The Livingston Inn | Madison, Wisconsin Bed and Breakfast

Opera for Everyone

Over the past few years, my wife and I have attended a good portion of Madison Opera’s productions. Our children have also had the opportunity to attend dress rehearsals, through school and tickets from friends. Without hesitation, I can tell you we’ve enjoyed every single one.  And, in fact, we’ve attended mostly the less popular productions (for example, we missed La Boheme).  Each time it has been a thrill to enter the Overture Center and surround ourselves with the story, the music, the set, the costumes, and the incredible singing talent.

My wife and I attended our first opera many years ago in Santa Fe.  It was in English and a newer work from a composer that wasn’t a household name.  I can’t even remember the title.  But that’s okay.  Santa Fe opera is really cool, and it was an experience we’ll never forget.  Driving up to the outdoor amphitheater, we sensed something spectacular was going to happen.   And it did.  Hearing the passion of the voices combined with a beautiful story, all under the stars of the southwest sky, was simply remarkable.  We were hooked.

Last weekend, the two of us saw Eugene Onegin at the Overture Center, another lesser known opera and this one in Russian.  We were impressed once more.  First of all, the set was phenomenal, a first rate production normally seen in a large metropolitan city.  At the beginning of Act Two, the mood of the trees and snow, falling at just the right moment, accompanied by a heart-wrenching aria was unforgettable.  We also enjoyed the story of Eugene Onegin.  We purposefully did not read anything in the program and were nicely surprised as the plot developed.  And lastly, the voices.  I took piano lessons for over 12 years in my youth, and I know the practice it takes to get to perfection.  The performers in Eugene Onegin could not only sustain a note but project it and turn it on a dime.  It was pure talent and it was a treasure to listen to.

If you’re still not sure about opera, allow me to wrap up with a few pointers that might win you over.

  1. Whether Italian, German, or even Russian, don’t let a libretto in another language scare you away.  Almost all operas have supertitles in English to help you follow along, and it’s kind of cool to hear the foreign language sung.  Even then, I don’t stay glued to supertitles.  That’s because once I get into it, I have a sense of the feeling within the scene without a need to understand every word. This makes it fun.
  2. Put yourself into the feelings of the character. Whether you think of your own experiences or your children, spouse, or a friend, we can all relate to the intense feelings projected by the performer.  When Tatiana was rejected by Eugene Onegin, I immediately thought of my daughter, who is getting into the boyfriend craze, and how I might feel if something similar happened to her.  It’s a powerful way to get connected to the story.
  3. Get good seats.  The live performance of opera is what makes it dynamic.  Spending a little more on decent seats makes it even better.  Book well in advance whenever you can.  The Overture Center, for example, has some great affordable seats near the back of the orchestra section that I highly recommend.  But they sometimes sell out quickly.  The next operas in Madison are Galileo Galilei from January 26-29 then Cinderella on April 27 and 29, if you want to mark your calendar now.
  4. Don’t be intimidated.  I think many people stay away from opera because they think it’s for people who are much more refined or knowledgeable, perhaps the stereotype of a cultural snob.  But hopefully you can tell from my post, I am
    quite the common man when it comes to opera.  I might be using the wrong terminology, and the only foreign language I know is Spanish.  I can’t even remember composer names at times (I confess I also forget movies I’ve seen).  In any case, I don’t believe there are cultural snobs, and if there are, they are a minority.

So what is comes down to is this: when I attend an opera, I see people like me.  People who like a good story, are moved by passion and feeling, and are wowed by talent, beautiful music, and a feast for the eyes.  Opera is very welcoming if you take in everything it offers.  Yes, opera is for everyone.

Photo Credit: Tim Matheson / Vancouver Opera

Top 10 Reasons We Love Halloween

Our family has always thoroughly enjoyed Halloween.  Given this is our first year living in and operating The Livingston Inn, we are especially looking forward to this zany day.  As my son stated when I was decorating the yard this year, “Dad, it’s a Gothic-revival mansion.  You’ve got to make it look great.”  Hence, the zombie with glowing red eyes coming out of the ground that I added to this year’s display.  And the orange glowing light in the cupola.

With that in mind, I consulted with my wife and three children and asked for the top 10 reasons why we love Halloween:

10. The glow of pumpkins lit at night.

9. Haunted houses (I’ve heard great things about Schuster’s and Eugster’s this year).

8. Decorating the house – it gets better every year.

7. Chocolate chip pumpkin muffins.

6. Scary movie marathons.

5. Trick or treating with friends.

4. Putting on a costume and turning into someone (or something) else.

3. A fun reason for darkness falling earlier each night.

2. Pumpkins – fun to carve, and just like snowflakes, no two are alike.

And the number one reason we love Halloween…

1. Candy, candy, and more candy!

Wishing everyone much fun and fright this year!

Thank You, Madison!

Before too much time passes, my wife and I want to take a moment to thank all of the people at the City of Madison for helping us to open The Livingston Inn.  Contrary to the government employee stereotype, everyone we encountered at the city was engaging, knowledgeable, and patient.  All this during a period when municipal staff are squeezed by budget cuts and overshadowed by an interesting year of statewide politics.

