30 May 2012

New York’s Mayor: Ban Soda!

NEW YORK CITY -- Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest salvo in the war on obesity has many New Yorkers up in armpits. That’s because a new regulation from the city’s Board of Health will require delis, restaurants, and food carts to sell 16 oz. servings of Ban Soda.

Long used as an underarm deodorant, Ban Soda has yet to gain a secure foothold in the competitive soft-drink industry. “Say what you will about the taste,” Mayor Bloomberg told reporters, “it’s very low in sugar, and I’ve never seen anybody drink more than a few sips of one. That’s why the problem of over-consumption here in New York stops today.”

The Mayor’s private studies suggest that drinking
sugary soft drinks also may stunt the growth.

In response to complaints from the New York City Beverage Association, which claims that city health administrators and the mayor’s office unfairly single out soda, Bloomberg urged New Yorkers to protect the soft-drink industry by finding alternative uses for soda.

“Back in the day, we used Coca-Cola as a personal feminine hygiene product,” Bloomberg said. “You could do that again today. Of course, the ants might get to be a problem, but I understand that a lot of people like the feeling.

“And there’s no chance of obesity: you could feel free to use as much as you like,” the Mayor said. “Personally, I’m a supersize douche.”


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28 May 2012

James’ ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

Let’s be honest. E.L. James is never going to be confused with Henry James, or P.D. James, or for that matter Etta James: subtle, she is never, and her artistic purpose is not lofty. But I admit I’ve read writing worse than that which I found in her bestselling erotic novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, which according to news reports has gazillions of women throughout the English-speaking world feverishly scrolling through their Kindles — so that no one sees the cover of such a scandalous book in their hands. If I quickly lost patience with Fifty Shades, the reason I suspect lies as much in James’ inspiration, and in her refusal to deviate from her chosen model, as in any fault of her own craft.*

In a sense, I’d read this book already. James originally conceived of her novel as fan fiction, taking the principal characters from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and putting them into new adventures. Once you know this, you have unlocked the mystery of Fifty Shades: where Edward Cullen is a vampire, so Christian Grey is a sexual dominant whose kink stems from a mysterious past and addresses not just a taste or an interest but a need.

And pretty quickly, the rest of the book falls into place, a long series of echoes, equivalencies, and embroideries. For example, Fifty Shades’ Ana Steele is every bit as naïve and lacking in self-confidence as Twilight’s Bella Swan, and neither girl can believe that such a hot guy likes her so much. Edward is obsessed with Bella’s smell; Christian goes comparably nuts whenever Ana bites her lip.** Edward has superpowers; Christian has money. Both guys, flawlessly beautiful, live in the Pacific Northwest, and are adopted into families that are just a little too perfect-seeming. Both women come from broken homes.

Most importantly, both books depict couples who talk — and talk — and talk about their relationships. Just as Edward goes on endlessly about how much he loves Bella but can’t have sex with her because he might hurt her, so Christian goes on about all the sex he’s going to have with Ana, even though he can’t love her and really does want to inflict pain. Reflecting on the book’s popularity while I read, I began to wonder whether American women are so desperate for conversation with their lumpen boyfriends and husbands that they don’t care what the guy actually says, so long as they can talk about their feelings.

Really, the entire phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey has done more to correct me than any of the angry e-mails I received after describing Twilight as a book for teenage girls. No, no, I was told, grownup women are Twilight’s biggest fans — and I see that clearly now.

You always hurt the one you love.

The discussion of feelings is hardly limited to conversations. Both books are presented as first-person narratives, recounted moment to moment by their respective heroines. These young women not only tell us what’s going on, but they also dissect and analyze every single word and gesture. Ana admits (repeatedly) that she has a tendency to “overthink,” and basically Fifty Shades of Grey is just one long overthought — and overwrought, at that.

Ana has so very, very much to tell us about her feelings that she has to divide the labor among three selves: her present narrative voice, her “subconscious” (of which she is minutely conscious), and what is ultimately the third principal character in the book, her “inner goddess,” meant (I think but am not certain) to represent Ana’s pride and her sexuality — but that’s ultimately a writer’s conceit that wears out its welcome very fast.

Other critics have expressed alarm that the popularity of Fifty Shades, with its depiction of a dominant man and a submissive woman, bodes ill for feminism in contemporary society — “You’ve come a long way, baby,” but not in a good way. Honestly, I see far more alarming signs of the demise of feminism every time I pick up the newspaper, and while the sub/dom politics of Fifty Shades make me uneasy, I see nothing wrong with a little fantasy. That women are reading this book doesn’t mean that they’re reenacting it; and so long as women don’t submit in the boardroom, or the classroom, or the courtroom, what they do in the bedroom is really not my business.

We know that Fifty Shades is erotica and not pornography largely because of the language James uses in the book’s many sex scenes: her descriptions are purplish but never rude, give or take Christian’s random expletive in moments of passion. Notably, the word “penis” appears nowhere in this book; James favors “erection” instead, and the word choice is telling. A penis is part of a man, with him always, whereas an erection is just something that happens to him occasionally. It’s as if Ana or James herself is trying to disengage Christian’s character from the kinky sex or to excuse him for it. “It’s not really him, it’s just his erection.”

That said, the sex is mostly vanilla, as Christian calls it, and those hoping for a primer in submission, bondage and discipline must settle for the lengthy, appropriately legalese contract in which Christian spells out what Ana agrees to let him do to her, provided they ever get around to it. If that’s not spicy enough for you, then you may have to wade through the two sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, which have been published already. Count me out, though.

Ana graduates from college with a passionate interest in 19th-century British fiction, and this book abounds with references to other, better novels, notably Tess of the d’Urbervilles. But there are hints that even this book might have been superior. It turns out that E.L. James is reasonably witty, far moreso than Stephenie Meyer as it happens, but the only place you really see the wit is in the teasing e-mail exchanges between Ana and Christian. I’m rather sorry James didn’t chuck all the feelings and navel-gazing and write an old-fashioned epistolary novel instead. Maybe next time.

At the end of a business trip last week, I purchased Fifty Shades of Grey at Washington’s Union Station, believing, like Gwendolyn Fairfax, that one should always have something sensational to read on the train. I regret to say that, despite my attempted provocation, not one person stopped to ask me about the book. I will however endorse Fifty Shades’ e-book edition — since the trade paperback I bought cost a whopping $15.95 and is printed on exceptionally cheap paper. You’re really better off with the electronic version.

All the way to the bank:
E.L. James on The View.



*DISCLAIMER: In this essay I sometimes refer to the book’s title with the abbreviated Fifty Shades, which is the preamble for both sequels to Fifty Shades of Grey. As I suggested above, I have not read Fifty Shades Darker or Fifty Shades Freed, and I don’t intend to, despite my suspicion that the character of José, who yearns to be Ana’s boyfriend, is going to turn into a werewolf.

**NOTE: Ana bites her lip far more often in a single volume than any person ever has in the history of the real world. (That includes Kristen Stewart, by the way.) At least in Bella’s scent Meyer chose a trait that’s naturally continual, rather than contrived.



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26 May 2012

Met-centricities and Free Voices

Peter Gelb

NOTE: This essay has been updated with important factual corrections.

