A Real American Story: Tampa’s Fortune and a Tale of Straz Land

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PROLOGUE:

JOSE PERFINO
EL INDIO
A CUBAN PIRATE
KILLED 1850

MR. HUBBARD
A CUBAN PIRATE
FOUND DEAD IN WOODS
JUNE 18, 1850

Just beyond these square chunks of gray granite nestled amid the carpet of dead leaves in Oaklawn Cemetery lurks the city bus station. People get on and off the buses. The buses heave, sigh, trundle into traffic. Beyond the bus station, cars streak across I-275 shuttling between St. Pete and Orlando, yet only several yards away from Mr. Hubbard and El Indio, a gleaming alabaster mausoleum looms. It’s the final resting place of an important man; that’s plain to see. This smooth rock shrine houses the remains of Vincente Martinez Ybor, patron of Ybor City, cigar boss and wealthy entrepreneur whom local history remembers as a man who charted the course for one of the most promising money-making multi-cultural cigar cities of the United States.

Between the pirates and the man who invented Ybor City rests yet another humble granite marker, about the size of a medium Amazon delivery box, of another Tampa entrepreneur who cultivated fruits from her large parcel of land next to the Hillsborough River, made pies and sold them to any one of the 6,000 people who called Tampa home back in her day.

This marker says

TAYLOR
FORTUNE
1825-1906

She shares the space on the granite’s face with her husband Benjamin; yet, if you dig, you won’t find their remains. Not under that marker, anyway. Their bodies are somewhere else in Oaklawn, cast into that nebulous, undocumented section of history called The Slave Section.

Even though neither one was a slave.

Not when they died, anyway. Which brings us to the start of our story. But you will have to stop and sit awhile, if you want to know what we just found out about Fortune Taylor and what she has to do with The Straz.

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In the mid-1800s, there was a white couple named Howell using slave labor in South Carolina. Two of those enslaved people were a man and a woman. They loved each other.

Their names were Benjamin and Fortune.

The Howells moved to Hernando County to set up an orange grove, bringing Benjamin and Fortune with them. The end of slavery arrived in 1865. So, by 1866, Benjamin and Fortune had left the Howells in their rearview mirror and staked out a new life for themselves in a desolate, cattle-rustling, drunk and disorderly town called Tampa. For the Taylors, it was freedom. They went to the courthouse and married as free people.

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Fortune and Benjamin’s marriage license in the bottom right corner, deciphered below:

To the Clerk of the Circuit Court for the County of Hillsborough and the State of Florida. Whereas Benjamin Taylor, a Freedman and Fortune Taylor a freed woman have applied as one to join them in Marriage, And whereas they have lived harmoniously together as man and wife for several years. I have this day joined the above named Benjamin Taylor and Fortune Taylor in the bonds of holy Matrimony, according to the Act of the Legislation of the State of Florida passed as it’s late Session.

(signed) F Branch
Local Elder of the M. E. Church [South]
Tampa Fla
5th May 1866

They knew the land. They knew work. They knew how to use both to grow things that made life and money. On January 20, 1869, Benjamin filed a claim to homestead 33 acres next to the Hillsborough River. Benjamin and Fortune took to their land to make life grow: peaches, guavas, oranges. The ownership of self. Of land. Of labor.

The future looked like acres of sweet, delicious fruit. They survived the yellow fever epidemic of 1867 and the ensuing epidemic of Reconstruction Republicans who came shortly thereafter to enforce the post-Civil War policies of the federal government. But what is a Reconstructionist to a human being who survived enslavement to become a successful citrus farmer? Not much.

Then, Benjamin died. Late in 1869, less than three years after their wedding day, Fortune Taylor found herself widowed, newly free and now head of almost three dozen acres of land as an African American woman almost as far South as you could go.

But Fortune was fortune. She was an entrepreneur, too, beloved by her community, and anointed with a high title. Maybe she wasn’t a patron, or a tabaquero, or a mayor or city councilman—all of those titles were denied her because of her gender and skin color—but in her life, in her circumstances, in her neighborhood, they called her Madame. She earned that respect for building something meaningful and dignified in Tampa during a time when the town itself was struggling to be something more than a chaotic river outpost.

So, the woman with the baked goods, the woman with the land, was known around Tampa as Madame Fortune Taylor, by white and black alike. Remembered as a “short, stout woman,”* Madame Fortune Taylor donated some of her property to start St. Paul’s, the second oldest church in Tampa today. Another section she sold to Mayor Edward Clarke so he could develop a subdivision in 1878.

The road leading from downtown Tampa to her homestead? That became Fortune Street—the same one that exists in downtown Tampa today. Take Fortune Street to Doyle Carlton to the door of the Patel Conservatory and you’ll be on Madame Fortune Taylor’s old orange groves. We’d like to imagine she’d be happy with the legacy of her land becoming a place for arts education for kids, as she was known as someone who loved and was loved by children.

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Take Fortune Street all the way to the end in the other direction and guess where you’ll be?

At the bus station that lurks right next to Oaklawn Cemetery. Somewhere, in there, she and Benjamin watch us now, pulling their names from the shadows of history into the light of our present day. They were not pirates; they were not slaves. They were builders and survivors, creators and lovers, free people with an important story to tell.

 

 

EPILOGUE:

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Ersula K. Odom and Gloria Jean Royster, active members of the Friends of Madame Fortune Taylor society.

So, we wish we could tell you that we came into this amazing story on our own through our own coolness and research into Straz land history, but we did not.

We’re riding the coattails of people like historians Fred Hearns and Canter Brown, men who have dug, fought for and unearthed exquisite stories from African-American history, Tampa’s in particular, and who have been writing and speaking about Madame Fortune Taylor for years. We also relied heavily on Lucy Jones’s 2007 article on the history of the Fortune Street Bridge in Cigar City Magazine, and tampapix.com’s history of the bridge as well.

But, none of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for two important women working with Tampa’s history now:

We came to know Madame Fortune Taylor through two incredibly cool ladies, writers, researchers, and performing artists themselves, Gloria Jean Royster and Ersula K. Odom, who are active members of the Friends of Madame Fortune Taylor society. They contacted our executive administrative assistant extraordinaire, Patricia Griggs, to ask if The Straz would be interested in sponsoring the banner for the Fortune Taylor Bridge dedication ceremony on May 20, 2018—since we now sit on part of Madame Fortune’s estate.

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Executive Administrative Assistant Patricia Griggs’ office overlooks the Fortune Taylor Bridge and most of the Taylor homestead. Today, we know the Taylors’ land as the area roughly from I-275 at the river to the Patel Conservatory.

We loved Gloria Jean and Ersula so much we brought them into our offices for an exclusive interview about the Fortune Taylor Bridge, their research into Madame Fortune Taylor and the kind of connection historical information awakens in people living today.

You can hear the highlights of that interview on Act2, our official Straz Center podcast, going live on our Soundcloud station May 10. Subscribe by finding Act2 on the iTunes Store, the Podcasts app for iOS, or on the Google Play Music app for Android by searching “Straz Center.”

The dedication of Fortune Taylor Bridge takes place Sunday, May 20 at 10 a.m. on the east bank of the Hillsborough River. You can keep tabs on this tale by following Fortune’s Friends on Facebook.

Madame Fortune Banner Art

We also wish we could tell you we know all of Madame Fortune Taylor’s story, but we do not know that, either. Some years have been lost, and some land transactions can’t be proven without records.

However, thanks to many devoted researchers working with spotty, racially discriminatory records that excluded so many valuable members of society, a skein of Madame Fortune Taylor’s story exists today. The Straz knows more about itself because of their efforts.

We would also like to thank David Parsons and Todd Ciardiello, librarians at the John F. Germany Library next door, who helped us tremendously in tracking down photographs and information from the Florida history archives. We used photos from the Florida Memory Project and the Burgert Brothers Collection from the Germany Library’s digital archives.

If you have any information on what happened to Madame Fortune Taylor from 1878-1885, please contact us. We are also looking for photos and for any transactional records about her selling her land after 1885.

*this quote is from Canter Brown’s oral history interview of Dr. Robert W. Saunders, Jr.

