Greek to Me: Gods of Olympus

olympus-greek-mythology-wallpaperAre Greek myths befuddling to you? Have trouble understanding scholarly references to people like Icarus and Pandora? Don’t know the difference between Epimetheus and Eurystheus? Well, you need fear the Minotaur of ignorance no longer: Welcome to Greek to Me, my blog segment where you will learn about some of the most important and complex myths in the history of Western literature, all accompanied with beautiful art for your visualization! I believe that, given the history and the artistic omnipresence of Greek mythological themes, that knowledge of them is essential for a rounded education on Western culture. In this article, we’ll start from the beginning and give a brief summary of the famous gods of Mount Olympus.

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The mythical home of the gods, Mt. Olympus

Each of the Greek gods and goddesses were very well developed characters, with distinct and unique personalities. For those who do not know, each god and goddess was the patron of an aspect of nature or humanity and had special symbols of these patronages which are often used to identify them in art. They are also known by different names to the Ancient Romans, who worshipped them as well. The focus today is on the twelve Olympian gods, those who were believed to dwell on Mount Olympus. These included Zeus, Hera, Hestia, Demeter Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Ares, Hermes and Dionysus. In today’s article, we’ll cover the first seven.

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Zeus and Hera, accompanied by their symbols, the eagle and the peacock

First on the list is the famous Zeus. He was the god of lightning and ruler of all. After being rescued from being eaten by his father Kronus by his mother Rhea, Zeus defeated his father, rescuing his siblings Hestia, Hades, Poseidon, Demeter and Hera. He took kingship of the heavens for himself and assigned the rule of the Sea and the Underworld to his brothers Poseidon and Hades respectively. He was famous for many great feats of power, but most myths featuring Zeus center on his unbelievably numerous love affairs. His romantic escapades and attempts to hide his paramours from his wife provided much amusement to the ancient Greeks in their stories and plays. Zeus’ symbols included the lightning bolt or the mighty eagle, and his name to the Romans was Jupiter

Second is Hera who was, awkwardly, both the sister and the wife of Zeus. She was Queen of the gods and the patron goddess of women, marriage, and childbirth. She was very beautiful and was portrayed with a fairly clever, but haughty and vengeful nature. Zeus’ constant affairs with other women, both mortal and divine, made her jealous and bitter and she often tried to take out her anger on Zeus’ many illegitimate children since she couldn’t punish him for it.  Hera was known to the Romans as Juno and her symbols are most commonly the cow and the peacock.

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Demeter and Hestia

Hestia was the virgin goddess of the hearth, her symbol. She attended the sacred fire of Olympus. She was known as Vesta to the Romans, whose ‘Vestal Virgins’ famously attended the sacred Roman fire. Her sister Demeter, was goddess of the harvest and mother of Persephone, goddess of spring and flowers. Demeter was a generous goddess, willingly sharing the fruit of the earth with mankind and ruling over the seasons. Her Roman name was Ceres, and her symbols were grain and a sickle. Hestia is not featured in many myths, but is usually portrayed with a calm and motherly demeanor. Demeter is similar, but has flashes of protective motherhood and can be quite passionate and dramatic.

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Athena

My personal favorite of the gods and goddesses is Athena. She was said to have been born directly from the head of Zeus. In fear that his child would be more powerful than he, Zeus had swallowed Athena’s mother Metis. But the child developed in Zeus’ head, and eventually burst forth from his cranium fully grown as Athena. She was another virgin goddess, and being the offspring of the mind of Zeus, she was the patroness of wisdom and learning, as well as skilled warfare and handcrafts such as weaving. She was always pictured with symbols of war, such as a helmet, spear or a shield bearing the symbol of Medusa’s head. Her other symbols were the Olive tree, whose creation was attributed to her, and the owl, whose symbolism of wisdom lives on even in modern culture. Athena is of an intelligent, witty and strong personality. While a goddess of war, she is dignified and sophisticated and only very rarely does she lose her temper. She often assists heroes such as Perseus, Odysseus and Jason. Her Roman name is Minerva.

