Sergey Taneyev’s Oresteia at Bard — a Review
Sergey Taneyev, composer
Aleksey Venkstern, librettist
American Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Leon Botstein, music director
Bard Festival Chorus, James Bagwell, Director
Directed by Thaddeus Strassberger
Madeleine Boyd, set designer
Mattie Ullrich, costume designer
JAX Messenger, lighting designer
Emily Cuk, Roza Tulyaganova, assistant directors
Marjorie Folkman, choreographer
Andrew Funk – Watchman / Servant / Getkeeper
Andrei Borisenko – Aegisthus / Loxias Apollo
Liuba Sokolova – Clytemnestra
Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev – Agamemnon
Maria Litke - Cassandra / Pallas Athena
Olga Tolkmit – Elektra
Mikhail Vekua – Orestes
Michael Riley – First Areopagite
In his introductory lectures, Leon Botstein is almost always engaging and enthusiastic, except when, to make an instructive point, he discusses music he knows to be inferior , and then he is at least amusing. However, before the Sunday matinee of Taneyev’s Oresteia, he conveyed a certain Cheshire Cat-like excitement, as if he had something really exceptional in store for us. The air in and around the Fisher Center was charged, and one could feel it. We were not disappointed.
If you take Taneyev’s Oresteia from a certain point of view—and I’m sure it’s a valid one—it is like no other opera ever written. For one thing there is no love interest between the sympathetic characters: sexual passion, as the immediate motivation for the murder of Agamemnon, the mechanism through which the Atreid curse is effected, belongs entirely within the realm of evil, bringing vendetta, pollution, and discord to family and state. Taneyev’s mission was to set Aeschylus’ trilogy as an opera and in so doing to present a faithful rendering of it, if compressed and somewhat adapted for the minds and issues of St. Petersburg in the mid-1890s. The treatment of ancient Greek tragic subjects, as practiced from the sixteenth century up to the late nineteenth and beyond, required some romantic interest, as a formulaic way of making the protagonists sympathetic, to create an extra layer of tension, and often as a framework for a restructured plot. Even Mussorgsky took heed of this in his twisted way. In Oresteia, Taneyev and his librettist, Aleksey Venkstern, remained faithful in spirit to the essential issues of the original, if adapting them to the contemporary Russian concerns of freedom and justice—concepts which obviously meant a great deal to the composer, as the grandeur and exaltation of the final scene attests. And it is, unless there is some very obscure exception lurking in the shadows, the only Russian opera from classical myth.
Taneyev’s music is amazingly original, if one listens to it with open ears. While his teacher, Tchaikovsky, is detectable in the background, Taneyev has done what few Russians before or after have achieved, he has brought his melodic invention into line with the requirements of the narrative function of the music—to provide structure, momentum, and mood for the characters’ conversations and actions. Melodic ideas are pared to fit their immediate context. They may reemerge in different forms, some more vivid as tunes, others less so, perhaps as an attractive inner voice or transitional motif, without revealing their full identity. This presages the technique of some 20th century American composers, who have used logical expository music of a symphonic character to take full advantage of the orchestra as a storyteller. Of course Taneyev benefitted from Wagner as a model, as did the Americans, but his assimilation of Wagner’s use of the Leitmotiv was original in its severity, even in comparison with Richard Strauss and the young Arnold Schönberg. Taneyev’s motifs are less obvious than Wagner’s, more abstract and less easily identified with specific elements in the story. The rules of counterpoint were one way he effected this abstraction, which also functioned as a powerful narrative tool on stage. Taneyev was not called “the Russian Bach” for nothing. In fact his use of short, sometimes repeated phrases to build up arching melodies resembles Bruckner more than Wagner. It was exciting to understand the forward-looking quality of Taneyev’s writing, and one has to appreciate the fact that it might not have been so easy to grasp, if Leon Botstein had not gotten there first and devised how to bring it to the fore in his reading. The alternative is to assume that Taneyev was a pedantic follower of Tchaikovsky who lacked his melodic gifts…but this is lazy and wrong!
