Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Let's start the new year right!

And I can't think of anyone better (looking) to put it into words than the lovely McGuire Sisters.  See you next year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Christmastide (Day 7) - Where is the Christ Child?

We cross the halfway point of Christmastide, with Epiphany coming the first Monday of the new year, and after that we start Ordinary Time until the Lenten season.  But as we reach Day Seven Wednesday, the last day of the year, I ask if we have lost the meaning of Christmas.

This Advent season (remember Advent is the four Sundays before Christmas, and Christmastide is Christmas to Epiphany), as I visited the stores, save for the religious stores and Hobby Lobby, it seemed that the decorations I saw on sale at stores and posted everywhere were promoting winter days that does not sound appropriate, considering the next Summer Olympics will take place in the winter (Rio is south of the Equator), and it's also summer for the INDYCAR champion (Australian).  The other type of decoration we are seeing at the stores is the old-fashioned obese man in a red outfit (you should have seen how two companies that I am a shareholder decided to slim him down for their marketing campaign) or the related reindeer from a 1960's television special always airing during this time of the year that later infuriated me when the Made in China winter holiday cards based on it were being sold at the Post Office, while I purchased Indiana-made Christmas cards from Abbey Press this year.  Why does everything have to be dreaming of snow and winter, as was the case of many years ago with movies?

The schools are saying “winter holiday,” and many stores are saying “holidays” with nary a reference to the child in the manger.  The signs of Joseph, Mary, the baby, the shepherds, the animals, and the magi are are few and far between.  (And don't raise the right hand in a toast when the last line is sung in “Away in a Manger,” which can be a problem if the Spilman tune is used!)  And after listening to “The Many Moods of Christmas,” I learned a song that has been very popular for Christmas isn't even theologically correct, it was written during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I appreciated the Catalan music and other music that had the message of the Child that we long forgot.  The numerous songs listed on the ASCAP Top 30 list were mainly winter songs, and sacred song has long been ignored.  Why is Mariah Carey better rewarded than Mark Lowry, though both are 1990's songs (although Pentatonix had a version of Mark's song that, well . . . )?

Meanwhile, television has vastly ignored the Christ child.  Whereas you could have seen coverage of live choral performances of masterpieces that promote the Christ Child 50 years ago, as we've learned, the sacred masterpieces are gone, shed to the scrapheap while specials from the latest pop stars are everywhere.  Live sing-along Messiahs and Lessons and Carols are more virtuous than the specials that are there today.

Just ponder the question:  Why have we become so ignorant of the Child whose birth we celebrate throughout this twelve day season?  Has popular culture shown they are out of touch with the heartland again?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Some more Christmastide humour

Craig Courtney's "A Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas" first came to my attention when Voices in Harmony (the South Carolina public radio programme featuring choral music, whose future is uncertain with the host's departure from state public radio -- she and I sang in a few Summer Choruses together) played it on their Christmas episode.

See if you can catch the references to classical music's masterpieces in this whimsical piece that is only fitting for the season (which, remember, goes into the new year).

Friday, December 26, 2014

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

It's Christmastide

We've referenced in the past, and we'll do it again before we head to our Houses of Worship tonight, with many at 2300 hours awaiting services awaiting the arrival of the Saviour, that this is the start of the Christmas season, not the end, as popular culture would want you to think.

There are four Advent Sundays, the four Sundays leading to Christmas itself.  Then, of course, we have Christmastide, which is the entire twelve days that lead to the Epiphany (which is referenced via Matthew 2).  Our observance of Christmas begins tonight, and will continue into January 5.

As we change from Advent to Christmastide, we look at the words of a Christmas classic from John Francis Wade:

Venite adoremus, Dominum.

As we conclude this Christmas thought hours beforehand, let us read again Luke 2, and the verses that reference the Birth of the Saviour.

1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Nero Wolfe on curiosity

I don't thank you for coming," [Wolfe] said. "I'm not disposed to thank you for anything. I have reason to believe that you are withholding information that would be of value. Indeed, I think you have lied. Don't bother to deny it. I tell you that only to establish the temper of the conversation. I'll be trying to find support for my opinion. What will you be doing?"

She would be staring. She was staring. "I know what I ought to be doing," she said. "Leaving. I ought to be on my way out."

"But you're not. You wouldn't, even if I'm wrong, because you want to know why. That's what makes us the unique animal, we want to know why and try to find out. We even try to discover why we want to know why, though of course we never will."

- Rex Stout, Please Pass the Guilt

Originally published January 11, 2012

Monday, December 15, 2014

A case of the demise of "religious" radio

The Terri Schiavo case, ten years later, has back in the news locally in South Carolina as part of an analysis of a recent announcement.  The announcement by a radio conglomerate that they were purchasing the local "religious' radio station and flipping it to their California-based commercial format with programming coming from the Golden State had me looking at the Schiavo case because of how that station's downturn was easily seen in my (soon to be) 18 years with the local Pro-Life Weekend (dinner and March for Life, scheduled for January 9-10).

In the early 2000's, the station had started its changeover, when the station ceased its media participation in the March for Life (the dinner was added in the past four years) as they were missing from media row.  They also eliminated news on the hour, and eliminated Biblical expository teachings from notable ministers such as Tony Evans (editor of the current quarter of the SBC's Explore the Bible and who spoke in our state against the massive expansion of the state government by adding a state-run numbers racket), Adrian Rogers (a legendary Memphis pastor, now deceased;  a Fox News personality recently filmed his Christmas show from his church), and current events programming such as Focus on the Family and educational radio programming Adventures in Odyssey.

The Focus on the Family issue broke out in the mid-1990's, but the controversy began when they began to discuss more current events from a Biblical worldview, and that included having their host leave the show after he confessed to an extramarital affair, and was replaced by legendary sportscaster Gary Bender for a few months.  When the show began discussing Roy Moore, the Alabama Supreme Court chief justice whose Decalogue from Exodus 20 in his office and even one outside the Supreme Court of the state infuriated the Humanist Elites, and Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman whose husband wanted to kill her in order to marry another woman (as we now know, cruelly on March for Life 2006, and was mocked by Seth McFarlane with a raunchy segment on his cartoons), the alleged "Christian" station had enough and purged the shows.  The station manager mentioned the audience for the station was 25-44 women who are mothers and rarely attend church, with Top 40-based music being the basis.  This pattern has arrived in modern churches, where many churches have turned into Life Enhancement Centres where the same emotional Top 40 fluff is played at their services as is heard on such radio stations.  The station's push for a lazy listenership where promoting rock concerts became the only thing that mattered it seemed created this mess.  This even was the subject of a 2003 WND article that was cited as stations began this push towards all entertainment, no preaching, teaching, or information.  Would a religious radio station get away with that now?

And now it has come full circle with the sale of that station to a commercial chain group.  Rush Limbaugh warns of "low information voters".  Modern radio's focus on low information listeners is troubling, and this is the result.  A station's demise started when they did not want to participate in Sanctity of Human Life programming in light of the Schiavo case has led to its demise.


"Focus on the Family Too Political," WND, 18 December 2003.

