Honor Thy Father? It’s Complicated.

Many of us observed Father’s Day last Sunday, which prompted us to take a broad sweep through some canonical plays to see how fathers and fatherhood fare. The answer: not good. In fact, it’s so bad it would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. So, let’s take a look at some of the Great Theater Works centered around father characters. Then we have a suggestion.

I. Greek and Roman

Well, there’s Oedipus, a play that sets the bar pretty low for father-son relationships. In this play, Sophocles, the famed dramatist, writes a queasy tale that starts with a father, Laius. According to a prophesy, Laius is going to be killed by his son, who will then marry Laius’ wife, the boy’s mother. Why would anyone believe this information? But, he does. So, when Laius’ son Oedipus is born, he orders a servant to kill the child. The servant can’t, Oedipus is raised in secrecy, and when he becomes a man, Oedipus is accosted by a rude traveler on a road, whom, in an altercation, he kills. That rude traveler is Laius, his dad, but Oedipus doesn’t know that. He marches on to Thebes and marries the queen, his mom, but he doesn’t know that, either. In fact, the only people who know what’s going on and witness this slow-motion train wreck are the audience. That’s what kind of sicko Sophocles was—we have to sit there with the Big Secret and watch this grody love triangle unfold. Woe is us. And you know what? None of this would have happened if Laius, the father, had made one or two other, more intelligent choices.

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Feast of Thyestés and Átreus (Václav Jindřich Nosecký, Michael Václav Halbax)

So, flubbing an attempt to kill your child and getting killed instead is pretty bad. But what about a father who unknowingly eats his two sons at a festival banquet? Yep, that happened. In Roman playwright Seneca’s gorefest Thyestes, two dads, who happen to be twin brothers, get tangled up in a father-son nightmare that makes Oedipus look about as dramatic as a public service announcement. Atreus, who is super evil and wants revenge on his twin brother, orders his sons to lure that brother, Thyestes, to Atreus’ house under false pretenses of reconciliation. There is to be a feast. Atreus then kills Thyestes’ sons, chops them up and serves them in a stew, which a drunken Thyestes noms on until the next dish is the two boys’ heads on a platter and the awful Atreus reveals the origin of the mystery meat. (Makes Quentin Tarantino look tame, right?)

Understandably, Atreus’ sons develop somewhat loose moral compasses and end up with their own tragic plays. One of those sons, Agamemnon, sacrifices (read: murders) his daughter for the gods and exacts an overall dismal attempt at setting a good example for his remaining alive children. However, they do love Agamemnon enough to avenge his death after he’s murdered (notably, by his wife and her lover), which we think proves the child’s bond to the father, however questionable he may be in his own decision-making abilities.

Which brings us to

II. Shakespeare

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Cordelia in the Court of King Lear (1873) by Sir John Gilbert.

Where to start, where to start. Look in any of the folios with dramas involving families, and you will find Shakespeare’s consistent typecasting of dads as either prideful punks or ghosts. Either way, these characters tend to care most about their honor and legacy, and the kids (and sometimes the wife) are plagued with ill-fitting assignments in duty fulfillment often involving murder. To save time, we’re looking only at King Lear and Romeo and Juliet, but you can have your own fun with Hamlet, the King Henry plays and The Tempest.

In Lear, the titular king decides to retire, divvying his kingdom among his three daughters. The catch? The spoils go to whoever displays the most love for him. Oh, the narcissism. Anyway, the one who won’t play along with his enormous ego game (naturally, his favorite daughter) gets disowned while the two remaining treacherous daughters conspire to murder Lear, who eventually dies of grief after his faithful but disowned daughter is hanged. In this play, the prideful punk becomes a ghost by the end, and we have another dad whose self-serving decisions ended up creating a chain of events that killed his children.

Ergo, Romeo and Juliet. The crux of the play rests in the bad blood between the patriarchal lines of Montague and Capulet. You know this story, so you can go with us to the quick summary of “more prideful dads, more dead kids.”

We are starting to feel like a broken record, so we’re happy to jump to

III. 20th Century America

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Burl Ives as Big Daddy and Paul Newman as Brick in the 1958 film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Two major father characters emerged in plays that continue to get lively productions years after year: Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. These figures stand on either end of the dad spectrum, with cotton-magnate Big Daddy filling the overbearing paterfamilias role and traveling salesman Willy carrying the torch of fathers portrayed as ineffectual leaders psychologically desperate for success—theirs and for their children. Both fathers share an idealism built around a man’s success and the promise of what he can build and become, often to the detriment of other family members (so that much stayed the same from the Greco-Roman template).