I’m Uncomfortable

Gabbing about the importance of facing the awkward, the awful, the upending and the just plain weird in the theater with special guest Paul Potenza, artistic associate with Jobsite Theater.

This week Caught in the Act caught up with Paul Potenza, 30-plus-year stage veteran in the Tampa Bay area and artistic associate with our resident theater company, Jobsite Theater, to address a delicate issue: a trend in audiences finding subject matter “objectionable” that didn’t used to bother folks. What’s going on? The conversation led to the bigger topic of theater’s role in provoking audiences towards some greater understanding, some bigger revelation, and why being uncomfortable can be very beneficial despite living in a world dominated by traumatic and uncomfortable content on social media.

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Paul J. Potenza in Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, the first play ever performed in the Off-Center Theater (now the Shimberg Playhouse). Circa 1994. (Photo: Steve Widoff)

PAUL POTENZA: I have this vivid memory of working with my friend and director at the time, Jeff Norton … I was battling with a scene, and, at a certain point in the rehearsal I said, “I’m not really comfortable with how this is going.” Jeff simply replied, “I’m not overly concerned with how comfortable you are right now.” It was fantastic! We worked our way through it, and we moved the play forward. There was progress. It’s important to me to be challenged, whether it be onstage or as an audience member. It’s how we can grow, how we can get better. Better at listening, better at learning and simply sitting next to one another.

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: This title of this blog is “I’m Uncomfortable.” The topic came up after a national conversation about certain theater customers complaining, asking for money back, boycotting shows or writing nasty grams on social media because they didn’t “want to pay good money for [that kind of language], [that political view], [those kinds of characters],” etc. Jobsite typically goes for a least a few of these types of shows on their season, with 1984 being next in line. Will you share your thoughts about why socially and politically challenging theater upsets people so much and why you think it’s necessary (or not) as a part of Jobsite’s mission?

PP: I suppose, historically, arts patrons have, at times, had their way or their “$ay” with what is being done artistically, based on their comfort level, at their venue of choice. People not showing up for shows because of content … well, that’s also been going on since the beginning of time as has being part of something “you just must see”—something trendy and fashionable. If you’re uncomfortable, truly uncomfortable, then I respect that as an individual, but to make it corporate policy? Not so much. I love hands on, open palms, open ears and eyes, face to face. “Those kinds of characters” the anti-heroes, are at the nucleus of the greatest stories ever told onstage. Jobsite, the company, has obligations to its mission statement. Jobsite shares and surveys so many plays among its associates – it’s amazing and exhausting. We’re trying to find great plays. Period. As much of a fan I am about holding hands and happy endings, there is a whole lot more to do onstage. Theater that challenges and upsets might just move you to think, to feel something or see a person or situation or idea in another way. It’s absolutely necessary.

CITA: Over your span of time with Jobsite, what would you rank as the Top 5 “most uncomfortable” works—works that pushed the envelope for audiences’ social, political, and moral assumptions? What value did these pieces have for Tampa audiences and the company itself? Where does 1984 fit compared to these?

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PP: So, the play Blackbird by David Harrower immediately comes to mind. It’s the story of a shocking visit between 27-year-old Una and 55-year-old Ray at his workplace. Fifteen years earlier, he sexually abused her when she was twelve. They had unsuccessfully attempted to run off together. Ray was arrested, found guilty and jailed for three years for statutory rape. After serving his time, he tries to establish a new life for himself with a new career and a new name. Una discovers his whereabouts and tracks him down at this workplace in the break room. And this is where we find the two characters at the top of the play. Very uncomfortable. Why the hell would anyone want to do this play or see this play? It would be much easier to stay at home and watch comfort programing on Netflix. But where is the payoff? The conflict, the energy, the insight into these two people “involved” seems like an insurmountable situation. There’s a door in the room—but why doesn’t either just leave? Because that isn’t what this story is about. It is very easy to simply decide that one person here is the guilty one (and he is), but what would make this now young woman come back to confront him, to experience … god knows what?

Does he deserve a chance at a new life? He served his time. Why does she seek him out now? What is she searching for? Redemption? Revenge? A relationship? We don’t know. The characters don’t even know. The theater, this play, gives you an opportunity to be in that room. It creates a dialogue, and it is UNCOMFORTABLE.

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Topdog/Underdog by Suzi-Lori Parks is a play about two African American brothers struggling to make ends meet. Abandoned by their parents when they were teenagers, Lincoln and Booth, now in their thirties, were forced to learn to survive relying on themselves. Poverty, family relationships and responsibilities, honesty, dishonesty—are just some of the themes in this uncomfortable play. To say that the play does not have a happy ending is an understatement. Life and the cards you’re dealt are sometimes inescapable. You are not going to get the whole story in a 60 second news segment. You don’t get the whole story in a 90-minute play. We do gain some perspective as audience members. We can and do learn in the theater.

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Annapurna by Sharr White is the story of a man and woman who were married twenty years ago and haven’t seen each other since the man, in an alcoholic state, was responsible for a terrible accident with their five-year-old son. Now living alone, off the grid, his ex-wife comes to find him sober and terminally ill. Her mission is to prepare him for a visit from his son. Why? Uncomfortable. As the audience, we have to know: after all this history, did love survive? My god—theater is so beautiful to give us the chance to see and feel inside the hearts of those who hurt, of those who hurt us.

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The Guys by Anne Nelson is based on the true story about a fire captain faced with the responsibility of writing the eulogies for eight of his lost brothers, post 9/11. Uncomfortable. The beauty of this play is the humanity shared with a writer to help the captain capture the truth and personalities of these “regular” guys. A tough swallow, a hard sell … but grace and beauty beyond belief. Uncomfortable on the surface—try telling someone to go see a play about dead firemen. Then, go talk to audience members post-show, and you’ll see people at their best. The play creates so much appreciation for the men, for the shared experience of dealing with 9/11 and for the actors who carry the story.

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Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire is the story of a young husband and wife who tragically and accidentally lost their son while he was innocently chasing the family dog. To witness the near impossible task of how a couple, a family, can or cannot come back from what many would consider the worst loss any human could experience, the loss of a child … that’s uncomfortable.

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In George Orwell’s 1984, the character of Winston Smith is determined to remain human under rather inhuman circumstances. Although I’m drawing up the plot rather simply, there are many parallels to the other plays I’ve mentioned. A human spirit, a well-meaning human spirit, may not always fare well or best in a human world but the difficulties, the divide and the incongruities of them make for great theater and many valuable lessons no matter where you live.

CITA: The play version of 1984 opens April 25. It will hardly be a jolly night at the theater as the audience watches an average citizen interrogated for Thoughtcrimes in a dystopian (read: alarmingly familiar) society. We’re inundated with traumatic stories on an hourly basis, day after day, year after year, thanks to social media, so why continue to use theater as a space to provoke us in ways that social media now does? Why not have each play be a happy escapist fantasy vs. an artistic rendering of a dystopian reality? Tangentially, where do we find hope in 1984? Where do we find hope in being uncomfortable in the theater?

PP: Yes! 1984 opens April 25th, and it will be a jolly night in the theater—if you are open to it. First and foremost, we are absolutely privileged to be in that intimate space. The Shimberg Playhouse is getting better and better technically and aesthetically. Thank you, Straz Center. So, I know that’s not your question but that’s how I feel there … It’s been my theatrical home since the day it opened. I did the first play in that space, then called The Off Center Theater. Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll by Eric Bogosian. Again, I digress. Of course I see all the traumatic stories we are inundated with hour by hour, and it’s easy to say “No way I’m going to go see that play.” I see that horror every day on my phone—yeah, I said phone. You ask why continue to use theater as a space to provoke us in ways that social media now does. Because the theater has a heartbeat, it breathes. At its best, it brings people together to share small magnificent stories. In 1984, the hope is the fact that Winston believes that the human mind must be free. He believed this before he was tortured and forced to let go of that belief, that truth. Don’t let go of live theater—I trust you’ll find truth and perhaps comfort there.

See Winston Smith fight for humanity in Jobsite’s production of 1984, playing April 25-May 20 in The Shimberg Playhouse.

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Guess What? We Have a Brand New Podcast Series—Just for You

It’s time for the big reveal: Act2, the official podcast of the Straz Center, launched last month on Soundcloud.

