Saturday, 17 March 2018

The wearing of the green

Loretta Young

Nicole Kidman's green parrot frock from the Screen Actors' Guild awards 2017

Jackie Kennedy wearing a pale green Givenchy dress

HM The Queen in 1954

Vivien Leigh's green "curtain" dress from "Gone With the Wind"

Happy Paddy's Day!

Friday, 16 March 2018

This weekend, I am mostly dressing casual... this weekend's birthday girl, the fabulous Brigitte Helm!

If any living person could have been described as "Art Deco", it was her.

Brigitte Helm (17th March 1906 – 11th June 1996)

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Mothers' Day

Rafaela Ottiano (4th March 1888 – 18th August 1942)

It's Mothering Sunday!

Hope you remembered the flowers - she won't be happy if you forgot...

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Recycling frogs, a hippo, beautiful buttocks, Livia and a floral astronomer

Not quite the behaviour one might expect from the Public Astronomer

The venerable - and marvellous - Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology's Objects of Desire showcase has become not just a fixture in the calendar for the museum itself, but has long been a pivot for the LGBT History Month events in Camden and Islington. As, due to a variety of circumstances, this year's LGBTHM events were somewhat reduced in number, it was (for me anyway) the highlight. Indeed it was the only event I attended in the whole of last month.

Opening proceedings with his usual aplomb, our host and expert on all things Ancient Egyptian (especially the smutty bits) John J Johnson was as proud as punch to preside over one of the most successful of the Petrie events - in the fifth year it has been running.

Our first guest was a real charmer, the florally-clad Breton fashion designer Florent Bidois - who, from his blurb: "only works from recycling old materials and everything in our daily consumption (plastic/potato bags, bubble wrap, etc.) and tries to create beautiful from ugliness in a continuous fight against waste".

The ancient object from the vaults of the museum that had caught his eye was a tiny (and admittedly rather phallic) frog (of indeterminate provenance). M Bidois has a "bit of a thing" for frogs, not least, as he joked, because it is the common British slang for the French; he often incorporates their image into his designs, and indeed, the jacket he wore for the evening was constructed in a water-lily pad design.

JJJ led the conversation into a discussion of Florent's myriad outré constructions, his fashion shows, his regular appearances - modelling his own clothing range - around the trendy Spitalfields Market, and his friendship with that other remarkably distinctive fashionista (and fave here at Dolores Delargo Towers) Sue Kreizman (who happened to be in the audience for the evening). Check out his YouTube channel if you need some inspiration...

Next to the "interrogation chair" was David Bullen, researcher into "the representation of gender and sexuality in adaptations of Greek myth more generally, particularly in popular media such as Hollywood film, children's literature, and comic-books." He is also director of the By Jove! Theatre Company, whose productions have included works based on Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides.

His chosen object form the Egyptian collection, however, was a delightful pink hippopotamus amulet purchased by Flinders Petrie at Luxor - a representation of the creature whose form was taken by Horus and Set during one of their aeons-long epic battles. Which led JJJ quite neatly to everyone's favourite gay piece from the museum's collection, the fabled "world's oldest gay chat-up line", a 4000-year-old graphic depiction of gay sex being used as a method of gaining dominance in power as well as bed...

Of course, these tales of ancient battles between gods inevitably ignored the role played in society by women, and the discussion continued with a exploration of how By Jove! take a different approach to all their productions, in many cases reversing the emphasis of the original historical text and, instead, telling the tale largely from the female protagonist's point of view.

Speaking of powerful female imagery, our next guest to the hot-seat was self-described "theatre maker" Anne Langford, whose chosen object was a remarkable one indeed - a tiny alabaster pot found buried under Queen Hatshepshut's temple at Deir-el-Bahri, which still had traces of a resin-based (presumed) cosmetic preserved within it!

No discussion on Ancient Egypt during LGBT History Month would be complete, of course, without exploring the fascinating world of the pioneering, cross-dressing Hatshepshut, the first woman not to merely be content to rule as Queen, but who had herself crowned Pharaoh. Her elegant transformation, and the subsequent attempted erasure of her from the historical records by her (male) successors is in itself a fascinating tale... it was for our final interviewee, Dr Douglas McNaughton, historian and theorist of broadcast media, who also chose a Deir-el-Bahri find - a ceremonial axe-head with Hatshepshut's inscription.

