Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Monday, October 30, 2006

Two Questions

1. Which movie adaptation of a book was your biggest disappointment?

For me, the easy answer is The Black Stallion Returns. That was a phenomenal book, on which the movie was VERY loosely based. A huge disappointment. The book was romantic, exotic, surprising, and highly evocative of time and place.


2. Has anyone ever actually gotten a job simply from having posted a resume on a website like Monster.com?

Friday, October 27, 2006

And You Thought My Taste in Music Sucked

On the A train home tonight there was a man listening to a cutting board.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

NJ Marriage Decision: Initial Thoughts


I know you have all been waiting impatiently for me to post on this, hungry as you are for the kind of insightful legal analysis that can only be provided by a human resources assistant with a master's degree in classical voice.

Yesterday was something of a nailbiter, having to wait until 3:00 (after having waited over eight months) to finally get the decision in Lewis v. Harris, the New Jersey Supreme Court case weighing whether same-sex couples were permitted to marry under the state constitution.

After a string of disappointments this year in New York, Washington, California, Nebraska and Georgia, I wondered if there was any cause for optimism. I also worried about potential ramifications of the decision this close to elections, whichever way it came down.

When the decision was finally posted, it was not immediately clear what it said. The first language that caught my eye, in the syllabus by the court clerk, was that the decision of the appellate court had been modified but affirmed, which -- since we lost at the appellate level -- to my mind meant that the court had reached the same conclusion by different reasoning, but we had still lost.

Furthermore, I saw that there was a split 4-3 decision, and Chief Justice Poritz, who I personally had assumed to be in favor of marriage equality based on watching her during the oral arguments, had voted with the dissent. That looked like trouble.

But in fact, it was one huge ginormous victory.

There was no "dissent" in the normal sense, where one part of the court reaches an opposite conclusion of the majority. All seven justices found that the present situation in New Jersey unfairly disadvantages same-sex couples and violates the liberty and equal protection guarantees of the state constitution. In short, the court ruled unanimously in our favor, which I think was both unexpected and unprecedented.*

The split occurred because the majority found that under their understanding of the term "fundamental right," there was no fundamental right to same-sex marriage (even though they explicitly state that marriage is a state and federally-recognized fundamental right) because it is not deeply rooted in history, tradition and collective conscience. So while they have instructed the state legislature to make available to same-sex couples all rights, privileges, protections and responsibilities of married opposite-sex couples, they chose to defer to the legislature on whether to call that "marriage" or instead set up an identical system (presumably civil unions) for same-sex couples.

The three dissenting judges, led by Chief Justice Deborah Poritz on the occasion of her mandatory retirement, disagreed with the majority conclusion. If the issue of same-sex marriage is one of equal protection, then a separate classification, no matter how closely it mirrors opposite-sex marriage, is by definition a violation of that principle. Judge Poritz also found that, based on Loving v. Virginia, it is not necessary that a practice (interracial marriage or same-sex marriage) be rooted in tradition or collective conscience in order for it to be qualified as a fundamental right. The dissent found that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, and call it marriage.

The New Jersey Legislature must act within 180 days. While of course I believe they should apply the term marriage to civil partnerships of both same- and opposite-sex couples, even should they choose "civil unions" or other terminology, it will be a huge step forward toward equality.


As far as the elections go: in my deepest heart of hearts, I believe most Americans really do not give a flying one about gay marriage. I think people are concerned about national security, about the war in Iraq, about the economy, about fiscal responsibility, and about government transparency. The New Jersey decision may rejuvenate some of the disenchanted far right, but Democrats should not allow this silly wedge issue to overshadow the pressing questions of the day which affect us all. As Red Leader says in Star Wars, "Stay on target."

* See comments for correction.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Gays and the Laws of Moses

Should gay and lesbian people be full members of the Christian community? Should they be priests? Should the sacrament of marriage be extended to them? Should they even be welcomed into the building?

A lot of people point to passages in Leviticus, which call homosexuality an “abomination.” But are those passages valid and binding?