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Apollo and Artemis

Apollo and Artemis were twin brother and sister, children of Zeus and the nymph Leto. Apollo, known as Phoebus to the Romans, was god of many things: light, art, music, poetry, prophecy, archery and medicine. His most famous symbols were the lyre and the laurel wreath. He is of an unsurprisingly artistic temperament, wise, poetic and intelligent. However, his passions, both angry and romantic, occasionally flare over his better judgement.

His sister Artemis, Roman name Diana, was goddess of the Moon, archery, hunting, woodlands, animals and chastity, being another virgin goddess. She was also occasionally associated with childbirth, as the legend went that, after being born, she immediately assisted her mother in the delivery of her twin brother. She is often portrayed with an energetic, youthful and independent temperament and occasionally waxes very headstrong and a little spiteful. Her most identifiable symbols were the deer, her bow and arrows and the crescent Moon.

And so, these are the first seven of the Greek’s Olympian deities. Next time, there will a second article for the rest of the Olympians as well as the lords of the Sea and the Underworld. You’re well on your way to becoming a Greek mythological expert!

Opera Highlight: Madama Butterfly

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Commemorative statue of Cio-Cio-san and her son in Nagasaki, Japan

One of my all time favorite operas and possibly the most heartbreaking thing one could ever either read, watch or listen to is Giacomo Puccini’s great masterpiece, Madama Butterfly. It is what could be called a ‘drawing room’ opera. There is no action or adventure. Everything, from the wedding to Butterfly’s death, takes place in and around a beautiful Japanese house on a hill. And yet, nowhere does the opera want for interest.

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The Pledge (誓), by Hirezaki Eiho

The story begins with an American naval lieutenant, B.F. Pinkerton, who has been stationed in Nagasaki for a time. While handsome and charming, he is a scoundrel, and has arranged for a temporary marriage to take place to ‘keep him entertained’ until he ships out again. This marriage is to a delicate and gentle Japanese girl, aptly named Cio-Cio, meaning ‘Butterfly’. Unaware of Pinkerton’s true intentions, she believes he genuinely cares for her and falls desperately in love with him. She renounces her religion and is disowned by her whole family. When Pinkerton is eventually reassigned, he tells her he will return. The poor girl believes him and patiently waits for him for three years. During this time, she bears his child, lives in poverty and rejects all handsome offers of marriage made to her on the grounds that she is already married. One day, Pinkerton does return, but to Butterfly’s horror, it is with a new, “real” American wife. In a sort of twisted attempt at reparation, they are there to take away Butterfly’s child and give him a good life in America. Knowing that she will never be able to properly support him, Butterfly does indeed give up her child. But she decides as her father did, that ‘It is better to die with honor than to live with dishonor’. She takes her own life just as Pinkerton, for whom she waited so faithfully, arrives calling out her name.

Written out, the story seems very sad. But listening? I can honestly say that I have never encountered any work of art, visual, literary or musical which so touched my soul as Madama Butterfly. The story is heart-rending, the libretto (script) wonderfully crafted, and the music could draw tears from a stone.

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Giacomo Puccini

This opera is partially the result of the Orientalist movement. This was a popular movement in Europe for a long time, especially during the historically terrible Imperialist Era. The ‘exotic’ and ‘foreign’ view that the West had of the East was big money in entertainment, and plenty of musicians and artists made a quick buck by giving Europeans a cheap imitation of the East. Our composer Giacomo Puccini, however, stands apart. Rather than give the people their “fix of exoticism”, as it could be called, he strove for an authenticity that most artists of his time never even bothered with. Fascinatingly, his Madama Butterfly is filled with authentic Japanese folk tunes, which he studied in great detail to give a genuine Japanese flavor to his music. Despite limited knowledge and access to knowledge of it, Puccini did his very best to stay true to Japanese culture in his opera. Of course, not living in a very informed era on this subject, he got many things wrong. He did try, however, and many of his mistakes (such as a mildly inaccurate depiction of jigai) are easily corrected by modern productions.

