Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Luscious costumes, Puccini's music in Madama Butterfly at Clinton's Andrews Memorial Theater

Not a lot of people associate this shoreline town with Puccini opera sung in Italian, much less costumes from 1900 imperial Japan. But those are two of the hooks for the four performances of "Madama Butterfly" at Andrews Memorial Theater on Main Street starting Tuesday.

Opera Theater of Connecticut will present the opera in its original setting of 1900 Imperial Japan and, said General Director Kate Ford in an email, "Our costumes and other stage items are specialty items from Japan that are theatrically authentic and incredibly sumptuous."

The opera is based on a play by David Belasco, rooted in a short story by John Luther Long, points out Ford. Madama Butterfly's father was a Samurai and by birth, so is Butterfly.

Ford says the costumes and some props are from a private collection in Japan.

"The costumes, wigs, sets, and production are a stunning depiction of that period, brought to life and made real in this OTC presentation," writes Ford.

No worries about understanding the Italian words or story. The opera will feature English supertitles prepared by Artistic Director Alan Mann.

Of course, ultimately, it comes down to the quality of the singing and the orchestration, no easy task with this show.

"These singers have a triple challenge," Ford writes, "singing in a foreign language, in this case Italian, wearing heavy and intricate costumes which in many cases are 4-5 layers, working and managing the intricate gestures of the period in history, all the while singing beautifully with other singers and acting the part."

Starring are Shannon Kessler Dooley, who sang in the company's "La Boheme," as the tragic heroine Cio-Cio San; Joshua Kohl as Lt. Pinkerton; tenor Stefan Barner as Goro, mezzo Evanna Lai often seen at Yale in recent years) as Suzuki; and John Dooley as Consul-General Sharpless. OTC also introduces Andrew Potter and Zachary Johnson as The Bonze and Prince Yamadori, while Carly Callahan as Kate Pinkerton.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Barbarian Dress Codes From Rome To Game Of Thrones

What can we tell about a country, culture, religion or fictional world from the dress codes that they impose? In the fictional world of Westeros, in ancient Rome and even today, clothing was tied to stereotypes.

As any fashion designer will tell you, a lot of unspoken words are whispered to an audience regarding a character's identity just from the clothing they wear on screen. For its first five seasons, Michele Clapton was lead costume designer for Game of Thrones. Last year, she told The Telegraph that during each of these seasons, Daenerys Targaryen has always worn a hidden pair of pants and boots underneath her dress. As Clapton notes, "There’s always a fear in her that she will have to leave so it gives her the freedom to always escape and run. If she had silly shoes on she’d lose all her strength."

Quite right. Clapton's functional fashion choice is certainly a step up from Bryce Dallas Howard’s insistence on running in high heels to escape dinosaurs in Jurassic World. Her layering of a dress over pants also represents the two worlds that Daenerys has straddled in the series: the world of a noble in a refined court and that of the invading general leading her troops.

In Rome of the late fourth century CE, pants were similarly controversial indicators of the blurring lines between civil society and warfare. This was due in large part to the fact that pants (called in Latin 'bracae') were seen as identifying items of clothing for groups perceived as "barbaric" or non-Roman. A number of these men had come to make up a significant portion of the Roman army by this date. Many Germanic groups, Goths and Huns were often characterized by historians of the time as wearing pants and boots. A law from 397 and then another in 399 CE strictly regulated the wearing of pants and boots in the city:

In addition to voicing a displeasure for certain items of clothing that appear to be coming into vogue, this law may have been signaling that the city of Rome was still seen as a safe haven from combat and thus off limits to martial attire. As I have written about before, the city of Rome was intended as a zone protected from weapons by a sacred boundary line called the pomerium. Even into the early Christian period, the city was cast as ideally off limits to most soldiers.

The laws of the late fourth century didn't seem to stop the barbarian fashion craze. In 416, another law was passed stipulating that those who wore skins and had long hair were similarly banned from coming within the walls of the city. This likely meant that within the confines of the Aurelian Walls, individuals were expected to adopt a traditional Roman urban dress (e.g., the toga worn by elite men) rather than attire associated with the "other." We can perhaps read fear into the dress code law of 416 in particular; it came just 6 years after the sack of the city of Rome by Alaric and his Goths.

