Monday, October 30, 2006

Bobby's Reflections

By Bobby

I looked at an old column of Mitchell's last week and reflected on the following comments about the state of opera in America, or at least up there in Minnesota :

"Or take Menotti's The Consul, the story of a woman trying to get a passport to escape a totalitarian country. This would seem right up the alley for a company that likes 'message' operas. (And, in fact, the MO [Minnesota Opera] did do The Consul - back in 1979.) You might ask yourself why the MO doesn't revive it? Maybe they can't figure out a way to suggest to the audience that George W. Bush is the leader of Menotti's totalitarian state, I don't know. My point here is that to bring Menotti back (and several opera commentators have mentioned that the time is ripe for a revival of Menotti) It would show something that the MO doesn't often exhibit - creativity. They like to think they do, what with their new, provocative productions - but new doesn't equal creative."

Being someone who was very new into opera at the time (only my third opera attended, and I was 27!), I have always associated The Consul with the Facists or Nazis of World War II. It seemed that was how I saw it because of the time it was written, having a history degree from college.

Unfortunately, in a strange way, what happened has been drilled deep in my brain. A few months later, after my alma mater was trashed in a football game against its rival, I said I was seriously considering suicide, and the next morning at church, I collapsed in the same way as Magda did in the end of Act II, in the room while awaiting everyone else to come from their early rock service. All of it was a joke, and today, if I'm angry, I'll say I am this mad that I'm taking my own life, and then say like Magda Sorel, explaining the humourous line because of the nature of Magda.

Of course, the "punch line" is the lady who played Magda in the performance in question has always known the joke when I say it. (My voice teacher!)

As someone whose parents and grandparents escaped from China to Taiwan in the late 1940's, I can associate it with people escaping from a Communist nation. But after studying facism and the National Socialist Workers' Party of Germany in World War II, I can also associate with those nations.

(As an aside: My voice teacher called me the Monday before The Consul, saying, "Bobby, I need to postpone our (final) voice lesson (of the session). I have to do this scene." After watching Magda's suicide scene, I could understand. Just 21 months previously, she lost her mother to suicide. This was intended to be my last voice lesson with her, as she took a position after graduation in a college in Winter Park, Florida. After signing a deal with her friend for a year, I didn't know what my future vocally would be. Somehow, the homesickness for the palmetto trees erupted during appearances at an opera contest and when her graduate school professor retired, she told her closest confidants -- including myself -- that she was returning to her beloved Palmetto home. Of course, when that was announced, I inked a new deal.)

Friday, October 20, 2006

October Surprise

By Judith

This has been a November kind of October. Gray skies, blustery winds, snow showers and temps a good 12 - 15 degrees below normal. Whenever the sun does pop out, it tires quickly and soon fades away. I'm ready to start stuffing the turkey now.

We are entering that limbo-time of year between peak color and Christmas lights. The trees have few, if any leaves; the prairie grasses are tossed in the breeze, shushing everyone who passes; and the vestiges of summer blooms are dried and brown. The mums are huddled together, still putting on a bright front, knowing that they'll never make it past the next hard frost.

And then, to add insult to injury, just before Halloween, we pull the plug on daylight. Suddenly, we get up in the dark, spend most of the day indoors, and go home in the dark. Our souls cry out for light. It’s as though we experience a physical kind of Advent before we come to the spiritual one.

And what do I do? Leave a wake-up call for May.

Callas Part II

By Hadleyblogger Drew

Here's the second half of that video I promised of Callas' Covent Garden performance of Tosca. (And by the way, thanks to Terry Teachout for leading us to these clips.) This picks up where the previous clip ended. Tosca has just sung her famed aria, Vissi d'arte. Now, acquiescing to the demands of Scarpia (the great Tito Gobbi), she agrees to a night of passion in return for the relesase of her lover, Cavaradossi. However, somewhere along the line Tosca changes her mind. She picks up a letter opener and plunges it into Scarpia, killing him, before stealing the pardon for Cavaradossi and escaping into the night. Only to return to the cheers and adulation of the crowd.

