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Nathan Gunn at the Kennedy Center

My mother has always had a soft spot for Lancelot’s “If Ever I Would Leave You” because of Robert Goulet. I half-remembered the early 1980s HBO broadcast of Camelot, but I’ve never quite liked the musical as much as Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady or Gigi. I was influenced heavily by the movies and unfortunately the movie Camelot is nowhere near as dazzling to my young eyes.

In 2008, the Lincoln Center did a semi-staged version of Camelot, featuring Gabriel Byrne as Arthur, Marin Mazzie as Guinevere and Nathan Gunn as Lancelot.  I was left wishing Arthur had been written as good a singer as Lance or Gwenevere. But the speech singing is part of the Lerner & Loewe style and I imagine it was written with Richard Burton’s abilities in mind, so there you have it. With this production, Gabriel Byrne was a serviceable enough Arthur, but not particularly musical. Marin Mazzie had a lovely rich and creamy voice I could have listened to for hours.

But I proved I am my mother’s daughter in some ways, because Nathan Gunn had me from the opening notes of “C’est Moi”. The black leather pants helped a little too. For an opera singer, he did a damn good job hanging out in musical theatre. I wasn’t that familiar with his opera career, so I hadn’t known he was as known for his good looks as his baritone voice. I did manage to find both of his albums. American Anthem was filled with Americana like “Shenandoah” and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” while “Just Before Sunrise” veered more light pop, closer to Audra McDonald or Kristen Chenoweth’s albums, picking either lesser known songs or newish songwriters. But I still I regretted I hadn’t really heard him in his element singing opera, even in a recital setting.

I was presented such an opportunity when Nathan Gunn appeared at the Kennedy Center on Sunday afternoon. Washington National Opera (WNO)’s Celebrity Concert Series featured Nathan Gunn performing along with tenor William Burden and soprano Emily Albrink.

The day was gorgeous. I went outside to the terrace during the intermission into the sunny warm September late afternoon. I could see the spires of Georgetown’s Healy Hall in the distance and a ship cruised down the Potomac.

A ship cruises down the Potomac. View from the Kennedy Center terrace

First I need to mention the seats. When I picked them, I was thinking off-center orchestra would be fine, it’s not like I’d looking over set decorations. What I hadn’t realized was how close I was – only four or five rows back! Sometimes I was looking around the cello section or I was seeing entirely too much of the concertmaster’s crotch, but otherwise I had a dynamite view of all three singers. They moved around quite a lot, either to interact with each other or the audience. If you imagined a dry recital with a singer standing behind a podium, that was not the case here.

Nathan Gunn entered to Rossini’s “Largo et factotum” from Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Barber of Seville). (Those whose opera knowledge is limited to Bugs Bunny might recognize it as the “Figaro” song in “Rabbit of Seville”.) What struck me was his natural charm and humor, playing off the audience throughout, lighting up when a knowledgeable member knew the response. Then he performed the first duet with Emily Albrink, a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program alumna dressed in a bright red paneled strapless ball gown.

Then Gunn took the microphone to explain a little about the program he’d put together, a little of opera mixed with a little American musicals. He wanted to show their similarities, how they dealt with big epic stories and torturous/unrequited romances. Each section was organized along certain lines, so the opening had the Barber of Seville and the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The back half showed a lot of royalty and Shakespeare and princes (and a knight!). Gunn sang the lovely “Johanna”, while Albrink trilled through the darkly ominous “Green Finch and Linnet Bird”. I’d heard both years ago during that “Sondheim at Carnegie Hall celebration”. The second one sounded like a perfectly innocuous little operatic song until you listen to the words about caged birds.

The Kennedy Center terrace at intermission with patrons enjoying the sun.

I was not as familiar with most of the operatic pieces included in the show, nor do I have technical expertise to offer a real critique. I didn’t really care for the selections from Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers”, but enjoyed “Don Giovanni” quite a lot. If I had a gripe with Gunn’s voice, he didn’t seem to fill the arena as much as I expected; the Kennedy Center Opera House is a big place. I have to wonder how it would have sounded from the upper rafters. I was hearing it fairly close in.

Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” aria from Romeo et Juliette wasn’t supposed to be a comedy exactly, but it wound up one unintentionally with the lights suddenly going out on stage, leaving the orchestra in the dark. Gunn lightly admitted that this had happened to him in several performances already. The lights went on, they tried again, and the lights still had problems, giving us some weird spotlights. The house manager apologized but apparently the lights were on computer timers, so they were managing as best they could. Gunn tried to keep it light bantering with one audience member that joked about it being the Phantom of the Opera. (I checked for a chandelier, just to be sure.)  Maybe it was faeries, but eventually they made it through that aria.

