Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Blown Away by Blue


If there is only one opera that an American citizen could ever see, the Dresser believes fervently that opera, a story about race in America, should be Blue with music by Jeanine Tesori  and words by Tazewell Thompson. This is the opera snatched from the Dresser and the Washington DC community and beyond in March 2020 when Covid closed down the Kennedy Center. At long last, the Dresser saw the Washington National Opera (WNO) production on March 19, 2023.


Since its premiere July 14, 2019, during the Glimmerglass Festival, many young black men or boys have lost their lives in the hands of white police officers. Tazewell’s poignant libretto begins with a teenage Black boy who becomes a policeman. He and his wife birth a son who grows up protesting police brutality. The Son is shot and killed by a White cop. Bass Kenneth Kellogg, a graduate of the Duke Ellington School of the Performing and Visual Arts who created the role of The Father at Glimmerglass and has performed it consistently in a string of Blue productions across the United States—Seattle Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Toledo Opera, Pittsburgh Opera. Kellogg’s performance, along with Briana Hunter’s as The Mother, stands out for  singing and acting. Hunter is the original mezzo-soprano from the Glimmerglass premiere.


Despite the tragedy of The Boy’s death, this two-hour-and-fifteen-minute work with one intermission and in two acts is well balanced with moments of levity and love. Yet the emotional balance is achieved in the face of racist clichés that label a significant percent of America’s population as “happy Negroes singing spirituals” or “niggers.” While Thompson intends for audience to view his characters as prototypes—no character has a name—their humanity is palpable and deeply moving. When The Mother tells the Girlfriends about how much she loves her husband (The Father) and that they are going to have a baby, a baby boy, they are wary about her husband being police and warn her that a son will be nothing but trouble. Still, they surround her with their loving friendship and are not a Greek chorus of doom.


Likewise, The Father’s fellow officers tease him about how he will become a warden of “baby jail.” Like the Girlfriends, the Policemen show support by letting The Father know they are envious that he will have a son.


Tesori’s music is every bit equal to Thompson’s engrossing libretto. The music is tonal, sometimes jazz inflected, and swells with Copland-like resonances. Often the music is accented with surprising percussion such as celesta and strummed piano strings.


Tesori is a well-known musical composer (e.g., Caroline, or Change, 2003) and WNO produced her children’s opera The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me in 2013. One thing that was disconcerting—Blue is being performed in the Eisenhower Theater where the orchestra pit is too small to accommodate the percussionists. The percussion section was relegated to a remote location. The size of the orchestra pit probably had some influence over WNO’s decision to make this production a chamber version.


Hats off to Tazewell Thompson who also served as the Director. Sets combined projections and furniture moved in and out by the players. The simplicity of the set and the small theater (as opposed to the Kennedy Center’s Opera house) worked very well to create an intimate theater experience. Two performances March 22 and 25 remain. The opera moves next to the English National Opera in London.



Photos by Scott Suchman

Saturday, February 25, 2023

A Debut Poetry Collection from a Master Teacher—Cathy Hailey



A lot is packed into Cathy Hailey’s Finishing Line Press chapbook I’d Rather Be a Hyacinth. All the poems are haiku sonnets. She tells us she learned about this form in The Poetry Gymnasium by Tom Hunley. With a few words to each line, she constructs Shakespearian sonnets with four haiku (most stanzas following the five-seven-five syllable count in three lines) and one rhymed couplet.


Most of the poems deal with nature, either the physical world or human nature as in behavior. There are also ekphrastic poems, the greater number of these describing dance performances. “Under the Sun,” her opening poem about a vase invokes movement and sensation in most lines, a call to find life in seemingly still manmade art.


Under the Sun (an excerpt)


Helios ascends,

bursting urns of golden fire,

glazing graceful winds.


Rhapsodizing lyre

song, strummed by Apollo’s hand,

transcends bound canvas.



The overall title of the collection is found in her last poem of section II.


In Life…


Hyacinths, Purple—

baby blooms adding stress, weight—

instinct maternal.


Tulips variegate

orange-yellow, dancing, coy,

above troupes of green,


singular pride, joy

even with no breeze.

In life, I’d rather


be a hyacinth,

embrace the role of mother,

live the labyrinth,


loved by a brood of florets—

barycenter of orbits.


The poet sees the hyacinth as a mother figure which transcends earthly boundaries as the “barycenter of orbits,” an outer space phenomenon where two or more bodies orbit one another. Elevation and transcendence are what the poet has her creative eye attuned to.


