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Post Gesamtkunstwerk and *Tosca*
Created by John Eipper on 06/01/12 6:30 AM

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Gesamtkunstwerk and *Tosca* (John Heelan, -UK, 06/01/12 6:30 am)

On 31 May, JE defined (via the 'Net) Wagner's theory of Gesamtkunstwerk.

Perhaps Wagner's total art theory influenced the director of a performance of Verdi's [actually Puccini's; see Roy Domenico's correction, below--JE.] Tosca that I had the misfortune to witness in Glasgow some years ago. He obviously wanted to combine drama, music, comedy and acrobatics.

The singers fulfilling the roles of Tosca and Scarpio were---ahem, how do I phrase this diplomatically?--substantially overweight. The combined weight of the two of them falling on the single bed in the key attempted rape scene, caused it to collapse. (There were undignified giggles in the audience.)

Later in the last scene of the opera, the dramatic denouement when Tosca hurls herself from the parapet of Castel San'Angelo, presumably the insurers had insisted that the rather meaty lady did not come to any harm. So a large airbag had been placed out of sight (almost) on which she would land. Unfortunately, somebody had apparently overinflated it.

The singer jumped off the parapet with a despairing cry and disappeared from sight, to suddenly reappeared above the parapet, spreadeagled as she bounced on the airbag. It took two or three bounces before she finally disappeared from our view.

By this time the audience was having mild hysterics and, no doubt, Giuseppe Verdi [Puccini--see below] was rotating rapidly in his grave in Milan's Casa de Riposo per Musicisti!

JE comments:  I hope I won't have to spell Gesamtkunstwerk from memory anytime soon!  It took me years to master Weltanschauung.  We Anglophones cannot wrap our minds around the "uu" back-to-back.

What a hysterical performance of Tosca.  Have any other WAISers attended a truly disastrous opera?  A bad performance turns a comedy into a tragedy, and as John Heelan's experience illustrates, a tragedy into a comedy.

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  • *Tosca* is a Puccini Opera... (Roy Domenico, USA 06/01/12 6:31 AM)
    I've been enjoying this music discussion. I was waiting for a chance to get into it when I saw John Heelan's wonderful Tosca story. I must say, however, that Puccini--not Verdi--composed Tosca.

    One of my favorite opera moments was in Florence a few years ago where I saw Verdi's Otello at the Maggio Musicale. It was a terrific presentation, except for the sailors' ballet in the first act which came off as some perverse choreographer's nightmare--a sort of Verdi meets Madonna's "vogue" dance. At the end of the opera, for the curtain calls, the conductor Zubin Mehta took a bow to great applause. I think it was his birthday and the crowd clearly loved him. Desdemona, the beautiful Barbara Frittoli, brought down the house. But when the choreographer came out--Mamma mia!--the crowd roared, booed and whistled until Mehta, laughing and embarrassed, grabbed him and pulled him off the stage.

    One more point. I wanted to ask if any WAISers saw Anthony Tommasini's composers "Top Ten" list a few months ago in the New York Times. Is there really a point to these things except that they're so much fun? How could you read it and not say "Hmm, interesting choice" or "but where is ..." or "certainly" or "has he lost his mind?" The list: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, Stravinsky, Brahms, Verdi, Wagner and Bartok. To his credit, Tommasini debated certain obvious problems ... e.g. where's Haydn? I like Debussy on the list but there may be some ultimate issues there. And then, for me, the inevitable ... Bartok? What was Tommasini thinking?

    JE comments: Although Roy Domenico gets the honor of setting the record straight, Paul Preston was the first WAISer to identify Tosca as a Puccini opera--I received Paul's note about 3 minutes after posting John Heelan's comment.  Sorry about not catching the error, but I've been in a Verdi state of mind ever since we brought up Aida a few days ago.

    The NYT top-ten list will definitely get WAISers talking. I heartily endorse Debussy on the list--he embodies impressionist music like no other composer. Bartok? I'm not so sure. I'd love to hear an appraisal from the Hungarian perspective--Istvan Simon, care to comment?

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    • *Tosca* and Other Opera Disasters (Gilbert Davis, USA 06/01/12 7:43 PM)
      John Heelan's description of the Tosca on a trampoline (1 June) has been told so many times, one wonders 1) if stage directors can continue to be so dumb, and/or 2) if this little tale hasn't been retailed beyond its actual happening(s). A perhaps equally interesting Tosca finale occurred at San Fransisco opera when the soldiers comprising the firing squad were not told how to get off the stage after they finish off poor Cavaradossi. In the absence of any rehearsal (supers seldom get much attention from directors), they relied of the age-old exit practice of following the star off the stage. So, when Tosca jumped, they jumped after her, bringing down both the curtain and the house.