All of Opera World buzzed this week over a report in The New York Times that Metropolitan Opera General Director Peter Gelb had declared that Opera News, a publication of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, would no longer be welcome to review the company’s performances. Within 24 hours, the Met announced that the decision had been reversed, due to the public outcry, and Opera News will continue to publish reviews of the Met’s work.

Luckily, I was on a business trip when this happened, and I wasn’t able to blog about it. Almost anything I wrote would have been upended within hours, and I’d have looked like a fool. Even now, there are limits to what I can say: I’ve never met Gelb, and despite my three years editing the very section that reportedly incurred his wrath, I’ve spent no time with a Met board member and very little time with any Guild board member. I’m not privy to the decision-making processes, and I never was.

But I do feel it’s appropriate to offer a little background and context now, not least because — as I look over the comments in the Times, the Washington Post, and on Facebook — it’s apparent that the relationship between the Met and the magazine is badly understood, if at all. Moreover, as a lifelong reader of Opera News and as a contributor with an extensive career in mainstream journalism, I take the integrity of the magazine very seriously; this incident has been reported (correctly, I think) as an attempt to stifle the magazine’s free and independent voice, and that upsets me.

It all comes back to Beverly.
But this isn’t the way she’d handle the press.

The basics: Opera News is not a publication of the Metropolitan Opera. The magazine is and always has been a branch of the Guild. With paid subscription figures at about 100,000, Opera News has a greater circulation than all the other leading opera magazines combined. Moreover, the readership is educated, affluent, and highly cultivated, more so than that of such prestige publications as The New Yorker. This should be attractive to potential advertisers. But Opera News is not a for-profit enterprise, and any money it might generate through advertising goes directly back to the Guild — which in turn makes important financial contributions to the Met each year. To the extent that anyone was “biting the hand that feeds,” it was the Met that bit the magazine’s hand, or tried to.

The Guild’s mission is to support the Met and to encourage the appreciation of opera: it says so on the Guild’s homepage. I underscore, that’s the appreciation of opera, in general, and not only the Met. The Guild undertakes all kinds of educational programs, including school programs and lectures, as well as the publication of the magazine. After all, opera is not necessarily the easiest subject to dive into, and Opera News is a remarkably effective educational tool.

I know this firsthand, because as a boy I subscribed to the magazine, which in those days was published weekly during the radio broadcast season, when the Met’s legendary Saturday afternoon programs aired. Each issue would provide pictures of the production, biographies of the principal artists, plot synopses, and articles with background on the composers, the works themselves, the source material and performance history, and the time and place each opera was written.

So when Beverly Sills sang Massenet’s Thaïs, for example, I learned not only about Sills and Massenet and Thaïs, I also learned about ancient Alexandria, where the opera is set, and about Anatole France, who wrote the novel on which the opera is based.

In short, Opera News was a passport to Western culture, and at least as important to me as any textbook I read in school. Every week, my horizons grew broader. Left to my own devices, I might have stuck to my Sills fandom, attending only her performances, buying only her recordings, and learning only her repertory. (In support of that theory, I observe that my interest in Star Trek, around the same time, didn’t inspire me to seek out other science fiction.) Because of Opera News, I grew interested in other singers and other works, and I sought them out: an interview with Leonie Rysanek, for example, led me to Strauss’ Salome, and later, when the opera was televised, I fell in love with the star of that performance, Teresa Stratas. She, in turn, led me to Berg’s Lulu. And so on — a long way from a steady diet of Sills and Donizetti.

In order to function effectively, Opera News, like any other publication, must retain a high degree of editorial independence. You don’t read it for propaganda, you read it for truth, through a kind of benevolent objectivity. The magazine is necessarily “Met-centric,” as we say, and a great part of its editorial content is tied to the programming at the Met: it is virtually guaranteed that a new production in the house will be accorded a cover story in the magazine. During the Met season, in fact, even revivals at the house take editorial precedence over most of the rest of the world. This isn’t exactly a hardship, editorially, because the Met is the world’s biggest and most important company, and it attracts most of the world’s brightest stars: readers are certain to be interested in what goes on there. It’s great subject matter.

But Opera News is not a house organ, no matter how outsiders may view it. It is supposed to take into consideration other companies, other operas, and other artists — such as the great Ewa Podles´, something of an obsession among my former colleagues and me, even though she’s seldom sung at the Met. And if the magazine doesn’t speak up when things go awry, then readers won’t trust it when it reports the good news, any more than Russians under the Soviets trusted Pravda.

While much of the commentary surrounding the kerfuffle presumes that Gelb himself is thin-skinned and reacting to criticism directed at some of his recent, less-than-successful productions, it must also be remembered that even big-name artists don’t fully understand the distance that lies between the Met and Opera News. If a soprano or stage director gets a bad review, then, she may run to Gelb’s office and complain about what was written in “his” magazine. This would put any general director in a delicate position at best, and it helps to explain why Gelb probably yearns, as at least a few of his predecessors did, to “solve the problem” by taking over Opera News altogether. To do so would be to compromise the magazine’s integrity, but I’m sure there are days when, to some people, that doesn’t seem like much of a potential loss.

What’s surprising in all of this is that Gelb’s parents were journalists, and so you really do think he ought to know better than to oppose a free press. (He also used to work as a publicist, so you’d also think he’d know better than to treat journalists this way — as a practical matter!) His connection to The New York Times is surely one reason that Beverly Sills, chairman of the Met’s board at the time and one of the most press-savvy people ever to walk the earth, pushed for Gelb’s appointment to the general directorship.

In my view, the Times has gone easy on Gelb, by and large, giving him a pass on some ill-conceived productions (Count Ory) and a mere slap on the wrist for others (Robert Lepage’s Ring cycle); until a few days ago, Times writers regularly over-praised Gelb’s HD transmissions of Met performances, and despite a recent, rather mild reproach, I expect to be reading once again and soon that the simulcasts are the greatest innovation in opera since the Victrola.

I’m reminded of the way that, for many years, the newspaper ardently promoted the work of playwright Eugene O’Neill — who just happened to be the subject of a book by the Gelbs. The Times effectively helped to sustain demand for the book, which was used as a textbook in many college classrooms, because O’Neill deserved study and was such an important writer, wasn’t he? After all, the Times said so!

You can’t expect such generosity from every publication. And yet, while it may come as a shock to wounded artists and to Gelb himself, Opera News strives to maintain a dignified, objective tone in its criticism. As editor of the performance reviews, I did not permit nastiness or personal attacks: that was the magazine’s policy before I got there, and it remains in place today.* If you get a bad review in Opera News, it’s still just one critic’s opinion, no more and no less, just as always. But you may want to keep in mind that another critic would have phrased that opinion less gently, and you’d do well not to read reviews in any other publication, especially the German ones. (Horst Koegler was one of a kind.)

Gelb had no prior experience as a theatrical producer, and it would be unreasonable for him or anyone else to expect his every effort to be a smash hit — especially when, relatively speaking, he hasn’t been on the job very long. Bad press is the inevitable result. But what tests a person’s character is the response to negative criticism, and here it appears that Gelb has failed rather badly.