"Issues, Etc.," Lutheran Public Radio, 20 August 2014.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mockery of faith

The time-honoured tradition of sporting events, especially in the Deep South with its solid Biblical roots, opening with a prayer is regarded as mandatory before the event, a moment to pause to the Creator for what He has blessed the land and to protect the competitors.  Pocono Raceway began offering chapel (Protestant) and mass (Catholic) services for competitors since 1971, when Mario Andretti discussed the issue with Rose Mattioli, the matriarch of Pocono.  Since 1974, the Indianapolis 500 has done such, with the Archdiocese of Indianapolis having the honours annually save a few exceptions (Oral Roberts and Billy Graham).  Since 2001, all regular-time starts (not accelerated because of weather) in NASCAR have started (after the pregame show) with the minister's invocation.

And sometimes, thanks to a few ministers who forget the solemnity of the occasion (as we've seen in Gladeville, TN during an Xfinity race that was the final one for that circuit), and even in popular culture, it has been mocked.  And Joe Saward, of all people, entered the mockery of prayer services at sporting events in a recent discussion. In August, Dorna, which organises MotoGP television broadcasts, yanked the audio from the public address system at Indianapolis when the minister's invocation was happening, much to the ire of Fox Sports 1, which understands the lay of domestic broadcasts is to include the minister's invocation, which has been time honoured at the Brickyard for 41 seasons.  During the Formula One race in Austin, Leigh Diffey made the standardised motorsport protocol of "Let's go trackside for the opening ceremony," and the broadcast went to the National Anthem from a Got Talent winner (either Got Talent or The Voice of Holland winners perform, a request of NBC).  No invocation.

If it isn't clear that the roots of the United States are deeply embedded in a belief in God from the days of the Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers, it was clearly evident in how mocked that faith is to others.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Flashback Friday: Public Radio returns to its roots

Local NPR Radio Station Announces New "All Membership Drive, All the Time" Format

(Pocatello , Idaho) -- KSPD, Idaho 's largest public radio station, announced yesterday that it is moving to a new "all membership drive, all the time" format as of March 1st.

Station Manager Philip T. Lucre announced the new format is in response to recent audience analysis. "Our rating figures show that people love membership drives," says Lucre. "The drives might seem like they're boring, tedious, even numbing, but we're finding that people just keep listening. Better yet, they keep sending in money and membership pledges, and we're very happy with that."

KSPD's most recent membership effort resulted in contributions of more than $20 million to the non-profit station, which is also underwritten by major foundations, local business sponsorships, commercials, tax breaks, the sale of services and merchandise, donations from large corporations, and state and federal tax dollars from the American people. "We're not talking golden goose here," said Lucre, "but it's certainly a winning formula, bottom-line, cash-flow wise. We couldn't do what we do without our listener's support. They know we're a non-profit and that we're counting on them."

Why do people keep listening to people asking them to send in money? Lucre believes it creates a drama that people find compelling.

"Our membership drives are great entertainment," he says. "You've got the tension built up by our self-imposed goal deadlines, people wondering if we're really going to make it. You've got the stories and personal testimonies finely crafted by our public relations department. The ringing phones in the background add a certain electricity. It's really good stuff, a lot better than any music, news or intelligent conversation you used to hear on the radio."

Lucre refused to answer questions about KSPD's recent purchase of four additional radio stations in California and Arizona , or its reported majority ownership of new office buildings and a resort casino being built in Winnemucca, Nevada . "We're a large business entity, and we need to maintain solid economic resources," he did say. "And besides, whatever we do has one main goal in mind: to provide the people of Pocatello, Idaho the kind of radio programs that they love and that meet their local needs."

Originally published February 20, 2007

Monday, December 1, 2014

Gordon Lightfoot sings - er, sinks Christmas

Heard this on one of our local stations the other day, but this is the same recording, from a different station. It's true that nobody does Christmas quite like Gordon Lightfoot, right? Now that Thanksgiving is past, let the Christmas music begin!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Flashback Friday: The "triumph" of Leni Riefenstahl

Finally, Riefenstahl.

It's been so long since I started this thread that's it's difficult to recall what the point of it all was supposed to be. (And I'm glad I haven't been kicked off the blog for being so late in getting this up!)

But this whole discussion started with the death of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf last month. As was mentioned back then, virtually every obit of the great opera star mentioned her past association with the Nazi party in WW2 Germany. And I supposed it's a natural segueway, once you've talked about Schwarzkopf, to look at the lives of two other prominent German artists: Leni Riefenstahl and Richard Wagner. (Günter Grass doesn't really count, since he wasn't part of my original plan and, anyway, I've already talked about him enough.)

And in looking at their lives, we continue to be drawn to the central question of the discussion: what is the relationship between the artist and the art? As Roger Ebert has noted, it raises the “classic question of the contest between art and morality: Is there such a thing as pure art, or does all art make a political statement?"

Leni Riefenstahl was one of the great film documentarians of the 20th century. From Wikipedia: (I'll quote liberally here, since I have no desire to get this blog tied up in a plagerism accusation:

Riefenstahl's techniques, such as moving cameras, the use of telephoto lenses to create a distorted perspective, aerial photography, and revolutionary approach to the use of music and cinematography, have earned Triumph recognition as one of the greatest propaganda films in history. [...] The film was popular in the Third Reich and elsewhere, and has continued to influence movies, documentaries, and commercials to this day, even as it raises the question over the dividing line between "art and morality."

But, as you might have gathered from the above paragraph, there’s that Nazi thing again. Of all Riefenstahl's documentaries, none is perhaps as famous - and infamous - as Triumph of the Will. It is a magnificent, terrible film of a horrible story - the Nazis and their Nuremberg rallies during the '30s. And in telling that horrible story, it also ensured that filmmaking would never be the same again.

Film historians have seen Riefenstahl's influence in movies ever since. Star Wars, Citizen Kane, Gladiator, Lord of the Rings - all bear the marks of Riefenstahl's style. The famous opening scene of Triumph, in which the camera moves through the clouds to capture an aerial shot of the city of Nuremberg (to the music of Wagner, naturally) must have influenced Wim Wenders' opening of Wings of Desire. The sports documentarian Bud Greenspan, one of the finest filmmakers of the 20th century (Ken Burns could take a chapter from him), considers her one of the greats.

It's an assertion few would dispute, in the academic sense. But can’t you detect just the smallest bit of embarrassment whenever one praises the work of Riefenstahl? True, Triumph of the Will is a staple of many “best all-time” lists, but there’s this sense that even when we praise Riefenstahl, we must immediately apologize or explain away the praise, lest we fall under guilt-by-association. The closer we get to her work, the more we edge away from it. It’s not likely you’d hear Seinfeld emerge from the theatre saying, “It’s about Nazis! Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” (Warning: Do not insert any Soup Nazi jokes here.)

No, you’ll never hear anyone say there’s nothing wrong with being a Nazi. In our time the Nazi brand is, as I've said before, the Scarlet Swastika, an accusation so accursed that its use has become widespread, indiscriminate, a self-parody. And yet it is a charge that carries power, a negative sort of prestige, a stigma that taints whatever it touches. And we ask ourselves if we should be ashamed by our admiration and praise of the artist’s work, if we can morally separate the ideology of the artist from the art itself.