It seems that Games of Thrones has also picked up on the imagined dichotomy between Rome and the "barbarian" seen within these dress codes. The presentation of the Wildlings in particular certainly appears to draw heavily from a description in Ammianus Marcellinus of the Huns' use of field mice as pelts for their clothing:

One way that the costume designers on the show denote that the Wildlings that lived beyond the wall are uncivilized people who are characteristically different from those living south of the wall is by similarly draping the Wildlings in skins and animal pelts. Notably, this is also just functional fashion. Animal skins are a lot warmer than silk or linen.

Even in the city of Constantinople, there was a fad for wearing Hunnic fashions in the city. The 6th century historian Procopius berated the charioteers who dressed in Hunnic outfits. Procopius saw these charioteers as a threat to peace within the city--and he was right. As ancient historian Susanna Elm has pointed out, military clothing came into fashion throughout the later empire. This caused a confusion among the elites as to how to identify someone visually. An integral part of Roman society was being able to determine through visual indicators like clothing whether someone was a citizen or a soldier. In her work on this clothing trend, Elm notes: "Elite male dress absorbed the military style and was designed to show-case wealth, regardless of the military or civilian status of the one who displayed it. All wished to glitter with «the splendor of gold and colors»" Elite male dress consciously crossed the military-civilian divide..."

We have seen something similar from the fashion evolution of Cersei Lannister. She has gone from long flowing gowns to a decidedly military-inspired outfit in the last episode to air. This was a a coronation gown with Italian-cut leather and a silver and black textured brocade that is similar to a military cuirass. No doubt, it sent a message that we have seen coming for a long time through the clothing of Game of Thrones: The lines between the city and the battlefield are about to blur. Just as in ancient Rome, fashion can be a strong indicator of demographic and military shifts within a society. I can only hope that Daenerys puts those hidden pants to good use this season.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Celebrating an unusual Italian Easter

Chocolate eggs are stacked high in supermercati, Colomba dove cakes decorate pasticcerie windows and lambs are being made ready for the dining table. But away from the well-known traditions of an Italian Easter there are many different ways to celebrate. From cheese rolling to Florentine fireworks, dancing devils to sprinting Madonnas and tree lifting to egg Olympics Italians love to mark Easter. Here are some of the more unusual ways to mark a wonderful Italian Easter.

Good Friday
As the Vatican prepares a series of solemn Easter weekend events including the candlelit "Way of the Cross" procession from the Colosseum, towns and villages around the country are marking the religious festival in their own unique ways.

In Enna, Sicily, over 2000 friars in ancient costume parade through the city streets in silence, just as their ancestors have done for over 500 years. Meanwhile in Puglia, the festival of Le Fracchie, or the torches, turns night into day in the town of San Marco in Lamis. Tree trunks are split open and wooden sticks packed into one end to make enormous torches. They're piled high onto wagons and pulled along lighting the way for a procession of the Madonna. The torches, so locals explain, help Mary to search for her dead son.

Easter Sunday, La Pasqua
The main Italian Easter festivities occur around Easter Sunday or Pasqua and Easter Monday or La Pasquetta, "little Easter." And merriments really do take all forms. So whilst Pope Francesco takes holy mass in front of thousands of worshippers in St Peter's Square, Rome, the people of a little town called Prizzi in northern Sicily are dancing with the devil.

In an ageless medieval battle between good and evil, villagers dress up as demons and death to take over the town centre for "Il ballo dei diavoli", the dance of the devils. The red costumed satans move through town annoying locals with their demonic dances until they are offered money or food to move on. But they're not just irritating; the masked monsters are on a mission to stop two statues of the Madonna and Jesus from meeting. Ultimately, however, the devils fail and good eventually triumphs reaffirming the supremacy of goodness but not before excited locals have enjoyed a little forbidden excitement.

Up north in Florence, the scene is even more explosive, with the traditional Scoppio del Carro, or "Exploding of the Cart" celebrations. Pasqua festivities begin as an ornate cart carved in 1689 is pulled through the historic Florentine centre by huge garlanded white oxen. The 3-storey cart is packed with fireworks and its destination is the front of the sumptuous Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral where thousands of spectators gather to welcome it. Meanwhile inside the basilica Florence's Archbishop presides over mass whilst the crowds wait outside. And then comes the moment that everyone has waited for as the priest sends a dove-shaped rocket symbolizing the Holy Spirit whooshing towards the cart. Everything hangs on the dove igniting the cart's volatile cargo and the bigger the bang, the better as an almighty explosion ensures a good harvest and good fortune for the city. Never have so many fingers been crossed!

