An Opera Singer & Cabaret Artist Record an Astonishing Version of David Bowie & Queen’s “Under Pressure”

On the surface of things, Anthony Roth Costanzo, the internationally-recognized countertenor and Justin Vivian Bond, the subversive performance artist best known for their creation Kiki DuRane, “an alcoholic battle-axe with a throat full of razor-blades,” would have little reason to share a mic, let alone inhabit the same stage.

Leave surfaces behind!

Their genre-defying, just released album, Only An Octave Apart, explores the depths that lurk beneath them, finding common cause between their chosen art forms and then some. The album’s title, a nod to the opening number of a Metropolitan Opera television special starring comedian Carol Burnett and operatic soprano Beverly Sills, is just the tip of the iceberg.

As they state in the program notes for a recent appearance with the New York Philharmonic at Jazz at Lincoln Center:

We each sound different from what you would expect when you look at us. The juxtaposition of our voices, personalities, and repertoire subverts notions of high and low, be it in terms of pitch, cultural echelon, or degrees of camp – not to mention the difference in height.

If you thought David Bowie and Freddie Mercury sent things into the stratosphere when they joined forces on “Under Pressure,” listen to Costanzo and Bond’s take, above.

Their Dido’s Lament / White Flag Medley smashes the musical binary with a delicacy that is given room to grow.

Costanzo begins with two and a half soaring minutes from Henry Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas.

Introducing the number at Jazz at Lincoln Center, he recalled how Dido & Aeneas was one of his first professional opera gigs at 19. No, he wasn’t cast as the fatally distraught Queen of Carthage, a diva role he’s eyed for years, but rather the Second Woman and First Witch.

(“Second Woman / First Witch…sounds like the story of my life,” Bond marveled. “I own it! Can you imagine if you were First Woman and Second Witch?”)

Costanzo got his chance at Dido in the summer of 2020 when, with performance venues still closed due to the pandemic, he hatched an idea to cart Philharmonic musicians and guest singers around the city’s five Boroughs in a rented pickup dubbed the NY Phil Bandwagon80-some free performances later, he felt ready to record.

When Bond joins in, it’s with English singer-songwriter Dido‘s 2003 chart topper, White Flag, which also speaks to the pains of love. The sincerity of the performers causes a gorgeous alchemical reaction to soften the positions of more than a few staunch opera-phobes and pop-deniers.

(“The wonderful thing about the opera,” Bond cracks, “is when you wake up, you’re at the opera!”)

Their Egyptian Sun mash up is born of an even cannier pairing – The Bangles’ mid-80s hit, Walk Like An Egyptian and Philip Glass’ ancient Egypt-themed minimalist modern opera, Akhnaten, in which Costanza recently starred, making his first entrance nude and flecked with gold.

Other treasures from this fruitful collaboration include skillful intertwinings of Tom Jobim’s Bossa nova favorite Águas de Março (Waters of March) with Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella-themed confection La Cenerentola,  and Gluck’s 18th-century masterpiece, Orfeo ed Euridice with Don’t Give Up, a “message of hope in the bleakest of moments” and a hit for Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush when Bond was a year out of college…and  Costanzo was four.

Listen to Only an Octave Apart in its entirety on YouTube or Spotify.

Anthony Ross Costanzo will reprise his role as the revolutionary pharaoh, Akhnaten, at the Metropolitan Opera later this spring.

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Tennessee School Board Bans Maus, the Pulitzer-Prize Winning Graphic Novel on the Holocaust; the Book Becomes #1 Bestseller on Amazon

Last week, a Tennessee school board voted unanimously to ban Maus, the Pulitzer-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, citing instances of profanity and nudity. Specifically, the McMinn County school board objected to utterances of the words “God damn” and a small, barely-perceptible breast. (Look closely, and you may eventually find it.) Rather uncomfortably, the banning came on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and it figures into a larger right-leaning effort to ban books countrywide.

Happily, bad decisions can have good unintended consequences. In recent days, Art Spiegelman’s Maus has soared to #1 on Amazon’s bestseller list. (Another edition of the book sits at #3 on the list.) Elsewhere, a college professor has created a free online course on Maus designed solely for students from McMinn County. And within Tennessee itself, bookstores are giving away free copies of Spiegelman’s classic, while a church has decided to convene conversations on the groundbreaking book.

Above, you can watch Spiegelman respond to the ban and wonder whether it’s “a harbinger of things to come,” a step in a larger effort to efface the memory of the Holocaust.