He, like his predecessors, is minutely concerned with controlling the public image of the institution he runs; that’s one reason that so much of the Met’s business has indeed always been shrouded in Kremlinesque secrecy, and one reason that Gelb squelched the blogger who made remarkably accurate predictions about the Met’s future programming. Such announcements the Met would prefer to make for itself, amid the greatest possible surprise and fanfare. I guess we have to accept this attitude as normal, since it’s so widespread in every kind of business.

But especially after Alex Ross of The New Yorker attacked not only the Lepage Ring but other new productions and the Met’s overall and upcoming programming, as well, it does appear that Gelb, frustrated in his attempts to persuade people that the Ring staging is worthy and fed up with the criticism, tried to limit the damage by silencing dissent wherever he could: at the WQXR website, for example, and at Opera News, where my friend Brian Kellow made the daring choice to quote Ross and to write an entire essay (not a review) in harmony if not lockstep with him.

The result of this week’s controversy is that Gelb’s own public image has suffered even more. My friend Anne Midgette went so far as to speculate in the Washington Post that Gelb is having some sort of breakdown. This can’t be what he intended, and for his sake, I hope he stays out of the opera chat rooms, where the fans’ comments are sure to be vicious.

What’s clear to me is that the Met is best served by free voices, whether those of its singing artists or those of its critics. I hope I’m not alone in understanding that lesson.




*NOTE: Even here, I’m more likely to omit mention of a singer’s performance that displeases me than to attack it — though it’s unclear that Danielle De Niese’s fans recognize that fact.


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25 May 2012

‘Glee’-nalysis: ‘Goodbye,’ or Where to Start Listing What Went Wrong Here?

Welcome to a universe in which Kurt Hummel’s talent is unexceptional.
Also, welcome to a universe in which guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury didn’t advise these kids to apply to more than one college.


Season after season, Glee strained credulity when the show asked us to believe that New Directions — a high-school club made up of kids who, in real life, are mostly in their mid- to late-20s and impeccably rehearsed and choreographed professionals — didn’t cream the competition and sweep up every award on the circuit. Having made up for that, just last week, with a victory at the Nationals, Glee took a gigantic step backward into the universe of Whah? Out of nowhere, Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) didn’t get into drama school in New York — and we’re expected to believe that.

While it’s true that the road to this outcome was paved early in the season, the creators of Glee seem to believe that we don’t even remember Kurt’s NYADA audition, fearless and (of course) thoroughly professional and (moreover) praised by the judge (Whoopi Goldberg). Adding insult to injury, we got no reaction whatever from Kurt, not even a season-ending cliffhanger line like, “I have a cunning plan!” Santana was given that chance, but not Kurt.

Brothers by marriage, and by rejection from drama school.
Cory Monteith and Chris Colfer as Finn and Kurt.


Yet again, I suspect that the writers’ motivation was mercenary. Presumably the graduating seniors of McKinley High School won’t appear so frequently next season (despite creator Ryan Murphy’s insistence in the press lately that “anyone who wants to stay can stay on the show”), and that includes several of the best — and best-selling — singers in the cast. Clearly the character of Blaine Anderson was youthened, or held back a grade, because of nervousness that song sales would suffer if Darren Criss weren’t around. Colfer is another strong singer and the relationship between Kurt and Blaine has become central to Glee’s ability to generate buzz. So if it takes Kurt the entirety of the fall episodes to make up his mind where to go and what to do, so much the better — in financial terms.

Kurt and Blaine: Banking on Glee’s future.


The point of Kurt’s audition was that real art demands risk. He came to the auditorium intending to sing “Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera, and then on a whim performed a less conventional number that suited him better: “Not the Boy Next Door,” from the Peter Allen musical, The Boy from Oz. (Luckily, he just happened to be wearing crotch-hugging gold-lamé pants under his tuxedo trousers.) This experience was supposed to teach us something about art and therefore about life — and so it did, until this week.

The risk of art: what a winning audition looks like.

Rachel, on the other hand, stuck to her tried-and-true, “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” but choked. True to her character, she proceeded to hound the judge until she got another chance. (This entailed the highly unlikely willingness of the judge to attend the finals in the glee competition. No matter.)

What a losing audition looks like: Rachel rains on her own parade.

Since the beginning of the season, both Kurt and Rachel have worried what will happen if they don’t get into NYADA, what if their dreams don’t come true, what if they’re just big fish in a very small pond in Lima, Ohio. Kurt has had to cope with a couple of serious disappointments, including the loss of the election for senior-class president and the loss of the leading role in the school production of West Side Story. Now he’s got an even bigger disappointment, and somehow no time could be found to show us how he feels about it.

Free at last to get on with her life: Dianna Agron.

How much more interesting it would have been if Rachel had been rejected! Her character has always been depicted as an unstoppable force of talent and willpower: how would she respond to a setback like this? The ensuing plot would have been interesting — and dramatic — and it need not have overturned the lessons of Kurt’s Peter Allen number.

Finn’s decision to join the army and redeem his father’s legacy made sense to me. It also put an end to the marriage plans, and gave Cory Monteith his most effective acting scene ever.

Already, Rachel’s fears of failure led her into a downright foolish decision to marry Finn, so that at least she’d have him to fall back on, or conversely, so they wouldn’t break up when she moved to New York to become a star. This is not the behavior of a confident young woman. So — again — how interesting it would have been to see her fight her way to New York in spite of the obstacles that the NYADA admissions office put before her!

Mommy Sound Machine: Gloria Estefan as Santana’s mother.

I guess it’s up to Kurt to demonstrate that kind of ingenuity and fight now. He’s been a model of resilience since the show started, always ready to climb out of the dumpster where the bullies threw him, and now he’ll probably do it again — selling records all the while.

Murphy rejected what was, to my way of thinking, by far the most interesting option, when he vetoed a spin-off series in which Rachel, Kurt, and Blaine all moved to New York together. We got a glimpse of the marvelous potential when Rachel and Kurt met for breakfast at Tiffany’s, at the end of last season, and again in this season’s finale, when Rachel walked the streets of New York looking for all the world like Marlo Thomas in That Girl. But she was alone, and the possibilities are more limited now.

“I’m going to miss you!” “I don’t see how that’s possible!”
Quinn and Sue say goodbye.


I did enjoy the teary farewell between Quinn (Dianna Agron) and Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), as well as the guest appearance by Gloria Estefan as Santana’s mother.* And of course I loved Burt Hummel’s (Mike O’Malley) dance to “Single Ladies,” a graduation present to his son that was at once a beautiful, loving gesture and an absolutely squirm-inducing embarrassment.** Every now and then, it seems the creative team on this show remembers what’s happened before — “Single Ladies” was a callback to Season 1. But for the most part, week in and week out, every scene is just a set-up for a song: credibility, character, plot, and any chance of true and lasting glory are secondary at best.

Unrepresentative: Burt Hummel says goodbye to his re-election chances.**


*NOTE: Too bad that Jennifer Holliday was busy on American Idol that night and therefore unavailable to play Mercedes’ mother; we’re left to believe Mercedes has got no parents but rose full-grown from the sea, or something.