Riefenstahl’s work does not allow us that luxury. The subject matter of Triumph of the Will is in your face, and you can't ignore it. As the Wikipedia bio puts it, "it is nearly impossible to separate the subject from the artist behind it." She “claimed that she was naïve about the Nazis when she made it and had no knowledge of Hitler's genocidal policies. She also pointed out that Triumph contains ‘not one single anti-Semitic word’“; but it is difficult (although not impossible) to conceive of her as both ingénue and naïve girl, the brilliant and innovative filmmaker who was still a babe in the woods when it came to world politics. This is what she would have liked you to believe, but her actions often belie that contention. Roger Ebert points out, "the very absence of anti-Semitism in Triumph of the Will looks like a calculation; excluding the central motif of almost all of Hitler's public speeches must have been a deliberate decision to make the film more efficient as propaganda." And so, given all this, we’re tempted to see in her films things that aren’t really there, images that dance before us like the ghosts from black & white TV. Only these are real, the ghosts of Hitler’s victims that only become clearer as the picture is drawn into sharper focus.

Therefore, as viewers do we punish the filmmaker because of the subject of her films? Do we hold Riefenstahl accountable for her Nazi associations? And if so, do we also apply the same standards to Sergei Eisenstein, who exploited Russian nationalistic pride in Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky? (Yes, I know Eisenstein had his quarrels with the authorities, but large families often do that.) Eisenstein is often ranked in the pantheon of filmmaking, Potemkin appearing on most ten-best lists, but I rarely see him carrying around the baggage that accompanies Riefenstahl. And we won't even get into the almost-paranoid, conspiracy-laden propaganda of liberal filmmakers like Oliver Stone?

Now, it's true that Eisenstein wasn't a documentarian as was Riefenstahl. Nonetheless, his movies were fraught with nationalistic fervor, clearly designed to influence and inspire the viewer. (The Communists, in fact, thought Eisenstein worried too much about things like art and budgeting, and wanted even more propaganda in the content.) As for Stone - well, we know most of his films have an agenda.

Some like to pair up Triumph of the Will with Frank Capra’s direct answer to them, the Why We Fight series of films. (And, by the way, given how anti-American Hollywood has become, it would have been interesting to see how Capra's reputation might have suffered had he been young enough when he made this series. Surely in the Hollywood of the late 60s through today, he would have been seen as a toady for the government.)

In fact, however, the true companion to Riefenstahl’s masterwork might be D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. This truly was a landmark of filmmaking, but most today remember it only as a racist piece of propaganda, glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. True, perhaps, but Griffith's influence, like Riefenstahl's, cannot be denied. True also that Griffith, like Riefenstahl, is held at arms' length by most.

So what's the point here? It's not an apology for Leni Riefenstahl (or D.W. Griffith, for that matter). It's merely an observation on how we allow our politics to color the way we see things. As I've asserted in the past, it is hard to believe that Riefensthal would be held in such contempt had the Triumph in question been Lenin's October Revolution.

As we watch the ridiculous accusations of Nazism that are so commonplace nowadays across the political blogosphere, and perhaps most absurdly from the Muslims who brand the Jews with the contemptuous tag, we are reminded that Nazism is the singular golden sin, the mark from which its bearers cannot recover. It is reminiscent of the "unforgivable sin" that Christ warns us of, though most of those wielding it would fail to recognize that analogy since they don't recognize the source.

National Socialism keeps us in a trance, as perhaps it should. It holds the figures of history hostage, as perhaps it might. But we do not diminish the horror of the truth it represents to assert also that the word "Nazi" is the crown jewel of political correctness, the golden spike to be driven through the heart, the one word that guarantees the discrediting of its intended. Some would wear the title as a badge of honor, an ideology to be embraced, others are shamed with a scarlet letter and their lips burn with Judas' kiss of betrayal, and still others feel the sting of its indiscriminant application.

But while Schwarzkopf shrugged off the label, and Riefenstahl tried to run from it, Richard Wagner might have welcomed it with open arms. But that's for another time.

Originally published September 18, 2006

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Turkey Day!

Yep, it's that time again, isn't it? How time flies the older you get.  But the memories never get old, and today is the start of the best five weeks or so of the year.

So on behalf of Drew, Steve and Bobby, I'd like to wish all of you the happiest and most blessed of Thanksgivings.  Enjoy the parades, the football, the turkey, and the nap afterwards.  See you back here tomorrow!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving controversies

Whew! Still frustrated over the "Ninth Circuit East" (thanks to the court packing) that overturned our state's Constitution in favour of allowing the DC area to push sin acceptance when 78% of our state didn't allow it.

And to consider there's a Stampeder secondary from Manning, just up the road via US 301 and Interstate 95, crossing Lake Marion, in Clarendon County (DB Fred Bennett), I believe there is rooting interest in my neck of the woods in the Grey Cup for Calgary, though too there is for Hamilton (DE Eric Norwood) in the area.  All the derby match talk over this weekend, then the next day is Grey Cup with interest with a popular defensive lineman!

And this before I can discuss the report on the news that too many stores are open Thanksgiving Day Thursday, with complaints that regular workers at department stores are opening on the day itself, not even a "Carrie hasn't hated herself for loving you," as I said last year, as stores are working to avoid the Krzyzewskiville effects that a close friend understands, to start sales during the day, even when many of us are running on Thanksgiving (I am pondering either a 5km or a 8km road race -- haven't made my decision as of this time, but the longer race is enticing because of a Thanksgiving day class at a fitness studio with friends).

Thanksgiving work days were originally designed for sporting goods stores because of their organising of timing and scoring for the numerous running events -- last year, 870,000 crossed finish lines for running events on Thanksgiving Day, including someone that may be very well known in Tulsa, taking show.    Many events support local charities, and as the Wall Street Journal notes, Thanksgiving has become the day for fitness, and considering I don't have an appetite after a hard run.  Twelve Turkey Trots later, I am pondering returning to a 8km race because the challenge of the short race is too easy at times, and with 16 days before a marathon, it might be better to go longer.

As for working on Thanksgiving, families are becoming busier and have less time to cook.  Many grocery stores have full delicatessens and bakeries, often producing rotisserie chickens for families to pick up after work for dinner or before work for lunch.  That, along with many families coming from long distances and stress, along with the long hours required to make Thanksgiving dinners, has them unable to have time for Thanksgiving dinners, so grocers adopted the home improvement stores' DIFM model (Do It For Me) for home improvement projects (as compared to DIY, Do It Yourself -- the terms DIY and DIFM are listed in a major home improvement chain's shareholder documents I receive annually as a shareholder) for their Thanksgiving menu options.  Grocers' business in the DIFM market has become an increasing source of revenue, and adding Thanksgiving hours for picking up DIFM dinners, department stores located next to grocers decided to open in order to take advantage of DIFM dinners being picked up by families.  Some restaurants (Bojangles' and Maurice's) have added fuel to the fire by adding DIFM meal pickups.  But it was the exploiting of the next-door grocers' DIFM dinners that led to the department stores opening earlier also.

