Thursday, September 28, 2006


Opera is big this month. There was Toronto's own staging of the Ring, but the manjor story right now is the recent cancellation of a production of Mozart's Idomeneo at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, which was to feature the severed head of Mohammed, among other severed heads.

The cancellation has, unsurprisingly, provoked howls of outrage from many circles, and indeed, it seems as though the cancellation is entirely due to fears that mobs in middle east will rise up and protest this representation of Mohammed, or that someone will come along and blow up the opera house.

However, Alex Ross, critic for the New Yorker, while standing firmly on the side the Deutsche Oper should have carried on with the production, his makes a point that I had yet to see anywhere else - the production sucks.

I think many would agree that cancelling the production out of fears that Muslims may do something is both idiotic and patronizing, and only reinforces the stereotypes of Muslims as a characteristically violent and reactionary people. Indeed, it appears that this is precisely what the German security officials believed when they recommended the show be cancelled.

It also seems that cancelling the production has brought much more attention to its offensiveness than likely would have occurred if they had staged it - people who think opera is that woman on TV in the afternoons are now going to sit around and urge the production be saved in order to preserve the very freedoms our grandfathers fought to preserve, and stuff like that.

However, I think this misses the most important point - the production was vulgar shite. Let me draw a line in the sand. There are disturbing, thought-provoking productions that force one to look at the world in a new light. And then there's bringing a quartet of decapitated heads at the end of an opera that has no place for them dramatically.

Let's just flesh this out a bit. At the end of this cancelled production, Idomeneo, the King of Crete, comes out on stage carrying the decapitated heads of Neptune, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad. That's right folks, Idomeneo manages to kill three divinely-related humans and a deathless pagan god. It's hard to miss the subtlety here, because there is none - it's incoherent.

I'm surprised Hans Neuenfels, the director of this production, didn't ask the singer playing Idomeno to then vomit all over the heads. Or, why not have him kill his family at the end too? Or hey, why have the heads at all - why not have Idomeneo tearfully masturbate to the closing strains of the opera? Or-

You can see how easy this is. Just come up with something offensive, and drop it in there, somewhere - there's no need for context.

Some directors are better at this kind of crap than others. Canada's own beloved Atom Egoyan, in directing a production of Strauss' Salome, decided to have the Page give Narraboth, Captain of Herod's Guards, a blow job - as though Salome needed to be more controversial. Indeed, this is a common affliction amongst who I take to be the most bored artists in all of Christendom - the opera director.

So what's really depressing about the Deutsche Oper cancellation isn't just the prejudiced fears about the muslim community, but that someone didn't decapitate this production before it got to the stage. Mozart, and the people who love his art, deserve better than this.

UPDATE: If my commenter is right, then it seems that Idomeneo may be back on. He suggests that this was perhaps a publicity stunt, although that's even more horrifying.

To clarify my own point, the people out there demanding this be performed obviously have no clue as to the aesthetic merits of the production themself. In fact, it appears that no one cares about the aesthetic merits. Rather, the craptacular must go on, no matter how incoherent and silly.

This is not about freedom of expression to me. If this were an opera about the life of Mohammed, or Jesus for that matter, that would be another matter entirely. But the controversy here surrounds a bored opera director irresponsibly playing with Mozart and the audience forced to sit through this.

I hate to say it, but the more I think about it, the less concerned I am about the freedom of expression issue here, because that's just the hammer the political class has decided to use to show that muslims are violent savages (let's remember that so far, there have been no direct threats). The real issue here is whether or not this is worth people's time and effort as a performance of musical drama, if it says anything, if it has any dramatic value. This is a fantastic opportunity to discuss the state of opera directors, and instead we've got a tired, unproductive and deeply repetitive series of assertion about "artistic freedom".

That should be the central issue here, but that would mean that we have a culture actively concerned about art and aesthetics. I seems we don't.

Friday, September 22, 2006

On Letter Writing

I was glad to see a new post by Gawain over at Heaven Tree - I was worried, although callous man that I am, I did not write to inquire as to his condition, instead content to believe he was staring at clouds somewhere far away from a computer, which it turns out, he was.

I feel that, for the most part, I could probably restrict myself to discussing the topics he raises on his blog, and be pretty happy about my small contribution to this whole blogging business. As you can see from the date of the last post, it's been a while since I've managed to stop by Le Voir Dit. For some reason, this place doesn't feel like mine quite yet. Don't know why, but here we are.

Anyway, it does feel the appropriate place to touch on a remark of his about letter writing. I know a lot about writing letters, perhaps more than anyone should know about writing letters, and so I know precisely what Gawain wants when he asks, very gently, "I wonder, would any of you would ever like to write me a long-hand letter?" But rather than bore you with all of my letter writing escapades, I'll bore you with one.