Over the seven years he devoted to composing Oresteia, Taneyev followed a systematic method of his own, as Anastasia Belina observes, which he described in a letter to Tchaikovsky (Zhdanov, 1951, 172, June 21, 1891)
[My] System ensures that no number is completely finished before the draft of the whole work is ready: one may say [I] compose concentrically, not by building a whole work from a sequence of parts, but by going from the whole to details: from the opera to acts, from acts to scenes, from scenes to separate numbers. This method enables [me] to note in the early stages those important points of the drama which the composer must concentrate his attention on. The method also allows [me] to decide on the length of scenes and numbers in proportion to their significance, to work out a tonal plan of all acts, arrange orchestral sound in the whole work, and so on.
Indeed, Taneyev composed the most important scenes first, proceeding only later to less significant numbers. One of the first scenes he composed was the scene of Orestes and the Furies from the last act, which was the culmination of those elements of the terrible that are found in the preceding parts of the trilogy.
…This scene…was for me a kind of measure by which I was guided while composing the preceding parts, which I made less interesting particularly because of this scene. (432, Letter to Tchaikovsky, Feb 18, 1894)
I leave some numbers unfinished for years, but continue to work on them. The themes that are most important in the opera, I often take out of context and write on them various exercises—canons, imitations, and so on. With time, from all this chaos of separate ideas and drafts something more defined and harmonious begins to emerge, all insignificant elements fall away, and I am left with only that which is definitely useful. (172)1
These letters shed valuable light not only on how one listens to Taneyev’s music in general, but on the different character of the music in each of the three acts, “Agamemnon,” “The Libation Bearers,” and “The Eumenides.” The colors of Act I are dark, and its textures are rich. Act II, the Choephoroi, which Taneyev first began to compose as a standalone work, is lithe, fast-moving, and dramatic, with strong contrasts of light and dark. Act III is much brighter, tending as it does towards major tonalities, foreshadowing the triumphant mood following Athena’s resolution of Orestes’ dilemma by founding an innovative institution which was to benefit Athenians for centuries to come. This variation was not the result of an evolution of style over seven years, with the almost inevitable push to finish at the end, but the result of conscious choice. In fact Taneyev’s musical handling of the individual acts reflects the differences in Aeschylus’ own treatment of each play in his trilogy. The action and verse of Agamemnon are stately, rich in diction, and dense in meaning, while The Libation Bearers, with its extensive choruses and dances, turns to simpler lyrical utterance and movement, and The Eumenides is the least dense in meaning and the most fluent in style. Aeschylus may have taken his audience’s growing fatigue into account, but also the requisite diction and mood. (If we only had Aeschylus’ music and choreography and were able to make sense of them!) On the other hand Taneyev’s approach to his setting was entirely apposite to Aeschylus’ intentions, as far as we know them from the corrupt and lacunary text that has come down to us of the only tragic trilogy to survive more or less complete. The score is nothing less than a marvel of literary perception and intelligence.
The reasons are to be seen in Taneyev’s upbringing. His father was not alone, but was certainly extreme in his passion for the ancient Greeks, to the point of obsession. He gave his serfs Greek names and made his children perform scenes from Greek drama. Sergey’s brother was made to act out a scene from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex with his four-year-old sister and found himself sleepless, afraid that Oedipus’ curse would fall on him and that he would murder his father and marry his mother. In spite of this early background, the composer found it necessary to engage a Greek tutor as an adult, in order to read the Oresteia in the original. The texts are indeed difficult, because of Aeschylus’ language and the corruption in their transmission. (Only advanced undergraduates at a good university are able to read the Oresteia in the original today.) In any case, Taneyev’s comprehension of the plays and his intelligence and taste in bringing them before his public are impressive.
In her program note, Belina-Johnson points out a number of the changes Taneyev and Venkstern made from Aeschylus’ original. She astutely observes that, in the general ignorance of their audience of the Greek classics and the Oresteia in particular, they faced both a challenge in making the drama understood, and an advantage, in that they could manipulate the plot for dramatic effect. In this spirit, she observes, they brought Aegisthus on early, so that he could provide some background, both the origins of the curse and Clytemnestra’s plot to murder her husband. Also, Aeschylus describes her as “man-like” in her resolve and eagerness for violent action. Taneyev by contrast made her feminine, intensely so, in her passion for the entirely unworthy Aegisthus. The Greek audience would have responded strongly to this reversal of gender characteristics, which would have been partially dissipated for the Russians of an age in which some women did in fact behave and dress like men, arousing no more than moderate scandal. On the other hand, Clytemnestra’s passion is true to the psychology of Greek myth, in that an irrational love could be inflicted on a mortal by the Gods in order to fulfill their plans or fate. The Russians handled this theme brilliantly in the scene in “The Libation Bearers,” when Orestes, having killed Aegisthus, prepares to dispatch his mother, asking her incredulously whether she did in fact love him, which she answers with most heartfelt and pathetic affirmation. The conclusion he draws for her from this is that they will lie together in a common grave.
