All posts by mirseidel

How Tesla kidnapped my imagination

older Tesla

There’s some­thing about the inven­tor Niko­la Tes­la that has strong­ly attract­ed artists—much more than his arch-rival Edi­son, let’s say. Tesla’s amaz­ing life and grand visions have pulled artis­tic cre­ations from those he captivates—a stream of operas, music, plays, nov­els and sto­ries, film and video. I know about this first­hand, because it hap­pened to me. Dis­cov­er­ing his sto­ry led me to write a libret­to for what became the opera Vio­let Fire.

Niko­la Tes­la, born in 1856 to Ser­bian par­ents in Croa­t­ia, was a vision­ary scientist/inventor who helped cre­ate the bedrock of our tech­no­log­i­cal world, with his ground­break­ing dis­cov­er­ies in elec­tric­i­ty, radio, robot­ics and even com­put­er cir­cuit­ry. His intense stream of visu­al­iza­tions led him to amass over 700 patents. Some of his visions, like his idea to pull elec­tri­cal ener­gy from the upper atmos­phere, still sound like sci­ence fic­tion. He was a charis­mat­ic fig­ure who moved through New York’s Gild­ed Age high soci­ety, befriend­ing Mark Twain and oth­ers, but lived and died alone.

From top: Nikola Tesla as an old man; a still from Violet Fire
From top: Niko­la Tes­la as an old man; a still from Vio­let Fire

When I first learned about him, Tesla’s sto­ry knocked me over. How could he not be uni­ver­sal­ly known? His visions seemed like those of a mys­tic, yet they had led to inven­tions that have had glob­al effects on how we live. With his strange, out­sized life and visions, it seemed to me that only an opera could hope to por­tray him. I cen­tered the sto­ry on Tesla’s rela­tion­ship with a white pigeon, whose death brought him a vision of pow­er­ful light. Vio­let Fire was brought to life by the beau­ti­ful, haunt­ing music of Jon Gib­son, and the con­tri­bu­tions of direc­tor Ter­ry O’Reilly, chore­o­g­ra­ph­er Nina Winthrop, and video design­ers Sarah Drury and Jen Sim­mons. Exact­ly sev­en years ago, on Niko­la Tesla’s 150th birth­day, my col­lab­o­ra­tors and I had the great hon­or of see­ing the pre­miere of Vio­let Fire at the Nation­al The­ater in Bel­grade.

Our opera isn’t the only one inspired by Tes­la. A large-scale opera, Light­ning in His Hand, has been mount­ed in Hobart, Tas­ma­nia. Melis­sa Dunphy’s song cycle, Tesla’s Pigeon, was recent­ly per­formed in New York, and a new opera by Jim Jar­musch and Phil Kline is in the works. As Tes­la is redis­cov­ered, I’m sure there will be more works inspired by him—maybe in art­forms we haven’t yet imag­ined. Hap­py Birth­day, Niko­la Tes­la.


The Barefoot Artist

Lily Yeh
Lily Yeh, Image thanks to The Bare­foot Artist,

Next Wednes­day, The Bare­foot Artist—a doc­u­men­tary about the unusu­al career of Lily Yeh—will have a spe­cial pre­view screen­ing at the Philadel­phia Muse­um of Art. Go if you can. It’s a chance to get a deep­er look at this artist, who’s trav­eled to “bro­ken places,” as she calls them, work­ing on projects that use “the pow­er of art to rebuild com­mu­ni­ties” (also her words). Over the past twen­ty years she’s worked in North Philadel­phia, in a des­o­late slum in Nairo­bi, a school for migrant work­ers in Bei­jing, and on a geno­cide memo­r­i­al in Rwan­da, always cat­alyz­ing the ener­gy of the peo­ple in those places to cre­ate some­thing they can con­tin­ue on their own.

Lily Yeh came to the U.S. from Tai­wan, already trained in Chi­nese land­scape paint­ing. Her work to reclaim an aban­doned lot in North Philadel­phia grew into the Vil­lage of Arts and Human­i­ties, with an abun­dance of parks, arts and youth pro­grams. When I wrote about her work for Art in Amer­i­ca as the Vil­lage cel­e­brat­ed its tenth birth­day, I tried to show how what she was doing, and is still doing, is her art—not just a very suc­cess­ful com­mu­ni­ty art project. The term rela­tion­al art may be the best art-world term to cov­er the thing she does, and it does take in com­mu­ni­ty-based work like the French artist JR’s mas­sive gueril­la pho­to instal­la­tions in Rio’s fave­las. But there’s some­thing so open-heart­ed about Lily’s work; I like the idea of “pub­lic art as a spir­i­tu­al path,” the title of a recent arti­cle that talks about her work. What we call it may not mat­ter, but I’ll be think­ing about this as I watch the movie.

