“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.




Barbed wire.




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



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;


Schlaf, meine kinder;



Remember, children, sing the birds,


Gedenken, meine kinder;

N’oubliez jamais.


Peace, children, whisper the leaves,

Pace, bambini,







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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Talking Venetian

If you  arrive in Venice by train, this is what you see first as you walk out of the station.

Because there are no streets as we understand them, Venetians have different words for different types of pedestrian passages.

These narrow streets are called calle.


This calle is wider, has shops on both sides, and leads into a campo, or square. Streets that were originally paved (as opposed to mud paths) were called salizada.

A street that runs along a canal is a fondamenta.


Here’s a canal, a fondamenta, and a calle.

The Zattere is a long boulevard-y fondamenta along the Giudecca Canal, the channel separating Venice proper from the adjacent island of Giudecca.


Altanas, which are not unique to Venice, are wooden decks built on rooftops.


The altana on the left is smallish. The one on the right is adjacent to the roof terrace of the building I lived in near the Accademia.


A pozzo is a well. Since Venice had no access to fresh water until an aqueduct was built in 1886, they depended on capturing rain in these clever pozzi built over cisterns with sand filtration systems. Every campo, or square, had a pozzo, as did the courtyards and gardens of people who could afford them. When water was finally piped into the city, the pozzi were sealed. In order to qualify as a campo, a square needed both a church and a pozzo; if it had only a pozzo, it was considered a campiello — a little square.



A sottoportego is a passageway where a street runs though the ground floor of a building.


Here is a sottoportego leading to a campiello with a pozzo.

Acqua alta, which literally means “high water”, refers to the recurring extremely high tides that flood much of the city. Wooden walkways above the sidewalks, called passarelle, are put out in advance (hopefully) of the acqua alta.



Acqua alta doesn’t stop anyone from grabbing a coffee at their favorite bar.


The campi are the centers of neighborhood life. This is Campo San Giacomo del’Orio where I shopped and grabbed coffee and sat and watched the Tuesday night tango dancing for three years until I moved near the Accademia.


Venice is divided into six districts or sestieri: San Marco, Castello, Canagreggio, Dorsoduro, San Polo, and Santa Croce. Campo San Giacomo is in Santa Croce.

Laundry day in Castello.

The library of the San Giorgio Maggiore complex, dating to the renaissance, had a nice filing system: an author’s works were shelved under his statue. You had to know what Plato or Plautus looked like.


And a couple miscellaneous items I couldn’t resist.

A renaissance keystone on an arch over a water door along a canal. You always have to look up as well as down when walking in Venice; you never know what you might see.

A group of school children stop to listen to this gentleman play “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” on crystal glasses filled to different levels with water to produce different tones. This particular spot was not far from my garden gate, and with my windows open I often heard him playing. He’s pretty good although the repertoire is limited.








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The massacre of the Innocents

Giotto di Bondone, 1305, at the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova.

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Happy belated Quincentennial birthday, Andrea Palladio

2008 was the 500th anniversary of Andrea Palladio’s birth. A brilliant traveling exhibition was mounted in Italy which I was fortunate to catch in Vicenza, which, far more than Venice, is Palladioland. I subsequently wrote the following essay and filed it away in a folder inside another folder. Hey, it’s only ten years late. I am pleased to report I still stand by every word.


Entering the “Palladio 500 Anni” show in Vicenza’s Palazzo Barbaran da Porto, I passed through the portico of an interior courtyard where a large canvas read, “This exhibition speaks to us of a time when a society in the throes of transformation never lost faith in architecture as a means of improving the world.”

That’s quite a statement.

Right off, the show set me up for a vision of harmonious, balanced, and symmetrical spaces designed to elevate the human spirit. Goethe said that architecture is frozen music; Palladio listened to the Pythagorean music of the spheres.

While designing and building villas (before Palladio architects were only advanced stonemasons or sculptors) for the movers and shakers of renaissance Vicenza and Venice, Palladio pursued a vision. The individual buildings were a means to his end. He created for the world at large and he built to last, but he also learned the glory of imperial Rome from its ruins which had also been built to last. They were his textbook and his greatest inspiration. He was not a local boy building big houses; he was an evangelist for an elevated vision of domestic and public spaces. The buildings were arguments that Vitruvius had been on to something. Palladio’s most brilliant buildings are not slavish imitations of Roman imperial grandeur, they are variations on Roman themes, blending Vitruvius’s ratios and the intricate stonework of Corinthian capitals with the modern world  as he knew it.