Tosca was, as I recall, Callas' debut at Covent Garden, and no doubt the great anticipation has something to do with the tumultuous response of the audience. However, as I suggested earlier, there can be no doubt that this scene sizzles with drama. Callas and Gobbi are old hands at this thing, and it shows.

There is some question, at least recently, as to what was going through Tosca's mind during the early part of this scene. When the Minnesota Opera staged Tosca last year, the director cleverly [sic] had Tosca pick up the murder weapon much earlier, concealing it until the ooportunity arose. This clearly suggests a premeditation I don't think the text warrarnts. Look at the horror in Callas' reaction to what she's done - the confusion (only somewhat caused by Callas' own nearsightedness), the revulsion (my God, what have I done?), the realization that nothing's going to be the same again (you know this opera isn't going to have a happy ending). And the calculation as well - she may be horrified, but she remembers to grab the pardon from Scarpia's dead body before she leaves.

No, I don't really buy the idea of premeditation; it's just one more gimmick to try and put a unique stamp on an operal that doesn't really need anyone fiddling with it. What you see in this scene is drama from two great actors, and that's what makes it one of the great scenes in opera.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

From the Bookshelf

By Judith

Ok, so on Monday I donated 3 bags of books and videos to the Dakota County Wescott Library's semi-annual sale and today I went to the sale and came home with 1 bag. I guess you can call that progress. But it's such a good deal - $1.00 for hardcovers, .50 for paperbacks. Who can resist? And at least I didn't buy anything I had donated. (The sale continues through Sunday for those of you in the Twin Cities area who are interested in checking it out.)

I started off in the biography section and scored with autobiographies of Art Linkletter (yes, he's still alive - over 90 and probably in better shape than I'll ever be) and Peter O'Toole (who looks over 90 even though he's only in his early 70s), along with a biography of St. Thomas More (who knows how he looks since he's been dead for 500 years). Then it was on to the mystery section where I found a book of short stories by Erle Stanley Gardner, which includes the only Perry Mason short story he wrote (all the others being full-length novels).

In the general non-fiction section I found something for Mitchell - The Encyclopedia of US Spacecraft (produced in cooperation with NASA, no less). This will complement nicely the other 30 or so books and magazines he has about space exploration.

But, the best for last - a 1931 edition of Poems for Enjoyment, edited by Elias Lieberman, principal of Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. Apparently, editing books of poetry was not an unusual thing for a high school principal to do in that era because I remember seeing other such books in a used book store in Northfield this summer. This particular volume had a life in the Curriculum Library of the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee before it started showing up in used book sales. Imagine - a university (or a high school) where they actually taught poetry in an English literature class.

The book is divided into sections such as lyric poetry, narrative verse, sonnets and French verse forms. Also included in this gem is a section of "further reading" recommendations, in case you find a favorite and want to read a whole book of his or her verse. And finally there's a section of "Aids to Interpretation" that not only offers suggestions on what the poem might mean, but asks questions so you'll learn how to think about a poem on your own.

I love these older anthologies because they don't just choose the most popular poems, but get into the "deeper cuts." They don't dumb-down the offerings because they assume that one has been exposed to poetry in school and in life.

I hope that Poems for Enjoyment will deliver not only enjoyment, but inspiration as well.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Callas at Covent Garden

By Hadleyblogger Drew

Well, it doesn't seem as if anybody else is putting anything up, so here's a little Callas for you, in one of her signature roles, Tosca. These clips are from her 1964 Covent Garden performance with the incomparable Tito Gobbi as the villanous Scarpia:

It was said that Callas didn't much like the character of Floria Tosca, whom she thought of as a "weak girl." Here, as her lover Cavaradossi is being tortured by Scarpia's henchmen, she sings one of the most famous arias in opera, Vissi d'arte. "Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore" – “I lived on art, I lived on love." In other words, it's all about poor me - what did I do in life to deserve this? Forget Cavaradossi - what about me?