For that we need to consider the book of Acts, written by the author of the Gospel of Luke. In the sixth and seventh chapters, Stephen is arrested by a religious council and charged with saying that Jesus came to “change the customs Moses handed down to us.”

Stephen does not (and cannot) deny the accusation, since Jesus did specifically reject Torah passages on vengeance, divorce and dietary restrictions, but instead, after demonstrating his full familiarity with Scripture, turns on the council and accuses them of “forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.”

In the tenth chapter, Peter has a vision of “something like a sheet” coming down from heaven, and on it are all manner of animals designated by Moses as unclean. “Get up, Peter; kill and eat,” says God. Peter protests: “I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean!” But God responds, “What God has made you must not call unclean or profane.”

Then Peter goes to Caesarea to meet with Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Peter, remembering the lesson from his vision, greets Cornelius by saying, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

After talking with Cornelius, Peter declares, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” But Peter’s Jewish followers were troubled, because Hebrew Scripture quotes God as saying, “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant,” yet they “were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”

Peter answered them by saying, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

Just as Peter understood that his vision of the animals applied not just to dietary restrictions, but the inherent sanctity of all creation, it is to be understood that Peter is not referring just to circumcised or uncircumcised people, but rather the invalidity of Scriptural passages that put barriers between people and the God who calls them. God wants you just as you are. No man is unclean. No change is necessary to be worthy of God’s love.

Yet people still insist on building barriers to the church. Yesterday, The New York Times reported on an Episcopal bishop in Connecticut who has authorized religious blessings for civil unions.

Rev. Canon David C. Anderson, of the American Anglican Council, criticized Bishop Smith and called it “proof of his disregard for the larger Anglican Communion and further evidences his militancy with the homosexual gay agenda” (someone call the Department of Repetitive Redundancy!). “Bishop Smith and some other bishops as well are literally choosing to pull themselves and their churches out of the broader religious community. In the future…there might be no place for people like Bishop Smith.”

Anderson tries to blame Bishop Smith; but it’s not Smith trying to fracture the church, he’s one of the many heeding Peter’s lesson that the church is open to everyone. For all their citation of scripture in oppressing gay and lesbian people, what many Christians miss is that the New Testament explicity forbids restricting Christian fellowship. Anderson closes the door not just on gays, but on everyone who takes the Gospel message seriously. How does a priest manage to claim that “there might be no place” for anyone?

Bishop Smith said, “I believe that it is time for us to rethink, repray and reform our theology and our pastoral practices; to welcome, recognize, support and bless the lives and faith of brothers and sisters who are gay and lesbian in the equal fullness of Christian fellowship.”

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Opera House is Half Full

In today’s New York Times, veteran critic Anthony Tommasini wonders, “Where have all the voices gone?” in an op-ed he actually calls a “lamentation.”

Along with the myth that opera audiences are shrinking, one of the favorite complaints of self-styled opera aficionadi everywhere is that there are no longer any great voices. I bet that if you could travel back in time fifty years, and wander around the standing room at the back of the Old Met during a Tebaldi-Corelli Bohème, you’d find someone whining that audiences are getting older and that there aren’t any singers anymore, like there used to be in the days of Ponselle and Martinelli.

The inspiration for Tommasini’s premature eulogy is the new Metropolitan Opera production of Madama Butterfly, directed by Anthony Minghella.

You know, the one that garnered rave reviews and is sold out for the rest of the season.

The cast is headed by Chilean soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domas, whose singing of the title role, according to Tommasini, was “courageous,” but “patchy, pale and shaky” on high notes, even though “she made up in intensity and vulnerability what she lacked in vocal allure.” Who among today’s sopranos should have been cast instead? “No one I can think of,” confesses Tommasini.

He then compares her to some of the legendary sopranos of the past, namely Geraldine Farrar and Renata Tebaldi. Tebaldi, who had a uniquely warm voice and an instantly recognizable timbre with an impossibly seamless legato, was not exactly renowned as an actress. And while her top may not have been “patchy, pale and shaky,” it certainly could be steely and flat. Check out her paint-peeling high C at the end of Act I of La Bohème in the famous Serafin recording with Bergonzi – and that was in her prime.