The question I ask after watching commentary of Thanksgiving Day sales:  Has the rise of the DIFM Thanksgiving dinner market resulted in more stores opening for Thanksgiving specials in order to give those who are there to pick up the DIFM dinners at the grocer that is often next door to start shopping now, especially if the DIFM dinner is picked up Thanksgiving morning?

Opera Wednesday - Copland's The Tender Land

There are few composers more American than Aaron Copland, so on the eve of this most American holiday, here's part one of Michigan Opera Theatre's production of Copland's 1954 opera The Tender Land, conducted by the composer.  It's part one of 12, so if you like it keep following the links!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The future of religious freedom in America

I'm just catching up on things that have been sitting around for awhile, so the half-dozen or so of you who are regular readers might have already read this elsewhere, but I found it interesting.  Rod Dreher reported here on a conference regarding the future of religious freedom in the United States, sponsored by the magazine First Things.  This isn't the first time First Things has gotten into this kind of provocative discussion; many years ago, I recall them hosting a symposium on the end of democracy in America.

These discussions often seem extreme, and yet how many things that once seemed equally extreme are taken for granted today?  No, the time to discuss them is now, before they reach critical mass, but to look at them with a level head, rather than a Chicken Little sky-is-falling mentality.  Don't panic - but on the other hand, don't poo-poo it either.

Anyway, Dreher links back to a past article asking whether or not Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally irreconcilable.  It's a discomforting question, one that makes you uneasy regardless of how you feel about it.  It's well worth your time reading all the articles linked to here, and thinking about your response to it.  Despite the results of the elections a couple of weeks ago, which might broadly be considered a victory for conservatism - which, though not to be equated with religious freedom, nonetheless represents an ideology perhaps less hostile to religion - I remain vaguely pessimistic about the whole thing.  We already know that the America in which I grew up is gone forever, let alone the America that our forefathers remember.  The questions remain - how far gone?  And what, in fact, does America stand for anymore?  Can you stand for it as well, or do you feel like a stranger in your own strange land?

Make no mistake that I'm still thankful for living in this country, which may well have the worst system in which to live except for all the rest, but what will the future bring for us?  And are we prepared to make a stand for our beliefs?  Who, indeed, knows?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Hamilton's big day

It was a good day in the sports world yesterday if your name was Hamilton.  It started early in the morning, when Lewis Hamilton took the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to win his second Formula 1 World Championship, and continued a few hours later when the Hamilton Tiger-Cats defeated the Montreal Alouettes to advance to the Canadian Football League's Grey Cup Championship.

It was a good day if, like me, you're a fan of somewhat marginal sporting events.  American Formula 1 fans are a small but hearty group, and the title battle between Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg seemed destined to come down to this final race - as indeed it did.  The math was simple* - if Rosberg won the race, as he was favored to do, Hamilton had to finish second to take the championship.  Anything less, and the title was Rosberg's.

*Somewhat misleading, thanks to the stupidity of awarding double points for the season's final race.  Hamilton, winner of 10 races during the year, as opposed to Rosberg's five, would have had a much larger margin of error had the points allocation been that of every other race.  It goes to show that auto racing should not be treated like coupons at a grocery store.

Truth be told, I've found the season less than enthralling.  The duel between the Mercedes drivers didn't captivate me the way it did others; the Mercs were so dominant during the course of the season that one was tempted to think of the cars as far more important than their drivers.  Mercedes clinched the constructor's championship several races ago, and there was never any real threat from other teams.  I'm not in the minority in thinking this season a disappointment, and the continuing chaos about the financial status of the sport doesn't give one much encouragement for the future; nevertheless, there was a race to be run yesterday morning, a championship to be decided.

Hamilton ran a magnificent race.  He sprinted out to the lead from the start, getting a tremendous jump over the pole-sitter Rosberg, and was never headed.  I'd thought that Hamilton's best bet would have been to avoid Rosberg, tuck into second place, and run a safe race to the end.  It still would have been a smart strategy, but it's not what Hamilton did, and I'm in no position to disagree with his dominant performance.  Rosberg ran into mechanical difficulties in the second half of the race, eventually dropping out of the top ten, and Hamilton held off a late challenge from Felipe Massa to take his 11th victory of the season, and the World Championship.

Dominant car or not, there's no doubt that Hamilton is a fabulous driver, and yesterday's race proved - if any further proof was necessary - that the best man won.


Nearing the halfway point of the CFL season, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were mired in a terrible funk, with a record of 1-6.  It wasn't quite as bad as it might seem; the entire Eastern Division was so bad that 1-6 was still enough to be in contention for first place.  As if that weren't bad enough, the Ti-Cats' new stadium, Tim Horton's Field, was behind schedule, and the team had to play its first three home games at a small college field that afforded them - nothing.

But on Labour Day, the stadium finally opened, and the 'Cats fortunes changed.  They went undefeated at Tim Horton's, winning all six of their regular season games there, and went 8-3 down the stretch, including a must-win against Montreal in the final game of the season*, to finish at 9-9.  Not that impressive, perhaps, but good enough to finish in first place, earning a first-round bye in the playoffs.  Yesterday, their opponent in the East Finals, with a spot in the Grey Cup on the line, was again Montreal.

*Had the Ti-Cats lost that final game, they would have finished at 8-10, and the Toronto Argonauts would have slipped into the final playoff position.  It was that tight.

The game was played in Hamilton, before a sold-out crowd, and although Montreal jumped out to an early lead, the feeling was that this was going to be Hamilton's day.  More specifically, it was Brandon Banks' day.  The Hamilton punt-returner had one touchdown called back because of a penalty, but it wasn't enough to stop him, as he returned two subsequent punts for touchdowns in a tremendous performance that led the Tabbies to a 40-24 victory, and a trip to Vancouver for next week's Grey Cup.

It's the second Cup appearance in a row for Hamilton, which was routed last year by Saskatchewan, in a forgettable game.  They'll be facing the Western champion Calgary Stampeders, who finished the regular season with a league-best record of 15-3, blew off Edmonton in yesterday's nightcap (43-18), and will be heavy favorites to take the Cup next Sunday.  But for us Hamilton fans who believe in signs, we have a few things going for us.  The last time the Tiger-Cats won the Grey Cup, in 1999, they were also playing in their second consecutive championship, having lost the year before.  And that 1999 game was also played in Vancouver, against the same Calgary Stampeders, who were favored to win.  The Tiger-Cats defeated them 32-21 that year - will history repeat itself this season?

After all, if yesterday tells us anything, it's that you shouldn't bet against anyone named Hamilton.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Ben Franklin's America

If you've read any of my blogs for any length of time at all, you'll know that I'm constantly - well, surprised is not the word; maybe illuminated - to see how true it is that there's nothing new under the sun. H.W. Brands' brilliant biography of Benjamin Franklin, The First American contains a very interesting quote, a passage (on page 218 of the hardvoer version) I find quite - illuminating:
Few of their children in the country learn English; they import many books from Germany. . . . The signs in our streets have inscripitons in both languages, and in some places only German. They begin of late to make all their bonds and other legal writings in their own language, which (though I think it ought not to be) are allowed good in our courts, where the German business so increases that there is continual need of interpreters; and I suppose in a few years they will also be necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our legislators what the other half says.
Now, you have to admit this is very interesting. I'm sure some will read Franklin's words and see comfort that our current immigration situation will amount to nothing. "After all," they might say, "we've always been worried about newcomers to America - even in Franklin's day. And everything's turned out all right." And I suppose there's something to that. The study of immigration in American is a fascinating one, as we see how different groups assimilated into American culture, gaining power, influence and acceptance.

