Friday, March 22, 2013

Risë Stevens - June 11, 1913-March 20, 2013

Ah yes. Dear Risë Stevens. While she had retired from the Metropolitan Opera long before I moved to New York, she was nevertheless part of my music education. Have no idea where the recording might be now, but when I was the sweetest boy soprano in town, Mrs. Nell Perry - my voice teacher who kept me on track for Sunday morning solos at church - sat me down with her recording of "Carmen."

I had no idea what I was being exposed to, but I can tell you this: hearing those arias coming from the throat of Risë Stevens - the album was only excerpts, but the best singing I had ever heard, up to then - was a musical education in itself. And, yes, in addition to teaching me about the singing and saying a few words about vocal technique and placement and such, Mrs. Perry carefully explained the "Carmen" plot to me, thankfully not mincing words when she came to some of the more (shall we say?) delicate parts of the story for sharing with an 11-year old boy.

Although Risë Stevens retired from the Met in 1961, she was around a lot after she left the Met, and if you were even remotely interested in opera, you heard from or about her pretty often. I loved her interviews and commentary on "Opera News on the Air" and, every time I got to hear her, I remembered hearing those songs from "Carmen" when I went for my voice lesson.

And I was indeed lucky, for I had hardly been in New York more than a few years than I got called for jury duty. In those days, the system was pretty tough, and unless you were a doctor or lawyer or knew someone in the city system, you had to sit and wait (and wait - and wait) to learn if you would be called for a case. The system is much fairer now, and the waits are not so long; unless you're on a case you're usually in and out in just a few days. In those day, though, you were smart on the first day to look around and see if there's anyone in the room who might be a good person to be acquainted with for the next couple of weeks.

And there she was. While I wasn't exactly sure it was Risë Stevens, the beautiful older lady with the well-coiffed hair smiled when she saw me looking in her direction, and then she spoke. The voice was so distinctive there was no mistake. I didn't even have a chance to smile back. She waved me over to the empty seat next to her and said, "I think we need to sit together. We're going to need someone interesting to talk to!"

How right she was! I can't remember how many days we sat and talked (neither of us ever got put on a case), but we had a very nice time getting to know one another. She seemed to enjoy the fact that I loved music, but she didn't talk about herself or her career unless I specially had something to ask her, or if I indicated that there was something about the opera world that I wanted to know more about (I don't know for sure, but I can't help but wonder if her talk of her performances as Octavian might not have influenced me in my later love for "Der Rosenkavalier" - I do recall that when I asked her about Carmen and to tell me about other favorite roles, she liked speaking about Octavian).

It was great fun, this time with Risë Stevens, and while I couldn't tell you now what else we talked about over those several days, what came away for me was having experienced a group of visits with just about one of the nicest ladies I had ever met. Truly remarkable, and totally unpretentious and "operatic" but nonetheless just full of love and joy in her profession and her talent. How lucky we are when we meet people like Risë Stevens!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Guy's Elephant Walk - Let's Save the Elephants

Many of us have been reviewing the awful news from Africa about the current widespread elephant poaching.

As readers of these posts know, I fell in love with these splendid creatures when I was living in Kenya in 2009-2010, and the news of the poaching has upset me very much. When I was in Kenya, one of my most positive impressions was of the work being done over the past several years by the Kenya government - and by the Kenya Wildlife Service - in taking a strong approach against poaching. There is even - I was told - a "shoot-to-kill" law that allows anyone observing poaching to shoot the poachers. Whether that's true or not (it sounds a little apocryphal, doesn't it?), it's still impressive to learn about what's been done, and I was very touched to see the memorial in Nairobi National Park (shown here) to the slaughtered elephants.

Things seem to have changed now, for the worse. Not only in Kenya but throughout Africa there has been a tremendous upsurge in the destruction of elephants (of both the savanna elephants and the forest elephants) and the poaching seems to be getting worse. It's simply heart-breaking to read about what's happening.

It's a ghastly situation, and while I don't think I'm qualified to offer any scientific or even sociological advice about how we got to this stage in society, or to advise about what can be done, I'm very concerned. There are people doing very good work on this problem and our thoughts and prayers are with them as they try to alleviate the horrors of this heinous crime.

There's been much in the press about the situation, and as I say, I've been following this latest outbreak for a while now, mostly in The New York Times. A good collection of articles is here, and today's collection of photographs (Slaughter of the African Elephants) is one of the most touching photo essays I've seen in a long time. The accompanying article by WSC's Samantha Strindberg and Fiona Maisels is equally touching, and informing. It's a call to action, and we must take action.

What can we do? I suppose there are a variety of ways to get involved. For me, I hope to be doing a little something by getting involved in some fund-raising for research and the fight against poaching.

Here's what I'm going to do.

On April 27th, the Wildlife Conservation Society (which we New Yorkers still call "The Bronx Zoo") will sponsor the fifth annual WCS Run for the Wild, a 5k run/walk dedicated to these splendid creatures (and, yes, this post is titled Guy's Elephant Walk - I'm not a runner and I don't want to give any mistaken impressions about my athletic abilities!).

So this is my invitation to readers to support my walk with the WCS. My appeal is posted here (if the link doesn't open correctly, it's

When I lived in Kenya, thanks to the skills of Charles Ombongi Masese - my driver and now one of my best friends - I was lucky to be able to go off on safari almost every 2nd or 3rd week-end. Charles is a skilled safari driver and one of the best game spotters I've ever met (he is going to be my driver when I return to Kenya in June).