      Opera house history is full of such stories, from singers falling through carelessly open trap doors--one Don José broke his leg this way in the last act of Carmen, but manfully climbed up to sing from the floor (perhaps Don José's only display of real manliness in the entire opera)--to the old tale of the Italian audience at a performance of I Pagliacci that kept demanding an encore (bis in Italian) performance of Canio's "Vesti la giubba" (Put on the motley); after repeating the aria several times, the flattered tenor came to the stage apron and suggested to the audience that he sing something else, whereupon a voice from the balcony advised, "Listen buddy, you're gonna sing it until you get it right!"

      On a more serious note (no pun intended), now that we have gotten around to opera, may I suggest that interested members consider having a look at the Metropolitan Opera's Saturday matinee live HD projections into theaters all over the world. Next season's offerings will surely have something for everyone's tastes, and sitting in a movie theater near you at prices 1/10th the Met's best is hard to beat, especially if you are in a part of the world without live opera.

      JE comments: The Met's Saturday matinees are a win-win suggestion, although I'd like to invite Gilbert Davis (in Grand Rapids) to come to our side of Michigan, to the Detroit Opera House.  I confess, however, that I've only been once...

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      • Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD Performances (Miles Seeley, USA 06/03/12 2:21 AM)

        In response to Gilbert Davis (1 June), we have attended 4-5 performances of the Met in HD at a very nice movie house. We
        bring a sack lunch and settle in. We have enjoyed the venue and of
        course the voices of some of the Met's stars.

        Good as it is, nothing beats the live opera, especially when you have
        a grand new house at the recently completed Kauffman Center for the
        Performing Arts in Kansas City. We have also enjoyed several lunches
        with our CEO and a lead singer.

        The worst experience here happened years and years ago. Usually our
        General Manager and Artistic Director hear auditions in New York, but
        this time illness prevented that and they chose a Russian woman to
        sing Carmen, based solely on tapes. She was an unmitigated disaster:
        grossly overweight, she could hardly move around the stage, and her
        dancing consisted solely of standing still and pointing her left toe
        forward...pause...then her right toe. I have teased our management
        about it ever since.

         JE comments:  Ah, but I'm sure Don José still loved her!

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      • *Tosca* and Other Opera Disasters (John Heelan, -UK 06/03/12 2:31 AM)
        Gilbert Davis wrote on 1 June: "John Heelan's description of Tosca on a trampoline has been told so many times, one wonders 1) if stage directors can continue to be so dumb, and/or 2) if this little tale hasn't been retailed beyond its actual happening(s)."

        In this particular case, Gilbert can relax. My wife and I were reliable eyewitnesses of the actual events.

        JE comments:  Trampolines themselves are dangerous, but less so than swords.  I wonder how many accidents, horrific or humorous, have resulted from staged swordplay in opera?

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        • More Opera Disasters: Swordplay...and Fire (Gilbert Davis, USA 06/04/12 3:03 AM)
          My apologies to John Heelan (3 June) for doubting his recollection of that memorable Scottish Tosca production. I guess opera directors can be dumber than I thought.

          And regarding JE's question, "I wonder how many accidents, horrific or humorous, have resulted from staged swordplay in opera?" I did report on the dangers of open trap doors in my Carmen example, but let me add one more of many, and interestingly it also occurred in a Tosca production: In a Vienna Tosca production, at the end of the second act after Tosca (sung by the great Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya) stabbed her Scarpia, she unknowingly backed into a candle, catching her wig on fire. Luckily her "dead" Scarpia saw she was in danger and jumped up, running to the oblivious Tosca and began beating her inflamed hair with his bare hands. The mystified Vishnevskaya screamed, not knowing what Scarpia was up to, and it was only after the curtain came down that she realize that her Scarpia had saved her life.

          As for Miles Seeley's observation that watching movie house opera in HD is no substitute for live, staged productions, I agree entirely. My urging WAISers to look into the Met's season was not meant as a substitute for enjoying live performances. But for those without a Kauffman Center and the long and distinguished tradition of the Kansas City Opera, the Met's program is a welcome one. And even with a local opera company--which we have here in Grand Rapids, Michigan--there may be a tendency for the company to repeat favorites too often and too soon. With the Met's program, one thus has a chance to see productions a local company is never likely to mount, such as Handel's Rodelinda, Strauss's Capriccio, and Donizetti's Maria Stuarda.