(This isn't entirely fair, of course - Scarpia's blackmailing Tosca, claiming that he'll release Cavaradossi in return for one night of passion. I'd probably be inclined to wonder what I did to deserve this, myself.) Tosca goes on to kill Scarpia (in a clip I'll put up later on), and after a desperate attempt to save Cavaradossi's life fails, she commits suicide in despair. I trust I haven't ruined the ending for you.

Reading the YouTube comments on this is almost laughable. Everyone has an opinion on Callas (some of them quite insightful, actually), and a venomous attitude toward anyone who disagrees with that opinion (which doesn't really add much insight at all). What a lot of people forget is that opera is theater, not just music, and theater isn't always about the finest technical performance. It's about the experience. As for me, I don't pretend to be an expert, but I know what I like. Callas may be past her singing peak at this point but she can still bring it, and the drama of this scene with her old partner Gobbi - the experience, if you will - is thrilling.

I've heard the arguments about opera being dull, preposterous, difficult to follow, you name it. There's a lot to those arguments. But I'll defy you to feel that way after seeing Callas' anguish in this performance.

Friday, October 6, 2006

The Role of Hate

By Mitchell

One of the more interesting issues raised by the Amish killings this week is the proper role of anger (or, more precisely, hatred) when reacting to this horror, as illustrated in a fascinating exchange in NRO's The Corner. Unfortunately, I think this is something that raises more questions than answers, so don't expect much in the way of definitive conclusions from me.

It actually begins outside The Corner, with Rod Dreher's post about the now-famous grandfather of one of the victims, urging others "not to hate" the killer. Dreher describes himself as one who is not at the level of forgiveness exhibited by the grandfather but, "Please God, make me into the sort of man who could."

NRO's John Podhoretz picks up on this and starts the discussion. Podhoretz is a self-described "moderately observant Jew," which I note not as some kind of neocon jag (this isn't The Wanderer or New Oxford Review, after all) but as a background to the moral footing from which he comes. Podhoretz notes that while

I can certainly see the beauty and the moral seriousness that would follow from attempting to hew as closely as possible to Christ's example of unconditional love and forgiveness. All the same, this story disturbs me deeply — because there can be no question that anger can be as righteous as forgiveness. I'm not sure I would want to be someone who succeeded in rising above hatred of those who murder children.

I suspect this is a comment that most of us can identify with. Like Dreher, we fall short of such an elevated level of forgiveness, and like Podhoretz we share a concern as to whether we really should aspire to that level. So, agree with Podhoretz or not, we know where he's coming from.

John Derbyshire next chimes in on the discussion:

Back in the Bronze Age, when folk knew what was what, Hate—personified as the goddess Eris (after whom we have just named a new Solar System object)—played a key role in civilizational survival. . . Christian meekness certainly has its place in human affairs. So does Homeric ferocity.

As Derb elicidates in a further post, he does not mean to suggest that we should emulate everything from the Bronze Age (female slavery, for example). But, he adds, "I do believe it is foolish to attempt to deny essential human nature, of which the propensity to hate those who wrong us is an invariant component, today just as much as in the Bronze Age." And he concludes, in what I think is the most relevant sentence in the discussion,

A civilization that can't summon up some pretty widespread hatred for a man who lines up little girs and shoots them in their heads, after having been foiled in an attempt to molest them, is a civilization with a spring broken somewhere.

No question that hatred has been around for a long time, and is an essential part of human nature. But did Christ come to us to transcend those motivations which drove us in the past, and in the process to transform us from our baser human nature to a higher level of understanding and love? You could get a headache just thinking it over.