What also sets Madama Butterfly apart is its shocking anti-Imperialist message. Similar to an earlier opera by Délibes, LakméMadama Butterfly tells the story of a wronged and abused woman in a wronged and abused culture. Butterfly seems to represent more than just one woman, but the entire culture of Japan, or even the whole of Asia. The abuse of the West towards its colonized lands is a black mark on Western history and one which found a sharp reproach in a work like Madama Butterfly. Who knows, but perhaps more than one person left the theater after this opera with a very different view on the East than he had when he entered.

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Maria Callas as Cio-Cio-san

Many people take Madama Butterfly in the wrong way, however, deeming it racist and filled with stereotypes. While I acknowledge the presence of the stereotypes, I respectfully disagree that the work is racist. While such a piece composed now would certainly be problematic, one has to consider the time that it came from. In such a time as the early 20th century, Madama Butterfly bordered on a slap in the face to Westerners for their haughty, imperialistic views of different cultures. Much like a butterfly, the important image of the opera, Westerners treated other cultures as nothing more than something you capture, kill and pin to a card as a decoration. This well delivered message is why I am at a loss when people pour hatred on this beautiful opera for racism. It seems to me the equivalent of condemning Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its obvious racial stereotypes while ignoring the anti-slavery themes and the effect it had on society’s conscience. In the end, I believe it comes down to what I said in a previous article; that in many stories, accuracy is not the point. The message is.

Madama Butterfly was not immediately successful. People said that the music was too similar to some of Puccini’s earlier works, especially La Boheme. This is rather bewildering to me, as I have yet to find a single place where the scores are noticeably similar. The fact remained, however, that the opera had to be revised and re-released before it was given the success it deserved. In my opinion, this is fortunate, as the first version contains bits in the libretto which are vastly inferior and, indeed, trite compared to the later (and now standard) 1914 version. Nowadays, Butterfly is one of the most popular and commonly performed operas in the world.

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Yin Huang and Richard Troxell in Scorsese’s beautiful film version

While many operas do not have any really perfect recordings,  Madama Butterfly is fortunate to possess some of the very finest versions in all of recorded opera. Many of the most talented singers and conductors have recorded this opera and there are plenty of versions to choose from. However, my recommendation can only go to the 1974 recording magnificently conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Never will you find a more tender and haunting Butterfly than Mirella Freni, nor a more magnificently voiced and characterized Pinkerton than Luciano Pavarotti. The supporting cast is just as good, and I consider this to be one of the best opera recordings of all time. You can listen to the entire thing on YouTube in Parts I, II and III.

But it is always best to start off by watching an opera before you merely listen to it. And here, Butterfly is in luck again, as Martin Scorsese himself put out a filmed version of the opera in 1995, filmed on location in Japan. This version can also be watched on YouTube, complete with subtitles.

So enjoy! This is an exquisite opera and well worth the watch. If you need to be convinced, however, give a listen to some of the snippets from the opera. They should leave you entranced.

(Featured Image: Peonies and Butterflies, by Ito Jakuchu)

Coloratura Me Beautiful

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Clockwise: Sutherland, Mesplé, Anderson, Dessay, Pons, Moffo, Sills

If you needed to learn one word to begin navigation of the Operatic world, I would submit that the word you needed would be “Coloratura”. It’s not a word that one encounters almost anywhere but in opera, but when you’re talking about opera, you hear it a lot, and if you don’t know what it means, you’re going to be very confused.

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Joan Sutherland, the Queen of Coloratura

So what is Coloratura? Well, it is an Italian word, and literally means ‘coloring’. It is most often used in music, where it refers to vocal ornamentation, usually in sopranos and mezzo sopranos. It is all of that really impressive vocal work that makes the jaw drop, the eyes bulge and the hands applaud frenziedly. When you hear it, you can see how fitting the word ‘coloring’ is to describe it, as the wild, yet sophisticated decorations bring the vocal line vibrant new life. Trills, runs, and spectacular, sparkling high notes. A lot of it hardly sounds possible, and one might not believe it actually was possible if there wasn’t footage of such singing coming from a human body. It’s astonishing stuff, and even people who don’t enjoy opera can at least admire the amazing talent of singers who are masters of this technique. Let’s look at some, shall we?