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Let’s face it. Not everybody reads. Some of you won’t even make it this far. Look, no judgment here. Life’s about adapting, and lots of people would rather pop open Soundcloud on their devices and tune into something cool during their commutes, workouts or workdays. That’s fine by us because it means we get to explore new ways to create digital content and make more fun stuff.

Which brings us to: Act2, our latest creation in our digital content world—the Straz Center podcast. We’ve named it Act2 since it complements this blog, Caught in the Act, as another way to get you behind-the-scenes, on the fringes and everywhere in between. We’ve been dreaming of a podcast since 2014, but, believe it or not, as a non-profit arts organization, we often find ourselves with too many big ideas and not enough time, money and person power to get to everything we want to do. The majority of our web presence and social media engagement is done by three people. Seriously.

However, creativity finds a way. Plus, we knew we needed to add something extra for our non-reading arts-lovers. “I was talking to a co-worker about the blog and all of the cool, unique interviews we have featured there and she mentioned that she doesn’t really have a lot of time to read the blog but would listen to a podcast,” says Digital Marketing Director LeeAnn Douglas. “After speaking to a few more folks, they also mentioned that they listen to podcasts at their desks, in their cars, on the bus. It became apparent that there was this whole demographic that we aren’t reaching with our blog.”

Enter Fred Johnson, a longtime jazz vocalist, percussionist and all-around-cool-guy who almost everybody from West Tampa to Tel Aviv either knows or gigged with at some point in their career. Fred, who was the very first artist to play at The Straz when it opened (as Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center) at 1987, also served as our VP of Education before traveling far afield in other artistic callings in New York, Israel and everywhere in between. He returned in February 2018 as our Artist-in-Residence to cultivate The Straz’s relationships with the community and to start to tell the story of our artistic legacy.

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Fred Johnson

When he got here, Fred said “hey, I can do podcasts. Let’s do a podcast.”

Now here we are, about to publish our third episode of Act2 on Soundcloud.

“For my career, I’ve been an artist and a connector. I build bridges to bring folk together,” says Fred. “One of the most important elements of life is to inspire people to celebrate life together through the arts. We’re in times now where so many people are afraid of each other, so I want us [The Straz] to be welcoming, to be a place where people want to come to learn about each other. A podcast can help do that because it starts a new conversation full of information to empower the community. The community gets to learn about each other, what everybody’s doing artistically, about us and what we do here, through the podcast. It becomes connective tissue.”

LeeAnn agrees. “I love that our digital content is less about selling you a ticket and more about sharing our passion for the arts,” she says. “It gives us an opportunity to talk about all of the things that the Straz Center does that have nothing to do with putting a show on stage. And we’ll entertain requests but can’t guarantee that we’ll discuss it on the podcast. Send a message on Facebook if you want to know something in particular. We got a request to talk about Waitress and guess what? On April 26, we’re publishing a podcast about Waitress.”

“We want to be in folks’ homes and phones developing a real relationship,” says Fred. “I love doing podcasts because I love listening to people and learning about folk. People hunger for beauty, for joy, for connection, for those things that are priceless. The podcast can satisfy that hunger by including all of the richness of what everybody in this community has to offer and then offering that information out to the public. I want people to listen and feel ‘hey, a little of me lives at The Straz. That’s my place.’”

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Join us for Act2 as we release a new podcast every few weeks. Subscribe by finding Act2 on the iTunes Store, the Podcasts app for iOS, or on the Google Play Music app for Android by searching “Straz Center.”

Out, Out Dang Spot

North Carolina soprano Jill Gardner’s musical ancestry and training led her to killing the role of Lady Macbeth.

On Friday the 13th, Opera Tampa unloads quite the murderfest with their debut performance of Verdi’s Macbeth. The bloody story of a Scottish nobleman’s immoral rise to power, Macbeth was for Shakespeare, and here, for Verdi, really a story about the greatest force behind the man: his wife, Lady Macbeth. A tough, almost impossible soprano role, Lady Macbeth demands relentless range and dark psychological depth. “There are few singers who can do this role,” says conductor Andrew Basantz. “Jill can.” He means Jill Gardner, a well-loved Southern soprano who is a Puccini girl with a Verdi habit. She performs for her first time with Opera Tampa in this complex powerhouse role.

Here, we talk with her about her upbringing in the tobacco country of North Carolina and how that led to the opera stage and her deep understanding of what it takes to be successful as one of the most loathed characters in the canon.

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CAUGHT IN THE ACT: We’re both North Carolina girls who experienced an agricultural upbringing. I never worked tobacco, but I did pick peas and butterbeans and shuck corn. You grew up around Tobaccoville, NC, having to pick tobacco in the summer. For people who may not have any idea of the hell that is tobacco farming in North Carolina, especially in the North Carolina summer, paint us a picture of what it was like.

JILL GARDNER: I was born in Winston Salem, North Carolina, but we moved into my great-aunt’s house who died in 1977, still using an outhouse and drawing her water from a well. When she died, we moved into her house. My dad put in a bathroom, made plumbing. My parents were educators. My dad went on to build houses, but in the summertime for six summers of my life, we raised tobacco north of Tobaccoville in Surry County.

It was a family affair in the fact that our family grew it. My grandfather at that time was very much the patriarch of the family, shall we say. My grandmother and her sisters were the ones to string [the tobacco]. They would hang it in the tobacco barn, but we, the cousins, all the other parts of the family, came together when it came time to pick it. It’s labor intensive. Now, we have machines and all these kinds of things to do this, but it was labor intensive. Very hot, very sticky, that process.

But for us, the cool thing was that it was about family. It was a family affair, and on both sides of my family. My grandparents. I got to know three of my great-grandparents as well, in that good old Southern tradition. That generation especially were total agricultural people, so I truly have those roots. That’s, I think, why I love to garden when I’m not on the road.

CITA: For those of you who don’t know, back in this day when Jill and I were growing up, the fall in North Carolina was when the tobacco cured.

JG: Correct.

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A tobacco field in Harnett County, N.C. (Photo: bumeister1 / Flickr)

CITA: Curing tobacco is the most nostalgic smell for me. When I’m in North Carolina, if I smell tobacco curing—and it doesn’t smell like smoke; it smells like very thick fragrant plant leaves mellowing out—it is the most beautiful smell.

JG: Yes, and growing up in Winston where the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Industry was downtown, that was the joy of going downtown, because the whole town smelled of curing tobacco. In Tobaccoville now, the hometown where I grew up, the last remaining R. J. Reynolds plant is still there, so at certain times of the day, you will still get that aroma, which is what’s very cool too. But I do know what you mean about nostalgia. Southern tradition.

CITA: Southern tradition, honey. Let’s talk about how do you get from Tobaccoville to Lady Macbeth, and I want to say too that a lot of people don’t associate North Carolina with this rich arts tradition, which is amazing if you’re from North Carolina, because in Winston-Salem, up around where you were, and then down where I was in Wilmington, the arts are huge. We have had so much artistic contribution, so much artistic output come from North Carolina that the arts – singing, dancing, music – is as inbred in us as tobacco was coming up.

JG: Correct. Very well said.

CITA: Talk a little bit about from Tobaccoville to-

JG: Lady Macbeth.

CITA: Verdi’s’ Lady Macbeth at that.

JG: That’s exactly right. I guess, to go back . . . my mother’s side of the family was very musical. My great-grandmother was a pianist, and she had several brothers and sisters—one was a violinist, another one played another instrument … I can’t remember now—it eludes me a little bit, but they were extremely musical. My mom was taking piano lessons when I was born, and she said I came out of the womb and went straight to the piano bench. I actually knocked my front teeth out on my great-grandmother’s piano bench trying to get up on that thing.

When I was growing up, she said it was very clear I had this passion for music. Also, in this Southern tradition, we would go down to my great-grandmother’s very often to have family reunions. She had 14 children, two of which died, so she oftentimes talked about the fact that she had her children in quartets. They would go around—they were Pentecostal Holiness people—and they would go around and do quartet singing.

