The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘opera’


As we are on the eve of that fateful day, April 15th which will usher in a total eclipse of the moon, the beginning of Passover (good Lord deliver us) and, of course, the deadline for filing our individual tax returns, it seems appropriate to ease the burden of all this weighty stuff by listening to a little soothing music.

The overture to Gioachino Rossini’s two act opera, “La Gazza Ladra,” (The Thieving Magpie) seems especially appropriate – particularly as it relates to the third of the events enumerated above.  I make that statement not so much because of the wonderful music but because of the title of the piece.

Those last minute tax preparers will probably identify with the sense of urgency that the music builds as it rushes to its final climax.  And, of course, we must not overlook the famous “Rossini crescendo” which the composer incorporated into virtually all of his work.

So sit back, enjoy, get a pot of coffee going, pull out all the papers you’ve stored in shoe boxes and know that you’re engaged in a patriotic duty as you get ready to figure out how much money you are going to send to the IRS so that Ms. Lois Lerner can enjoy a comfortable retirement.


There is too much anger in today’s America.  Too much anger, far too much envy and not nearly enough music.  If we took more time to listen to music we would have less time to argue our ideological positions and perhaps in listening to music we would learn to listen to each other.

We are a disparate people.  We come from different countries and cultures, we are of different races and we hold different beliefs about God or His absence.  Some of us are better looking than others and some have more money than others.  Some of us are generous and others are stingy.  Some of us are gifted athletically and others of us would rather spectate.  And some of us have had the generous benefit of having music in our lives and learned to be grateful for that blessing.  I know that music has helped me to learn to listen – not merely to the notes but to those who make the music sing.

The music which is familiar to us in the West is based on a simple diatonic scale  – far less complex than the pentatonic scale used in Oriental cultures.  That is the reason that if we listen to Chinese or Japanese music it sounds discordant to the untrained Western ear.

What is really remarkable is the number of Oriental musicians who have received training in western musicology and have become virtuosi of their respective instruments.  In order for them to achieve this they had to put aside the music with which they grew up and change their thinking and their hearing.  That is no small achievement – requiring one step beyond what we in the West must do.

Many motivational speakers use athletic examples to convey the concept of co-operation to those who have come to their seminars.  But an even better example, although not as familiar to most of us, is an orchestra.  There are no referees to make bad calls; no time outs available and no intentional fouls.  The musicians must work together in harmony, every note that they play determining whether the performance will be a successful interpretation of the score.  And at the end of the performance, the credit or criticism will fall on one person – their leader, the conductor.

An orchestra is both an example of personal involvement and humility.  Eliminate the violins or the French horns and the piece has become something less than what the composer intended.  Yet no instrument alone conveys the beauty that was written.  It is only their working together in harmony that leaves the performer and the audience with an enriching experience.

Music like the visual arts is in some respects a very personal experience.  The beauty that Van Gogh conveyed in his painting “The Starry Night” may evoke different feelings from different people who view the work.  And so it is with music.

The Intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” always stirs me to think of being inside a warm and cozy home, the fireplace calmly burning as I look through the window, watching the snow blanketing the landscape and weighing heavily on the branches of the pine trees.

This performance was given by the Evergreen Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan and was conducted by their first music director, Lim Kek-tjiang.  Should you question the statement that “Music hath power to sooth the savage breast” note the smile on Lim’s face as he leads his orchestra in the main harmonic theme of the piece – about one and a half minutes into the performance.  That is the power of music.

We are fortunate to live in a land of such great abundance.  And yet there are so many of us who cry they don’t have enough.  As Auntie Mame put it, “Life’s a banquet – and most poor suckers are starving to death.”  Perhaps that’s because too many of us don’t take the time either to smell the roses – or to stop and listen to the music.


When someone shows exceptional talent, far beyond that with which most of us are gifted, you would think we would celebrate that gift and delight in it.  That is how we view many of our sports heroes and movie stars.  But it has not always been so.

There was a woman born in 1897 in Philadelphia, PA by the name of Marian Anderson.  She was perhaps the greatest classical contralto of the 20th century.  She was a black woman.

Marian Anderson was active in her church’s choir where her aunt noticed her exceptional talent.   She worked with her niece but the family was too poor to be able to afford professional music lessons.  But it was her aunt’s influence which she credited for her pursuing a musical career.  The two of them would go to free concerts whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Because of the accidental death of her father when she was 12 years old, Marian, her mother and two sisters moved in with her paternal grandparents.  The family was unable to send her to high school but years later she did receive her diploma.  She would often be asked to sing a few songs and the twenty-five or fifty cents that she earned would help to sustain the family.