The standout of the evening, besides Gunn, was possibly William Burden. A silver haired tenor, Burden was indefatigable, bouncing off Gunn with ease. Their duets were delightful. The “Lily’s Eyes” duet from Secret Garden was quite moving. But it was outdone after the intermission when they did the “Agony” duet from Into the Woods, featuring Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince. I adore Into the Woods; I’ve seen it twice live and have memorized great gobs of the lyrics. Now the Princes are usually played by nearly identical looking men in the stage performances I’ve seen, so it was odd casting at first, like seeing the Prince singing opposite the Narrator, but Burden took care of any doubts I had. Burden played Rapunzel’s Prince to the utter limit, especially mimicking her ahahaahaa singing. In some ways, Gunn was more understated as Cinderella’s Prince than as say Lancelot. Then again Lancelot is actually more noble than that Prince.

Of course I was pleased Gunn included both “C’est moi”and “If Ever I Would Leave You” from “Camelot” in the program. While he performs the romantic pieces quite well, I think he’s better in the lighter fare. “C’est Moi” and “Largo et factotum” let him showcase his charm and personality more. It was a little hard to see how he handled the big dramatic roles he does on stage.

The singers and orchestra received a standing ovation, prompted the most unusual of encores. At some point in his life, Nathan Gunn had gone through a phase where he’d developed a love for American cowboy songs. His wife Julie Gunn arranged them in a set so we heard classics like “Don’t Fence Me In” and “Home on the Range”.  The show ended with more hearty applause.

All in all, the concert was well worth the money. I heard Gunn perform some favorites, along with some operatic pieces, which was more than I could have hoped for.


JetPens Sample: Cute but Functional

Recently I was introduced me to the infinite joys of Jet Pens. They’re an online retailer for hard-to-find unique Japanese pens and stationery. I have always had a weakness for unusual notebooks and pretty fountain pens. (And bags, always appreciate a good tote bag, even if I already have a zillion.) So it’s safe to say I was categorically doomed when I looked through their website.

Ohto fountain pen and Kokuyo notebook

A few months ago, I took my initial plunge, ordering an Ohto Dude fountain pen in a lovely purple. What I discovered startled me. I’m used to needing a few strokes to get a fountain pen started after loading an ink cartridge, but the Ohto already wrote smoothly, making me an instant fan of Japanese fountain pens. Plus the pen can use the ink cartridges I already own. The only complaint I have (and it’s nitpicky) is it’s hard to pull the cap off the pen. Sometimes I wind up unscrewing the pen pieces instead.

I also acquired a batch of Kokuyo Buncobon Dot Cover notebooks. I’d become fond of writing on graph paper lately, but growing disenchanted with the almighty Moleskine. I actually liked the Picadilly graph notebooks, but I’ve had a hard time finding more locally. So I took a chance on the Kokuyo. The main thing to keep in mind is they’re tiny (4.1″ X 5.8″), closer to Moleskine’s pocket size (3.5” X 5.5”) than its full size ones.  They have soft bound edges and the dustcovers include index sections so you can keep track of projects or assignments. The graph paper is nice and actually handles the Ohto’s fountain pen ink fairly well. As thin as it was, I was expecting the ink to bleed more.

I was overall pleased with my first order and plan to acquire more soon. Sooon. All the pens will be mine, muhahah…. Oh, sorry about that. But I was really pleasantly surprised with the speedy service, especially considering I’m located on the opposite coast.

So when they announced JetPens was doing one of their sample giveaways, I quickly signed up. Who knew what strange office supplies would show up in my mail? As it was, it was completely the perfect choice for me. As I’ve mentioned in an older entry, I’m a proud University of Alabama graduate. Our mascot is one Big Al of the pachyderm variety. So when this cute Iwako eraser showed up in my mail, I was instantly charmed:







(I will admit I nearly confused the poor elephant with a koala when I saw it without its ears. Iwako actually makes a koala, but the ears are completely different. Yes, they actually have an Eraser Museum. How cool is that?)