The same goes for the repressed and oppressed character of Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences, as his two sons struggle for his approval and love—which he can not give, thanks to his own painful back story involving murder, prison and the social captivity of black men. Troy also dies at the end, like Willy Loman, with a passel of unresolved family issues and a plague of emotional consequences from key bad decisions.

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Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson, reprising his role from the 2010 Broadway revival, in the film adaptation of Fences.

In all three of these dramas, sons seek an acknowledgement of love from their fathers who cannot or will not give it. Frankly, it’s a sad and infuriating commentary on emotional ineptitude that paints a rather depressing picture. Eugene O’Neill somewhat breaks from tradition in Long Day’s Journey into Night with the father James Tyrone, who is an unpretentious former actor with seemingly typical father-son power struggles amid a family stricken with an opioid-addicted mother and a weakness for whiskey. In fairness, the bad parent in that play is the mom, and we could certainly do a replay of this blog after Mother’s Day looking at mother figures in drama, who enact their fair share of emotional dishonesty and murder to ruin their kids’ lives.

The standout play, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, has no father in the dramatis personae. He dies before the play starts, and it is his life insurance check that brings the financial windfall that can change the life of the Younger family. All of the events that unfold sprout from his last gift to them, and, although circumstances prevented him from giving them what they wanted in life, he may be able to help them achieve their dreams in death. Although that interpretation may sound positive, that’s kind of a tall order for one man. So, even though he’s never in the play, it is, to some degree, a play about a father’s responsibility to his family—questioning the impossible expectations placed on men in a competition-based patriarchal culture.

But what about dads outside of the heteronormative patriarchal culture of toxic masculinity, you ask? Well, that brings us to

IV. Fun Home

We can’t say too much here because Fun Home runs this season at The Straz as part of our Broadway series, but it reached such massive acclaim because it is a compelling story about a daughter’s unique interpretation of her life with her dad. We don’t want to spoil the ending, but if you’ve been paying attention to patterns in this blog on father characters, you can probably guess how this musical unfolds.

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From Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, from which the musical was adapted.

However, we can say this musical—based on illustrator Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name—examines a daughter’s relationship with her closeted father who runs a funeral home. This story depicts gay characters struggling in similar themes from the above list, which forces us to see what is universal in a writer’s struggle to understand herself/himself in the family context. It’s also really, really open in discussions about the daughter’s exploration of her own sexual identity and how that is reflected in her father’s struggle with his own sexual truths. So, that facet of the father is new and refreshing though it seems to circle the same drain of a dad’s inability to express himself emotionally.

V. Final Analysis and Suggestion (Said with Love)

So what is up with all this shade thrown at dads in drama? Are fathers really unbending tyrants of their own universe? Or, failing that, destined to chase the illusion of power and condemn their families to suffer their own shortcomings? Seems a rough assessment, though our cruise through these major works casts fathers in a rather unflattering light. (Daddy Warbucks somewhat excluded.)

As they say, the winners write the history books. Perhaps, in this case, the children write the manuscripts. What struck us in this broad review was how much the dramatic canon needs Good Dad, Solid Dad, Emotionally Grown Up Dad, and Dad with Admirable Character—all the multiple facets of fatherhood everyday dads represent. We were a little shocked and sad about the two-note roles recurring throughout our short sample for this blog though we can see, especially in the 20th century work, the resounding agreement of how important fathers’ words and deeds are to the development of a child’s identity. Let’s get some fresh interpretations on this important figure, shall we?

Admittedly, we passed over the comedies, mostly because it’s hard to find a famous stage comedy about a father, though we would be happy to hear if you know of one we overlooked. Got a thought about fathers in drama or an insight into a play or musical not mentioned in this blog? We want to hear about it. Leave us a comment below.

The Theater Above the Theater

Fly systems, rigging systems, whatever you want to call them, just know there’s a very serious show happening in the 60-plus feet of air above the show on stage.

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Looking up into the “fly space” on the side of the Morsani stage. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

One of the wondrous aspects of theatrical life, even from its beginnings, is the delightful mix of labor, craft and personalities required to pull off a show soup to nuts. In the performing arts world, the blue collar meets the sequined collar, toe shoes meet steel-toed boots and the Type A work ethic unites all the players from the star of the show to the spotlight operator. If you understand theater as a living organism, you understand that everyone is equally vital.

However, what remains seen on stage normally gets the lion’s share of attention. But what about what (and who) you can’t see?

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A micro-view of the intricate knots used to anchor the Morsani Hall fly system. Theater fly systems were modeled after seafaring lines and rigs used for large sailing vessels. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

A show – especially at the scale of Broadway and grand opera – simply cannot happen if the “theater magic” isn’t engineered with mathematical precision. Often, enormous, heavy set pieces float up and down, in and out of scenes to denote setting changes or to enhance show numbers. For fans of The Lion King, Peter Pan and Mary Poppins, you know the primal thrill of seeing the beloved characters take flight, spin through the air, leap across rooms or glide into the show via umbrella.