The most significant change Taneyev and Venkstern introduced into their Oresteia was their simplification of the theological and legal details of Orestes’ acquittal in The Eumenides, the specifically Athenian part of the trilogy. The issues behind the literal and conceptual interpretation of these passages in the play remain complex and debatable today and are chiefly of interest to students of Ancient Athenian drama and society. Taneyev knew that all this would be lost on his audience, and he had something more timely to say himself. He began with the god Apollo. Rather than including Aeschylus’ critique of the god and his oracle at Delphi, he honored him as a benevolent divinity, faithful to his human protégé who, without going into the limitations of his powers, led Orestes on to Athens, where Athena could act more effectively. Taneyev then sidestepped the details of the workings of the Areopagus, the high court which judged murder trials at Athens, with the provision that equal votes on either side meant acquittal. Taneyev transmuted this into a more generalized notion of justice and mercy, with the quasi-Christian principle that whoever has done wrong and is truly repentant will be forgiven. At the end, this becomes a hymn to liberal values of fair justice. Within the context of the opera this is not specified further. I cannot say exactly how this fit in with the requirements of the Imperial censors at the time, but it is most definitely a strong liberal statement representing, through its very character as an adaptation of Greek drama, the quintessence of the westernizing mentality in late 19th century Russia. Taneyev travelled to Paris in October 1876 and stayed for a year. If Leconte de Lisle’s Oresteia, a play with music by Jules Massenet was not still on the boards at his arrival, he presumably heard a great deal about it. This was a dark work, created in the wake of the 1870 war and its aftermath, and it may well have inspired Taneyev to speak to his own nation twenty years later.
Tchaikovsky arranged for Oresteia to be performed at the Imperial (Mariinsky) Theaters, and this put Taneyev under immense pressure to finish the opera. Whatever excitement or joy there might have been in this was soured by the many cuts demanded by the conductor. The opera wasn’t performed again until 1915, when Taneyev had more control over the production and allowed only one cut, then again in 1917, on the eve of the Revolution. There have been few revivals since then. This production, the American premiere, was performed without cuts—a crucial factor in so carefully constructed a score. It is hard to believe that any of its predecessors could have been more reverent than the Bard team. I have heard that the realization of the powerful qualities of the opera emerged during the five-week rehearsal period, as Botstein and Strassberger worked to solve the problems they encountered in the score and libretto. Chief among these were the tempi. The score includes metronome markings, which, according to Maestro Botstein, fail to produce satisfying tempi and convincing pacing on stage. His tempi seemed entirely convincing, both musically and dramatically, as they meshed with Strassberger’s action. But first, before I go too far into the music, just how did the stage director and jos team choose to present Oresteia? This could range from the literalism of the early productions, which used “authentic” Greek costumes and architecture, to aggressive Regieoper, which undermines Taneyev’s lofty message. I imagine not a few American lips curled at the mention of an “incorruptible jury.”
