Wednesday, May 22, 2013

In other news

Today is the 200th birthday of the Richard Wagner. 

I wish I had something bloggy to say about him, you know, cheeky and showing off how smart and above it all I am, but all I can say is that his operas are some of the most beautiful things I've ever experienced.

As someone also doing a PhD in German, I should especially say something about his impact on German history, but all I can say is that his operas are some of the most beautiful things I've ever experienced.

The Difference between Right and Left

If David Miller, the former mayor of Toronto (and purported socialist) had been caught on tape smoking crack and spewing racial epithets, and Gawker were fundraising $200,000 to get a copy of the tape, they would have raised the money in a single day and we would all be watching it on the Internet, alongside the video of David Miller's resignation.

Funnily enough, I was walking through the Junction a few weeks ago, and David Miller walked past me.  He smiled, and I wished I had said, "we miss you!".  Miller was far from perfect, but he never made Toronto the laughing stock of the world.  Oh but he also raised taxes so he's the devil.

I really do wonder, what would it take for "Ford Nation" to lose faith in this clown?  Given that he's really a cipher for alienated rage, I suppose the answer is nothing, but you are welcome to venture forth in the comments!

But back to my original point.  The reason there is a Ford Nation is because a lot of people here, in fact, about a third of Torontonians, are always out for blood, and they are nearly all completely on the right side of the political equation.  I often try to ask myself, why are these people so angry, but in that anger comes an incredible amount of reality-bending motivation.

How many people on the left could you imagine seeing a video like that of David Miller and then trying to argue it was doctored?  And yet this is the standard line, as though these drug dealers sat some guy in front of  a green screen and then CGI'd Rob Ford into the video!!  Can you imagine how insane that sounds?  It would be cheaper to just outspend him in the next civic election!

No the "left's" actual tactic was to try to have him legally removed from office, which failed.  If the video is real, Rob Ford did this to himself, and not the staff at ILM, who created it while on a break from the latest Star Wars film.

Friday, May 17, 2013


Today's been a pretty crazy day here in Toronto.  We had an earthquake this morning, and then the Toronto Star broke a story about a video supposedly showing Rob Ford smoking crack and making racial slurs.

Except the Star didn't break the story.  I happened to be on Gawker last night when they put up the whole thing, read it, (you should too, it's kind of amazing) and then went to the Star to see their reaction.

Except there was nothing there.

Come today, it turns out the Star has been sitting on the story and the released it, and pretended as though it was theirs all along. As a result, there's some pretty funny (and nasty) stuff going on between the Star and Gawker on twitter, which is actually kind of sad, because although Gawker is completely right that the Star is being stupid in claiming this is their story, Gawker doesn't seem to know that the Star, as far as Canadian papers go, is maybe the last bastion of relatively decent journalism in the country and not a front for business interests like the Globe and Mail and National Post.  Instead they're playing the whole "Canadians are dumb boring people who don't really know much about things", except for the fact that they get all the same media as we Americans and watch it obsessively..."

That being said, it's comically cheeky of the Star to call their slightly differing account of the tape an "exclusive", and I can see why people at Gawker, like Tom Scocca, are so angry about it, or at least appear to be really angry about it on twitter.  And it's also annoying for the Star to get all self-righteous about Gawker getting pissed off, given how much of the paper lauds its own muckraking when no one else is doing it.

I'm actually really glad Gawker broke it, in part because Canadians usually only take something seriously when Americans are involved, and it also makes it a lot harder for the usual Ford crowd to merely blame the Star for this.

I guess I'm talking about this and not about the actual video in part because these are the only people to have seen it, and so this is actually the story right now, in which two rare outfits where decent journalism is still practiced are totally crapping over each other. 

That's actually the saddest part because Rob Ford has been a lost cause for so long now that's it's not actually even worth talking about him.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

A Tale of Two Columnists

There are two columns worth reading in the Toronto Star today.  Royson James, who I don't always agree with, in part because he constantly plays devil's advocate, has a really nice piece on the issue of the Scarborough subway.  I can't help but wonder if the decision today by Toronto City Council to discuss transit taxes was fuelled in part by James' cogent analysis of the rank hypocrisy that surrounds the debate over whether or not Scarborough should get a subway extension or an LRT.

Although I live in downtown Toronto, and I guess I'm supposed to be at war with people in Scarborough and Etobicoke, my deeply held socialist beliefs force me to believe that if we taxed the hell out of everyone, we could have subways running down every major street in the entire city, whether we needed them or not.  That even includes people who live in Scarborough or Etobicoke or all those something-York areas north of Bloor and West or East of the downtown core are called..