These theatrical feats execute through the fly system, or rigging system, which is an elaborate superstructure of ropes, pulleys, bars, weights and fasteners that make lighting, scene changes and flying people possible. From the audience, the fly system remains invisible, but if you’ve ever wondered why professional theaters are so ungodly tall, that’s why: there needs to be a tremendous amount of space above the stage to store the show’s pieces out-of-sight, suspended over the stage to be released and hoisted on cue during the performance. We have about 70 feet of “fly space” in Morsani Hall to accommodate the large-scale theatrics of Broadway and opera.

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Along the side wall of Ferguson Hall stage, you can see the ropes and weights on the flyrail.

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Further up the wall, almost to the top of the fly system.

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At the very top of the Ferguson stage “fly space” are all of the pulleys.

Our production team, the “boots on the ground” who rig each incoming show, sends a schematic called an “advance” to the show that outlines the technical capabilities of Ferguson or Morsani (or whatever house the show will be using). The show, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I which will be in Morsani May 2-7, then gives our team a detailed blueprint, similar to an architectural rendering, of measurements, dimensions, set pieces, weight of each set piece, etc., so our team will have a heads-up for what to expect when the show loads in.

Here’s where it gets mortally serious.

Rigging a show – that is, hooking hundreds or thousands of pounds of equipment to hang over the heads of human beings walking underneath – is no joke. The riggers themselves (often noted as the cowboys of theater) often must work at death-defying heights to secure the heavy set pieces, hang lighting and load counterweights for each metal bar that brings objects in and out of scenes.

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Side lights hanging from a bar.

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About half way up to the grid above Ferguson stage.

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Almost to the top of the “fly space.” You can see the metal bars and curtains hanging and the grid directly above.

“Communication is very important between the flyman, the carpenter on the deck, the weight loaders and the rigging crew to work safely and not hurt anyone,” says Straz Center flyman Dave Reynolds. “Many of these moves are made during the show, and they’re done in blackouts with cast and crew on stage. Any massive piece of scenery that moves needs to be coordinated properly for safety. I get to do something I love every day as well. I take my job here very seriously and strive to be one of the best flymen the country.”

The most dangerous job in theater is setting up the rigging for a show and taking it down at the end of the run. If an opera uses a 700-pound backdrop, that backdrop is hung on a “pipe” or metal bar that is controlled by a rope or “line.” The line needs 700 pounds of counterweight on it to achieve what is called a “balanced load.” The rigger sets a hand brake on the line to secure it in place. When it’s show time, the flyman pops the brake, guiding the line with the balanced load, and the audience sees the smooth, light entrance and exit of a 700-pound backdrop. What the audience never sees is the extreme safety precautions riggers take to make sure they never drop 50-pound counterweights from a catwalk 45 feet in the air or drop pipes from the same height. Or miscalculate and drop a 700-pound backdrop on Lieutenant Pinkerton.

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View of the side of Ferguson stage looking down from the grid at the very top of the “fly space.” See that tiny piano on the stage?

So, the effortless appearance of scenery or characters swooping in from the wings or down from the “ceiling” actually requires quite a bit of effort, engineering, safety expertise and chutzpah from men and women who don’t get dressing rooms but do get to star in one of the most important roles in any theater production.

Manual Transmission

Dance lineage is a big deal. A very big deal. So, when Next Generation Ballet got a descendant of Jerome Robbins, who was guided by George Balanchine, who was instructed by Marius Petipa, the Straz Center leapt for joy.

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Philip Neal, dance department chair and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet, instructing students during the summer intensive.

Philip Neal, the artistic director for Next Generation Ballet, came to us from New York City Ballet, where he worked as a principal dancer for more than twenty years. When you take into account that his main choreographer and teacher was none other than the Jerome Robbins, you can begin to understand what a tremendous, unparalleled gift we have sitting right here in the Patel Conservatory. (For you non-dance folks, just imagine if we told you we had a rock guitar teacher who learned from Jimi Hendrix. Same.)

While most people recognize Robbins’ work from West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof, Robbins was first and foremost a ballet choreographer, hailed as the first dance maker to invent a singular, artistic American ballet style. (Robbins’ mentor, Balanchine, was the father of American ballet.) In 1986, Robbins spotted the then-19-year-old Philip Neal in Philip’s very first rehearsal with NYCB. Impressed, Robbins called Philip to solo in “Jerry’s” latest ballet.

