the starry night

Last Monday I featured one of my favorite paintings, and tonight I plan to feature another all-time favorite. I know the choice of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night is predictable and trite, but it’s the painting that made me fall in love with paintings. When I was in college, I had a poster of the painting that I took with me from dorm to dorm, apartment to apartment, until it had so many pinholes and tears that I finally had to throw it out. At one time, the painting was the image on my phone cover; I had a laptop cover with that image as well. It is a painting that I can never get tired of looking at–it has the quality known as inexhaustibility.

The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, 1889


Van Gogh’s life has been the subject of books and movies because he was the quintessential suffering artist, toiling away in his attic–or in his case, his mental asylum–in order to satisfy his muse. In the case of The Starry Night, this is pretty close to being right. The view that we see in this work is what the artist saw from the window of his room at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum near the town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The facts of the painting and its provenance are interesting and worth more study, but they are not what attracts millions of people to this glorious work. Its the brushstrokes, the colors, and the subject matter that are so appealing, in my opinion.

A brief overview of some basic art concepts might be useful here. Vertical lines in a painting imply strength; horizontal lines provide stability; diagonal lines impart movement and tension; curving lines also add movement, as well as softness. In this painting, it is instructive to note that we see almost no horizontal lines. The horizon itself is on a diagonal, moving upwards from left to right. I believe this tells us that van Gogh did not feel stable or at peace; after all, he had checked himself into the asylum because he could not trust himself. There are two very prominent vertical elements in the painting–the cypress tree in the foreground and the church steeple in the middle ground. If vertical items impart strength, then I think we can assume that the church and the tree represented possible sources of strength to the struggling artist. The church’s steeple is elongated, as if it is stretching toward heaven. In a letter to his brother, van Gogh wrote,

“I have a terrible need of–dare I say the word?–religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars…”

Van Gogh’s father was a minister, and as a young man, Vincent studied theology and tried to enroll in a seminary. He spent a bit of time as a missionary, too, but ultimately felt his calling as an artist. In his time at the asylum, I think perhaps he saw the church and religion as a possible refuge or means of regaining the strength and stability of his earlier days.

But in the foreground, we see the cypress tree, much larger and more prominent than the church. For ages, cypress trees have been associated with mourning and death. Some have called this variety of Italian cypress the “graveyard cypress.” The predominance of the tree in the right foreground of The Starry Night makes me wonder if van Gogh might have been viewing death as the solution to his problems and stresses, perhaps thinking that death would be easier for him than a return to religion. A year later, the artist shot himself in the chest and died of infection from his wound. According to his brother Theo, Vincent’s last words were,

“The sadness will last forever.”

So is it all doom and gloom in this painting? Not at all. It’s the sky that arrests our attention, that draws us back again and again. The moon and stars in the heavens are what have attracted the artist’s eye, as they take up almost half of the canvas. Those swirls and whorls of yellow and white against the background of blues are what give the painting its excitement, energy, and vibrance. Looking into Vincent’s sky allows us to believe in the transcendence of beauty in the natural world. It gives us hope. We can see magic in the stars, feel the marvel of the universe, hear the music of the spheres.

Earlier I mentioned my poster and phone and laptop covers. I also have a credit card with a partial image of The Starry Night, and when I use it I always get some kind of compliment or remark–usually something like, “Oh I love that painting.” It has inspired songs and poetry and even an episode of Doctor Who.  Type <starry night> into Amazon’s search box and you’ll find the image on everything, from socks to coffee mugs. I once saw a car with the image applied as a wrap around the entire vehicle–I was in slow traffic so I took a picture of it while I was driving (not recommended!). The image is ubiquitous because it is universally loved. If you’re interested in learning more trivia about this great painting, try this article from Mental Floss. I hope you enjoyed visiting The Starry Night.

