Monday, April 9, 2007

NYC Opera's plans for the grand Brittania Ball; a memorial in Boston

Spring showing its colorful side on Easter Sunday in New York. 5:15 PM. Photo: JH.
Last Thursday I had lunch at Michael’s with Jane Gullong, the Executive Director the New York City Opera Company, and Susan Baker who is head of the board of the company.

I am not a big opera fan, by which I mean I am not knowledgeable about opera, nor have I had a great deal of exposure to it. Although I love music and some of the great voices of opera are as thrilling to me to hear as they are for the most passionate opera fans.

DPC, Jane Gullong, and Susan Baker (photo: Steve Millington).
What I do find compelling about the opera is the passion that it evokes, and from all kinds of people. It may be that it is the most emotionally provocative of all the performing arts. Opera lovers are just that: lovers, and it’s a love that never dies, even when thwarted by bad performances, waning performers and temperamental artists or poor productions. Furthermore, as out in the open as it is, it remains also strangely secret: a secret love.

So when Gullong and Baker asked me to lunch, I accepted just out of curiosity.  We talked about their new director, Gerard Mortier, a Flemish gentleman who is currently director of the Paris Opera and is slowly taking on his post with the New York City Opera (he will be completely devoted to the NYCO in 2009).

Coincidentally I’d read an interview with M. Mortier several months ago in the FT in their Saturday “Lunch interview with the FT” (if you don’t follow it, you’re missing just about the best interviews available today – with the exception of course to our NYSD HOUSE interviews).

The FT Luncheon interview covers a lot of territory from the arts to politics to finance and they are ALL very interesting, not to mention informative.  I, for example, had never heard of M. Mortier but soon learned that he is a giant in the opera world. And a controversial one. Oh my, is he ever.

Before he was at the Paris Opera he was head of the Salzburg Festival, succeeding the highy esteemed Herbert van Karajan, he stunned (to put it mildly) the musical world with a production of Johann Strauss’ Fledermaus “laced with cocaine and fornication and aimed at Austria’s far-right political forces.” In a production at the Paris Opera of Mozart’s Zauberflote, he had the talkers talking with a production with an “air-mattress décor, video projections and costumes, including glittering, neon-lit silver jumpsuits and long black wigs adorning the Queen of the Night and her Three Ladies.”

So it is not surprising that his appointment to the New York City Opera has people speculating on the potential competition between the Met (which was founded in the late 19th century by Alva Vanderbilt and her followers, in direct insult to Mrs. Astor and her New York Academy of Music) and the City Opera. No doubt there will be.

“If talking is expression of the mind, singing is expression of the soul,” M. Mortier has been quoted as saying, and if his past is any indication of his future in New York, there will be a lot of soul for searching and plumbing the depths of at the New York City Opera.

The New York City Opera was founded by one our mayors, Fiorello LaGuardia who served between 1934 and 1945. A Republican, a native New Yorker (Italian-Jewish), known as “The Little Flower” (he was five-two), he was beloved, at least in memory, and especially revered for his work toward housing and reform. That is housing for the non-rich. There used to be such a thing. This was back before media and its owners celebrated the fact that New York is no longer for the middle-class, let alone the poor.

Mayor LaGuardia was an authentic “people’s mayor.” He also read the comic strips over the radio on Sundays (something which began during a newspaper strike). Mr. LaGuardia started the City Opera for the people because the city had an enormous immigrant population, many of whom had grown up on opera and were priced out of the Met.
All this came out of my luncheon with the Mesdames Gullong and Baker, and so of course, very interesting it was. But their main objective in our meeting was to tell me about the fabulous fund-raising gala that is planned for this coming May 24.

Called The Brittania Ball, and produced by the New York City Opera with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the ball will take place on the Cunard Line’s company flagship, the Queen Mary 2 and will include cocktails, dinner, dancing to Peter Duchin and his orchestra and a special performance by Patti Lupone. The ball will be sponsored by CIT Group and its CEO Jeff Peek and his wife Liz (two passionate devotees of opera – and the ballet as well) are the Chairs. The QM2 will be docked for this special night at its New York home, the Brooklyn Cruise terminal (setting sail the next day for her Memorial Day cruise to the Bahamas). This is going to be a first for New York and for the City Opera. For information or tickets call BAM Patron Services at 718-636-4182.
A Memorial in Boston over the weekend: 

Last Saturday in Boston there was a memorial service for Julia Stimson Thorne (1944-2006). Mrs. Thorne was a very popular figure in her set, with a wide variety of friends. Although she was not quite a public personality, she narrowly escaped that circumstance being the first wife of Senator John Kerry and mother of his two daughters. Mrs. Thorne was one of those people who was really loved by a lot of people. One of her many admiring friends, Margo Howard reports on the service, special to the NYSD.