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In addition to many ballets, Jerome Robbins choreographed Broadway productions including On the Town, Peter Pan, The King And I, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof and more.

“For the next year,” says Philip, “I worked with Jerry on that ballet. He called me to understudy for every one of his ballets. Jerry sourced from Balanchine, who sourced from Petipa. Today, when I choreograph for Next Generation Ballet, I find myself teaching and thinking ‘I stole these steps from Balanchine’ or when I teach my students to use their full arms and say ‘paint your sky with a paintbrush’ they don’t know that I’m saying to them exactly what Jerry said to me.”

Dance is passed down manually, almost always without notes or a written record. The art transmits from teacher to student through class and rehearsal, each student taking the master’s work and either passing it to the next generation in pure form or building on the tradition by incorporating his or her own style.

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Maruis Petipa was ballet master and principal choreographer of the Imperial Ballet (precursor of the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet) from 1871 until 1903.

The root of Philip’s work is Marius Petipa, the “granddaddy of classical ballet,” who was born in France in 1818 and eventually came to fame with Russia’s St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre. Petipa more or less singlehandedly created the school of Russian ballet. Every ballet you see has Petipa’s influence somewhere on it.

In 1904, George Balanchine (neé Georgi Melitonovich Balanchivadze) was born in St. Petersburg. He enrolled in Petipa’s Imperial Ballet school and performed his first work on stage in Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty in 1915. As Petipa had left France for Russia, so Balanchine left Russia for America. He partnered with Lincoln Kirstein to create a ballet company that would rival the best of Russian and French ballet. Ergo, New York City Ballet. Balanchine dancers included Suzanne Farrell, Maria Tallchief, Arthur Mitchell, and Edward Villella.

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George Balanchine, co-founder of New York City Ballet, (left) and Arthur Mitchell.

“Balanchine adored westerns, the films,” says Philip, who did not study with Balanchine but did see him on occasion during classes or rehearsals. “He loved Americana and captured the essence of New York—to be fast, to break rules, to turn structures on end. It was so American, so beautiful. He edited out Petipa’s pageantry and could do three hours of steps in 25 minutes.”

In 1948, Balanchine received a letter from a dancer he’d worked with on Broadway, a young man of quite some fame named Jerome Robbins. By 1948, Robbins was already a big time star from creating the heroic, titillating wartime ballet Fancy Free which became the Broadway musical On the Town. In almost no time, Robbins’ talent and charisma inspired Balanchine to promote him to associate artistic director of NYCB.

Enter our Philip Neal in 1986, a tall, elegant dancer who trained at NYCB’s school, and the rest is history.

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Philip Neal danced with New York City Ballet for more than 20 years. (Photos: Paul Kolnik)

Except, of course, that dance history never ends. The continuation of this preeminent legacy now germinates in the classes and rehearsals of our very own Next Generation Ballet. In a bold and exciting move, Philip—a repetiteur of both Robbins and Balanchine, which means he has exclusive permission to stage their dances on other companies—decided to bring this legacy to life in this year’s spring program, Masters of Dance, a program that includes Balanchine’s Donizetti Variations, which Philip performed for NYCB, Robbins’ Circus Polka, a whimsical dance for 48 (not a typo) girls from nine to 12 years old. The performance concludes with Petipa’s extraordinary final act of Don Quixote.

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Philip Neal teaching Next Generation Ballet dancers.

For the first time, Tampa audiences can see the direct lineage of this extraordinary ballet heritage offered by a direct descendant of Petipa to the dancers in our resident company.

“I’m serious,” says Philip. “It’s going to be a milestone performance. I’m in total disbelief that we are going to be able to do something like Circus Polka and Donizetti Variations. My colleagues in New York know what is happening down here, and they are paying attention. We’re only going to grow and go on to bigger things. We are building our own legend with this ballet school.”

Masters of Dance: Balanchine and Robbins plus Petipa’s Don Quixote Suite runs May 13 and 14 in Ferguson Hall.

Not Throwing Away Their Shot

The Straz Center education program readies local high school musical theater talents for the big time with the Broadway Star of the Future program. Winners get a chance to wow Broadway producers and directors in NYC for their shot at the title – and potentially launch their careers with a Jimmy® Award.

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The 2016 National High School Musical Theatre Awards. (Photo: Henry McGee)

We all know you get to Carnegie Hall with practice, practice, practice, but the joke omits the part about breaking into the business, which may be the most confounding part of wanting to be a working performer. Between a hefty mythologizing about the la-la land of show business and the often unknown paths leading to the Great White Way if you’re distanced from the Big Apple, musical theater students often feel overwhelmed by the size of their dream.

