Monday, November 30, 2009

Public rules

New York City's recent decision to drop charges against a model who disrobed in The Metropolitan Museum of Art's armor gallery and singer Adam Lambert's controversial kiss on a televised awards show has got me thinking about the limits of art.

On the one hand, art is not reality, and we make a contract to enter its unreality every time we purchase a ticket to a cultural venue. In those confines, artists are free to use nudity, rough language and simulated sex and violence in the creation of what they define as their art. And we are just as free to avoid their work if we find it offensive.

But there are moments and places, usually public spaces, in which art and reality intersect. (Indeed, it's intersecting more and more nowadays with the ubiquitous phenomenon of the reality show.)

Suppose you wanted to show your 5-year-old some equine armament and came upon the model stripping? Or were practicing your figure eights as Tai Babilonia took to the Rockefeller Center ice in her skivvies for Peta? Or happened to be flipping the channel as Lambert French-kissed another entertainer? (I myself don't care if it was a person of the same or opposite sex.)

It is naive for Lambert to say you can just turn off his performance, which is going out over the airwaves to millions of unsuspecting viewers.

I'm all for art, wherever we can find it. But in a public space, the public rules.

Friday, November 27, 2009


Happy Thanksgiving Day Weekend!

WTDTW is not so stuffed that it can't offer a few nibbles for those who don't want to brave the malls or multiplexes.

Today, the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville begins a one-week run of "La Danse," Frederick Wiseman's acclaimed new documentary — his 36th — about the Paris Opera Ballet. For more, visit

The day after Thanksgiving also marks the start of the winter holidays at the properties administered by Historic Hudson Valley in Tarrytown. From 1o to 4 p.m. today through Sunday, there will be costumed tours of Sunnyside, author Washington Irving's cozy Tarrytown home, and Van Cortlandt Manor, a post-Revolutionary site in Croton-on-Hudson. Both are festooned with seasonal decorations. Both will also be featuring candlelight tours of their rooms — like the one pictured at Van Cortlandt Manor — on select December Saturdays.

Finally, for the techies who don't feel like venturing out, the Westchester Library System has announced that it has just added MP3 audiobooks offering iPod, iPhone and iPod Touch support to its download-able media collection. It has also expanded other digital media offerings, including eBooks, music, video and audiobooks optimized for Windows Media Player that can be downloaded. The digital media catalog is available free to Westchester library card holders at

Me? I prefer my Jane Austens the old-fashioned way, with crisp pages I can turn as I sip a hot cup of Earl Grey.

Whatever your pleasures, enjoy the sights and sounds of the season.

Photo courtesy of Historic Hudson Valley.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Met bets

Like the fashion world, The Metropolitan Museum of Art holds semiannual press events to showcase the upcoming season. The most recent luncheon — held a few days before Thanksgiving — didn't feature turkey but chicken, salad, wine, coffee and petite cookies. The upcoming offerings discussed by new Met director (and Ossining resident Thomas Campbell) promised even richer fare.

"There's a plethora of exhibitions," Campbell said, reasserting the museum's commitment to programming.

Visitors have responded in kind.

"Our public is stronger than ever before," he added, noting that The Met benefits from a deep local as well as international audience.

As with a banquet, it's difficult to decide which exhibits to highlight here, let alone see. I myself can't wait for "The Lod Mosaic" (spring) featuring a third-century mosaic recently discovered in Israel, and "The Art of Illumination" (opening March 2), which features the unbounded "Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry" in all of the book's gold, periwinkle, filigree glory.

There are also a number of potentially ravishing drawing shows, including "The Drawings of Bronzino" (opening Jan. 20), the first ever exhibit devoted to the Mannerist master. But I'm just as intrigued by a theme show like "The Birthday in Chinese Art" (opening Feb. 27).

There are two exhibits sure to be hits with the public. "Picasso in The Metropolitan Museum of Art" (opening April 27) surveys the titan in 34 paintings, 58 drawings, 50 prints and 12 ceramics and sculptures. "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity" (opening May 5) features gowns and images to die for, from 1870 to 1940.

This being a holiday week, Campbell issued a last call for a couple of Met exhibits, including "Vermeer's Masterpiece: The Milkmaid" (closing Sunday) and "Art of the Samurai." That won't be closing until Jan. 10 but The Met will soon be swapping out one-third of its fragile objects. So best to see it now.