The eraser is very cute. The trunk comes as a separate piece that you can attach. They’re supposedly very eco-friendly and non-toxic, but because of the small parts, I wouldn’t recommend them for small children. The eraser part itself is functional; it works very well on my ultra boring Ticonderoga Number 2 pencils with no noticeable smearing.  (I haven’t quite succumbed to Japanese pencil madness. Give me time.)

The only drawback I can see to such an adorable eraser is it’s almost too cute to use for its stated purpose.  If that’s the only problem, though, I think JetPens will do just fine. My bank account may disagree on this point.

Elephant with regular eraser

Designing Tomorrow

Washington DC is filled with museums. The Smithsonian is the one everyone thinks of immediately with its sprawling complex of buildings around the Mall, but smaller quirkier ones can be found in DC as well. One of my favorites is the National Building Musuem, located across the street from the National Law Enforcement Memorial. The building itself is quite a treat in itself, a rusty brick color covered in friezes. I still remember a memorable pre-dawn morning I came out of the Metro stop and saw the building against a reddish sky.

Until July 2011, the National Building Museum has a lovely exhibit called Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s. I toured the exhibit on my lunch hour one day. The exhibit covers all the 1930s era World Fairs from Chicago through New York, showcasing everything from the architecture and art through to the science and transportation exhibits. I’ve always adored the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair with the Trylon and Perisphere, but it was interesting to learn about the others as well. I did however have a thoroughly unexpectedly geeky moment as a comic book fan when I encountered the massive Elektro, the Westinghouse robot. In DC Comics’ “All Star Squadron”, based at the fairgrounds, they had a similar robot named Gernsback.

If you’re interested in one particular World’s Fair, you might find the exhibit frustrating, since all the Fairs are mixed and mingled together, so you learn about all the architecture together. But it’s equally fascinating to see the different styles side by side for comparison. The emphasis was architecture and interior design, but there were also sections on technology and transportation. Major industries  used the World’s Fair to show off their latest and greatest or try to predict what would come next. There seemed a heavy emphasis on speculating on the future.

I loved the aviation section. I’d known that the Graf Zeppelin had visited Chicago for the 1933 World’s Fair. The exhibit even had a cancelled mail envelope from that trip. However I hadn’t known that the Goodyear Blimp was on the fairgrounds itself. Or their massive Sky Ride, a tramway that crossed the lagoon. That would have terrified me no end. For all my interest in airships, I don’t do well with heights.

What struck me most was the scale involved and the amount of work and preparation that must have gone into each one. In the heart of the Depression, they provided much needed jobs, but I could also see someone asking “What’s the point?” The Fairs were a strange source of hope, an escape from the everyday. You could wander around them and see all the wonderful gadgets and cars and houses and forget all the problems. You could imagine living a different life in a prefabricated house with fancy new appliances.

We still don’t have flying cars or robot maids (or personal airships), but we can still dream, can’t we?

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

I love musicals, movie or Broadway. And yet I’ve had a spotty relationship with Stephen Sondheim. I can quote vast tracks of “Into the Woods” by heart and have seen several productions of it, yet I’ve never quite warmed up to some of his other repertoire. I can’t tell if it’s the productions I’ve tried to listen to or the actual material itself. That may be why I loved the “Sondheim at Carnegie Hall” celebration from 1992. I listened to that cd set to death when it was first released. The songs were performed divorced from their show context and sometimes even remixed or combined with other songs from other sources. The show also showed how wide Sondheim’s influence stretched from the classically trained singers to the Broadway divas to alt-pop singing groups. Listening the whole two cd set again tonight, I noticed some of the same old favorites — Daisy Egan charming everyone in “Broadway Baby” or Karen Ziemba slinking her way into “Sooner or Later” or the Tonics’ “Good Thing Going”. I was also struck by the ones we’ve lost along the way from Michael Jeter’s “Love I Hear” to wacky Madeline Kahn as the doomed wannabe bride Amy or Dorothy Loudon wondering if she was “Losing My Mind/You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” I appreciated the humorous songs better than the big dramatic ones.  But there was the caustic wit of “Weekend in the Country” and the bitterness of “Ballad of Booth”. The best songs for me showed Sondheim’s real flair for words, his ability to turn a phrase around. And yet there was “Anyone Can Whistle” in a spare piano accompaniment that affected me more than say “Being Alive”.

I do want to give “Sunday in the Park with George”, “A Little Night Music” and “Company” second chances. Maybe I can appreciate them now that I’m older.