**Now that Burt Hummel is a U.S. Congressman, why wasn’t he worried that somebody with a video recorder would post his little dance on YouTube? Clearly, the guy does not have a political adviser or any staff at all. He’s the guy who hired Will Schuester to be his campaign manager, but you’d think by now somebody would try to look after him a little better.



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20 May 2012

Interview: Victor Garber on Alzheimer’s Disease

Victor Garber with Madeline Kahn in Love Letters, 1990.
Photo of a newspaper clipping from the scrapbooks of Madeline Kahn.


Victor Garber has enjoyed the kind of career that other actors must dream of, running the gamut from farce to suspense, from musical comedy to mystery, from TV sitcom to the biggest blockbuster movie of all time — to guest appearances on Glee and Ugly Betty. Gifted with a fine singing voice, he starred as Anthony, the sailor, in the first show I saw in New York, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd; a few years later, he nearly landed in my lap when a pratfall sent him skidding, headfirst, across the stage and past the proscenium in Noises Off. (I was in the front row.) He played Reese Witherspoon’s law professor in Legally Blonde, and Jennifer Garner’s father on Alias; he’s played Liberace and Hemingway (albeit not simultaneously), as well as the Devil in Damn Yankees and Jesus in Godspell. He’s played the assassin (John Wilkes Booth) and the assassinated (George Moscone). He’s even played a Klingon — though his big scene was cut. Oh, well.

Along the way, Garber also appeared in two plays with Madeline Kahn: Blithe Spirit with the Santa Fe Theater Festival in the 1980s (when Madeline, an ideal Elvira at the time, was by common consent much too young to play Madame Arcati); and a limited-run engagement of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters in Toronto, in the summer of 1990. A few weeks ago, he met with me in New York for an interview about his work and friendship with Madeline.

As shipbuilder Thomas Andrews in James Cameron’s Titanic.

At the end of our conversation, the subject turned to one that’s affected both of us personally: Alzheimer’s Disease, which struck both his parents, as well as my father- and mother-in-law in France. With the Alzheimer’s Association and other organizations, as well as on his own, Garber tries persistently to raise public awareness of the disease and of the need for a cure, as he makes clear while sharing his thoughts with readers of this blog and answering a few of my questions.


VICTOR GARBER: I have just come from London, Ontario, where I was involved with the Alzheimer Society in London. And I’m hosting a benefit on June 4, at the Pierre Hotel, honoring David Hyde Pierce.* I mean, we’re in a crisis. People have to pay attention, and we have to figure out a way to stop this disease.

WVM: [Alzheimer’s] takes a terrible toll, on the family as well as on the victim.

VG: That’s all I talk about. It’s a family disease. It’s not just one person. I don’t know what the statistics are, but the illness that occurs in caregivers, the spouse, the child, or the actual worker. In my case, my mom and my dad both had it, so I have a lot of experience — too much experience — with this disease. We have to galvanize this country into really petitioning our Senate to find a way to subsidize new funding. Because we’re in trouble.

Speaking out: David Hyde Pierce goes to Washington,
with Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY).


David Hyde Pierce is my hero. You know, he is one of the great figures in leading this fight. I hate to call it a fight, that connotation — this search, I’m going to say, this search for the end of Alzheimer’s. I don’t like the word “war,” I don’t like the word “fight.” I think that’s the wrong way to approach it.

I believe, like everything, that there is a cure out there, and it just has to be awakened in somebody’s brain. I know that the more people are affected by this disease, the more people are galvanized to do something about it. And also the number of incidents of early-onset Alzheimer’s. People in their fifties, like [Pat Summitt] this basketball coach who’s just retired, at 59, in spite of her exemplary career, because she’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

We have to address this. Because it’s happening more and more, with younger people. It’s not just — it’s one thing to find, of course, the cause, but I just want to know when we find a cure. I don’t want to know if I have a gene. That doesn’t help me. I’d rather honestly not know, because what am I going to do? There’s nothing to take. They say, “Well, there are pills.” Well, I’ve been through enough [to know that] nothing stops this disease.

WVM: What are the obstacles? Who is not getting this, who is not understanding why this is important? Whom are you trying to reach?

As Jesus in the film of Godspell, the role that also launched
his stage career in Toronto.


VG: David would know that. I’ve never gone to Washington to speak to Congress, but I know he has. I’m sure I will, at some point. But I don’t know whether it’s just the fact that we are so bombarded with causes. There’s too many. Every day I’m asked to do something, and I’ve sort of narrowed it down to diabetes and Alzheimer’s, because they affect me personally** and because I think they [are important].

More has to be done. I just think it’s a question of awareness, of people’s relationship with this disease, which is just growing daily. That will effect a change ultimately. I know there are more foundations, the Lauder Foundation is working specifically on drug therapy. Aside from the care that is going to bankrupt our health system, we have to find more money for research. Someone will find it.

As San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, with Sean Penn in Milk

WVM: It’s a matter of time.

VG: I was just at the Banting House in London, Ontario, this week. Frederick Banting woke up in the middle of the night, knowing very little about the pancreas, and had just read an article before he went to bed. And woke up at two in the morning with the idea of insulin, which changed the world. I’ve always believed this: the answers are always out there. We just haven’t somehow harnessed our consciousness to let it come out of us. But it’s there.

Victor Garber hosts the 2012 Forget-Me-Not Gala for the Alzheimer’s Association on June 4 at New York’s Pierre Hotel. Along with David Hyde Pierce, James Keach and Jane Seymour will be honored, and Broadway heartthrob Jonathan Groff will perform. For more information, click here.

*NOTE: Fans of Hyde Pierce and Frasier will recall Garber’s guest appearance as Ferguson, a paragon among butlers. (Pictured above, with Kelsey Grammer.) Off-camera, Hyde Pierce is the brother of my former colleague at CBS News, Barbara Pierce, and as a further testament to his good sense, he’s a serious Joyce DiDonato fan.

**Garber was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was a boy.



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19 May 2012

Horst Koegler

Because he spelled his name without an umlaut,
Horst Koegler was widely known as “oe.”


Word has just reached me of the death at age 85 of Horst Koegler, the venerable music and dance critic of many publications, including the Stuttgarter Zeitung, which eulogized him on May 11 as “the man who taught Germany to dance.” Not bad for a guy who was not in fact a choreographer. My association with Horst dates back to 1984, when I began working at the Kurt Weill Foundation and Horst contributed to the Kurt Weill Newsletter; years later, mine was the honor of editing his reviews at Opera News, for which magazine he wrote for six decades.

His English was flawless, but Lys Symonette assured me that as a prose stylist in German, Horst was unrivaled — even better than Brecht, she insisted.* For the Newsletter, Horst submitted his copy in German, sometimes just clipping articles from the Stuttgarter Zeitung and sending them along. Really I think his motivation was not to save time but to give Lys the pleasure of translating him. Every time we got an article from him, she’d labor over it for days, popping out of her office every so often to share with the rest of us some gem of his writing.

As his editor, I found the most obvious hallmark of his English-prose style to be an almost compulsive use of metaphor, especially culinary ones. Going far beyond the usual “creamy” (a word I probably over-use in my own writing), Horst raided the pantry — and the bar — to describe a singer’s voice. The results seldom suggested recipes you might want to try (“Angostura bitters” were a favorite ingredient), but you couldn’t deny that Horst really conveyed the flavor of a sound, and the physical pleasure derived from listening.

