Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Looking Forward? Naw. Let's Look Back - We Can Do Forward Tomorrow (Or the Next Day - Or the Next)

The clock is ticking, and in New York we have about an hour-and-a-half to go.

I don't think I'll rush over to Times Square to watch the ball drop. I've never done it, despite having lived in New York for longer than I'm willing to admit, and I don't see any reason to begin tonight.

So how to observe this important annual transition? Marking the turn of the year is such an important ritual in our society, do I dare ignore New Year's Eve?

I'm having fun reading what other people have to say. So far today we've had a splendid column by Frank Bruni advising us to read more and tweet less. A hilarious bit by Peter Funt (The Year That Will Be), with my favorite of his predictions: "Delta Air Lines clarifies that standing room at airport boarding areas 'will remain free for the foreseeable future,' but that seats for passengers waiting to board will now cost $25." OK. I get it.

And getting closer to home, to people in my line of work: An important reminder from McKinsey (Big Data: The Next Frontier for Innovation, Competition, and Productivity).

Don't say you haven't been warned, knowledge strategists.

But those "get-prepared" pieces are a little too serious to suit me. Let's get down to what interests me, and instead of writing about how things might be in 2014, let me share a few thoughts about what I experienced in 2013.

"And what is it that interests you, Guy?" you ask (as well you might).

Most of my best friends - the folks who know me well - can tell you that I spend a lot of time thinking about:
  1. opera
  2. art nouveau as my personal concept of beauty (one definition: "an international philosophy and style of art, architecture and applied art—especially the decorative arts")
  3. elephants in Africa.
Can't tackle all three tonight, so let's think about opera in 2013 (if I can stay with this theme, I'll try to do some opera-specific looking forward another time).

In many respects it was a remarkable year but I'm not necessarily using the term "remarkable" to refer to excellence. Of course there were high - even great - moments. And certainly well-performed, splendid evenings at the opera house. There were also, I have to admit, several difficult situations and I guess that's coloring my thoughts as I try to look back on opera in 2013.

As I say, we had splendid performances. We subscribe to the Met, and  - musically speaking - that great house (pictured here) is truly a "home away from home" for us. I look back over my calendar for the past year, and I'm truly impressed by some of the wonderful experiences we had.

Glaringly, the greatest amount of thought (and conversation) for many of us opera lovers was given over to non-Met issues. Following years - one commentator says "decades" - of financial mismanagement, New York City Opera went out of business. Bankruptcy was declared in the fall, after some 70 years of performance. Established as "the people's opera" back in 1943 and so described by almost every New Yorker, the company had its highs and its lows but overall it was incredibly important in our city's (and the region's) cultural life.

I'm missing NYCO already. The memories I have of some of its performers (Domingo, Sills, Ramey, Malfitano, Troyonos, Milnes - oh the list is too long!) won't go away. And some of the productions stand out, such as Tito Copobianco's magnificent and unforgettable "Mefistofele" and Sarah Caldwell's pink-tinged "Der Rosenkavalier" (it might not have been Sarah Caldwell's but I remember how pink it was). There were so many more, far too many to remember, and I also long for some of the more experimental attempts that were made, often very successfully. For example, a splendid and almost avant-garde production of Korngold's "Die tote Stadt" was mesmerizing - and this was back in 1975 (see production photos here - I never again saw anything like this, except perhaps - in an entirely different vein - the Met's recent production of Shostakovich's "The Nose"). We had a lot to be grateful for, when we had NYCO around.

Now that NYCO is gone, one trend we're seeing in New York (apparently having begun over the last few years, but all of us didn't notice) has been the growth of tiny, more experimental opera companies, some with no more ambition than to enable New Yorkers to hear works that might not show up at such an opera house as the Met. That seems to be the goal, for example, of the Gotham Chamber Opera, which from 2001 until last fall was the Henry Street Chamber Opera. And there are others like it.

At the same time, because we have such high-quality music schools, we get good opera there as well. We were fortunate last spring to be invited to Manhattan School of Music for their production of "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" and it was spell-binding. I haven't checked out Julliard and Mannes yet, but I expect the quality to be as high.

So there's good opera to watch for, if we just take to time to see what's available.

And the Met? Well, I'm a subscriber and I can't complain. I get to hear at least eight performances a year and the standards are high, perhaps the highest in the world. Certainly there's no opera orchestra or opera chorus that even begins to compare with what we have at the Met, and the international roster of performers is certainly in a class of its own. You don't hear bad singing at the Met.

While I sometimes disagree with some of the decisions about production design, I hardly ever disagree with the musical values at the Met. And in a funny sort of way, I relish the move - with some operas - from the more standard designs to new concepts - I was delighted to discover that the so-called "rat pack" version of "Rigoletto" (set in Las Vegas in the 1960s) worked, and worked very well. So did the new "Falstaff" (and that one was particularly difficult for me, as the earlier, long-time Franco Zeffirelli version had become almost iconic for me, and for many other "Falstaff" lovers as well).

