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Democracy will never be less contentious.

This essay is running in The Washington Post on Monday, July 11. I try to say what I believe. This is part of of it:

Democracy has always been contentious; it will not get less so. There is no ideal point we will reach where strife ceases and people live without anger or grievance; but often, it seems like the past was such a place. The past seems particularly pleasant to people who once enjoyed greater privilege and power. In most ways we live in a better world then the one our grandparents lived in. But not in all things. It takes discernment to know what is worth preserving; the humanities, which are in danger in many places in America today, are the practice of that discernment.

And there is also this:

Black Lives Matter is a slogan that calls attention to pervasive and immoral bias against people of color; All Lives Matter is a truism used to deflect attention away from the fact of racism (see above: demanding that they say things as a ritual submission to your worldview will only alienate them). Injustice that has lasted centuries won’t disappear today, tomorrow or any time soon. All people are equal before the law; but history did not deliver us a society in which wealth, opportunity and dignity are equally available to all people. It may take decades to root out racism; but there’s not a minute to lose when it comes to the guarantee of civil equality.

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Time to rename the Kennedy Center Honors

Let’s just call it the annual Kennedy Center Pander for Pop-Cult Cred Award.

I didn’t expect to change anyone’s mind over at the The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts when I wrote this piece last year, lamenting the slow decline of the Kennedy Center Honors from an arts award to a celebrity and pop culture award. This year’s honorees are pretty much in the same vein as last year’s, with the exception of Martha Argerich, who is one of the finest performing artists of our age. But it’s still depressing to see what the Honors have become. Is this really the face that Deborah Rutter wants the Kennedy Center to put to the world, promoting desiccated pop culture icons who have never lacked for adulation, money and fame? And who have ready access to more of it at any time? James Taylor? Al Pacino? And The Eagles? Even as a pop culture award this seems pretty stale.

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A man reaps what he sows…

Even if Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s bible-verse tweet was pre-scheduled, and wasn’t sent with any particular reference to the slaughter at a gay night club in Orlando, let’s not forget the particular resonance of this verse. These words—“Do not be deceived. God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows”—were in regular circulation during the AIDS crisis, a pithy encapsulation of sickening moral smugness. They were like the “hang in there” caption on the cat poster, except attached to the gay community as if with a branding iron. The larger context of the words Patrick cited is clear if you read on in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption…” AIDS was deserved punishment, a moral corruption of the body, not a virus (transmitted in multiple ways, between people of all sexual orientations). The bible verse allowed people to look squarely into the tragedy of AIDS, and turn away confident that it fit neatly into a theological plan for the universe. To be fair, it is an intoxicating sentiment, close cousin of schadenfreude and so appealing to our need for certainty, our desire to see our enemies punished. It is a perfect verse for the age of social media.

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Zaha Hadid is dead at 65

Heydar_Aliyev_Cultural_CenterShe was the world’s most famous, most influential and most controversial woman architect, and she seemed inexhaustible. But she died today, leaving behind a complicated legacy that will take years to comprehend. My appreciation. And a review I wrote of her 2006 exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York. 

Image from Wikipedia: By Original architectural work: Zaha HadidDepiction: Interfase – Own photo of uploader, Public Domain,

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Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey returns to Washington Concert Opera

               In the summer of 1965, the young Luciano Pavarotti went on tour in Australia with Joan Sutherland. He credited that time with the great soprano for some of the musical lessons essential to building his career. On Friday night, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey shared the stage with a young baritone and tenor, outclassing them both, yet also elevating their performance. Lindsey sang the title role of Donizetti’s “La Favorite” with the Washington Concert Opera, and was just as impressive and just as rapturously received as she when she appeared as Romeo in Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” in September 2014. But it was her larger impact on the whole performance that was most impressive. 

                    Lindsey’s voice isn’t huge, and there are moments during ensembles when you wish it was just a smidge larger. But it is distinctive, warm and burnished, and effortlessly deployed, with a tone so lovely that the ear searches it out, even when the orchestra (conducted by Antony Walker) threatened to overwhelm her. Lindsey legato and pianissimo are magnificent, and she shapes lines almost but never quite to the point of fussiness. This was a concert performance, so she wasn’t called on to act physically, yet she acts through the voice with absolute clarity and devastating effect. She was the focus of the evening, but when singing together with the tenor Randall Bills (as Fernand) or baritone Javier Arrey (as King Alphonse), she was also a spur to her partners, drawing out more confidence, more detail and more attention to nuance from both singers. This isn’t to sleight either of the men, who are promising artists; but rather like the young Pavarotti, they were both susceptible to the improving inspiration of singing with a more fully-fledged companion.