And pleasure is really what it was all about for Horst. Looking back on him, I’m most struck by his matchless, irrepressible joy in art. Many critics seem to love music more in principle than in practice, but Horst — like few others — loved performance, as well. This was no theory, this was life itself! You could imagine his waking each day with a bound, because he knew he’d be going to the theater that night.

I didn’t have to imagine his excitement, actually, as I got demonstrations and proof of it in his e-mails, exuberant and chatty and yet ingeniously measured so as never to exhaust the time or the patience of a busy editor. Really only one other critic in my acquaintance could rival Horst’s enthusiasm, and that was another grey eminence, Leighton Kerner, who died in 2006, whom I also met first in my Weill days.

These fellows offer us in the audience a lesson, whether we’re critics or not. Nobody will ever know how many performances Horst and Leighton attended, and yet they never grew bored or cynical. There was always, always something to look forward to: a new composer, a debutant conductor or singer, a provocative staging, or merely the possibility that to them was more like certainty: that, even in the most familiar songs, they would hear something fresh, intriguing, and valuable that they’d never heard before.

While they were unbeatable on matters of performance history, neither man ever sat back and groused about how superior things were “in my day”; you couldn’t imagine them sitting home and playing LPs when they could have been at the theater instead. They sought out and embraced the new.

Horst’s early background was in dramaturgy, and he was fascinated by Robert Wilson’s Ring cycle, for example. He even found merit in the outlandishness of Calixto Bieito — just as Leighton dove into the work of Tan Dun and Kaija Saariaho and who knows how many other contemporary composers. And while in some of these cited instances I might be hard-pressed to agree with their judgments, both men knew how to write about a performance in a way that made me want to hear it, too. Often enough, I’ve sought out that music or that musician, the next time around, on the strength of their recommendations.

Music was a passion for these guys, and I mean that word in the Bach-and-Oberammergau sense as well as in the emotional sense. There was no question of retirement, then, and both men wrote to the end — even when, in Leighton’s case, it became almost physically impossible to do so, and he would dictate his reviews to me. It’s no coincidence, I think, that Horst died before the curtain rose on the performance, a few weeks from now, of what he planned to be his final review for Opera News.

“Now there is a writer!” Lys used to say. “My God! To be able to write like Horst Koegler!” Just to be able to experience music the way that he did would be no small achievement.

The Stuttgarter Zeitung obituary for Horst can be found here. The Opera News obituary, written by F. Paul Driscoll, can be found here. The Weill Foundation has also published an obituary, which can be found here.


*NOTE: Lys found fault with almost everything about Brecht, but even she had to admit that the bastard could write.

PERSONAL NOTE: This is the fourth obituary I’ve written in three days. I would take it as a great courtesy if interesting people would stop dying. Thank you.



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18 May 2012

The End of the (Dietrich Fischer-) Dieskau Era

The death of German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has just been announced. Although he enjoyed a successful career onstage in opera and on the podium as a conductor, he garnered most acclaim as a Lieder singer and as a recording artist: he is the most-recorded singer in history.

Given the current state of the recording industry, and its rather grim prospects, Fischer-Dieskau is entirely liable to retain that claim to the end of all time. It’s true that his very ubiquity in the record catalogues sometimes annoyed me. (Had he really recorded every song ever written? Could a collection of Patsy Cline covers be next? What did I have to do in order to find a recording by anyone else?) And yet there’s no denying that he was an extraordinary artist who left us with unparalleled documentation of his work.

He was lucky to be born at the right time, at least so far as recordings go, in an era when multiple companies signed many artists and released hundreds of albums each year. Long-playing records opened up new artistic possibilities and new markets; the definition of an acceptable profit hadn’t yet inflated to pop-blockbuster proportions; and, not least because music education was still a priority in the schools, even people who weren’t hardcore Lieder fans might be expected to know who Franz Schubert was, to listen occasionally and perhaps even to purchase a recording of his work. And those who really were hardcore Lieder fans could be expected to purchase multiple copies of the same recording over a lifetime, because their old copies would wear out and need to be replaced.

Never before, never again? Not quite. This happy mix of circumstance had been building awhile, and the twilight hour hasn’t entirely descended yet, as my friend the producer–composer Glen Roven valiantly proves, every chance he gets. But it’s getting more and more difficult for singers to document their work and to share it with a broad listening public: recording contracts are scarce, clips on iTunes or YouTube will take you only so far — and who knows how long it will be before those venues are obsolete, too?

We’ll never have to wonder what Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sounded like, how he interpreted a particular passage, how he approached a given repertory, how he matured as an artist. In a very real sense, his death today changes nothing, because he’ll always be with us, his voice forever in our ears. But even as I’m grateful for that blessing — and it is a very great one — I worry what’s to become of the next German baritone, perhaps one who’s born just today.


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Summer Nights

The death of Donna Summer comes just as the press is assessing the impact of President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage. Many black churchgoers disagree with the President on this issue, and they’re making their feelings known, especially to reporters and pollsters: many resent the linking of gay rights to the civil rights movement, and many believe that the Bible’s proscriptions against homosexuality and promotion of heterosexuality (and, occasionally, of monogamy) do not permit Christians to support marriage equality. Black churches, along with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, were instrumental in the passage of Proposition 8, which ended legal marriages in California, even while Barack Obama won overwhelming support from blacks in the same November election in 2008.

What does this have to do with Donna Summer? The singer, whose first performances were in the church choir of her girlhood, was born-again in the late 1970s; a few years later, as the AIDS crisis exploded, she was quoted as saying that AIDS was God’s punishment of homosexuals. She denied making that statement, but the reputation stuck: namely, that an artist whose success always depended on gay men had no sympathy for her most stalwart champions. It took her years to recover, and even now some gay men are unwilling to enjoy her music.

Donna Summer learned in the 1980s what Barack Obama is learning now, if he didn’t know it already: that relations between black Christians and gays are tense and not easily reconciled, and that anything you say on the subject can alienate your loyal base.

Today, few people seem to remember much if anything about the rift between Summer and the gays — and even less about the flak she caught from Christians whenever she defended gays. (Which she did, many times.) Instead we’re recalling her as the high priestess of disco hedonism, presiding over an endlessly orgiastic night. She was the woman who simulated (or stimulated) 23 orgasms while recording “Love to Love You Baby” and who glamorized promiscuity and prostitution in song.

She was uncomfortable with this image, and yet what she really believed seldom seemed to matter, in those days. We saw her as a sex symbol, the mistress of revels for a generation obsessively committed to revelry. Blame the songs, if you will.

If indeed she never meant the things she sang, that’s perhaps why I can hear in her music a kind of detachment, a disembodiment even while ostensibly absorbed in the pleasures of the flesh. Her voice floats, high and serene, over the thumpa-thumpa instruments, the repetitive and inane lyrics, and the hangover melodies that drill into your head and don’t let go until sometime the next day.

I daresay she’s happier and far better understood now that she’s singing in the choir celestial. She was an unlikely denizen of Disco World, but that may explain why the dancers made her their queen — for a time.