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A Brief Animated History of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses & the Reformation–Which Changed Europe and Later the World

Whatever our religious background, we all sooner or later have occasion to speak of nailing theses to a door. Most of us use the phrase as a metaphor, but seldom entirely without awareness of the historical events that inspired it. On October 31, 1517, a German priest and theologian named Martin Luther nailed to the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints’ Church his own theses, 95 of them, which collectively made an argument against the Roman Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences, or pardons for sins. Luther could not accept that the poor should “spend all their money buying their way out of punishment so they can go to heaven,” nor that it should be “easier for the rich to avoid a long time in purgatory.”

In other words, Luther believed that the Church in his time had become “way too much about money and too little about God,” according to the narration of the short film above. Created by Tumblehead Studios and showcased by National Geographic for the 500th anniversary of the original thesis-nailing, its five playfully animated minutes tell the story of the Reformation, which saw Protestantism split off from Catholicism as a result of Luther’s agitation. It also manages to include such events as Luther’s own translation of the New Testament, previously available only in Greek and Latin, into his native German, the publication of which created the basis of the modern German language as spoken and written today.

Luther’s translation gave ordinary people “the opportunity to read the Bible in their own language,” free from the interpretations of the priests and the Church. It also gave them, perhaps less intentionally, the ability to “use the words of the Bible as an argument for all sorts of things.” Luther’s thoughts were soon marshaled “in the power struggles of princes, in revolts, and in the struggle between kings, princes, and the Pope about who actually decides what.” Squabbles, battles, and full-scale wars ensued. The consequent institutional schisms changed the world in ways visible half a millennium later — but they first changed Europe, where traces of that transformation still reveal themselves most strikingly. Few travelers can be trusted to find and explain those traces more ably than public-television host Rick Steves.

In Luther and the Reformation, his 2017 special above, Steves visits all the important sites involved in the central figure’s life journey, a representation in microcosm of Europe’s grand shift from medievalism into modernity.  In more than 40 years of professional travel, Steves has paid countless visits to the monuments of Catholic Europe. Appreciating them, he admitted in a recent New York Times Magazine profile, required him to “park my Protestant sword at the door.” His story-of-the-Reformation tour, however, lets him draw on his own Lutheran tradition with his characteristic enthusiasm. That enthusiasm, in part, that has made him a such a successful travel entrepreneur, though he presumably knows when to stop amassing wealth: after all, it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Or so the New Testament has it.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch a Human White Blood Cell Chase Bacteria Through a Field of Red Blood Cells

Watch above a classic movie made by David Rogers at Vanderbilt University in the 1950s. It shows “a neutrophil (a type of white blood cell) chasing a bacterium through a field of red blood cells in a blood smear. After pursuing the bacterium around several red blood cells, the neutrophil finally catches up to and engulfs its prey. In the human body, these cells are an important first line of defense against bacterial infection. The speed of rapid movements such as cell crawling can be most easily measured by the method of direct observation.” This comforting video comes courtesy of the estate of David Rogers, Vanderbilt University.

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The Marcel Duchamp Research Portal Opens, Making Available 18,000 Documents and 50,000 Images Related to the Revolutionary Artist

Marcel Duchamp made films, composed music, painted Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, designed an art deco chess set, and of course — the first thing most of us learn about him, as well as the last thing many of us learn about him — he put a urinal in an art galley. But as you might expect of an artist who spent the early 20th century at the heart of the avant-garde, there’s more to him than that. This notion is backed up by the more than 18,000 documents and 50,000 images made available at the Duchamp Research Portal, a newly opened archive dedicated to the life and work of the revolutionary conceptual artist.

The fruit of a seven-year collaboration between the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Association Marcel Duchamp, and the Centre Pompidou, this formidable digital collection includes many artifacts related to the artist’s best-known work: the “large glass” of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even; the mustachioed Mona Lisa; the shocking attempts to commit physical motion to canvas; and that urinal, Fountain.

But its “most interesting items,” writes The Art Newspaper’s Daniel Cassady, “are often the most intimate and involve other major players in the evolution of 20th-century art. A 1950 letter — with enigmatic marginalia — from Breton. A 1933 postcard to Constantin Brâncuși. Many candid photographs by Duchamp’s friend and fellow giant of the era, Man Ray.”