A word about Campbell as new master of ceremonies for these press lunches/ Power Point presentations. While he lacks the Gallic insouciance of his predecessor, Philippe de Montebello, he makes up for it with a British wit as dry as the white wine The Met serves.

Standing before an image of Velázquez's "Surrender of Breda" — on loan from the Prado for the current "Velázquez Rediscovered" show — Campbell noted that at the press conference in Madrid, a photographer posed him near the part of the painting that focuses on a horse's behind.

Campbell can afford to poke fun at himself. Everyone knows that "Tapestry Tom" — so-called for his brilliant tapestry scholarship and exhibitions as well as his low-key charm — is no horse's patootie.

For more, log on to Images courtesy of The Met.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Our Achilles' heel

The recent killing of 13 soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas — allegedly at the hands of Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan — has had pundits reaching back to Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" for the appropriate metaphors in understanding the warrior's psyche and post-traumatic stress disorder. They are not off-base. The brilliant psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who has devoted his life to treating Vietnam War and Persian Gulf War veterans with PTSD, has used the Homerian epics in his practice and in two books, "Achilles in Vietnam" and "Odysseus in America."

It helps, of course, that Homer has been in the news of late, with Caroline Alexander's new book, "The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer's 'Iliad' and The Trojan War" (Viking). Still, I find it rather rich. Ours is the same society that has sneered at dead white male poets like Homer since the 1960s. They're all part of European colonial imperialism, the thinking goes. So it follows that their works are no good, in the same way that if you have a hangnail, you should amputate the whole hand.

Now, however, we're in trouble. So we look to the arts and history for comfort. Except that being undereducated, we understand history and the arts imperfectly. Thus, the lessons we draw are not necessarily the best.

Even Caroline Alexander — whose "The Endurance," about Ernest Shackleton's heroic Antarctic voyage, is one of the most moving books I've read — misses the point. To say that "The Iliad" is about the futility of war is like saying "Hamlet" is a tragedy of indecision. "The Iliad" — the only surviving work of a much larger cycle about the Trojan War — is about the rage of Achilles, the Greeks' best warrior, who's been dissed by his nincompoop commander, Agamemnon. (For a great modern interpretation, check out the novel and the movie "From Here To Eternity," with go-it-alone Pvt. Prewitt as Achilles, go-along-to-get-along Sgt. Warden as Odysseus and trophy-obsessed Capt. Holmes as Agamemnon.)

Given its real subject, "The Iliad" has more in common with today's layoffs than with Fort Hood, unless, of course, we discover — and I suspect we will — that Hasan felt disrespected.

How did we get to the point, however, where we trot out history and the arts only in times of tragedy? That is the real question. The answer is that we are a meritocracy of mediocrity — a nation of strivers for the middle. (Hence the success of Sarah "Just Folks" Palin.) We always have been. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's enlightening "American Stories" show quotes 18th-century portrait painter John Singleton Copley grumbling about artists being considered nothing more than utilitarian craftsmen.

We like the useful and the practical, because we believe they lead to prosperity. The aspirational, not so much.

Nonetheless, up through the Kennedy Administration, we acknowledged that there was a place for so-called classical culture in pop culture. Then came the late '60s. Homer was out. Working women were in. And the arts lost many of those volunteers who served on the committees and raised the funds. (I'm sorry, but men have never been the backbone in the grassroots effort to promote culture.)

The '70s saw the beginning of cuts in arts education, which was dealt a coup de grace by the Reaganauts, who equated the arts with louche elitism. In the '90s, the rise of digital technology meant anyone could be a filmmaker, singer, artist or writer. No need for professionals. We now have an army of citizen celebrities at long last able to exploit their bottomless talent for exhibitionism.

So the arts — as well as history, which is wrongly considered the past, rather than the story of the past — are misjudged and underestimated. Like Achilles.

Let's hope they have a better outcome.