And then there are the standards that I don't want to ever go away, but they do. The Met's old "Parsifal" is the production I cut my teeth on for that opera, and I heard (and saw) it so many times I felt personally slighted when it was replaced. Fortunately, that replacement didn't last long, and now we have a daring new production. Not as up-lifting, perhaps, as what I grew up on, but good nonetheless, with fine musical values and artistically, some very reasonable - and believable concepts have been brought out. 

And now we're losing the iconic (there's that word again) production of "Der Rosenkavalier" - we were fortunate to be present at the very last of its nearly 200 performances (it premiered on January 23, 1969) and we'll live without it. We won't forget what we had for these many years - it was, there's no question about it, a gorgeous production - but I for one will be anxious to see what comes next. I guess more than anything, with this particular opera so highly regarded for its subtlety, I don't want it to be trivialized or that beautiful music distracted from.

As for losing the absolutely sublime and - at the same time - rousing production of "Die Meistersinger" for a production created for Salzburg and coming in a couple of years, well, I'm trying to withhold judgement. That production - like the old "Parsifal" - meant so much to me, and I'll try to be open-minded when we get the new one, but it will be hard.

And in any case, for many of these that we're losing, we have them available through the Met on Demand program, which for a very small fee allows people like me to live and relive favorite operas and favorite productions. 

2013 brought us a great level of satisfaction with the return of Strauss operas to the Met. We had not had them for a while - after all, there was the new "Ring" and the Wagner and Verdi bicentennials so something had to be set aside. Now we have them back. Not my luscious favorite ("Capriccio") but we'll have that back soon enough (I'm hoping). We do have "Arabella" coming in April, and just three weeks ago we had a splendid revival of another Strauss favorite, "Die Frau ohne Schatten," wonderfully performed and in the glittering (literally - many mirrored walls) production that is a true stunner. 

Let me sign off with a few words of praise, both to the Met as an opera company and to young composer Nico Muhly for bringing "Two Boys" to the house. Modern, a little scary for some folks (vaguely reminiscent of Britten's "Turn of the Screw"), and full of teen-age nastiness, the opera was beautifully performed, splendidly staged, and very, very satisfying. Muhly is a talented composer and his combination of many different styles and types of music (meaning: his originality), especially his skill with choral music, makes listening to his work a remarkable experience. In the big scheme of things operatic, if "Two Boys" is any sign of things to come, the Met is on the right track, and I think we folks in New York are pretty lucky indeed.

Finally, I will share one other operatic experience, this one not from New York at all, but giving me the opportunity to share a comparison that I don't often experience. In late November, we were in Paris and attended a performance at the Opéra de Paris Garnier. A beautiful experience, and as always when attending opera in another country, it's great fun to observe not only the performance and design styles, but the audience reactions. I loved it all. The opera was La Clémence de Titus in a stunning and thought-provoking production, and it was evident that great talent had been brought together to put together this evening at one of Europe's great opera houses (I've pictured the roof-top Apollo here). A great opportunity to see how well opera is performed outside of New York. 

Now if I could just find the time to travel all over America to see how opera is performed in other places in my own country.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Marriage Equality: It's How We Define Ourselves as Americans

When we, as Americans, seek to define what it is about us as Americans that makes us different, doesn't it come down to human rights? To our respect for each other, as citizens? Our respect for one another as fellow human beings?

And (whether one is a "believer" or not), isn't it all summed up in the Golden Rule?

From what I've learned over the years - since earliest childhood - that has been the real "American way," taught to us as our single established American quality and believed in throughout our nation's history.

And now we're seeing - in what one of my friends refers to as "the final battle for civil rights" - the move to marriage equality. We're breaking down the barriers to marriage equality, and when this great force becomes a single driver in American society, all Americans will have the right to marry the person they love.

It's an awesome (literally) time for Americans, a time all of us will look back on and be proud we were here, happy to have been Americans when marriage equality became our country's norm, for all Americans.

As we move into the final few days of this historic year, I'm particularly blessed to be able to write about marriage equality. We just celebrated our second anniversary, an anniversary full of joy and love and happiness that - had things stayed the way they were and had we not been New Yorkers in 2011 - would never have happened.

We chose to celebrate in Paris, since that seemed to sweetest place to be for a second anniversary (indeed, one friend, writing from Germany to congratulate us, suggested we create a new tradition, that the wedding-day anniversary always take place in Paris). And now we're home, wrapping up the year with much thanksgiving and looking forward to a 2014 with happy anticipation of more of the same.

As part of our celebration, we have pledged our support for marriage equality. We did it through the American Foundation for Equal Rights because we believe every American should be able to marry the person they love. We joined AFER and we support their mission to achieve full federal marriage equality.