One has to admit that ancient costume—or rather designers’ interpretations of ancient costume—appear as often as not somewhat ridiculous, recalling school plays or bad Hollywood epics. It was understood early on that one could not simply treat the opera as if it were a classical play itself. In the decades around the turn of the century there was a mania for using ancient Greek plays or modern rewrites of them as excuses to create grand tableaux recreating Periclean Athens or Imperial Rome. Today producers and audiences prefer some stylish updating of ancient garb rather than “authenticity.” It was decided to “set” the Oresteia in Taneyev’s own time. Agamemnon appears in the dress uniform of the highest Russian nobility and Clytemnestra in a magnificent gown, such as the Tsarina might have worn. Electra is dressed like a fourteen or fifteen-year-old girl from a wealthy family. The chief servant looks like a butler of the period, and the maids follow suit. The chorus are dressed in the dun rags of the Russian people—the poor really—giving them the ability to react as a separate class to the troubles of the royal family, which bear a direct effect on their daily lives. In “Agamemnon,” as the news of the king’s immanent return arrives, it is early morning, and Aegisthus, Clytemnestra, and Electra (sic: included as a dumb character by Taneyev and Venkstern) are still in deshabille, which, especially in Aegisthus’ toga-like drapery, provides a hint of ancient dress, preparing the audience for the inevitable antique costuming of Apollo, Athena, and the members of the Athenian lawcourt. The costuming makes sense, in that Aegisthus is in a bath-house, prepared for his bath by Clytemnestra and aided two servant-women. He is eventually dressed as a Russian aristocrat by three male servants. These costumes are actually only the basic materials Strassberger and David Burke, the Costume Supervisor, use to create a wealth of telling points in the action. Thaddeus Strassberger’s productions are among the most complex you will see today, and there is a constant stream of shadings, both subtle and dramatic, which lead to an incomparably rich “reading” of the opera. Ultimately, what he gives us is a presentation of how Taneyev’s 1895 audience of well-off, well-positioned opera-goers might have interpreted the human drama they saw on stage, or at least the most intelligent among them. The murder of a king by his adulterous wife, the usurping lover, the revenge of the children, still very young, could well have been absorbed by many of those people in the image of contemporary society. From beginning to end, this is the lens the director gives us, and the device is successful throughout. It both drew me in to the opera and held me at a distance, inviting me to reflect on what I heard and saw from the stage. It would not have worked if he had forgotten that its purpose was to reveal the drama and psychology of the characters in a retelling of a Greek tragedy, which was consciously updated in terms of its moral and social content.
Not that the update did not have its awkward moments. The way in which the beacon light intended to announce the Greek victory was evocative and interesting, to the point that it was at first a bit puzzling at first, and the use of revolvers to kill Aegisthus and then only threaten Clytemnestra seemed out of place, even through the period was well-established. On the other hand, it enabled Orestes to kill one of the housemaids, presumably by ricochet, effectively stressing the fact that the fate of the royal family is the fate of the people, above all their immediate household.
One of Strassberger’s most notable liberties was his decision to show the deaths of the couple on stage, if in a contained space at the back. Taneyev followed Aeschylus’ Greek convention in having the killings occur offstage, like the murders of Agamemnon and Cassandra in Act I. What was astonishing in this was how well Strassberger’s invention fit the music. It seemed natural in its context, as blatantly as it violated a tragic convention the composer chose to respect. This counterpoint of invented secondary action against a primary action derived from the original stage directions suggests that there was continuous business on stage. It is a credit to Strassberger’s mastery of complex staging that the production never seemed busy or forced, like the Herheim production of Parsifal at Bayreuth and Jay Scheib’s recent travesty of Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face at the New York City Opera. If he was often riffing on his text rather than simply presenting it, his rhapsodies were sufficiently insightful and relevant to prove effective, and never distracting or irritating, as they might well have been. For example, the dining room with its Russian stove—and Aegisthus’ body—added resonance to Orestes’ insistance that Clytemnestra enter the Atreid palace to meet her death, ensuring that the house suffer the full pollution of the continuing cycle of vengeance. It is a wonder that Strassburger didn’t include the family icons, à la Russe, to share in it. Instead we see a dead housekeeper, showing that the people, above all the servants and retainers of the royal family, cannot be immune to the curse.
I overheard more than one audience member complaining about the Russian dating and costumes as the only thing they didn’t like in the performance. If one is only willing to follow what Strassberger says about the opera with this device, one can gain a wealth of insight into Taneyev, his times, and his ancient Greek model. And again I’ll stress that Strassberger has presented on stage how an exceptionally perceptive member of Taneyev’s audience would have understood the opera. Taneyev himself probably expected less, much less—simply the experience of Aeschylus’ trilogy as an opera. And Taneyev intended it very much as an opera. Seeing and hearing this production on the Sosnoff stage—or, for that matter—an imaginary reconstruction of the first performance in the Mariinsky Theater is entirely different from seeing Aeschylus’ Oresteia performed in intelligent modern productions like Peter Stein’s, or Gregory Thompson’s at Bard, or reading the text in Ancient Greek or in modern translation. It is curious that Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, which bears only a passing resemblance to what we know of Athenian dramatic trilogies, passes often as a modern recreation of the ancient form, even among classicists, who know the realities and still flock with enthusiasm to performances of Wagner’s cycle, which is undeniably a great achievement, but in its own right, not as an antiquarian exercise. Taneyev’s opera, while remaining faithful to Aeschylus’ narrative is equally modern in concept—that is modern in the late nineteenth century sense.