A long-time champion of the Florida State Thespians, a chapter of Education Theatre Association which supports excellence in theater education, The Straz established the Broadway Star of the Future award, a prize to two performers during the Thespians’ week-long annual festival at The Straz. These two winners, one female and one male, get a chaperoned, all-expense-paid trip to New York City to participate in the National High School Musical Theatre Awards presented by the Broadway League Foundation and created by legendary Broadway producer and theater owner James M. Nederlander.

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The Jimmys®, as they are affectionately known, is no mere red-carpet event. Oh, no. It’s a national competition, Broadway-style, which introduces aspiring musical theater performers to the demanding, week-in-the-life experience of a working actor. They have nine days to learn songs, choreography, medleys and cues for a two-hour, ticketed, live competition show at the Minksoff Theatre. They are ranked in secret by judges during rehearsal week solo performances, then the highest-ranking students are judged again during the full-cast medley sections of the Minskoff show. Scores are tallied, and four finalists are announced for a nail-biting final competition round, performing their solos once again to a packed Broadway house. One male and one female win a Jimmy, which includes a $10,000 check and guaranteed visibility with some of Broadway’s most respected vocal coaches, choreographers, directors and producers.

Realizing that the thespian pool did not reflect the talent in smaller or underserved schools, leadership at the Patel Conservatory decided to change things up a bit, separating the Broadway Star of the Future program from the Thespian Festival, which will still happen every spring at The Straz.

The exciting development this year involves our very own workshop-and-awards-show, a live, ticketed performance of the Broadway Star of the Future Awards Showcase in Ferguson Hall.

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Throughout the year, two to three credentialed, professional reviewers travel to local high schools in a four-county radius that applied to have their musicals and performers judged for several award categories. These reviewers nominate Outstanding Musical as well as Outstanding Actress and Actor, and these area schools and individuals collaborate in a one-day workshop to create the awards show for Broadway Star of the Future.

Then it’s places! Curtain! . . . and by the end of the show on June 4, we will know which two high school musical theater performers will be heading to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for rehearsals and their shot at the 2017 Jimmy Award in the Minskoff Theatre.

“Hosting this Broadway Star of the Future program widens the net of who we can celebrate,” says Vice President of Education Suzanne Livesay. “Any school with grades 9-12 can apply for review, which is so exciting for us. We get to see the bigger picture of who is out there and give them an opportunity to get to New York if that’s where they want to be.”

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2012 Broadway Star of the Future and Jimmy Award winner Joshua Grosso. On the left, Grosso performs at the National High School Musical Theatre Awards in New York.

Naturally, there are no guarantees, just opportunities – but the Straz Center’s 2012 Broadway Star of the Future, Joshua Grosso, won The Jimmy that year and was featured in the PBS documentary about the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, Broadway or Bust.

“We’re expecting this show to be a glitz and glamour affair,” Livesay says. “We have exceptional talent in this area, and they deserve a taste of the professional life that The Straz can give them from a live competition showcase in a fantastic theater. The winners will be prepared to go to New York, and we will have an incredible annual event to look forward to as a thriving, high school musical environment that makes real, professional inroads for our children.”

Bravo, Straz Education!

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Former Broadway Star of the Future winners, from top, left to right: Katrina Kiss & Adam Glickman (2010); Christian Thompson & Emily Hart (2011); Joshua Grosso & Samantha Schneider-Behen (2012); Tim Hart & Chandler Morehead (2013); Staci Stout & Nathanael Hicks (2014); Kylie Heyman & Kamari Saxon (2015); Blake Lafita & Francesca Iacovacci (2016).

Want to see the 2017 Broadway Star of the Future Awards Showcase? You can find the performance information here.

Causing All This Conversation

Tosca slays, creating some great legends

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Early critics sometimes panned Puccini’s Tosca, tossing it on a slagheap of criticism that included dismissing it as a “shabby little shocker” that was, in a word, vulgar.

But what are you going to do? Haters gonna hate.

Audiences love this opera, and it contains three meaty main roles for singers to sink their teeth into. Tosca’s seat at the table of perennial favorites, opera’s Big Ones, seem guaranteed. And that, in a word, means Tosca slays, which is to say the opera triumphs over haters – not to be confused with Tosca slays, which we know she does. So sorry, Scarpia.

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The title page of the Tosca piano score, published by G. Ricordi, 1899.

Like any great diva, this opera created legends. Some circle on the rims of opera history, others are well known. Here are some favorite anecdotes to emerge from the Tosca book of tales:

1. Legend of the Fall – an impish stagehand replaces the mattress needed to catch the actress playing Tosca for the finale with a trampoline, causing the singer to rebound into view after diving from the parapet.

