Farrago for April 12–April 18

Highlights from the week ahead.

farrago, n. — A confused group; a medley, mixture, hotchpotch.


1923: Ann Miller—christened Johnnie Lucille Collier—is born in Chireno, Texas. She made tappa tappa tappa look as easy as anything, but it was always the result of hours and hours of rehearsal and discipline. One has to marvel at her longevity, doing routines in her later years that still amaze.


1932: Herbert Butros Khaury—known to eternity as “Tiny Tim”—is born in Manhattan. Delightfully bizarre in almost every respect of his life and career, Tiny Tim fashioned a legacy out of falsetto, the Great American Songbook, and the ukulele.



“Astride of a grave and a difficult birth, lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps.”

1906: Author, playwright, and theatrical titan Samuel Beckett is born in Dublin, Ireland. There is much to misunderstand in Beckett as there is to understand, and whatever his challenges, the words, images, and performances are always compelling.

HAMM: What’s he doing?
CLOV: He’s crying.
HAMM: Then he’s living.


1941: Dame Margaret Price is born in Blackwood, Wales.


1868: Architect, designer, and artist Peter Behrens is born in Hamburg. One of the principal figures of Jugendstil (the Germanic iteration of “art nouveau), Behrens was an early member of the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony, leader of the School for Applied Arts in Düsseldorf, and later a crucial founder of the German Werkbund, an important entity bridging the English Arts and Crafts movement and the later Bauhaus. Behrens’s oeuvre spanned industrial and interior design, and he masterminded everything from the AEG turbine works in Berlin to the finest teapots you’ll ever see. His later expressionistic work in the Twenties continued his unique fusion of design-in-the-everyday, but his legacy is marred by a later but unrealized commission for a new AEG plant in Albert Speer’s Berlin. Woodcuts were only an occasional part of Behrens’s output, but, as with his industrial graphic design, the aesthetic is clear. “The Kiss” (Der Kuss) is my personal favorite, a fascinating display of fin-de-siècle desire and androgyny taking strong cues from Aubrey Beardsley. It is—fitting the duality of the protagonists—a frequent image associated with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, serving as cover for the Dover reprint of the Peters edition of the full score and Bernstein’s later recording.

No photo description available.
Peter Behrens, “Der Kuss.” Pan 4, no. 2 (1898).


1932: Loretta Lynn is born in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky.


“There’s lots of chaff,
But there’s lots of wheat.
Say yes.”

1971: Kander and Ebb’s 70, Girls, 70 opened at the Broadhurst Theatre on this date in 1971. In telling the story of an intrepid group of senior citizens who plan a fur heist to help buy out their endangered retirement hotel (Make Mine Mink territory), the duo created one of their better scores, mired by an uneven play-within-a-play concept. Despite boasting a cast with Mildred Natwick, Hans Conreid, and a who’s who of show biz vets, the production suffered from a number of issues and ran only 35 performances before closing. Similar to Follies, which opened not two weeks prior, 70, Girls, 70 took a serious glance at aging and aging bodies, though a far more optimistic one than Sondheim & Co. As Clive Barnes closed his review, “This is a musical of gentle pleasures, which may well please most the old who are young in heart, and everyone else who likes to see old people having fun. It is certainly different from Hair.” Despite being a revival oddity, the show boasts a terrific original cast album. Get through your Wednesday with the 11 o’clock number “Say Yes.”


1971: Igor Stravinsky’s (final) funeral ceremony takes place in at Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice before his burial on the island of San Michele.


1939: Dusty Springfield, christened Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, is born in West Hampstead, London.


1942: Samuel Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra , op. 17, premieres during a concert of “seconds” with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Bruno Walter. The new work was sandwiched between the respective symphonies of Dvořák and Brahms. Of Barber’s three short works entitled “essays,” this is perhaps the best, a compact movement of elegant development. My first hearing was at Valparaiso University, on a bill with the overture to Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and a stand-alone performance of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. If you only know the Adagio for Strings (good, but like most slow string movements, overplayed), this should be your next stop.