In any case I found Strassberger’s production so fascinating, that I felt it deserved a full description and interpretation, rather like the strange little book that appeared in connection with the Herheim Parsifal, but this is not the place for it.
As for the music of Oresteia, there have not been enough productions for a performance tradition to have developed. I have mentioned how the score has proven unsatisfactory in supporting a real-life performance, especially in terms of tempi. The achievement of Leon Botstein and his collaborators proved no less than astonishing in this respect. Pace and proportion—an important element for Taneyev—seemed entirely convincing. With Botstein’s steady support, one could naturally transcend details of interpretation and immerse oneself in the music and drama of the opera. What did seem strange on occasion, stemmed from Taneyev himself, or perhaps more from how we have been conditioned in our listening. His style prepares our Wagnerized listening habits for a through-composed work like Tristan und Isolde, and a few of the cadences the composer introduces at the end of long sequences seem jarring, simply because we are not expecting them. The American Symphony Orchestra even outdid their usual commitment and energy in execution and produced handsome, full-bodied sounds throughout the considerable range of Taneyev’s textural and coloristic palette, in which thin transparent strings can give way to dark brass in sudden succession.
Maestro Botstein and his colleagues wisely imported Russian singers—a brilliant group of young, impressively gifted women and men, who could bring open minds and high intelligence to these unfamiliar roles. There are eight of them, all requiring first-class singers, more than amply filled by these six. I’ve seen few operas as impeccably sung and vividly acted as this.
The two dominant male figures of “Agamemnon” and “The Libation Bearers” were represented by two baritones with outstanding gifts for understated acting. Andrei Borisenko’s deadpan manner was ideal for the craven Aegisthus, who goes through the world passively allowing others, above all his mistress, to do his dirty work for him. He displays emotion mainly in his fear of the king he has cuckolded and his unwillingness to face him as a man. He is unequal both to head-on combat and to stealthy murder. Borisenko, by impassively taking his time, as he allowed servants to dress him and hand him his newspaper, gave a fully-rounded portrayal not often seen in a secondary character. He used the luxuriance of his voice to convey Aegisthus’ passion for comfort and luxury. In “Eumenides,” with Aegisthus dead, Borisenko sang most nobly as Apollo, the prophetic god of Delphi, who displays deep humane qualities in aiding Orestes. Here his rich voice could expand into a more stately mode, with moving phrases expressing the transcendant qualities of the god. Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev was anything but wooden in his magnificent portrayal of Agamemnon, who accustomed to command, hardly needs to emphasize his wishes by gesture or word. When he appeared as Agamemnon’s Ghost in “The Libation Bearers,” his simple, grand but domesticated presence as he lights a cigar proved a terrifying image of the murdered soul demanding vengeance. His darker voice was splendid to hear and suited Agamemnon’s fateful role perfectly.
Liuba Sokolova was a beautiful, sexy, even steamy, Clytemnestra, whose desire seemed entirely blind to her lover’s total unworthiness. Her infatuation makes her so vulnerable that it almost creates sympathy for the murderous queen. This was clearly important to Taneyev, who could not have stressed his point more strongly, when Orestes exacts a confession from his mother in “The Libation Bearers,” just before he forces her into the palace, where he will kill her. Acting and vocal interpretation were one in Sokolova’s performance. Even if these had not been so expressive and absorbing, her rich, typically Russian mezzo-soprano/contralto, as full of varying dusky colors as an autumn landscape, would have been a joy in itself.