This weekend, my partners at ArtsWestchester play host to an exhibit organized by the Westchester/Mid-Hudson chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

"Celebration of Architects: The Art of Architecture" features the work of almost 75 regional firms. It's on view today through Sunday in the Arts Exchange building's Grand Banking Room Gallery. There's also a panel discussion with five local architects at 2 p.m. Saturday. 914-428-4220,

Meanwhile, WTDTW says "Happy Birthday" to jazz saxophonist Gato Barbieri, who'll be celebrating his 77th year with a concert at 8 p.m. tomorrow at Tarrytown Music Hall.
Says Barbieri of the occasion, sponsored by Jazz Forum Arts: "It's exciting that people are still moved when I play, and I consider myself blessed to have had fans that have listened to me for such a long time. They still do, and I'm still having fun."
For tickets and more information, call 877-840-0457 or log on to You might also want to check out
Barbieri isn't the only birthday boy being feted this weekend: The Purchase Symphony Orchestra salutes Franz Joseph Haydn — 200 years young — in a concert tonight at Purchase College's Performing Arts Center. 914-251-6200.
On Sunday, take a break from music with a little art-making: From 1 to 4 p.m., the Bruce Museum in Greenwich is presenting a Calder Family Day in conjunction with its "Alexander Calder: Printmaker" exhibit. There will be a gallery hunt and workshops as well as a 3 p.m.interactive performance, "Calder Re-Wired" (right), which brings to life the artist's kinetic work.

Who knows? Maybe you'll discover your inner Calder. 203-869-0376,

Photo courtesy of the Bruce Museum.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lincoln on the Hudson

With "Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War" at the Katonah Museum of Art, "Lincoln and New York" at The New-York Historical Society and and "Lincoln, Life Size" coming to the Bruce Museum in Greenwich in February, I thought Arts Muse readers would be interested in Abraham Lincoln's relationship with the Hudson Valley.

So I turned to one person who was sure to know, Rye resident Harold Holzer — author, co-author and editor of 34 Lincoln books, guest historian of "Lincoln and New York" and, if that were not enough, senior veep of external affairs for The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lincoln, Holzer says, passed through Westchester County on his tour of the North before his first inauguration. Though he made no stops, prisoners in striped outfits reportedly saluted him from the roof of Sing Sing. (Sadly, the president's body would make a reverse trip of the county after his assassination in 1865.)

Putnam County would play a more strategic role during the war.

"First, he visited his former general, Winfield Scott, who was living in retirement at West Point," Holzer writes in an e-mail to The Arts Muse. "Then Lincoln was taken to the Cold Spring foundry to see the production of new high-tech weaponry. At the testing range, he watched rifled cannon shell being fired across the Hudson River onto targets painted onto the opposite cliffs — and consistently hitting bull's-eyes. Here on this visit, I believe, Lincoln came to the realization that it would be a very different kind of war — not Winfield Scott's kind of gentleman's war but a modern, deadly war of new and damaging weaponry...."

Tellingly, Holzer says that the Hudson Valley was actually more important than New York City in Lincoln's election, even though Lincoln always said that the speech he gave in Manhattan in 1859 made him president — a subject Holzer explores in his book "Lincoln at Cooper Union."

"In New York City, he got exposure, audience, and attention," Holzer says. "But on Election Day, more than 60 percent of New York City voters voted against Lincoln....He won the electoral vote of New York state only because he did well north of what is now 287 — solidly Republican (as I guess it is again!)."

Image of David Gilmour Blythe's "Lincoln Crushing the Dragon of Rebellion" (1862) courtesy of the Katonah Museum's "Bold, Cautious, True" show.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Throwing out the baby

Interesting lead articles in the Oct. 31 edition of the Westchester Eye — an edgy new weekly devoted to county news — about museums that de-accession parts of their collections in tough economic times and legislation by Assemblyman Richard Brodsky that would make it tougher for them to do this.

I agree with Michael Bostwinick, director of the Hudson River Museum, who is quoted in one of the articles and is passionate about museums holding on to their collections as part of the public trust. Indeed, it reminds me of a story often told of Winston Churchill. During the blitz, there were members of the British government who thought that the nation's treasures should be removed from London. Winnie would have none of it.

"It's what we're fighting for," he said.

Churchill understood that the stakes in World War II were nothing less than civilization itself. Our situation is less dire, of course. But the stakes are no less great.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Friday the 13th is never an unlucky day for arts lovers, as there is always plenty for them to savor.

