Keturah speaks with dramaturg and educator, Cori Ellison, about her role in the creation of new work, the importance of the dramaturg in opera production, what truly makes a libretto work, and the intricate job of crafting supertitles.
Keturah speaks with dramaturg and educator, Cori Ellison, about her role in the creation of new work, the importance of the dramaturg in opera production, what truly makes a libretto work, and the intricate job of crafting supertitles.
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This is Words First: Talking Text in Opera. I’m Keturah Stickann
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Cori Ellison is a major force in the opera world. She is a staff dramaturge at the Glyndebourne Festival, and was dramaturge at New York City Opera from 1997 to 2010. She’s also acted as dramaturge on a number of new productions and new works for librettists and companies across the country. She’s been a faculty member at American Lyric Theater, mentoring and educating early composers and librettists there since its founding. She also runs the Opera lab at the Juilliard School, which we discussed two weeks ago with director and librettist, John de los Santos. She is a sought after collaborator in the development of new operas. I met Cori in 2007 while working as associate director for Lillian Groag’s production of Agrippina at the New York City Opera. Her work on helping bridge the gap between the history of these Roman characters, Handel’s and Calzabigi’s storytelling, and the way we were presenting the opera, was nothing short of masterful, and my respect for her is unwavering. In the following interview, recorded on July 24, Cori and I discuss her role as a dramaturge, as well as the education of librettists, and what it is about certain libretti that really make them sing. Take a listen.
So, Cori, I’ve had four conversations with librettists, so this is a really nice shift today to look at text from another angle, so thank you so much for coming on to speak with me today.
Oh, thanks so much for asking.
I want to start off, actually, by having you define dramaturgy for us, and then tell us how you, as a dramaturge, apply your skills to opera work.
I...you know, I would say, it’s usually sort of like a scholar-in-residence for an opera company or a particular opera project, and...but it’s somebody who applies the scholarship in a completely practical manner. Not at all ivory tower, but get your hands dirty and put that info, and those ideas to work in a practical way for composers and librettists, for performers, for audiences, and even for the administrative staff of opera companies. So that sort of breaks down into a number of disciplines. It can include supertitles, you know, translating and preparing supertitles, in can include curating publications, and writing for them, curating adult education programs and participating in them, and also production dramaturgy, and dramaturgy in the area of helping to develop new operas. So that’s a sort of not very...that’s a short definition, but not really very short.
No, that’s good. That’s a really good definition. When you are working on a particular opera, I’m assuming that how you prepare and work is different with new operas versus older pieces or pieces that are already in the canon. When you’re working in a new opera, how can you specifically help a librettist craft text, and does your work include helping them understand musical form of a specific composer?
Oh, absolutely. As a matter of fact, if I could back up a little bit into the area of librettist training, because I think that sort of contextualizes your question pretty well, but that’s something I’ve been very involved with for quite some time now, since I was staff dramaturge at New York City Opera. And there we, of course we had the Vox Festival. It was a festival of new works.
Yes, I remember.
Yes, I helped to curate that and dealt with a lot of librettists there, and also we briefly had a very interesting program called Words First...
Great name, by the way [Laughter]
Yeah! But it was a program where some very accomplished mid career playwrights that were sort of assembled by Donna di Novelli, who’s a librettist, and who teaches at the Tisch school in the music theater program, assembled...so the challenge there, as it often is with kind of making people be opera librettists, is that you know, most of them come from the world of the spoken theater, in which of course they have a very strong grasp of dramatic form, which is crucial for being an opera librettist. But, there are two big differences. One is that they’re used to the words doing 100% of the heavy lifting, where in an opera you’re at least on equal footing with the composer, if not in some cases, you know, really giving the composer the upper hand, you know. If you look at operas historically, the balance between libretto and music is constantly shifting, and of course that’s one of the things that makes it endlessly interesting, but you know, because these folks come from the spoken theater, they’re not so used to the idea of letting the music do its work where they sometimes would. For instance, the description of a character could happen musically, or any number of things...