I was in long-distance relationship with a girl during the twilight of letter writing as a medium in which people commonly set down their thoughts to each other. Although many intrepid souls had e-mail accounts those days, we were still in the dark ages (as we all know technology=progress), and as the telephone companies in Canada were still, for the most part, public monopolies, lingering conversations on our days spent working dead end summer jobs and pining for each other's bodies would have quickly exhausted our "saving for visits" accounts.

So we wrote. We had met in Vienna (Think Before Sunrise - similar in some numerous aspects, although the movie came later - did we bump into Richard Linklater at the Staatsoper?), and each of us began on the plane ride home what turned out to be 6 months of wonderful correspondence between the two of us, before the relationship ran out of gas.

I happened to discover (or rediscover) those letters when I was in Calgary last week. Ignoring the often hyperomantic and fatalistic bits of prose (Was that really me?), I really enjoyed rereaded her letters to me. And I think the main reason why I enjoyed it so was due in large part to having none of my own.

Part of the fun of reading old correspondence is reaching into the memorial archive and attempting to reconstruct what it was that set her off on page 3, or what turned her on on page 7. I remember writing all sorts of passionate and very tortured things to her about myself and my life, things that I'd probably rather not read again, not because I'm afraid to reexperience them, but because I suspect they won't be very well-written or insightful.

There's a good reason why so many great men destroy their youthful works. Not that I'm in their pantheon, but who wouldn't kick a rotting fish off a dock rather than leaving it to the cats?

Most of our written conversations to each other come in strings now, long strings of fragmented conversations. E-mail is not a place for essays or erudition. Letters on the other hand, beg for turns of phrase, cadence, and structure. There is something to the unity, the wholeness of the letter that makes it a wonderfully expressive medium. This wholeness has been lost in e-mail, although perhaps has been partly recovered in blogging.


I miss writing letters. Partly because I find writing much more enjoyable than typing - I have much less trouble getting thoughts out through my wrists than than through my fingers.

I also miss the intimacy, the different kinds of paper, the changes in pen colour, the notes on the envelope. I miss all the different ways in which someone can represent themselves to you before a single word has been uttered - The letter in which she told me it was over said it all before I had even opened it.

It is perhaps strange to consider them in this way, but letters are, at their core and in the practices around them, a gift. And now, it seems, a rare gift too. Perhaps this is a good thing, an antidote to the stats-obsessing and monster feeding occupation that is blogging.

I never thought I would find myself saying this again, but I wouldn't mind writing a letter to someone...Gawain?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Music and the Developing Brain

There's an article in the Arts and Entertainment section at (as opposed to the science section) about a study touting the cognitive benefits of music education for small children.

It mentions that even if what kids are doing sounds like "random notes or nonsense, it's likely their children are developing their brains in ways that could enhance their overall thinking".

I am very interested in how the ways in which we talk about things shapes the ways in which we value them. I am not an adherent to the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis, but it isn't implausible to me that the ways in which we talk or think about ourselves has an effect on the ways we behave - if not, how could people be affected by words at all?

I suppose the thing that troubles me about these kinds of articles is how the place of the fine arts appears to be shifting away from a more Romantic notion of these pursuits as the loftiest goals imaginable, to one where it turns out that painting and music will make you a better doctor or lawyer, because you'll do better in school.

In other words, the justification for these pursuits is shifting away from an intrinsic one (they're just worth pursuing), to an extrinsic one (they're worth pursuing because they will enhance what is now intrinsically worth pursuing).

Personally, I find this shift in thinking very troubling indeed, because it orders pursuits that make us happy behind pursuits that make us productive. Am I crazy to think it should be the other way around?

There is the larger issue of the concept of brain development, which I would like to touch on, but am utterly unqualified to, except to say that I think Ian Hacking is right to say that the very concept of the childhood has become inexorably tied to and defined by this notion of development.

I think this cashes out in a variety of ways, such as the fact that for children under 5, almost all toys and entertainment is geared around learning and development, whereas after 5 it all reverts to the largely banal pablum of cartoons too "wink wink nudge nudge" clever for children and not nearly clever enough for adults. In other words, the market has responded to these studies by providing people with ample opportunities to develop their child's brain, but once they're in school, there appears to be a massive cultural shift away from teaching children, to helping them consume products. (I know things aren't as black and white as this, but this is only a sketch, not a canvas).

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I want my kids to love music because it's a great human pursuit, and I want that to continue for as long as possible. Telling me that my kids will be better developed as a result of taking music sounds good, but I certainly don't want it to be everything for all those people who are not as passionately into music or the arts as I am.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Tale of Two Cities

I mentioned in an earlier post Montréal's celebration of the OSM's new music director, Kent Nagano. And celebration is the right word - it seems that, if no one else, the media and political élite, as well as the Roman Catholic church (are they still part of the élite in Montréal?), were entirely caught up in the fact that there was a new man of the arts in town.