This weekend, you can revel in the curvilinear grandeur of Frank Lloyd Wright's Marin County Civic Center — and Robert A. Baron's photographs of the same (left) — in "Against the Grain" at the Mamaroneck Artists' Guild. The show runs through Nov. 21. 914-834-1117, For more on Baron's exhilarating work, log on to

WTDTW would also like to salute an idea whose time has come: A previous post discussed examples of artists exhibiting in empty storefronts. Add to them Lisa Breznak, of Lisa Breznak Decorative Arts & Design in Peekskill, who is exhibiting two of her Shinto-inspired trees in the window of 910 Main St. there for the next few months as owner Gregory Perez readies the property for a makeover. The storefront exhibit is part of Peekskill's City Spaces program, 914-293-0916.

Staying with art, "The Fingerprint Project 1990-2009," featuring the undulating, silhouetted work of Sandy Garnett, is at the White Plains Public Library's Museum Gallery (through Jan. 5). 914-422-1480, While in White Plains, you can take in the Conservatory Theatre's production of Elton John's "Aida" at the Performing Arts Center (tonight through Sunday). 914-328-1600,

If student theater is your thing, you might also want to check out Purchase Repertory Theatre, at the college of the same name, which presents Jean Genet's controversial political play "The Balcony" through tomorrow. 914-251-6200.

Meanwhile, tube types won't want to miss "Collision," which begins on PBS' "Masterpiece Contemporary" at 9 p.m. Sunday. It's what the movie "Crash" might've been if it had been this intelligent an exploration of the extent to which the choices we make affect the lives of others. Hang on for next Sunday's conclusion, which has a kicker of an ending.

It will have you scratching your head for a long time.

Photo of Robert A. Baron's "Pool and Spire" from MAG's "Against the Grain" courtesy of the photographer.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Westchester Phil's duet

When it comes to the arts, New Rochelle's David Tobey (right) is twice-blessed. Not only is he a painter and a sculptor, he's also a longtime violinist with the Westchester Philharmonic.

Now Tobey — son of the late painter and illustrator Alton S. Tobey — is using his artistic talent to serve his musical one. Tomorrow through Nov. 22, he will present an exhibit and sale of more than 50 of his paintings, prints and sculptures from the last five years to benefit the Westchester Phil.

The show takes place at the BID Gallery 542 in New Rochelle. (BID stands for the city's Business Improvement District.) Half of the proceeds from the exhibit there will go to the orchestra, with those attending tomorrow's reception (5-9 p.m.) receiving a 10-percent discount on works purchased then.

This is not the first time Tobey has raised funds for the Philharmonic. He spearheaded an art auction this past spring that yielded more than $25,000.

It looks to be a good two weeks for the Phil. Next up is a pair of concerts (Nov. 21 and 22) that finds artistic director Itzhak Perlman re-teaming with Anthony McGill (left), principal clarinetist of The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, with whom he performed John Williams' "Air and Simple Gifts" at President Barack Obama's inauguration. (Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Gabriela Montero completed the quartet.)

"It was absolutely wonderful," McGill says of the experience. And something of a challenge, given the cold temperatures and the fact that he had only found out about the program the day before the inauguration. (McGill, who had performed Olivier Messiaen's haunting "Quartet for the End of Time" with Yo-Yo Ma on a 2001 tour of Japan, got a call from one of the cellist's managers only a month prior to the inaugural event.)

"But we have to do what we have to do," McGill says in the best spirit of performance. For the clarinetist, that means teaching, playing in The Met Orchestra and taking on solo and chamber work. With the Westchester Phil, he'll be the soloist for Mozart's charming Clarinet Concerto in A Major, a gig that resulted from playing with Perlman for the first time at the inauguration.

"It's one of Mozart's masterpieces," McGill says of the work, a favorite of WQXR (105.9 FM). "Mozart wrote it late in life, and it has all of his maturity — operatic touches, a beautiful slow movement and the light, bouncy quality of his scherzandos."

Supporting singers in an opera orchestra is quite different from being the divo in front of the house. But whether you're a soloist or a supporting player, McGill says, "you're always part of the orchestra.

"To play with Itzhak Perlman and his orchestra is going to be awesome. I know I'm going to be playing with great musicians."