Farrar, who was renowned as an actress (and a glamorous social figure, too – the famous “flapper” look of the 1920s is an abbreviation of “gerryflapper,” for Geraldine) had a singing style that is no longer in vogue: someone singing Butterfly today the way she sang it would probably get booed off the stage, assuming she could get hired.

But let’s take Tommasini’s point seriously. Where are the Tebaldis today?

Remember from my previous post that the number of professional opera companies in America has grown 5700% in fifty years. In those days, Tebaldi, along with Franco Corelli, Mario del Monaco, Zinka Milanov, Jussi Bjoerling, Leonard Warren and a host of other operatic legends, basically shuttled back and forth between the Met and San Francisco. Alas, it is true that voices like these are not common; but now they are spread among 114 professional companies in the US, not to mention those in Europe and elsewhere. The supply/demand ratio has altered tremendously, but that doesn’t mean that the voices aren’t out there.

Two other phenomena are also at work, however.

One is the recording industry. Fifty years ago, great recording stars like Maria Callas, Robert Merrill, Anna Moffo and Fedora Barbieri had well-established stage careers before they began making studio recordings. It was their excellence on stage that led to recording contracts. That trend is basically reversed today.

In the early 1990s, a young Italian mezzo soprano by the name of Cecilia Bartoli overturned conventional wisdom by showing up for “weeks on end” on Billboard’s best sellers not with crossover work, or even with operatic chestnuts, but with her 1993 album “Se tu m’ami,” which featured 17th and 18th century Italian songs with piano accompaniment. Bartoli is an extraordinary artist, but with her large, dark eyes, lustrous brown hair and classic Roman features, she is beautiful and photogenic, too.

She was a recording superstar long before her much-anticipated Met debut. So was tenor Roberto Alagna. Soprano Anna Netrebko. Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. What do these singers have in common? They’re all beautiful people. Not a dowdy, fat “opera singer” in the bunch.

Now, that’s good. Nothing wrong with a beautiful person with talent, too. But in our search to find ways to attract new audiences to opera, we have become too focused on physical appearance.

This is nothing new: the audience at the premiere of Verdi’s La Traviata had trouble accepting the voluptuous Fanny Salvini-Donatelli as the consumptive heroine. But the mindset found, perhaps, its apex in 2004, when soprano Deborah Voigt was famously canned from the Royal Opera at Covent Garden’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos – she remains the world’s pre-eminent interpreter of the title role – because she couldn’t fit into the little black cocktail dress that was, apparently, at the heart of the director’s vision of the opera. If she hadn’t already been an international superstar by virtue of her stupendous talent, it never would have made headlines.

Here we must concede something important to the future of opera: God does not always apportion gifts evenly. Opera is not Hollywood. Opera is a highly artificial form of entertainment. That doesn’t mean “fake”: look at the root of the word. ART. The roles were written for voices, not for bodies.

While it does appear that Aida is often a very well-fed slave, we have to admit that if our focus is on the physical attractiveness of the singer, rather than their vocal gifts, sometimes we’re going to have to make a tradeoff. And furthermore, we should examine our own bias in the process. There is deep, ugly prejudice in the suggestion that if Isolde is not thin and young, she’s not a worthy object of the eternal, transcendant love offered by Tristan. Unglamorous, unshapely people have lives, feelings, triumphs and tragedies, too. If people are serious about making opera more “realistic,” and therefore, more “accessible,” they’d recognize that human beings come in all shapes and sizes.

And they might find some voices, while they're at it.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Department of Wishful Thinking

Here's another idea Democrats should take from the GOP and run with.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO) sent out an email to the media alerting them to what will happen if the Democrats take over Congress this fall: “they will plot to establish a Department of Peace.”

Alas, I only wish the Democrats had that kind of succinct policy vision tied to a concrete plan.