               After the performance, I spent a little time with a few of the recordings of “La Favorita” in my collection, including the 1974 Pavarotti-Cossotto and a live 1949 performance with Simionato and Di Stefano from Mexico City. Both are the Italian version, and the latter is Italian through and through, in style and spirit, with Simionato and Di Stefano snatching at the notes with a blood-curdling ferocity that wasn’t on display in the French version heard on Friday. I spent a lot of time with the Pavarotti-Cossotto discs a year ago while researching a story on the young Pavarotti for Gramophone, and I love them. But on return, and after hearing the WCO’s exciting performance, I found their studio efforts a little too clean, contained and packaged. There were plenty of small flaws in Friday’s live performance, but the effect was fully theatrical and entirely engaging.

               The French “Favorite”is the original opera Donizetti cobbled together for the Paris Opera in 1840. It is generally considered superior to its Italian cousin (“the version in the composer’s native tongue is corrupt, with many of the very particular stylistic choices and refinements of the French original coarsened in a variety of ways…” writes one critic), but it’s still a rarity compared to “La Favorita.” The Washington Concert Opera performance did indeed suggest a more refined and subtle work than the one Simionato and Di Stefano devoured in Mexico City, with Walker’s conducting and Lindsey’s singing significant contributing factors. The chorus was in fine form, as was bass John Relyea as Balthazar and soprano Joelle Harvey as Ines.

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Do we need it?

800px-District_of_Columbia_War_MemorialThat is the common question behind two recent pieces I wrote for The Washington Post. Do we need a national World War One memorial, and do we need a new stadium for the offensively named NFL team, the Washington Redskins? In an age of environmental crisis and grave economic inequality, it is the most basic and fundamental question architects should consider. There will always be a valid argument for building things that are simply beautiful and inspiring, and have no other purpose than to channel emotions and bring delight. But today, the bar is much higher for building things that don’t directly serve a need, that don’t improve lives and contribute to the sustainability of the man-made environment.

As I argue here, Washington is already full of World War One memorials, as is the rest of the country. Bringing the “forgotten war” into what one supporter of the new memorial calls the “modern practice of war memorialization” simply isn’t necessary. Let’s not forget the merits of the way we “remembered” things a century ago, and above all, let’s be skeptical about the very idea of national memory:

We use such words as memory and memorial and remembrance too casually. Of course, no one “remembers” the First World War anymore, at least not in the visceral, personal sense of those who lived through it. And there is no such thing as a collective memory of anything. Rather, there is rhetoric, history and mythology, which memorials attempt to fix in some kind of permanent form, beyond emendation or contradiction. At a local level, this effort to forge a historical sense of events is to some degree constrained by actual memory, by the memory of survivors, and by children and grandchildren. At the national level, it devolves into a meaningless language of heroism, valor and sacrifice, often in service to a larger and menacing nationalism.

The commission designated to organize and build the new memorial estimates the cost to be between $21 and $25 million dollars. That is negligible compared to the cost of a new football stadium. Price-tag estimates for recent NFL stadiums run in the $1.3 to $1.6 billion range. So rebuilding stadiums every 20 years is an obscene waste of resources–especially when franchise owners squeeze much of that money from municipalities. So what does one make of a seemingly progressive architecture firm that decides to take on an NFL team as a client? I am deeply skeptical.

Architects aren’t saints. They serve power, and always have. And BIG has served some shady patrons in the past. Different firms negotiate the ethical challenges of serving the corrupt and cruel differently. Some see themselves as merely providers of a technical service and don’t claim any particular ethical high ground. Too many overestimate their own powers, and they assuage any concerns about the client with the moral fable that someone has to build the building, so better that it be built right.