Some of Derb's loyal readers did think it over, and came up with more compelling thoughts. One, citing Piper's The Four Cardinal Virtues, offers this analysis:

You will find, under 'Temperance,' a discussion of The Power Of Wrath. It focuses on, among other things, a question that Aquinas asks in De Malo (On Evil) 'whether all wrath is evil?' Later on, Pieper continues: 'Lack of sensuality is not chastity; and incapacity for wrath has nothing to do with gentleness. Such incapacity not only is not a virtue, but, as St Thomas says, a fault: peccatum and vitium. ... Only the combination of the intemperateness of lustfulness with the lazy inertia incapable of generating anger is the sign of complete and virtually hopeless degeneration. It appears whenever a caste, a people, or a whole civilization is ripe for its decline and

Podhoretz returns to the discussion with a link to a thoughtful story from First Things by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, on the different ways in which Christians and Jews view the role of hatred. Soloveichik, in recounting the story of Saul's hesitation in killing Agag, looks at the mischief performed by Agag, and sees in it a lesson similar to that noted by Derb's correspondent:

The message is that hate allows us to keep our guard up, to protect us. When we are facing those who seek nothing but our destruction, our hate reminds us who we are dealing with. When hate is appropriate, then it is not only virtuous, but essential for Jewish well–being.

Rabbi Soloveichik may be referring specifically to the survival of Israel in the Middle East tinderbox, but certainly in its broader sense he poses a question we all have to deal with, the same one that Podhoretz raises: what is the role of hate?

We dismiss the idea of vengeance as a suitable motivation for our actions (unless, of course, you're Mickey Spillane.) Indeed, those who defend capital punishment (as I do) often take pains to emphasize that the vengeance sought is not a desire to "settle the score" with the condemned on a personal level, but rather to express the collective outrage of the society toward the reprehensible actions which the condemned has taken. In doing so, we return once again to the concept of righteous anger, as a good and proper motivation for the actions of the state. It emphasizes the idea that intent is a key part of the discussion - that we must avoid the idea of the right action being taken for the wrong reason. Life often insists that we do things which we may find distasteful or unpleasant, but that when we do so our motives, as always, must be pure.

It has been argued, from the pulpit and elsewhere, that the Christian duty to forgive is tempered somewhat by the need for the accused to seek forgiveness. Such forgiveness, when accompanied by true contrition and remorse, demands our forgiveness as a just and proper response. But what happens when, as is the case in the Amish killings (and in so many other cases in our modern world) those conditions are not met? Soloveichik cites C.S. Lewis, who "detested" the idea that one could be eternally damned, "yet anyone who refuses to submit to salvation cannot ultimately be saved." Therefore, is our granting of forgiveness to one who does not seek it a sign of true charity, or a mocking of God's laws? And if it be the later, than what are we to do?

Maybe the closest thing we can come to in the form of an answer to these questions lies in another of the comments from the Amish community. In one of Get Religion's many fine pieces on the story, Mollie quotes a carpenter who offered, for my money, the most touching quote of the week: “I wish someone could have helped him out, poor soul. It’s obvious that something was troubling him.”

In his article, Rabbi Soloveichik returns to a quote from C.S. Lewis: “Christian charity,” he stresses, “counsels us to make every effort for the conversion of such a man: to prefer his conversion, at the peril of our own lives, perhaps of our own souls, to his punishment; to prefer it infinitely.” While we acknowledge the existence of Hell, we pray that all might be spared, even those for whom Hell appears a certainty.

In His last moments on the Cross, Christ forgave the Good Thief; He did not, however, spare his mortal life. The punishment, the thief noted, was a just one. And so perhaps hatred and vengeance are the wrong words to use after all, for they imply something eternal, unchangeable, irredeemible. Maybe anger was the right word, for in our righteous anger can be a just emotion, a display of God's justice and laws, much as the anger Christ displayed toward the moneychangers in the Temple. As the maxim goes, hate the sin, love the sinner. Our anger over the sinner's actions unites with our love for the sinner in a prayer for the sinner's repentance and redemption. And so we pray for the strength to forgive those who seek it; we pray for the conversation and salvation of the wicked; we pray for the fortitude to confront evil in a moral and just way. For us, prayer is the only answer to an issue that appears to offer only questions. If we're willing to accept it, most likely, it is enough.

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