Blunt seems to think a Department of Peace is some cockamamie idea. I guess the only thing more risible would be a Department of Alternative Energy and Conservation.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Lessons from the GOP

In just under a month, Democrats may well find themselves controlling Congress. Should that happen, they shouldn’t be too quick to pat themselves on the back. The Republican implosion is self-inflicted through a tawdry, heady cocktail of corruption, incompetence, hypocrisy and outright idiocy. The Democrats are like political vultures, picking up the seats of Republican congressmen who killed their own careers.

The GOP collapse is certainly entertaining to watch: Katherine Harris, Tom DeLay, Curt Weldon, Rick Santorum, George Allen, Randy Cunningham, Conrad Burns, Bob Ney, Tom Reynolds, and of course Mark Foley, whose scandal may yet ensnare Dennis Hastert. But Democrats can’t take much, if any, credit for the polls. They’re not winning voters on issues, they’re winning because the other candidates are too detestable to vote for. New York’s Republican candidate for Attorney General is such a disaster that she has inspired a new term meaning “major political faux pas”: a “Pirro-ette.”

So Republican comeuppance is taking care of the first, most immediate problem for Democrats: how to get elected. But once they’re in power, the trick is to stay there. For that, they should look closely at Rovellian philosophy. Adopt what works, avoid what doesn’t.

Democrats should not be afraid to pander to the base; forget “swing voters” and attempting to woo conservatives by being Republican lite. That’s not where the votes are. But they should also realize that the vast, untapped liberal resource in this country are the millions of people too disinterested or too disillusioned to bother showing up on election day.

To attract them, Democrats should abandon their two main themes: 1) “We’re not that different from Republicans!” and 2) “We’re not Republicans!” Start saying, “We’re Democrats!” and be prepared to explain what you mean by that.

Abandon the Bush emphasis on unity and loyalty. Mandatory group-think results in things like Iraq. In order to resuscitate bipartisanship, you must allow politicians to vote their conscience and express dissent.

Transparency, transparency, transparency. Give Americans reasons to trust you. Have a zero-tolerance policy for unethical behavior. Deny nothing. Roll heads.

For appointed positions, Democrats should look toward academics and other experts, not partisan loyalists, corporate donors, or college roommates. Stop putting industry executives in regulatory positions. Americans have had enough of the Bush hackocracy.

Engage the faith communities – not by faking it, as when Howard Dean famously said Job was his favorite New Testament book. Not all evangelicals are panicked about same-sex marriage: a growing number of them list poverty and global warming as their top priorities. Those are issues the Republican party will never embrace.

The Democrats are about to catch a lucky break this November. Let’s hope they don’t squander it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

I Miss My Toys

Last night, for no very good reason at all, I found myself trying to remember which Star Wars action figures I had as a kid:

Luke Skywalker (I think he met his demise under the lawnmower)



Princess Leia (in the Cloud City outfit)

Han Solo (Hoth ice planet parka outfit)


Boba Fett


At-At driver

Imperial Guard (with the awesome red robe)

Darth Vader (until Miss Crandall took him away because I was playing with him during math, and he was never seen again)

I also had a Millennium Falcon.

One of my favorite things to do was to freeze Han Solo in a block of ice in a tupperware box and then slowly melt him free on the deck. Yeah, good times.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Make it So

Sorry I've been quiet for the last couple of days. I can't emphasize enough how my recent theological epiphany has caused me to re-evaluate my outlook on basically everything. I'll probably have more to say about that later.

Suddenly familiar phrases have new meanings. The Beatles' "Let it Be" has always been one of my favorite, cherished songs...a real comfort in times of stress and doubt. But I have always interpreted "let it be" to mean, "leave it alone" -- trust that God will take care of it. And I still think that's valid, but I see now that it can also just as easily mean, "allow it to be." Imagine what you want, and simply let it be.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Liberating Theology

Does God have a plan for us?

A lot of people believe He does, and generally speaking, I have been one of them.

There is a tendency to evaluate our relationship with God based on the things that happen to us in our lives: when good things happen, it’s comforting to think that we have earned God’s favor. When bad things happen, we either assume we are being punished, or we explain it away by saying that all things happen according to God’s will, which is beyond human understanding.