a history of reading

This week I decided to mix things up and recommend a non-fiction book. I’d like to share a quick story about how I came to know about this book and then read it. In 2001 I was working as a cataloging librarian for Dallas Baptist University. Our institution was one of many that were privileged to participate in a program sponsored by the Library of Congress. As most people probably know, the LOC receives copies of books published in the US for copyright purposes. Extra copies are offered to other countries in exchange for published items not held in the US, and those remaining are offered to other federal agencies. The ones left over after all of that are donated to non-profit organizations and institutions, like DBU. But you have to have someone available to choose the items from a vast warehouse outside of Washington, D.C. Back when I was cataloging, we had someone who volunteered to go to the warehouse once a month and choose books for us. When we received the boxes each month it was like Christmas! I would go through the boxes, organize the books and then add them to our library’s catalog. One of the books that caught my attention was Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, originally published in 1996. After adding it to our collection, I checked it out and read it. I liked it so much, I ended up buying a hard copy of the book to keep for myself.

readingTo many of you, this title may sound like a very boring sort of book. But essayist Manguel has an almost mesmerizing style of writing, and his knowledge ranges wide and deep. He covers the magical essence of the act of reading, and the history of book creation and publication. The various chapters cover topics like the creation of ancient manuscripts, the development of the printing press, the use of fonts and their subtle meanings, the ways in which books are constructed, and much more.

My favorite chapter is titled “Ordainers of the Universe” — a chapter about libraries and librarians, of course! Manguel delves, at least briefly, into the history of libraries and why they are so important to the history of reading, as well as to its future.

Because reading is one of the most important and pleasurable things I do, I loved reading about reading in this terrific book. Manguel is a well-known bibliophile, and has written several other books about books and reading. I have read his The Library at Night, and found it very enjoyable. But it was not as all-encompassing or entertaining (at least to me) as A History of Reading.

Have you read this book? What did you think? Let me know!

PS: I didn’t post anything about TV last night because I was watching TV. My daughter and I binge-watched The Kettering Incident on Amazon Prime, and we had to finish. I’m going to talk about it next week, because this series fits one of my pet peeves — series that need a second season but haven’t been picked up for production by a network. UGH!


woman in gold

To my readers I wish to apologize for not posting a music recommendation last night. I had a brutal headache and just couldn’t stay up to write. But I’m back tonight to write about movies.

Do you like history? True stories? Art? Ryan Reynolds? (haha) If you said yes to any of these, let me recommend Woman in Gold, a movie based on a true and amazing story of Nazis, art, and justice. Starring a great cast – Ryan Reynolds, the wonderful Helen Mirren, Katie Holmes, Daniel Brühl, Tatiana Maslany, Jonathan Pryce, and others – the movie toggles back and forth between 1930’s Austria and present-day Los Angeles.

Woman in Gold, Simon Curtis, 2015


The story revolves around a Jewish woman, Maria Altmann, who was forced to flee her home in Austria when the Nazis invaded just prior to the outbreak of WWII. The painting of her aunt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, by Gustav Klimt, was looted from the family’s home (along with other paintings not mentioned in the film) by Nazi soldiers. Sixty years later, Altmann found evidence of her family’s ownership of the painting, which currently resided in an Austrian museum and was considered one of the country’s greatest art treasures. She hired the son of a friend, a young and inexperienced lawyer, to sue the Austrian government for the return of the painting to her family. Altmann and her lawyer, Randy Schoenberg, flew to Austria to sue for the painting, then ended up pleading their case before the United States Supreme Court.

Helen Mirren is brilliant as the aging Maria Altmann–at turns funny, fierce, and poignant. She was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award for this role. Reynolds is his usual charming self, and is especially winning when trying to deal with the headstrong Altmann.

Alternating between the present-day scenes are short scenes of Altmann’s past as a beautiful young woman in love, who must sacrifice everything in order to escape her homeland in the wake of the Nazi invasion. The young Maria is played by Tatiana Maslany, who I mentioned last week as the star of Orphan Black. She is one of my favorite actresses, as is Mirren, and I was so pleased when I found the two of them playing the same person in this film. The flashback scenes help the viewer understand what is really at stake in this case–the heartbreaking losses suffered by innocent people just because of their ethnicity. Other movies have covered similar ground, for instance The Monuments Men, but these flashbacks add an emotional context that intensifies the legal struggle and makes it more personal.