People become impassioned about memorials, which offer a rare but powerful opportunity for everyone to think about the connection between design and cultural politics. But let me gauge my dislike of these two different cases of unnecessary building. I think it’s a mistake to create a new national memorial to World War One; but I think it’s an outrage that we tolerate the egregious upward wealth redistribution, moral obliviousness and environmental destruction baked into every billion-dollar NFL stadium project.

Images: The Washington D.C. memorial to World War One, By 350z33 at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

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The 2015-2016 Season begns at WNO

Bryan Hymel and Janai Brugger as Don Jose and Micaela.

Bryan Hymel and Janai Brugger as Don Jose and Micaela.

I first got to know tenor Bryan Hymel watching a recorded performance of Meyerbeer’s “Robert le Diable,” from Convent Garden. Hymel has a strong, firm, pliant, French-sounding voice—a high-powered, almost blazing kind of crooning–comfortable with the high tessitura of many French tenor roles, and he produced reliably exciting sounds all through the little-known Meyerbeer (a piece I’ve been fascinated by since I heard Eve Queler conduct it with Opera Orchestra of New York in 1988). In last night’s season-opening production of “Carmen” at the Washington National Opera, Hymel took time to warm up as Don Jose. He isn’t particularly comfortable on stage in any of the guises Don Jose must adopt: innocent lad from the country; romantically besotted young soldier; recklessly passionate lover; violently abusive spurned boy toy. But by the final scene he was, vocally, everything you want from Bizet’s doomed protagonist.

The other strength of this production is in the orchestra pit, where conductor Evan Rogister led the Washington National Opera Orchestra. He made his Washington opera debut last year with Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick,” but hearing him in a familiar score, and music that thrives on rhythmic and dynamic nuance, was a revelation. I don’t think the WNO Orchestra has sounded so good in this repertoire since Emmanuel Villaume was a semi-regular guest. Rogister drew forth beautifully shaped phrases in the Entr’act to Act III, and in the overture, and was unafraid in the First Act to let the scene-setting listlessness of the music sound in fact sultry, lazy and listless. The orchestra can often be unsubtle, but not last night, and even a few horn misfires didn’t diminish the fine effect.

French mezzo-soprano Clementine Margaine sang Carmen, and soprano Janai Brugger sang Micaela. Margaine’s Carmen evolved slowly through the evening, growing stronger and more fluent as an Act I tendency to chop up phrases gave way to a more thoroughly sustained and supported sound. Dramatically, her Carmen is more provocateur than temptress, a more vulgar presence than some, and more directly an agent in provoking the rage that will destroy her. It isn’t easy to believe that she is ever in love with Don Jose, at any point, so the drama becomes more of a test of wills played out on the field of erotic combat than a fleeting love gone sour. She’s a Carmen one respects—for her insatiable freedom, and contempt for sentimental platitude—but it isn’t easy to love her.

Janai Brugger, however, was an uncommonly appealing Micaela, both vocally (she has a sweet, precise, well-formed sound) and dramatically. It is almost impossible to create a Micaela who isn’t cloying and a bore, but Brugger did the only thing you can do with opera: Take the music and the cues seriously and carry off the obvious intent of composer. So she gave us an honest Micaela who, with no trace of irony, seemed genuinely committed to her role as intercessor between Don Jose and his saintly mother (suffering somewhere off stage as her son goes from naïf to wastrel to criminal). It would be good to hear more of her, and in larger roles.

Small-role standouts included Ariana Wehr as Frasquita and Aleksandra Romano as Mercedes, sparkling and fleet in the Act III fortune-telling scene. Michael Todd Simpson’s Escamillo was full-voiced but somewhat wooden.

The production is standard, and borrowed, and it feels that way. Perhaps it’s unfair to the WNO to complain too much about its lack of distinction. But even borrowed sets don’t preclude sharp restaging. Character interactions could be better focused—surely someone can goad more natural gestures from Hymel and more genuine passion between Carmen and Don Jose—and the chorus needs to be handled more effectively. Dramatic entrances weren’t always well timed, and the crowd, especially in Act I, moved with that strangely operatic habit of being both busy and purposeless at the same time.

And so it’s a fairly typical night at the opera: Much to enjoy, some standout performances, a long, complicated drama expertly handled from the pit, but also a level of the merely dutiful when it comes to theater.

Photo by Scott Suchman courtesy Washington National Opera

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