Some examples of our positive encounters with Madison staff:

  • The woman from Zoning who was very patient in walking us through the approval process, despite piles of applications around her and a new computer system.
  • The assistant from Economic Development who was very cheerful even on a day when I visited her third floor office in an old municipal building with no A/C on a hot, humid day.
  • The fire inspection chief who was so complimentary of our house and who shared thoughts about owning a bed and breakfast.  He also indulged the awe of my son who marvelled at his height and asked how tall he was (6′ 10″!).
  • The friendly guy in the Clerk’s office who hadn’t issued a B&B license in awhile but figured it out quickly and wished us well.
  • The police officer we met as we moved in and made our family feel at home in our new neighborhood.
  • All of the folks at the Landmarks Commission who made us feel we were doing something good for the community.
  • And the many other people in Inspection, Public Health, Engineering, Treasurer’s office, Streets & Recycling, and other departments who were helpful and friendly with each phone call and visit.

I’ll end this post with a special acknowledgment to Percy Brown and his staff and committee at Economic Development.  Percy was simply a delight to get to know.  A conversation didn’t go by when he didn’t make us smile or laugh.  Together with his committee, who visited the house, Percy built a relationship with us that made us feel very welcome as a new business in Madison.

In the end, I guess you can say we’ve walked city hall in Madison and we liked what we saw.

Good Spirits

Recently, Stephanie Jutt, flutist for the Madison Symphony Orchestra and co-founder of Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society (BDDS), came to our house in a flurry.  Now if you know Stephanie Jutt, her hurried state probably doesn’t surprise you.  But she had a particular purpose on this day. She came to rid our house of bad spirits, clearing space for the good ones.

We really didn’t have particular issues at the time with any type of spirit or ghost.  Most people like to imagine that’s the opposite with a 160-year old house, but we haven’t experienced anything, so far.  However, Stephanie knew the obstacles we faced to open The Livingston Inn, so her intent was more to rid us of any further negative energy that might impede our success as bed and breakfast owners.

So, how does one chase away bad spirits, or negative energy, and invite in all the good stuff? Stephanie’s answer: a Princess Leia costume and a handful of dried sage.  As she rushed into the door, Stephanie insisted my wife, Peggy, don a Princess Leia gown, straight from the BDDS Star Wars theme this summer. Stephanie then placed a double-bun wig on Peggy’s head and thrust a light saber in one hand and a bundle of sage plants in the other.  Next Stephanie lit the sage, and with the torch billowing a hefty column of smoke, she and Peggy ran through the whole house, demanding in each room that bad spirits leave and inviting in the good ones.  No room was left behind, not the cupola at the top of the house or the laundry room in the basement.

Did it work?  I couldn’t say for sure.  I can say that it seems the longer we’re here, the more wonderful things come to us.  Delightful guests, helpful neighbors, and supportive people are all around us. Could I call it good spirits or positive energy?  It sure feels that way. If anything, Stephanie’s visit was a day filled with laughs as my wife ran around our house like the Statue of Liberty with her flowing robes and glowing torch.  As we look back, we appreciate whatever she brought to The Livingston Inn that day, for the opportunity to bring good spirits to our home.

P.S. The photo with this post was a re-creation taken a couple days ago, some weeks after Stephanie’s visit.  If you’ve ever smelled burning sage, it’s very similar to a plant now legal in some states to smoke for medicinal purposes.  Needless to say, as our guests returned from an evening out in Madison, we had some quizzical looks and then a good laugh as we explained what we were up to.

The travel gem: staying at a B&B

IMG_2231“My wife and I love staying at a bed & breakfast.”  Substitute “husband”, “partner”, or “significant other”, and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard this statement since we opened The Livingston Inn.

I’m also surprised by the variety of people who tell me this.  It’s not just retired couples who travel the country.  Nor is it young couples seeking a romantic getaway.  It’s couples with children, young or grown, or with no children at all.  It’s professionals, like educators and physicians, but also people in skilled trades, like carpenters and plumbers, as well as firefighters and police officers. And it’s not restricted to couples. Substitute “my college friends and I” or “my family and I at reunion time” and it opens up a whole other world of social groups who stay at B&Bs.

So what makes a bed & breakfast special to so many people?

I don’t have any scientific evidence, but I have a theory or two.  One is that people crave the comfort of home.  Most of us create that feeling in our own homes, whether through raising a family, pursuing hobbies, or inviting friends and family over for special occasions.  You can call it a sense of warmth with a healthy dose of routine.  Many of us know this feeling the second we step into our house after a day of work or some time away on a business trip or vacation.  Our home is our shelter, where we feel protected and relaxation is abundant (hopefully!).