He, too, has an endless fascination with the portrayal of strong women-in-power, as they are depicted on screen - and gave us a very good explanation of why, from his observation, such magnificent females as Sian Phillips' Livia and the rest of those scheming queens (the insatiable and devious Messalina, the stoic Antonia, the murderous Agrippina, the doomed Livilla, and so on) as portrayed in the classic 1976 BBC series I, Claudius (as well as other small-screen leading ladies of the time) came to prominence during the 70s in particular.

Due to the constraints upon its budgets faced by the Beeb in that strike-addled, debt-ridden time in British history, even an epic dramatised history of Rome had to be shot largely within one small studio set. Thus, whole chapters of Robert Graves' original books (featuring large-scale battles, parades, the building of monumental architecture and the like) had to be cut out of the final TV adaptation, leaving the more "domestic" personal intrigues of the despotic Caesars and their families to take centre stage - and many of those "domestic" stories were inevitably dominated by the ambitions of the females of the clan...

This was a thought-provoking and very entertaining evening, as ever - and was suitably topped-off when many of the participants and several members of the audience (me and Jim, and his work chums, included - as well as the Public Astronomer Marek Kukula, as featured in our opening picture alongside fellow mischief-maker, curator Helen Pike) traipsed back-stage to continue our sterling work in polishing-off the evening's complimentary wine.

I love the Petrie Museum..!

Sunday, 25 February 2018

"It's Fab-ray, not Fa-bare-ass!"

As dear Muscato might allude: "Silently, slowly, in a Rococo apartment in the "Embassies Quarter" of Paris - Rue Bénouville, close to where The Windsors lived in exile - a gnarled hand* reaches for an ornate gilt propelling pencil. Carefully, she turns to the page and strikes out another name in the long list therein. And smiles a secret smile..."

Nanette Fabray - one of the last survivors of the "Golden Age" of Hollywood - has died, aged 97.

  • A child star during the silent movie era, she starred alongside many of the greats including Ben Turpin, but she made her feature film debut as a young adult in the 30s as one of Bette Davis' ladies-in-waiting in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.
  • Miss Fabray was Gower Champion's first choice to play Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly, but Marge put her foot down and chose Carol Channing.
  • After suffering the embarrassment of being introduced as "Nanette Fa-bare-ass" at a benefit attended by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, she decided to change the spelling of her surname.
  • She became a household name in America during the mid 1950s as comedy partner to Sid Caesar on Caesar's Hour for which she won three Emmy Awards - but it was her appearance in a starring role in the film The Band Wagon, in which she performed the famous musical number Triplets alongside Fred Astaire and Jack Buchanan, for which she is probably best remembered worldwide.
  • She overcame a significant hearing impairment to pursue her career and was a long-time advocate for the rights of the deaf and hard of hearing.
  • In The Mary Tyler Moore Show she was mother to Mary Richards; and she continued her TV career with appearances on The Carol Burnett Show, Love American Style, Maude, The Love Boat, What's My Line? and Murder, She Wrote.
RIP Nanette Fabray (born Ruby Bernadette Nanette Fabares, 17th October 1920 – 22nd February 2018)

[* In case you are confused, dear reader, he regularly writes a fanciful allusion to the reaction of the oldest of all the "survivors" of that classic era, Dame Olivia de Havilland, to the news she's outlived another one. Of course.]

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Not a sing-a-long

Venetian courtesan, complete with towering platform shoes

An extravaganza of a show, much publicised and universally lauded by the critics, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) really went to town on its most recent blockbuster exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, which Hils, History Boy and I went to see last weekend (its last but one before closing). [A busy day all round - Hils and I also caught the final showing of a show I blogged about before: Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, which was definitely worth catching.]

This was a bit of a "curate's egg", if truth be told. The exhibits were as over-the-top and brilliant as one might expect from the V&A, with an eclectic mix of priceless rarities (unique instruments; hand-scribed manuscripts; original art masterpieces) and more obvious items (busts of the great composers; costumes and scenery) on show.

Baroque opera costume

It was only let down by the bizarrely random technology of the audio headsets - these were meant to play commentary and music to set each scene, but clashed horribly with the over-loud music actually playing through the speakers in the exhibition and, if one moved even slightly away from the appropriate "hot-spot", one piece of delightful music faded away into another and back again...

Nonetheless, in extracts from this review by Jan Dalley in the Financial Times the rest of the experience is summed up better than ever I could:
"Death! Lust! Ambition! Decadence!" screams the wall text for Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, the first of seven operas under the spotlight... In terms of subject matter at least, this is opera starting as it means to continue.