This brings The Dresser to the stunningly beautiful image Cathy Hailey created for the cover of I’d Rather Be a Hyacinth. The image combines a rosebud with the hint of a human profile, butterfly wings as shoulders, a lush display of purple leaves (looking like a ballet tutu), and a pair of stems that seem to represent legs and feet in ballet toe slippers.


But there is one more thing to notice and that’s the final poem and the only poem in Section III entitled “Afterword”. Hailey makes a swipe at “long-winded verse in “In Closing”. The ending couplet redeems:


In Closing (excerpts)


To curb long-winded

verse—haiku, haiku sonnet—

excess rescinded.



There’s magic in condensing,

precision in expressing.


Like many William Shakespeare plays, Hailey provides an epilogue to her collection of haiku sonnets. I’d Rather Be a Hyacinth is a notable first collection from a poet who is gathering her power after years of teaching others about poetry and writing.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

The Visibility of an Artist: Giuseppe De Nittis


The Dresser wasn’t planning to write about “An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis,” the exhibition that closes today February 12, 2023, at The Phillips Collection. However, several factors congregated in the Dresser’s consciousness that needed outlet.

—Number one is that De Nittis sometimes painted in a remarkably engaging Realist style and other times he experimented such that both Realism and Impressionism show up together which seems a contradiction in styles but work fascinatingly well in his paintings. Most striking is La parfumerie Violet where the background figures and buildings appear Realist and the foreground figures are Impressionist (a man at the right side of the canvas whose lower body disappears against the building’s black backdrop and a woman carrying a basket who feet blend with the wet street). 


—Number two is that De Nittis died at age 38 from a stroke and at the rise of his career. A circulating docent at the Phillips said a possible reason he isn’t better known was because the critics were unable to pigeon-hole him while lesser-known Impressionists are much better known.

—Number three is that this exhibition of 73 works, 60 by De Nittis coming from Italy, France, and the United States is not going to be shown anywhere else after it closes.


De Nittis was friends and working colleagues with Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, and Gustave Caillebotte. Renato Miracco, curator of the De Nittis Art Gallery in Barletta, Italy, and the guest curator of this exhibition shows the influence of these three well known painters on De Nittis. Interestingly, Caillebotte, though considered an Impressionist, painted in a style more known for its realism.










One more painting of De Nittis that the Dresser wants to note is Promenade Hivernale. In this painting, the realistically presented, beautifully dressed woman with melancholy eyes is the painter’s wife. The Impressionistic background shows a Japanese influence.




In the United States, paintings by Giuseppe De Nittis can be seen in such museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In Europe, his work can be found in Musée d”Orsay in Paris, the British Museum in London, and the Pinacoteca De Nittis in the Palace of Marra in Barietta, Italy where he was born.






Friday, January 27, 2023

The Important Story of Mary Cardwell Dawson


Washington National Opera, much to the Dresser’s surprise, produced a play with music. The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson by playwright Sandra Seaton and composer Carlos Simon tells the little-known story of a Black woman in the 1940s who formed and operated the National Negro Opera Company.


The germ of this play began with WNO’s dramaturg Kelley Rourke who brought Cardwell Dawson’s accomplishments to the attention of Francesca Zambello, WNO Artistic Director. Zambello, in turn, tapped Seaton and Simon to collaborate using this subject matter. In 2020, Seaton and Simon had created a 20-minute opera entitled Night Trip for WNO’s American Opera Initiative, which the Dresser reviewed with deep appreciation.


On January 22, 2023, the Dresser attended Washington National Opera’s production of The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson. The setting is Washington, DC in 1943. The backstory is that Cardwell Dawson toured her operatic productions to New York City, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC. In Seaton’s play, the situation is tense—the company is about to open in the out-of-doors on a floating barge in the Potomac River under threatening skies. Even if the performers are willing to sing in the rain, it is unlikely audience will show up and buy tickets. That revenue is vital to the Company’s survival. So, Cardwell Dawson tries to lease an indoor venue, but she is up against segregation practices despite theaters having little luck with white audiences because so many Americans—both white and Black—are away fighting in World War II. Cardwell Dawson stands up for principles and refuses to rent the theater if it means performing for a segregated audience.


The centerpiece of this production is that Mary Cardwell Dawson is played fascinatingly by the celebrated mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. Graves as Cardwell Dawson is coaching several singers on how to successfully perform Bizet’s opera Carmen, a signature role for Graves which she sung worldwide including WNO and the Met. It was mesmerizing to see her teaching how to imbue passion in the performance to the young singers two of whom (soprano Amber Monroe and tenor Jonathan Pierce Rhodes) are current accomplished Cafritz Young Artists.