2. The Lemming Effect – extras in the firing squad at the finale failed to be at final rehearsals, so the director instructed them to “follow the principal” offstage, meaning Spoletta. However, they thought Tosca was the principal, leaping from the parapet after her. No stories of this tale combined with the trampoline have been found, sadly.

3. Sometimes You Have to Bring a Fan to a Knife Fight – in the nail-biting poetic justice scene, the singer performing Tosca realized there’s no knife onstage and, making do, stabs Scarpia to death with her fan.

4. Lock, Stock and Once Smoking Barrel – poor Cavaradossi (well, the poor tenor playing Cavaradossi) experienced a really unfortunate occupational hazard when and improperly prepared stage rifle during the firing squad scene drew some real blood. This is not what we meant when we said Tosca slays.

See Opera Tampa’s production of Tosca on April 7 and 9. Get more info and tickets here.

The Courage to Challenge the Story

An intimate chat with National Geographic photojournalist Ami Vitale

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Ami taking a nap with Ringo, an orphaned southern white rhino at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. (Photo: Corey Rich Productions, from Ami’s Instagram)

Photojournalist Ami Vitale, who appears at The Straz March 28 for the final talk in our National Geographic LIVE! season, had a revelation standing in the middle of the Second Intifada. She’ll tell you all about it—and how it led to her quiet revolution in storytelling. Vitale’s images challenge people to start pondering the whole picture outside of the snapshots from the terror-scape of how we talk about world events. Vitale means to make us see what we share as humans connected to an entire planet, a rather radical move in the age of bubble bias and other troubling trends in the information age.

In her talk here, Ami will take the audience on a breathtaking, heartwarming and ultimately thought-provoking journey traversing her years as a war correspondent, her immersion studies in Guinea Bissau and Kashmir and eventually to her coolest-job-ever assignment of documenting pandas (and so many baby pandas) in China’s rescue and re-wilding program. You will see Ami in a panda suit and learn many interesting things through the stories she tells in her photographs.

Last week, we caught up with Ami by phone from her Montana home, where she was recovering from jetlag after a two-day delay in returning from her latest assignment in Kenya. We learned more about her, and share our conversation with you in this exclusive interview.

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Baby panda at Chengu Panda Base in China. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: You graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill around 1993 with a degree in International Studies. Was that because you already had a global plan for yourself and photography was a part of that?

Ami Vitale: Photography was not something I dreamed of. I just didn’t think that kind of life was possible for someone like me. But once I started to latch onto the idea of photography, I saw it as my passport to the world.

CITA: But you had an internship with the Smithsonian print room at 16 years old, which is really cool. You didn’t know you were going to be a photographer then?

AV: Yeah, my job was to print pictures from the Smithsonian archives. You know how you can order prints from them, so I was down in the archives making prints for all the people who ordered them. I was among all of these historical images, and I think it was at that time that I realized the power of photography. When I was 16, I understood the power of photography, but I didn’t understand it could be a career path for someone like me.

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At Standing Rock in North Dakota. (Photos from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: We love that twice you’ve said that the life you have now wasn’t for “someone like me.” What does that mean? What were you like?

AV: I was introverted, gawky. I was intimidated by a lot of things. I was just afraid. I wasn’t the kind of person who had big dreams for myself, or any dreams at all. So, I didn’t have that dream [of being a travel photographer] in my mind. I just didn’t have that kind of confidence. I see these young girls today, they’re so confident, they want to go out and conquer the world . . . [laughs] I wasn’t like that.

CITA: But something changed. Do you remember a specific point when you got a camera or took a particular photo and suddenly you became Ami Vitale?

AV: You know, the second I had a camera in my hand—and I still get emotional when I think about it—a camera empowered me. It gave me a reason to be somewhere, to be with people, to have a purpose and a story to tell. I didn’t understand, really, how important this medium is in that way, that a shy, introverted person could become an empowered person who could say important things. But, as time went on, the more important lesson was that these images could be empowering to people I was photographing. Their stories are very valuable.

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Ramla Sharif roasting coffee in her home in Ethiopia. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA:  What strikes us about you when reading other interviews or watching your TED or Nat Geo talks is that you don’t have a stage persona. You seem to come out on the stage as yourself, still as someone who is also amazed that you get to work you do and share stories about what you discover and photograph. You’re so relatable as a regular kind of person.

AV [laughs]: There’s still the little girl in me who can’t believe all of this life is possible. [laughs] Thinking, ‘I’m not worthy’ and being in amazement about it. But, the mission took over. It’s not about me. I’m driven by something else bigger than me. That’s what photography did for me—it’s a vehicle to take me places among people to show how connected we are, that we have so much in common, that there’s more to the story than what we typically see.