I had a lot of these ideas during my career as a singer. I had certain physical and intellectual gifts which gave me advantages over other colleagues, and fantastic opportunities seemed to materialize from nowhere at lucky moments. There was a steady progression to my blossoming career, each step on the ladder more challenging, more important, more exciting, and more promising. I had a sense that what was befalling me was “meant to be.”

And then it all collapsed. Though I had always been borderline neurotic about taking care of my voice and my body, suddenly it seemed as though they were at war with one another. Through the scourge of acid reflux, my stomach attacked my throat. Each night as I slept, my dreams and hopes were slowly eaten away.

Why was this happening to me? Had I offended God? Was it a test? Temporary setback? Or was it a message that God wanted me doing something else? I think the only possibility I didn’t contemplate was that my misfortune was random and essentially meaningless.

I have always had the idea that God has a plan for us. In many places, the Bible tells us not to worry about our lives, but rather to put our trust in God. Many Christians believe in a “plan.” And I’m not saying there isn’t one.

But lately, this idea of “a” plan has been holding me back. I have been struggling to determine just what “the plan” is, what I am “supposed” to be doing, wondering whether “the plan” is something that is just going to happen at some point, or what. Do I search for it, or wait for it? Or, is this it?

If there is “a plan” for each of us, then why does an infinitely loving and compassionate God subject us to tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, plane crashes, heart attacks, or school shootings? Did those little Amish girls die according to God’s will? Was that the plan that was worked out for them from before Creation?

Last night in my bible study we were discussing whether God is “in control” of the world. The priest suggested we view God’s interaction with us in terms of “purpose,” rather than “plan.” And suddenly a light went on.

If we are all subject to “the plan,” then in a sense we are putting our faith in a God who uses violence and tragedy to further his will (which, depending on how much stock you put into the Old Testament, is a supportable idea). Why does a God who loves us all equally “plan” for some of us to be rich and comfortable, but most of us poor and miserable? There is an inherent inequity in the concept of “God’s plan” that can only be, and often is, explained as humanly incomprehensible.

But with the idea of purpose, there is complete equity. It’s a subtle but important distinction. We all have the same purpose (to love and serve one another), but each of us can serve that purpose in our own way. If there’s a plan, how can we have free will? But through free will, we can choose to fulfill our purpose.

These are new thoughts for me, not fully worked out. But I felt immediately relieved. Perhaps my previous career aspirations weren’t thwarted by divine intervention. Perhaps I don’t have to sit here and wait for God’s plan to start making me happy. Perhaps I can best serve God’s purpose by making my own plan.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Rubicund for a Diaphanous Day

It was a thuggish and deleterious October day, with the parsonage coming down in aqueous pilfers, foaming in the strainers like chocolate sponges. I felt a frisson of stoicism as I abdicated in the corner, clanging for an abbess I wasn’t sure would come.

Disqualified, I numbly felt the cold steel of the incandescence in my pocket. Just a few moccasins more, I ossified to myself.

A platitude lumbered past, splashing me with a cold wave of moratoria.

Time was passing like a proscenium. I tightened my prejudice around me, gazed upward into the metempsychosis, and breathed a deep sigh of transition.

And then, without disinfectant, suddenly I shrieked the antemeridian. Stepping out from behind the exegesis, I drew my sarcasm and halted the decasyllable. “You’re under arrest, crime-king,” I said, using my most sequacious vocable.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Three Peeves

  1. I am really, really tired of women -- and it's always women -- who walk around Manhattan with their head up their ass, usually with a cellphone attached, not paying any attention to what's going on around them. These dingbats walk too slow and meander around like no one else is even in the vicinity. Inevitably, when I try to get past them, they change direction, bump into me, and say, "Excuse you! Watch where you're going, you jerk!" Someday, not only am I not going to apologize, I'm going to lecture the bitch on etiquette and self-awareness. The only women who should be allowed to walk and talk at the same time are ambitious, always-one-step-ahead-of-the-game Type A personalities like myself. Otherwise, find a bench somewhere, since you're clearly not in a hurry.

  2. Dear Manager at the Fort Washington Avenue Associated: Why did you put the trainee cashier in the express lane? Come on.