While the Canadian media focuses on the terrible shootings in Montréal, often trying to articulate it as a Québec problem (Did anyone else notice how the "distinct society", rejected in many circles in English Canada, seems to fit very nicely as the basis, the ground, as an explanation for these tragic events in many of the opinion pieces and attempts to come to grips with what happened?) , I'd like to turn things around and again trumpet something that Montréal does quite well - celebrate the arts.

I recall it because there was no greater contrast to Montréal's experience than sitting in the Jack Singer Concert Hall in Calgary to catch the début of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra's new music director, Roberto Minczuk, as he lead the orchestra in a fine performance of two symphonies: Haydn's 88th and Mahler's 5th. (More on the concert itself in a couple of days.)

The hall wasn't full. There was a new music director, with Mahler on the programme, and the hall wasn't full.

I should point out, hypocrite that I am, that I have been to a total of one Toronto Symphony Orchestra concerts since moving here nearly a decade ago. But I was a regular attendee to CPO concerts back in the day, and it was shocking to see a good chunk of empty seats in the hall. The hall would have been packed 10 years ago.

Moreover, the CPO is a great mid-sized orchestra. They played these works well, with a tight sound, and it was doubly depressing to see how poorly received all this was in the heart of the New West.

I guess what was sad for me was that I moved away from Calgary for precisely these reasons, a kind of hostility to the fine arts amongst the general population. If you're under 18, there are some phenomenal opportunities for classical musicians in Calgary, with the Mount Royal Conservatory program and the Kiwanis Festival providing a pretty strong foundation. After you turn 18 however, things go downhill fairly fast. What happens to all these kids when they leave? Has anyone ever noticed that many artists trained by these fantastic programs in Calgary, never stay there, that there is a serious cultural brain drain out there, to turn another old chestnut on its head?

Perhaps I'm making too much of this, but an editorial in the Calgary Herald while I was there reinforced some of my old prejudices about how people deal with the arts in there, and perhaps why all these talented young musicians either flee or give up. Entitled, "Plumbers have honour, too", it is essentially a plea by the Herald Editorial Board for young people to enter trades.

What I find unsurprising, but tiring still the same, is the focus on arts or humanities degrees as comprising the class of individuals who should put down those books and pick up the monkey wrench.

"Canada needs philosophers, but not a nation full of them." says the editorial board, and I say, my god, what a nation we would have if we were all philosophers! Can you imagine the kind of democracy we'd live in?

Beyond the patronizing silliness of the editorial, especially given the editorial board is probably stacked with Arts grads, there is a blindness here to the large masses of BComm degrees granted by the University of Calgary, which time and time again, has been shown to be one of the least effective degrees for er, success in business.

These, and the other "applied" degrees aren't mentioned, because I suppose, one can make the straight connection between their degree and their job.

I actually would agree with their editorial board that too many degrees are being granted, but the reasons for this isn't due to a massive increase in Arts and Humanities degrees, but as a result of all these applied degrees.

You can get a degree in Philosophy at U of C, and you can also get a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management - which do you think has more majors? Who do you think is more useful? A degree's usefulness is a one-to-one correspondence between what's on your parchment and your job title? It seems so, because arts majors get it on both sides for this.

It's also terribly, terribly wrong, and cuts to the heart of whether or not education is designed to create citizens, or workers. We all know where the Calgary Herald editorial board stands on this divide, and it is a divide, but it saddened me to watch the CPO give a fantastic performance to a house with empty seats, and I can't help but think that, while we're all searching for "cultural" reasons to explain events, that there isn't a relationship between the Herald editorial and CPO attendance.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Moving Right Along

I know at least one of you listened to Das Rheingold last night!

I did too, and I was pretty impressed. The first thing that stood out was the quartet-like transparency of the orchestra. I don't know if it's the hall or the miking of the orchestra, but I'll reserve judgement until I actually see something in the house.

The performance itself was well sung and well-played. I felt conductor Richard Bradshaw's pacing of the score sometimes got away from him, but the overall sense of majesty that I think is appropriate to Das Rheingold came through very clearly. You can read other reviews here and here.

Now, what about Die Walkure if you're new to all this? I would, if you're still awake, tuning in around 10:30 tonight. This is about when Wotan will be putting his daughter Brünnhilde to sleep after disobeying him. It is one of the great moments of the entire cycle. Or, you can just listen to the whole thing on CBC Radio Two, starting at 6:30. (And was it just me, or did last night's presence of retired Toronto Star critic William Littler with Howard Dyck come off strangely like a post-NFL wrap up?)