The Pastor of her church and others in the black community saw a star in Marian Anderson and together raised the money that enabled her to take lessons from a private teacher and to attend high school.  In 1921 she graduated and then applied to The Philadelphia Music School but was turned away because of her race.

In 1925 Marian Anderson won a competition that was sponsored by the New York Philharmonic.  It was the break she needed to embark on what would ultimately become an incredibly successful career with glowing reviews from the New York critics.  But racism still held sway even in the liberated north and her career sputtered.

In 1930 she began on a European concert tour, giving her first performance in London.  She found that music lovers on the continent did not share the same racial prejudices as their counterparts back home and for the next four years she enthralled audiences with her performances.

In 1934 she signed as a client with Sol Hurok, the greatest impresario of the 20th century.  He was able to persuade her to return to America and she gave a performance in New York’s Town Hall which received critical acclaim.  But the thing that promoted her career the most, ironically, was racism.

In 1939 she was refused permission to sing in Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because she was colored.  The District of Columbia similarly refused to allow her to perform in the auditorium of an all-white high school.

As a result, then first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and others, angrily resigned from the DAR.  They further persuaded the Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes to allow her to give an open air concert from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday to a live audience of 75,000 and a radio audience of millions.

The link below will take you to the Secretary’s introduction and to Marian Anderson’s singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”   There is a twenty second pause after Mr. Ickes concludes his speech until we hear Marian Anderson sing.;_ylt=A0S00My.ovtPaBcAkpr7w8QF;_ylu=X3oDMTBrc3VyamVwBHNlYwNzcgRzbGsDdmlkBHZ0aWQD?p=youtube+marian+anderson&vid=E4667FC736FEE53231E3E4667FC736FEE53231E3&l=5%3A32&

During the Second World War and the Korean conflict, Marian Anderson entertained the troops.  She gave about 70 concerts a year and is widely reported to have been the reason that other black artists like Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman had their opportunity to break into the world of opera.

During the 1960’s she worked in the civil rights movement and became a good friend of Albert Einstein who took her into his home after she was denied a room  by a Princeton, NJ hotel owing to her race.  She stayed with him on several occasions.

In the ensuing years, Marian Anderson was the recipient of many awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal, the George Peabody Medal, and a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement.  She passed away in 1993 at the age of 96 but she left a legacy behind of which all Americans, whatever our color, may be proud.

“Let Freedom Ring.”


Scarcely a person alive hasn’t at some time been the subject of criticism.  Critics abound with the frequency that flies lite on cow pies in the dead heat of a blistering day in Yuma, Arizona.  They are our personal gadflies – sent as a scourge by a lesser deity.  But it is not to these I refer in this post.

No, the critics of whom I speak are those who have made a profession of it.  They are the ultimate arbiters (the Enlightened Ones) of what passes for good taste and have been placed on this earth to inform the rest of us (The Un-enlightened Ones) what we should read, hear, and enjoy – and conversely what we should not pick up, listen to and abhor.  It is a noble profession – and one for which there is really no professional training.  (This might be a possible career choice for those in the OWS movement as it carries with it no baggage such as student loans).

There was a memorable critic in Chicago by the name of Claudia Cassidy.  If it is true that “only the good die young”, Ms. Cassidy went on to live to be 96 years of age – but I have always disputed the validity of that aphorism.  She was indeed an influence in the development (and retardation) of art in Chicago.  Her moniker, “acidy Cassidy” would be understood by anyone who read or heard a typical reiew.

For years she worked as a critic for The Chicago Tribune, submitting freelance offerings.  But I came to know her through her regular half hour Sunday broadcast on Chicago’s classical music station, WFMT.  I can attest to her impact by saying that in order not to miss one of these broadcasts which spanned fifteen years, I attended an earlier service at church to be sure I would be home to hear this famed critic.

If I could think of a way to describe the persona that she projected, I would have to say that the words she spoke reminded me of a nasty and vitriolic Oscar Wilde, delivered through the gravelly voice of a whiskey-downing cigarette-smoking Edith Piaf.  Her delivery and her ability to turn a phrase (usually against the artist she was reviewing) were truly classic.  Listening to her was a bit like playing with a loose tooth – a combination of pleasure and pain.

Ms. Cassidy abruptly passed from the milieu of Chicago’s cultural scene.  One day she reviewed a concert which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had given under the leadership of guest conductor Thomas Schippers.  She took apart both the Maestro’s ability to lead an orchestra, the orchestra’s performance of Anton Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony and went on to further impugn the Austrian people as a whole for having produced such a “monstrous composer” and inflicting him on the world.

