetitsch

There is humor and laughter in Engels’ work as well, as you can see in this version of Die Zauberflöte from the Bregenz Festival. It is influenced by his childhood in Africa and makes excellent use of the lake, which Engels acknowledged as a difficult obstacle to overcome.

Die Zauberflöte, Mozart, Bregenz Festival, Austria, 2014

Die Zauberflöte, Mozart, Bregenz Festival, Austria, 2014

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Die Zauberflöte, Mozart, Bregenz Festival, Austria, 2014

Die Zauberflöte, Mozart, Bregenz Festival, Austria, 2014

Die Zauberflöte, Mozart, Bregenz Festival, Austria, 2014

I’ve had the pleasure of working on Engels’ sets myself as a chorister at Houston Grand Opera in productions of Chorus! (2009), Don Carlos (2011), The Passenger (2014) and Otello (2014). If you would like to hear me rave about The Passenger set and talk about that impressive opera, click here. Without his stunning set design I doubt the piece would have worked.

The Passenger, Bregenz Festival, Bregenz, Austria, 2010, image by Karl Forster

The Passenger, Bregenz Festival, Bregenz, Austria, 2010, image by Karl Forster

It was always striking to me that a man with his talent for telling grand epics could have such a craftsmanly way about him. I was very saddened to hear of his death last November from a heart attack just as we opened his Otello. His sets are places for adventure, containing elements and imagery you never quite expect or can prepare for, even when performing with them every night. Performing feels riskier and the pay off is extremely exciting and rewarding. The great set designer is also a great storyteller, whose designs continue speaking to rapt audiences all over the globe after their creator has passed on. I hope it will be so for a very long time.

All photos are used in accordance with Fair Use Policy for the purpose of enlightening the public.