If you're interested in any of my blog posts from my time in Kenya, including the posts about the elephants, here are some links. On this screen, if you look to the left of the screen ("Blog Archive"), check out the archive between January 2010 all the way up to mid-February 2011. Specially recommended is "My Sunday Elephant" (May 29, 2010), with my good buddy pictured here in this photo. There are plenty of other elephant stories, too, including a description of my first visit to Nairobi's famous "Elephant Orphanage" (May 31, 2010).

As you can see, elephants are Mr. Guy's big thing (no pun intended). And all joking aside, I hope you'll join with me in supporting the Wildlife Conservation Society's efforts on April 27th on behalf of the world's elephant population. Go here to learn more and to make a contribution. And if you can, I would love to have you with me for my elephant walk. Sign up if you can join me. Let's raise lots of money for helping the WCS in its work with our beloved elephants.

Monday, March 4, 2013

General McChrystal Shares Some Thoughts about Knowledge Strategy

OK. So perhaps the title is a little bit of literary license, because I doubt if General McChrystal has heard of or given much thought to the concept of knowledge strategy.

But that's really a bit of speculation because I know very little about McChrystal. I know he retired in July 2010, and that he was often in the news but for all I know, perhaps he is a leader who thinks a lot about knowledge development and knowledge sharing, what we like to call "KD/KS."

Now, in interview in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, General McChrystal offers a wide variety of interesting disclosures on several subjects. And for those of us working in the knowledge domain, one story in particular is of special interest. We can sit up and take notice as he describes how the U.S. Special Forces framework was re-shaped over recent years.

Indeed, what he puts forward is a good description of how knowledge management (KM) and knowledge services can be used to structure an effective performance network regardless of the work situation in which they are applied.

Prior to 9/11, McChrystal notes, the counterterrorist effort was "narrowly focused and centralized; you only did occasional operations with a high degree of intelligence and a tremendous amount of secrecy."

After 9/11, the enemy changed its way of working, with Al Qaeda and "associated movements" shaping themselves into "an enemy network that you couldn't just react to but actually had to dismantle, [including] a very complex battlefield - not just terrorism but also social problems, an insurgency, and sectarian violence."

How to deal with the "new" enemy? And the new challenges?

Learn to understand the problem, McChrystal says, and he offers a valuable framework of his own: "...we had to become a network ourselves - to be connected across all parts of the battlefield, so that every time something occurred and we gathered intelligence or experience from it, information flowed very, very quickly."

It's a terrific story General McChrystal tells, and Generation Kill: A Conversation with Stanley McChrystal is an eye-opening interview, coming on the publication of his book, My Share of the Task: A Memoir, released by Penguin Group (USA) in January.

Did the new special operations effort succeed?


It took time, and it meant finding the knowledge-sharing and collaborative solutions that worked, to enable a network that would "operate at a speed that was not even considered before, not in our wildest dreams."

Was there a secret to the success? I think so.

Here's what I think was the key "piece," the critical element to this new way of operating: "It had to have decentralized decision-making," McChrystal said, " can't centralize ten raids a night. You have to understand them all, but you have to allow your subordinate elements to operate very quickly."

And does General McChrystal take the credit?

Not at all.

Hear how he concludes this story:

"So that was the revolution. I didn't do it. The organization I was part of became this learning organization. If I take any credit, it is for loosening the reins and yelling 'Giddyup!' a lot. I allowed, encouraged, required the team to push forward. And they just rose to the occasion."

Perhaps that's what knowledge strategy is all about: Allow. Encourage. Require the team to push forward. Let them rise to the occasion.
- March 4, 201

[Note: You must register or have a subscription to read the Foreign Affairs article - better yet, access it in the library you use.]

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Life in New York: Our Recent Cultural Marathon

Photo: New York City Ballet
New Yorkers like to joke about having the luxury of being able to handle the many cultural offerings available to them by spreading them out over a period of time.

Not for us those cultural marathons out-of-town visitors undertake, those too many events crammed into too few days.

(Still, truth to tell we New Yorkers do the same thing when we're off on our own vacations to culture-crammed places!).

From any perspective, though, a recent weekend was such a marathon for my friends and me.

We didn't really plan it this way. We just found ourselves committed - thanks to the vagaries of long-purchased subscription tickets and performance scheduling - to a full schedule of performances all happening in a very short period of time.

Did we mind? No way. This kind of activity - even if it means a little rushing about - is what makes New York such an exciting place for us.

Our marathon week-end began with Friday night at the New York City Ballet, one of our usual subscription nights and this time splendidly experienced with Peter Martin's The Sleeping Beauty. No question about it: this fine company is one of the great pleasures of New York life, and as we've been subscribing longer than we like to admit, we approach each performance with happy anticipation.

Martins' version of The Sleeping Beauty is one of the most spectacular productions in the NYCB repertory, and it never fails to please, with over 100 dancers (including all those youngsters from the School of American Ballet - great fun to watch and wow! are they good!). And in his homage to Balanchine, Martins' version incorporates one of Balanchine's more famous works, The Garland Dance which Balanchine had created for the 1981 Tschaikovsky Festival (Balanchine himself never did a production of The Sleeping Beauty). Nice. Overall, a truly grand production. And a delightful evening out for these New Yorkers.

Next time: all those operas!