These names will be familiar to readers of Open Culture, where we’ve previously featured Brâncuși on film and portraits of 1920s cultural icons by Man Ray — who, as we can see from the above snapshot of Duchamp at his Spanish home, didn’t always work so formally. But then, no artist can fully be understood through what makes it into the art-history textbooks alone. Browse the Duchamp Research Portal (or click “show me more” to change up the images on its front page) and you’ll see pieces of an artistic life fully lived: the floor plan of his West 67th Street studio; a 1940 telegram to American patron Walter Conrad Arensberg (“HOLDING SHIPMENT OF MASK AWAITING CONFIRMATION OF INSURANCE AND ADDRESS”); a 1954 French newspaper profile; and a series of images juxtaposing Duchamp with an unclothed Eve Babitz, the late Los Angeles “it-girl” — not just the famous one of them playing chess.

via Kottke

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Great Art Cities: Visit the Fascinating, Lesser-Known Museums of London & Paris

Gallerists James Payne and Joanne Shurvell understand that institutional big gorillas like the Louvrethe Musee d’OrsayTate Britain, and London’s National Gallery require no introduction. Their new art and travel series, Great Art Cities Explained, concentrates instead on the wonderful, smaller museums the biggies often overshadow.

First time visitors to London and Paris may be left scrambling to rearrange their itineraries.

The first two episodes have us persuaded that Sir John Soane’s MuseumKenwood Housethe Wallace Collection, Le Musée National Eugène DelacroixLe Musée de Montmartre à Paris, and Atelier Brancusi are the true “don’t miss” attractions if time is tight.

Credit Payne, whose flair for dishy, far ranging, highly accessible narration made his other web series, Great Art Explained in Fifteen Minutes, an instant hit.

The three British institutions featured above were once grand private homes, whose owners decided to donate them and the magnificent art collections they contained to the public good.

Whatever motivated these wealthy men’s generosity — vanity, the quest for immortality, or, in one case, the desire to cut off a churlish and morally lax son whom Payne compares to the central figure in William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, a Sir John Soane’s Museum favorite — Payne holds them in higher regard than today’s investment-obsessed art collectors:

The world needs more men like (William) Murray(Sir John) Soane, and (Sir Richard) Wallace, men who saw that art can transcend social class. They understood that art should enrich the soul, not the bank balance.

His peeks into their circumstances are every bit as fascinating as the tidbits he drops about the artists whose work he includes.

Rather than giving a sweeping overview of each collection, he focuses on a few key works, sharing his curatorial perspective on their history, acquisition, subject matter, creation, and reception:

Rembrandt’s Self Portrait with Two Circles (1669)

Vermeer’s The Guitar Player (1672)

Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1732)

Canaletto‘s Venice: the Bacino di San Marco from San Giorgio Maggiore and Venice: the Bacino di San Marco from the Canale della Giudecca (c. 1735 – 1744)

Fragonard’s The Swing (1767)

Frans Hal’s Laughing Cavalier (1624)

Payne’s rollicking approach means each episode is crammed with plenty of artwork residing outside of the featured museums, too, as he compares, contrasts, and contextualizes.

One of his most interesting tales in the London episode concerns an 18th-century portrait of William Murray’s great-nieces, Dido Belle and Elizabeth Murray, raised by their abolitionist great-uncle at Kenwood House:

Dido Belle was the illegitimate daughter of a Black slave and William Murray’s nephew and was raised by Murray as part of the aristocracy. By all accounts, Dido and her cousin were raised as equals and this portrait of the two was seen as an image of sisterhood, reflecting their equal status. But looking at it with modern eyes, we can see it more in the vein of traditional servant and master portraits of the time. Belle’s exotic clothing is designed to differentiate her from her cousin and the painting reflects the conservative views of the time.

Artist David Martin places the cousins on a bench outside the Hampstead Heath mansion, with St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background. For years, it was the only known portrait of Belle.

It hangs, not in Kenwood House, but in Scone Palace‘s Ambassador’s Room.

Meanwhile, one of Kenwood House’s latest acquisitions is a 2021 portrait of Belle by young Jamaican artist Mikéla Henry-Lowe, on display in the library.

Next up on Great Art Cities Explained: New York. Look for it on this playlist on Great Art Explained’s YouTube channel.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch the Renaissance Painting, The Battle of San Romano, Get Brought Beautifully to Life in a Hand-Painted Animation

Before the advent of the motion picture, humanity had the theater — but we also had paintings. Though physically still by definition, paint on canvas could, in the hands of a sufficiently imaginative master, seem actually to move. Arguably this could even be pulled off with ochre and charcoal on the wall of a cave, if you credit the theory that paleolithic paintings constitute the earliest form of cinema. More famously, and much more recently, Rembrandt imbued his masterpiece The Night Watch with the illusion of movement. But over in Italy another painter, also working on a large scale, pulled it off differently two centuries earlier. The artist was Paolo Uccello, and the painting is The Battle of San Romano.