However, the music of Carmen overshadows the original and quite appealing music of Carlos Simon. Because this 70-minute piece is focused on Carmen, there are only three original songs. The most memorable original song is “Rebellious Bird,” and that phrase comes from “Habanera,” a song sung by Carmen with this line, “Love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame.”


Mezzo-soprano Taylor-Alexis Dupont plays the singer Phoebe who has landed the coveted role as Carmen much to the disappointment of Isabelle (Amber Monroe). Both singers are memorable for their performances, but Dupont (making her WNO debut) has more opportunity as Carmen to show her singing agility and fiery acting.


Zambello first premiered The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson in 2021 at Glimmerglass. This performance was done with piano accompaniment. The work continues to be a piece in development. It is worthy subject matter and has great potential.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

WNO American Opera Initiative Scores Appreciation



On January 21, 2023, the Dresser attended Washington National Opera production of three twenty-minute operas in its American Opera Initiative (AOI) at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater in Washington, DC. The purpose of AOI, which was founded in January 2012, is to showcase emerging composers and librettists to ensure the life of opera programs in the future. The Cafritz Young Artist program provided accomplished singers for each of the operas presented. The chamber orchestra of musicians from the Washington National Opera Orchestra ably conducted by Evan Rogister brought these young composers’ scores to life in front of a full house of enthusiastic audience of mostly young people.


Musically Oshun by composer B.E. Boykin and librettist Jarrod Lee was the Dresser’s favorite. Through flute and drums, Boykin expressed a west African influence. The libretto featured supernatural spirits that fed into a story about love and redemption. The costumes were eye-catching, especially the red-infused Kente cloth clothing worn by the spirits.


Next on the AOI program came another love story. Prejudice against trans people is the timely and important theme of Walken Schweigert’s libretto for What the Spirits Show as set by composer Silen Wellington. However, the Dresser found the music bland and some of the word settings not quite right.


Bubbie and the Demon by composer Jens Ibsen and librettist Cecelia Raker offered a hilarious Covid isolation story about an old woman whose latest crossword puzzle has unlocked a demon into her home who she thinks is her long-lost Goth grandson. Her neighbor Karen, however, is terrified and tries to persuade her friend that this scary figure is evil. The music is tailored to the character and pulls from different influences, including Mahler. Soprano Teresa Perrotta provides a standout performance as Karen.


Short video interviews of the creative team introduced each of these short operas and the composer-librettist team appeared on stage for a bow after each opera performance. A talk back for this less than an hour program would have helped the audience understand better what they heard and saw.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Jane Anger: The Disarming of Shakespeare

 What is a revenge comedy?


The Dresser asks because on December 24, 2022, she saw Talene Monahon’s Jane Anger at the Michael Klein Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC. In an exceptionally insightful interview on the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast from the Folger Shakespeare Library conducted by Barbara Bogaev and published December 20, 2022, the playwright said that she initially started writing about William Shakespeare during his plague period when he wrote King Lear. And yes, Monahon wrote Jane Anger during our plague lockdown. Part of her thinking was to make Shakespeare a bad man in a comic play. Her inspirational material was a series of revenge tragedies which are all bloody and campy. Monahon’s revenge comedy takes its lead from Shakespearean revenge tragedies, that includes Hamlet. So, despite the Monty Python humor, Monahon is getting to serious subject matter that involves gender and artistic success.


What is Jane Anger about? Set in the plague year 1606, Shakespeare (Michael Urie), in lockdown, is suffering writer’s block. A former lover of his, one Jane Anger (Amelia Workman), an actual historic figure but her real name is not known, is trying in vain to get her feminist tract Defense of Women published. She is determined and masquerades as a dead man with a large mustache but is foiled by the printer who knew of the man’s death. This, she climbs up a drainpipe and enters Shakespeare’s studio to ask him to sign for her, since women are not allowed to publish. He in turn wants her help getting unblocked and says once King Lear is written, he will sponsor her pamphlet. By her help, he primarily means he wants sex with her.


Before Jane makes her plea to the Bard, he takes on Francis/Frankie, an assistant (Ryan Spahn) who claims to be a sixteen-year-old but is a full-blown adult looking for his break into the world of acting. After Willy (as Jane refers to him) gets his Muse back and starts writing Lear, his wife Anne Hathaway (Talene Monahon) shows up and mayhem breaks loose.