But when I read this paragraph I see something else; the recognition that there actually was a distinctive American culture, even though at the time (early 1750s) America was a mere British colony. And that the Founding Fathers had, even before the founding of the country, an appreciation of that culture and a concern that it should be preserved. (And we shouldn't be surprised that Franklin would pick up on that, for in the debate about American independence he argued that "We're a new nationality . . . we require a new nation.")

With a few minor substitutions, Franklin's words could be spoken today by anyone with a mind to do so, and they'd be just as accurate. Yes, it's true we've faced this problem before - even predating American independence. But throughout the history of the country we've placed a premium on preserving that culture - enhancing it with contributions from other cultures, to be sure, but with a parallel process of assimilation. I know all the stories about German and Polish and Italian families where the native tongue was the only one spoken in the household, and where the sons and daughters became the first to learn the new language - but the point is, they learned it. There was an agreed-upon belief that it was a good thing for them to speak English, that it was essential to their chance to succeed in the "land of opportunity." I'm not sure I see a common belief in that today.

The Founders believed in a unified language, a common culture. They might be Virginians or Pennsylvanians or New Englanders, but they were also Americans. And there was something specific about being an American. Franklin was famous for saying that if we didn't hang together, we'd all hang separately. I wonder what he would think today; would he see a nation that, despite its political differences, was held together by common threads - shared language, culture, memories? Or would the vision be that of the Balkanization of America, a country being divided along cultural and ethnic lines, people with little in common and even less desire to have anything in common? We aren't hanging together anymore, it seems; but we certainly do know how to hang separately. If he could see us today, I don't think he'd be pleased.

For all his world travel, being an American was precious to Ben Franklin - even before there was an America.

More precious, apparently, than it is to many of today's leaders.

Originally published November 7, 2005

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wish I'd written that...

It was a cinch I'd be behind on all the urgent social issues of the day because I'd quit watching the news on network TV, not being a big fan of socialism, and I wasn't walking around with a pile of degrees in Communism from Berkeley and Harvard. I was just a simple patriot. And unlike your silly lefties, I wanted to see my country protected from the swarms of raving, subhuman assholes who want to kill us because they hate cheeseburgers, golf, football, soap and water, toilets that flush, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, clothing stores, and women who don't smell like donkeys.

It would also be helpful, I'd mention, if we could delaminate all the dunce-cap university professors who want to 'diversify' this and 'globalize' that, provide air-conditioned condos and SUVs for illegal aliens, healthcare and satellite dishes for armed robbers and serial killers, and can't wait to blame the United States for all the bad shit that happens in the world. They could globalize this. That was my basic message."

Dan Jenkins, Slim and None

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Remembering when the band played on

Awhile back, Terry Teachout posted a meme that, as I recall, had something to do with books that had made an immediate and lasting impact on you after you'd read them. Now, I think it's an automatic reflex that the mind starts working every time you read about that kind of list, and it didn't take me long to realize that I might have a very difficult time coming up with ten or so titles that would fit the description. It's not that I haven't read a lot of books, nor is it the case that I'd classify most of those books as forgettable.

It's just that the bar is set pretty high on this. We're not necessarily talking about favorite or best-loved books. There are many books that pack a wallop when you've just turned the final page and closed the covers; it's the rare book that lasts beyond that, causing your mind to return to it again and again. For me, a writer as well as reader, it might involve characters so memorable that I start speculating on how I'd write the continuation of their story. It could be a line or two that sticks in the mind, a line that you find yourself pulling out and using frequently. Or it could be one scene that haunts you, burns itself into your memory like a photographic negative. Whatever the case, I think a list of such books, like a list of one's closest friends, is probably quite short.*

*My own list wound up being short enough; eight titles. Maybe someday we'll discuss them all, but of course that isn't what today's piece is really about.

The point of this is to set up the video clip we're about to look at. One of the books that made my list is Psalm at Journey's End, Erik Fosnes Hansen's remarkable novel about the members of the famed band on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic. As you know, I'm something of a Titanic buff, but fictional treatments of the Titanic have rarely risen to the level of the drama of the real story.  Psalm at Journey's End is the exception, and though the characters' names and their personal stories have been fictionalized (and, in fact, the Titanic itself is merely the vehicle, so to speak, through which their stories are told), Hansen's melancholy tale tells of the passion, the triumph and tragedy of the Titanic better than any recent movie could hope to.

The moment of truth comes on the novel's last page. Folklore has long supposed that "Nearer, My God, to Thee" was the piece which the band played as the ship went down. Walter Lord's definitive A Night to Remember rejected that tradition in favor of the Episcopal hymn "Autumn." Lord based his assessment on the eyewitness testimony of wireless operator Harold Bride, who was on the ship until the very end. However, in Lord's follow-up The Night Lives On, he addressed speculation that the piece to which Bride had been referring was actually "Songe d'Automne", a popular song of the time. Lord acknowledges the plausibility, indeed the probability, that this was in fact the final piece, but he concedes that we will probably never know for sure. Other historians have other opinions, the point being that such conjecture has long been part of the lore of the Titanic, and probably always will be.

Hansen, too, has his own theory, only his is far different, and adds to the poignancy of the ship's last moments. Recalling a memory from his childhood, bandleader Jason Coward asks the other musicians to join him in Handel's Largo.  The Largo is the popular name for the aria "Ombra mai fù" from Handel's opera Serse. Not only is it the most famous aria from this seldom-performed opera, it comes right at the beginning - a real rarety. Imagine Bobby Darin starting every concert by singing "Mack the Knife" (which he did, incidentelly). Or, since we're discussing Handel, suppose he started Messiah with the "Hallelujia Chorus." Nothing like leading with your strength.

"Ombra mai fù" is a wonderfully evocative piece (although if you look at the lyrics, you'll find that it's only a song about the shade provided by a tree), and coming as it does at the end of this very sad book, telling such a sad story, it makes a powerful impact. The following is not taken from Serse; even though it comes at the beginning, you still have to get through the opening credits and the overture. There are plenty of concert versions to choose from, sung by mezzos, baritones, countertenors. I'll give you this filmed performance by Jennifer Larmore - I know, there's no apparent reason for it to have been shot in a shipyard, but in our context it seems quite appropriate.

Uploaded by Vanhacker.

Originally published July 8, 2009

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Paul Greenberg's "The Death of Opera" and art's sad turn

We have discussed here the Adams opera The Death of Klinghoffer, built around the 1985 seajacking of the Achille Lauro that lead to the death of 69-year old Leon Klinghoffer by Arafat-aligned Palestine Liberation Front terrorists.  Paul Greenberg has made serious comments about the pro-terrorist angle of the opera.

It would be right in line with our morally neutral era, with its aversion to the judgmental, its fear of taking a stand between right and wrong, good and evil.