  3. Dear Starbucks: I don't mind your music promotion sideline. But nobody can hear each other over the music now, it's too loud. Mellower stuff, please, at lower volumes.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Sunday Photo Blogging

Rocky has developed this odd habit of sitting on the back of the recliner and resting one paw on the lampshade. He finds that very comfortable, apparently. Posted by Picasa

Hey. Posted by Picasa

Don't roll your eyes at me, buster. You do cute stuff, I'm gonna take your picture, that's how this arrangement works, okay? Posted by Picasa

Starbuck was feeling camera shy. Posted by Picasa

Friday, October 06, 2006

Caption Contest!

L-R: ex-Congressman Mark Foley, President George W. Bush, ex-FEMA director Mike "Heckuva Job" Brown.

Rumors of Opera's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

How do you make opera relevant for a modern audience? Honestly, I think it’s a phony question.

Conventional wisdom says that opera is a dying art form, that the audiences are aging and shrinking. But that’s not borne out by the facts: over the past half-century, opera in America has grown exponentially in popularity, from two opera houses in 1952 to 114 professional companies in 43 states, which give nearly 3,000 annual performances attended by 6.6 million people. American opera audiences grew 8.2% from 1992 to 2002, the largest audience increase of all performing arts disciplines.

The repertoire has greatly diversified. Fifty years ago, Handel was deemed hopelessly obsolete: now it’s standard fare. Fifty years ago, you couldn’t have found a production of Idomeneo to cancel.

Does this mean opera’s continued popularity is secure? Hardly. Andre Bishop, Artistic Director of Lincoln Center Theater, wrote in October’s Metropolitan Opera Playbill, “Opera is still vital, still magnificently compelling. But like everything else in life it must proceed with caution as it advances into the 21st century.”

For some, that means making opera “relevant.” I confess, I just don’t think that’s either a good idea, important, or even, in many cases, possible. Il Trovatore, with its disaster of a plot, wasn’t relevant when it was new in 1853, and never will be. But it is a lot of fun when it’s well-cast. Wagner’s Ring, with its near limitless interpretive possibilities, will never not be relevant.

Those who are interested in seeing opera kept alive must be realistic: opera isn’t for everyone, anymore than baseball or bungi-jumping or blogging or any other pastime. We also should not be concerned about the median age of the opera audience: opera tends to be something people come to appreciate later in life; go back and look at historical photos of the audience at the Old Met in its heyday: everyone’s old.

That’s not to devalue arts education or youth outreach programs. People need to be exposed to opera, and we need to keep emphasizing that opera isn’t (just) fat ladies in horns. But we also do opera a disservice when we try to pretend that The Magic Flute, a treatise on wisdom as profound as the Ring, is a kid-friendly cartoon opera.

Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s new general manager, says, “In order to support the timelessness of the great operas, we must keep pace with current theatrical ideas and innovations when staging them.” This is true, but that doesn’t mean pasting external ideas onto existing operas in order to make them “relevant,” which is what happened with the Berlin Idomeneo. If Hans Neuenfels wanted to express his opposition to organized religion with an opera production, he should have picked Don Carlo.

Playwright John Guare agrees: “Opera to me works as the highest form of theater when everybody involved – the composer, set designer, cast, director – are all telling the same story.”

So how do we keep opera alive? Bishop is correct when he writes, “Music is the art form that comes closest to expressing that which is inexpressible.” That’s a strength that needs to be emphasized. But he also astutely notices “the athletic requirements of classical singing.” Opera needs to be compared not just with other forms of theatrical entertainment, but with sports. Opera fans reminisce about Corelli and Tebaldi the way sports fans talk about DiMaggio and Mays. Semiramide might not be relevant, but “Bel raggio lusinghier” is certainly athletic, and if Tristan is a marathon, Violetta is something of a triathlon.

Opera also needs better PR. We can start by reclaiming the word “diva” from pop-culture, where it refers to any bitch with a CD. Divadom is part temperament, to be sure, but one gains the title through artistry. Diva emerita Beverly Sills says talk shows should feature opera singers as regular guests and performers. “There are plenty of interesting artists around with interesting stories to tell.”