“The set of three paintings depicts the harrowing details of an epic confrontation between Florentine and Sienese armies in 1432,” writes Meghan Oretsky at Vimeo, which selected Swiss filmmaker Georges Schwizgebel’s short animated adaptation of the triptych as a Staff Pick Premiere. Completed in 2017, the film’s beginnings go back to 1962, when Schwizgebel was a gallery-touring art student in Italy.

“Even though I wasn’t normally moved by old paintings, this one made a strong impression on me and still does today,” he tells Vimeo. “I was also inspired by the use of cycles, or loops, which suited a moving version of this image perfectly.” Schwizgebel executed the animation itself over the course of six months, foregoing computer technology and painting each frame with acrylic on glass.

Scored by composer Judith Gruber-Stitzer, Schwizgebel’s “The Battle of San Romano” constitutes a kind of shape-shifting tour of the painting that first captivated him half a century ago. But what he would have seen at the Uffizi Gallery is only one third of Uccello’s composition, albeit the third that art historians consider central. The other two reside at the Louvre and the National Gallery, and you can see the latter’s piece discussed by Director of Collections and Research Caroline Campbell in the video above. Schwizgebel is hardly the first to react boldly to The Battle of San Romano; in the 15th century, Lorenzo de’ Medici was sufficiently moved to buy one part, then have the other two stolen and brought to his palace. If that’s the kind of act it has the power to inspire, perhaps it’s for the best that the triptych’s union didn’t last.

via Aeon

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Incredible Story of the Hoover Dam

On September 30, 1935, a crowd of thousands watched as President Franklin Roosevelt officially opened the Hoover Dam, the largest public works project of its time. “Approximately 5 million barrels of cement and 45 pounds of reinforcement steel” went into it, notes, enough to pave a four-foot-wide sidewalk around the Earth at the equator. The massive hydroelectric dam provided water to 7 surrounding states, transforming the arid American West into an agricultural center. Currently, it generates over four billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, “enough to serve 1.3 million people,” notes PBS.

That a project this size could be completed in just five years seems awe-inspiring enough. That it could be done during the worst years of the Great Depression, even more so. When the dam was first proposed in 1922 to deal with flooding on the Colorado River, the crisis still lay over the horizon.


A glorious post-war future seemed assured, masterminded by Hoover, the former engineer. (He did not design the dam, but brokered the deal that pushed it through Congress.) During the dam’s construction, on the other hand — a feat compared to building the pyramids in Egypt — the U.S. economy had fully hit rock bottom. Although it had been dedicated to Hoover by President Coolidge in 1928, the Hoover Dam wouldn’t come to bear his name until 1947.

In its early years, the massive, smooth white concrete curve — stretching 1,244 feet across the Black Canyon on the Arizona-Nevada Border — was simply called the Boulder Canyon Dam. It drew some 21,000 workers to divert the river through tunnels, excavate the riverbed down to bedrock, and build the enormous structure and its machinery. “Due to the strict timeframe, workers suffered from horrible work conditions in the tunnels as the heat and carbon monoxide-filled air became unbearable, leading to a strike in August of 1931,” writes Alexia Wulff at the Culture Trip.

Once they began clearing the blasted walls of the canyon, workers “hung from suspended heights of 800 feet above ground — some fell to their death or were injured by the falling rock and dangerous equipment.” Over 100 men died in this way and such deaths, and near-misses, seemed commonplace after a while. In the TED-Ed video by Alex Gendler at the top of the post, we see one jaw-dropping near-miss dramatized in animation. “Business as usual,” says the narrator. “Just another day in the construction of the Hoover Dam.”

Learn much more about the engineering marvels, and the “blood, concrete, and dynamite,” as Gendler puts it, in the short B1M video further up and the full National Geographic documentary just above. While it has been surpassed in size, the Hoover Dam remains one of the largest power plants in the country, and may even be ideal for use as a giant battery that can store excess power created by wind and solar. Even if that idea fails to pan out in coming years, the story of the dam’s construction will keep inspiring engineers and scientists to reach for big solutions, even — and perhaps especially — in the middle of a crisis.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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