Egypt’s Sunken Mysteries at Minneapolis Institute of Art

Votive foot with Greek inscription, 2nd c. AD

You probably never heard of the lost cities of Heracleion and Canopus.
I hadn’t.

They collapsed into the Mediterranean Sea more than 1200 years ago. Located in the Nile Delta near Alexandria, they were assailed by a combination of earthquakes, tsunamis and rising sea levels. Nothing found in either city dates later than the 2nd century AD when the soil liquified and the buildings collapsed.

Osiris, ca. 650 BC

Two decades ago, underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team discovered the cities, revealing monumental statues, religious images carved in stone, exquisite jewelry, and delicate ceramics that shed more light on life during the age of the pharaohs.

Bronze hawk, 664 – 343 BC.

Until its collapse, Canopus was famous for its sanctuaries of Osiris and Serapis. Pilgrims from all over the world came to visit in search of miraculous healing. The God Osiris was taken on his ritual barque from the Sanctuary of Heracles in Heracleion to his sanctuary in Canopus creating a mystical link between the two cities.

Pectoral, gold and lapis, 925 BC

We often dismiss the incredibly high levels of culture and technology of previous civilizations, discounting them as stunted and less advanced. The artifacts tell a different story. They are masterful and perfectly served the ritualized and stratified structure of ancient society. The slave empires of antiquity were theocracies, highly organized, permeated and structured with religious ritual for millennia. They cannot be dismissed easily but they fossilized as all theocracies must. They also reached intellectual, technological, and artistic peaks which we still do not fully comprehend, and offer us the lesson of Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:

And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The goddess Taweret as a hippopotamus, 650 BC
Sistrum, gold, a musical instrument.
Hadrian, foreground, Antinous behind, 2nd c. AD
The Nile.
Osiris wakes up from death with a smile.
Serapis, 2nd C. AD
Stele of the Osirian Mound, ca. 350 BC
Osiris figure in falcon coffin.

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Lake Phalen, 29 March 19

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Recently extinct animals

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“The Fix” at MNOpera

Last night I saw the Minnesota Opera production of the world premiere of The Fix(Joel Puckett, music; Eric Simonson, libretto). I anticipated West Side Storymeets Field of Dreams with athletic, Jerome Robbins-style choreography. What I got was a delicately wrought, gorgeously orchestrated, beautifully sung paean to a lost American dream. 

The Fix is about the White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series and facing the music. It towers above other premier commissions here (one a year), many based on movies, that adhere to the parlando conventions of 21st century American opera, shy of long melodic lines, duets and trios, and standout vocal writing.

The Fix fixed all that.

Puckett should be a household word. He uses a fresh idiom inflected with a southern twang especially appropriate to the story of Shoeless Joe Jackson. He employs his large orchestra to create a kaleidoscope of delicate sonorities as well as grand orchestral gestures.

The rhythms shift subtly with a certain relentless ticking and chiming that drives the tale forward. The music serves the libretto, often to a fault, and Puckett is unafraid of a swelling melody, the meat and potatoes of the standard repertoire.

Ring Lardner’s aria, “I love this team, Hugh,” is an anthem to the dream of human perfection even in so unlikely a candidate as the illiterate “country bumpkin,” Jackson. It is a standout moment movingly sung by Kelly Markgraf. It’s why we bother to go to the opera at all, and so rarely get in the landscape of new compositions that leave melody to Broadway.

The cast is enormous, 20 singers. The ensemble is the real triumph here. Each character is distinct and the voices are uniformly accomplished.

Special kudos to Minnesota Opera for using a multicultural mix for the eight white White Sox players and for casting an African-American woman as Joe’s wife. It’s good to keep us on our toes and remind us how things have and haven’t changed.

The opera is a magnificent gift to the entire ensemble, offering a wide range of musically distinct character parts. To these ears, the standouts were Wei Wu as Chick Gandil, Margraf as Ring Lardner, and Joshua Dennis (the Duke of Mantua here last season, and Roméo before that) as Shoeless Joe. They sang so cleanly that I rarely had to look at the supertitles.

The only significant female role was Joe’s wife. The lack of female leads was somewhat unavoidable, but at least they worked Katie in, sung by Jasmine Habersham. She’s young, with a Papagena-Despina-Norina background and a lyric future judging from the heft and bloom of her voice.

The production itself is handsome and effective. A unit set, the backside of Comisky Park, functions dramatically and allows for constant cinematic scene shifts from bar to kitchen to court to playing field. Flexible, engaging, and it worked.

I saw the first night. By the end of the run the kinks should be worked out, the performances less cautious. Judging from what I saw, Joel Puckett and Minnesota Opera hit it out of the park.

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Lake Phalen melting

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MNOpera: “Italian Straw Hat”

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Against the grain

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Tristan in Berlin

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In memoriam

The Art of the Children of Terezin, Prague

[Terezin (Theresienstadt) was a Nazi concentration camp outside Prague where Jewish artists and intellectuals (and many children) were sent. The art of the Children of Terezin is in the Jewish Museum in the former Ghetto of Prague, Josefov, Old Town, beside the ancient Jewish cemetery.]

