Sunday, November 27, 2011

Satyagraha, more...

There’s just one more production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha at the Met, although it’s being shown in HD practically everywhere. I loved the opera, but can’t imagine that sitting through a simulcast would be anything but tedious. I believe in live music and live opera, especially since reading (in an article I can no longer find) that smaller city opera companies are closing and one of the reasons is the availability of simulcasts. Because opera houses insist on playing the same 18th and 19th century chestnuts over and over (enough with the Marriage of Figaro already!), opera often deserves its stuffy reputation. However no other genre has the possibility of fulfilling all the senses the way opera can, which makes it the ultimate art form. However I believe its possibilities—the synergy of visual art, music, dance and theater—haven’t even begun to be fully explored.

I also have an inside track through my friend, Timothy Breese, a bass-baritone who has sung with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus since 1999. In Satyagraha he’s front and center—tall and handsome, with a brimmed red hat and purple mustache. Through my friendship with Tim I’ve learned what it takes to maintain an operatic voice—mostly relentless daily practice and private coaching—and about the seemingly impossible feat of memorization. To me, the job of the chorus appears in some ways more challenging than that of soloists, as they’re not singing pieces from beginning to end, but continually starting and stopping at various points throughout. This season Tim sang in 23 operas, of which seven were new. When he began working with the chorus, in order to catch up he had to immediately master several at once, on his own, spending 100 hours on Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron alone (one of the most gorgeous productions, both visually and musically, I’ve seen), which he says is probably the most difficult opera for chorus ever written. Tim also ranks Satyagraha among the most challenging.

Photo: Metropolitan Opera, Satyagraha

And Jim Hodges hangs a disco ball over a hole filled with water in a gallery floor and we’re supposed to be impressed…. Whoops! I‘m getting off-topic….

What I was going to say before I so rudely interrupted myself, is that another thing I learned from Tim is the value of persistence.

Three days before Tim first sang in what turned out to be a grueling round of auditions for the Met, he also tried out for what I’ll call the Podunk Dinner Theater. At the Met, he was one of six or seven ultimately selected from a pool of more than 600 hopefuls.

He did not make the Podunk Dinner Theater.

This story, which I relate to students whenever I have the opportunity, was key in the development of my Malcolm Gladwell-esque ITOTKO (It Takes One To Know One) theory, the premise of which is that only excellence recognizes excellence. To elaborate: only someone as smart or accomplished as you is going to recognize how smart and/or accomplished you are. Forget working your way up, because the people you encounter in the low or mid-ranks are not capable of appreciating your gifts. Yet most people, thinking conventionally, would say to themselves,  “Wow, I didn’t make the Podunk Dinner Theater, so I can’t possibly audition for the Met.”

This is why it’s important to KEEP GOING NO MATTER WHAT.  
It was much more fun, however, when I thought I could make excuses.


Note: This is what Tim said when I asked him what makes Moses und Aron so especially difficult:
"Moses und Aron is completely atonal. The notes were sometimes literally thrown down a stair and then used in the pattern they fell in, backwards, upside down, and in every possible rhythm combination and meter. Heard enough? It's a terrific opera though."

Friday, November 25, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

I realize most everyone (at least 9 million people) have seen this, but it cannot be played too many times:

Friday, November 18, 2011

Occupy, Satyagraha and...

Moonset, Tulum, Mexico 11-12-11

I spent last week in the Yucatan, getting up before 4:00 a.m. practicing yoga, meditating and chanting in Sanskrit on the beach facing the rising sun—with the setting full moon behind us.

My return to New York felt like a continuation when, Tuesday evening, I saw Philip Glass’s opera, Satyagraha, at the Met, a meditative experience sung in Sanskrit. Instead of a story line, the opera consists of series of tableaus representing the movement Gandhi led in South Africa up until 1914—where, as Glass says in his notes, “Almost all the techniques of social and political protest that are now the common currency of contemporary life were invented and perfected.” The opera is an anti-drama: instead of building to a climax, the final act is gentle and quiet. featuring a transcendent solo by Richard Croft as Gandhi (this is the best example of his “Evening Song” I could find on the Web; I don’t know who’s singing it).

The irony was not lost on me that while non-violent protest was being celebrated in as august and mainstream an institution as the Metropolitan Opera, Mayor Bloomberg was preparing a vicious, military-style crackdown on the sleeping denizens of Occupy Wall Street. Interesting, too, that the opera’s staging made abundant use of projected text throughout, as the Occupy protestors did yesterday, on the Verizon monolith near their mammoth march on the Brooklyn Bridge (interview with the creator of the projections here).

Well the good news is that we can no longer continue to wage war against other countries since, in recent times, our excuse has been that we were liberating the masses from regimes that suppress human rights and free speech. If this were happening anywhere else, the righteous U.S. would be intervening. The question now: who’s going to step in and liberate us? Canada, perhaps?


Another OWS hero: retired Philadelphia police captain Ray Shaw, arrested in uniform. If you missed it, read the story here.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Occupy, the police and....