Although opera has its roots in popular forms - pantomime, circus, carnival and street entertainments - it was in Venice in 1643, with Poppea, that the private musical entertainments of the super-wealthy rose to such a pitch of sophistication that they burst more or less fully formed on to the public stage, a new genre.

So opera was born a sophisticated form, demanding and revelling in the heights of musical technique and lavish presentation. It is the art form that encompasses all the others, not just music, singing, dance, acting and narrative but also design, stage architecture and more. Its storylines, as the wall texts in this brilliantly presented show emphasise, have always been intense: fantasy and myth, wars and dark deeds, love and rage, the heights and depths of human emotion. And, increasingly, social and political comment and satire.

Bernardo Strozzi - The Viola da Gamba Player
The exhibition shows this all-encompassing artistic environment, with paintings - superb thematic loans include Manet, Degas and many more - costumes, a reconstructed baroque stage, maps and posters, instruments, letters and so on. But it is interested chiefly in the social and political milieux that gave birth to these operas, each in a different city, usually at the moment of its rise to prosperity: through this lens, it’s a history of Europe itself.

Yes, opera has always followed the money. From Venice we walk on through the show’s loosely constructed maze, made of rough structures that suggest the backstage reality supporting the onstage glitz, to rich mercantile London, and the opening of Handel’s Rinaldo in 1711. It is a daft love/war story, but it had potential for the spectacular baroque stage effects that fashion demanded: a ship tosses on the waves of the tiny, elaborate theatre set as we listen to the mermaids calling.

In Vienna, just as the excesses of the licentious 18th century were about to meet a new radicalism, opera found its rebellious streak. Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte had to tone down the full political clout of Beaumarchais’ original to make their comedy of class and manners in Le Nozze di Figaro, the first opera to give prominent roles to servants. But the writing (“Lust! Egalitarianism! Mischief!”) was, and is, on the wall.

Mozart's harpsichord
Verdi’s Nabucco, in the Milan of 1842, gives us the voice of Maria Callas as Abigaille, in a rare (for this show) display of one of the great divas: they are not part of the story as it is told here. And with the giant chorus of the Hebrew slaves, Va, pensiero, culture is in full battle mode, embroiled in Italy’s nationalist struggles; the huge swell of voices in the chorus that became an alternative national anthem for the new Italy is interspersed with gunfire.

Giuseppe Verdi

Eva Gonzalès - Une loge aux Italiens [A Box at the Theatre des Italiens]
Radicalism, both musical and otherwise, haunted Wagner’s Tannhäuser (“Personal struggle! Morality!”), shown here not at its 1845 Dresden premiere but at its disastrous outing in Paris in 1861, where the composer’s rebellion against the conventions of Grand Opera, which demanded a lengthy ballet, led him to insert in the Venusberg music one of opera’s sexiest scenes. A rank of TV screens shows us a montage of recent productions: quite raunchy, even for today. At the time there was shock, horror and - since the opera had come to Paris at the behest of Napoleon III - anti-Bonapartist anger. Wagner, lampooned in a magazine as a tiny figure inside a giant ear, attacking the eardrum with a hammer and chisel, took the opera off after three nights.

There is more sex to come. Richard Strauss’s Salome, which premiered in wealthy, liberal Dresden in 1905, appears here in a video of David McVicar’s recent production with Salome, crawling half-naked, half-crazed and soaked in gore, passionately kissing the severed head, while the fierce nudes of Kirchner look on from the opposite wall. In front of the screen stands Freud’s carpet-draped couch: just a few years on from Breuer and Freud’s studies of hysteria, the opera was a potent mash-up of new thinking - psychoanalysis, gender and the power of sexuality - allied to one of mythology’s most powerful tales of greed and eroticism untamed. The composer’s copy of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, with its Beardsley illustrations, is a revealing extra.

From the unbridled Salome to the sturdy feminist figure on a 1925 International Women’s Day poster is a substantial jump in depictions of women. Now Shostakovich’s ill-fated Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (“Murder! Passion! Bourgeois housewife!”) shows that in 1934 the ancient themes of love, jealousy and revenge still flourished in the new Soviet reality - although Stalin didn’t like to think so. The opera was censored; Shostakovich never wrote another.

The final room, with its large screens and performance stage, shows through a range of newer operas, including George Benjamin’s brilliant Written on Skin, why - if after this inspiring exhibition you are in any doubt - such a bizarre, apparently arcane art form still flourishes.
Bizarre and "arcane" it may be, but one can only gasp in wonder sometimes when one hears a sublime performance such as this...