          JE comments:  Regional opera companies have to pay the bills, as Gilbert Davis wrote me in an off-Forum note on the Michigan Opera Theater (Detroit).  Only the "Greatest Hits" can ensure a full house.  It must be ridiculously expensive to stage an opera, and public interest is on the decline.  How many young folks these days are into opera?  The answer:  music education.  Note that this discussion thread was originally about education, the merits of studying with headphones, and whether or not Beethoven is sufficiently soothing.

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    • Opera and Bartok (George Krajcsik, USA 06/02/12 2:34 AM)
      I, too, would like to join this interesting conversation. I possess no musical training, but lifelong listening to classical music has made me an ardent lover of it. My first experience and the beginning of "acquired taste" came when as a teenager in Hungary I started to listen to a Budapest radio station. (Nowdays there is a station in Budapest named Bartok Radio, broadcasting classical music 24 hours a day.) Then visits to Budapest (we lived in about 25 miles away) to the Opera house and the Erkel theater enchanted me and made me want to listen to everything in classical music. I was fortunate to have teachers who felt their duty to enrich their students' lives by exposing them to music of this kind. My first operas were easy to like: Verdi's Il Trovatore, Gounod's Faust, Mascagni's Cavaliera Rusticana, Leoncavallo's Il Pagliacci, and Puccini's Tosca. Back then there were no subtitles, but in Hungary all these operas were sung in Hungarian so I was equally mesmerized by the story. Now, of course, I look at the story-line differently, although I still remember some of the Hungarian words to the arias.

      During my undergraduate years there were few occasions to hear classical music; I lived in Helena, Montana. But when I started graduate school in at NYU, I reveled in my good fortune that I lived in the classical music capital of the world. (Milano eat your heart out!) In 1961 I attended the old Met on 40th Street and Broadway, then in 1963, when Lincoln Center opened, the new Met. At that time I would often buy a standing room ticket--there was a space reserved for standees behind the last row of the orchestra--for $2. Of course, there was a technique I soon learned from old standing-room attendees. You stand during the first act and carefully note 4 or 5 empty seats. After intermission, you go sit down, then if the rightful owner shows up, you apologize and move to seat no. 2. But that seldom happened to me. When I started working after graduate school, being in a better financial situation, I bought season passes. That went on for about 10 years, until I moved away from NYC.

      I like all operas. I'd be hard put to explain why. I just enjoy the melodies, the story, the acting and the spectacle. My favorite operatic composers are Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner. A week before each performance I would borrow from the library a recording of the opera, play it and follow the translation carefully from the libretto. I think it was in the 1970s when the first English subtitles started to appear in the NY City Opera (Beverly Sills domain), but the Met stayed with staging operas in their original language. I have not seen a performance in the Met in 30 years (well nigh impossible if you're in South-East Asia). In Sarasota we I now live, we have an opera company and a quaint little opera house. I attend every chance I get.

      If I may I'd like to write a few lines on Bartók. Surprisingly, many Hungarians don't like his compositions. Bartók is an acquired taste. When the average listener discovers a motive he recognizes from a folk melody, he or she enjoys that, but listens to what follows with bewilderment: how could that nice melody turn into such dissonance. But Bartók is great! His operas Blue Beard Castle, The Wooden Prince, and The Miraculous Mandarin have interesting story lines, but one must very carefully listen and interpret the music to one's own emotions and to those which Bartók's music tries to evoke.

      Bartok also wrote a few symphonies; the Kossuth symphony is notable. When John Richter heard it he liked it so much that he made the Manchester Philharmonic perform it. Bartók was still under the influence of Richard Strauss when he composed it. Of course, Bartók's Hungarian sentiment showed strongly in this work.

      Let me quote a short passage from Halsey Steven: The Life and Music of Béla Bartók:

      "Béla Bartók's ardent spirit enlightened every field to which he turned his attention. Unsatisfied with his early compositions, he devoted his energies to becoming one of the finest pianists of his time, and shared that side of his nature for nearly thirty years with students who still carry on his ideas in their performance and their teaching. As a virtuoso he unselfishly lent his talents to the encouragement of his contemporaries by the performance of their music.

