Thursday, August 31, 2006

On the Cusp

By Judith

When I was about 12 or 13, there were some days when I couldn't figure out if I was still a kid or had moved on to being grown-up. Should I play with my Barbie dolls or try on jewelry?

This, the last day of August had that same kind of indecision in the air - is it still Summer or is Fall coming on? The sun beat down from a cloudless sky and caused beads of sweat to accumulate on my arms. The dampness of the soil combined with the scent of the plantlife in the park and the warmth of the sun on the grass gave the air a hot, musky smell that said, "Yes, Summer's here and always will be."

And yet, when the breeze kicked up it had the definite feel of crispness that goes along with bonfires, football and pumpkin pie. Crickets only get big enough to make a sound when they rub their legs together towards the end of Summer. Today you could hear them over the coursing of the waters at St. Anthony Falls (granted, there's been so little rain this year that the falls look more like a giant water slide). This is the eighth day of the State Fair; we're 2/3 of the way through now. No doubt about it, Autumn is just around the corner.

I could appreciate Fall more - the brilliant colors of the sugar maples, sunny days with a snap in the air, a new sweater from Land's End - if it weren't followed by that "W" word. That mind-numbing, soul-killing, butt-freezing season of interminable length that can't even keep itself clean. I wish I liked Winter; there's so much of it that I'm writing off a good part of the year. But Winter and my circulation (or lack thereof) just don't get along, so I'll continue to take advantage of days like these and keep them in the hard drive of my brain to replay when there is no sun, no warmth, no chirping crickets and remember when Summer wasn't ready to give up just yet.

This Just In

By Steve

Judge Holds Lawyer in Contempt

PENSACOLA, FL - Superior Court Judge Horace Draper announced from his bench yesterday afternoon that he holds local lawyer Peter (Pete) Peterson in contempt. The silver-haired jurist outlined his findings in a damning indictment of the liability lawyer’s shortcomings. "The way he dresses, his butchering of the English language, his inept legal skills. That irritating lisp. I don’t even like the way he combs his hair. Let’s face it, the man’s a mess.

"He’s never appeared before this court," Draper continued, "and I hope to God he never does, but the man’s contemptible nonetheless."

Peterson was not immediately available for comment following Judge Draper’s declaration, but later that afternoon his secretary told a group of paralegals while standing around the coffee machine that Peterson wasn’t all that fond of the judge either.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Morality of Art, and the Artist

By Hadleyblogger Drew

I know, I keep meaning to get to the pieces I’ve promised on the relationship between art and artists. In particular, I meant to write on the moral dilemma posed by the Nazi era and the artists who were, willingly or unwillingly, part of that movement.

The Nazi angle is the one most interesting to me, since the word Nazi itself has become one of the most pejorative terms we can use against someone else. Nazism, along with Communism, is one of the defining ideologies of our time. As an accusation it’s often used indiscriminately and incorrectly. I ask myself whether most of the people who use it even understand what it means.

Besides, that’s the topic I’ve been asked to write about, and I try to deliver on my promises when I can.

But I keep getting sidetracked, and in the meantime Terry Teachout has another excellent piece that really capitalizes on the areas most of interest to me, and even though I wind up interrupting myself I can’t help but stop and interject his comments, since they’re so much a part of what I’m looking at.

Last week I wrote about Günter Grass and the revelation that he’d been in the SS during WW2, as a segueway between discussions on Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Leni Riefenstahl (intended to be my next piece). Teachout picks up on the Grass discussion, and leads to the broader points I’ve been intending to write about. He begins with a question offered by a reader:

Apropos your post on Günter Grass, here is a question for you: are there any circumstances under which an artist's personal failings must require him to forfeit his art? Extreme example: what if Tristan and Isolde had been written by Hitler himself—should it ever be performed? And if not, where is the line to be drawn?