Tickets for the McGill concerts are limited and can be snatched up by calling 914-682-3707. For more information, log on to

For more on David Tobey, check out his Web site,

Photos of McGill and Tobey appear courtesy of the Westchester Philharmonic.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Tell me a riddle

With the encore presentation of The Metropolitan Opera's "Turandot" set for Nov. 18, I thought you might be interested in the antecedents of the story, which is your classic riddle tale (boy meets girl, girl poses three tough questions that boy answers to win her heart).

The most immediate source for Giacomo Puccini's opera is "Calaf and the Princess of China," from "1001 Days," a French compilation similar to "1001 Arabian Nights."

But in his fascinating book "Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend," Richard Stoneman points out that riddle stories have been time-honored since the ancient Middle East, dating at least from Solomon and Sheba.

Alexander and the Assyrian queen Semiramis found their way into the riddle literature in a medieval Greek poem that was discovered in the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, Egypt. The Alexander of legend presents himself to Semiramis as a suitor, just as the Egyptian prince Calaf does before the icy, man-hating Chinese princess Turandot. Like Turandot, Semiramis warns her suitor that she will yield only if he correctly answers her impossible questions. In both "Turandot" and the Alexander poem, failure to do so will result in death.

Of course, the ardent suitors are brave enough — and smart enough — to risk all for love. Shouldn't it always be that way?

Semiramis was the inspiration for a very different opera, Giaocchino Rossini's showpiece "Semiramide," which the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah successfully presented this past summer. The ancient world remains a potent muse.

The Met's "Live in HD" simulcast of "Turandot" will be given an encore presentation at City Center 15: Cinema De Lux in White Plains and New Roc City 18 & IMAX in New Rochelle on Nov. 18. Learn more at

American Hamlet

Sometimes an exhibit catalog, or a companion book, constitutes a whole other exhibit. Such is the case of the elegant coffee-table book that accompanies the Katonah Museum of Art's "Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era" (The Dixon Gallery and Gardens.)

It's not just that curator Kevin Sharp's book — which considers the parallel trajectories of the Hudson River School and the poet who wrote "Leaves of Grass" — takes a different approach from his Katonah show. It's that a book can explore works not in the exhibit.

Like Sanford Gifford's "A Coming Storm" (1863), owned by Edwin Booth, 19th-century America's greatest actor and a brother of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes.

E. Booth lent the demonically swirling landscape to an April 1865 exhibit at the National Academy in Manhattan, where a customs inspector named Herman Melville saw it and more important, saw in it a metaphor for the tragedy of the Civil War and the Booth family.

Melville would ponder that metaphor in his ekphrastic poem "The Coming Storm," in which he cast E. Booth — "Shakespeare's pensive child" — as Hamlet offstage as well as on.

Edwin Booth (1833-93) — a friend to and collector of Hudson River School artists like Gifford, whose "Baltimore 1862 — Twilight" (seen here) is part of the Katonah show — remains a resonant figure in American culture. Even without his brother John's assassination of Abraham Lincoln — an act that would haunt Edwin to the end of his days — his life was filled with suffering. His beloved first wife, actress Mary "Molly" Devlin, died young. His second wife, actress Mary McVicker, went mad. The only child of his second union, Edgar, died soon after his birth.

E. Booth himself was the subject of an assassination attempt and a carriage accident that rendered his left arm useless. He gained and lost several enterprises, including Broadway's Booth Theatre. Alcoholism, unsurprisingly, was a continual struggle. And yet, through it all, he continued to perform, refining his greatest role, Hamlet.

He didn't merely play the hero. He was one, saving the life of Robert Todd Lincoln, the president's oldest son, when the Harvard student fell through the gap between a moving train and the Jersey City station platform around 1864.

The storyteller in me can't resist that tale or Edwin Booth's life. What makes one brother a savior of men and the other a destroyer? I think the crux was that John Wilkes Booth saw himself as the star in the grand, romantic drama that was his own life, not unlike another assassin with a trio of names, Lee Harvey Oswald.

Whereas Edwin Booth, for all his identification with Shakespeare's greatest role, never confused playing Hamlet with being him. He, too, was bold, cautious, true.

The image of Sanford Gifford's "Baltimore 1862-Twilight" appears courtesy of the Katonah Museum of Art.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Whither WQXR?

What do we think of the new WQXR (105.9 FM)?