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17 May 2012

Wild Things

Maurice Sendak, with a few friends

The author Jean Craighead George has died, just days after Maurice Sendak’s passing, an event that provoked an outpouring of nostalgic tribute and critical appreciation. “Death comes in threes,” they say, and really, I’m not sure the world of children’s literature can stand another such loss. Again and again in their stories and pictures, Craighead George and Sendak evoked the call of the wild, and a child’s fascination with the kinds of danger that lie “outside over there.” Yet what strikes me is the reassurance that both writers offer, too. As Max learns, you can return home after a wild rumpus, and your soup will be waiting for you.

Jean Craighead George

Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain was a veritable pillar on which my childhood home was based, especially because my brother loved the book so much. The book recounts the adventures of Sam, a pre-pubescent Thoreau who goes off to live by himself in the woods. Craighead George writes beautifully of the natural world, and she details her protagonist’s ingenuity so carefully — yet so matter-of-factly — that even modern, mechanized, entirely mother-dependent suburbanites like us found ourselves wanting to follow him into the wild, and believing we were quite capable of doing so.

Reading My Side of the Mountain is something like watching Fred Astaire, whose grace appears so effortless that you think, “I could do that.” Whereas in reality, of course, you could not. Sam himself nearly dies on his mountain, and I daresay that neither Linc nor I would have lasted one paragraph out there. That didn’t stop us from dreaming, and it’s something of a miracle that Linc stayed home.

Portrait of my brother as a young bear

Part of Craighead George’s great achievement lies in her ability to make Sam’s survival seem so cosy: he doesn’t merely live in the woods, he makes a home for himself there. Maybe Craighead George — and Sendak — would have told their stories differently if they were writing for grownups, but the scary parts are always balanced by comfort. I found Higglety Pigglety Pop! absolutely terrifying when I was a boy, yet there it is: Jennie finds peril but also friends and a new kind of home with the World Mother Goose Theatre, and at the story’s end, she assures us she gets plenty to eat. (Granted, she’s eating mops, but what’s important is that she’s not hungry.) Sendak’s Max and Mickey get home safely, too, and so does Craighead George’s Sam.

Utterly terrifying: Jennie’s specialty act

In an exceedingly rare instance of my turning down a book because it was “too girly,” I never read Craighead George’s other masterpiece, Julie of the Wolves. This is especially ironic because there’s no doubt that Julie could have beaten the stuffing out of me — or perhaps my awareness of that fact is really what held me back. But there’s no question that she and Sendak both lent something mystical and exciting to our young lives: not least the prospect that my brother, who also identified so closely with Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear (drawn by Sendak), might run off like Sam or Jennie, and that I’d have to go looking for him, outside over there.

We were very tame children, really, but we dreamed of wildness. Now you know two reasons why.




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15 May 2012

Progress Report 13: Standing Up for Madeline

Robert Klein

Last night I attended the annual “Evening of Laughter,” a benefit for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund in honor of Madeline Kahn. Presented each year at Caroline’s Comedy Club in Times Square, the evening entails an auction — goods and services that range from the irresistible to the inexplicable — and a series of turns by stand-up comics. While Madeline herself wasn’t a stand-up and was remarkably uncomfortable in certain kinds of improvisational comedy,* she had a number of truly gifted friends in the field, and two of them typically rise to the occasion: Joy Behar and Robert Klein.

Klein is a noteworthy case, since he and Madeline made their Broadway debuts together in Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1968, dated briefly, and continued to work together for 30 years, through The Sisters Rosensweig, Mixed Nuts, and Cosby, right up to the end of Madeline’s career.

Behar and Madeline knew each other socially, becoming good friends over time, and most years it’s Joy who acts as master of ceremonies for the stand-up benefit. Last night, however, she had to back out, and now that I’ve seen the interview she conducted earlier in the day yesterday, I understand completely: even an experienced hand like Dan Rather gets tired after interviewing the President of the United States, and the women of The View ran a marathon with Barack Obama yesterday.**

Joy Behar

Because of the participation of these headliners and of Caroline Hirsch, the impresario of the eponymous comedy club,*** the “Evening of Laughter” benefits draw a pretty stellar lineup each year. Last night was no exception, and with Susie Essman taking over as MC, we enjoyed the company of Klein, Judy Gold, Colin Quinn, Kevin Meany, as well as two comics new to me, young Mark Norman and Drew Fraser; the charming (and francophile) Jenna Wolfe helped out during the auction.

Klein’s monologues are less routines than extended philosophical musings: if Socrates were Jewish, straight, and living today, he might well sound like Robert Klein. I’ve always admired his work, and it’s a treat to see him up close. While some other aspects of stand-up mystify this audience, and not only individual jokes but entire veins of humor seem directed at somebody other than me, I’m most impressed on these occasions with the generosity of the comics, the sincerity of their admiration for Madeline and of their desire to help to fight a terrible disease.

Our mistress of ceremonies, Susie Essman

Moreover, they unite to fight with laughter, and this is something I believe Madeline would approve. She understood — as well as anyone ever has — that laughter is a tool that has changed minds and lifted spirits. So it’s not surprising that the idea for the benefit originated with someone who understood Madeline: namely, John Hansbury, her boyfriend, whom she married shortly before her death.

In the way that caring for an ailing loved one makes any of us expert in a disease, so John became an expert in ovarian cancer; today he is co-president of the OCRF executive committee, and the stand-up benefits have brought in more than $1 million in 11 years. John will tell you (as he has told me, chapter and verse) of the need for effective early detection of ovarian cancer, and of the OCRF’s mission: testing, treatment, and some day, a cure. These were the goals Madeline herself endorsed, when she made her own illness public.

So much of Madeline’s legacy is the work she did herself — as we were reminded in the clips from her Oscar-nominated turn in Paper Moon that began last night’s show. But no legacy stands on its own entirely: it must be picked up by the rest of us and carried forward. That’s why I’m writing this book. That’s why John has linked Madeline’s name to the OCRF. And it’s why I’ll continue to contribute to the OCRF. I hope you’ll consider doing so, too.

Miss Trixie Delight


*NOTE: To corroborate my assertion, I point to Madeline’s ad-libbed conversation with Barry Humphries, making his first U.S. television appearance in the person of his celebrated character, Dame Edna Everage, during an episode of Saturday Night Live. Madeline’s discomfort is palpable, and I refuse to believe that’s merely because she was talking to a man in a dress. She liked a good script.

**It was suggested that Joy Behar may have injured herself yesterday, in addition to the workout she got while prepping for the interview. I guess we’ll know soon enough whether she emerged unscathed.

***John Hansbury tells me that Caroline Hirsch got to know Madeline when she hosted another fundraiser at the comedy club.



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11 May 2012

Fort Worth Opera Festival 2013 to Include Me

In last year’s production of Ariadne at Houston Grand Opera,
Jon Kolbet (left) played the Major-Domo. Here, he’s joined by
Rodell Rosel as the Dancing Master and, as the Composer,
a certain Miss Susan Graham.