...could happen musically, certain character traits or settings or...and then the other big thing, you know, goes hand-in-hand with that is that they’re used to flying solo. They’re not used to, you know, saying to somebody, “hey is it okay if we do this? And what about that? And what do you need for this scene?” And so on and so forth, so the idea of sharing agency is something that takes adaptation, and some playwrights adapt to it, you know...like...it’s like water rolling over a duck’s back. For others it’s a little more difficult, but that is one of the challenges of training librettists. Another is, I mean people who come from other backgrounds. Ive also worked with poets, you know, novelists, fiction writers, and also even with journalists who have been called upon to write opera libretti. And, you know, for them, it’s more of you know the work there is learning dramatic form, and how to sort of translate their sensibilities into dramatic form. A lot of that involves paring down, a lot of that, again, also involves giving over certain functions to the music and the composer, like description. So, you know, training librettists, it’s like a little red schoolhouse in a way, because people come with very different backgrounds, and even playwrights that come from musical theater, it’s a bit different. Because they’re not called upon to write dialogue, but instead sung recitative or through composed pieces. And, you know, in training librettists as I did in Words First, and then as I have for a long time now with American Lyric Theater, a wonderful organization for training librettists, composers, and more recently opera dramaturges in New York City, and then also now in the Juilliard Opera Lab we have librettists in training...
Yes, I just spoke to John de los Santos, actually. I just interviewed him a few days ago. We were talking about the Opera lab quite a bit. It’s great.
Oh fantastic, good. So you’ll know a lot about that, yeah. A lot of the times in those kind of training situations, a good number of, you know, librettists in training, if you will, don’t necessarily know opera. So that’s part of the job too. You know, I take very seriously...you know, it’s like in a great books course or something, becoming acquainted with the great works of the past and present. Not just, oh, to know them, but, your whole tool bag is right there. It’s like, every problem for a librettist and a composer that you could possibly encounter in making a new opera, is something that Mozart, that Verdi, that Puccini, that Wagner has encountered and had to deal with, you know. So there’s a lot of different components that go into training librettists...The other thing is that, you know in the old days, librettists, you know, in a way they didn’t have to be trained because it was a proper profession. Nowadays, no five-year-old says, ‘Mommy, I want to be an opera librettist when I grow up.” It’s not something, you know, in those days, way back to the high Renaissance, and up through the classical period, and romantic period and on, these were scholarly people who had studied how to write and analyze the great works of poetry, you know, people like Da Ponte and Hoffmannsthal and Boito. They had this tremendous...and then every opera house had a quote unquote poet, a staff poet who was the staff librettist, and you know, that doesn’t exist anymore...
No, it does not.
So we literally have to start from the ground up.
You know I feel like it’s sort of akin...I’ve talked to a number of librettists about this. And John and I actually spoke about this, the fact that training for librettists is something that doesn’t really...a lot of times I feel like, as you said, people that you’re getting, you’re getting a lot of playwrights into your programs. That directors are in the same boat. I think directors and writers for opera often are training...they come up through theater, and somehow have to figure out on their own how to make it work. But it sounds like this is, with both what the Words First program did, and what Juilliard Opera Lab and American Lyric Theater, all of these programs that you’re working with and other ones that are around are starting to recognize that this is such a specific way of writing that we don’t really deal with.
Yeah, it really really is. You know, in Europe, there are still some training...particularly in the German speaking lands they are still training this way. But this is really...it’s still a pioneering field in this country, and I think it’s really been important for our profession.
Right, yeah. And I feel like the output of operas in the United States right now is so much higher than it was back when I started doing new works. The more people understand the form and can write and collaborate in that way, the better it is for opera in general.
Well, I mean, it’s amazing. We’re in this incredible American opera boom. I mean, just twenty years ago, you know, I said “what’s a contemporary American opera?” Uhhhh...The Ballad of Baby Doe, the Crucible, your know those are things that are written...Lizzie Borden. But now, you know, I think it started really, I think, around the turn of the twenty-first century. And I think it started, what really lit the fire more than anything else was Dead Man Walking, by Jake Heggie, and Mark Adamo’s Little Women. And interestingly, both companies, Houston Opera and San Francisco Opera, that did Dead Man Walking, Houston that commissioned Little Women, were both taking chances on young unknowns that they put a lot of faith in, and boy did it pay off. Not only for those two guys, but for American opera because these two operas took off like houses on fire. And all of a sudden, you know, everyone in the US, all of the opera companies are feeling like, “Wow! There’s an audience for this. Let’s start commissioning.” And then, you know, the volume of commissioning has gone up exponentially in the past twenty years and I think that training, we’ve kind of been running to catch up...