If you sub­scribe to this blog, I’ll send you a copy of my review of Lily Yeh’s work, which includes a descrip­tion of one of my favorite art-per­for­mance moments ever.

The Bare­foot Artist, direct­ed by Glenn Hol­sten and Daniel Traub, at the Philadel­phia Muse­um of Art, Wednes­day, June 19 at 7 p.m. Free with admis­sion.


From the Ground Up

Isaiah Zagar landscape painting
Isa­iah Zagar’s Islands of Nova Sco­tia, 1973 — a pre-mosa­ic paint­ing

Like embed­ded jour­nal­ists, Peter Kin­ney, Isa­iah Zagar and Jeff War­ing have made the work in this show as ‘embed­ded’ artists, bur­row­ing deep into the nat­ur­al world to bring back its dirty, messy, mys­te­ri­ous secrets… Each of these artists is after full-on com­mu­nion with the nat­ur­al world, the kind that leaves you sur­round­ed and bowled over, for­get­ting the dif­fer­ence between being human, rock, plant or divine…”

Me and artist Peter Kinney - a painting by Peter on left, and one by Jeff Waring on right
Me and artist Peter Kin­ney — a paint­ing by Peter on left, and two by Jeff War­ing on right

This is part of the state­ment I wrote for the exhib­it From the Ground Up: LandWater&Sky, now up at Philadelphia’s Mag­ic Gar­dens through June 9. Thanks to Ellen Owens for invit­ing me to be part of this won­der­ful show, which has work by Peter Kin­ney, Jeff War­ing, and some rarely seen ear­ly land­scape paint­ings by Isa­iah Zagar, dat­ing to before his out­door mosa­ic work. Two years ago I includ­ed Peter Kin­ney in a small-group show called Ecsta­t­ic Land­scape in the Borowsky Gallery at the Ger­sh­man Y, where I’m the cura­tor. Peter, Isa­iah and Jeff’s work feels like they’re all part of the same school: wild, made-out­side vision­ary land­scape?

A wall of work showing it surrounded by Isaiah's mosaic ceiling and floor - works by Peter Kinney (two larger pieces) and Jeff Waring
A wall of work show­ing it sur­round­ed by Isaiah’s mosa­ic ceil­ing and floor — works by Peter Kin­ney (two larg­er pieces) and Jeff War­ing

Midas in Milwaukee

Kamran Ince conducting the premiere of Judgment of Midas, at UWM's Zelazo Center
Kam­ran Ince con­duct­ing the pre­miere of Judg­ment of Midas, at UWM’s Zela­zo Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts. All pho­tos here by Susan Span­gler.
Pan, sung by Jennifer Goltz  (to left of Kamran Ince), during the music contest
Pan, sung by Jen­nifer Goltz (to left of Kam­ran Ince — yes, the part was cross-cast), dur­ing the music con­test.
Left to right: singers Gregory Gerbrandt and Abigail Fischer, Miriam and Kamran clapping for the orchestra
Left to right: singers Philip Horst, Gre­go­ry Ger­brandt and Abi­gail Fis­ch­er, Miri­am and Kam­ran clap­ping for the orches­tra. The pro­ject­ed image is by Craw­ford Gree­newalt Jr., depict­ing the par­tic­i­pants in the leg­endary music con­test as an ancient mosa­ic.

Judg­ment of Midas pre­miered in Mil­wau­kee last week, and I’m still buzzing. It was an incred­i­ble expe­ri­ence. Kevin Stal­heim, who leads Present Music, and Jill Anna Polasek of Mil­wau­kee Opera The­ater, suc­ceed­ed in mak­ing this won­der­ful pro­duc­tion feel like an opera, even though it was “semi-staged.” Kam­ran Ince, the com­pos­er, con­duct­ed the Present Music ensem­ble, expand­ed to small orches­tra size and includ­ing five Turk­ish musi­cians. The soloists lined up con­cert-style to sing, but each one cre­at­ed their char­ac­ters in place: Fran­ny and Theo, the con­tem­po­rary cou­ple vis­it­ing the ancient ruins of Sardis; the guide Melik/King Midas; and the Gods Apol­lo, Pan and Tmo­lus. Pro­ject­ed images and dig­i­tal light­ing on the Zela­zo Cen­ter stage gave the per­for­mances a visu­al pres­ence and oper­at­ic scale.

