Ah, my dream be now accomplished!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017: The grandparents on Cole’s graduation trip to Italy had only one “must see (and hear)” item: an opera at the Roman amphitheater in Verona.

We had our doubts about it, too.

We feared that a 17-year-old who plays Brad Paisley and the Zac Brown Band songs on his guitar might find four hours of Verdi’s “Aida” grounds for divorce.

Still, we were determined. We packed along a libretto of the opera and a quick-read summary of the story (captured princess has to decide whom to betray, lover, father, country, etc. and everyone dies tragically in the end, the usual opera stuff). We hoped they would give Cole a clue about what was being sung in Italian without subtitles. We explained, warned and talked how it is with acquired tastes. We hoped we had him convinced, or at least prepared.

We pulled into Verona on the hottest day of our trip – in the 80s when we found the car park near our Airbnb, an apartment near the Roman arena. Our accommodations, up four flights of narrow stairs, were doing a highly efficient job of retaining the afternoon heat.

At some point during our stay, some of the party went off to visit Juliet’s balcony, as in “Romeo, Romeo, where art thou?” That Juliet. It was almost right across the street from us, tourists flowing in and out of the entrance and me wondering if they knew Shakespeare’s play was a work of fiction. There’s no proof this was THE balcony (how could it be?), but the house was once owned by the Cappelletti family, close enough in name to Willie’s Capulets, the enemies of the Montagues.

I did bite my thumb at the whole affair and remained upstairs sweating in my underwear until it was time to get dressed for the opera.

Before opera
Ready for the show to start.

In 1913, “Aida” was the first opera performed in the amphitheater, which has been around since the First Century A.D.

We had great seats straight across from the stage and the part of the arena used as a desert backdrop. This production started with a strange twist, having 20th Century archeologists setting up to dig and find the final resting place of Aida and the one she didn’t betray (if you don’t call being buried alive a betrayal). Then it launches into the ancient story of Egypt and Ethiopia.

My only disappointment: cardboard elephants. Probably best for the real things that they didn’t have to be dragged on stage as they have been in many productions of this opera, but I figured if there was ever a chance of seeing a full Aida boogie, this might be it. Not so. Animal lovers win again.

A mere four hours later and Aida and friend were safely tucked away and the temperature hadn’t dropped a bit. Crowds were still milling in the streets and around 1 a.m. we found an outdoor table at a plaza near our sweat box.

“That wasn’t half as bad as you guys said it would be,” Cole said over sandwiches and gelato.

I’m calling that a success.

After opera
“See, brightly opens the sky, an endless morrow
There all unshadowed eternal shall glow!

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Vexed I am of late with passions’

Experience art – see a play, for instance – and you can see why someone who sits uneasy on the throne would like to see the National Endowment for the Arts go away. The audience might hear a line in the play and think how it applies to that someone.

“Th’ abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins remorse from power.”

Or,

“Alas, my lord, your wisdom is consumed in confidence.”

Marc
Jordan Barbour, a forceful Marc Anthony. (Photo from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival website)

And in case anyone misses the connection, the play’s director can write something in the program that might further discomfort that someone:

“A democracy in the midst of a controversial leadership transition that puts at risk society as we know it. Warring egos, where the difference between a desire to lead and a desire for power has become indistinguishable. A political divide that feels so cavernous and beyond healing that the conversation turns to violence. The world of Julius Caesar or America today? For so many of us, Brutus’ struggle about how best to protect and unite his own divided republic hits all too close to home”

Shana Cooper, the director of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, then points out the inevitable outcome of the choice Brutus makes:

“Tragically, even Brutus, a man with integrity and a deep conscience, allows his civic love to be contorted by the conclusion that the only way to oppose a world of tyranny is with the world’s weapons. And his choice to continue the cycle of violence makes inevitable the destructive outcome of the story: a brutal civil war.“

It may be 500 years old, but this is revolutionary stuff being presented here in Ashland, Oregon, before a Tuesday afternoon theater filled mostly with high-school students on field trips. And it’s helped along by the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency that funds and promotes the arts across America.

Trump’s budget would eliminate the NEA.

For the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), that would mean losing from $100,000 to $125,000 a year, according to an email from Bill Rauch and Cynthia Rider, artistic director and executive director respectively. They say the money is used to make “our Shakespeare productions accessible for hundreds of Oregon middle and high school students.” Students receive discounted or free tickets to the plays.

“For the majority of the students, this is their first encounter with Shakespeare on stage,” Rauch and Rider write, “and the time spent at OSF is often the spark for creating a lifelong passion for theatre or even the drive to become a theatre artist.”