After considering the question, Teachout reframes it as:

is there any act so absolutely heinous that the works of a great artist who commits it should be permanently banned from circulation? Asked in that way, the question admits of a wide and interesting range of possible answers, but what I find even more interesting is the fact that it’s impossible to come up with a real-life case that fills the bill.

[…] So far as I know, the only classical composer ever to have committed murder was Gesualdo, who killed his first wife and her lover. Though Richard Wagner was by all accounts a first-class bastard, he didn’t send letter bombs to music critics, and his anti-Semitism, gross and despicable though it was, never led him to advocate the use of Zyklon B on European Jewry, or anything remotely approaching it.

[…] Having said all this, let me return to the thought experiment originally proposed by my correspondent: I wouldn’t have any objection to placing a permanent ban on performances of Tristan und Isolde if it were to be revealed tomorrow morning that Hitler, not Wagner, had composed it. I wouldn’t support such a ban, but I wouldn’t actively oppose it, either, any more than I oppose the informal Israeli ban on public performances of Wagner’s music.

[…] Yes, Wagner was a great composer, one of the most important and influential figures in the history of Western music. You don’t write people like that out of the history books—you can’t. Like it or not, his music will always be played. But I don’t think music is the most important thing in the world. [Emphasis mine.] Music doesn’t inspire people to commit mass murder—it takes ideas to do that. And for that reason, I think it’s fitting that in at least one part of the world, Wagner’s music is rarely played in public because of the ideas of the man who wrote it. What’s more, I think Wagner himself might have understood. After all, he took his own ideas seriously, and he of all people would surely have appreciated the fact that so do the Israelis.

To answer that, we might look at a secondary issue to that posed by Teachout, but one that logically extends from it: whether or not we allow the particular political affiliations of those artists to influence our judgments on their art. Previously, I offered the opinion that former Nazis tends to be much more harshly judged than, for example, former Communist (unless they’ve become virulent anti-Communists. John Dos Passos, for instance, saw his literary star diminish considerably in the mid-20th century as the one-time liberal moved more and more toward the right side of the political spectrum and against Communism. Was his writing that turned the critics off, or his alienation from their precious progressive politics?)

I think the key sentence in Teachout's piece is this: music isn't the most important thing in the world. Put another way, in a broader context: art doesn't forgive everything. And while that certainly applies to Wagner, it has to work both ways. Too many times liberals are only too willing to forgive the politics of one of their chosen - Günter Grass, let's say - because of the ideological content of his art. Do we allow Roman Polański's art to forgive the crime he committed, the crime that keeps him out of this country to this day? On the flip side, does Mel Gibson's recent action condemn his art, a kind of guilt by association? And what do we do with artists like Aaron Copland, who were at one tine associated with the Communist Party?

Can pure art ever override all other considerations, or does it become merely a pawn in an ideological discussion? Is such art compromised even if the values of the artist aren’t explicitly represented in the art itself? Broad questions, ones that I can only take a stab at in the future.

I only have two problems with Teachout: he's a better writer than I am, and he works quicker than I do. But I'll keep on trying.

Our State Fair Is a Great State Fair

By Judith

In Minnesota, 'tis the season - for the Great Minnesota Get-Together known as the Minnesota State Fair. Not just a regional county fair, but a fair for all the state. Back in 1858 when Minnesota was admitted into the Union, the fair was already four years old, having been a territorial fair up till then. Once Minnesota became a state, the fair continued, although it was a movable feast until it landed in its current location in Saint Paul in 1885.

The third largest fair in the country, our fair has grown and changed - and stayed the same. Perhaps the most exciting thing about going to the fair each year is the anticipation of how everything will be exactly as it was the year before. Oh, there may be a new food, the racetrack at the Grandstand may be gone, but the changes are, for the most part, slow and gradual, like the subtle changes to the landscape surrounding its neighbor the Mississippi River. Anything else would put people off. They want to remember the fair the way they first found it when they were kids.