When I would go to my great-grandmother’s, we’d end up in the front living room where the piano was, and there’d be 25 of us in there. On Sunday afternoons after you ate, you’d get up in there, and we’d have “church.” We would sing hymns. I can remember sitting between my Grandmother Teva and my great-aunt Bridget. In the southern tradition, the tenors sang the lead, and the women harmonized with the bass, so I learned how to sing harmony from my grandmother and my great-aunt.

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Jill performing the role of Nedda in I Pagliacci at Mill City Summer Opera in 2012.

To fast forward a little bit, it was very clear that music was going to be my passion. I’d studied the violin for five years. I took dance/ballet for almost four years until my body blossomed. [Laughs] You know, we had to move along on that. By the time I got to high school, I was active in my church singing. I did shows in high school like everyone else, but I really didn’t know that I was going to be an opera singer.

Luckily, to go back to what you were talking about, because of the arts history in North Carolina, the North Carolina Arts Council as well as the local Arts Council of Forsyth County are very huge and very instrumental within our state. At that time, my hometown opera company, Piedmont Opera Company, put on productions twice a year. That’s where I saw my first opera, which was Marriage of Figaro.

In my class at that time, one of my assignments was to write a letter, and I wrote—my mother kept this letter after all these years—about having this experience. The last line of that letter says, “I think opera is going to have a big place in my life.”

CITA: How old were you?

JG: I was about sixth grade.

CITA: Wow. So, you were young, but you had—

JG: I made that connection [with opera], but my passion was the piano. By the time I got to high school, I had a little spinet piano in our little 1200-square-foot house, and I would practice four to six hours a day—to the point that my parents at night would say, “Jill, we have to go to bed.” I had this passion for piano, so upon completion of high school, I got a full scholarship to go and study with this teacher who I’d worked with in my senior year, Constance Carroll.

At that time, she was at a private liberal arts college in Shreveport, Louisiana, called Centenary College of Louisiana, so I got a full scholarship as a piano performance major to go to this school. I decided to take a voice minor and formally study voice. I was very fortunate to have a wonderful teacher who allowed my voice to train naturally through really good fundamental technique but to address my voice through repertoire.

Mid-undergrad work, I started entering competitions and won. People were like, “Why aren’t you going to be a singer?” And I was like, “Because I’m going to be a pianist.”

CITA: So then singing was just-

JG: Well, see. I think a part of it, too, is that it was clear that I was a singer, and, like I said, I always sang in church and school shows, and I had leads and the whole nine yards. Maybe it was because of my background; it was never really a thought like so many people have now, because opera is so prevalent in our national scene, to go and be an opera singer. I also think it was because I felt so passionately about the piano, which I still do.

I’m so thankful for my piano background because musically it has given me an advantage to being a singer and to have all of that stylistic and musical history from studying music as long as I did. I take all of that in—particularly to something like Verdi’s Lady Macbeth. I have such respect for that music, for his lines and his phrasing and his articulation and the way that he conceives of this music because of my background.

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Jill performing in Tosca at Mill City Summer Opera in 2014.

I also, because of that background, can learn so much of my music myself. I can teach myself at the piano, and many, many singers can’t. When I talk to singers about that, some of them are very jealous of because they would love to be able to do teach themselves their music.

It was in my undergraduate degree where the idea even arose, and so at the end of that degree, I’d gotten into a couple of schools for graduate work in piano, but I really sort of, as we say in the South, had a Come to Jesus moment. I realized, “This is pretty cool, but I think I would really love to study voice.” So, from there, from Louisiana, I decided to move home and attend the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, to get my master’s degree.

CITA: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro is a highly respected music school. We have a lot of really exceptionally well-trained, very gifted musicians who go through the UNCG music program because it is so well known.

JG: I went there because I knew it was a good school, and by being a North Carolina resident, the tuition was feasible. I also knew I did not want to have a lot of student loan debt. We all have to make decisions as we go down these paths, and it was a really, really, really good decision for me.

CITA: You knew opera was your vocal path?

JG: I knew opera would be my focus, even though I continued to play piano. I’ve now started to do some teaching. That’s what keeps my piano chops up because I can play so much of the repertoire when I am teaching. So, it ended up working out really well. I oftentimes say to younger singers that I meet who I work with through master classes is as soon as you can immerse yourself in a real strong musical background, the stronger you’re going to be from the standpoint of being a singer.

So much of the singing industry now is about how you look, which is important too. I’m not saying it’s not. I think it is important for us to take the responsibility of being physically healthy and able to do anything on the stage from the standpoint of characterization. But, it’s still about the music for me. I’ll never really get to the place to where opera will be just a spectator sport, like a film experience. It’s still about the music for me.

I think for young singers, that’s one of the things that I impress upon them, is to really respect music and work to gain as much musical prowess as you can because that also influences the voice. For me, having had all that background, I think that’s a part of what really has led to my success.

CITA: So let’s talk about Lady Macbeth. This is a tough role.

JG: Oh, my Lord. It’s not for children.

CITA: It’s a demanding role. Lady Macbeth herself, from Shakespeare’s creation to what we’re going to see in your presentation of Verdi’s adaptation of that work, she is a deep, dark character. This really is her play even though it’s called Macbeth and is . . . sort of about him. Do you see yourself as a Lady Macbeth character or was this a stretch for you? Or was it something that you wanted to do, something that you felt that you could come to naturally?

JG: Yeah, well, I guess what I’d say is I went professional as an opera singer in 2005, so I’ve been doing this now for a little over 13 years. It was very clear that the Italian repertoire was going to be one of the main focuses of my singing career. Not that it’s the only focus; I’ve done French repertoire, German repertoire, Czech repertoire, contemporary operas to last season I did my first Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire, for instance, which I absolutely love. But, it was very clear that the Italian repertoire was going to be my mainstay, and so much of that has been Puccini.

I’ve sung almost all of Puccini’s heroines. The one on the horizon will be Turandot, which I think I will do in the proper time and place. Because of that, it was very clear. I sang Traviata, which is probably one of Verdi’s most famous operas, and a couple of years ago, I did my first Leonora in Il Trovatore.

As the voice has developed, it was very clear that Lady Macbeth was a natural role for me to take on, and the beauty was a director that I had worked with in several different Puccini productions was Jay Lessinger, who was the artistic director of Chautauqua opera for many, many seasons.

Jay approached me. We were talking about possibly doing Tosca in Chautauqua, but he said, “What do you think about Lady Macbeth?” You know, those synergistic moments in life when serendipity just drops into your life, and you go, “What do I think about Lady Macbeth? I’ve been waiting for somebody to say, ‘what do you think about Lady Macbeth?’” It was also a wonderful place for me to try it out for the first time. It was a great director, really good conductor too. In preparing it, I knew I could really accept the vocal challenge.

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Jill performing in Hawai’i Opera Theatre’s 2017 production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Coming to Opera Tampa, like you said, which is my debut here, I’m really thankful to have had [other chances to play her]… From Chitauqua, I then went to Michigan Opera Theater where I did the role with Bernard Uzan directing and Stephen Lord conducting, which was another huge impetus for me, not only dramatically but musically in growing this role, so that I do feel that I bring to Tampa a really fleshed-out Lady Macbeth. Every role we have continues to grow, but she’s very much a part of Jill and my psyche and my being.

To talk about the character, that’s why they call it acting. Does Jill Gardner have dark sides to her? Oh, my Lord! We all have a shadow side, and I think what I really respect about Lady Macbeth is that even from the story of Shakespeare, she was a woman who had huge ambitions, but at that point in time on our planet in our historical journey of humanity, women truly were not allowed to have any place other than a lesser station in life—and she was born with huge ambition.

Lady Macbeth is as much a yang, fire, male-dominated character as Macbeth is the yin, contemplative, deeply empathetic and psychically aware character. So the conflicts within us, I think, are very real and can be understood in today’s life, in today’s society, because I think a lot of people feel that way, particularly as we grapple with gender identity now. We’re going to that level within the human experience on the planet, right?

CITA: Right.

JG: She was a woman who I think was caught in a body and a societal situation which would not allow her to seek the full fulfillment of her desires and ambitions. Her only object, or her only way to achieve [what she wanted] was through marriage—but not just any marriage; she married this man who was a warrior, a soldier, and, to a certain extent, with aspirations of his own. But given the kind of soul that he was, he just did not have that ambizione, which is the very first word I sing. He just doesn’t have it.