On the one hand, I'm delighted that classical radio has not perished in New York. On the other hand, the changes are noticeable and not entirely welcome. More popular classical music, fewer new works (or unfamiliar works by famous composers), personnel shifts, the loss of some favorites (Friday night's temple service, for instance): Change for change's sake does not equal progress.

At the same time, such is the fear in the marketplace at the moment that we must all bow before the god of populism.

The quality of WQXR is still there. But its current trend toward the tried and true is not a harbinger of good things to come.

Friday, November 6, 2009


This week, WTDTW (What To Do This Weekend, our regular Friday post) salutes the Fairfield/Westchester Museum Alliance, which grants visitors to any one of the sites a same-day pass to the other five. Members of any one of the six organizations receive free admission to the others, plus a 10-percent discount in the gift shops.

What's terrifice about the alliance is the way its members complement one another with a mix of shows that range from the historical to the contemporary, the scientific to the artistic.

The Katonah Museum of Art and the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers offer two superb history lessons. "Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era" (at Katonah through Jan. 24) is a moving, haunting tribute to one of 19th-century America's seminal poets and the painters, particularly the members of the Hudson River School, who were such a part of that time. 914-232-9555, "Dutch New York: The Roots of Hudson Valley Culture" (at Hudson River through Jan. 10) brilliantly chronicles the continual shifts in 400 years of Dutch-American relations as well as the rich Dutch legacy in business, home design and painting. 914-963-4550,

Those same Dutch virtues are celebrated in the provocative "Double Dutch," featuring new installations by 13 artists from the Netherlands at the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill through July 26. 914-788-0100, Purchase College's Neuberger Museum of Art has the equally thought-provoking "British Subjects: Identity and Self-Fashioning 1967-2009," about race, gender, persona and transcendence in postwar self-portraiture. 914-251-6100,

More edginess awaits at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., where you'll find works by Edward Tufte, called "the Da Vinci of data"; women artists who've reclaimed storytelling: and artists interested in the bicycle as metaphor. 203-438-4519,
The other Connecticut alliance member is the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, whose "Alchemy, Magic, Myth or Science?" (through Jan. 3) looks at the art and philosophy of this ancient, oft-misunderstood but still useful discipline. 203-869-0376,

Like the alliance itself, it's good chemistry.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Hailing "SundayArts"

A shout-out to "SundayArts," THIRTEEN's artsmagazine show, which makes its half-hour prime-time debut tonight at 8.

The program, which airs regularly from noon to 3 p.m. Sundays, includes a roundup of what's happening with stylish correspondent Christina Ha, a Dobbs Ferry resident, who's getting a lot of air time on THIRTEEN; plus performances, documentaries and exhibit tours with New York curators.

Now if the show would only give hosts Philippe de Montebello and Paula Zahn more to do.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Meet The Mets, part deux

The best scene in "Quantum of Solace" — the follow-up to Daniel Craig's debut as James Bond — finds 007 on the trail of Eurotrash nogoodniks as they plot ecological mayhem while taking in a production of Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca."

Once the bad guys realize Bond is on to their game, cleverly played out via earpieces as they seemingly relish Puccini, they begin leaving the opera house in not-so-subtle droves.

"Well," sniffs one, "'Tosca' isn't for everyone."

Actually, "Tosca" is for everyone, which is why The Metropolitan Opera chose it to open its season and why two theaters at White Plains' City Center 15: Cinema De Lux were packed recently for the encore presentation of "The Met: Live in HD" transmission. I imagine the theaters at New Rochelle's New Roc City 18 & IMAX, which also participate in The Met's simulcasts of select operas each season, were similarly filled. (Those theaters will no doubt be teeming once again this Saturday as The Met presents another Puccini chestnut, "Turandot," pictured here.)

Why "Tosca"? First, it's an opera about an opera singer — the jealous, foolhardy but always loving Floria Tosca, who finds herself caught between her lover, the painter/rebel Cavaradossi, and Scarpia, the cruelly sensual police chief, amid the majesty of Napoleonic Rome.

Secondly, "Tosca" is quintessential Puccini in its outpouring of luscious, haunting melody. (One patron left the theater whistling "E lucevan le stelle," Cavaradossi's theme.) At the same time, "Tosca" arguably represents Puccini's most complete use of the Wagnerian leitmotif. Here the examples include a running figure that, at the opera's end, takes us all the way to the top of the prison castle of Sant' Angelo, along with our doomed heroine.