Maria Litke sang two major roles, Cassandra and Pallas Athena. Curiously enough, she looked more human as the goddess than as the mortal daughter of Priam…but this is more a matter for the brilliant costume designer and make-up artist than the beautfiul Ms. Litke herself. Especially striking, however, was her ability to transform herself through slow, controlled movements, or even absolute stillness into a strange, otherworldly presence. Cassandra’s long, prophetic lament is one of the show-stoppers of Oresteia, and Litke sang it with a vast range of expression, while anchoring herself throughout in her resplendent soprano voice and her well-knit sustaining of the melodic line. At the very end of the opera, the weight of carrying the solemnity and joy of Athena’s gift of justice to mankind falls on the goddess herself, as richly as she is supported by the chorus. Again Litke was more than equal to the task. Her glowing voice and solid structure brought Oresteia to a glorious conclusion. The most vulnerable character is Elektra, who was brought on stage in Agamemnon in a silent part by Taneyev and Verkstern. Miming is not commonly noted as one of the chief skills expected of an opera singer, but this production demanded much, not only of Agamemnon’s Ghost, but of Elektra. Olga Tolkmit not only created a deeply sympathetic character, but committed her luxuriant, warm voice to a most feeling interpretation of the part. In “Agamemenon,” before she had a note to sing, she acted out a most touching characterization of a marginalized adolescent girl. She can’t wait to greet her father, just returned safely from the war, but he ignores her, asking pointedly about his son Orestes, whom Clytemnestra has sent far away, “for his safety.” In both “Agamemnon” and “The Libation Bearers” Strassberger give Elektra her own private space, and he and Ms. Tolkmit make the most of it. She could express the most subtle private feelings in her teenager’s privacy in both operas. When she and Orestes are reunited, she finally feels free to behave like a young person, just at the point of sexual awakening. Ms. Tolmit’s eloquent silent acting should not blind us to the beauties of her singing, which was rich and full of emotion, occasionally showing a wide vibrato, which she used to heighten her expressivity.
Last among the principals was the amazing Mikhail Vekua, a native of Kazakhstan, as Orestes. He is fortunate to have been endowed with a bright, always solidly supported, tenor of heroic proportions. He has sung Loge and Siegmund, which should give you an idea of his voice. Through “The Libation Bearers” and “Eumenides,” he must sing a vocally gruelling role, in which he is on stage most of the time. Mr. Vekua seemed to have limitless energy and vocal reserves for this, retaining up to the end enough vocal control to execute fine details of phrasing and hair-raising pianissimi. In one of the two performances I heard, he sang a couple of imperfect high notes, but in the other, his singing was without fault. Beyond the brilliance of his voice, supported by a virile lower range, we could enjoy the intelligence and sophistication of his portrayal of a complex hero. Vekua’s Orestes was a great credit to the superb Russian cast, who showed that Russian know-how and professionalism, both in acting and singing technique, are second to none. He will appear at the Met this winter in Borodin’s Prince Igor. Listen for him! His resplendent voice won’t be hard to recognize.
There were two American singers in smaller roles, Andrew Funk as the Watchman, Servant, and Gatekeeper in each of the three acts, and Michael Riley as the First Aeropagite in the Eumenides. Both sang and acted superbly in roles which are somewhat smaller than the leads, but are still important. I was especially touched by Funk’s performance as the Servant, formally clad as a butler.
The Bard Festival Chorus, under the great James Bagwell, actually outdid their high levels of previous seasons, singing with perfect diction and excellent Russian, as well as acting their important part with spirit, energy, and focused attention to detail. This quality of acting is surely unsurpassed in any opera house in the world. And they seemed to enjoy the immense challenge of acting the Erinyes in several different guises even more than they relished the brothel scene in Schreker’s Der ferne Klang!
As rewarding as past summer operas have been at Bard, I have to agree with the general opinion that this was the best of all…and it had the special importance of bringing a truly obscure work, which has never been as fully realized before, much less having been forgotten, to the stage. This production of Oresteia will go on the the Mariinsky in the next few years, marking its return to its birthplace. Let’s hope we see this great opera at the Met, Covent Garden, Paris, and everywhere in the future!
- Anastasia Belina and Michael Ewans, “Taneyev’s Oresteia,” Peter Brown and Susana Ograjenšek, Ancient Greek Drama for the Modern Stage, New York, 2010, p. 263. ↩
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