Opera can be many things: funny, tragic, fascinating, profound – even relevant. But if you want to keep opera alive, stop telling people it’s dead.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


This whole Mark Foley thing is disgusting.

First, stop using the word “pedophile,” whether you personally think a 16 year-old is a child, or not. Forty-one percent of 15 and 16 year-olds are sexually active, and 16 is the age of consent for many European countries, as it so happens to be in Washington, D.C. Let’s reserve “pedophile” for people who actually prey on sexually immature children. In our own culture, historically girls were frequently married off at the age of 12. (Hurray for traditional marriage that hasn’t changed in thousands of years, right?)

The principal scandal is about sexual harassment, unsolicited romantic or sexual overtures from a person in a position of authority toward a more junior person. Partisan politics and sexual orientation ought to have been irrelevant. In the business world, when a supervisor is informed that an employee has been behaving inappropriately, disciplinary action must be taken. Supervisors who failed to interfere have been successfully sued by harassment victims.

Of course partisanship has reared its ugly head, with some Republicans accusing Democrats of releasing this information to the media just before an election. Perhaps that is the case, but let’s not get away from the facts here: a Congressman made inappropriate sexual comments to pages via the internet; Congressional leadership knew about it and did nothing. Claiming this is an election tactic is like a defense attorney blaming a witness for reporting a crime.

Democrats should refrain from exploiting this to partisan advantage, unless they are absolutely sure no one has any sixteen year-old skeletons in their closet, which is not a safe bet.

Still, the public recognizes that Republicans, who rode to power on a message of family values, circled their wagons and stuck their heads in the sand, preferring to attempt to avoid a scandal. What they didn’t realize was that disciplining a congressman for inappropriate behavior looks better in the public eye than covering it up. A lot better. The scandal should have been Foley’s; now it’s the GOP’s.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Speaking of Idomeneo...

Last night I attended the Metropolitan Opera’s 61st performance of Mozart’s Idomeneo – the opera recently canceled by the Deutsche Oper Berlin for fear of Islamic terrorists – in the drab, slow, unimaginative original production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle from 1982. But more about that later.

The singing was at a respectably high level. Though the title role’s tessitura is unusually baritonal for Mozart, Ben Heppner sang the part’s few high notes with ease and ringing tone; unfortunately, his is a rather monochromatic interpretation. While he tackled the more florid original version of Idomeneo’s big aria “Fuor del mar” with impressive and accurate coloratura – especially for the world’s pre-eminent Tristan – overall his phrasing was not particularly sensitive or expressive. The truth is, the qualities that make him a sturdy Wagnerian – bright tone and stamina – are insufficient for the more subtle demands of Mozart.

Dorothea Röschmann as Ilia, on the other hand, was superb. Hers is a meatier voice than has been associated with this part: she sings the Countess and Elvira, instead of Susanna and Zerlina. Her long opening recitative was impassioned and vibrant, and she is capable of easy lyrical singing as well as husky, full-throated chest tones. She was ably partnered by Kristine Jepson as the prince Idamante. Though not as vital an actress as Röschmann, she has a lovely warm, even tone and phrases delicately.

Olga Makarina, as Elettra, also possesses a beautiful voice, capable of impressively gentle, silvery sustained phrases, which served her well in the second act serenade; however, her lighter vocal resources were overpowered by the demands of her first and last arias. At times I wished she and Röschmann had switched parts.

As Idomeneo’s counselor Arbace, Jeffrey Francis sang his aria “Se il tuo duol” with immaculate coloratura and a ringing top; Simon O’Neill was a grand, old-school High Priest, with a crystalline declamatory style in the best Pavarotti tradition; someone needs to tell Stephen Milling, as the Voice of Neptune, not to double single consonants.

James Levine in the pit continues to refine his performance of this marvelous score; the Met Chorus was fabulous in the earth-shaking “O voto tremendo,” but there were problems with balance and blend earlier on.