Sadly, Maestro Schippers had decided that he didn’t like the rehearsals of the piece and, at the last moment, had substituted Dvorak’s Symphony “From the New World” in its place.  And so ended a vainglorious career.

If there is a moral in this it can have been expressed no better than by Polonius in “Hamlet” when he said, “To thine own self be true.”  As in relationships and in art, you are your own best critic.


 When I first moved out of the dorms I rented an apartment as a summer sublet. The landlord, Lester and his wife, Maria were two of the warmest and most wonderful people I have ever known. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that they became foster parents to me.

 Lester had polio as a child in Iowa and as a result had a badly deformed leg. Nevertheless, he often could be seen around the neighborhood riding his bicycle. He worked at the Art Institute of Chicago. I can honestly say I never met anyone who had as deep a knowledge of such a wide diversity of subjects as he did.

Maria was of Hungarian-Jewish extraction and had been born in Budapest. Her mother was one of Sigmund Freud’s first pupils. (Those of us who knew her were convinced that mama had committed major malpractice in the process of raising her only child).

 They were very typical of the socially liberal Hyde Park community in which we lived. But Maria went above and beyond the call and gave new meaning to the term “left of center.” Way left. Were the world indeed flat, she would have long ago fallen off its western edge.

 In 1965 Cesar Chavez had organized the grape pickers into a strike force – protesting their poor wages and working conditions. Maria not only boycotted grapes but threw in bananas and apricots as well.

 In the early 1970’s he organized a similar and larger protest – this time focusing on lettuce. Not to be outdone – Maria similarly boycotted cucumbers and tomatoes. She was a small woman with an indomitable spirit and although we disagreed on many things I loved her dearly. (The attempt to improve the migrant workers’ working conditions was one thing on which we did agree).

 As things happened, my summer sublet turned into an opportunity to rent one of the other apartments in their six flat brownstone and I lived in their building for five years. 

A few years after I had purchased a condo and had left this cozy environment, Maria called to say that she and Lester were retiring to Santa Fe and had sold their property in Chicago. Although I was sad that they were leaving we spoke by phone every week.

 During one of these conversations, Maria told me that she had purchased two season tickets for the Santa Fe Opera and would like me to join her for several performances. Well, I loved opera and had never been to Santa Fe – so why not? I began looking into making arrangements for this little adventure that summer.

 Because of the excellent public transportation in Chicago, Lester and Maria did not own or need a car when they lived there. As it turned out, Maria didn’t know how to drive. But she learned quickly when they went to Santa Fe where a car was a necessity.

 When I left on my trip I decided it would be far easier if I rented a car at the airport in Albuquerque rather than asking them to make the long drive to pick me up.

 My second night in Santa Fe, she and I were going to the opera. Lester prepared a simple early dinner and we decided to leave a little early as Maria said that, as it got close to curtain, the lines of cars trying to get in the opera’s parking lot became very lengthy.

 As the two of us were heading to my car, Lester said, “The opera is only fifteen minutes away. Just go out the driveway and make a left. When you …”

 That was as far as he got before Maria chimed in, “Lester – I know how to get to the opera. You don’t have to give us directions.” (I had gotten used to this sort of banter between the two of them during the time I knew them in Chicago and was wise enough not to get involved).

 As soon as we got to the car Maria said, “Go out of the driveway and make a right turn.”

 “But Lester said to go left,” I responded. 

Just listen to me – I know what I’m doing and how to get there.”

 So I followed her instructions and forty-five minutes later we arrived at the opera.

 When we got home, Lester asked what I thought of the performance. I had been enthralled with the opera’s setting – the sides of the opera house open to the night sky which was filled with stars. And the Verdi was wonderful.

 Then I said, “I didn’t realize Santa Fe was so big.” I explained it had taken us three-quarters of an hour to get to our destination.

 Lester just smiled and said, “Oh, let me guess. You didn’t make any left turns on your way, did you?”

 I hadn’t thought about it until he made that statement – but he was correct.

 The state of New Mexico had been the first to give Maria a driver’s license – at the age of 68. Four days after receiving this she was making a turn into the Plaza. A left turn. As she completed this simple maneuver she was broadsided by another vehicle. 

Although the other driver was clearly at fault, Maria came to the conclusion that making left turns resulted in car accidents. Unless there were absolutely no alternative she always plotted her course so that she could make right turns only and get where she was going.

 And that is the power of fuzzy thinking – elevated to its very best.

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