CITA: Your point of view about our similarities, about our shared values and shared planet is so important right now. You seem to have a necessary voice pointing out that humanity is part of a bigger picture of a common place.

AV: I definitely think we all play some small role in a bigger story of being connected. Every single person’s voice is valuable and important. Part of what happened to me was learning to believe in the importance of my own voice. Everyone has to listen to their own voice, trust it, and use it—now more than ever.

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Photos from Ami’s Instagram.

CITA: Something else striking, especially scrolling through your Instagram account, is the ongoing archetypes of girlhood you present, a version of girlhood that is for women who are smart, love animals, expected adventure in life, and held a sort of ride-or-die vision of friendship and family. The pictures of the horses’ manes from the Montana photos drove home this notion, for us at least, that here was a photographer who captured what adult life looks like for those girlhood archetypes. Do you think about that when you’re photographing or is that just something we read into your images as the viewer?

AV: I had not and haven’t ever thought about the images in that way, that’s so interesting. I’ll have to do some soul searching on that question about girlhood archetypes. But, I can tell you what I am aware of. I am aware of my feminine point of view. Most of my career, I was trying to do what my male colleagues were doing, but I got old enough to understand that what I have, my feminine point of view, is especially important. People will say to me, “you’re too Pollyanna for the world,” but I say no. I’m not. I just see it differently, and I have an important point of view. I’m latching on to my inner voice that says ‘you can be strong and have an optimistic view of the world.’

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Monks practicing a mask dance for the annual festival in Eastern Bhutan. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: Most of us are trained to believe that news has to be bad or drastic or war-torn to be taken seriously, this more masculine worldview of war, fear and dominance themes as the “real” story, all else is fluff or not serious. We get stuck in narrative ruts and don’t question what more is there to the story, or is this an accurate depiction. By default, that view is often the unquestioned version of events, so we see the same types of images “from the field.” We’re glad you don’t take that route.

AV: Even today, I have to fight to get my stories, which are just as valid and necessary, published. I’m someone who looks for solutions, not just documenting the problems. But, solutions are hard to get published. Why? Why aren’t we telling the whole story instead of half truths? I see in wholes. We are so used to these kinds of horror-narratives that we’re brainwashed to think the same way. It’s wonderful to have a platform [like National Geographic LIVE!] to be able to tell another story, to find a way forward. We have to keep moving forward.

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This giraffe checks out Ami’s camera in Northern Kenya. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: It’s hard to have the courage to say hey, there’s a different way to look at what’s going on. What is it that compels you to tales of the human heart?

AV: Well . . . what’s the point of living otherwise? When I come home from a trip, I don’t even want to turn on the news, there’s so much fear everywhere. I mean, there is fear every place I look. Continuing to spread fear doesn’t make a better world. When I’m out there, in the world, I don’t see things the way they appear in television coverage of the same event. I’m in the war zones. I’m there. And I see a much wider view of what humanity looks like, of life unfolding. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re creating the things we’re afraid of. I see so much beauty in humanity everywhere, and why are we not shining a light on that? I want those stories told. About how connected we are. Look anywhere and you’ll see it. But, right now, we’re being hijacked by extreme ideas.

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A child on his way home from school in Sri Lanka. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: You do seem to be a much needed voice.

AV: Well, the truth is, ultimately I want to give people the ability to dream, to find a path, to make a difference. I want people to know that you don’t have to travel the world, you can do that in your own backyard. I didn’t have the ability to dream when I was younger, so I want to give that to others.

CITA: Part of helping others dream is teaching and workshops. You have an upcoming photography workshop to Prague with high school students through a program with Nat Geo. What’s that all about?

AV: Teaching is a way to pass the torch, so I do quite a bit of speaking and teaching. This workshop is a little bit of what it’s like to be a travel correspondent, how do you tell stories, how do you listen to people. It’s teaching them that the life isn’t about snapping pretty pictures, it’s more than that. It should be about 18-20 students, so very intimate because I do like to get to know everyone individually and help them in their work.

CITA: We can’t wait to see you in a few weeks.

AV:  Thanks so much. I’m really looking forward to it.

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An elephant at Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

Come see Ami on March 28 at 7pm in Ferguson Hall. Follow her on Instagram @amivitale and on Facebook.

Have favorite Ami photos? Let us know in the comments below.

Soul Soil: A-List Choreographer Moses Pendleton and the Alchemy of Turning Human Bodies into Saguaro Cacti and Other Odd Things

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MOMIX Opus Cactus. (Photo: Charles Azzopardi)

When Moses Pendleton, the superstar co-founder of Pilobolus and dance maker extraordinaire, was a wee lad, one of his jobs on the family dairy farm was to feed the veal calves a nutritious milk supplement. The name of the supplement?