In my post on the severed-head fiasco with the Berlin production, I got into a discussion in the comments section over making operas relevant for modern audiences. Idomeneo is about the moral choices we face when our city is attacked by a sea monster sent by a god we disobeyed.

Of course, there are themes that could resonate for audiences today: the humane treatment of prisoners of war, and the trouble that comes from leaders who choose to do what’s easy instead of what’s right. I’m not sure how Jesus’ severed head serves to illuminate any of that.

The Ponnelle production makes precisely zero attempt at modern relevance. Actually, it’s anti-relevance: the staging is meant to evoke the kind of stylized representation that an audience of Mozart’s day might have seen. It’s a valid idea, but in execution it falls flat. The park-and-bark aria delivery can be excused when the singing is ravishing (and honestly, when Ilia is sitting there singing about “gentle breezes,” you don’t have a way to make that exciting), but much of the chorus staging is execrable. The second act ends with the rousing “Corriamo, fuggiamo” – “Run, flee!” In this staging, they all slowly spread themselves out on the stage and lie down as the curtain falls. What part of “Run away from the sea monster!” didn’t Ponnelle understand?

Monday, October 02, 2006

No Truth, No Consequences

Is the War on Iraq helping or hurting efforts to keep Americans safe from terrorist attacks?

Last week, the federal government partially declassified a National Intelligence Estimate, wherein all 16 government intelligence agencies concluded that the war against Iraq not only isn’t helping to stop terrorism, it’s making everything worse. “I strongly disagree,” said the President.

Bush maintains that Iraq is the central front in the War on Terror, even as he conceded on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 that “Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the attacks.” If only now he would concede: Saddam Hussein had not threatened the United States; Saddam Hussein had no WMD’s, certainly not anywhere near the stockpiles of which he was officially accused in 2003; Saddam Hussein had no relationship with al-Qaeda, nor could he have had one, if you understand what al-Qaeda’s motives are; the Clinton policy of containment was effective.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis – some of them bad, misguided people, to be sure, but many of them innocent bystanders, women, children, pro-democracy types – are dead. There have been dire consequences, but not for the people responsible for either 9/11 or the invasion of Iraq.

More Iraqi civilians died per month, every month, this summer than American casualties on 9/11; American military casualties in Iraq have now surpassed the 9/11 toll.

Who is responsible for 9/11? The hijackers are dead, of their own free will. Osama bin Laden is still free, five years later, most likely in the mountains on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border; both countries the President considers “allies” in the War on Terror.

Who is responsible for the War on Iraq? Saddam Hussein is in prison, but the violence continues. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is dead, but the violence escalates.

President Bush told the world that Saddam Hussein possessed: “as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent”; “25,000 liters of anthrax – enough doses to kill several million people”; “38,000 liters of botulinum toxin”; and “30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents.” None of this was true. President Bush was re-elected.

Of those enormous quantities of deadly weapons, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, "We know where they are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat." He remains in office, soon to be the longest-serving Secretary of Defense in history. CIA Director George Tenet called the intelligence on Iraq’s WMD capability a “slam-dunk.” He was given a Medal of Honor.

In March 2003, Vice President Cheney said, Saddam Hussein was "trying once again to produce nuclear weapons.” “We know that when the inspectors assessed this after the Gulf War, he was far, far closer to a crude nuclear device than anybody thought -- maybe six months from a crude nuclear device,” said Condoleezza Rice. Cheney is still in office; Rice was promoted to Secretary of State.

“We do not torture,” said President Bush. But we do. And we send completely innocent people to nations we accuse of being terror supporters to be tortured. This week we legalized torture and banned habeas corpus.

Who will stand up for the victims of this lethal folly? Until we hold our government accountable, and see our President condemned for his crimes, we ourselves will be guilty of gross negligence. American democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people. You have the power. You have the responsibility. Take it.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Sunday Photo Blogging: Monarchs!

There have been thousands of monarchs fluttering through Manhattan recently -- I guess this must be their migration. I took these photos in the Heather Garden at Ft. Tryon Park this past Thursday afternoon. Posted by Picasa

Coming in for a landing. Posted by Picasa

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