At the fair, there's something for everyone. For very small children there are rides that barely get off the ground but are exciting anyway. For teens there's a basketball challenge and a skateboard demonstration park. For those who appreciate arts and crafts, there's the Creative Activities or Fine Arts building. For the world traveler, there's the International Bazaar. For the farmer, or anyone who appreciates the rural life, there are not only horse, swine, poultry and sheep barns, but Machinery Hill. Once a display of the latest tractors or combines, it now also includes the best of suburban lawn riding mowers.

And for everyone, there's food. Not just food, but food on a stick. Hot dogs, pork chops, pickles, twinkies, deep-fried candy bars and mac & cheese. All on a stick. For the less adventurous, there are also bright yellow ears of corn dripping butter, a crisp, juicy apple or all the milk you can drink for a dollar.

From the Midway to the Space Needle, from the Coliseum to the Grandstand, the Minnesota State fair has something to delight and satisfy all goers. See the hucksters in the Merchandise Mart selling a knife that will cut your wood and your tomatoes. Or how about that floor mop that will sweep and wash. Ride the gondolas and see the fairgrounds from atop the trees. Visit the television or radio station booths and get an autograph from your favorite news anchor. Visit the booths of your favorite politicians and give them a piece of your mind. On Sundays visit the Chapel. Stop in at the newspaper office and watch how old printing presses were set up and run. And before you leave, use the sample newspaper to fold into a "press-boy" cap.

There's so much more that it's impossible to list it all (but you can see a bit more here). We can easily spend twelve hours there on the first Saturday and at the end of the day make a list of all the things we didn't see that we'll catch on the next weekend. And going twice means we can have another helping of cheese curds. Trust me, tastes much better than it sounds. Twelve days of fun and excitement, culminating on Labor Day, signals the end of summer, the beginning of autumn and the feasts and celebrations of harvest before the long, cold winter of the Northern Plains.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Scarlet Swastika

By Hadleyblogger Drew

The man on the left is Günter Grass: Nobel-prize winning novelist, author of the magnificently disturbing The Tin Drum and other books, pacifist and long-time anti-American activist. And, apparently, former Nazi.

My purpose here isn’t to recap what’s been written in the wake of the recent revelation that Grass had been a member of the S.S. during World War II. Rather, I’ve been asked to contribute a few pieces on the stigma which the word “Nazi” still carries today (a sort of Scarlet Swastika, if you will), as a follow-up to the recent story on opera star Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Virtually every obit noted Schwarzkopf’s past membership in the Nazi party (which she dismissed as something “everyone” had done), even though the question of her involvement with the Nazis had nothing to do with that for which she was best-known, her work in music. (Yes, I’m aware that one could argue her continued ability to engage in music during the war might have been a result of privileges accorded her as a result of her membership, but I’m going to say that’s stretching things farther than I care to go.)

While Schwarzkopf was an interpreter of art rather than a creator of it (which diminishes the significance of the revelation, at least in terms of its relevance to the art itself) there are others who could be said to be creators, and the question then becomes whether or not one can separate the influence of ideology from the creation itself. As Terry Teachout puts it in his thought-provoking Wall Street Journal piece, "The work is what matters most...but artists are human, too." If there is to be a Scarlet Swastika, this is where it may show the most - in the interpretation of the artist's work. But, true or not, is it always warranted?

Which brings us back to Günter Grass. I hadn’t been intending to include Grass in my series, but the timing of this story was too much to pass up. And it ties in to one of the central questions we ask, if an obvious one: is there a double standard regarding the treatment and consideration of past affiliations, whether they be youthful indiscretions or fervent beliefs? There are already those wondering if the left will give Grass a free pass due to his political ideology – a pass that might not be available to someone with, let’s say, a less liberal bent. That Scarlet Hammer & Sickle doesn’t seem to burn quite as brightly as the Swastika does, especially if you’re still part of the liberal brotherhood (witness the cult of personality that still surrounds Alger Hiss, unlike the vituperation aimed at former members like Whittaker Chambers, who renounced Communism in all its ideological forms). Will people take a second look at The Tin Drum in the same way that so many on the left want to rethink, say, The Passion of the Christ? Should they?