CITA: Which means what?

JG: “Ambitious.” To have this ambitious nature. And so she lives her experience through him. If she could do this herself, she would, but she can’t, so she has to live this [ambition] through him. And the interesting thing about their relationship, I think, is that it is extremely intense. I think it is extremely sexual and therefore power-dominated. Although she’s the more aggressive one in the relationship, it’s not that he doesn’t have these desires, too; he’s just the one to question. He’s the one that has much more of an empathetic sense about ‘what are my choices and what are the ramifications of these choices,’ whereas she doesn’t think about that. She just sees the goal and goes for it.

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Jill and Mark Rucker in rehearsal for Opera Tampa’s upcoming production of Macbeth.

With the presence of the witches and that culture also within the story, for me, I think she’s very much aligned with the witches. I think that she herself is a witch and has spent time within that community of women because that was the only place where they could really revel in and express their power. It’s black magic, or it’s the darker elements, but still they were the feminine elements at that time that could not be expressed or understood. So, she lives there with them, and that’s why I think she has the need and the desire to control and gain what she wants.

CITA: Through the means that she has available to her.

JG: Correct.

CITA: You know, it has always bothered me in the plot trajectory that she goes mad at the end, and people say, “She goes crazy because of guilt.” I’m like, “But there’s been no indication that her character would feel guilty.” In your understanding of her in the context of the play, it’s better for me to understand it as she is mad with frustration, not guilt. That everything that she would have done, or could have done if she had been able to . . . things go so sideways for her and her plans because Macbeth is not her, but he is the only tool that she has.

Now, thanks to you, when I see the play again, I will have a different understanding of what might be driving her psychological madness, which is not guilt or feelings of conscience but a sense of “What could have been if had really been able to control this the way that I had wanted to.”

JG: Well, and also, again, the beauty of this from the standpoint of the operatic tradition is Verdi chose to include the understanding that this woman, because she was unfulfilled, like you say. For me, the reason that she goes mad is because her desires for power and ambition lead her to this psychological breakdown, and it’s not lost on me that the key of D flat, which is the key of her very first aria of ambition—the Vieni t’affretta.

Basically, she’s trying to express her desire for Macbeth to rise to the challenge of power and stance, and to burn within his heart these feelings. Then the key of the mad scene, the sleepwalking scene (and I’d like to say something about that) is also in the key of D flat. So therefore, by the time I arrive at that, I musically, psychically and emotionally understand that I go mad from the ambitions of which I am driven.

Verdi chose that same key to link those emotional responses. I think that the point is, in the somnambulant scene, it’s not that she’s mad; she’s sleepwalking. So these people, when they’re in this state, are awake, and they’re awake in a way, in this kind of dream state, that they never achieved in real life, and so that level of awareness and consciousness is there to help her see what she did.

CITA:. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the plot of Macbeth, there is a chain of events set up by witches’ prophecy that arcs toward this sleepwalking scene that Jill is talking about right now where Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking in the most challenging aria of the opera. Verdi set it up this way.

JG: Thank you.

CITA: When he was writing Macbeth he felt so passionately about Shakespeare, so passionately about this story that he wanted a soprano who was able to sing and pull off a vulgar, brutish tone which was unheard of at this time. So we’re talking about a very historically important aria.

JG: What was very unique about this particular character when he wrote her—and if you talk to Italians or if you work with Italians on Macbeth—many of them believe that there is no redeeming quality about Lady Macbeth at all, and if you’re trying to find it, you’re wrong. I love that. I completely understand that because he wanted to be able to have that mirror between the character and the voice. I think that’s also one of the wonderful things about opera, is that we’re not just dramatically portraying the story on the stage; we’re taking it to a new level by adding the music and the voice, right?

For me, as an American and an American woman, there’s a part of me that wants to find – not that I’m trying to necessarily portray this obviously on the stage – but needs to understand the redemptive quality of why she goes here [to the psychological state of the sleepwalking scene].

CITA: Absolutely. And I think it’s an authentic understanding of the human psyche, not just lady Macbeth as a flat character, that she’s a bad seed who wants too much and ends up creating a body count. She was very frustrated by her circumstance because she didn’t have anything the Thane of Cawdor didn’t have or Macbeth himself didn’t have or Duncan didn’t have.

JG: Because women were nothing then.

CITA: She had no way to be her true self, to act on her ambition as a human being. All she could be was background to Macbeth’s life.

JG: Correct, and like on our planet right now, I can look at that power dynamic and understand and have a sense through the present day of what women in her time period felt—the lack of achievement or position or ascension within the culture, or not even those things, just lack of recognition. So, for Jill at this juncture in looking at this character and also that opera is relevant to our current life experiences, this girl [Lady Macbeth] I can really understand in a personal way what led her to her choices. I’ve thought about killing people, I’ll readily admit it to you! [laughs] Never done it, but I’m telling you, I’ve thought about killing people.

Yet, she not only thought about it; she knew she had to do it to get what she wanted. For example, a modern-day revelation of this kind of character, within our TV series world, for me, is Robin Wright on House of Cards. Not that she doesn’t have power or she’s not a modern-day woman, but it’s very clear, given her position even in that situation, she’s still Mrs. Frank Underwood, and she has to work behind the scenes to get her agenda done. That is similar to Lady Macbeth.

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I also think it’s okay that Verdi thought of this character one-dimensionally because there are a lot of people, and there are characters within the operatic canon too, that are just downright evil. I mean, they are the personification of evil, and that’s okay.

CITA: Evil people make great stories.

JG: But see, evil people are often extremely complex, and some of the most evil men have been the most sexually provocative, hot, wonderful men, so you can understand why women were crazy for them. Now, as women evolve and get more of their equality, their equal station in life, they go,”I don’t need that.” Or “That’s not as interesting to me.” But that’s a part of evolution. That’s a part of awareness.

CITA: Exactly. Exactly.

JG: Anyway, I think that for myself, even though there’s a big part of Lady Macbeth that is evil and one-dimensional, I really try to find the humanity in her mad death.

CITA: The villainy has a complexity to it. The intricacy is in there, which I think would be such a gift to a performer because you really can take the role into any little nuances you want. Or not.

JG: The truth is, you realize that she, in her sleepwalking nature, she’s asleep but very aware and conscious to the psychological decisions and choices that she made. That’s what she talks about throughout that entire aria. It’s the “Out, out, damned spot.” It’s the “Una macchia.” It’s seeing Macbeth. It’s seeing the children that they killed. I think if you make opera cathartic, what we as singing actors or actresses are trying to portray on the stage to the audiences that come and see it, for me, I’m wanting them to see at the time what it’s like for somebody to really have a reckoning with what they did with their life.

CITA: I believe, Jill, that when our audiences are at the end of your sleepwalking scene, they will be at that reckoning. There’s no doubt in my mind that you’re going to be able to take them there. We are beyond thrilled.

JG: Well, it’s a terrific cast. I really want to speak to that, too. Mark Rucker returns to Opera Tampa. Mark is a well-loved, well-respected baritone within the opera industry, and this is my first time meeting him and working with him. In addition to being such a terrific singer, he is such sweet and kind man, so we’re having a lot of fun together within the rehearsal process.

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Jill and Mark Rucker in rehearsal for Opera Tampa’s Macbeth.

Our conductor, Andrew Basantz, who I’ve also worked with, is a terrific musician, so I think the Tampa audiences are going to be very happy about that. It’s a very modern presentation. We will be very much in traditional costumes, but it’s a very contemporary, modern set with projections in the back, so I think that audiences who have not seen Macbeth will enjoy that.

It’s Verdi opera at its best. Big choruses. It’s a huge monumental work that’s not often done because of that. So, good on Opera Tampa for bringing it here for the audiences here. That in and of itself is exciting. I hope everyone will look forward to it.

Want to see Opera Tampa’s Macbeth? Get your tickets here.

When Things Get Wyrd, Shake(speare) It Off

Giuseppe Verdi’s version of “more cowbell” looks something like an entire chorus of witches in Macbeth versus the Bard’s three.

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“Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches on the heath” by Théodore Chassériau, 1855.