(T)hose of us who are disgusted by its taste in this instance, and its willingness to lend itself to the most dehumanizing propaganda, have a right to speak up, too. As crowds of New Yorkers have done outside the Met. We have more than a right to speak up when evil is cosmeticized, even romanticized. We have a duty.

Mr. Greenberg's column also compared the opera to the works of pro-Fuehrer filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, and had serious words at the end that had me thinking seriously about our nation's future.

Those of us disgusted by this libretto can only echo the accusation that the opera's Marilyn Klinghoffer hurls at the captain of the Achille Lauro, who's been respectfully and even sympathetically negotiating with the murderers aboard his ship. When the ever-neutral captain must tell her that that her husband has been murdered, and his wheelchair-bound body thrown into the sea, she shrieks at him: "You embraced them!" Which is what the Metropolitan Opera now has done, too.

Art seemingly has become a propaganda piece to advance certain causes embraced by a tiny minority that few support, but they are using their platform of the stage to advance the propaganda.  It is working well in various leftist issues, whether it is cannabinoids or criminalising Christianity, or other social causes.  The Bohemians are sadly in control.  That is the a thought considering what the creator of three popular ABC dramas that air on Thursday night is promoting.  It's everywhere on HBO, Showtime, and Netflix.  They need the propaganda to advance what most oppose.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Cannabinoids but still advancing their push?

If it isn't clear that 1960's liberalism is running amok in this country with courts become tyrannical dictators by overturning constitutions in an attempt to ram down a nation based on their feelings while overturning majorities on any number of issues, including trying to criminalise the Bible in favour of their own feelings, you can see it with the victorious push of cannabinoid legalisation.

As we've documented this year, the Canandigua Motorsports Park 360 cubic inch sprint car incident in August resulted in a fatality, and the toxicology report proved the driver killed tested positive for cannabinoids, which is a prohibited substance in WADA drug tests. Cannabinoids are prohibited in drug testing for most places of work.  We recently learned the Ferguson incident also had a case of cannabinoids in the deceased, who is being deified as innocent despite his actions that led to the shootout, and racial animosity in that area, with threats of massive looting should the policeman, who came close to being defenceless by the cannabinoid-positive thug, be acquitted.  Once again, the writing is on the wall -- cannabinoids created this incident.

But the elections proved sadly, those urban hippies want to remake the country in their own mould.  Already victorious in Colorado (Denver and Boulder) and Washington (King County), the push for cannabinoid legalisation has scored victories in Alaska, Oregon (Portland city-state), and the Washington DC area.  What are these people thinking?  The values of a generation that hates every standard seemingly has won at every bend thanks to such stupidity. Why are people demanding cannabinoids everywhere?  Do they understand the health hazards?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Mediocrity isn't good enough

In the interests of full disclosure, let me state at the outset that I consider myself a tried-and-true capitalist. If there's a better economic system functioning right now, I haven't met it.

Having said that, longtime readers of this site also know my healthy skepticism (read: contempt) for "Corporate America," which I consider more of a culture or a way of thinking than I do an economic entity. Suffice it to say that Corporate America, in my opinion, is its own worst enemy, and in many ways an enemy to all of us.

It was, therefore, with a great deal of interest that I read a piece by David Goldman (aka "Spengler") entitled "Mediocrity and Corruption in Corporate America." If there's anything in this piece I didn't agree with, I haven't been able to find it. A few choice bits:

Mediocrity breeds corruption. The business world is crawling with affable, industrious, intelligent people with nothing to distinguish them from ten thousand other affable, industrious and intelligent people, but who very much would like to be rich. . . These are the people most inclined to cheat, for they know that they have nothing unique to offer the world, and their ascent depends either on luck or unfair advantage. They cheat in every way possible, whenever they have a chance. One way they cheat is to steal from the stockholders by front-loading profits and back-loading risks. That is what destroyed the banking system. At the top of the market in 2006-2007 when risk compensation was stupidly low, bank managers made their return-on-equity numbers by adding leverage on top of leverage. Every one of them knew that it was a dumb and dishonest thing to do, but they all hoped that they would be promoted by the time the problem blew up in someone else's lap.


Dogged-as-does-it, steady-as-she-goes, unimaginative CEO's of the sort [David] Brooks' praises sat in front of spreadsheets, demanding that their subordinates make their numbers. Without keen insight, they simply piled on risk just as the portfolio hit the fan. The most imaginative, intelligent, and daring firm on Wall Street, namely Goldman Sachs, took out massive short positions against the subprime market. So did J.P. Morgan. Wonder why they are coming out on top? About those who came out on the bottom, a respectable silence is appropriate.

There is only one truly effective way to control corporate corruption, and that is through creative destruction. Let the wild men, the warped geniuses, the chip-on-the-shoulder mad entrepreneurs loose on the established corporate world. Let big corporations go bankrupt right and left. Drive out mediocrity with the scourge of innovation. Let new companies emerge, and then go bankrupt when something better comes along. Real genius, as Heinrich Heine once rhymed, pays cash at the bar. The oddball entrepreneurial types don't cheat. They see life as a game and want to play it by their own rules. They are out to prove that they are smarter than their peers, and to cheat would be to miss the point of the game.

And I'll add that this is by no means limited to what we think of as "Big Business." It can be found throughout the business landscape, from non-profits to small companies to - oh, say, automakers. Goldman is spot on in saying that mediocrity has to be driven out - there's far too much of it at every level of management for as far as the eye can see. As Pat Buchanan once famously said, Corporate America has to "worship at a higher altar than the bottom line." Mere competence would, at least, be a start.

Originally published June 2, 2009

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Opera Wednesday: The Manchurian Candidate

I will admit that I was more than a little skeptical when my former home-town Minnesota Opera announced plans a few years ago to produce an operatic version of the classic political thriller The Manchurian Candidate.  Besides the almost-impossible task of living up to the original Frank Sinatra movie version (does anyone really remember Denzel Washington's remake?), the imaginative camera angles that were used by director John Frankenheimer (the famous tearoom scene, for example) seemed to suggest that this would be yet another example of opera companies commissioning productions that would be seen once and then (if one was lucky) forgotten forever.

But, in one of those cases I always hate to admit to, I may have been wrong about this.  The opera doesn't premiere until next March (and I won't be there to see it anyway), but some of the things I've heard and read about it are causing me to reassess my original opinion.  The synopsis that I've seen suggests a story quite close to the original (a slightly built-up role for the Janet Leigh character, but if you're going to have a female lead, that's to be expected), and the clip below indicates some quite interesting music that not only advances the plot but creates an atmosphere in tune with the story.

The jury should still be out on this until the production actually hits the stage, but I've moved from being a skeptic to having an open mind.  Perhaps I should have been there already, but given the track record not only of new opera but the Minnesota Opera in particular, you can understand my uncertainty.  At any rate, next year we should know if we have a new masterpiece on our hands, or just one more opera to forget.  I'm hoping for the former - if I were still living in the Twin Cities, I'd be certain to check it out.  As it is, if it's good, and if it goes on the road and winds up in Dallas, I'll stand in line to see it.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Should voting be compulsory? How much dumber do you want things to get?