It seems as if there aren’t many things that society holds against you any more. Being a former Nazi is one of them. In our post-literate society the word itself is thrown around with reckless abandon, to the point that it’s lost most of its original meaning. But the glow from the Scarlet Swastika is still there, and it would seem as if any discussion of the relationship between art and Nazi politics would, sooner or later, come round to Leni Riefenstahl. That's where I had planned to start this series, but instead it's where I'll continue it in a future piece.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Heeeere's Our Word

By Judith

Welcome to the new - and we hope - improved Our Word. The colors are the same, but the general look of the site is a bit cleaner and neater we think.

And along with a new look is a slightly new attitude. It's been said that the two things you don't discuss in polite society are politics and religion. Well, we'll still discuss them, but we're not going to fight about them. Life is too short and we just have other things we want to accomplish.

We'll be concentrating on the arts, culture, humor and other things that catch our fancy - all with a perspective that is informed by our faith and beliefs. We'll also be welcoming more frequent guest-post-ers, such as Bobby & Steve (no, not the Twin Cities gas station guys) whom you've already met, and Drew, who will be joining us shortly. And, probably some surprise guests.

Your comments are welcome as always, but if anything gets nasty, we reserve the right to delete your comments. If you'd like to contact us, email us at hadleyblog - at- yahoo - dot - com. Again, your comments may be posted, but we'll always give you credit.

Welcome, we hope to see you often at Our Word and Welcome To It.

Friday, August 18, 2006

From the Bookshelf

By Judith

Back in June we started watching the History Channel's 12-part series called "The Revolution." An appropriate series for the 4th of July season (every holiday has a season now; it can't just be one day). To really get in the mood for the big day we also watched A&E's "The American Revolution," a multi-part series first aired in 1994 (Ok, so the tapes have been hanging around for 12 years. Sometimes we just can't get to things right away.) Both shows have their own take on things, although they are laid out the same way; after all, A&E and the History Channel are owned by the same consortium. The current show, "The Revolution," probably could have been a lot shorter if they hadn't insisted on recapping not only the previous week's show, but what just happened before the commercial break.

It's a fascinating period in history, so watching both shows, as well as our annual viewing of the musical 1776 (and The Music Man; watch it, you'll see why it's included) was a great way to get into the swing of things. So what does all this TV and movie watching have to do with reading, as the title of this piece suggests? Well, I may be slightly O/C when it comes to learning - if I read one book by an author, I tend to read everything the author wrote. If I find a topic interesting, I'll read 10 or 12 books on the subject. I'll read in themes (this Lent it was the 7 books of The Chronicles of Narnia, the 3 books of Lewis' Space Trilogy and a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien. Didn't have time for the Ring. One summer I read long novels: War and Peace, Doctor Zhivago and Hawaii).

So, in addition to watching holiday-related programming, I've been reading books about the founding fathers. Four Days in July by Cornel Lengyel was written in 1958 and is the "story behind the Declaration of Independence." In many ways reading the book is like watching a historical reinactment documentary. Written as a story, as opposed to a straight history, it includes what might have been a conversation between two participants in the drama, even though there is no documented evidence that these precise words were spoken. It is the spirit of what might have happened. There are plenty of quotes and notes, but it reads like an exciting story, which of course, is what the history of the beginning of our country is.

Richard Brookhiser is a tremendous writer as well as being a thorough documentarian. In America's First Dynasty (2002) he follows the course of the four great generations of Adamses: John, John Quincy, Charles Francis and Henry. From John's birth in 1735 to Henry's death in 1918, the Adams family made a great impact on American politics and society. Voluminous writers, most of the Adames, men and women, kept diaries so complete that it takes a whole library to hold them all. Like many families, the Adamses had their share of joy and sadness. The difference was that theirs was played out upon the public stage. Granted, they put themselves there, but in addition to personal ambition, they had an overwhelming sense of duty and felt it necessary to serve, even at the cost of their privacy.