In 1597, King James of Scotland wrote a work of what he considered to be definitive scholarship: Daemonologie, a paper on witchcraft. James, widely regarded by self and others to be an expert on the subject, knew, without a shred of empirical proof, that witches were real women, usually old and greedy, determined to exact a reckless vengeance on a hapless person. Thus, when he ascended to the British throne as King James I—personally overseeing the English translation of the Bible as well as the torture of women accused of witchcraft—the mighty poet of the day saw a golden opportunity.

William Shakespeare took James’s witch fancy to the page, crafting his typical low-brow, high lyricism into a play about a Scottish king bandied about by the prophecy of three witches plotting upon a heath. The play is full of insider homages to the king as well as a cautionary tale about the need for power and more power. The witches, then, play to the King’s favor; Shakespeare termed them the “Wyrd Sisters,” using the Old English word for “fate” (“wyrd”) that, over time, morphed into the word “weird” and eventually came to a very different meaning.

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The title page of Shakespeare’s play, printed in the Second Folio of 1632 (left) and the poster for the premiere of Verdi’s opera (right).

However, the meaning of the witches in Macbeth, for both Shakespeare and Verdi, remains the same. They are the characters who set the calamity in motion, provide the discordant notes that set the mere mortal mind morally adrift, and they prey upon an audience’s imagination for the supernatural.

Verdi adored Shakespeare’s plays. Even though he read the Bard’s works translated into Italian, he knew he’d eventually turn some of the plays into operas. Macbeth was the first, written when Verdi was 34, later followed by Otello and Falstaff after a ten-year absence from composing. Verdi viewed the witches as the third central character with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth noting, “the witches dominate the drama; everything stems from them … they make up a real character, and one of the greatest importance.”

Veering courageously from convention, Verdi chose to make his witches’ and Lady’s voices rough, dark and devilish—a far cry from the bel canto bravura common for the day. In fact, Macbeth marks the first instance of an opera composer subjecting the voice to the vision of the drama instead of vice versa. As he instructed his librettist: “adopt a sublime diction except for the witches’ choruses, which must be vulgar, yet bizarre and original.”

In an interesting exegesis of the opera, scholar Daniel Albright notes in the Cambridge Opera Journal (2005) that, musically, Lady Macbeth herself takes on the witches’ tonal patterns and singing qualities, essentially inducting her as the final witch of the coven, her fate sealed to a phantom splash of blood on her hand that eventually drives her to her death. This scene, the famous “sleepwalking” scene of the opera, symbolically folds Lady into the witches’ master plan to undo the lives of humans for their own greedy, elderly thrills. Lady, as a witch in her own right, gets sent back to hell, metaphorically speaking, where all witches belong—at least according to King James, whose antics, in retrospect, earned him the nickname, “the wisest fool in Christendom.”

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“The sleepwalking Lady Macbeth” by Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1781-1784.

But, as fate would have it, opera lovers for the past 870 years have thrilled at Verdi’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s wyrd little drama to please the predilections of a new king. Expect the same delight at Opera Tampa’s trip from Birnam Wood and Dunsinane.

 

Want to see Opera Tampa’s production of Macbeth? Get your tickets here.

Some Superheroes Wear SCUBA Gear

National Geographic photographer and founder of SeaLegacy.org Cristina Mittermeier gets real about growing up as a rural Mexican woman to creating the field of “conservation photography” in the fight for sustainable life on Earth. Here, she gives an exclusive interview for Caught in the Act.

On April 3, Cristina Mittermeier appears at The Straz as the final speaker in our National Geographic LIVE! series. She’s tied to the Tampa Bay area because her son is an Eckerd College graduate who recently moved from St. Pete to Miami. Mittermeier, born in Mexico City and moved an hour south as a child, grew up in Cuernacava, close to Ocotepec, a town occupied by indigenous people of Nahua origin. Through an incredible journey she details in this interview, Mittermeier became a world-renowned photographer whose heart-stopping images tell the blistering story of the consequences of climate change and the ultimately hopeful tale of the fragile, unequivocal interdependence of all life on earth. We caught up with her by phone to find out more about her and her work before she meets us At the Water’s Edge for her National Geographic LIVE! presentation in Ferguson Hall.

Cristina Mittermeier

Photo: Paul Nicklen

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: Your images are so compelling, and your personal story is so compelling that we wanted to start at the beginning. Will you tell us a little bit about where you grew up in Mexico?

CRISTINA MITTERMEIER: Yeah, my parents moved us from Mexico City to a smaller town up in the mountains called Cuernavaca, about one hour south of Mexico City. At the time that I lived there in 1976 it was a very small town. There were cows in my neighborhood. I walked to school through cow fields. So I had a very nature, outdoor childhood, but I don’t know where the love of the ocean comes from. I’ve always had this enormous attraction to the ocean. In high school somebody came to my school to talk about careers in science, I had the opportunity to go to a university that had a marine degree program that was called biochemical engineering and marine sciences. I had visions of swimming with dolphins, but it was really office work in aquaculture. So, I went to school to learn how to catch fish.

CITA: Where you grew up in Mexico was a rural life, an inland life?

CM: Very much so, yeah. It was very much part of indigenous communities around where I grew up, so I grew up with a lot of indigenous people that oftentimes didn’t even speak Spanish.

CITA: For those of us who aren’t familiar with this part of Mexico, can you tell us who these indigenous people were and then what the language was that they were speaking and how this influenced you? Because, you would end up pursuing life with other indigenous cultures.

CM: Well, first of all, I was raised by an indigenous woman from the tribe known as the Otomi, which are descendants of the Aztecs.

CITA: Oh wow.

CM: She raised me from the time I was a little girl. She came to work for our family when I was less than a year old. She left after I got married. So, I grew up listening to somebody speak a different language. In the community where I grew up, there were lots of different types of indigenous people and these indigenous communities are living cultures. Anyway, the village that I grew up next to is called Ocotepec. My house that I grew up in was actually on their land, and my parents leased it from the tribal council. So that was really fun.

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Young Vezo fisherwomen on the beaches of Madagascar. (Photo: Cristina Mittermeier)

CITA: What kind of impression did this make on you as a little girl? Was there something in you that knew there was something so special about what you were experiencing?

CM: You know, Mexico still has a very large population of indigenous people of many, many tribes. It is absolutely not unusual to live and spend time among them. I never really thought much about it, but I did learn how to feel comfortable with people that are very different from me. For me, it’s always been really easy to walk into an indigenous community and fall into the rhythms and the fabric of indigenous life, which is much more contemplative. People do a lot less talking and a lot more listening. … Mexico has 10 million indigenous people. I know, even though we’ve been colonized for 500 years so …

CITA: Our colonization story is very, very different because our indigenous people are scattered hither and yon and is such a dwindling population. Even in Florida, the study of our indigenous people is quite devastating; we only have a very small number that are left.

CM: Florida’s a special case because it was initially colonized by Spaniards like Mexico was. The difference between the colonization in the United States, like the colonies, and the rest of Latin America was the Pilgrims brought the wives with them, so they didn’t intermarry with the indigenous population. Whereas, the conquerors from Spain who came to Mexico, they were just warriors, so they quickly started procreating with the local Indian women and created a new race. So to this day indigenous populations are very much intertwined into Mexican culture.

CITA: And your family … did you have a big family where you grew up? Were they responsible for helping influence you on your very interesting life path?

CM: No. I have a very typical Mexican family; my parents are professional, middle-class. My dad is an accountant, my mom has a PhD in Psychology. I am one of five children, so my parents were not particularly outdoorsy, but they were pretty good about sending us out to summer camp. I came to Canada as a teenager to summer camp, and I believe that’s where I really learned to be outdoorsy. To enjoy swimming in cold water [laughs].

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Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

CITA: So, you’re an inland person, you don’t have outdoorsy parents. Were you reading books? How did your mysticism, or your compulsion to be drawn to the sea … how was that sparked in you?

CM: Actually, my dad bought for my older brother a series of books. They were these amazing adventure books written by an Italian writer, Emilio Salgari, who never left Italy, but he wrote amazing adventures about the Wild West of the United States. He specifically wrote a series of books on the pirates of Malaysia. I devoured those books because he wrote with incredible detail about these adventures at sea and these magical, tropical islands where these pirates were having all these adventures. I think that’s a huge influence. Sadly, those books were never translated to English, such a shame.

