The Daily Agenda for Friday, March 9

Jim Burroway

March 9th, 2012

Community Events This Weekend: Cape Town Pride, Cape Town, SA; AIDS Walk, Houston, TX.

Will Geer: 1902. He was Grampa Walton on screen, and a social activist off. He had been a member of the Communist Party in 1934, where he met Harry Hay who would go on to found the Mattachine Society in the 1950s. Geer and Hay briefly became lovers while working on union organizing in Los Angeles and San Francisco. But they soon parted ways when Geer married his wife, actress and fellow political activist Herta Ware. Geer went on to work with folk singers Burle Ives and Woodie Guthrie in advocating for migrant farm workers and organized labor. He also found time to do some acting, mostly on the stage, often Shakespeare. Between 1948 and 1951, he was also in more than a dozen movies, but he was soon blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

With the blacklist in force, Geer fell back on his training as a botanist (he had a master’s degree from the University of Chicago) and founded the Theatricum Botanica in Topanga Canyon near Santa Monica, California, with his wife. They would divorce in 1954, but they remained very close friends thereafter. Together, they turned Theatricum Botanica into an artists colony, with an outdoor summer theater and Woody Guthrie living in a small shack.

By the late 1950s, Geer was back on Broadway, and in 1964 he was nominated for a Tony for his role in the musical 110 in the Shade. His career in film resumed in 1963 with a minor part in Advise and Consent, and in 1967 he played the prosecutor in the film adaptation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. When he died after completing the sixth season of The Waltons in 1978, his remains were cremated and his ashes burried at his beloved Theatricum Botanicum, which continues to host performances and youth acting workshops.

Samuel Barber: 1910. He was apparently a very precocious child. In a very anxious letter at the tender age of nine, he came out to his mother — as a composer:

Dear Mother: I have written this to tell you my worrying secret. Now don’t cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault. I suppose I will have to tell it now without any nonsense. To begin with I was not meant to be an athlet [sic]. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I’m sure. I’ll ask you one more thing .—Don’t ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football.—Please—Sometimes I’ve been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very).

He wrote his first musical at seven, tried his first opera at 10, became an organist at 12, and began studying piano, voice and composition at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia at 14. That’s where he met his lover, partner and musical collaborator Gian Carlo “Johnny” Menotti, and they would remain together for the next forty years. By Barber’s twenties, his compositions were commissioned or debuted by Vladimir Horowitz, Leontyne Price, Arturo Toscanini, among others. He won the Pulitzer Prize for music for his 1957 opera Vanessa, and for his 1962 Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. But his 1966 opera Antony and Cleopatra was a dud, and he spent his remaining years in isolation and depression, while Menotti, a successful composer in his own right, indulged in dalliances with a string of much younger men. Barber died in 1981, Menotti in 2007, and it is Barber’s work that is better remembered.

If you know of something that belongs on the agenda, please send it here. Don’t forget to include the basics: who, what, when, where, and URL (if available).

And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?


March 9th, 2012

Will GEER, not Greer.

I was just talking about him to a friend the other day — she didn’t know he was a commie and gay and Harry Hay’s partner for awhile. And I didn’t know his birthday was today! I shall think fond thoughts today of Grandpa Walton.

Jim Burroway

March 9th, 2012

Well good lord, when did he change his name? ;-)

I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve been calling him Will Greer my whole life.

Ben in Oakland

March 9th, 2012

A good portion of the whole east coast musical establishment was gay. Besides Menotti (not Menitti) and Barber, there was Copland, Bernstein, Rorem, Schippers, Mitropoulos (the last two are from memory, not necessarily fact) Pinkham, moross, and a host of others. They all knew each other, hung out with each other

Michael in Seattle

March 9th, 2012

It is Carlos Menotti as correctly spelled in your first mention of him then incorrectly spelled throughout the rest of the article. By the way, I appreciate the regular gay history lessons. Never had that course in school.

Lindoro Almaviva

March 9th, 2012

It is actually Gian Carlo Menotti, but that is a minor queep.

I do want to add a bit to the Anthony and Cleopatra story.

Barber deviced it as a chamber opera but the Met and director Franco Zefirelli (a queen in his own right) thought that it would not provide enough spectacle for the opening of the new house and went ahead, and against Barber’s with an overblown production.

The story goes that the set’s and the glitz overshadowed Barber’s music and he was deeply hurt by this. His idea was a very intimate production and he did not get it.

By the time the reviews were out the bloodbath/feeding frenzi had already started. Unfortunately, Barber never recovered from the blow, and neither did the opera.

Eventually Barber revised the opera to give it the scope he originally wanted and premiered the revised version in the Spoletto festival (I think) and while not an unqualified success, it faired better in a more intimate setting, with reduced orchestra forces. While it didn’t provide complete vindication, Barber proved that he was right after all, and the opera was an intimate family drama and not Aida.

The opera went on to receive several revivals. Chicago Lyric Opera revived it back in the late 80’s early 90’s with Catherine malfitano as Cleopatra. A telecast of the production survives and several snipets are viewable on youtube. the opera has also received regional revivals here and there, but the dark clouds of the opening production has never left the opera for good.

There is a little coda to this whole story: the Met suffered the physical consequences of that overblown production all the way up until last year when the new Ring Cycle necessitated the repair of machinery that laid unrepaired since it broke down during Anthony rehearsals.

Jim Burroway

March 9th, 2012

I definitely had a problem with names last night!


March 9th, 2012

@Lindoro: Was Antony and Cleopatra commissioned for the opening? If so, why would Barber make such a “small” piece for so grand an occasion?


March 9th, 2012

That letter from the 9-year-old Samuel is one of the greatest things I’ve ever read! Thanks for printing it.

Lindoro Almaviva

March 9th, 2012


yes Anthony and Clopatra was comisioned for the opening of the Met in Lincoln Center. That opening season in LC also saw NYC Opera open with their own version of Anthony and Cleopatra (Handel’s) that turned Beverly Sills into a mega star and stole the thunder from the Met.

You are right, a chamber opera was the wrong idea for the opening of the new house; specially since Rudolph Bing wanted an opera full of glitz so all the brand spanking new stage machinery could be showcased. Barber could not envision his opera done in any other way and as much as he tried, he could not bring the opera to the levels that Bing and Zefirelli wanted.

The whole thing was dommed from the planning stages because people were not listening to each other. When all was said and done, feathers were ruffled and egos were bruised. Leontyne Price refused to ever work with Zefirelli again. Barber’s reputation at the Met was shattered. He never worked there again and latter on, he submitted an opera for their consideration and when they refused to consider it, he was extremely offended because he thought they owed him after putting him through hell and back.

Ultimately, there was only one winner in this whole thing and he was not even involved in this whole mess: Giorgio Tozzi.

Tozzi was asked to take the bass role in the opera by Bing himself and after taking a look at it he told Bing he was not interested.

At first, he thought Bing would punish him for refusing the assignment but not long after the conversation Bing came back to him to ask him if there was a role he was aching to sing at the Met and Tozzi said “Hans Zack!” (for you non opera fans that is the main role in Wagner’s Meistersinger von Nuremberg, a dream role for any bass). Bing readily accepted and Tozzi either got a new production or at least a revival mounted specifically for him.

If Bing had realized that Barber wanted a chamber opera and had decoded to mount Meistersinger instead, things would have ended very differently for all involved.

Timothy Kincaid

March 9th, 2012

Ah, opera. Us west coasters just can’t get it. All we know is that it’s over when the fat lady sings. Usually with horns on her head. In a language I don’t understand.

We’ll stick with our movies. Yes the actors occasionally get so high that they break into your home thinking its theirs and the actresses get photographed without their panties, but they’re pretty. And they don’t wear horns. Ever. It destroys your profile.


March 9th, 2012

Some further on A&C at the Met. Leontyne Price was trapped in that giant pyramid when it failed to open on cue and if memory serves (and at my age it frequently doesn’t) she was trapped in there for over an hour.

Barber wrote the part for Price’s voice yet he rarely used that gleaming top and put a good deal of the part below c on the treble staff, which was always Price’s weaker register.

I heard the opening production on the radio and was bored with the music, but then Barber has never been a favorite of mine.

Lindoro Almaviva

March 9th, 2012

Tim, you talking to me? Indianapolis gets 3 productions a year and i am lucky to get a decent cast at the Lyric. Concinnati is so expensive i can barely afford them (I can get cheaper tickets at the Met). and madison opera is 6 hours away.

I know your pain.

As to the lady with the horns, these days you are lucky if she is wearing hors at all. In most cases, she is wearing a nice paints suit and is in a corporate penthouse. (Not kidding either)


March 9th, 2012

I do believe it was a comment by a BTB contributor who suggested to me to broaden my horizons and try finding and listening to some Renee Fleming operatic works.

For that I’m truly grateful.

Cast one more vote for the Gay History 101 daily updates and JoeMyGawd has his Tired Old Queen (Steve Hayes) movie historian and adviser/suggestion for movies to get on Netflix I think I shall thank Mr. Almaviva for his contribution here today.

Lindoro Almaviva

March 10th, 2012

well, thank you and you are welcomed. Opera is one of my expertises and I am glad to share my passion with the world.

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