I don’t think it’s spoiling the film to state that Altmann’s claim was ultimately successful. I remember when the real case was settled in 2006. It became quite controversial when the paintings recovered by Altmann were auctioned at Christy’s in New York. Ronal Lauder (of Estee Lauder cosmetics) paid $135 million for the painting, which at the time was the highest amount ever paid for a work of art. (That record has since been broken several times.) Many people criticized Altmann for pleading that the painting belonged to her family for sentimental reasons, when she then turned around and sold it off. But one must keep in mind the expense of keeping a painting of that quality and value; it certainly could not be kept in her home. Humidity control, deterioration prevention, and theft protection would cost a fortune, and the painting could not be seen by the public. Lauder placed the painting on permanent display in his Neue Galerie in NYC, a museum devoted to 20th-century art from Germany and Austria.

You can get a good idea of the qualities that make this film great by watching this trailer. If you have Prime Video from Amazon, you can rent the flick for $3.99. It’s definitely worth it, in my opinion. Just in case you’re wondering about the painting in question, here’s what it looks like:

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Gustav Klimt (1907)



When I was considering what sculpture I would like to feature first on Tuesdays (sculpture and architecture day), I began at once to think about my personal relationship with sculpture. Immediately, I thought of NorthPark Center! That may seem like a weird association, but I think Dallas natives will understand.

NorthPark was opened in 1965 as the largest climate-controlled indoor shopping mall in the world. I was 11 or 12 at the time, and my sister and I fell in love with the mall. We didn’t live very close, but we weren’t too far to keep us from shopping there as frequently as we could – and really, there weren’t that many other options at the time. But the reason I bring it up is that NorthPark Center was home to many of Raymond Nasher’s sculptures, especially prior to the opening of the Nasher Sculpture Center in downtown Dallas. Nasher was the mall’s developer, and from the beginning, the plan was to include art displays within the mall. Nasher was an avid collector of 20th-century sculptures, and bought pieces from nearly all of the well-known and critically acclaimed sculptors of the time.

I was always fascinated by the rotating collection of sculptures that appeared in various segments of the mall. When I visited the Nasher Sculpture Center for the first time, I felt like I was surrounded by old friends. As a teenager, I didn’t realize what a long-term effect these sculptures would have on me. I realize now, however, that they contributed greatly to my love of art in all its forms.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I wish to present a sculpture that is not part of the Nasher collection! (sorry) But I believe that my appreciation and love for this sculpture would not have been possible without Mr. Nasher’s generous, albeit unknowing, assistance.

Pelagos, Barbara Hepworth (1946)

Pelagos 1946 by Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

A photograph cannot do justice to this amazing work. It is crafted of elm wood and sits on a base made of oak. The spiral shape is natural wood on the outside and painted a very pale, icy blue on the inside. (For years I looked at this sculpture thinking that the paint was white.) A single string is stretched through small holes in a back-and-forth pattern that connects the two ends of the spiral.

There are so many aspects of this sculpture that I love. I can almost feel the satiny warmth of the wood grain under my fingers, even though I’ve never seen the work in person (and wouldn’t be able to touch it, even if I could visit its home, the Tate Modern in London). The contrast between the natural outside surface and the painted interior highlights the best qualities of both. The round, spiral shape is inviting, and the fact that the sculpture is, in a way, pierced through gives it a lightness. The work is massive and substantial, and yet light and almost airy at the same time. The strings remind me of a harp or other musical instrument.

This may have been intentional. The name, Pelagos, means “sea” in Greek. An Aeolian harp was originally a Greek concept–the word “aeolian” comes from the name of the ancient Greek god of the wind. An aeolian harp is a musical instrument played by the wind, where the wind’s passage through the strings causes them to vibrate and sing. I can’t help but think that these Greek associations are not incidental, but intentional, for two reasons: 1) Hepworth had traveled to Greece prior to the outbreak of WWII; and 2) she was originally trained as a musician. I think the work is inspired by the crystal waters of the Aegean Sea and is meant to represent a cove or bay; the blue interior represents the waters of the ocean and the brown wood of the exterior is a surrogate for the hills and mountains surrounding the cove. The strings imply tension, wind, and music–all important aspects of Greece, as well as of her home in St. Ives, Cornwall, where she was living when this work was created.