“Money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow.”

1897: Author and playwright Thornton Wilder is born in Madison, Wisconsin.


1940: Anja Silja, the consummate singing-actress of the twentieth century, is born in Berlin, Germany.


1882: Leopold Stokowski is born in London. The most iconic podium superstar, despite many others trying—Stokowski’s theatrical image often obscured the high quality of his music-making and the breadth of his repertoire.


1934: Tenor George Shirley is born in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Until next week!

The Path to the Project, part 2; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Strauss as a Theater Historian

When I switched my graduate school track from stage management to musicology, I had been a dyed-in-the-wool Wagnerian for as long I can remember. Wagner (for all his foibles and figurative warts) was the first person and subject that inspired me to do “research” as a young amateur. As I wrote previously, my late approach to music as an academic discipline came amid the Wagner bicentenary, and the glut of scholarship on Leipzig’s most cantankerous son meant that a new topic for my academic and (hopefully) professional career had to be chosen.

This process, however, was not easy. The totalizing legacy of Wagner’s life and work imparts arrogance and chauvinism to varying shades in those who follow its path. In my case, I can say that being a Wagnerian demands an arduous path of experiencing and amending cultural myopia within yourself. The prognosis is all the more acute for the auto-didact who navigates the landscape independently, as I did. As in the rest of life, however, one exists to improve, to see the errors of the past as opportunities for growth, and to recognize new vistas for understanding.

For myself, Strauss was part of this expansion. He was a longtime blind spot, especially among twentieth-century composers. The most I knew of him at this point were the orchestral works and a handful of the operas. In my junior year of high school, I remember purchasing a CD of Rudolf Kempe’s outings with the tone poems. Till Eulenspiegel made a strong impression, as did the excerpt of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome. Here, as elsewhere, Strauss wielded irony with a Mephistophelean elegance few have equaled. Within that year, I had my hands on Solti’s recording of Salome with Decca, and going off to undergrad meant more recordings, more scores, and more literature to devour. Bizarrely—or maybe presciently—Elektra was the first opera I ever had to stop listening to midway through because I found the music and scenario too intense to continue. My aversion, thankfully, did not last long.

My reading on Strauss, however, progressed more slowly. As a first-year master’s student in musicology at the University of Illinois, I took advantage of my coursework to address my deficiencies. Mentions of Strauss’s control over stage productions prompted my exploration of the staging manual crafted for Der Rosenkavalier, and a seminar on music and politics offered a chance to dive into the perennially impugned Friedenstag. I found my appreciation growing deeper for not only the compositions but also Strauss’s life and career. Completing my master’s work dovetailed with my application and acceptance into the Ph.D. program in musicology at Duke University. This adventure only lasted a year before I moved back west to the Theatre Studies program at Illinois. The project I envisioned was inclining ever more towards a theatrical approach to Strauss, and the variables at my one-time alma mater were favorable.

Of course, the summary of these years leaves out plenty of unpleasant details better withheld for the moment. It is sufficient to say that for all the peaks in my relationship with certain academic disciplines, there have been plenty of troughs. Regrettably, to some in the academy, there is no sin like not knowing everything. Case in point: I was once told that I could not hope to make any adequate study of Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s operas unless I was fluent in French and Italian and had read the entire corpus of Moliere’s plays. I fully admit—and openly regret—that my life’s course has not led to greater proficiency in instruments, extensive theoretical study, or multiple languages. My autodidact’s path—which I am fiercely proud of for all of its failings—wended its way through backstages and library shelves, probably the best teachers I ever had. To some individuals at the top of the heap, those who approach higher degrees via unconventional routes will only ever be nagging interlopers, persistent dilettantes, or worse. Educators of this ilk, if they can truly be called “educators,” remind me of the loathsome mother from Samuel Beckett’s short story “The End”: “A small boy, stretching out his hands and looking up at the blue sky, asked his mother how such a thing was possible. Fuck off, she said.” I can only hope there is a special place hereafter for educators with the same mindset, especially those who use students as pawns in inter-faculty catfights.