Corinthian capital

It was fascinating to watch this vision emerge fully formed, like Minverva. His signature is emblazoned on the portico at Villa Tressino at Cricoli, a renaissance vision crystalized between the square towers of a stodgy medieval building. His style developed to better realize his vision. His understanding grew, deepened, and expanded as idea and theories were tested in reality and perfected in practice. He knew the Roman’s ratios but not  their trade secrets. That took experience. In the meantime he grew increasingly more daring and original in the drawings, where imagination reigned; he sketched and erased and redrew his way to an expanded understanding of the possibilities of Roman architecture.

Villa Trissino

And not only the exteriors. Detailed renderings of interior floorplans are based on the ratios of Vitruvius and Alberti, Palladio’s muses, along with the ruins themselves which he measured with a tape measure, all those vaults, arches, columns, capitals, and domes, especially and uniquely, domes. There may have been a dome or two before the Romans, but they perfected domes and the techniques for building them with lightweight concrete. They integrated the dome into the profile of important buildings and of the city itself.

Elevation and section through Pantheon’s portico.

The size and shape of individual rooms are in fixed ratios, stairways are golden spirals, the number and placement of the rooms are Fibonacci sequences. In the early plans for one of the villas Palladio quickly sketched sixteen variations, shuffling them like tiles in an orthographic Rubik’s cube.

Section and floor plan, Villa Rotonda

Most of the models are sectioned and spread to show the inner workings. Watching the transformation from related sketches to building plans to models of the buildings spotlighted Palladio’s infinitely detailed creative process. He sculpted on a very grand scale.

Nothing was left to chance. He sketched the finest details of pediments and cornices, rustication patterns, the interlacing of brickwork. My favorite drawings split a building down the middle and present, on right and left, two possible variations with subtle changes creating varying impacts. The woodcuts for his Four Books of Architecture, executed from his drawings, are as precise and detailed as Durer. Sometimes he is drawing the plans for a villa, often he is recreating ruins, reimagining them intact from whole cloth, possibly better. One must view them as Palladio’s and not antiquities.

Often, the drawings of the villas he built don’t reflect the existing structures. That is because they are the director’s cut, representing what he really wanted to do, and would have done if he had been freed from the constraints of egos and budgets.

Villa Rotonda

I was most amazed to learn that the iconic facade of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice was not what Palladio really wanted.

San Giorgio Maggiore

The pediments flattened into two dimensions — a bas relief of a Roman temple — were a late compromise. Superimposed pediments were a stylistic innovation Palladio pioneered to resolve the conflict between the Roman temple’s monospace and the Christian nave-and-aisle form. He first used this solution at San Francesco della Vigna and San Pietro di Castello, and perfected with Il Redentore.

Temple of Augustus, Pula, Croatia.

The model of Palladio’s ideal San Giorgio prominently features a pronaus, a porch with freestanding pillars extending 40 more feet toward the water. Reprieved from flatness, it thrusts majestically toward St. Mark’s basin. The design is based on the Temple of Augustus in Pula, Croatia, which Palladio drew and redrew, analysed to the last micrometer, ran through the liquid-state computer of his brain, and then fought to build in the “real” world. But the Benedictine monks who initially authorized his design later got cold feet. It was too Roman, they said. Too Pagan. They asked him to collapse the porch and superimpose the pediments as he had done so many times before. The existing façade is a facile but flat solution.

“In Rome,” a plaque reads, “Palladio very likely mastered the difficult art of restoring ruins on paper to their original splendor.”

Or beyond, I would add.

Palladio’s proposed Rialto Bridge

My favorite exhibit in the show was a computer animation of Palladio’s proposed Rialto Bridge. A series of preliminary sketches and refinements, along with the final elevations and a large model, precede the main event. The computer animation takes the viewer on a stroll through the Roman forum posing as a bridge. It is huge for the site and far too complex for a pedestrian bridge. Nor does it face Grand Canal and offer sweeping vistas. It faces inward, and views the Grand Canal through  precisely placed porticos.

Palladio’s bridge would have changed Venice at the expense of everything Ruskin held dear. I walked away from Palladio’s bridge proposal and from his proposed redesign of the Doge’s Palace, relieved that they only exist on paper. Had Palladio gotten his way, the signature Byzantine gothic, so flamboyantly unique, raised to a pitch of perfection in the lighter-than-air pink Doge’s Palace, would have vanished. Ruskin’s “central building of the world” would have gone the way of old Rome.

I walked away convinced that Palladio’s singular brilliance shines most brightly in his villas, where he had the blankest possible slate and the fewest constraints to realizing his total vision. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, his private homes featured his most consistently brilliant and innovative work. He had no other mold to fit than the gently rolling hills and fields of the Veneto. Palladio’s best villas are glimpses of perfection, unfettered by surrounding buildings and pre-existing structures, built from the ground up and from the sky down. His great churches may be recycled Roman baths, but his villas are private heavens.

Larry Mellman

14.XI.2008, Venezia

More photos of Palladio 500 from the creators:





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