For the students at the Tuesday afternoon “Julius Caesar,” they saw a bold staging of Shakespeare’s drama from ancient Rome. Rodney Gardiner in a sleeveless, black T-shirt was a muscled “lean and hungry” Cassius, conniving a sports-coated Danforth Comins as Brutus to join the plot against Caesar.

Cooper stages the “brutal civil war” as a haka of knife stabbings, slashes and parries with all combatants on the stage at once, facing the audience as they pound out a seemingly never-ending, inevitable cycle of violence.

For Cooper, this depiction is not a promotion of violent civic disruption but a reminder of a better way forward.

“In Brutus, I see a reflection of our own psychological war, waged daily between the ancestral call to violence for the protection of our country and ideals, and the voice of our souls, which quietly remind us that there could be a different, more peaceful solution.”

A more peaceful solution would be more comforting for both that certain someone and for all of us. Drama demonstrates the choices – good and bad — individuals and society face. Despite the discomfort they may raise, the arts can inform those choices. Art – and the NEA — are worth keeping alive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Touring Oxford, relishing Shakespeare

Keep off the grass in the quad at Jesus College.
Keep off the grass in the quad at Jesus College.

By Kathy

Day 3 of our adventure in England was packed with discoveries, revelations and inspiration. We walked a mile from our flat to the center of town to join a tour highlighting important sites, including one of Oxford University’s 38 colleges.

Katie, the guide on our walking tour, gave us good sense of what Oxford is all about.
Katie, the guide on our walking tour, gave us good sense of what Oxford is all about.

Our personable guide, Katie, introduced us to the centuries-old university and how it works: each college independent yet allied; nearly all quite small (just 22,000 students in the entire system), housed primarily in decorous stone buildings surrounded by well-worn walls (yet open to the public at certain times). The schools, with their manicured courtyards, ornate edifices and streams of students, dominate the look and feel of the central city.

We visited Jesus College, co-founded by Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century for the people of Wales. Students live, study and play together on the campus, where they meet with their professors once a week for “tutorials” in which they review projects assigned throughout the eight-week terms.

The dining hall at Jesus College.
The dining hall at Jesus College.

Students go off the grounds to auxiliary campuses around the city for lectures, research and more. The “collegiate” feel of the place came across most vividly in the dining hall with its soaring leaded-glass windows, carved oak panels and enormous communal table. I expected to see Harry Potter at any moment.

Speaking of which, we had a chance to walk through the old Divinity School now surrounded by the incredible Bodleian Library (which houses more than 13 million volumes and counting). The school, made entirely of carved stone, is a wonder of architecture and beauty. A ballroom scene in one of the HP movies was filmed here.

The carved pillars fan out across the ceiling to support the terrific weight of stone.
The carved pillars fan out across the ceiling to support the terrific weight of stone.

We celebrated all that we’d seen by stuffing ourselves at the cozy White Horse pub (one of the city’s oldest); fish & chips and a pint of Guinness for me, “toad in the hole” for John. The pub appears in the Inspector Morse TV series, which we hope to find time to watch (our apartment has the complete set of DVDs).

Kathy lifts a pint at the White Horse pub.
Kathy lifts a pint at the White Horse pub.

After a rest back at the flat, we returned to the central city and the newest part of the Bodleian (the Weston Library) for what may have been the most extraordinary “college lecture” I’d ever heard. John has already written about Professor Wells (emeritus, Univ. of Birmingham), but I thought I’d share a few impressions, too. We are still discussing all that he said, looking up film clips of Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth, finding Sonnet 29 to read again, and so on. Such is the “imprinting” power of a fine teacher/writer.

As an editor most of my working life, I trafficked in the power of words. Wells spoke with passion and insight about Shakespeare’s skill and why he still matters more than four centuries later.

Stanley Wells. a master of his subject and of the lecture.
Stanley Wells. a master of his subject and of the lecture.

Quoting from memory Hamlet, Lear and more, he made us feel the lyricism of the words, moving from complex syntaxes to simple declaratives, soft and loud, thoughtful and emotional; sometimes simply silent. More than the meaning, we felt the majesty.

Beyond the skill at crafting words, Wells explained, Shakespeare possessed the ability to convey a set of values that live across the ages: the importance of intelligence and wit, of moral courage and plain kindness; an appreciation of individual idiosyncracies (“what a piece of work is man”) and of the transformative power of imagination.

Certainly, Professor Wells possesses transformative powers of his own. Ah, to have been his student!

The terms -- after the Latin word terminus -- surround the Sheldonian Theater, which hosts many events including Oxford graduations.
The terms — after the Latin word terminus — surround the Sheldonian Theater, which hosts many events including Oxford graduations.