Strong Poison

Needing something to watch tonight, I rummaged through my DVDs for something I hadn’t watched yet. I was in a period piece mood, but not my usual tour through Tudor or Elizabethan England. No, I was feeling more in line with cloche hats and fine cars. So I broke open my Dorothy L Sayers boxset of the old series starring Edward Petherbridge. I watched most of them when I was much younger, back when Mystery! was hosted by Vincent Price on Thursday nights.

Since it’s a period piece, I think “Strong Poison” has held up quite well, although I kept wondering how they’d have changed things for modern audiences. Or would they have? Would they been explicit about the effects of arsenic? I don’t recommend Strong Poison for anyone with stomach concerns. Would they have made the Bohemians more out there? By 1980s standards, the model scene seemed quite surprising. I actually don’t remember that scene at all, making me wonder if it was cut by PBS or if I was too young to “get” it.

I remembered Harriet and Peter quite well of course, but I was pleasantly surprised by the side characters, particularly the women. I expected it in Gaudy Night where it’s set at a womens’ college, but not in Strong Poison. I’m so used to these days where there’s a constant struggle to even see more one or two female roles in a show, much less interact for any length of time. Most of women involved in “Strong Poison” were either older or spinsters; even Harriet was unmarried and castigated for turning down her lover. For all that it was the Lord Peter mysteries, Miss Climpson and Miss Murchison held considerable parts in cracking the case, usually pulling the wool over their eyes of their male betters. Even the interaction between Miss Climpson and Miss Booth was conspiratorial, working together to solve a problem.

In fact, the only thing that bothered me was the attitude towards Harriet. Either Harriet was divine and everyone loved her or she was the cold hard bitch that deserved what she got. I don’t know how much of that is the screenplay or in the original book, but it was disconcerting.

I’ll try to watch the other two dvds in the set this weekend and see how they hold up. I don’t remember enjoying “Have His Carcase” nearly as much when I was younger, compared to the other two, so I’ll be curious to see if that attitude has changed at all.

An admission: I’ve tried to read Sayers’ books. I may indeed try again before this is through. Until then, she can converse with Professor Tolkein in my library. I’m sure they’ll find loads to discuss.

The state of me

I had the best of intentions when I restarted this blog. I was going to post dutifully nearly every day to get my writing muscles back up to snuff. I was going along fine until last week happened. I will spare you most of the horrible details. Suffice it to say, I had a brief fleeting “goodbye cruel world” moment, until I realized “Oh hell, no, I’m not going anywhere.” And lo things righted themselves. The stress has abated and we’ve found a compromise of sorts. We’ll revisit the situation in a few weeks to see where things stand.

But that leaves me looking around at my life and my belongings and wondering how I got this way.  I didn’t enjoy packing up to move the last time around and I hated packing stuff up when I had the new carpet installed. The prospect of living out of storage for months on end scared the hell out of me, enough to send a kind of wake-up call. For some odd reason, I value my books over my furniture or my clothes.  Decluttering my life will be a necessary endeavor if I intend to move, because I haven’t found the gracious bookshelf lined manor of my dreams yet, not on my salary anyway. The apartments around here are smaller and more expensive, unless I’m prepared to live further out.

Enough navel gazing and worrying over stuff — I promise I will post about other more cheerful subjects soon.

What I Read: 2010

With the closing of the old year, it’s time to reflect. I usually try to keep a running tally of books I’ve read. Goodreads/Librarything have helped this endeavor a lot.  The three mysteries I read for the 48 hour Readathon I signed up on a whim.  The last two novels I finished on the last days of 2010 so that gives you some idea of my reading habits. I’m toying with signing up for the latest round of the Graphic Novel Challenge, although even Expert level seems mild for a regular comics reader. I do think I read more last year, but I’ve kept worse notes about what manga/gns I’ve been reading. I will try to do better this year.


Ally Carter, Heist Society

Richard Castle, Heat Wave

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

Max Allan Collins, Quarry in the Middle

Suzanne Collins, Hunger Games

Alex Archer, Rogue Angel: Gabriel’s Horn


Drunken Dream and Other Stories

Kingyo Used Books v1 & v2

Ristorante Paradiso

Fire Investigator Nanase v1 & v2

Hikaru no Go v16

Nightschool v1-4

Graphic Novels/TPBs

Batwoman: Elegy

Black Widow and the Marvel Girls

Black Widow: Sting of the Widow

Jersey Gods v1 and v2

Moving Pictures