And if that's not lively enough for you, how about a sprinting Madonna to enliven Easter celebrations in Italy? That's exactly what happens in Sulmona, in the central eastern region of Abruzzo where the procession of La Madonna che scappa, or the "Madonna who runs away" sees the statue of the Virgin racing across the main town square towards her resurrected son on the other side. The drama is heightened with firecrackers and the final release of doves as Mary's black mourning cloak falls from her back. This is most definitely an unusually vibrant way to celebrate La Pasqua and one not to be missed.

But if devils, fireworks and sprinting statues are a little too much why not head to Cividale del Friuli, in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northern Italy for a game of Il Truc or egg boules. The pastime dates back to Medieval times and uses prettily painted hens eggs instead of bowls, boules or balls. Centred around a circular stone lined pit the aim is to roll your egg down the ramp into the pit and knock your opponent's eggs out of the way as you go. And fortunately competition is good-humoured so it's an egg-citing way to celebrate the arrival of Easter Sunday!

La Pasquetta, Easter Monday
Known affectionately as La Pasquetta or Il Lunedì dell'Angelo, Angel's Monday, Easter Monday is a national holiday and traditionally the day when Italians enjoy carefree country picnics with friends and family to celebrate the return of spring.

In Alto-Adige's alpine Merano, however, the town is preparing something a bit different, the Corse Rusticane or traditional horse races of peculiarly blonde Haflinger horses. Before the race, gold maned horses and their traditionally costumed Tyrolean riders parade through town accompanied by bands and folk dancers. The day culminates as the beautiful blond mountain horses race around the Maia racetrack to the delight of the crowds. The golden horses of Easter are a unique sight as their manes fly in the wine. If you like horses, Merano is definitely worth a trip.

And finally, we can't talk about an Italian Easter without mentioning food. Dining tables and picnic blankets sag under the weight of roast lambs, Columba cakes, bread and much much more. But in Panicale in Umbria, food is even more central to the Pasquetta festival, if that's possible, as the town celebrates with a cheese-rolling race! Combining elements of yo-yo, bocce and running the race is said to commemorate the moment the stone door was rolled away from Jesus's tomb. Giocatori, or players, jostle to be the first to roll a nine-pound Pecorino cheese around the perimeter of the old, walled village but the rules of this ancient race are strict. They're allowed to use a leather strap to launch the cheese and keep it moving with a whip-like stick but otherwise players shouldn't use hands or feet to propel their cheese on. The winner of the Ruzzolone race is the one who finishes with the fewest taps of the cheese and the prize, fittingly, is the cheese itself. Delizioso!

Ultimately there's more to a traditional Italian Easter that meets the eye with as many different ways to celebrate as there are towns and cities. One thing is for certain, however, Easter is a festival very close to Italian hearts. And whether you do it with races, parades or simple egg-travaganzas, this is definitely a time to celebrate. Buona Pasqua a tutti, Happy Easter everyone!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Performers take part in parade to celebrate Birth of Rome

Performers take part in a parade in Rome, capital of Italy, April 23, 2016. The city of Rome turned 2770 Friday after its legendary foundation by Romulus in 753 BC. People celebrate the Birth of Rome with parades in costume, re-enacting the deeds of the great ancient Roman Empire, along the ancient Roman ruins of the Colosseum, Circus Maximus, Roman Forum and Venice Square. (Xinhua/Alberto Lingria)

Saturday, May 20, 2017

This red clay village in Iran is an anthropological museum

According the Iranian media reports, this is a village of living traditions, architectural styles (all in red clay), and probably the most interesting example of human adaptation to nature, wherein one can transcend the boundaries of time and space and experience the ancient civilization and culture of Iran.

The village is compact, with narrow and sloped lanes, and houses located on the slope as if placed on a stairway. Here, the roofs of some houses are used to serve as the courtyard for other houses higher up on the slope. The language spoken by the literate people of Abyaneh is Parthian Pahlavi. They are deeply committed to honoring their traditions.

No matter how well educated a person from Abyaneh might be, he or she puts on the traditional Abyaneh costume on coming back to the village from anywhere in Iran.

The women's traditional costume, consisting of a scarf with floral motifs and pleated pants, is particularly attractive.

Even today their costume, way of life and ancient dialect are still practically unchanged and for many anthropologists a reason to travel to Iran.

The architectural facet in this village along with the rituals and apparel of its inhabitants is a sight to witness.

The grand mosque of the village with its historical wooden altar dates to 1355 CE, and its wooden pulpit dating to 1045 CE. And an inscription in the 'Kofi' script is greatly valued both as a historical and religious monument.