Archive for May, 2010

PostHeaderIcon Rent an E-Book? Who Knew?

Amazon-Kindle2The hot topic at the just-concluded American Booksellers Association convention this week in New York was the growing, and potentially threatening, role of e-books.  E-book sales started biting into conventional clothbound copies when Amazon introduced its Kindle reader.  The competition has only gotten hotter with the entry of Barnes and Noble’s Nook and, most recently, Apple’s I-Pad.

Authors are really worried about what online book sales will mean for the marketing budgets and royalty payments for their titles. That’s not their only concern. The biggest fear for writers?  Digital piracy with authors, like musicians with past music downloads, reaping none of the proceeds.

Publishers are just as perplexed. However, they are reacting proactively, spreading their marketing and sales dollars across all media channels to not be left out of online’s sales potential. They hope that more channels and more readers will lift both hardcover and online sales but are preparing for the worst.

This week, I read that one publisher, the University of Chicago Press, even rents access to books for a limited period.  It rents online access to any title for either a six-month or 30-day period, a real boon for students needing the book for a term paper or final exam.

The rate is less than the current freight of $12.95 or even $9.95.  How does $5 sound? Readers pay half the cover price for six months and only $5 for 30 day access.  If a reader wants indefinite access, he or she pays the full cover price.

You would think that the elimination of print and shipping costs would translate to impressive savings for the university press. Not so, says Carol Kasper, Chicago’s marketing director.  Those saving are eaten up by the cost of PDF-ing each page, maintaining the press’s digital infrastructure and added employee hours to run the program.

I’m not aware how many other publishers are jumping on this new bandwagon. The U of C Press also makes one title available each month for free downloading. However, since the press primarily publishes scholarly material, I’m not sure how many readers will fork over even $5 for “Gender and Social Justice in Wales” or “Writing, Law and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia.”

To view and rent a title, go to

PostHeaderIcon Opera’s “New Clothes”: Changes in Performance Practice

Three DecembersThe opera season ended last weekend at both The Met in New York and locally with Chicago Opera Theater’s very-winning and beautifully sung production of Jake Heggie’s “Three Decembers” starring Frederica von Stade in her final opera appearance in Chicago. The season’s end seems a good moment to think about changes taking place in the opera world.

Even infrequent opera-goers can surmise that this four-century-old art form is in a period of transformation. The changes are vocal, economic and technological.  Most are changes of degree rather than radical in nature.  One or two, however, strike me as unprecedented. Taken together, they add up to a U-turn or two in opera programming and performance practice.

My thinking on this topic was provoked while examining the 2010-11 season brochure for Lyric Opera of Chicago. Sure, theater directors have, over the past 40 years, directed operas from John Dexter and Harold Prince to Sir Peter Hall and Peter Sellers. But Lyric’s eight productions next season feature six directors with strong past theater ties. Only former opera star, Renata Scotto, and John Copley of Covent Garden are primarily opera directors.

So, I started out exploring the following changes that seem to break from past operatic practice: 1) the greater use of theater directors, 2) opera moving beyond its own four walls, 3) the decline of the proverbial “Fat Lady” and 4) growing use of modern-dress productions.

I spoke with Chicago’s two operatic leaders—Bill Mason, general director of Lyric Opera and Brian Dickie at Chicago Opera Theater.

Both men shared memories gleaned from 50+ year associations with opera companies. Mason’s time has been spent entirely at Lyric, beginning with a walk-on role as a lad of 12 while Dickie spent over 30 years with the renowned Glyndebourne Festival Opera and Wexford Festival in England.

Both general directors played down any surprise about the use of theater directors overseeing opera productions.  Names like Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Jonathan Miller, John Copley and Peter Hall were bandied about.  The trend

has been more common in England than here which Mason attributed to London’s centrality and lively arts scene. “It happens more in England. Most theatrical talent is focused in London” while the same concentration is less prevalent here.

I asked both men when using a director more versed in the spoken word of theater than the musical language of opera makes sense. “It’s all about the music and sensitivity to the text but also the musical text,” said Dickie. “(Good directors) must have that language in their bodies. Directors can’t make singers do something that clashes with the musical text.”

Mason’s view on how to employ a theater director and insure a successful production is “it helps if both the company and director know the challenges the work presents to insure the best collaboration.  At the first presentation of the director’s ideas for staging the work, it is necessary to establish artistic parameters. Sometimes a director comes with a conception at odds with our view and you need to make changes or economize.”