The Dresser loves Jane from the moment she steps on stage to proclaim in direct address to the audience that she is a genius concerned about free will. In Jane’s window entrance into Shakespeare’s studio, she is dressed as a cunning woman, a medieval character (witch) dressed entirely in black with a bird beak masque who has curative powers.


Monahon as Anne Hathaway is everything that Shakespeare complains about—annoying with non-stop talking and, in the Dresser’s view, totally loveable for her childish behavior. Her counterpart is Francis Sir whose effeminate behavior is much like Anne’s—dependent, groveling, and exasperating. This is a farce that flips between Shakespeare’s time and ours with numerous breaches of the Fourth Wall.


One more question—how is it that Monahon is allowed to use the Monty Python skit about the Black Knight who loses his arms? Does she get away with play jism because Jane Anger follows the disarming of Shakespeare by cutting off his willy?


Jane Anger runs through January 8, 2023.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

The Urgency of Publishing Ukrainian War Poems



Recently the Dresser received an early-in-the publishing-process ARC—advance review copy—And Blue will Rise over Yellow: An International Poetry Anthology for Ukraine edited by John Bradley. Like the war Vladimir Putin has exacted on Russia’s neighbor Ukraine, this ARC is shockingly messy with errors that reviewers must ignore to support immediately the spirit that feeds the Ukrainians in the lethal struggle to save themselves, their country, and the democracy they have built in the face of Putin’s plan for their annihilation.


Herein is a peek into four poems of this remarkable collection of which notable blurbist Yusef Komunyakaa states, “Each poem here has risen out of need and feeling, acknowledgement and daring, a choice of weapons.”


Poem #1


Take the clear tomato red my father loved best

after the war—geraniums placed just so


excerpt from “Sunset Assembly” by Rebecca Foust


To open this war anthology, Bradley chooses a poem that speaks to the time after war where invoking the color red is not to point to blood spilled, but to appreciate the beauty of tomato red geraniums.


Poem #2


dark energy

flashes and bursts


at night I got a call

from my first karate trainer


he said he wants to kill putin


that first he tried himself

to send energy currents



that we need to join forces


we need at least a hundred molfars



excerpt from “A Good Plan” by Dmytro Lazukin as translated by Tatiana Retivov


Energy is a keyword in Putin’s war on Ukraine. Putin’s personal energy tied up with narcistic power-mongering is possibly that “dark energy” flashing and bursting as Dmytro Lazukin’s poem “A Good Plan” opens. Lazukin assigns the risky statement of killing “putin” (notice the disrespectful lowercase spelling) to his “first karate trainer,” an unidentified martial arts advisor. The unexpected twist is that killing energy currents will be produced magically by Ukrainian shamans known as molfars.


Poem #3


In a damp basement in Avdiivka,

a six-year-old girl named Varvara

draws a green alien with a black


eye that can see into the infinitely


finite future. It sees Vladimir Putin,

feet up on his 55-ton desk, staring at a photo

of Joseph Stalin. …




excerpt from “Bomb-Shelter Futurism” by John Bradley


With his own poem, editor John Bradley captures the heart-breaking role a child plays in the trajectory of this surreal war. Sequestered in a bomb-shelter, the six-year-old Varvara draws a cyclops, a green alien to her world, who Bradley says can see into a finite future that contradictorily is endless and which sees Putin at his desk admiring a photo of his predecessor Joseph Stalin, a man of monstrous deeds.


Poem #4


Where a woman, hand full of sunflowers

Dwarfs a tyrant, shames a soldier

Lays a curse upon cowards

There we who are small and watching

Merely watching, safe behind screens

Are maybe redeemed

And blue will rise over yellow


excerpt from “They Will Bloom When You Die” by Douglas Anthony Cooper


“They Will Bloom When You Die” is the last poem of the anthology and it is from where the anthology title derives. It opens as the first poem opens with flowers as a symbol of life. In “Sunset Assembly,” the geraniums represent art and civilization. In “They Will Bloom When You Die,” the sunflowers represent defiant living strength over an unnamed tyrant who is smaller than the sunflower. Is it the soldier standing in front of the defiant woman or the very small-in-stature Putin? Notice that the woman “lays a curse upon cowards.” Who are those people “safe behind screens”—her neighbors peering out their screened windows or doors or we readers on our computers not stepping up to help the people of Ukraine?


Each of these four poems have much more to discover. The anthology includes such well-known/well-published poets as D. Nurkse, Andrea Hollander, Linda Nemec Foster, Kim Stafford, Norman Dubie. The choice of weapon is the pen. Look for this risk-taking collection from Kallisto Gaia Press at the end of 2022.