I really admire the sculptor, Dame Barbara Hepworth. At the time that Hepworth was working in England, very few women had ever been successful as sculptors. Most people thought that women were too weak to sculpt, but Hepworth showed the world that wasn’t true. She was a colleague and friend of Henry Moore, and together they developed many of the ideas that Moore would later expound upon in his treatises on art and criticism. She was the first to “puncture” her forms, a technique that Moore would later adopt. She had a son with her first husband and triplets with her second husband. Her older son, Paul, was killed while serving in the British Air Force. Tragically, Hepworth herself died from a fire in her studio. Her home and studio were so far removed from any town or village in Cornwall that the fire department couldn’t arrive in time to save her. She was 72.

If you’re interested in learning more about Pelagos, watch this video from the Khan Academy. One of the nicest things about this video is that you get to see the work from all sides, as well as learn more about it and its creator.

the luncheon of the boating party

Last Monday I had posted the paintings chosen by my mini-term students and the haiku that they wrote inspired by those paintings. I also set out my plan for the continuation of this blog, as follows:

  1. Mondays – paintings or photography
  2. Tuesdays – sculpture or architecture
  3. Wednesdays – music
  4. Thursdays – theater or cinema
  5. Fridays – TV
  6. Saturdays – books

The first week went well, and I’ve been thinking all week about what will come next. I wanted to start the paintings section with one of my favorite paintings by one of the great Impressionist painters:

The Luncheon of the Boating Party, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1881


There is so much to love about this painting. For one thing, it makes me wish to be there among the friends who have finished their dinner and are now enjoying conversation. The faces are so complete, with individual expressions and personalities. And beyond the awning, the river flows serenely past, surrounded by greenery and dotted with sailboats. I’m also charmed by the variations in clothing; some of the people seem to be quite formally dressed, while others are very casual. You can almost hear the chattering voices and the soft breezes blowing.

A few years ago I read a very interesting book on this subject, by Susan Vreeland, an author who has made a name for herself by writing novels based on paintings and painters. Her work is richly researched, to the point where it might almost be considered a partial biography. But she takes liberties by imagining the thoughts and words of the people involved, so the book becomes fictionalized. I enjoyed the story, but I also enjoyed learning about this painting and the history behind it.

The identities of the people in the painting have been well documented. The young woman with the little dog is Aline Charigot, who eventually became Renoir’s wife. She was a seamstress and an aspiring model, and her innocent beauty inspired some of Renoir’s best paintings. Straddling the chair opposite her is Gustave Caillebotte, another Impressionist painter and a friend and supporter of Renoir’s work. Caillebotte had inherited money and often bought Renoir’s paintings as a way of helping him pay the bills. (I will soon feature my favorite Caillebotte painting, Paris Street, Rainy Day).

The Impressionist style had man detractors at first, and Renoir wanted to prove that a great painting of large scale and complexity could be accomplished in that style. His friends agreed with him, and volunteered their time to sit for his great masterpiece. The models sat on the balcony of the Maison Fournaise restaurant. Each Sunday for several weeks (six or seven) this group of friends would indeed go boating on the Seine early in the day while the weather was still cool. Upon disembarking, they would meet for lunch. Mssr. Fournaise donated much of the food and drink for the models, because he, too, believed in Renoir’s project. Alphonse Fournaise, Jr., can be seen leaning against the railing of the balcony, wearing an undershirt (he sailed one of the boats), and his sister Alphonsine can be seen leaning on her elbows farther back on the railing. After the time on the river and the sumptuous lunch, the models took their positions and held still, sometimes for four hours or more. It is said that Caillebotte suffered permanent back pain as a result of his pose, leaning back without support while sitting backwards on that chair.

The story is terrific, but there’s also just so much to SEE. I love the way Renoir captured the light reflected in the wine bottles and glasses; the fluffy hair of the puppy; the balance between dark and light colors; the glimpses of the boats on the river; the fluttering of the awning; the overall compositional unity. It’s one of those paintings that I can’t imagine ever getting tired of.