Right. [Laughter]. Yeah, it makes me so happy to see all these different places now that are starting to recognize that if they want to commission works, that they have to also develop composers and librettists to be able to write them. Can you actually, going back into history a little bit, can you actually give me a few, couple, two three examples of libretti that you consider masterpieces that are really...what is it about the writing and construction of these pieces that makes them so important in the world?
Unh-hunh. Well, so the three that I would site, and all for very different reasons, would be Cosi fan Tutte, actually any of the Mozart/DaPonte libretti would be Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, or Cosi fan Tutte. But I think I choose Cosi above those others only because it doesn’t have immediate source material, so it’s pretty much completely original on the part of Lorenzo Da Ponte, who was just a phenomenal librettist. And I think what I appreciate most in the libretto of Cosi fan Tutte is, of course, the erudition of the writing. My gosh, this guy was a classical scholar, but he does it with such a light touch, you know? And another thing is structure. You know, and this is a period, the classical period, where structure is everything. And he delivers a score that’s filled with possibilities for a composer to exercise their craft to their best possible, you know, means. And of course he had Mozart to work with. So he delivered these phenomenally crafted arias, which are, you know, very accomplished poetry, but also very deep character sketches. The way they are plotted and placed in the libretto builds a tremendous arc. And also the other thing is ensembles. And you know, Italian comic opera has always really...ensembles have been the lifeblood of them. And Mozart loved that. He loved ensembles so much that he took them into serious opera, you now, and really innovated that way. But, you know, Mozart, he loves...for him that’s how character is developed and revealed through the characters pushing against each other.
And you know, Da Ponte gave him just the most...and especially in Cosi, which is the ensemble opera par excellence. Those are some of the things that I love about the libretto of Cosi Fan Tutte. And then, the next thing I thought of was Falstaff.
Oh yes. One of my favorites.
Oh my god, what a great piece. And it’s Arrigo Boito, who was, in his own rite a pretty accomplished composer. I happen to love Mephistopheles, his opera which is kind of a guilty pleasure because it does have its trashy moments, but it does have its brilliant moments as well. So Falstaff, first of all, Boito takes perhaps Shakespeare’s weakest comedy anyway, the Merry Wives of Windsor, and transforms it. Not just gives us a libretto as good as Shakespeare, but actually surpasses Shakespeare in this way if I may say something that’s sacrilegious. He uses, you know, not only Merry Wives of Windsor, but he folds in pieces of Shakespeare’s history plays, you know, the Henry plays. He folds in pieces of Shakespeare’s sonnets, he even folds in a little bit of Boccaccio from the Decameron. You know, the little refrain that Fenton and Nanetta sing to each other, you know, is from The Decameron, and you know, a little bit of his own material. And he just crafts for Verdi something that is so original and so unique, and here structure is also everything, but very different. It’s come a very long way from the classical era. I’m not saying it’s better, but it’s very very different. And Boito gives Verdi an incomparable ensemble opera, and arias are sort of distilled down to tiny little cells, little moments, except for Ford’s monologue, which is a throwback, you know, something of a tragic opera, really, which Verdi spent his whole life doing, and here he’s writing a comedy. But little cells are almost parodies of Italian 19th century romantic opera. So those are...oh, and Boito’s use of language, my god. Another classical scholar. Maybe not as light a touch in terms of showing his erudition, but another meeting of a genius librettist and genius composer. And then, my third selection would be Rosenkavalier by another one of the greatest librettists of all times, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal. Now, this is an example, to me, of don’t try this at home. In a way, Rosenkavalier breaks a lot of the rules of writing, you know, that you would teach a librettist, because it reads exactly like a spoken play. I mean you could probably do Rosenkavalier as a spoken play. I don’t want to say you wouldn’t lose much because the music is amazing, but it could stand alone as a spoken play, which most opera librettos couldn’t and shouldn’t. They should be missing something which the composer then supplies. But Rosenkavalier is, you know, filled out in tremendous detail verbally. You know, there’s loads and loads and loads. I’ll tell you one thing, it is the longest supertitle script I have ever written in my entire life. It was in the thousands of titles. But, you know, but Hoffmannsthal is just such a genius. Again, it’s structured very beautifully, although the bones are a little harder to see because they’re filed out so generously with words. But, you know, Strauss took it and ran with it. Strauss liked literary libretti. I mean he had Salome, he had Elektra, etc. So, again that was a perfect pairing of composer and librettist.