Mr. Brookhiser presents these people, warts and all, as does Paul Nagel in Descent From Glory, another look at the Adams family from 1983, just after some of the papers that were previously kept from the public were opened for scholars to peruse. While Mr. Brookhiser's book focused mainly on the professional life of the subjects, Mr. Nagel delves into the diaries - and the personal lives - of the family. While he is a slight bit delicate at times, perhaps not wishing to add additional appearances of scandal, he still tells the straight story.

The current book in the pipeline is Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution by John Ferling (2000). This book compares and contrasts the lives and careers of the three men and brings them together in the struggle that gave birth to our nation.

There are still more volumes from our library on the period: Richard Brookhiser's Founding Father and Alexander Hamilton: American; Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner (the short version); Benjamin Franklin by Carl Van Doren. Then we move on to Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen, although I find the events around the Declaration and the Revolution to be the most interesting.

The most fascinating thing about these men - and the others who took part in this endeavor - was how, being so greatly flawed, they could perform so brilliantly and become icons to Americans of succeeding generations. The more I read about how weak they were as human beings, the more I admire them for what they were able to accomplish. Their virtues - duty, honor, self-sacrifice, discipline, perseverance - helped them beyond their shortcomings and made them answer the call. They were needed and they responded. Would that there were men of their statesmanship and brilliance today.

I believe that there was something else that bolstered them in their arduous tasks. Faith. Modern historians like to make all the founders out to be Deists. Jefferson, to be sure, was a true child of the Enlightenment, but when Washington and Adams called upon the Almighty, they truly thought He was almighty. They viewed God as being interested and intimate, that when they prayed He heard and cared. Perhaps knowing that their prayers mattered gave them the extra strength they needed to carry on. And perhaps we could all learn that lesson from them too.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

In Praise of Satire

By Judith

While we've been doing other things, M&J have, from time to time, invited a few friends currently without blogs to write some pieces. Our friend Hadleyblogger Bobby has contributed on a number of occasions, and, more recently, Hadleyblogger Steve has joined the fray. In a salute to the bitingly funny satire of The Onion, Steve makes comment on today's headlines, as in the recent "Tomorrow's Headlines Today" (7/30) and "And Now for Sports..." (8/16).

We think Steve has an eye - and an ear - for mimicking news stories and look forward to seeing more from him. We hope you do too. Onion, are you watching?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

This Just In

By Hadleyblogger Steve

Coach Praises Team's Mid-Season Form After DWI Arrest

ST. PETER, Minn. - At his daily press briefing, Minnesota Vikings head coach Brad Childress pronounced himself satisfied with the news of wide receiver Koren Robinson's arrest for two counts of DWI in connection with a high-speed police chase Tuesday night in Mankato.

"This just demonstrates that our squad is hitting mid-season form weeks ahead of schedule," said Childress, obviously pleased with the latest criminal developments surrounding his team. "We've had so many transitions this year - a new head coach, new ownership, a new starting quarterback, a whole new system, really. Naturally, we wondered how the players would deal with it, whether they could live up to the tradition this franchise has established. This incident shows we're there already."

Robinson allegedly had a 0.11 percent blood alcohol level when finally pulled over by the police after leading them on a chase that at times topped 100 miles per hour. He is also facing misdemeanor charges of reckless driving, careless driving, and driving after a license suspension. He wore an orange jumpsuit and ankle shakles in his court appearance earlier today.

"That has to make you feel good," said Childress. "The Vikings are purple-and-gold, but we've always felt very comfortable in orange, too. And when we're comfortable and in our routine off the field, you just know that has to bode well for what's going to happen on the field as well. This is what the Minnesota Vikings football team is all about - our opponents know it, our fans know it, and the local police departments know it." Referring to Robinson's triple-digit speed during the chase, Childress reminded reporters that he has constantly stressed the need for quickness at the wide receiver position. "Koren just stepped up to the plate and showed us all a new dimension," he said with satisfaction.