The American Foundation for Equal Rights took the challenge to California’s Prop. 8 all the way to the Supreme Court. Their case permanently brought marriage equality to the nation’s most populous state and now AFER is joining a federal case in Virginia because no state government should limit the personal freedoms of its citizens. As a former Virginian, this case has special resonance for me, and I will anxiously await the outcome.

But no matter what happens in Virginia, marriage equality is on its way. If you don't believe me (or agree with me), take a look at 2013: A Historic Year for Marriage Equality. It's a terrific video, very short (just 3.36 minutes) and it will give you all you need to know to join me in my optimism - cautious optimism, yes, but optimism nonetheless.

[The Virginia case itself is described in a separate video (also short). Watch AFER's Work in Federal Court for Marriage Equality Continues in Virginia.]

We will have marriage equality in America, and we'll have it sooner rather than later. I firmly believe that, and I am very happy in my belief.

Go here and pledge your support for marriage equality. It's a very simple act, and it shows that you stand up for equality for every American and for the countless couples who want to get married.

It's time.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Good Time for Thinking about "Favorite Things"

No, don't panic. I'm not going to try to connect with Mary Martin or Julie Andrews (or the positively hilarious version when Julie herself teamed up with Carol Burnett at Carnegie Hall - that wasn't just a spoof of the original - it was one of those positively one-in-a-lifetime experiences!).

But, no, that's not the kind of "favorite things" I'm thinking about. At the moment I'm more caught up in how the holidays put us in the mood for thinking about things that have meant much to us over the years, and how some of them linger in the memory.

Although I'm a big talker and not someone who avoids silence (as a general thing - when I'm studying or concentrating it's a different story), one of the nicest things about Christmas in New York is the quietness of Christmas Day. I happen to live at one of Manhattan's busiest intersections, and while we and our neighbors talk a lot about the noise, in reality we've all become accustomed to it and we don't really notice it. And the windows are closed most of the time anyway.

On Christmas Day the city takes on a whole new ambiance. Later in the morning I suppose things will pick up, as people go out to walk along Fifth Avenue to enjoy the splendid window displays in the shops. Or they'll head out to church.

But it will still be quiet because - for some reason - New Yorkers have decided that Christmas Day is a "quiet" day. Of course there are the "real" reasons for Manhattan's quietness today: shops are not open, few theaters have performances, even many of the restaurants and coffee shops close, giving employees the day off.

I like to think it's more than that, though. With the exception of one church in our Murray Hill neighborhood that's become famous (infamous?) because the rector has - without warning anyone - decided to blast out the church's electronic chimes 13 times a day instead of the usual twice a day, peace and quiet reign in our city today. [If you're interested, you can read about that little contretemps here.] I think our Christmas quietness comes about because there's a sort of civic (not religious - certainly not in New York City!) wish or desire or even responsibility to respect the legacy and long history of Christmas Day in New York as a special day for all citizens, and we just give ourselves a quiet day because, well, it's something nice to do.

Other favorite things? Here's one more example: the various "flash mob" singing that's started to pop up in different places. As anyone who knows me knows, I love classical music and, in particular, choral music (a big part of my life when I was younger). I was delighted last year, early in the Christmas season, when a friend sent me the link to the Hallelujah Chorus being performed to startled lunch-time folks at a huge shopping center. It had been done a couple of years earlier and it was great fun, much appreciated. Of course the video went viral (watch it here). I wish I had been having my lunch in that mall that day! What an experience for those folks!

And there's more (is this a trend? if it is I love it!). Last October, in honor of the 200th anniversary of Verdi's birth, members of the WDR Radio Choir Cologne surprised shoppers at a mall with Verdi's Va Pensiero from "Nabucco" (an all-time favorite of many folks, including me). Maybe it was all part of a larger - I suspect informal - effort, since other such "flash mob" performances took place in other locations.

Perhaps the inspiration (aside from Verdi's bicentennial) came from Toulouse, where the same chorus had been sung al fresco, very informally, back in 2011 in what appears to be a park back (again, hear it here).

So maybe we're looking at a new form of participatory entertainment?

Perhaps not totally participatory, since surprise is a good part of the experience as well. And it's not necessarily classical music. How about classical art? Did you see the flash mob depiction of Rembrandt's "Night Watch" last April? What a way to announce the re-opening of the Rijksmuseum! And not totally without music, since we had Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" accompanying the action. Great fun (one version of the video - of several available - is here). Lots of candidates for one's favorite things.

And these photographs of spectacular Christmas trees? Nothing special. Just beautiful holiday snapshots I wanted to share, photographed at Vaux-le-Vicomte when I visited there last November. More about that later.

Yes, it's a good time of year to be thinking about favorite things. Merry Christmas.