      "Almost by chance he discovered the vast reservoir of peasant song in his native country, previously unplumbed and on the brink of disappearance. Enlisting the services of a few other enthusiasts, he systematically collected and scientifically classified thousands of melodies from Hungary and other countries; his musico-ethnological publications, both books and periodical articles, have greatly enriched the store of knowledge concerning the Hungarian, Romanian, Slovakian and other peoples."

      JE comments:  I've learned an enormous amount from this conversation.  WAISers excel at combining theoretical insight with personal anecdotes, of which we have so many!  George Krajcsik has inspired me to explore the operas of Bartók.  I knew nothing about them.

      I wonder, George, if opera standees can still get away with the old trick of grabbing an empty seat after intermission?  They've no doubt put greater controls on crowd management.  Ever try to move to (empty) better seats at a baseball stadium?  There are too many ushers around offering to "help you find your (legitimate) seat."

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      • Sneaking into the Good Seats; Bullfights (Henry Levin, USA 06/03/12 2:47 AM)
        The moving up from standing or the bleachers is still alive and well, whether you go to the opera, ballet, theatre, or bullfights (George Krajcsik, 2 June). In the latter case the aficionados wait until after the first bull meets his demise and the gringos and others with weak stomachs leave. My son, who went to the University of California in San Diego, would go across the border to Tijuana every weekend with his friends and buy the cheapest seats and then proceed to the top seats where there were plenty of options after the spectacle.

        Bullfights might raise a nice topic for WAIS.

        But, in our frequent outings to concerts and theatre, we are constantly bombarded with questions about whether a particular empty seat nearby is occupied. And it is not just the "poor" and devoted student seeking such seats. We have had unpleasant and smelly unkempt types with the distinct smell of alcohol sliding in to vacant seats, so we are not typically welcoming. Sorry to the devotees who only lack money. Finally, ballets and opera are far more spectacular in close proximity than from a distance.

        JE comments: We haven't discussed bullfighting since August 2010, when Catalonia banned the practice.  I don't know a single Spaniard who still cherishes the toros as a national tradition/art form/sport. In my student days I attended two bullfights in Mexico (Morelia and Oaxaca). That was enough for this lifetime.

        I just searched "bullfighting" in the WAIS archive, and came up with several notes from Prof. Hilton, including this one on the "strange, irresponsible crowd" of García Lorca-bullfight aficionados, dated 14 November 1999:


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        • Ronald Hilton and Federico Garcia Lorca (John Heelan, -UK 06/04/12 3:26 AM)
          JE (3 June) reminds us of a Ronald Hilton 1999 comment in which he could not resist a dig at his eternal bête noire, Federico García Lorca--usually followed by RH with "and his ilk"--as being a "strange, irresponsible crowd."  As a lorquista for some decades, I regularly disagreed with RH´s sometimes emotional outbursts against Lorca, Dalí, Buñuel and other avant-garde writers and artists of the 1930s.

          With the greatest respect to our founder, his claim to "know" Lorca has always puzzled me. Comparing the timelines of both, I found it difficult to place them in the same place for any considerable period. By the time, RH was at "La Resi" [Residencia de Estudiantes] the triumvirate of Lorca, Dalí and Buñuel had long gone. However, Lorca was still living in Madrid from time to time and visited La Resi while RH was there.

          When I privately questioned RH on the details of his relationship with Lorca, he promised to consult his notes and get back to me. Unfortunately he did not. This was a great disappointment to me, as he was one of the two or three people still living at the time who claimed to have known Federico and could have filled some holes in my research.

          At the height of his career at that time, Lorca could be vain and obnoxious. Perhaps RH picked up and reacted to those vibes as an onlooker as well as believing the constant right-wing media campaign against him as a symbol of the Republican government (as an often braggart homosexual, with friends in high places, and challenging the Church and cultural mores of the time). Who knows?

          By the way, I am not an aficionado of bullfighting but understand its role in the culture and psyche of Spain--more so in the past than today perhaps--and have written in WAIS about it several times.

          JE comments:  John Heelan and I have communicated off-Forum about Prof. Hilton's connection to Lorca.  I agree with John's conjecture that they met on no more than a few passing occasions.  What always fascinated me was RH's virulent dislike of Lorca's poetry.  He was more tolerant of his plays, but not by much.  WAISers may find this lengthy exchange, titled "Homosexuals" (10 March 2004), to be of interest:


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          • Calderon's *Life is a Dream* (Anthony D`Amato, USA 06/05/12 3:15 AM)
            I don't speak Spanish and know practically nothing of its literature, but nevertheless I am taking advantage of this discussion to seek help on how an outsider like me can make sense of Calderón de la Barca's Life is a Dream (La vida es sueño) when all you can get (apparently) is the dialogue.