Asked whether Robinson faced any team disciplinary action for his infractions, Childress was noncomittal. "This is still the preseason - hell, we've only played one game. It's way too early to determine team leadership for the regular season. I mean, who knows what other kinds of misdemeanors and felonies the rest of the team may have in them?"

Childress concluded the briefing with an optimistic analysis of the upcoming season. "Like I said, we usually don't see this kind of activity until we're several games into the regular schedule. We're way ahead of our timeline, and you've got to feel good about that."

Ten Questions

By Hadleyblogger Bobby

Most of you have probably seen the latest blog meme asking you to name ten books that have affected your life in various ways. I thought it might be fun to answer this question with a twist - ten pieces of music (opera, showtunes, sacred songs, etc.) instead of books. Here goes:

1. One piece of music that changed your life.
Manon Lescaut by Puccini. My first, it taught me the virtues of attending opera. It was in May 2001 -- I never thought one opera led to more.

2. A piece you've listened to or performed more than once.
"The Majesty and Glory of Your Name". The sacred selection from Linda Lee Johnson and Tom Fettke was on the May 23, 2004 selection for my one year in choir. I called that song one of the two greatest 20th-century masterpieces -- the other was Carmina Burana from Carl Orff. Both selections are wonderful -- the former I sang, the latter I've watched.

Tragically, we won't do it at church again because our church music leader announced a change to an all-karaoké format using exclusively pop/rock/hip-hop from one music publisher (BMG). The songs our leader now uses are worthless pop junk, and I can't see myself singing it because technique must be violated in order to "sing" this material! It does not have any message, as it focuses squarely on the beat. Besides, I’ve imposed a “no prerecorded accompaniment policy out of respect to the instrumentalists I have used when I sing. Consider I've paid cash and merchandise to my pianists and actually worked with my voice teacher in booking them, it's important I reward them for work.

3. A piece you'd want on a desert island.
I am still a whippersnapper on opera, but I'd love to go for the entire selection of sacred music from Johann Sebastian Bach.

4. A piece that made you laugh.
Gianni Schicchi by Puccini. I'll never forget this for an interesting reason. I was 26 and began taking voice just two and a half months earlier for the first time. My teacher was in the first of the Two by Puccini series. At intermission, she shed her costume for street clothes, and sat behind me (!) to attend this. The unethical manner of Buoso's will had me giggling, and a week later, in my last lesson of the session, she appeared, and we developed a friendship.

A Rush Limbaugh parody of the famous aria (O mio babbino caro) from that opera sometimes has me quoting Mike Joy, asking that the offender be headed to the Oval Office. (In NASCAR Nextel Cup racing, the mobile trackside office is sometimes called the "Oval Office" for its logo on the office.)

Speaking of the Oval Office, the MTV Video Music Awards are coming soon, and I am firing the engine in the truck, bringing a few friends (all classical), and loading the truck to we can arrive to write summons.

5. A piece that made you cry.
Carousel by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Billy Bigelow's death, and the consoling of Julie Jordan had me on the edge of my seat, worth that 2 1/2 hour drive in Darlington County (thanks to the idiot judge in Texas who told NASCAR to take away the Nextel Cup's Grand Slam by taking a major away from Florence-Myrtle Beach [Darlington] for a so-so race at Fort Worth, and teams dislike that!) that April evening.

Keep in mind it had been less than 20 weeks since those last days in the hospital as my father lost his battle with stomach cancer, and I kept my composure during those days. The first persons I went after his death were the college chaplain I had whilst a student, and a friend who runs the state chapter of the National Right to Life organization. I didn't feel strong to be around family after one member of the family actually wanted my pastor thrown out of the hospital room.