Both men threw out the names of favored directors who had handled that transition very successfully. Mason cited Jean Pierre Ponnelle, Copley and David McVicker while Dickie named Carl Ebert at Deutsche Oper and gave particular praise to Wieland Wagner and his role in reestablishing the Bayreuth Festival in the 1960s.

However, Lyric and The Met’s greater reliance on theater directors, such as Charles Newell, Gary Griffin, Peter Sellers and Mary Zimmerman has contributed to two other changes: a focus on appearance and greater stage movement.

Not every such engagement is a successful marriage.  Pierre Audi’s static direction of Verdi’s “Attila” at the Met this past season is a case in point as are the two productions Mary Zimmerman has staged there as well, a “Lucia di Lammermoor” and this season’s “Armida”, both  of which received very mixed critical receptions.  There’s a general feeling that her acclaimed use of improvisation and movement in her theater work is not as transferable to opera.

Another major change is tied to our society’s obsession with being thin, fed by our celebrity culture. Deborah Voigt was cut from a production of “Ariadne auf Naxos” in 2004 because her weight made it impossible to fit into an infamous “tiny black dress”. The director asserted her heft made her unbelievable as the svelte and sexy female lead.  The signal was thus sent that visual appearance had entered the opera world and rendered the saying, “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings” moot.  Mason admits European houses “give more importance to the physical look.”

We want our Carmens to be smoldering femme fatales and Lyric intends to give us the goods next season, even while Mason says, that “at the end of the day, I’m moved by great singing and great dramatic  conviction. Without that dramatic tension, all the bells and whistles can’t help.

Dickie admits that, while he greatly admires Jane Eaglen and Birgit Nillson in her prime, “in the last 10-15 years, increasing attention is being paid to the plausibility of singers. If you can avoid an overweight Isolde, you should do it.”

Peter Gelb at The Met in New York assumed his post in 2006 with a mandate to shake things up. He has done precisely that in his short tenure.  He has insisted on staging many new productions in an attempt to make the classics more appealing to contemporary audiences.

His two signal achievements are the unprecedented telecast of Met productions to more than a hundred movie theaters around the country and a simultaneous telecast of the opening night performance of “Madame Butterfly” in 2007 onto the Jumbotron screen in Times Square.  These moves have created an invaluable visual archive for future artists and audiences.

While the changes have generated hosannas and catcalls, Brian Dickie is a fan.  “Anything that increases interest in opera can be a good thing.”

A final trend that is increasing interest in opera is the increasing use of computer technology in productions and situating characters and the action in the more recent past, retiring tired costume dramas sporting silk hose and medieval armor and set in the 17th or 18th Century.

Perhaps that’s why I’m going to more opera these days. An element of surprise and anticipation has re-entered opera. When it’s good, it’s better than anything on any Broadway or West End stage. And believable characters, strong dramatic action, a winning artistic concept and glorious voices make it an art form that should survive another century.

PostHeaderIcon Flicka’s Farewell

FredericaVonStade_01_Credit_RobertMiller Frederica van Stade, a beloved opera star for more than three decades, is making her final appearances in Chicago this week.  Her sold-out Carnegie Hall farewell recital earned critical hosannas for her grace and artistic dedication as for her voice quality.

“Flicka”, the nickname she is known by her friends and legions of fans, will be on stage tomorrow evening (May 10th) at Harris Theater in a similar farewell recital accompanied on piano by composer Jake Heggie.  Heggie, who has scored operas such as “Dead Man Walking” and the recently premiered “Moby Dick”, also wrote the chamber opera, “Three Decembers”, expressly for Ms. Van Stade.

The work, presented here by Chicago Opera Theater, opened last evening at Harris. Remaining performances this week are Wednesday and Friday evening with a closing performance next Sunday afternoon.  For tickets, contact the Harris Theater box office or go to

PostHeaderIcon Publishing: 3 Partisans of Print

The news that Newsweek Magazine went on the sale block made a splash amongst journalists this week but hardly registered as news with the general public.  They already believe the drumbeat that print is so 20th Century now that the industry’s business model—classified ads—is history.

Some astute media observers, like the Atlantic Monthly’s James Fallows, however, believe that print’s fall is close to hitting bottom and will soon start an upward climb. They say there’s a lot of money to be made with new models such as micro-payments, smarter managers not wed to stale thinking, a new generation and a media colossus named Google which seems bullish on print.

In the past 60 days, I’ve discovered three new magazines, published by editors in their 20s and 30s who kept their faith in print’s potential. One is a magazine of social and political commentary out of Chicago that features sharp (i.e. non-academic prose) writing and seems a 21st Century journal like The New York Review of Books.