            I need the stage directions to make sense of what I'm reading. Obviously, and most frustratingly, the visuals are paramount in importance: how is it staged, where are the actors, when do they enter and exit, how re changes in scene depicted? I suspect that down through the years the staging differed, but I would be quite content with the "standard" interpretation if there is such a thing.

            And here's a slight contribution to pay for my question. I know that purists won't have much to say about Man of La Mancha, but there is a song in it--"Dulcinea"--that is far and away one of the most beautiful melodies ever composed. Ranks right up there with "The Huguette Waltz" from Rudolf Friml's Vagabond King and "All the Things You Are" from Jerome Kern's Very Warm for May.

            JE comments:  Anthony D'Amato has thrown a softball pitch across the plate for a Hispanist, but I confess I haven't read La vida es sueño (often called the first "existentialist" play) since grad school!  Has anyone seen a staging of it recently?  In the meantime, I'll ask around here at the Spanish Literature AP reading in Cincinnati.  There are over a hundred of us Spanish professors assembled for the week.
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    • *Tosca* is a Puccini Opera... (John Heelan, -UK 06/02/12 3:13 AM)
      Roy Domenico (1 June) is of course perfectly correct--Tosca is Puccini's work not Verdi's.

      Roy's anecdote about an opera occasion in Florence, reminded me of a visit to La Scala, Milan, to hear a famous Russian army chorus. The audience was so sparse that at the end of the performance, my Italian companion said to me, "For goodness sake, applaud because there's more of them on the stage than there are of us in the stalls!"

      JE comments:  Good advice all around.  Is the Russian Army Chorus still as active now as in Soviet times?  Perhaps Cameron Sawyer can fill us in.

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    • Top-Ten Composers (Harry Papasotiriou, Greece 06/02/12 8:03 PM)
      Anthony Tomassini's "Top Ten" list of classical composers cannot possibly satisfy everyone. (See Roy Domenico's post of 1 June.) As Tommasini himself states, it would have been much easier to do a top five or a top twenty list. But I strongly agree with his choice and ranking of the top four: JS Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. Interestingly they were all from German-speaking countries, whereas the language of classical music was and remains Italian from an earlier period. This presumably reflects a northward shift in Europe's musical center of gravity sometime during the eighteenth century.

      JE comments: Coincidentally, we visited an antique mall in central Ohio yesterday on our way to Cincinnati. There I saw a collage of 8 "Great Composers" engravings. The picture must have been from the late 19th century.  Included among  the expected names (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms) were Franz Liszt and Charles Gounod. Who talks about Gounod these days?

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      • Top-Ten Composers (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 06/04/12 2:43 AM)
        When commenting Harry Papasotiriou's post of 2 June, JE wrote: "Coincidentally, we visited an antique mall in central Ohio yesterday on our way to Cincinnati. There I saw a collage of 8 'Great Composers' engravings. The picture must have been from the late 19th century. Included among the expected names (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms) were Franz Liszt and Charles Gounod. Who talks about Gounod these days?"

        Sure. And the "Three B's" used to be Bach, Beethoven and--Berlioz. Tastes change.

        These rankings are a somewhat silly exercise, but irresistible. Besides Harry's Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, I would put Chopin in the very first rank, among those four. A technical master of his art whose only rival is Bach, in that regard. Most people would put Brahms there; I would not. I would put Josquin there, if we are considering pre-Baroque composers--in fact in the Top Three with Bach and Beethoven.

        I don't like Tommasini's list. I would never put Bartok or Wagner even in the top 20. Debussy and Stravinsky have fabulous moments, but are both, on the whole, lightweights--I think Tommasini was giving affirmative action to the 20th century (I adore Stravinsky, just don't think he's of that rank). I already rejected Brahms. I would have put Richard Strauss, Mahler, Haydn and Schumann above any of those. And what about Prokofiev and Shostakovich? After Richard Strauss, the best composers of the 20th century in my opinion, if not perhaps Top 10 material. And if we are considering pre-Baroque composers--and I think we should--perhaps Palestrina or Monteverdi.

        JE comments: Speaking of the Great Russians, we've already heard Cameron's views on Tchaikovsky (not a musician's composer), but what about Rimsky-Korsakov? That guy could write a catchy tune.

        Totally agree on Chopin.  I don't think there's a piano player in the world who doesn't adore him.

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