Seriously though, James makes a good point about the actual politics going on, and how the absence of a Scarborough subway isn't necessarily just because we downtowners don't think they deserve one, but that their own representatives on Council are part of the problem.


Which brings me to the other column, by Martin Regg Cohn, which concerns the recent Ontario provincial budget.  Unlike James column, Cohn tells us all about the various statistics that show us we're in a slump, and accuses the current Finance minister, Charles Sousa, of ignoring the plight of the Ontario economy. 

The problem with this piece is that Cohn himself admits, at the very end, that there's very little Ontario can do to actually change its position in a national economy run by a federal government more concerned about extracting the remains of long-dead dinosaurs in Alberta than pretty much anything else. 

Instead, he trots out the usual centrist Canadian columnists' bromide about the Ontario government needing to instill "an entrepreneurial spirit in Ontario’s commercial classes" in order to "kick-start" Ontario's economy.  Maybe people aren't feeling so entrepreneurial because that magical market put Ontario into this predicament in the first place.  Does anyone remember the economic meltdown of 2008?  Rescuing the auto industry and such? No?

Perhaps Cohn was trying to be balanced after writing a number of pieces that were more supportive of the Liberals?  And his editor told him he needed some balance?  Maybe I'm just tired of hearing how Ontario's economic problems boil down to some regulatory fiddling and letting "the market" step in and magically figure everything out, and how pointless his column seems, except to allow the trolls who populate the Star website to talk about how if only government got out of the way (because it's always somehow in the way, I guess, building roads, cleaning water and taking away our garbage). 

That's not actually how markets work, ever, and generally, it's when we let the markets do their thing that all hell breaks loose.


Friday, May 03, 2013

Salome at the COC

So we went to see the Canadian Opera Company's revival of Salome Wednesday night.

It was awful. 

A long-standing tradition of mine, when I know I'm going to see an opera, is to avoid the reviews, in part because I don't really want to know what I'm seeing until I'm seeing it.  However, what both of them convey quite nicely is the insipidness of our critical culture here in Canada.

To be fair actually, the Toronto Star review, by John Terauds is OK.  I think he's trying to be diplomatic, but he is not nearly as hard on the staging as he should be.  And I think he, like many Canadian classical critics, is much more polite about the quality of the singing (and the musical direction) than he needs to be.

The Globe and Mail review, however, reads like copy from a Canadian Opera Company press release.  Who is J.D. Considine?  It turns out he's a rock critic, who also now does jazz reviews for the Globe and Mail, which makes him a perfect candidate to review an opera!

Am I being snotty here?  You bet!  It would be like asking me to review a rock concert!  Has he ever reviewed an opera before?  A quick Google search indicates that he reviewed Tannhäuser at some time, but that's it.

I don't really read the Globe and Mail anymore, in part because the quality of the writing and reportage has steadily declined over the years, but his review is more of a joke than Atom Egoyan's "controversial" staging of Salome.

Mr. Considine completely swallows Egoyan's premise, which is that somehow, Salome needs some kind of updating so that people would understand it better.  What's worse is that nearly every review of the opera online essentially concedes this premise.  You know, that opera is old, and difficult to understand, and so we need to have it explained to us by the director, who occupies the role of a benevolent storyteller father, like Stalin.

Except it doesn't.  Especially not this one.

Nearly everyone talks about how Egoyan successfully conveys "psychological depth" and "family issues" in this production.  However, my sense is that he did this mainly through his program notes, which everyone dutifully read and accepted as Egoyan somehow shining a light on an aspect of the opera that had, until now, been neglected.  In essence, he argues that his production seeks to move away from thinking of Salome as a femme fatale, and more as a product of her environment, that perhaps she has been sexually abused, and in the midst of damaged and violent environment, herself becomes an expression of this violence.

Except that the first lines that Salome sings in the entire opera are the following:

Ich will nicht bleiben.  Ich kann nicht bleiben.  Warum sieht mich der Tetrarch fortwährend so an, mit seinen Maulwurfsaugen unter den zuckenden Lidern?  Es ist seltsam, dass der Mann meiner Mutter mich so ansieht.


I will not stay. I cannot stay. Why does the Tetrarch look at me all the while with his mole's eyes under his shaking eyelids ? It is strange that the husband of my mother looks at me like that.

So Egoyan's entire justification for his staging, the premise that he proceeds to beat you over the head with by deploying cliche after cliche, is something which Wilde and Strauss manage to convey in about a minute of music and dialogue.  We know that she is disturbed and bothered by Herod's sexual advances.  Showing us a girl on a swing, and then Salome getting (symbolically now, in a positive contrast to the 1997 production) gang-raped by the Jews(!) during the dance of the seven veils doesn't really do anything but serve to show that Egoyan is good at manipulating the bored narcissists who I suppose he (and many others), believe make up a good chunk of modern opera audiences.