After only skimming the headlines for the last few years—everything was just too depressing—Occupy Wall Street has turned me into a news junkie, combing Facebook for links and breaking news and  posting them to my page. I’m inspired by the people who are willing to put themselves on the line for what they believe, and fascinated by how the news is handled, something that wasn't easy to evaluate before the internet.  So far, England’s Guardian (to which I subscribe online) has had the most timely, complete, and balanced coverage. For instance, last night a Guardian reporter on the scene broke the story that yet another Iraq veteran had been critically injured by Oakland police, this time wielding batons.  As of this afternoon, although it was in the Daily News, there was no mention of the incident in the New York Times, and Fox News quoted only police sources, which, as one can imagine, yielded sparse information. I’m also intrigued by the police actions and their possible motivations. While both Oakland raids (one to shut down the camp, the other to remove a crowd that had taken over an unused building) were clearly calculated in advance, many of the arrests and much of the brutality that’s occurred there and in other cities, including New York, seems to be spontaneous and personal in nature.
With this kind of police action I’ve had my own bizarre experience, in a situation that was neither ideologically nor racially motivated, and certainly never hit the news. The scene was a small art gallery (now it might be called a “pop-up”) on the Lower East Side circa 1988, where my friends, Karen and Julius, had an exhibition in a space their friend (I can’t remember his name, so will call him “Jim”) had rented. Recently Jim had broken up with his girl friend (I’ll call her “Kelly”), because of her drug use, but she kept hanging around. Unbeknownst to Jim, our softhearted friends had allowed her to spend the night in the storefront while they were installing the show.

Kelly was present at the opening, and by the end was out of control, screaming and banging on the floor with a beer bottle. Jim tried to get her to leave, but she didn’t seem to have any place to go on that frigid night when the temperature was below zero. In desperation Jim called the police twice, but no one came. Finally he called and said (in what everyone will agree was a stupid move, and in hindsight a REALLY stupid move) that a robbery was in progress.

Immediately two or three cop cars arrive, everyone is out the street, and Kelly is suddenly composed, quiet-spoken and polite. Jim tries to explain but no one’s listening. Finally Julius, eager to make things clear, gently taps a cop’s arm to get his attention—and all hell breaks loose as the cops grab and handcuff Julius, Jim and anyone else within reach, throw them roughly into their vehicles, and drive off.

[Shoved in with them was a lovely, young visiting artist from Germany who barely spoke English. I never learned what happened to her. Or Kelly.]

Left on the sidewalk, Karen is surprisingly calm but shortly realizes that Julius has their house keys, so my boy friend, Jeff, and I drive her to the police station and wait outside.  When, after a long while, she doesn’t appear, Jeff goes in to investigate. Coming back to the car, he tells me she’s been arrested.

Karen's story was that she went to the magistrate to ask for the keys, and was ordered to leave. She thought he didn’t understand so went back (obviously we were all operating from an impression of the police derived from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood). That’s when she was tackled by cops who dragged her by her feet (she was wearing a short skirt) to a cell. In the scuffle she reached out and grabbed a pay phone receiver, breaking her arm, and also had a hank of hair pulled from her head. At the time Karen was 30-ish, tall and slender; I’d be surprised if she weighed more than 108 pounds.

For the next two days we sat vigil in the court, waiting for our friends’ cases to come up, listening to cops and criminals make their pleas, and becoming marginalized. Before we would have been rooting for the cops, but now our sympathies were with the other side. (Kid knocks over old lady and steals her purse? Woo-hoo!).

Today someone who’s been apprehended must be brought before a judge within 72 hours or released, but back then, apparently, stays could be infinite. Fortunately Jim’s mother finally had the sense (and the means) to hire a lawyer from the many who were hanging around the court, and immediately our friends were brought up, charged, and released. Karen had been kept in a single cell with other women, many of them prostitutes who turned their fur coats inside out and slept on the floor. There was an exposed toilet, but Karen thinks no one had to use it because the baloney sandwiches on white bread they got three times a day stopped them up. While in jail Karen was told that if she were sent to a hospital it would delay everyone else’s chances of release, so her arm didn’t get treatment until afterward. I’m not sure if it ever healed properly, but I do know that for a long time it hampered her work as a seamstress.

Even though they were released, Julius and Karen wanted the charges against them dropped. I somehow was able to find them pro bono legal counsel and after many months, including a visit to our home by the police’s rigorous internal affairs investigator (who told Jeff and me he wrote detective novels on the side), we all met in police court. My testimony at that trial was the hardest bit of public speaking I’ve ever had to do. Ultimately the charges against both Julius and Karen were dropped, the cops were disciplined (the one who'd pulled out her hair was a woman), and Karen was awarded $30,000.

I don’t know about Karen, but for many years after that, whenever I saw a cop, I’d cross to the other side of the street.


For a surprising (or, sadly, not surprising) addendum, I found these recent “reviews” on Google Maps for the Avenue C police station:
SinthiaV ‎- Aug 14, 2011:

According to a judge in a recent arraignment, these cops frequently arrest people on trumped up charges, which are later dropped for lack of evidence! The disposition says it never happened, but try telling that to your boss or family. This precinct treats the people they exist to protect and serve like irritating garbage. Can anyone out there relate a positive experience they have had trying to get help from the ninth? Once I was arrested trying to get them to enforce an order of protection, which the offender violated in front of several witnesses! All I did was ask them to write an incident report!! They also punched me in the face for trying to write down an officer's badge number. Be very careful dealing with this precinct, as they have a long history of mistreating people and abusing their power. To be honest, I am a bit frightened to be writing this, but they seem to dislike me already, so it seems worth the risk to warn a potential unsuspecting newbie who might expect a certain type of behavior from the police. Don't expect the norm. It seems a little like Wonderland sometimes in this precinct. The ninth plays by it's own rules and it's up to you to figure them out. Good luck.

dawn - Dec 11, 2010:

No one ever answers the phone in this precinct. Doesn't anyone work here?