This is all to say that I was incredibly lucky to have strong mentorship and assistance throughout my research. Many acknowledgments will be made in this series of posts, but several should be mentioned here. Like any Straussian writing in English, much was, is, and will always be owed to Dr. Bryan Gilliam of Duke University for blazing many trails intellectually and intercontinentally. His gracious support after my short time at Duke remains a blessing. I also found a true scholastic sibling in Dr. Matthew Werley of Salzburg, whose knowledge and connections across Europe are a wonder. Finally, the entire project would have been impossible without my advisor Dr. Katherine Syer. From my master’s thesis through to the dissertation, her example made so much possible. It is a hard business to have one academic foot in the world of music and the other in the world of theater. Dr. Syer has kept her balance between them (and much else besides), and I can only marvel at her tenacity, enthusiasm, and belief in opera as a sum above the parts into which the academy frequently divides it.

Addressing such rifts between music and theatre became part of my search for an appropriate Strauss dissertation topic. As a doctoral student in music, I had considered pursuing work on Friedenstag, but I put that aside out of a need for something new. I tried to formulate a scheme for a production history focused on specific works and periods, but no meaningful ideas coalesced. (I had considered a post-1949 study, and it is something I shall be pursuing further.) New ideas, however, emerged with rumination. While production histories and analyses of Strauss’s works are in their way robust, they have yet to spotlight specific theatrical collaborators with any great depth. The regular exception is the superlative artist and stage designer Alfred Roller, who worked with Strauss and his operas for decades. (Roller is a significant presence in my dissertation, but I take a more critical perspective distinct from the regular hagiographic assessments.) Glancing back at my accumulated seminar papers, I observed that in my discussions of Strauss as a theatrical artist, there were a number of theatrical collaborators in existing literature who were little more than passing references. A select handful received more glorified mentions, the most regular being stage director Max Reinhardt, whom I shall address in a separate outing. The list of the theatrically overlooked soon began to take a greater heft in my mind, and it offered me a cross-section not only of different theatrical fields (administration, stage direction, design, and technology) but also time periods of Strauss’s career, from the earliest days of Strauss’s career to its final stages before his death in 1949.

With plenty of doubt and toil, I managed to hammer out a prospectus for this idea. I never felt more stupid than when I was writing that document, but it was a well-fought and well-faced challenge. The end result sketched out four chapters prefaced by an introduction exploring Strauss as a theatrical collaborator in practice and in existing literature. As initially conceived, chapter one would focus on Strauss’s approach to theatrical practices and his early collaborators and influences. The final version favors the latter topic since collaborators proved fundamental to Strauss’s burgeoning stage aesthetic. Chapter two took as its subject Count Nicolaus von Seebach, the intendant in Dresden before the First World War. The count’s contentions with Strauss about the details for the world premiere of Der Rosenkavalier in 1911 as a springboard. Chapters three and four altered substantially between conception and execution. Chapter three would have explored stage direction with Max Reinhardt as a case study. Four would tackle stage designers through the somewhat ungainly lens of three important early productions of Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s Die ägyptische Helena. My later posts will cover the transformation to the final versions in more detail.

While my prospectus was approved during my preliminary exams, a far more intense task awaited: securing funding for research abroad. I launched headlong into the application processes for the Fulbright and the Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst (DAAD) with the gracious offer of support and hosting from the Richard Strauss Edition research office in Munich, attached to the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. Anyone pursuing major long-term grants knows that the process is grueling and seemingly endless. One works for weeks and months to perfect single-spaced proposals that condense what seems like a universe of research into just a few pages. Then, they are vetted through various mills and interviews before going off into the bureaucratic ether for many more months before any hint of update appears. I was lucky that my DAAD application was successful and was proud of myself for at least being named a Fulbright Alternate. I can only advise those who follow the same path not to lose themselves scouring Slack channels for information or endlessly refreshing inboxes. It is injurious to one’s health.