CITA: Books shaped our entire understanding of reality, that’s why we love animals and the outdoors, because that was always what we were attracted to—far flung adventures with animals.

CM: Because my mother was an intellectual, we had a good library at home. She brought home Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb.

CITA: Really?

CM: Oh, yeah. By the time I was 14 or 16, I was reading books like that and it really—I’d say, scarred me and terrified me.

CITA: One of the things that we really like about you is that you live in a lot of different worlds simultaneously. You talk in interviews about being both a scientist and also being an artist. So, can you talk a little bit about how your training as a scientist and as an artist informs your approach to photography?

CM: Yeah. So, I went onto these universities thinking that I was gonna go swimming with dolphins and what they were teaching me, really, were the industrial practices of fishing. So it was very upsetting to me as an animal lover to go on those fishing boats and see all the bycatch: the dolphins, the turtles and all the animals that die so that we can eat fish. I always knew that, that’s not what I wanted to do, but I also knew that, that’s the thing about fishing, especially aquaculture projects—whenever they’re done properly, they are truly the answer to save humanity. And so that was inspiring. [laughs] What was the question again?

CITA [laughs]: How your training as a scientist and as an artist informs your photography.

CM: Yes. So, when I left university, my first job was actually not in fishing but coastal work in conservation. I honestly thought that if you wrote scientific papers that were going to be, just, incredible, people would go, “Of course. This is what we are going to do.” But it takes time, a year or two collaborating with other authors and writing scientific papers that nobody reads. So I was very frustrated. I stumbled upon photography by chance. I’ve always liked art. You know, I was always a doodler as a child, I was painting and doing little crafts and projects. When I found photography, it just became this great outlet to showcase what I thought was really urgent. I’d always have to be informed by science. Photography is a great combination of art, science and conservation. It has to be beautiful. If I’m able to make three or four of those pictures a year, I consider myself really lucky. The photographs have to tell stories. They have to draw people in. When you show somebody a photograph, people are much more likely to want to engage in dialogue in asking you about what they’re seeing, which doesn’t happen with science. So, that was like a big, “Aha!” moment for me.

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Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

CITA: How did you find photography? Did somebody just give you a camera? Or, you saw some photographs and thought, “Wow, I’d like to do that”?

CM: My first husband is a collector, and he always has a camera with him to document the data he collects. Very, very early on in our marriage, I was 24, 25 years old. I was literally carrying his camera for him. We were visiting a small village in the Amazon so I snapped a couple of pictures. When we came home, [a museum held an exhibition] on the Amazonian arts, and they wanted images from this particular village. So he sent a box of slides. When we showed up for the opening, on the walls of the building, was my picture. And it was credited to him.

CITA: Are you kidding us?

CM: I know. It was a picture of a man wearing a headdress standing in front of a dark background. I thought, “Wow, that’s beautiful. I didn’t know that a camera could do that.” So, I went back to school, I went back to the Corcoran College for the Arts. At that time, I was already a young mother of my two children and then from my ex-husband’s first marriage we had a third one, and you know what? I wanted out of the house. [laughs] I went back to school get away from those children.

CITA: Honey, we hear you.

CM: But that was great, to be able to go back to school to learn a new way of looking at art. I was incredibly lucky, because my ex-husband was president of Conservation International and that was my first job out of university so I met him. When we married and moved to Washington, DC, I couldn’t continue working for Conservation International because there was a conflict of interest.

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Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

But, the CEO of the organization, Peter Seligmann, is a very generous and wonderful man because he allowed me to volunteer. We traveled a lot, visiting a hundred countries … I had my camera, so I could take all these pictures of places where Conservation International worked. I started donating my images to them and then writing an article for them. Over time, they hired me back, and I became the director of visual communication. I basically brought the idea that visuals are really important to conservation. At that time, most conservation organizations didn’t even have a budget for proper visuals. So, I was able to pioneer the idea that people only care if they see something that’s really compelling and beautiful.

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Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

So that was kind of the like, the journey into photography. Then as I became more and more involved in the world of nature photography, I started attending conferences. Hundreds of photographers would go to these conferences—they were interested in talking about filters and about the latest camera. I wanted to know, could we use our images to try to save the places where we were photographing? I was told, “No.” People didn’t want to get in the environmental arguments. So, you know, I said. “Okay, I’m gonna create my own organization” [The International League of Conservation Photographers].

CITA: So, help us understand. This is the 80s, early 90s. What was the driving philosophy to distance yourself as a photographer from conservation? As a photographer, you just document, you don’t get involved?

CM: Well, no … I mean, what I was witnessing was something really interesting. There were a handful of photographers that were making great contributions to conservation with their photographs, like Nick Nichols, who would walk 2000 miles from Cameroon to Gabon following elephant trails to get people to make a national park. He was a nature photographer. Then there were little old ladies at the same conference with their camera, taking pictures of flowers in their gardens. They were called nature photographers. I said, “Well, you know, there’s a huge discrepancy here. This man is actually using the camera for conservation.” So, I coined the term “conservation photography” and I wrote up a peer-reviewed paper about what it is and how it’s different from nature photography. That gave birth to a whole generation of photographers who, today, call themselves conservation photographers.

CITA: That’s extraordinary. Let’s follow up with this idea of visual storytelling: When you’re looking at your images, what makes a picture a visual story? Do you also think about things like tension? Characters? What role are light and shadow playing?

CM: I come from the school National Geographic storytelling, and I’ve had a very close relationship with the director for many years. As the photographer, you had an opportunity to have, maybe, twelve photographs. Eighteen, if your story is really good. In those twelve photographs, you had to tell the whole story. So there’s a narrative that has to be built. You have to have a sense of place; then, you have to establish who your characters are. Then you have to give them a context and some action—then you have to sew some details. So, there’s a methodology for telling stories with pictures, but every single picture has to do a lot of work to complete the story. The best pictures are the ones that can tell the whole story in just a single image.

Those are the ones that become really iconic. If I say, “Vietnam War napalm,” I know the image that’s in your head right now because that is the storytelling image that tells the entire story of how the Vietnam war came to an end. Those images are really hard to make and hard to find.

CITA: You said earlier that you probably end up with three or four pictures a year that meet these criteria. How many photographs do you think you take in a year?

CM: Oh, I take hundreds of thousands, and they say that the better the photographer, the bigger the trash bin. Last year, I probably made two or three images that I really liked. But, there’s one in particular that stood out and that was that photograph of the starving polar bear.

starving polar bear

Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

That photograph is one of those iconic images that tells the whole story in one image. Climate change is going to have an effect on wildlife and this is what it’s going to look like. What you want to achieve with a photograph like that is for people to recognize the pain and suffering of this animal, in ourselves. To know that if we don’t do something about climate change, this is gonna be the future, not just for polar bears but for us as well. An image like that, hopefully stops people in their tracks and makes them ask questions that sometimes are painful and difficult to answer, but hopefully creates debate and hopefully becomes burned into peoples consciousness so that, ten years from now when we look back at an image like that, we’re able to say, “Yeah, that photograph helped turn the conversation on climate change and move it into a different direction.” As a photographer, you cannot ask for much more.

CITA: Cristina, that photograph—we’re gonna be honest with you, because we don’t have any separation between ourselves and animals. When we saw that photograph, we were filled with the sense of internal shrieking of despair. We felt overwhelmed that– “My god, this problem is too big. What could we possibly do?” You know, it just feels so inevitable that we’re on the path that this polar bear is already experiencing. So much of your work is about helping people to act, to see these images and to act for change. But, how do you find hope? How do you keep going?

CM: Because I know that we already have a lot of the solutions in place, and the reason they’re not happening is because we don’t have the political will to make them a reality and political will is driven by public opinion. We are engaging a huge number of people in the conversation about what’s happening to our planet through photography. We’re asking people to join the tide, to join the membership [of SeaLegacy.org]. It’s a monthly membership where people donate however much they can. Some people give us three dollars, some people give us a thousand dollars a month. But, that money we’re investing into solutions. Last month we invested thirty thousand dollars in the prototype of a coral reef regeneration unit made out of a special cement that has nano-materials, super high-tech, to regrow coral. So, if it works, we’re going to be replanting a million head of coral in the Caribbean. That’s just one example.