Do you think that the pairing of composer and librettist is paramount for a successful opera? Is that kind of chemistry important for an opera to really sing, or does it just require a good composer and a good librettist.
Well, that’s an interesting question. Now, first of all I would ask you, are you referring to a personality chemistry between the two, or more of a, you know, an artistic, you know, sensibility?
No, I think it’s more artistic sensibilities. Because I think that, you know, not having really been in a writing duo with somebody, but certainly been in a collaboration where I had some personality clashes but an artistic symbiosis, so I think I’m looking more at that.
Well, you know, of course the thing is, personal clashes can be...can pose artistic problems.
That’s one thing, serving as a dramaturge for new works very frequently, as I have in recent years and continue to, there are some cases where a collaboration nearly breaks down and gets scuttled because two people just can’t get on. And, you know, those are the cases where a dramaturge has to be like a marriage counselor. Rufus Wainwright, who is one of the composers who I worked with on his opera, Hadrian, for Canadian Opera. He used to say, ‘Cori is like Switzerland.” You know, so sometimes it is...and it does become part of the dramaturge’s task. you know you’re the one who has to go in there and solve that, one way or the other, and I’ve been called upon to do that more than once. Artistically, certainly, and you know it’s interesting because it’s not necessarily like-mindedness artistically. Sometimes it’s a tremendous contrast that makes things click. And again I will cite, in the case of Hadrian, because that’s an example. I mean Rufus is a very neo-romantic kind of composer. You know, his great loves are Verdi and Berlioz and Wagner, and those are his models when he goes to write opera. You know I always say that Hadrian is a 19th century romantic grand opera that happens to have been written in the 21st century. Nothing wrong with that. It’s terrific. On the other hand, librettist, Daniel McIver, this distinguished Canadian playwright. He is the master of spareness and brevity and classicism, and a kind of non effusiveness, and you know...and in a way, those two sensibilities ended up working so well because Daniel was able to give Rufus a really tight scaffolding for Rufus to effuse the way that he does as a composer. So, but yeah, but sometimes, of course, very famously it’s a mutuality of vision in many cases. Again, like a Mozart and a DaPonte, like a Verdi and a Boito, are sensibilities that go very well together. I think, yes, it’s important to click artistically but that can involve contrast as well as like-mindedness.
Sure. Yeah, that’s interesting. I actually want to back way way up and ask you...you were talking about being a dramaturge and being a marriage counselor of its...it’s a nice metaphor. Do you feel that the role of the dramaturge is underutilized in opera?
[Laughing] Well, of course I do.
I figured. I kind of knew the answer to that, but I just..you know, you and I met at New York City Opera many years ago. And it was great to have you there in that role while we were working on Agrippina, and I find that I am often as director, and sometimes as an AD, tasked with doing a fair amount of dramaturgical work. But the advantages of having a person who’s there to do that just feels...and I feel that opera companies don’t think about that in the same way that theater companies do. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, I mean, I think you’re absolutely right, and thank you for bringing that up, Keturah, actually. You know, I think the thing is, if you look at the history of opera in the US, you know, it’s interesting because we have been...you know, it’s not an art form that’s native to us, unlike jazz or musical comedy. It’s something that came to us from Europe, and for a long time you know what we did was emulate the European Style both in the creation of opera and in the production and performance of it, but somewhere along the line, Europe moved ahead in the 20th century, and we kind of stayed in the 19th century here in the US, strangely enough. And I think that, you know for a long time, Americans were very busy defending to the death a tradition that’s not theirs. You know, it’s like, “Darn it, if we’re going to see Lucia, we’d better see heather and kilts.” When we go to do a production of an older piece, a canonic piece, we’re looking through three lenses. There’s the lens, when was the opera written and what was going on then? And there’s the lens of what period was the opera set in, and that lens. And then there’s the period of July 24th, 2020, today. You know, what’s going on today? And what threads can we draw from those other two lenses for this piece to speak to us today? Which, by drawing on these threads, we’re not superimposing, like, pop culture on it, but drawing on it organic analogies to the present. Anyway, I think I went a long way off. Okay, dramaturges. So the reason