6. A piece you wish had been written or composed.
One about the stupidity of the judicial activists who are destroying the country. I'd love to see an opera based on the books of Ann Coulter or Bill O'Reilly, or in support of Our Brave Troops.

7. A piece you wish had never been written or composed (or performed).
For me? Any of the "modern worship" or the "A Praise and Worship (Holiday)" programmes, especially from Bertelsmann. It is doublespeak for "rock and roll spoken here". Teens think jeans, tee-shirts, shorts, and ragged looks are appropriate for church. The kids love the idea that the message doesn't matter, and only the beat matters. This means if the song has a good beat, regardless of message or no message, do it. Not a good thing.

It seems now the adage is get the new album from Chris Tomlin or the next hot "worship leader", then get the guitar tablatures, and play the songs the next Sunday. It turns church into a Top 40 radio station, and more adults are growing concerned of this. Too many have sold out to the virtues of MTV. I can't stand it. I am not 18. (For more on the effects of this kind of music, check out this article.)

8. A piece you're currently listening to or performing.
I am working on an art song, "Ein juengling liebt ein maedchen" and enjoying my first foray into German.

9. A piece you've been meaning to listen to or perform.
Handel's Messiah.

10. A CD you've bought but haven't yet listened to.
I haven't purchased a new CD that has not been listened, but I would like to get the Ohio Lyric Opera CD's which included Jami Rhodes. Jami is my teacher's friend, they did a recital in their last week of grad school, and they are friends to the point she helped me in my informal recital at my teacher's home.

As for passing it on, anyone care to add their own choices?

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Carmen, Miranda-ize her

By Judith

The last time I reviewed a Minnesota Orchestra performance of a concert-version of an opera, I'd had the advantage of being able to compare it to the Minnesota Opera fully-staged performance of the same work (Tosca). This time, the performance will have to stand or fall on its own, as I missed the Opera's offering of Carmen in April 2005.

And stand on its own it can. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra had better watch out - the Minnesota Orchestra is turning into one fine opera orchestra. And the way the Minnesota Opera has done so much "minimalist" staging recently, this partially-staged performance rivals their fully-staged ones.

Bizet's gypsy Carmen is a women dead-set on living life on her own terms. While seeming to be strong and self-assured, one wonders whether her flirting and flitting from one man to the next hides a deep insecurity and fear of being hurt. At any rate, she is a complicated character and it takes a talented actress to keep her from being a caricature. Angela Horn is such an actress. An attractive woman, Miss Horn is a believable temptress - and a mighty fine castanet player, too. The voice, however, was not up to her other attributes, often getting lost in the lower register when competing with the orchestra or other voices. Her upper register was strong and clear and not a bit strained.

As the bullfighter Escamillo, Stephen Powell was a loveable ham. A rich voice and a slightly over-the-top arrogance made him a perfect toreador. His entourage, carrying clipboards and wearing Ray-Bans, fawned on him and kept the groupies and autograph-seekers at bay. Bullfighter as rock star. Marvelous.

Jennifer Baldwin Peden played the teen-aged Micaela, dutiful and faithful to the errant Don Jose. Miss Peden's voice was high and thin like a cirrus cloud and conveyed the sweetness and innocence of the character. This might have been a deliberate production and the voice may have more meat to it in other roles.

The highlight of the evening was Roy Cornelius Smith as Don Jose. And, indeed, his reception at the curtain calls was louder and warmer than anyone else's, although each singer enjoyed a heart-felt ovation. Mr. Smith was a short-notice substitution for the ailing Gordon Gietz. In the first half of Act 1, his voice was a little ragged, as though he had not had sufficient warm-up time. As the opera went on, his voice became stronger until, in the last scene of the last act, it sounded as though he had the strength to easily sing the opera over again.

While Carmen and her friends are drinking at the Lillas Pastia tavern in Act 2, a group of dancers entertains them, a ballet being an almost "must" in opera of the day. Penelope Freeh and her troup of dancers were spirited and talented, remarkably being able to pull off their moves in only a small section of the stage.