Why do I seem really pissed off about this? In part, I actually spent a month in Vancouver back in the 90's watching this opera (this very Egoyan production in fact) get put together.  There were things that bothered me about the production, but I was never able to really express them, maybe because I was so much younger, and I, like most of the people reviewing this opera now, naively believed that there was some kind of productive relationship between "edgy" and "arty".

Now I'm a bit older, and a bit wiser, and I can't help but see just how terrible the whole thing is now.  I mean, Herod in this production is meant to be a drug lord or something (at least he was in 1997).  So why the hell does he have John the Baptist in his basement?  Was he some unlucky Jehovah's Witness, whose monthly door-knocking excursion went horribly, horribly wrong?

And I know that this is when well-intentioned people will step in and say, "No, no Andrew, it's art, and Egoyan is trying to convey the allegorical aspect of Salome here."  But what's the allegory in a drug dealer having a religious fanatic in his basement?  The entire crux of the story is that Jochanaan is a kind of political prisoner, held there but not to be killed.  His death has tremendous implications, but the way Egoyan stages it deprives the entire story of this tension.  Herod is just a pervert, and John the Baptist a disheveled nut.

I suppose this is what enrages me (yes I know, 1st world problems, blah, blah blah, don't care about art or the human condition when there are more important things to be worried about) is how so much of this is framed as "controversy".

It's the ultimate arts marketing dodge  - stage a bad production, but throw in a blowjob (no really, there's one in this staging!), some nudity and also a sense that Salome is really just an damaged child by showing us a film of it, and it comes out the other side as "controversial".

I think what it's really called is bullshit.

I've seen some really interesting modern stagings.  They don't always work, but they are often pretty good.  This wasn't.  This staging of Salome seems to rely on the viewer to trust Atom Egoyan to have some insight into the opera simply because he's Atom Egoyan, and in the auteur-starved country of Canada, I suppose that's enough.  And I say this having really enjoyed Egoyan's production of Wagner's Die Walküre a number of years ago at the COC, so I'm not saying he's incapable of it either.

Suffice to say that Egoyan performs a very nice bit of sleight of hand - he and the COC marketing department manage to fool most people into thinking that what is completely obvious in the libretto and music of the opera in fact emerges only thanks to his ingenious direction!

I could go on for a looooong time about the problems in this production, but I would actually also like to talk a little about the music, which was almost equally disappointing.

The production was, overall, not terribly well sung.  I mean, there were no stand out bad singers, and to be fair to Egoyan, I think he gets one character right (Herodias), who also happened to be the strongest and most compelling actor and singer in last night's performance.

The Salome was excellent, although she, like many of the singers, struggled to be heard over the orchestra, to the extent that the fault must lie with the conductor, either in his casting of the roles, or of his handling of the orchestra.

I have yet to be really amazed by our new music director's handling either the music, the singers or the orchestra, and I genuinely wonder why some of the singers were cast in this production when they fairly clearly were not entirely well suited to the roles. I mean, it's never bad, but I certainly don't understand why the COC orchestra is always singled out for praise, except that they are often the best part of a mediocre performance.

If you were planning on going, don't, unless you are OK with spending money to listen to the last 10 minutes of the opera, which not even this staging could ruin.  I don't want to say that it's worth it just for the end, but the opera succeeds despite what's gone on before, because not even Atom Egoyan could get in the way of Strauss' sublime music and sense of drama.  He tried, but at the end, Strauss managed to triumph over the intellectual and emotional desolation of this production.

Anyway, some of you might wonder why I never posted anything on the recent production of Tristan at the COC.  I saw it, but unfortunately I injured myself on the way to the opera, and didn't really feel like writing much up at the time, and now it seems a very long time ago!

That being said, I also saw Opera Atelier's recent production of Mozart's The Magic Flute with my son and girlfriend.  Unlike Salome, this production was straightforward and simple (read traditional), and yet incredibly engaging.  Opera Atelier advertised it as a great "first" opera for kids, and it was true.  But what made it great fun was that the production let the opera speak for itself, in all its sublime strangeness

I've said this before, but I am really tired of the idea that every opera going experience has to be sold as providing some added pseudo-pedagogical value.  First of all, most modern productions don't actually do this (see above) and secondly, I think it's time we stop insisting on the idea that classical music is somehow good for us as a way of justifying its existence in light of its high costs.

But I need to think about this more before I actually attempt to explain myself!  Some other time, then.