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

THE TITANIC'S BAND PLAYS IN A SCENE FROM A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, 1958
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

THE ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA'S PRODUCTION OF THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER, 2012
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 CNN.com* 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

FROM TOSCA, TENOR MARCELO ALVAREZ AS THE PAINTER CAVARODOSSI, WITH HIS RENDITION OF ST. MARY MAGDELINE
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