CITA: My god.

CM: I know. We are looking at permaculture that’s revitalizing coastal ecosystems like mangroves and kelp forests, 3D ocean farming, … this is where it all comes together, you know, all those years of studying aquaculture, we now can apply that knowledge to aquaculture in modern times. All of these things already exist, they’re in a book by Paul Hawken called Drawdown which talks about all the solutions to start pulling carbon from the atmosphere. The other thing that people should be talking more about is the fact that there’s already a third industrial revolution happening. Entire economies, the European Union and China have already transitioned their economy into a fossil fuel free economy. They’re transitioning to renewables and here we are in the United States, arguing about pipelines and fossil fuels, you know? Which is the technology of the dying industrial revolution. So, we need to shift the conversation. We need to change the story, and I do that with photographs. We are going to transition.

CITA: That gives us hope, especially here in Florida, as a state surrounded by ocean. Our economy depends on the health of our water, the health of our ocean and on our aquifers and we’re still struggling, you know? In the old industrial revolution, the old political development model, trying to shift our conversation to exactly what it is that you’re talking about. So, to know that on an international level, everything is already in place, it’s like, “Okay, so we just have to get from where we are to where you are.” Which is exciting. This is very exciting.

CM: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. But, you know, there’s a lot of hope when you think that Germany already has thirty-five percent of its entire energy come from renewables. Where I live here, in British Columbia, ninety-five percent of our energy is non-fossil fuel. It comes from hydro-electrics [and other sources]. So, it’s happening. We just need for it to happen faster.

CITA: Alright, so we’ll leave this last question open to interpretation. Is there anything that you ever want to talk about that you don’t get a chance to mention in interviews like this that you would like to mention now?

CM: That’s a very interesting question. Um, you know, I think because we live in the era of the internet, people look at my career and the only thing they see is a highlight reel. They see the successful career, you know, these contributions and achievements. But, behind the scenes, of course, there’s the long journey of the struggling photographer. All the rejections, the letters that you send to editors that are sent back. [My career] hasn’t been free of bumps and I think, to be a successful photographer, I … lost my first marriage, and I feel like I hugely neglected my children.

CITA: Mm-hmm.

CM: Those things are never talked about. It’s never easy to be a woman or a Latina, a minority and forge a trail. So, it hasn’t been without its struggles. It’s wonderful to be in this place where you finally get recognition and get the microphone to share some of these idea, but I guess what I’m trying to say is, to all those new photographers out there beginning their careers and thinking that it’s never gonna happen, you just have to stick with it. Find purpose.

wolves

Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

CITA: To your point about blazing your own trail and having to make sacrifices that defy cultural expectations … What would you say to other women who are going to listen to this interview or read this interview, who are thinking to themselves, “I want to do x, y or z. But it’s not fair to my family” or “it’s not fair to my mother,” “it’s not fair to my children.” Or, “it’s not fair to my neighbors,” what would you say about sacrifice?

CM: I think especially for Latina women and for many minorities, as women, we are raised to be quiet, to be obedient, to want to be a good wife. From the time that you’re a young girl, people build this peanut gallery of insecurity in your head. So, when you think, “Oh, I want to be a photographer” your peanut gallery tells you that you shouldn’t, that it’s not for women. What you have to do is, you have to silence your peanut gallery. I imagine my peanut gallery in my head, and I walk up to a cliff—and I shove ’em over. Because if we listen to those voices in our head, we’re definitely going to stay home, afraid of going to the door of adventure and career and- you know, sometimes it’s scary, of course, but I know that when I’m a little frightened, that I’m in the right place. Because, that’s where I make the pictures that really matter to me. As women, we have to learn to silence our peanut gallery.

CITA: Agreed.

CM: I am a Mexican woman from a small town, you know? And I made it happen. I made it work. So, if I can, anybody can.

CITA: We are ecstatic that you’re going to be here and that we’ll get to see you in person with all of the photographs and stories that you’re bringing with Standing At The Waters Edge. We’re really anticipating the talk that you’re bringing here, Cristina. The audiences here are really friendly, they love the Nat Geo series, so it’s going be a very receptive audience. We have great kids who ask wonderful questions at the end. It’s usually a lot of fun for Nat Geo speakers to be here.

CM: Awesome. Well, I can’t wait. I’ll see you there in a few days.

sea grass

Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

State Thespian Spotlight: Randy Rainbow

Internet musical parody sensation Randy Rainbow launched his life in musical theater right here on Straz stages when he was a high school Thespian.

As many, many, many, many, many high schools in Florida know, this week is State Thespian Week, when almost 8000 students, teachers, chaperones and judges descend on The Straz and elsewhere in downtown Tampa to compete for top distinctions in this distinguished drama festival.

Flashback: 19 YEARS AGO

It’s 1999. President Clinton is impeached, acquitted then cited for contempt of court. The dot-com bubble looks eternal. Joe DiMaggio dies, the Yankees win the pennant and Carolyn Bassette Kennedy and her husband, John F. Kennedy, Jr., perish in a plane crash. The United States wins the Women’s World Cup (the year we all learn the name Brandi Chastain), and the Dow Jones closes at an unprecedented 11,410. Somebody buys the last New York City Checker cab for $135K at auction. It is the year of the Columbine High School massacre and the highly publicized hate crime against Wyoming man Matthew Shepard. 1999 is the year three white supremacists are convicted of felony murder for the lynching-by-dragging of John Byrd, Jr. Unemployment is at a 29-year low. George W. Bush announces he will run for President.

Yet.

A senior in high school from Plantation, Fla., stands alone on the Morsani stage. He sings his heart out in the number he’s prepared for the Florida State Thespians. He wins for solo musical and, later, with his best friend, an award for comedy scene.

That 17-year-old, defying the world with musical theater comedy, is Randy Rainbow.

Cut to: PRESENT DAY

Randy Rainbow headshot

First of all, Randy Rainbow *is* his real name.

Second of all, we had no idea he competed (and won, of course) during the Florida State Thespian festival when he was in high school until we had to interview him yesterday for The Straz’s “Behind the Persona” feature for INSIDE magazine. Be sure to check out that Q&A in the Spring/Summer issue out in April.

Third of all, when we found out the Randy Rainbow, who just happens to be a superhero of the internet for defying the world with musical theater comedy, played the Straz stages as a 15-, 16-, 17-year old theater kid and winning, we had to write this blog.

“When I used to do theater competitions, we would do district and state, they were held in Tampa. Florida is where everything started for me,” Randy says, “so it has a special place in my heart.”

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Randy Rainbow comes full circle when he returns to The Straz as an international internet sensation with his hilarious one man show on April 13 .

As it turns out, his time as a Thespian competing against other state actors and meeting other theater kids at The Straz changed his life. “That was a major part of my [early experiences as an actor]. That’s where I came out of the closet, as a matter of fact. At Tampa, at state competition. How appropriate.”

Like many kids who are different, Randy survived school bullies, sharpening his comedy and musical theater chops to get through and graduate to pursue his dreams. In the meantime, Thespians and his annual high school trip to the state drama festival gave him something to look forward to where he was among friends doing his favorite thing in the world.

TBT 1

Ok, so this isn’t from when Randy was in high school, but it’s pretty cute. (Photo from Instagram: @randyrainbow)

“Yeah. You grow up, and it’s hard to find other drama nerds, really. So once a year, to gather with hundreds of them, I just remember, it was just ecstasy,” he says. “It was so exciting to have other like-minded people nerding out on theater. That was such an important time in my life. I still have such amazing memories of it, and it had such an impact on me. It was joy, absolute. Just … joy.”

Randy Rainbow, like so many artists, took his life experiences and the history he was born to and made his art. Now famous for his political musical parodies as a “woke show queen, comedian, actor, songstress, active-isht, Internet Sensation and TV Personality” [his Twitter description], Randy finds himself able to do something, to speak out and show up politically in visible ways.

But would he consider running for office?

“Hell, no. Let me stick to my comedy.”

randy for prez