If you’re interested in learning more, I can recommend Wikipedia’s page about this painting. It features close-ups of the faces in the painting and a couple of photographs of Maison Fournaise in its current state. You might also enjoy reading this Mental Floss article about the painting. As usual, Mental Floss has dug up some interesting trivia.

I hope you enjoyed viewing and reading about The Luncheon of the Boating Party. I know I enjoyed revisiting it.

washington black

Saturday is the day I have set aside to talk about books. This past Christmas, my sister got me a very cool gift – she bought Kindle versions of the five books listed as the best in fiction for 2018 by the editors of the New York Times Book Review. The books were Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, There There by Tommy Orange, and Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. All of them were great, of course, by my favorite of the five was Washington Black.

blackGeorge Washington Black is the name of the main character and the first-person narrator of the story. He is an African slave born on the island of British Barbados in the 1820s. The narrative begins when Wash, as he is known by, is about ten years old. He works in the fields under the protection of a fellow slave named Big Kit, who looks after him and helps him to understand the way the world works and avoid getting into trouble as much as possible. One evening, he and Big Kit are conscripted into helping with a formal dinner celebrating the arrival of the plantation owner’s brother, Christopher Wilde. Master Christopher sees something in young Wash and arranges with his brother to have the boy help him as a house boy and assistant in his quarters, which are separated from the main house. As their relationship continues, Master Christopher teaches Wash how to read and do math, taking measurements and making calculations in order to help with Wilde’s scientific experiments. It turns out that Wilde has come to Barbados specifically to experiment with lighter-than-air transportation, and he takes advantage of his brother’s absence to conscript more men to help him in the construction of a hot-air balloon vehicle.

Wash enjoys being part of this exciting project, and he is grateful to be out from under the cruel hand of the overseer. However, an accident occurs which disfigures his face, and the plantation’s owner returns in the company of his dangerous cousin. Master Christopher sees that Wash may not be safe much longer, and so he devises a plan to help Wash escape the island via the balloon.

This begins a fascinating adventure involving sailing ships, a brief and frightening layover in Virginia, arrival in Canada, a traipse across the frozen lands of the Arctic, a sweet but dangerous relationship with a young white girl, travel to England, research on oceanic life, and even a trip to Morocco. Through all of this, Wash is constantly aware of the peril he faces from those who would return him to slavery, even after the practice is abolished in the British islands from whence he came.

Early on, Master Christopher discovers Wash’s talent for drawing, and takes advantage of that ability to help him in cataloging his experiments. Once he has learned how to read, Wash becomes fascinated with scientific texts, especially those portraying creatures of the sea. One of the many things I loved about this book is the way it shows that reading, and a quick and curious mind, can transform a person’s life in ways that are both unpredictable and redemptive. His abilities to read and to draw surprise almost everyone he meets, but they also allow him to surpass not only the limitations placed on him by prejudice against his race but by his disfigurement as well.

Wash is an unforgettable character whose many lives, acquaintances, and accomplishments made this a story that I could not put down. If you’re interested in learning more about this book, here is a link to the original NYT book review.


Fridays are for TV in my new blog plan, so today I’m choosing to recommend Counterpart. This two-season, 20-episode series originally aired on Starz and was a totally unique and compelling thriller starring J. K. Simmons, Olivia Williams, and Harry Lloyd.

The story takes place in Berlin, where J. K. Simmons’ character, Howard Silk, works earnestly in a dreary job for a mysterious organization whose purposes are not immediately clear. Every day when he leaves work, Howard heads for the hospital, where his wife, Emily (Williams) is in a coma. One day, his bosses blindfold him and lead him into a secret room. When his blindfold is removed, he finds himself sitting across from someone who looks exactly like him (because he is also played by Simmons, of course), but who acts in a completely different and uncharacteristic way.