Of course, you don’t have to watch the entire half-hour video (though it’s worth it), but if you want some highlights, I would suggest going to Lily Pons at 3:14, Anna Moffo at 5:19, and Joan Sutherland at 12:50. These singers really encapsulate the art of Coloratura. They sing the music accurately and beautifully all while making it look and sound positively easy, even though it most certainly is not.

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After you have finished the cadenza, then you have my permission to breathe.

One downside to coloratura is that, often, a singer must sacrifice the Drama in a scene in order to sing it well. This isn’t a problem in comedies, as it is easy to be bright and cheery while whistling out notes. But in tragedies and melodramas the lack of proper feeling can be a bit off-putting for the dramatically inclined. Watching the aforementioned Lily Pons, for example, you would never guess that the character is supposed to be terrified while she is forced to sing by her father. Ms. Pons just looks too… happy. But focusing on the complicated singing and on the acting is really too much for most singers who don’t possess superhuman powers. This is probably the main reason why true coloratura singers are on the decline these days, when there is a definite push towards drama over technique. I myself am more inclined to good acting and emoting than vocal accuracy, but it does pain the heart to see such talent on the decline.

The closest we come to that golden age of Coloratura Singers these days are singers like Diana Damrau and Natalie Dessay, who, while excellent, still aren’t quite a Sutherland, Sills or Anderson. But I suspect that the pendulum will swing again at some point, and we will be drowning in melismatic vocals once more.

The ἰδιώτης’s Guide to Greek Drama

greektheaterdionysiswowIf entertainment had a great great (lots more greats) grandmother, she’d be wearing a chiton instead of a sweater and feeding you samali instead of cookies, because that grandmother would be the Greek Drama. The shows that started them all. All your favorite movies, television shows, and stage productions owe a huge debt of gratitude to ancient Greek men in big dresses, Elton John shoes and creepy masks. It sounds goofy, but really, Greek Dramas were and remain some of the most sophisticated contributions to Western literature and entertainment which we still possess. With their finely crafted stories, characters and language, Greek Dramas could be the poster children for the phrase “Oldies, but Goodies”. Of course, one can easily pick up a book of Aeschylus or Aristophanes and simply enjoy, but it’s always more fun to understand the background of a thing before digging into it. So let’s begin…

Greek Dramas, as far as we know, started being written in about the 6th century BC, making them some of the oldest works still regularly enjoyed today. The very oldest surviving of these is “The Persians”  by Aeschylus, composed and performed in 472 BC. In the beginning, these dramas were only tragedies, but eventually, comedies came into practice as well. They were usually composed for competitions held at religious festivals to honor the gods. The winners of the competitions would often receive a laurel wreath, a symbol of Apollo that represents one of the greatest honors a Greek could attain.

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A Greek Chorus. Not creepy at all.

The plays featured very few characters; at first, only one. However, the character/s were always accompanied by a Chorus. The Chorus was a small to large group of people who acted as a single entity (occasionally with a leader) and were responsible for providing perspective and commentary on the actions for the audience, usually in a poetic and dramatic way. As time went on, the more daring and innovative playwrights included two or even three characters and had the Chorus actually interact with the actors, turning it into a sort of character of its own.

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Statue of an ancient Greek actor. Please notice the disco shoes.

All the characters wore the now famous theater masks. Unlike the simplified versions we use for decoration today, Greek theater masks were extremely decorative, colorful and ingeniously designed so that the open mouth functioned like a sort of megaphone, allowing the actor to be heard more easily. The actors also wore long robes, made in bright colors and enormous shoes that would put Lady Gaga to shame. All of the big masks, robes, and shoes were there to make the actors larger than life and therefore visible to even the spectators in the top seats. And not only their appearances, but their movements and voices had to be hugely exaggerated. To make things even louder (and cooler), it is believed that the plays were actually closer to being chanted than spoken, which would have made the words resonate more in the theater. No doubt, if we saw such performances today, we would think the actors insufferable hams, but that’s was what had to be done in those days.  Unsurprisingly, actors in Ancient Greece were all male regardless of the gender of the character portrayed. But to be honest, one would hardly be able to tell what they were anyway with the distance and the elaborate gear.