Julia Stimson Thorne and John Forbes Kerry
Julia Stimson Thorne died nearly a year ago. A memorial service was held for he in Boston this past Saturday, at the new ICA Museum. The venue was chosen because Julia had been one of the original group of friends, years ago, who had converted an old firehouse and moved in some modern art. Entering the glass-walled lobby, the only things displayed were very thin, eye-level tripods holding small photos of Julia with her two daughters, Alexandra and Vanessa, various friends, her ex-husband, Senator John F. Kerry, and her widower, Rich Charlesworth … and of course there were pictures of Julia alone or with her dog, Diggity, in the vast openness of the American West which was her beloved home after Massachusetts.

Her real home, I think, had been Italy. As her twin, David Thorne, said in his remarks, “Welcome to the Traveling Julia Thorne Memorial Road Show.”

The reference was to the fact that some months earlier, there’d been a service in Bozeman, where she and Rich lived. There is also an upcoming memorial in Rome because: after her little girl years in Greenwich, the family moved to Rome so her father could, it was announced publicly, work on the Marshall Plan there. In actuality, he was one of the American rich who were part of the newly created CIA and instructed to buy businesses as fronts for the agency.

Julia’s father bought the English language daily in Rome and his cover was economic advisor to Ambassador to the Vatican Clare Boothe Luce. The three Thorne children were told, “Daddy is a diplomat.” They were, after all, the family from “Tuxedo Park,” with Julia’s middle name honoring her great uncle, Henry Stimson, the lawyer and American statesmen (1867-1950) who served several presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Franklin Roosevelt

People came from Boston, of course, and Connecticut, and Wisconsin and really anyplace where Julia had made a close friend. Some older relatives came, as well, a few unknown to Julia’s daughters. I realized, as we milled around, that many of us met and became friends because of Julia. She had a wide circle and loved putting people together.

When the roughly two hundred friends had arrived (this a guess; I do not know the first thing about estimating crowds) the group moved to the third floor theater where, within three glass walls, we spent two hours remembering Julia as daylight passed to nightfall over Boston Harbor with boats and planes silently moving back and forth. One of the speakers said of the ugly green tug that moved slowly by, “Julia surely sent us that hideous green boat.”  

On the large stage, empty save for a podium with microphones in a spotlight and a huge vase of white flowers, there were reminiscences, cello pieces, a modern dance, and a boffo ending … all causing those in the seats (as well as at the podium) to fight back the tears or dab them away. 

The cellist, Phoebe Carrai began with Prelude: Allemande from the First Cello Suite in G major, by Bach. Both Julia’s brothers, David and Lanny, reminisced. David talked mostly about life in Rome with an adventurous, mischievous twin sister … although everything was not always sweetness and light. He recounted a calamitous head on car crash where people were killed or maimed for life that Julia carried with her to the end of her life.

Lanny, the older brother, talked about the Italian years as well as his affection for Julia, sometimes at a distance. Twins, after all, are not so quick to take other people into their world. David was just the first speaker to remark on Julia’s marvelous mothering, mentioning that she, herself, had not been mothered all that well – their mother being caught up in embassy and Roman high life. Then Noni Ames, perhaps Julia’s best friend of longest standing, talked about being young marrieds, each with two daughters, then fast-forwarding to keeping Julia company for treatment at MD Anderson in Houston.

Next, another friend, Julia McMurray, and a niece, Emma Thorne, read excerpts from Julia’s own writing. She had been working for quite a while – and had hopes of finishing –a novel about her Italian girlhood. There followed remarks from Richard Colton, a former Twyla Tharp dancer, now a choreographer and teacher of the dance at Concord Academy. Julia was a devoted board member of the Twyla Tharp Dance Company, having been, herself, a little girl ballerina. Then there was a stunning and marvelous modern dance by a young man on his way to Julliard, Zack Winokur. I was told Baryshnikov had seen him dance and predicted he would go all the way.

Then the family spoke. John Kerry went first. I have never liked him more. He was moving and genuine, his voice breaking several times as he fought to control tears recalling their meeting. Having been David Thorne’s roommate at Yale, he went for a summer visit to the Thornes on Long Island. Dancing down the driveway, he recalled, was Julia, “wearing a bikini they would only wear in Europe.” And to great laughter he said she had an amazing set of “ta-tas.” He then touched on the difficulties she’d had with politics, depression, and by inference, him. He acknowledged the elephant in the room by saying that they loved each other but could not live together. Then he added to what everyone had already said and would say: Julia was a remarkable and devoted mother, and he thanked Rich for having a heart big enough to include him in the program.

When Rich took the podium, he looked the way he did before Julia had become ill. Tanned, graying, and handsome.  He recounted, in a voice rather like Jack Nicholson’s, the light moments of their courtship and their marriage, which took place on the spur of the moment in Yellowstone Park attended only by the officiant – their therapist who essentially read a Buddhist service! – and some elk.

Rich was followed by Julia’s girls, Alex and Nessy, who alternated talking about their mother … lessons taught, loving support, whip-smart “punishments,” her love of food, and her love of them. The only thing I would have added, although some people did mention her style and her elegance, was that she was a real lady, of the kind you do not find many of today. This quality informed her actions in every aspect of her life.

Then the boffo end of the memorial – at Julia’s request:  a recording of Rondine Al Nido performed by Luciano Pavarotti on a state of the art sound system. It was dramatic, moving … and, of course, Italian.

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