This is a parallel-universe type of science fiction, told with twist and turns that keep you guessing. Little pieces of a huge puzzle are gradually leaked to Howard (and to the viewers) as he bumbles his way through a confusing and bizarre set of circumstances. It’s hard to talk about this show without revealing spoilers, so let me just say that this is one show that I could not take my eyes off of, even for a second. It’s also the kind of show that bears repeated viewings. View the trailer for the first season if you want to know more.


J. K. Simmons has usually been one of those character actors that you see in lots of movies but you never really know his name. He won an Oscar for best supporting actor in the movie Whiplash, but most people know him as the Professor in the Farmers Insurance ads on TV. His portrayal of Howard as a mild-mannered office drone on one side of this drama and a cool and competent spy/hitman type on the other side is simply brilliant, in my opinion. It’s the kind of subtle, tour-de-force acting of a dual role that is so well-crafted you forget that it’s the same guy performing both roles. In my opinion, his performance rivals that of Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black – and that’s saying something! (I’ll bring up Orphan Black again soon.) Simmons has had a long and successful career on Broadway; his seasoned expertise commands the screen in this binge-worthy show.

With most TV series, I look for weak spots; there’s not a single weak spot that I can think of in this show. The supporting cast, especially Olivia Williams as Howard’s wife Emily and Harry Lloyd as Howard’s boss, Peter Quayle, are all superb. The bleakness of the city of Berlin adds to the sense of dread that hangs over the story, but Howard’s innate kindness keeps the viewer hopeful in spite of some pretty daunting odds. Check it out – I promise you’ll be hooked, so set aside some time for binging this one!

the big year

In my new project, Thursdays are for cinema or theater. I thought I would start this category with a favorite little movie of mine, The Big Year.

The Big Year, David Frankel (2011)

This sweet movie boasts a big cast, even in the smaller roles. Starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson, some of the small parts or cameos are played by Rashida Jones, Rosamund Pike, Jim Parsons, Kevin Pollak, Joel McHale, JoBeth Williams, Dianne Wiest, Brian Dennehy, Anthony Anderson, Angelica Huston, Steven Weber, Corbin Bernsen, and John Cleese as the narrator.


The plot involves three men who are attempting a “big year,” which in this case refers to the hobby of bird watching, or as they call it, “birding.” A magazine devoted to the subject awards a prize to the birder who logs the sighting of the most birds in North America in a single year. Owen Wilson plays a cool dude who is infamous in this community for winning the most prizes in this field. Steve Martin and Jack Black play contenders who team up to thwart Wilson’s character and win the prize for themselves. Along the way, we share glimpses into the families and lives of these three men as they struggle to meet the challenge of this demanding pastime.

big year 2

One of the best things about this movie is the gorgeous scenery encountered as the men travel from Alaska to Florida, from Padre Island to the California coast. The cinematography evinces a reverence for the beauties of our homeland, and the plot favors friendship and family ties over accomplishment and external rewards.

This movie is funny, sweet, and sometimes surprising. Watch the trailer, and then if you’re interested, you’ll be happy to know that you can rent it from Amazon or YouTube for only $3.99. Let me know what you think!

the magic flute (die zauberflöte)

I promise I won’t pick classical music every Wednesday, but I thought I would start out with my favorite opera, The Magic Flute, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Although La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus) was composed last, it was first performed on September 6, 1791, while The Magic Flute was premiered on September 30 of the same year, making it the last opera of Mozart’s tragically short life. Mozart died in December of the same year.

The libretto for The Magic Flute was written by Emanuel Schikaneder, whose theater company was first to perform the work. Schikaneder, who was a well-known comedic actor in Vienna, played the role of Papageno. Mozart’s sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer, played the Queen of the Night, a role that was written specifically for her magnificent voice and exceptional range.

The story of The Magic Flute is styled as a fairy tale; however there are parts of the story that are not very suitable for children. Although magical animals frolic in the forest and little angel children fly down from heaven (usually in a hot-air balloon), there are darker qualities to the story as well. The heroine, Pamina, is encouraged by her mother to assassinate the king, Sarastro. When she is led to believe that the prince no longer loves her, Pamina attempts (or at least considers) suicide. And the story is chock-full of references to the Freemasons and their mystical ceremonies. Both Mozart and Schikaneder were members of a Masonic Lodge, and the opera celebrates the Enlightenment ideals upon which the Freemasons were founded.