Sometimes you can't help but get sucked into reading something stupid, and I fell into that vortex this morning by seeing a headline at* that said "Should Voting Be Compulsory?"  Being CNN, I naturally assumed the answer would be "Yes," because I assumed that the answer would be stupid.

*I know it's CNN, but I do occasionally check the headlines to find out if someone important has died, if a major city has been bombed, or if Jennifer Lawrence has had another nude photo hacked.

As it turns out, while the writer is obviously sympathetic to the idea of people being forced to vote, he stops short of making it mandatory. Perhaps he still has some vague respect for the idea of freedom, I don't know.  But he does suggest that it should be easier to vote, and while that may not be as stupid as being forced to vote, it's almost as stupid.*  Here's why:

*Excepting, of course, the physical act of voting, including being able to find the hidden door into the polling place.  There's being well-informed, and then there's having to go through an obstacle course to get in and cast your ballot.  Nobody in their right mind would argue that - except, perhaps, the people who locked all the doors.

First, and speaking practically, the measures taken to make voting easier often accomplish nothing more than making voter fraud easier.  Of course requiring a proper ID can make the lines move slower - is that really such a bad thing compared to ensuring a legal vote?  And don't give me that line about it being harder for some people to get an ID in the first place - if you're motivated enough to vote, you're going to find a way to get one.  I'm sure there are dozens of political candidates who'd be only too willing to give you a ride to City Hall to get one.  Same goes for same-day registration - if I can't take pains to fill out the proper form 30 days in advance, or 90 days, or however long it may happen to be, that's too bad.  Anyway, if I've only lived somewhere for a few days, why should I be voting on local issues on which I've had no chance to educate myself?  And as for early voting - well, I'd be all for it if we passed a concurrent law that stated no candidate could campaign or advertise once the first person had cast an early vote.  That might be an idea worth looking into.

In point of fact, there are some people who are simply too dumb to be voting.  I don't mean that they're ideologically stupid, not at all.  True, there are some on both sides of the aisle, but ideology is something you're entitled to be stupid about.  No, I'm talking about people who wind up in videos by Jimmy Kimmel - people who don't know who the Vice President is, or don't know when they're being spoofed on current events, people like that.  Tell me truly - do you really want to live in a nation governed by leaders chosen by fools like that?

If we make voting too easy, with no effort, then it means we'll have a lot more voters like that.  It means that the vote of someone who's taken time to get involved and learn about the issues counts for just as much as someone who thinks Babe Ruth was the sixteenth president of the United States.  Now, I'm not an elitist; I don't think the world would be better run by scientists or intellectuals or people who are just better than the hoi polloi.  But I don't think any of us would feel comfortable driving around in our cars if they'd just been serviced by a gynecologist who couldn't tell a dipstick from a carburetor.

It is, of course, endemic of a society that doesn't really want to have to work hard for anything.  From the millennials and their strong sense of entitlement to a culture that doesn't seem to put much of a premium on actually achieving things, we've gotten used to having things made so easy that we don't even have to get up from the couch to do them.  From shopping to conversing with friends to watching videos, there's not much we can't do with a minimum of effort.  Why should voting be any different, I suppose?

And whatever happened to the great right of people to refuse to vote on principal?  I know you can always write-in a name, but if the only two choices on the ballot are Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum*, then I'd just as soon stay home.  You can't really force me to choose between the two, and many write-in votes are just more examples of frivolity.

*Or Ollie Dee and Stanley Dum, if you will.

Do I wish more people voted?  Yes, in the abstract.  Do I wish more people educated themselves on the issues (and not by the MSM) before they voted?  Most certainly.  But making voting easier just for the sake of raising the vote count, without any guarantee that the voters are taking themselves seriously, is an idea that itself doesn't deserve to be taken seriously.  The last time I heard someone discuss making voting mandatory, it was a contestant in a beauty pageant trying to answer one of those painful questions from the host.  It wasn't a pretty sight.  Neither is the idea of lines and lines of uneducated people waiting to determine who the next leader of the free world is.  That is as stupid as, well, getting your news from CNN.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Michael Daugherty, "Dead Elvis"

Just in time for Halloween, it's Michael Daugherty's terrific piece for bassoon and small chamber, "Dead Elvis."  Enjoy this whimsical piece, and listen closely for the refrain of the Dias Irae!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Throwback Thursday: The Met's controversial 2009 Tosca

By now, I suspect most people with an interest in this sort of thing have heard about the fiasco at opening night of the Metropolitan Opera: Luc Bondy's new production of Tosca, and what's wrong with it.

Some have commented on the apparent blasphemy of the production, with Scarpia rather sexually fondling a statue of the Virgin Mary during the Te Deum that concludes Act 1. And as the picture below demonstrates, while it’s true nobody knows for certain what Mary Magdeline actually looked like, I feel somewhat safe in assuming nobody ever painted her looking quite like that. I suppose Bondy could claim that his efforts to give us a new Tosca required him to make a clean breast of the whole thing, but I digress.

The thing of it is, I’m not even sure what Bondy did was intended to be blasphemous. Were he to argue that he was merely trying to demonstrate Scarpia’s monstrosity, I might be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. It was probably just part of his larger effort to be provocative, to bring what he would call a new dimension to Puccini's classic.

While the bulk of the critics' appraisal of this performance has been, well, critical, there have been some who've welcomed Bondy's efforts to inject some new blood into what they saw as the moth-eaten Franco Zefferilli production which the Met has been using for the last umpteen-some years. The audience's loud reaction to the production is further evidience, they would say, of the public's unwillingness to accept anything that smacks of new and different. We're just too stuffy, it would seem, to appreciate great art when we're presented with it.

And this brings me to the point of this essay: the question of change. Opera has to change with the times; the theater is not static, but a living organism that constantly adapts to its environment - well, you've heard all the arguments.

Why do people purchase DVDs of movies? Is it to watch them once and then dispose of them like a cheap camera that's done its job? No – you have Netflix for that. People buy movies because they want to see them over and over again – they like the fact they know not only what's coming next, but how it happens. We watch our favorite movies, we know our favorite parts by heart, we delight in the anticipation of hearing “I’m shocked, shocked, to find gambling in this establishment” over and over again; we even nudge your companions as if to say, “Here it comes!”

At the same, however, you never stop seeing something new, even in a movie you’ve seen fifteen or so times. I have a friend who’s watched It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas for decades, and he still finds some little bit he hasn’t noticed before, something that gives him a fresher insight into the movie.

Does that prevent stories from being retold over the years, with different directors, actors and designers? Of course not. Technologies change, things that weren’t possible years ago have now become commonplace, insights – whether into human psychology, history, or filmmaking itself – allow us to try new and different things. Sound and color itself were major innovations, and they were put to good use when the silent classic Ben-Hur was remade in 1959. Sometimes these things work, sometimes they don’t, but often they’re worth trying.

And occasionally the new version is superior to the old – the 1959 Ben-Hur won 11 Oscars, and it’s difficult to remember anyone other than Charlton Heston in the title role. Batman Begins was a reimagination of the beginning of the Batman myth that introduced a much denser psychology into the origins of the Caped Crusader, and along with the sequel The Dark Knight helped elevate this morality play beyond the normal confines of the comic book.