Fort Worth Opera begins its 2012 Festival this weekend with an exciting quartet of works both old and new — on which I’ll be reporting at the end of the month, when I fly to Texas for the final weekend of the Festival. But because the company’s general director, Darren Keith Woods, is a believer in strategic long-term planning, today also marks the official announcement of next year’s Festival offerings.

For 2013, Fort Worth Opera will present Puccini’s La Bohème, Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment, and Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, as well as a contemporary work, Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied, in keeping with the company’s commitment to the music of our time. And that commitment will be extended next year, as Fort Worth Opera inaugurates its Frontiers program, a showcase for short excerpts from larger works by emerging composers, to be selected by a panel of experts from a variety of fields related to opera. Frontiers performances will be free of charge, and — rather unusually, to say the least — an integral part of the program will be the opportunity for the public to offer feedback to the composers.

So often it seems to this observer that fledgling composers are left to their own devices: they have to figure out on their own (and sometimes very far from the opera house) what audiences will and won’t like, and once new work has been performed, composers are cut loose with little guidance or analysis of their successes and failures. Fort Worth Opera aims to change all that.

Joyce Castle as the Marquise, with John Stephens as Sulpice and Robert Gibby Brand as Hortensius, in Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s Daughter of the Regiment.
Who wouldn’t want to get in on the fun?
Photo by Cory Weaver.


For those of us who have been coming to Fort Worth repeatedly over the years, the casts for these works are a real treat, featuring many returning artists who are local favorites, as well as some distinguished first-timers in the area. Those of us who marveled at young baritone Wes Mason’s tour-de-force performance in Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls will be eager to see him as the painter Marcello in Bohème, for example, and soprano Ava Pine will add to her radiant Fort Worth résumé the title role of Marie in Daughter of the Regiment, opposite no less than the great Joyce Castle as the Marquise of Berkenfeld and Darren Woods himself, making a rare return to the stage as Hortensius, the Marquise’s butler.

Other returning favorites include soprano Marjorie Owens as Ariadne and baritone Michael Mayes, taking the lead in Glory Denied. Among the company debutants are star soprano Mary Dunleavy as Mimì and rising tenor Sean Panikkar as Rodolfo in Bohème — and I’m eager to hear the always impressive soprano Caroline Worra once more (in Glory Denied).

There’s one name you won’t find in the season announcement, though it’s of immense potential interest. It’s mine.

Donovan Singletary as Figaro, Andrea Carroll as Susanna.
Fort Worth Opera Festival 2012.
Photo by Ellen Appel.

Meine gnädige Damen und Herren, it is my great pleasure to announce that I’ll be returning to the stage after an inexplicable absence of 30 years, to play the speaking role of the Major-Domo in Ariadne auf Naxos. Mine is the responsibility to tell the young Composer (mezzo Cecelia Hall) that his dead-serious opera must be performed at the same time as a boisterous commedia dell’arte routine, because the wealthy patron (inspired by Molière’s Bourgeois Gentleman) wants to hurry up and get to the fireworks display he’s planned for the end of the evening.

Oh, and one more thing — I will be saying all of this in German.*

As Anna Russell would say, I’m not making this up, you know.

Fort Worth’s Three Decembers cast: Janice Hall (seated),
Emily Pulley, and Matt Worth.
Fort Worth Opera Festival 2012.
Photo by Ellen Appel.


While I’m trying not to throw the tempo off the track, everybody else will be singing, of course, including tenor Corey Bix in the heroic role of Bacchus and soprano Audrey Luna as the singing acrobat Zerbinetta (both making their company debuts), under the baton of Fort Worth Opera Music Director Joe Illick. Stage director David Gately, who’s guided some of the company’s most memorable productions, will tell me where to go.

Technically, this isn’t my opera debut, since I played a soldier in the firing squad in Providence Opera Theatre’s production of Puccini’s Tosca, many years ago. This new assignment is a good deal more demanding, however: the entire plot hinges on what I say, and I have to remember not to shoot the tenor this time.

E avanti a lei — tremo! Carter Scott as Floria Tosca.
(Really. She doesn’t usually dress like this.)
Fort Worth Opera Festival 2012.
Photo by Ellen Appel.


No less an Ariadne authority than Susan Graham has warned me to waste no time in learning my lines. I’ve already gotten in touch with Terry Quon, an estimable opera buff herself and my German teacher back at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, just down the road from Bass Hall.

I have also bluntly and without shame asked Darren to find money in the costume budget that would allow for an extra supernumerary in Daughter of the Regiment. Really. I could be a soldier, a valet, a villager, an ottoman or an end table. I’m not choosy. I’m not even greedy. I just want to be part of the fun when Joyce and Darren reunite.

Thus far, Darren has demurred most politely, but perhaps if some of my faithful readers make a contribution to Fort Worth Opera, he will move beyond this highly uncharacteristic indecision and embrace my participation in a second production next season.

Houston Grand Opera’s world premiere of Adamo’s Lysistrata.
Not sure who everybody is, but the great Myrna Paris is at left.
Photo from FWO, courtesy of Brett Coomer.


But even if that dream goes unfulfilled, this will be an extraordinary opportunity. Since my first sampling of Fort Worth Opera’s work — a performance of Britten’s Turn of the Screw starring Janice Hall and Joyce Castle, in 2003 — I’ve been captivated by the company’s dynamic approach, wide-ranging repertory, and outstanding musical and theatrical values. Over time, Darren and I have grown to be close friends, not because he was trying to co-opt a critic but because he spotted that I care about what he cares about.

Through him, I’ve gotten to know some other remarkable artists, and I’ve attended some of the most thrilling performances of my career as an audience. Now I’m going to be able to see, up close, how Darren and Joe and David make their magic. You can expect me to write quite a lot about this experience.

Beyond that, I’m grateful to Darren for taking a chance on me. He put something out into the universe when he offered me this gig, and it’s no coincidence that, shortly thereafter, the long wait ended and I found a publisher for the Madeline Kahn biography. That’s powerful friendship — and I thank him.

Darren.
Photo by Ellen Appel.


So as not to confuse you, I’ll stop talking about the 2013 season now and remind you of this year’s operas. Evening performances are at 7:30, matinées at 2:00. Three Decembers plays at the Scott Theater, the rest at Bass Hall in downtown Fort Worth. Go to www.fwopera.org now to order your tickets!

Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro
Featuring Donovan Singletary, mezzo Wallis Giunta, and other fresh young singers.
May 19, 27 matinée; June 1.

Puccini’s Tosca
Starring soprano Carter Scott, who blew me away as Fort Worth’s Turandot a few seasons ago, alongside tenor Roger Honeywell and baritone Michael Chioldi, who is guaranteed to take the tedium out of the Te Deum.
May 12, 20 matinée, 25; June 2.

Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata
A comedy written by another friend of mine, reuniting native Texans Ava Pine and tenor Scott Scully (Angels in America).
May 26; June 3 matinée.

Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers
A chamber opera about love and tensions in one family, starring my beloved Janice Hall.
May 13 matinée, 18, 20, 26 matinée, 31; June 2 matinée.
(At the Scott Theater, Fort Worth Community Arts Center.)



*NOTE: How German is it? Well, my character is most often called not a “Major-Domo,” but a “Haushofmeister.” Try saying that with a mouth full of Saltines.