In my days at UT-D, I took a class called “Mozart and the German Enlightenment.” It was a very interesting class, in which we read some German writers from that time period, like Schiller and Goethe, and studied most of Mozart’s operas. The major paper I wrote for that class was about The Magic Flute, and my thesis was that this opera proved that Mozart was not a misogynist, as some have claimed. At the end of the opera, both Pamina AND Tamino (princess and prince) go through the trials required to become members of the king’s court, and these trials have frequently been compared to the rites of the Masonic order. I felt that Mozart’s inclusion of the female character in this ritual was significant, even though women would not have been allowed to gain membership in a Masonic lodge.

Another thing that makes this opera unusual is that the audience is initially led to believe that the Queen of the Night is the protagonist. She enters the story by looking for a hero to rescue her daughter from Sarastro, the sun king. She seems sympathetic and genuinely distressed that her daughter has been kidnapped. In the second act, however, we discover that Sarastro leads a group of scholars and philosophers and that the Queen’s daughter, Pamina, is staying in the castle voluntarily. When the Queen commands her daughter to kill the king, we discover her true, wicked nature.

Der Hölle Rache / Diana Damrau


This aria, one of the most famous in all of opera, is sung by the Queen as she seeks to enlist her daughter in her terrible assassination scheme. Although the opera was written in German, this version has English subtitles. The performer is Diana Damrau, one of the best sopranos to ever take on the role. The Queen’s part was written for the highest of soprano voices, and is very difficult to sing. During parts of the song, the Queen uses her voice to try to cast a spell on her daughter. Unfortunately, in these subtitles there are “eehhhrrr” words listed during those times. But it was Mozart’s intention, I believe, that no specific words were meant to be understood during those passages.

By the way, this opera is different in yet another way. While most operas are sung completely from beginning to end, this opera was in a style known as “singspiel” – a style where spoken words exist side-by-side with the sung parts. Nowadays, we would call that a “musical!” This type of performance was very popular and intended for the masses, as well as the elite. I hope you will listen to the clip linked above and enjoy this amazing performance.



To start off my new blog project, I chose one of my favorite works of architecture by my favorite architect.

Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright (1935)


I can’t stop looking at this amazing work. Every photo of it that I’ve ever seen has enraptured me with awe and wonder. When I look at it, I can’t believe it was designed in 1935! It’s incredibly modern and sophisticated, and yet it’s fully at one with its natural environs. Wright called his philosophy of architecture “organic,” and most believe that this building comes as close as possible to that ideal. Using natural sandstone quarried only a few miles away, the work seems to rise up from the ground as if it grew there. The cantilevered terraces hang out over the waterfall of a stream known as Bear Run, where the original owners, the family of Edgar J. Kaufmann, Sr., used to camp out on summer vacations. Kaufmann Jr. deeded the house and the surrounding 1,543 acres to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963. The Conservancy conducts tours of the home, and it is my dearest hope that one day I will be able to visit the site myself.

The Conservancy maintains a gorgeous website about the house, including numerous photos and videos. This too-brief clip from the Ken Burns documentary about FLW is a shortened version of a segment I used to show to my students. It talks a bit about the house and how it was developed over the waterfall. Part of the clip that’s missing, though, is a story told by one of his former apprentices, who was present when the building was actually designed. Wright had received the commission from Kaufmann, had visited the site, and then did nothing with it for months. Finally, Kaufmann called and said he was driving from Milwaukee to Wright’s home and studio in Spring Green, Wisconsin, about 140 miles. Wright sat down and started to draw, and two hours later, he had finished the plans and had even named the building. When Kaufmann arrived, Wright met him at the door and famously said, “E. J., we’ve been waiting for you.”

If I have any readers, I hope you will take the time to watch the short video clip (it’s less than two minutes) and investigate the website. Fallingwater has been called the most famous residence in the world not belonging to a royal. I would venture to say that it deserves to be even more famous than the palaces of any royals due to its innovative and creative design, the pinnacle achievement of America’s most important and influential architect.