But movies such as Batman Begins are often called “relaunches” rather than “remakes,” and for good reason. It’s not just a story that’s being redone: it’s an entire image of what the story represents. Batman Begins didn’t simply retell the standard Batman story – it became an entirely different story, one that simply shared some elements with the original (and subsequent remakes), but was far more original itself. It’s rather like calling the Ford Mustang a remake of the Model-T – sure, there are some parts that they have in common, an engine, four wheels, a driveshaft – but the new far outweighs the old.

A few years ago the classic thriller The Manchurian Candidate was remade. The decision to remake the movie was less controversial than it might have been, since there was full cooperation from the Sinatra family, but the movie itself was a bomb. The new movie borrowed the title and the general idea, that of a presidential candidate whose strings are being pulled by an outside group, but the entire focus was changed: the evil puppetmasters were not the Red Chinese, but a sinister multinational corporation. Better that they should have changed the name of the movie altogether and settled for being called a Manchurian Candidate-like film, then suffer the comparisions to the original that inevitably come with a remake. The same could be said for Planet of the Apes, Rollerball, you name it.

Opera is no different. I know committed opera fans who have perhaps half a dozen different recordings of the same opera. They have the Callas recording of Tosca, of course, but they also have Renata Scotto, Montserrat Caballe, Renata Tebaldi - they all bring something different, some new shading to the role. And although many fans have their favorites, they savor the opportunity to compare and contrast, to debate the merits of each of the leading ladies and their supporting cast. In many cases they may even have multiple recordings of the same singer; there are probably at least a half-dozen different recordings of Callas - live and in the studio, spread over a number of years - and they can tell you how her voice changes over the years, how what she lacks in vocal power in her later years might be offset by her dramatic prowess, things like that. If you were to take that choice away - if you told people there was only one definitive version of Tosca - you'd have a lot of unhappy people.

This applies to the current Tosca, of course. As fabulous and well-loved as Zefferili's staging is, there's no reason it has to be the only one. There's room for more than one Tosca, if you make this important proviso: it has to be faithful to the text and to the psychology of the characters.

Case in point: Bondy's Tosca omits a number of nuances, gestures and the like. For one example, after Tosca fatally stabs Scarpia, she places two candles next to him, one on either side, and a Crucifix on his chest. Bondy omits these gestures. They're very familiar, as familiar as Hamlet carrying that skull while muttering "To be or not to be." One has to be tempted to make a change, just to be different if nothing else. But Tosca's Catholicism is an important part of her character. Her gestures with the candles and Crucifix are entirely in keeping with it. Remove them, and you haven't just tampered with a stage direction - you've started to mess with the character's psyche.

Another case in point: the stabbing itself. Traditionally, Tosca finds a knife or letter opener on a desk in Scarpia's office. As he comes to complete his "seduction," she stabs him with it. The killing is, in other words, anything but premeditated. If Tosca winds up getting hauled into court, she can claim self-defense. Bondy's production (as well as some others) portrays Tosca bringing the knife with her into the room. We then are subjected to her frantic begging with Scarpia, knowing the whole thing is a ruse if she's just going to stab him anyway. Not only does it mess with the character's motivation, it changes the entire dramatic dynamic: Tosca winds up looking even more manipulative than Scarpia.

Again, my point is that while some aspects of a production are there for no reason other than tradition (check out the many versions of A Christmas Carol to see what I mean), some of them are more than that - they play a crucial part in character development, the evolution of the story, what have you. When you start to tamper with that, for whatever reason, you're asking for trouble.

And that brings us to the ultimate question – does art exist as entertainment for its patrons, or does it exist for its own sake? A complicated question, to be sure, but try this on for size: if it’s functional, or meant to serve a purpose, it had better do it. If you charge money for it, it’s entertainment. If you display it for free, you can call it whatever you want.

Charging admission for a performance means that a piece has to serve a purpose, namely to provide entertainment for the patrons who purchased the ticket. It’s all well and good for an artist to talk about the purity and truth of his art, but if you’re going to ask people to fork over money to see it, you’d better give them something for their money. If you’re going to lecture them rather than entertain them, if you seek to provide education instead of (or in addition to) diversion, then you owe it to them to let them know up front. If your work bombs with the audience, and they stop buying tickets to see it, then it doesn’t matter what you call it, because we’ve already come up with a name for it: failure. Perhaps only in the short term (plenty of the operas we know and love bombed in their premieres), but failure nonetheless.

When that happens the artist has options: he can go back and make changes, trying to identify and deal with the shortcomings identified by the audience; he can withdraw the work altogether, hoping that a later generation will appreciate something that the current generation can’t (or won’t) see; or he can berate the audience for failing to live up to the standards set by the artist himself. It’s our fault, you see, for not recognizing the obvious genius of the artist, which is surely apparent – at least to the artist himself.

(In the same way we can say that any commissioned work has a purpose to serve, at least to the person who commissioned it. We can call a well-designed bridge a work of art, to be sure, but if it proves unable to support the weight of the load it’s expected to carry, then it’s a failure, no matter how cool it looks. And I suspect the taxpayers would agree.)

The inspiration for this essay began with the talk of blasphemy, and to drift off into other areas does not diminish the importance of that. Not only does the blasphemy appear nowhere in the orginial libretto, much of it runs contrary to the common sense of the story. Besides which, it's offensive for no good reason. Lord knows, we have enough in the world that's truly offensive without going out of our way to add more to it.

But I do have a larger point here, and it's this: it's perfectly fine to introduce alternative versions of a story, as long as you're willing to let the marketplace decide, and you don't insult the paying customers if they reject your version. There are two prominent opera companies in New York: the Met may be the bigger and better known, but for many years the New York City Opera was the more adventurous, presenting new works, new interpretations of old works, seldom-performed works, and so on. The two companies maintained a nice balance that way. If you wanted traditional, grand opera, you had the Met; if you were looking for something with a little bit of a twist, you went to NYCO. They both survived, at least until the recent economic downturn. But now that the Met is poaching, so to speak, on the City Opera's turf, what will happen? Good question.

It was with more than a touch of sadness that the Met retired their mammoth Otto Schenk production of Wagner's Ring Cycle last season. The Schenk Ring was classic, traditional, realistic. If you were looking for the abstract, the provocative, or the metaphorical, you were looking in the wrong place. With the exception of Seattle's opera, it was the only such Ring production left. Now that the production has been retired, we wonder what the new Ring will be like. We only know this - that one more option for the opera-going public has disappeared, and that the only alternative will be to retreat to DVD.

So to conclude: there's nothing wrong with change, as long as you don't destroy choice in the process. And if you don't like the Tosca that the public apparently likes, you're more than welcome to write your own Tosca, call it Zelda, and do whatever you want. It doesn’t even have to be better than the original – if it allows you to tell the story your way, and if it finds an audience that likes it, then it works.

Until then, if you're going to do an opera based on Tosca and you're also going to call it Tosca rather than Zelda, I’d suggest trying something more radical – sticking to the original story.

Originally published September 30, 2009

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