Yet, while we find security in our own space, there’s also an exhilaration to discovering something yet unknown.  Towns and cities new to us are full of novel experiences based on unique cultures and communities of people.  Many travelers enjoy immersing themselves into the restaurants, shops, museums, parks, music venues, landmarks, and a host of other activities and places that make up a destination.  But it’s not just the destination.  There’s also a sense of freedom and discovery in getting there.  The time-honored road
trip, for example, captivates many of us as confirmed in several legendary movies.

So when it comes to staying at a bed & breakfast, it’s perhaps not surprising why all types of people enjoy the experience.  In what other venue can you bring together the comfort of home with the adventure of travel?  In a bed & breakfast you are intimately involved in the hallmark of home — the sights, smells, and sounds of a kitchen.  The B&B experience is bread or rolls baking, eggs cooking, and the clatter of dishes as tables are set and cleaned up.  The comfort of home extends beyond the kitchen as well.  You can settle yourself in a cozy space to read a book or listen to music, or you can chat with an innkeeper or other guests about your travels, family, life, or just the news of the day.

At the same time, a stay at a B&B is filled with the adventure of getting there and then discovering the place around you.  It’s fun to be part of a house new to you.  It’s interesting to meet people from all over the world.  It’s exciting to head out to a new restaurant that comes with excellent reviews.  It’s an adventure to walk the sidewalks of a city or a nature trail deep in a forest. And it strikes a chord of kinship to join locals at a football game or
symphony concert.

As a B&B owner, it is of course very heartening to me when someone tells me they love staying at a bed & breakfast.  At first I thought people said it as a polite remark of encouragement.  But in a short time, I’ve come to understand it is truly a sincere comment, not just small talk.  After all, innkeepers work tireless hours and are passionate about hospitality, and our dedication has an incredible power to shine through to couples, families, business travelers, or anyone else staying in our home.  For a few precious days,
maybe longer, our guests are going to experience something very unique, a gem that is rare and valuable.  In the comfort of a beautiful home, they are going to discover the world.

The first three months

Three months ago, my family and I moved to 752 East Gorham Street, also known as the William T. Leitch House, informally known by locals as the Harman House, and now operating again as The Livingston Inn.  With its four grand guest rooms, it is quite amazing to see the transformation of our B&B since we moved across the isthmus over Memorial Day weekend.

I will never forget our first night at the house.  Sometimes a real estate transaction doesn’t go exactly as you plan, and ours was a textbook example.  Despite our months of preparation and against our wishes, we closed and moved on the same day, which was already a busy moving day across Madison.  I unloaded a truck well past midnight, put my head on a pillow at 3 am, and despite physical exhaustion, couldn’t fall asleep for another hour.

I have to say the feeling I had was far from excitement.  It was a lot more like risk-taking gone horribly wrong.  In addition to the hectic moving schedule, we arrived at a place that we knew in advance needed some work but discovered it required even more.  I wouldn’t say it was a disaster, but the house needed heavy-duty TLC.  Despite all the challenges, I was awake the next morning at 5:30am and back at it with very devoted family and friends for another day of moving.  If anything, I learned it’s quite remarkable what the human body and mind can accomplish.

Over the course of the next four weeks, what our friends and family members did for us was nothing short of amazing.   Some cleaned areas that hadn’t been touched in years while others worked in the garden in blazing 90-degree heat.  Everyone found their role or niche and stuck to the task until it was done.  We were humbled by everyone’s hard work and dedication, all the while enjoying each other’s company and discovering a beautiful house.

A house has a personality in my opinion.  Most homebuyers understand this because of the intuition or feeling they experience when going through a house.  My wife and I always had a great feeling about 752 East Gorham Street, but when I first moved in, I have to  say it sort of felt like moving in with a new roommate.  There was a bit of awkwardness as to whether we would get along and if this would work out okay.  In my solitary moments working to get ready for opening day, I would sort of “talk” to our house, thinking about its past 150-plus years and whether it would accept us as new owners.  To me, the house at first felt sad, maybe angry, because of what it had become. It seemed to need some time to trust us and embrace our family and the future we planned.

Three months later what I’ve discovered is this: the house likes us and we like the house.  With all the cleaning, fixing, and updating, the William T. Leitch House came to believe in what we were doing and welcomed a new era in its history.  This beautiful Gothic-revival mansion seems to stand taller on the corner.  In the back garden, it feels like it has opened its arms and shown us a serene vista of the lake.  Walking through the stunning rooms and halls, I feel comfort and warmth everywhere.  This didn’t happen only because an army of people worked tirelessly in many ways.  It happened because a history of people, events, community, and a special historic home in Madison wanted it to become something better and to shine again.

Although clichéd, it is true what they say at the Academy Awards.  I can’t thank everyone individually who made our dream possible. The list would be too long and extend beyond to many other relationships.  Suffice it to say, if you are one of the people who played a part to bring The Livingston Inn back to life, I hope I have expressed my gratitude already, and if not, someday we will exchange a glance of understanding for what we accomplished.  I might simply say “thank you” or maybe we’ll just stand together in the William T. Leitch House, sometimes known locally as the Harman House, and today operating as The Livingston Inn, and sense something good has happened here.

Welcome everyone to our bed & breakfast!