that dramaturges are very late in arriving in opera in this country was because for a long time, we were doing..first of all, we weren’t doing much new opera, so there wasn’t that much of a need for people to help in the development of new opera, and when we were doing canonic opera, we were doing it kind of in this, you know, could be very mindless way of...you know, let’s rent the sets and costumes from Stivenello, and the staging was kind of traffic cop staging. “Okay, you cross downstage left when he says Blah.” You know. And you know the real concentration was on the singing and the musical artistry, and there should be a lot of concentration on that, but opera is also theater. Now. Now, in addition to the fact that there’s been a boom in the commissioning and creation of new opera, there’s also the fact that new audiences come to opera through their eyes. You know, way back, even when I was a kid, we came to it through our ears. We listened to the Met had Saturday radio broadcasts. We listened to recordings, you know audio recordings. You know, there weren’t all the videos, there weren’t the HDs, and also, and in more recent years, we have begun little by little to take our cues from Europe in terms of production styles. In terms of...you know it’s interesting, because theater in this country has kept up, and opera for a long time has stayed behind where theater is in terms of production style. You know, nobody...it’s very rare that you would go to a Shakespeare play and see people in togas, you know, or in Elizabethan dress. You know, you’re going to see Hamlet or Macbeth in modern dress. I’m not saying that period productions can’t be great ones. They can be. But hopefully they’ll have more thought in them than formerly they did in this country. So whenever there are questions of concept, thought, historical research, you know, sociological research, that’s where dramaturgy comes in. To be a support to the creative team, the director, the designers. To be a support to the conductor who may be dealing with issues of what edition to use, what cuts to make, what restorations to make, and also to the performers, and you know, the interpreters, to give them context on all of those things, and where the production is coming from. To inform the staff of the opera company, I mean the people who are selling the tickets, and marketing and raising the funds, they need to understand what we’re doing on stage. And then finally the audiences. You know, how many people in the audience ask you, “Why do directors torture us by putting things in modern dress?” We’re there to be the bridge, to say to them, “No, they’re not trying to torture you, they’re trying to touch you more.” So that’s where dramaturgy’s really valuable in an opera company or in a project for, you know, canonic work. So nowadays, I think yes, we are needed. Also, to unite the messaging within a company that goes out. A lot of times, you know, you look at different opera companies, and you can tell which ones might have a dramaturge, because you’re going to be getting the same message from marketing, press, and development. You know, some..you look at materials and you feel like there’s three different sensibilities messaging here. What is it that they’re selling? Which one is the real one? And I don’t think a lot of people understand how crucially a dramaturge can figure into that unity of messaging, pulling everybody onto the same page, which comes from the work itself, and from the people who are doing this particular production of it.
I find more and more that I start to hear that there is a dramaturge working on various, you know, especially new pieces, and that makes me happy to hear that coming up more because I think it’s an important part of the process with canonical works, but especially when we’re starting to create things from the ground up. To make sure that everyone is on the same bus. [Laughter]
Yeah. It is crucial. And that is why we added recently the component of dramaturge training at American Lyric Theater, where we have been for a while now training librettists and composers. We have our first two dramaturgy fellows, brilliant young women, Hannah McDermott, and Kate Pitt. Kate more from a theater background, and Hannah, a Juilliard educated mezzo and an Oxford educated musicologist. And they are just tearing it up, and I want there to be jobs for them to go to, because they are needed. We want to be training people and sending them out to do the work that they’re trained to do and the work that they’re good at and they love to do.
Definitely. I want to switch gears here. It’s not a left turn, it’s right in your purview, but the other thing I had wanted to talk about was actually writing supertitles and dealing with a libretto in that way, because it’s such a different way of looking at the words. What do you think it takes to translate a libretto well? Do you find it more important to put across the exact meaning to an audience, or a more poetic or paraphrased translation so they’re getting more of an emotional impact?