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10 May 2012

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08 May 2012

Les Zélections, Part Deux

Le bling, c’est moi.

Socialist candidate François Hollande was widely predicted to prevail in Sunday’s runoff election for the French presidency, and now that the predictions held true, we may not remember just how volatile the race was or how close the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, came to victory. If Sarkozy had been able to pick off more voters from the political center and far right, he could have done much more than narrow Hollande’s already-slim lead.

In the event, the endorsements Sarkozy desired simply did not come. Centrist François Bayrou stopped short of endorsing Hollande — and even characterized the Socialist platform as dangerous — yet announced that, while his supporters should vote their consciences, he would vote for Hollande himself. Bayrou is the sort of middle-of-the-road politician whom everybody respects and yet whom very few actually follow to the polls. Nevertheless, I suspect that most French voters saw the part about “I’m voting for Hollande,” skipped over the part about “His program is dangerous,” and as a result found it difficult if not impossible to believe Sarkozy’s attempts to paint Hollande as an extremist.

The far-right, as represented by Marine Le Pen of the Front National, proved even more challenging for Sarkozy’s campaign. Le Pen refused to endorse or to vote for Sarkozy — she announced that she’d cast a blank ballot rather than support him. Emboldened by an unexpectedly strong showing in the first-round elections, on April 22, she has been thoroughly enjoying her new position as kingmaker/spoiler/insurgent, and it’s hard to find a picture of her anymore where she is not striking a “Don’t cry for me” pose (even though she’s more likely singing the Marseillaise than the score to Evita). French pundits now assert that the FN will fare well in the upcoming legislative elections, and that Sarkozy’s party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, will have to strike all sorts of deals and accommodations with the FN in order to hold onto any kind of power or influence.

One reason Le Pen’s (relative) success was unexpected, is that her partisans historically don’t cooperate with public-opinion surveys. Why would they? Most of the country looks down on the FN, and besides, survey-takers are exactly the sort of establishment drones that the party is fed up with. As he has throughout so much of his career, Sarkozy tried to appeal to the FN, more and more overtly, but in the end he failed to meet his goal.

Co-co-ri-co!
We haven’t heard the last of Marine Le Pen.

What’s interesting is how often Sarkozy has seemed to think he was using a sort of dog whistle in order to communicate with Front voters, as if only they — and nobody else — could hear him when he addressed their favorite issues, notably immigration and nationalism. Yet again and again, even members of his party and high-profile members of his government balked, as they did when the much-vaunted “debate over French identity” threatened to devolve into an orgy of state-sponsored immigrant-bashing.

Sarkozy’s fixation on halal meat, a recurring theme in this campaign, is another example of his attempts to reach out to the FN. If anybody can explain to me why I’m threatened by eating meat that’s been prepared according to Islamic rules, or why it would be so terrible to do so without being told first that I was eating halal, I’m eager to hear it. Otherwise it seems no less healthy than eating Kosher meat — and as for the religious blessings, well, I don’t freak out when Christian friends say grace over dinner, either.

Sarkozy’s campaign made it seem as if there were something insidious about the rising sales of halal food, as if Muslims were somehow stealthily corrupting their neighbors through their meals. When even this tactic didn’t attract sufficient numbers of FN voters, Sarkozy went further, eventually declaring that there are “too many immigrants in France” and calling for changes in border policies and immigration law.

These were hardly the first such appeals he’s made in the course of his career, and to me they’ve always seemed calculated in a way that has less to do with electoral politics and more to do with anticipated but unspoken concerns about Sarkozy himself. After all, his own father was an immigrant from Hungary, and his own wife is an immigrant from Italy. And while Marine Le Pen has steered the FN away from the explicitly anti-Semitic position of her father, Jean-Marie, Sarkozy must have seen some benefit in distancing himself from questions about his own family’s Jewish heritage. Again and again, he strove to make clear that his own background afforded him no special sympathy for families currently in similar circumstances in France.

Paradoxically, however, Sarkozy’s position served more to legitimize what might otherwise have been considered a fringe party. He, as much as Marine Le Pen, made the Front National respectable. By echoing the FN line so often for so long, he made it easier for French voters to side with her — and against himself.

The campaign has provided first-rate political theater, not least including the debate between Sarkozy and Hollande on May 2, in which the candidates’ positions amounted to “You’re a liar!” and “You never take responsibility for anything!”

Others of Sarkozy’s political calculations had an impact on voters across the spectrum, and now that he’s lost the election, it will be easier and more urgently necessary to assess them. What strikes me is that Sarkozy, a Gaullist, shared Charles de Gaulle’s “certaine idée de la France,” one that goes beyond mere patriotism to insist on the country’s role on the world stage. De Gaulle opted to assert France’s influence and exceptionalism by going it alone: breaking ties with NATO and playing the U.S. and the Soviet Union off of each other. But Sarkozy, in a vastly changed environment, seems to have followed a page from Tony Blair’s playbook instead.

According to such analyses, for a smaller power to look like a winner, you must ally yourself with those greater powers who are going to win in any case, with you or without you. And just as Blair tied himself to George W. Bush, so Sarkozy tied himself militarily to NATO (and by extension to the United States) — and economically to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The latter strategy in particular cost him dearly.

Even now that Merkel’s single-minded campaign for austerity has been rebuked by voters across Europe (and in the pages of The New York Times, thanks to relentless criticism from that newspaper’s Nobel Prize-winning columnist, Paul Krugman), she refuses to back down. I daresay that, from the start, Sarkozy spotted Merkel’s intransigence, recognized that he couldn’t win by opposing her, and thus hoped to win by joining her. Never mind that French voters historically have a hard time swallowing ideas they find too “Saxon,” whether the subject is pasteurized-milk cheese or economic policy, whether the ideas come from Germany or from Britain or from the United States: Sarkozy took an exceptional risk.

For a time, the gambit seemed to pay off, and with both of Europe’s largest economies in lockstep, the other nations fell in line — for a while. But Sarkozy’s strategy also made it much easier for Hollande to tap into popular frustration (on both the right and the left) and to call for a break with austerity and a new embrace of growth.

As many American pundits are writing today, Hollande’s policies are thus the antithesis of those promoted by the Republican Party here and in the budget put forth by Rep. Paul Ryan. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Hollande will become Barack Obama’s closest ally, particularly since Hollande explicitly rejects U.S. military policy in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but it does mean that there will be a certain amount of common diplomatic ground in coming months, despite the departure of Sarkozy, who yearned so poignantly to become Obama’s BFF.

I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say about Hollande, and soon, but for now Sarkozy strikes me as the central character in this drama: after all, it was not least by being “anyone but Sarkozy” that Hollande sailed to victory. In temperament especially, Sarkozy always seemed precisely the wrong person to manage the kinds of reforms that France needs (as he acknowledged, sometimes) and that Hollande will probably duck; the great curiosity is that both Sarkozy’s victories and his failures are so dubious. There will be a lot of mess to clean up in Sarkozy’s absence, and the newly empowered FN is just one of the outgoing President’s legacies with which the nation and much of the rest of Europe will find it difficult to cope.

And the winner is … François Hollande!
Who may soon learn to be more careful what he wishes.




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