Momix.

Pendleton returned to this physical memory later when he choreographed a solo for the 1980 Moscow Olympics called “Momix,” the “mo” reportedly doubling as a reference to Pendleton himself, the “mix” alluding to the grab-bag of theatrical delights Pendleton throws into his dance-making stew. To call what Pendleton does “dance” is misleading, especially for someone who may associate the word with classical, recognizable forms like ballet, jazz or even contemporary or hip-hop.

It’s more like movement theatrics.

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MOMIX Opus Cactus comes to The Straz on March 23. (Photo: Charles Azzopardi)

As a co-founder of Pilobolus, his first movement endeavor with fellow Dartmouth dance student Jonathan Wolken and others, Pendleton and crew pulled another name from a family source. Wolken’s dad was studying a certain light-loving fungus called Pilobolus crystallinus, and the name, Pilobolus [pe-LOB-ah-lus], stuck. The women and men of Pilobolus were way more into upending expectations than presenting pretty works to show off technique (hey, this was the ‘70s, after all, so being far out was, well    . . . far out! . . . and most of them didn’t have any dance training, anyway).  What they created was a mad-cap theatrical spectacle that relied as much on brute strength and derring-do as it did on anyone’s ability to extend through the line.

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An early performance of “Pilobolus.” This is the seminal work from which the company evolved. (Photo: Tim Matson)

By the end of the ‘70s, Pendleton’s creative drive led him to form a new company, a sort of off-shoot of the Pilobolus idea but with more intentional stagecraft like lighting tricks, props, and soundscaping. The name he chose conformed to the earth-family ties of Pilobolus nomenclature. The name that stuck?

MOMIX.

Pendleton, whose rural, agricultural upbringing defined his world view, eventually bought a Connecticut compound complete with a rambling 22-room main farmhouse and a converted horse barn for the MOMIX movement lab. He meant to explore the human form in non-human worlds, blending his study of animals, plants and minerals into works of gorgeous, simple explorations of themes: seasons (Botanica), the moon (Lunar Sea), the four elements (Alchemia).

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MOMIX Lunar Sea. (Photos: Max Pucciariello)

Even now as a man in his late-60s, he follows the same routine that he has for decades: get up, swim, build fire, go on walk, work. These walks, from three to four hours in the woods around his home, include copious photographs, many of which inspire later choreography. His photos, which are quite stunning, have been on exhibit in the United States and Europe and serve, as one gallery curator noted, as tangible documentation of where his dances come from. Sunflowers, decaying foliage, trees, lichen, rock formations—these images compel Pendleton and his MOMIX dancers to work tirelessly in the horse barn animating the non-human world through the human body, “the greatest toy we have,” Pendleton says.

To connect his dancers’ souls to the soil, Pendleton invites them to his land, giving them good old fashioned chores like weeding, tending the sunflower fields and planting marigolds to build their personal connection to the living things they will embody. He demands his dancers possess acting and mimetic skills equal to their dancing ability because the work of MOMIX often requires dancers to become something other than human—especially in his work coming here March 23, a reboot of his 2001 ingenious depiction of the southwestern desert mystique, Opus Cactus.

Opus Cactus, perhaps one of Pendleton’s most critically-acclaimed works (and definitely an audience favorite), captures the desert garden world of the southwest. With the help of entrancing world music and a lighting palette worthy of Georgia O’Keefe, the dancers morph in and out of various splendors found in the sun and sand—including the sun and the sand. Cacti tableaux abound as Pendleton’s crop of muscular dancer-gymnast-illusionists take the forms of the iconic saguaro and the pretty, lobular prickly pear.

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MOMIX Opus Cactus. (Photo: Charles Azzopardi)

The trick to really enjoying MOMIX is to not think about it too much. Even MOMIX will tell you that most of the time it doesn’t “mean” anything. An evening with MOMIX is meant to bring satisfaction to the audience, in whatever ways works, whether it’s the deft use of props and costumes or the sensual architecture of human bodies morphing into fighting Gila monsters or mimicking the suspended-in-air radiation of desert heat.

As Pendleton said in an interview, “we are nurtured by nature. It’s a muse, an inspiration. Which jumps right into the aesthetic of MOMIX. There’s a level of the surreal and dream, and making the connection with plant, animal and mineral.”

Fun MOMIX note: maybe you’re getting a certain familiar feeling looking at the MOMIX pix? Well, you may remember the company from a few commercials, like this one from Hanes:

Or Target: