Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Academy of Natural Sciences

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As a recent transplant to Philadelphia, I have been trying to get out and see what my new home has to offer. I have passed dozens of cute shops and pop-up markets, visited the famed Italian Market and posh Rittenhouse Square, and will have much to write about in the coming weeks.

My lovely friends Iris and Jess visited me this weekend for our first, of many, Philadelphia Beautiful Ladies Weekends. We cooked and feasted, walked around the city, peered in shops, gorged on the famous local cheese steaks and visited the Art Museum Area.

I am an ardent fan of New York’s Museum of Natural History and was overjoyed to see Philadelphia’s counterpart to the museum in The Academy of Natural Sciences on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. My friend Jess and I visited the museum this Sunday and really enjoyed what they had to offer.

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The Academy of Natural Sciences has a more condensed collection than the Natural History Museum and focuses mainly on the history and anatomy of animals, where the vast expanses of the New York museum include many cultural representations and archeological finds.

The Academy has a lovely collection of taxidermy specimen, many of which I have not seen at the Natural History Museum. The buffalo set up is beautiful, with a backdrop of billowy clouds and rolling yellow-green hills. A family of buffalo, young and old, find themselves grazing in the open fields where patches of tall dry grass are mingled with the green undergrowth.

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I have always been incredibly fond of the diorama set-ups for animal specimen shared by both the Natural History Museum and the Academy of Natural Sciences. The miniature worlds allow visitors to experience the lives that these animals live; showing us environments that many of us will never have the opportunity to view first hand.

I particularly enjoyed the Academy’s setups because of the decentralization of the figures in the dioramas: just as in paintings, a centralized figure in a rectangle is typical and frequently iconic and powerful, however, moving the figure off the central axis allows for more movement and interaction between space and figure, creating narrative.

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I was pleasantly surprised at the care, and frequently the complexity that was evident in the compositions of the different dioramas. Animal specimen were posed with family members and framed by trees and botanicals, frequently arching their backs to strike and once in a while interacting with the setups to the left and right: a lonely penguin watches a ship disappearing in the distance and a giant Moose stands guard over a group of deer a moment before they are attacked by a hungry cat!

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I was at the Natural History Museum in New York, with my friend Tamar, only a week before this excursion and, to my sheer disappointment, found that I missed the annual butterfly exhibit. Since last November, I have been attempting to plan a trip to the Natural History Museum, hoping to see the butterflies and have a giant moth land on my head. Finally, as a non-resident of New York, I found the opportunity to visit the Museum again, yet I came two weeks too late.

I may have missed the butterfly season in New York, however I made it back just in time for it in Philadelphia. At last, my silly wish came true. Jess and I paraded around a room full of tropical foliage and plates of peeled bananas; pairs of wings found themselves hanging demurely off the feeding plates and hiding behind palm leaves. We met a lot of lovely butterflies and incredibly chubby moths, yet none of them seemed interested in landing on my head to provide the perfect facebook photo.

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We watched several new butterflies come out of their chrysalis in the hatching chamber which was incredibly fun to watch and saw the keeper release them into the main butterfly chamber. Some did not want to leave, one landed on my dress! Success! We spent a half an hour or so walking around and meeting all of the specimen, and the majority of the time, my new friend spent sitting on my hip.

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The Academy of Natural Sciences is a lovely museum: I am glad to have had the opportunity to explore it, and am sure I will be back frequently.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bel Cantanti's Production of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette

As promised, I return to you with another, more intimate production of Roméo et Juliette by Charles Gounod.

The Metropolitan Opera puts on a resplendent production, but its richest advantage is simultaneously its greatest shortcoming. I constantly find myself in awe of the huge, luscious sets and productions, often staged with live animals and upwards of a hundred singers and dancers parading in lavish, gilded costumes, but for me, opera's greatest draw is the drama and passion, the gut-wrenching sorrow and inspiring poetry that is almost exclusively dedicated to solo arias and duets.

After an infancy of front row privileges, I find myself constantly disappointed either by Mimi's insignificant death in La Bohème, or a seemingly passionless, albeit floating, embrace of Roméo and his love on their wedding night at the Met. These memorable, intimate scenes, which I am accustomed to experiencing almost first hand, lose the bulk of their charm and power when transplanted to the center of a gilded soccer field.

With these thoughts in mind, I return to Romeo et Juliette, as performed by the singers of my mother's budding opera company, Bel Cantanti Opera. It is a well-known story, and as I did not trouble myself to explain it in my last post on the production, I will follow my own example, and presume you need no lesson in classic literature.

Bel Cantanti's was a noteworthy production; with a cast of about 12 chorus singers, the ensemble put up a valiant front and sang the opening piece with force and diction, equaling a cast of double its numbers. Chun-Ting Chao made a youthful and charming Juliette, graceful in her movements and singing the role beautifully. Sitting in the third row, I was granted a full range of expression and movement, which is completely indiscernible from the family balcony of the Met, which finds itself a good tenth of a mile off stage. Juliette performed her arias with a spree and showed great chemistry with Eric Gramatges, as her Roméo, who took the lead with an immeasurably admirable performance.