I felt the piece com­ing alive, and the audi­ence being pulled in to it, as Kamran’s thrilling, high-octane music, the sto­ry and words, the beau­ti­ful singing and play­ing, and the visu­als came togeth­er into a sin­gle whole. I’m so grate­ful to every­one who gave their best to this pro­duc­tion. Both nights were cap­tured on audio and video, and we are look­ing ahead, hop­ing Midas will con­tin­ue to devel­op and be seen again.


Touching on Midas

It’s just a week now before the pre­miere of Judg­ment of Midas, the opera I’ve been work­ing on with Kam­ran Ince. It’s hap­pen­ing in Mil­wau­kee, in a pro­duc­tion with Present Music and the Mil­wau­kee Opera The­ater. I’m real­ly excit­ed, look­ing for­ward to see­ing how it’s been imag­ined, and hear­ing the com­plete score for the first time. This is my sec­ond libret­to, and I know I will feel that amaz­ing sen­sa­tion again, of hear­ing words I’ve writ­ten come alive through the music.

For me, Judg­ment of Midas began when I met Kam­ran in Philadel­phia after a per­for­mance of his Strange Stone by Relâche. I found Kamran’s music rav­ish­ing, with beau­ti­ful tex­tures and a sweep­ing ener­gy. I told him how much I liked it, and in the con­ver­sa­tion that fol­lowed he men­tioned he had received a com­mis­sion to write an opera, but had no libret­tist yet. My first opera, Vio­let Fire, had had its first per­for­mance at Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty just a few weeks before.

Describ­ing the project, Kam­ran explained that it was inspired by an ancient myth, a sto­ry con­nect­ed with the arche­o­log­i­cal site of Sardis—part of the king­dom of Lydia, and now in west­ern Turkey. My anten­nae went off: I had vis­it­ed Sardis a few years before and remem­bered it vivid­ly. Thanks to Steve, my hus­band, who has a life­long pas­sion for antiq­ui­ty, we’ve been to Turkey sev­er­al times, that last time with our son Ethan.

Sardis sits on a high plain. You see the Gre­co-Roman city ris­ing up out of an emp­ty field, and far­ther away, the huge bur­ial mounds that dat­ed to an even ear­li­er time. It’s one of those places like Stonehenge—so qui­et, you can hear the breeze going past your ears.

It’s also the place where Dr. Craw­ford Gree­newalt, Jr. spent every sum­mer for decades, super­vis­ing the arche­o­log­i­cal dig. It was Greenie’s idea (that’s what every­one calls him) to com­mis­sion an opera based on the sto­ry of King Midas—not the Gold­en Touch, but the less well-known sequel, known from Ovid’s Meta­mor­phoses.

The sto­ry that Gree­nie sug­gest­ed to Kam­ran involved a music con­test. It goes like this: after Midas has washed off the Gold­en Touch, he retires to the woods, fol­low­ing the god Pan. Pan chal­lenges Apol­lo to a musi­cal con­test, a sort of Lydia’s Got Tal­ent, to be judged by the local moun­tain god, Tmo­lus. Midas protests when Apol­lo is declared the win­ner, which leads Apol­lo to pun­ish him by giv­ing him a pair of ass­es’ ears.

Full dis­clo­sure: I am a mythol­o­gy nerd. Being able to dive into this sto­ry, with its range of divini­ties from the most sub­lime to the least, and play with the themes it throws off, was a great attrac­tion. Midas was a real king, and is his­tor­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed to the even ear­li­er Phry­gian king­dom. But leg­end said that he washed him­self clean near Sardis, in the riv­er Pactolus—the source of gold for wealthy Lydia.

One of the gifts of this project was meet­ing Gree­nie, a remark­able man who fol­lowed his pas­sions for arche­ol­o­gy and music with­out stint­ing. If he were still alive, he prob­a­bly wouldn’t want any fuss made over his cen­tral role in the project. For­tu­nate­ly he was able to see the con­cert per­for­mance of Midas in New York in 2011. But I’m sure he’ll be with us in Mil­wau­kee too.