Well, that’s an interesting question, as have all of your questions been so far. But when yo say translating a libretto, that’s a very...translating a libretto is not the same thing as writing supertitles because when I think of translating a libretto, I think of what you find in the CD booklet in the opera bookshop, which would be, hopefully, a very faithful translation of every word and every phrase. And that’s something you can not and should not even try to do when you’re writing supertitles. It’s impossible. First of all, the ensemble. I mean, what do you do...you know for instance, I titled In Ballo in Maschera for the Met. You know you’ve got a situation, the big ensemble at the end of the first scene. Loads of people singing. The one that you hear the best is Oscar because it’s the highest voice, but Oscar is singing the least important text. And then some of those who are singing the most important text are sort of buried in the texture of the ensemble. So, how do you write...first of all, how do you get across all of the...in an ensemble, so you’re being very selective. You know pulling out the most important texts for plot development, and also cueing them in such a way so that people can tell “”who is singing that line that I’m reading” You have to cue it exactly on where that voice can be heard, so cueing, actually writing the cues into the score is a very important part of the craft of supertitling. So in terms of literalness or not, I would say that varies also depending on the work, and very much depending on the production. General rules of thumb: for me, literal or not literal, the main point is immediately digestible visually. You do not want people glued to a screen, reading words. You want people watching the show. And what I aspire to is that after the first couple of titles, they forget they’re reading titles, it’s just something you kind of glance at out of the corner of your eye and you’re watching the show, and you kind of have the illusion that you’re understanding what they’re singing. So, no five dollar words. I’m sorry, just find a synonym that’s more digestible. Digestible, that’s the key. And you know, it doesn’t have to be simplistic, because some very great sophisticated thoughts can be expressed in language that’s beautifully simple. Haiku-like, if you will, rather than flowery and you know, something that...you don’t ever want to stop the viewer in mid stream and take them out of the opera by thinking about, “What does that word mean?” Or “What was that big word?” You know? So that’s key. That really is key. And just, generally giving space for people to see and hear the opera. So, you want to be as spare as you can, you know...you know, sometimes it’s interesting too. I won’t name names, but I’ve also been in a position where one time, when I was supertitling a show that was rather poorly directed, I felt that...I didn’t set out with this intention, but it occurred to me that the supertitles were creating focus where the director should have but didn’t. You know what I mean? Not only visual focus, but a kind of thought focus. It’s kind of like the bass player in the orchestra that can kind of control the whole orchestra but nobody in the audience knows it? But sometimes you can do dramaturgy through supertitles and kind of save a production, you know? It doesn’t happen often, and I hope it doesn’t, but it can be done. I guess the message of that is to say that, titles, I think they’re a lot of times regarded by opera companies as, “Oh, as long as we have some words to stick up there, people will be happy.” But if they’re not cued...if the cues are not written well or executed well, they can be a hindrance more than a help. If the text is written poorly...they are as much a part of the craft, I feel as a lighting design or costume design or anything you know...
Well, they can certainly take you completely out of the show if they’re strange or, as you said, cued wrong.
Yeah. And nobody wants that. So it is a really highly developed craft, and I think it can contribute tremendously. But you know, it’s kind of like, you know when you go to a show and people applaud the set? My design teacher in college used to say, “You don’t want that.”
You know, in a way, you don’t want to call attention to the titles. The best compliment is, “Wow, I didn’t even notice them.” You know? “Because I was watching the show.”
Yeah. Cori Ellison, thank you so much. This has been such an interesting conversation. I’m so happy to speak about text from the other side of it, and I’m so glad you’re out there educating librettists because it’s an important task right now. I think making new works...we have to continue to tell new stories and so, your work is invaluable.
Oh, thank you so much, and thank you for inviting me. And also, Keturah, thank you to you for doing this podcast because, you know, it’s kind of keeping our profession...it’s one of the things that people are contributing to keep our profession going at this time, to be thinking and having good dialogues, and this kind of creative talk. It’s invaluable, and it’s also fun.
Thank you again to Cori for such an engaging conversation. Next week I dive into the work and writing style of Royce Vavrek, who has written the words for operas such as JFK, Dog Days, Proving Up, 27 and Breaking the Waves, among many many others. I hope you can join us, and until then, thanks for listening. I’m Keturah Stickann.
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This podcast was recorded deep inside my office closet in Knoxville, Tennessee. Special thanks to Aurelie Doucet for the colorful logo, Eileen Downey for the theme music, and my husband for keeping the dog quiet. Thanks for listening, and until the next time, stay safe, wear your mask, and keep telling stories.
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