So "Tosca" has great music and great psychological drama. Yet it was roundly booed on opening night, in part because Luc Bondy's sterile production had replaced Franco Zeffirelli's architecturally sumptuous recreation of neoclassical Rome.

Audience members in White Plains last week seemed to mirror the opening-night crowd. They applauded the singers — Finnish soprano Karita Matilla (Tosca, pictured here), Argentine tenor Marcelo Álvarez (Cavaradossi) and Georgian baritone George Gagnidze as Scarpia. But they were divided, sometimes within themselves, about the merits of the production, which mixes Empire costumes with modern furnishings and removes much of the Roman Catholic ritual that is integral to the opera and its heroine. (That's the wonderful thing about the "Live in HD" transmissions: There's plenty of time during the intermissions for coffee and conversation.)

For me, the fatal flaw in Bondy's production is not that he's ignored the sense of place that is central to "Tosca" or much of its Catholic sensibility — though these are certainly problems. No, the coup de grace is that he's nullified Puccini's psychological acuity, this despite the singers praising Bondy's penetrating insights during the earthy backstage interviews with charming mezzo-soprano Susan Graham.

One example is particularly glaring: Bondy has done away with the moment in which Tosca — having murdered Scarpia for torturing her lover and making sex the price of his freedom — places candles and a crucifix around his body. (Puccini used this to contrast Tosca's ultimate religious devotion with Scarpia's hypocritical piety.)

Still, Bondy has to fill in the musical interlude, so he has Tosca stare out the window and then recline on a couch where she fans herself while she presumably contemplates life, Hamlet-like.

Question: If you had just impulsively knifed a sadist on the order of the Nazis whose henchmen could return at any moment, would you sit around, or would you grab the weapon, your belongings and the letter of safe conduct Scarpia promised you and your lover and hightail it out of there?

If Bondy were so interested in a modern approach to "Tosca," why not update it to Mussolini's Rome?

The problem with retelling operas freshly lies not in the idea of reinterpretation itself but in making appropriate choices. Bondy's production has one brilliant moment — the cinematic ending, which I won't give away since PBS will be broadcasting the simulcast later this season.

Ironically, the "Tosca" transmission included an interview with director Bartlett Sher, who did The Met's fabulous "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" and who's taking a Kafkaesque look at Jacques Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" (Dec. 19). Kafka, "Tales of Hoffmann": It's a pairing that makes sense.

Regardless of the production, "Live in HD" remains one of the best and cheapest dates around. For about $20, plus the price of parking and popcorn, you get to go to The Met without having to drive to The Met. It's a tough ticket, but there are often encores.

Apart from "Turandot" and "Hoffmann," there are five remaining simulcasts — Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier" (Jan. 9), with the aforementioned Susan Graham as Renée Fleming's boy toy; Georges Bizet's "Carmen" (Jan. 16), with Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagna; Giuseppe Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra," with Placido Domingo (Feb. 6); Ambroise Thomas' "Hamlet," with Simon Keenlyside and Natalie Dessay (March 27); and Gioacchino Rossini's "Armida," also with Fleming (May 1).

Photos courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Electing to learn

While others are snoozing or hitting the malls tomorrow — or hurrying to vote before heading off to work — area jazz teachers will be doing what they know and love best.

They'll be gathering at New Rochelle High School from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for a workshop titled "Rehearsing and Conducting the High School Jazz Band," presented by the 16-piece Westchester Jazz Orchestra.

"The class will be enjoyable, interactive and practical, and the information and techniques explored will apply to ensembles of varying levels and instrumentation," says WJO artistic director Mike Holober (pictured here).

A pianist and composer, Holober will lead the workshop, which is the orchestra's first seminar for music teachers.

The fee is $75. For more information, call WJO at 914-861-9100 or log on to

The public can enjoy the orchestra Dec. 5 as it continues its season at Irvington Theater with "Sax Masters: The Music of Coltrane, Cannonball, Bird and More." (The snow date is Dec. 6.)

The remaining concerts are "From Bossa to Tango: Sounds of South America" (Jan. 30) and "Americana" (April 10). Log on to the Web site or call the theater box office at 914-591-6602 for details.

Photo courtesy of Westchester Jazz Orchestra.