Another arrival is a visually-striking New York magazine featuring writing and visual contributions by men and women who work as gallery guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The last new entrant is from Louisville, Kentucky and features a funky mix of poetry and letterpress art.

All three newbies are full of high expectations and seem to share a conviction that a large audience remains for hand-size publications that trump today’s  communication trend of two thumbs (sometimes unattached to brains) reading and writing on tiny screens.  In the creative arts at least, print remains king!

Point coverTHE POINT —The title refers to a landmark in Chicago’s Hyde Park community as well as the purpose of any good writing.  It is edited by a trio of University of Chicago graduate students-Jon Baskin, Jonny Thakkar and Etay Zwick . Yet to refer to it as a student journal is to belittle its quality and aspiration.

Their intent is to publish semi-annually; the second issue appeared this February.  In a manifesto accompanying the first issue, the editors said they shared a perception of the irrelevance of much academic thought to real life yet believed “that the best life requires an engagement with the best ideas.”

Some titles in the most recent issue provide a clue as to the span of that engagement: “Love in the Age of the Pickup Artist”, “Wall Street’s Warrior Class”, “Modern Art in the Modern Wing”, Granta’s Chicago Issue, A symposium on the topic “What is Film For?” and philosopher Martha Nussbaum on “The Examined Life”.

If you’d like to get engaged and have a swell time reading provocative essays, pick up a copy.  The magazine is available in Chicago at Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 57th Street Books, Quimby’s and the newsstand at Chicago-Main in Evanston.  It is also for sale at $12 in New York at St. Mark’s Books, Three Lives and Co. and Book Culture, and in Princeton, Berkeley, San Francisco, Toronto, London and Berlin or for $10 online from Subscriptions are $18 annually.

swipe_customSWIPE—To paraphrase poet Phyllis McGinley, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”  Well, a group of men and women who are known primarily for doing just that—museum guards—have decided to demonstrate that their talents encompass so much more.

In 2009, Jason Eskenazi and a cohort of four other editors had the idea to publish a magazine showcasing the work of their fellow guards at not just any museum but rather New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Many were writers and artists in their off-hours. The idea took hold and, in four months time, they had assembled enough quality work to publish the handsome, 110-page premiere issue of Swipe, last November in a print-on-demand edition.  The response was so positive that a first printing of 500 copies on glossy stock appeared this March.

Roughly three-fourths of the magazine consists of guards’ artwork, which is not surprising. The cover, by Jack Laughner, depicts a guard, at the foot of the Grand Staircase, arms on hips, surveying visitors scurrying through the lobby. The magazine’s cover tagline is the double-meaning, “Guards’ Matter”.

Eskenazi  reports that he and the other editors haven’t received any official acknowledgement or congratulatory message but that the museum’s Watson Art Library has purchased two copies and The Met has reinstated the employees’ art show which had been inactive since 2006.  One contributor, Mike Varley, has had a solo gallery show since his appearance in Swipe.

Swipe is available for purchase at $19.95 from the magazine website at

lumberyardTHE LUMBERYARD—Out of Louisville, land of the Kentucky Derby and mint juleps, comes a new, collaborative project that combines quality poetry and short fiction with old-fashioned letterpress art so that, as its founders state, “each issue of the magazine is a work of art from cover to cover.”

The Lumberyard has already drawn impressive critical acclaim. Dwight Garner, a New York Times book reviewer, has called it “the most physically beautiful new journal I’ve seen this year…The Lumberyard looks like a magazine to watch.”

I’ve seen issues 4 and 5 and share much of Garner’s enthusiasm.  It’s beautiful in a raw, funky not glossy, perfect Vanity Fair-way.  But I found the covers visually appealing and I turned each page with a feeling of anticipation as to what surprise was waiting for me.

Each issue has a unifying theme: Issue 4 was “Hollywood Western Disco” and issue 5’s was “Poems for Truckin’”.  The editors want their magazine to “break traditional perceptions about poetry and literature.”  Lumberyard’s distinctive design and printing is by Firecracker Press in St. Louis.

The journal, like The Point and Swipe, publishes twice a year. The upcoming Summer issue will be dedicated entirely to a single writer who wins the magazine’s current poetry contest.  Issues are available for sale at for $11 + $2 shipping and subscriptions are $20 + $2 shipping.

What I admire about these three editorially-varied yet exciting new publications is the courage of their creators in a time full of forecasted doom for print and serious readers.  An adventure awaits you in any of these journals. Better yet, support all three!