The always impressive Minnesota Chorale kicked off their shoes - literaly for the women - and came down from the back of the stage to be characters in the play. Singing without music in their staged portions (although using music when they weren't) they added to the general impression that we were seeing a staged instead of a concert performance. A comparison here to the Tosca performance in May 2006: none of the singers in Carmen used music while all the singers carried music folders with them throughout Tosca, although only occasionally refering to them.

Andrew Litton, a talented conductor and music director did it all this year: conducted orchestral concerts, performed as a soloist and ensemble player and pulled off an ambitious and challenging concert opera performance. Let's hope that the Minnesota Orchestra will perform more opera - during the regular season and during Sommerfest - in coming years.

Friday, August 4, 2006

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, R.I.P.

The famed soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf died yesterday at the age of 90. The AP obit called her "one of the great voices of the 20th Century," which is like referring to DiMaggio as one of the great ballplayers of the 20th Century - accurate, but hardly telling the entire story.

She was compared to Callas, although as Terry Teachout points out, there were critics who saw her as fussy and mannered (a judgement with which he concurs). As the picture on the left verifies, she was indeed "a great beauty," which reminds one of Jay Nordlinger's story about taking a friend to see Schwarzkopf perform. Upon seeing the singer on stage for the first time, the friend gasped, "You mean she sings, too?"

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was one of those starts whom even non-operagoes had heard of. She came from a time when opera singers were popular stars on radio and television, when the LP had made possible the communication of opera to a much wider audience than the concert hall. As My Favorite Intermissions and others have put it, it seems another sign of the end of an era, the era in which classical music stars were really stars, part of pop culture. In the last two or three years we've seen the deaths of Franco Corelli, Renata Tebaldi, Victoria de los Angeles, Birgit Nilsson and Anna Moffo, among others. Sure, there's Domingo and Pavarotti, Sills, Sutherland and Peters (and Risë Stevens, for those of us who have long memories and saw Going My Way), and Fleming and Bocelli (!) are probably the best-known to those who don't watch PBS, but who will we be mourining fifty years from now?

Ah, but then there was that Nazi thing (her death, ironically, bookends a week which began with the Mel Gibson furor), and in this case it's hard to avoid the labeling since she actually was a card-carrying member of the Party. ("Everybody at the opera joined," Tim Page's obit quotes her as telling the New York Times. "We thought nothing of it. We just did it.") Perhaps if she had been more forthcoming with the revelation it wouldn't have created as much of a furor, but unfortunately Oprah wasn't as big back then. (She was probably the victim of bad PR as well; one wonders if she wouldn't have been more readily forgiven had it turned out she been a member of, say, the Communist Party...)

Add to that how styles had changed over the years, and those charges of fussiness were what took hold and stayed there. One could still admire some of her recordings from the past, but one doubts she'll be remembered with the same affection that, say, Nilsson or Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson were on their passings. But you dismiss her legacy at your own risk. She was most memorable in her interpretations of Mozart and Stauss, Wagner, Beethoven and Wolf, and Prima la musica has a nice appreciation of her career.

Doubtless Teachout is right when he says that her Nazi past hangs over her, and always will. Yet, as he points out, it is possible to appreciate the art without necessarily admiring the artist. We can condemn Wagner the man and still thrill to his music. (Or some of us, anyway.) There is always something of the artist in the art (or should be, at any rate), but the truly great artists always attempted creations that would live apart from them. It is up to us as the audience to judge how successful they are.

As An Unamplified Voice puts it, "She was neither the last, nor the greatest, but she was for a while the most praised. That is something." It is indeed, and as far as it goes perhaps that's enough.

UPDATE: As Ray reminds us in an email, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's nephew is none other than General Norman Schwarzkopf, the brilliant leader of the Allied military forces in the first Gulf War. What might history be like if Schwarzkopf had been allowed to go into Baghdad right then and there? One can only wonder.
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