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Woolf in Sheep's Clothing

Das Rheigold, the first opera in the Ring Cycle (or, to be pedantic, the Prelude to the three operas) begins tonight at 6:30. Radio Two frequencies across Canada are here, or you can just listen from your computer from here.

Now then, on to a couple of things.

For those of you still wedded to the notion that the CBC only favours the likes of Noam Chomsky and Fidel Castro, you would have been overjoyed to have heard the patrician voice of Theodore Dalrymple (it's a pen name) talking about the decline of British civilization being the result of, wait for it, liberalism.

A quick googling of his name reveals that he's well published in conservative circles, and he's an articulate voice who I, tree-hugging, identity-politics loving prole that I am, actually found enjoyable to listen to and to read.

Did I buy a word he was saying? Well, sort of, until I stumbled on his article blaming Virginia Woolf for the decline of Western Civilization. Yes, you heard that right - those damn Bloomsburians screwed it all up for us.

I think his appeal is that he, like so many conservatives, plies his trade on the myth of the decline, and that we need to recover those old values to save civilization. This is why someone like Woolf could be a target, because she didn't support her man and pop children from her womb like a just-filled Pez. Instead, she made love to women and wrote difficult modernist fiction.

It's not just conservatives who buy into this myth - it has wide appeal across the political spectrum. But I believe the myth of the decline is essential to a particular strain of conservative thought, and it also happens to be the one that, when properly tapped, gets conservatives elected.

The golden era usually called to mind is the 1950's, a time when huge numbers of men had just returned from Europe having seen friends blown to bits, and the reality of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust behind them. Has anyone ever considered what kind of an effect that, in addition to their military training, led to the creation of a highly organized, stratified society in the immediate aftermath of the war? Or that this is what, if nothing else, people wanted projected back to them by their mythmakers in the media?

I know it's an armchair theory, easily refutable, but the notion of decline is so pervasive that it's worth taking a moment to wonder if there are any explanations for this myth. Again though, it's those "elites" according to Dalyrmple who've screwed everything up for the rest of us, and ruined the lives of the common people.

I actually agree with his sentiment that there's something fishy about someone who wants to spend enourmous amounts of tax dollars feeding and clothing the poor yet can't stand to look at them on the street, contempt worn on their faces like a new suit.

However, I would argue that there are a whole vast class of "elites", or which Dalrymple is most certainly one, all with different needs and interests and beliefs about the world and its people, who don't make up any kind of homogenous unit, who frame and dictate the terms of many of our political and intellectual debates. These people are to the right and to the left of us, and the struggle for power is still, to a great extent, their struggle.


On a completely different note, while Toronto (and by extension, Canada) waits for the Ring, it seems to have escaped the English media, with the exception of Paul Wells, that Montréal shut down, pealed bells, and generally made a big deal of the fact that their main orchestra, the OSM, had a new conductor. They showed us Torontonians what city pride can be about, celebrating yet another of Canada's myriad "cultures".

Here my friends, is the difference between us Anglos and our Gallic cousins - they don't appear get all hostile and resentful about so-called high culture. Reading Le Devoir on Saturday, with it's unabashed Culture section, as opposed to the mashed up high and low culture sections of most English dailies, was also a treat. Here's to keeping those worlds apart, each with aspects to enjoy and savour, but rarely placed on the same table for comparison.

Yet another thing we can learn from the wonder everyone resents them.

You can listen to the OSM concert performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony here (English CBC take note - please follow the lead of Radio Canada and the BBC and start to leave concert performances up for a little while)

Monday, September 11, 2006

All Wagner, All The Time

A quick note to everyone that the Canadian Opera Company's long-anticipated production of Richard Wagner's Der Ring Des Nibelungen begins tomorrow. CBC has gone all out, broadcasting not only the cycle this week live, but packing Radio Two with more Wagner than you can twirl a baton to!

But if the stage drama isn't enough for you, this article in the Star reminds us not only of the sheer pressure of performing the Ring, but also that there's more drama off stage than ever makes it into performance.

I won't be in town for the first performance, but I will try to catch it on the radio, and I hope you do to! And for those of you who don't like Wagner, now's your chance to JOIN US!!! My suggestion to newbies is to tune into the opening of Das Rheingold tomorrow, listen to the first 15 minutes, tune out, come back about two hours later, and listen to the end.

If that music doesn't affect you, then I can only conclude that you're some kind of heartless zombie, or you've learned your lessons from the pop music marketing industry too well. If that's the case, I feel sorry for you.

If not, and you enjoy it, then come back here and I'll suggest some other snippets to catch for Die Walkure, the second opera in the series. And please do leave comments to let me know what you think.

Also on tap this week on JS will be some food reviews and perhaps a photo essay (hopefully).