Memories of the Children of Terezin.

Dogs.

Flowers.

Hopscotch.

Barbed wire.

Gestapo.

Poems.

 

Memorie dei bambini di Terezin.

In the adjacent synagogue

Two German boys with earrings

And cutoffs sing close harmony.

Their sweet adolescent chant echoes

In the women’s galleries.

No kites or balloons here

But those imagined or remembered;

Children’s games obscured by

Distant clouds.

 

Beautiful young students,

The language of Goethe and Hegel

On their tongues, bright, fresh-faced,

Pass through thickets of gravestones

To see the dead children’s art.

 

Erinnerungen an die kinder von Terezin.

Barbed wire encircles the

Ancient brick walls;

77,000 dead;

tears on stone;

sunlight through glass

on

hopscotch,

a kitten,

children lined up for food,

games never played,

lives never lived.

 

 

Les memoirs des enfants du Terezin.

The shamefully beautiful scent

Of jasmine blooming,

A funeral cortege,

Stark floodlights,

A yellow star;

Neither blood nor carnage,

Only the long shadow

Of the distant smokestack.

 

Memories of the Children of Terezin.

Sleep, children, whisper the echoes;

Dormi;

Schlaf, meine kinder;

Dormez-vous.

 

Remember, children, sing the birds,

Ricordi;

Gedenken, meine kinder;

N’oubliez jamais.

 

Peace, children, whisper the leaves,

Pace, bambini,

Shalom,

Friede,

Paix.

 

 

 

The Old Jewish Cemetry, Prague

 

Josefov, Jew’s Town.

Sequestered cobbled lanes.

The Golem trod

this quiet ground

where generations sleep.

 

Stilled tumult of stone

overturned by the anarchy

of animus and time,

your shadows murmur distant lullabies

where our sequestered tribe

sang wedding songs, danced, wept

for another homeland lost.

 

Long have they slept,

through fragrant spring and

ferocious holocuast,

their numbers swept up in smoke

with only these tumbling

gravestones to remind.

 

The dead garden rings with songbirds

and the murmur of tourists

videotaping the ancient graves,

the rustle of leaves underfoot,

fluttering prayers scribbled on

scraps of paper

anchored with pebbles

on time-blackened lions.

 

Across the square you can still hear

the relentless chiming

of the Hebrew clock

in the town hall tower

erected in a vibrant ghetto

lifetimes ago.

 

Prague, 1990

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Vigili del fuoco

“Is that the firehouse?” one of my American friends asked?

I was taking them on a walking tour of Venice.

“It sure is,” I said.

I led them onto the adjacent bridge so they could look at the fireboats parked in bays inside the enormous stone palazzo.

 

Vigili del Fuoco on Rio di Ca’ Foscari.

 

“Holy cow,” was my friends’ general reaction. They had forgotten that fire engines would be useless in a city with no streets. In Venice there were fire boats, a very few to cover almost the entire lagoon.

“Do you think they’d let us inside?” Martha, one of Americans asked. “We always check out the fire departments wherever we go.”

They were firehouse aficionados and collected tee shirts and other souvenirs every time they visited one in the U.S. and abroad.

“There’s only one way to find out,” I said.

We rang the doorbell and waited. Eventually a man answered the door. He was wearing a Venetian red polo shirt with Vigili del fuoco embroidered over their logo. Martha leaned into my ear. “We have to get some of those,” she said.

In my poor but well-intentioned Italian I asked if we could tour the firehouse. In his poor but well-intentioned English he told me to wait a minute, one of his coworkers spoke English.

When the English-speaker saw three youngish, attractive, American women in our group he was all welcoming smiles.

“Come in,” he said. “We show you everything.”

And they did. We got up close and personal with the fireboats in their bays as well as the warehouse where they refurbished and repaired boats.

 

 

They pointed out the Captain’s boat, more elegant than any water taxi, with special pride. They spent a lot of time polishing it.

After we had inspected the boats they took us inside for a quick walk-through that eventually led to the spacious, modern kitchen.

“Can we offer you prosecco?” our guide asked.

“Absolutely,” Martha answered without missing a beat.

He looked at everyone else and perceived that not all were enthusiastic about wine at 11am.

“We have soda too,” he said, surprised that anyone would turn down a prosecco. He and his cohorts fetched bottles of Prosecco and sodas from the fridge and poured them while the Americans peppered them with questions about putting out fires in a city like Venice.

“I love your shirt,” Martha finally said. “Could I buy one?”

He looked over at his boss, uncertain of something I couldn’t decode. His boss nodded. “Quanto?” the younger fireman asked sotto voce.

They obviously had never been asked to sell them and decided on twenty euros a piece as a fair price. The Americans bought six and wore them proudly as we headed out toward our original goal, the bridge across the Giudecca Canal constructed on the backs of boats once a year for the Festa della Redentore.

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