Bel Cantanti's production features many incredibly talented and professional singers, some of whom are completely new to me, and others who have graced Bel Cantanti stages for seasons past. Great performances were put in by Kwang Kyu Lee as Frere Laurent and Abigail Fischer as the quirky and boyish Stephano.

The sets exhibit great taste and visual economy, avoiding the continual pitfall of unnecessary frill and pomp that many small stages succumb to, which only distract the eye from the singers and their magnificent costumes. Each piece of furniture and backdrop was chosen and created with specific meaning and kept in tune with the date. Juliette's bed, hand built with a sheer canopy and a charming lace bedspread, caught my particular attention.

The greatest moment of this opera, like many others, is the extended death scene of its two principal characters, which occupies the entirety of the last act. Watching this production, I found myself channeling the polar experience of the Metropolitan, where all I wished for was a pair of binoculars or to be watching it on a high definition television screen, yes, pathetic. Although I can never truly find myself pitying the foolish star-crossed lovers, the last act of Roméo and Juliette, I believe to be immeasurably breathtaking; the story aside, I find myself transported into an unutterable state of despair for an incredible twenty minutes.

Seeing the characters framed perfectly by the solemn marble tomb, writhing in each other's arms, uttering their final farewells, I found myself imagining Titian's paintings of Psyche, lighting a candle to find Cupid in her bed or Apollo supporting his love Hyacinth, whom he has just stricken down. The scene is simply and beautifully staged, and the handsome singing and chemistry between Eric Gramatges and Chun-Ting Chao found me transplanted into some of the greatest tragic love stories of our time.

Watching Juliette stab herself and perform her aria sprawled on her back reminded me of some long forgotten episode of American Idol where the singers were forced to prove their talent by signing while lying on the ground. Perhaps, it does ring true, as the greatest singers have to perform while dying or making love, while others need voice-overs to get through their mediocre dance numbers.

If you find yourself in the greater Washington DC area this coming weekend, I urge you to grant yourself the privilege of seeing these talented performers in their final debut of the 2010-2011 season, and allow them to show, first hand, how to die for love.

Tickets and information can be found on their website at: www.BelCantanti.com

Sunday, June 5, 2011


Over the past two months, I have been vigorously scanning sidewalks for loose change, saving with abandon and campaigning on IndieGoGo to raise money for my first semester of Graduate School at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

I have received incredible support from family, friends, colleagues and relative strangers over the past few months and I wanted to express how truly thankful I am for all of the advice and donations. I am incredibly grateful to all of the sponsors on my IndieGoGo campaign, as well as those who have helped me gather and submit my application, wrote heartwarming references and aided me in the financial aid process as well as the friends who have helped me in my move to a new city.

I have been blessed with kind and thoughtful friends, and have been frequently surprised with generous notes and offers of support, and would like to take the time to share with you all of the people that have selflessly helped me get to where I am.

Friends, Supporters, Donors and Sponsors of my fundraising campaign, I have no words to express to you how thankful I am for all of your help. We are, all of us, in a tough economic situation, and to be able to consider someone else when you have to look out for your own needs is incredible beyond measure.

To the kind teachers and mentors who have helped me become who I am today, I have found no gift worthy of repaying you for your work. To Nancy and Patrick, I am incredibly grateful for your thoughtful recommendations, and to Nancy especially for all of your advice through the years that I have known you. Thank you Robert, for helping me with my application process, dealing with my naivete and reading through my confused scribbling.

Last, but never least, I thank all of my friends who helped me drag boxes upon boxes of art books, exotic plants, and their fragile, yet incredibly heavy, glass enclosures down what seemed like hundreds of stairs in the scorching heat of an oddly timed late May heat-wave. I would never have been able to do it on my own, which should really teach me not to collect so many random pieces of relative garbage, but I have never been able to help myself. So, thank you! Thank you for dragging and pulling, dealing with me and the three legged chinchilla I carried around in a cardboard box, listening to me yell at UHaul as our truck broke down and attempting to make me feel better when all you wanted to do was slap me and tell me to get myself together. Thank you!

At the end of every journey, you are confronted with the loss of people you have considered indispensable, who may not have grouped you in the same category, but with every new beginning, you keep with you those that have truly been there the entire time. I am incredibly thankful to go off on my new journey knowing that to my heart are bound true friends who will be with me no matter where I turn.

"It feels as though I had a string tied here under my left rib where my heart is, tightly knotted to you in a similar fashion. And when you go to Ireland, with all that distance between us, I am afraid that this cord will be snapped, and I shall bleed inwardly." - Charlotte Brontë

Let us never go to Ireland?