 

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Greek theater composed of theatron, orchestra and skene.

Plays were performed in large outdoor theaters mathematically designed for maximum acoustic amplification. These theaters were separated into three main parts: the theatron, the orchestra and the skene. The Theatron was the seating area, where the spectators (almost definitely men-only) watched the play. The Orchestra was a circular or semicircular area where the chorus was located and where they would often perform dancing and musical interludes while the actors prepared for the next scene. The Skene was an enormous set usually made to look like a building and before which the action took place. Skenes were made in such a way that natural looking exits and entrances could be made through built in doors and archways. These sets were plain at first, but became more elaborate and decorated as time went on.

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Oedipus and the Sphinx

But with all this grandeur, it was the plays themselves were of course the real reasons for being there. The tragedies were intellectual, philosophical pieces with masterful writing and drama. The comedies, on the other hand, were filled with bawdy and irreverent humor that might be considered both hilarious and vulgar even by today’s standards. The most celebrated of the tragedians were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, who all won numerous competitions and were beloved by the public. The comedic scene, meanwhile, was dominated by Aristophanes and Menander, the former being far more famous than the latter. Plays by all of these playwrights were celebrated in Greece for centuries and are still popular today all over the world. The most famous of their works include Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Euripides’ Medea and Aristophanes’ The Frogs. 

Greek influence on modern entertainment is everywhere, especially in dramatic terminology. We draw many words related to entertainment from Greek. The words protagonist and antagonist come from the Greek meaning the first actor and ‘rival’ respectively. ‘Parade’ comes from the word parados, which referred to the marching or dancing entrance of the Chorus onto the stage. ‘Theater’ obviously came from theatron , and the word skene developed into ‘scene’. Interestingly, our word ‘obscene’ is believed to come from the Greek phrase ob skene, translated as ‘off stage‘. Ob skene referred to the rule of Greek theater that any violent or offensive parts of the play must not be performed on stage but instead be described to the audience by a character. For instance, murder and suicide were ob skene events and would happen only offstage. This is why in Oedipus the King, for example, Jocasta leaves the stage to kill herself and her death is reported by a messenger instead.

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On the right is that face you make when your play survives for 2,000 years.

Sadly, countless numbers of plays were lost in time. In fact, most plays not by the playwrights I mentioned above (and many of theirs as well) are gone forever. But their legacy and influence on modern entertainment remains, and those plays which have been preserved are marvelous testament to the civilization and sophistication of ancient Greek society. For while their plays are magnificent, they are only one piece of the enormous inheritance which Western Culture received from the Greek people.

Overture to Mind Vitamins

It would really be smashing if I were capable of composing a lovely piece of music to introduce you to all the themes and tunes of my little blog. Alas, I cannot, and must resort to a verbal rather than a musical overture.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t listen to a cool musical overture while reading a less cool verbal overture…

There you go, with Donizetti’s fabulous music in your ears, perhaps my introduction will seem less boring. Rather like  listening to the James Bond theme while folding a rather large basket of socks.

Anyway, welcome to Mind Vitamins! I am very excited to share all the tidbits of culture that I collect on this marvelous tool called the internet. Book recommendations, musical suggestions, literary and film discussions, art dissections, and more, all packed into small, easily consumed mental supplements for the Reader forced to live on the nutritionally lax mental diet of modern culture.

So, do read on. There will be plenty of topics on the classiest of subjects. All of them specially designed to boost your mental sophistication. So follow me and become that weird, nerdy friend who everyone laughs at a little but who everyone turns to when they want to know what that piece of classical music from Sherlock was or are wondering who the heck Captain Ahab is and why do they keep talking about him in Star Trek: First Contact. You have no idea of the power you hold being that friend… I mean, eh, it’s always nice to help people. Yes, indeed.

So toodle-pip for now, and enjoy the centuries, nay, millennia of cultural goodies that I will present to you shortly.