Simanaitis Says

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BACK BEFORE ignorance ruled in government and elsewhere, the word “media” was the plural of “medium,” the latter in the sense of a means of effecting or conveying something. TV broadcasting is a medium; print is a medium; radio is a medium. Together they are media. The word formally takes the plural verb: The media are.

I’m afraid we’ve lost that one, y’know. The English language, like, is a vibrant, living thing.

In any event, I’m thinking here of mediums, or, if you wish, media, in the sense of scam-artist professionals pretending to communicate with the dead.

Not coincidentally, I write this with frisson resulting from Daughter Suz and I attending Pacific Opera Project’s exciting double bill of short operas, the world premiere of Brooke deRosa’s The Monkey’s Paw and Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium.

The POP production is completed. For the curious, YouTube offers several performances of The Medium, including a Northwestern University version and another posted by Matt CTV.

Gian Carlo Menotti, 1911–2007, Italian-American composer and librettist. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1944.

Gian Carlo Menotti’s other operas include the Christmas classic Amahl and the Night Visitors, 1951, The Saint of Bleecker Street, 1954, and Help, Help, the Globolinks!, 1968. This last one, considered the first space-age opera, involves an alien invasion of Earth that (spoiler alert) ends happily. Menotti calls it “sinister, but with a touch of humor.”

The Medium, 1946, leans decidedly toward the sinister. In Act 1, Madame Flora holds a fake séance abettted by her daughter Monica and Toby, a mute servant boy. Toby hides behind a bookcase/hidden door and sneaks out on cue with spiritual googaws. Monica provides ghostly presences on demand, as seen through a scrim/semitransparent back wall. POP’s theatrics with these are especially effective.

During the séance, Madame Flora screams in fright when something clutches her throat. Later she blames Toby, though he was in the other room at the time. Then she hears a strange voice and her mental disintegration accelerates. The act ends with Monica singing a dark lullaby while Madame Flora mumbles her way through her rosary.

In Act 2, Madame Flora confesses that her séance was a hoax, but her marks refuse to believe her. The closeness of Monica and Toby causes Madame Flora to chase him out of the room. She turns to booze, and falls asleep in a corner.

Later Toby sneaks back into the room, Madame Flora stirs, and he rushes to hide through the bookcase/hidden door. The door slam awakens her and she hears the voice again. “Who is it!” she demands. Now terrified, Madame Flora snatches a revolver, fires into the back wall, and blood splatters appear.

When she and Monica discover Toby’s lifeless body there, Madame Flora says to the mute boy in a whisper, “Was it you?”

Really great theater; Daughter Suz and I enjoyed it immensely. Brooke deRosa’s The Monkey’s Paw generated shivers as well. What’s more, we happened to sit immediately behind the composer’s mom at the performance. We met Ms. deRosa afterward and had opportunity to express our delight/frisson.

Illustration by Eugène Riousse from The New York Times, October 29, 2017.

Not unrelated to The Medium—and to media in the sense of today’s topic, The New York Times, October 29, 2017, had an article “How We Find Our Way to the Dead,” by Peter Manseau, curator of American religious history at the Smithsonian.

Manseau offers the argument that new access to what he calls our collective cognitive realm is often accompanied by enhanced striving for communication with the dead. As one example, he notes a rise in Spiritualism in the mid-19th century following Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph in 1844.

There was even a newspaper back then called The Spiritual Telegraph “devoted to the illustration of spiritual intercourse.” Notes Manseau, “Andrew Jackson Davis (known as the Seer of Poughkeepsie) claimed that séances were most effective when participants were joined together by a copper cord.”

Davis even proposed a spiritual switchboard for pre-trans-Atlantic-cable communication: The living in New York City would convey a message to the stateside dead, who would pass it along to the dead in England, who in turn would communicate with the living in London.

It was a century before spiritualist Davis could have learned a lesson from composer Gian Carlo Menotti. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

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