Friday, November 20, 2009

Even More Opera Review

As if I hadn't seen Turandot enough this year (see my posts for July 8 & 14), the other night I went to see the Encore presentation of Turandot on the Met's Live in HD series at my local movie house. (I didn't see it on its truly "live" presentation on November 7 because I was watching the Iowa-Northwestern game on TV. First things first.) I thought it was a great production. Maria Guleghina was very fine as the princess Turandot (some of her high notes were a bit approximate, but this is a role in which a dramatic soprano has to work pretty hard). Marcello Giordani was also very good, if perhaps a bit wooden, as Calaf. He got through "Nessun dorma" pretty well, if not quite superbly; the Met audience then went bananas, which I thought was a little indiscriminate. I was quite impressed by Marina Poplavskaya's Liu; I had never seen/heard her before, and she sang and acted the role very well. Samuel Ramey (Timur, the old blind king, father of Calaf) was as usual very good in a role which is not really very big. I really liked Ping, Pang and Pong (I don't have the singers' names at hand), who put some depth into what are often merely stock characters. Perhaps the most notable thing was Franco Zeffirelli's production, which was Zeffirelli all the way. Very imaginative and elaborate choreography. However, this opera still has the dumbest plot in the repertoire, but in this case the Zeffirelli production (together with Puccini's music) helps one not to notice as much. It reminded me that Toscanini was probably right at the opera's premiere at Milan in 1926: he stopped the performance after the death of Liu, which was the point at which Puccini had died without completing Act III. All downhill from there.

But my enjoyment of Zeffirelli's over-the-top production reminded me of the great fuss over the Met's new production of
Tosca last month, by Luc Bondy. I rather liked it, actually, but it's true that it had several flaws that sometime down the line (when Bondy isn't looking) should be corrected. (The floozies in Scarpia's apartment at the beginning of Act II were a seriously wrong move.) Many critics were comparing the Bondy production to the previous one, which was another Zeffirelli-all-the-way. The problem with the Zeffirelli Tosca was that the sets (Sant' Andrea Della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese, and the Castel Sant' Angelo) overwhelmed the action of the opera, which is actually a fairly intimate melodrama. Oh well. I thought Mattila was very good, but she's not Callas. Nor will anyone ever be again....

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What the Bible Says About Health Care

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest and a Levite were going down that road, and when they saw him, they said to him, “It is not the temple’s obligation to provide health care for people. That would be socialized medicine.” And they passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him, and when he saw him he was moved with pity. He went to him and said, “It is too bad that you are not a Samaritan. In Samaria we have universal health care coverage. But as a Judean you are expected to provide for your own medical care privately. Good luck!” (Luke 10:30-34)

As [Jesus] approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd doing by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” Then he shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” …Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him, and when he came near, he asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Have you paid your medical insurance premiums?” (Luke 18:35-38,40-42)

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “We would like to help this girl, but apparently her owners’ health insurance policy does not cover treatment for mental illness. And we certainly would not want to interfere with free enterprise. I’m afraid there is nothing we can do.” ( Acts 16:16-18)

Monday, August 10, 2009

The New Great Generation

Richard Doak, a retired editor at the Des Moines Register, posted an Op-Ed in the Sunday Register yesterday (August 9, 2009) entitled “Next great generation may be on its way up.” I think he’s right, or at least I hope so. I encourage folks to read it.

Doak argues that the current student generation has, on the whole, a much different way of thinking about the world than the previous generation. They aren’t rebels, a la the sixties; they generally get along well with their parents. But they don’t think like them. The government is not a bugaboo to them. They don’t oppose taxes if they will be well spent to solve real problems. They are concerned about the environment. They are not opposed to immigrants. They have little interest in the “culture wars.” Of particular interest to those of us in “the Episcopal Summer of Our Discontent,” Doak writes:

“In general, today’s young adults are tolerant, accepting racial equality and homosexuality in greater numbers than their elders. Same-sex marriage might make the blood boil of Baby Boom conservatives, but to most young people it’s simply a non-issue.”
The downside of all this is that “religion appears to be less important in the lives of millennials, as a group, than it is in the lives of older Americans.” (Gee, I wonder why that might be?) Doak notes, as have others, that the rising generation of evangelical Christians is more concerned with the stewardship of God’s earth and the needs of the poor than with the moralistic posturing of their elders. (Actually reading the Bible can do that to you!) But for many young people, the institutional church simply has very little to do with their own experience of life and its concerns — and indeed is often hostile to it.

Obviously the rising generation should be a major concern for our mission and evangelism. But what is needed is not gimmicks to attract and entertain them, but serious attention to their own best commitments and values. I’ve noted lately, in the context of the recent General Convention, that the “reasserters” — whether schismatic or (so far) yet in the fold — are moaning and whining about how the Episcopal Church is swirling the drain, all because of the gays (or ordained women, or revised liturgy, or civil rights, or whatever). Right. Does anyone really think that ACNA or any other church based upon “no gay cooties” will still be around a generation from now? (Gee, that’s sure a church I’d like to join!) Actually, it probably will be, at least in remnants. Baptismal regeneration was a big deal 140 years ago, and the Reformed Episcopal Church is still here.

+Rowan, are you paying any attention at all to this stuff?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

More Opera Review

If one performance of Turandot is good, two are better. The other day I watched the video of the production at The Forbidden City of Beijing, conducted by Zubin Mehta (1998, I think). A brilliant and fascinating production. The principals were triple-cast (since the production was performed for nine straight nights); this particular cast included Giovanna Casolla in the title role (very very good, in a role that rarely descends out of the stratosphere), Barbara Frittoli as Liu (wonderful), and Russian tenor Sergej Larin as Calaf. A superb voice, in some ways reminiscent of Pavarotti, except that Pavarotti was a better actor (!). (In an interview, Larin said this was probably the largest stage he had ever performed on. Nevertheless, he just stood in the middle of it like a stump.) And Calaf was still a jerk. A rather different take on Ping, Pang and Pong, which was interesting.

Several other productions are available on DVD. I'll have to check them out.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Opera Review

Here's another utterly non-theological comment:

The other day I was watching a DVD of the Australian Opera's production of Puccini's Turandot. From the early 1990's, I think. The production itself is (was) splendid. The performances were very good (not quite great, but very good; I think the cast was Australian, but I didn't recognize any of them). Puccini's music, of course, is absolutely wonderful. But surely that has got to be the dumbest plot in the whole of the standard operatic repertoire. (And I'm including the cycle The Ring of the Nibelungs, which is pretty dumb. Great music, though much too long -- Wagner had no self-discipline -- but a pretty dumb plot.) The only character in Turandot who is likeable at all is the slave girl Liu, and she ends up killing herself (well, I probably would too, in the circumstances). The old king Timur is dumb as a box of rocks -- no wonder he was dethroned. Prince Calaf is even more of a jerk than B. F. Pinkerton, and that's saying a lot. Turandot herself, of course, desperately needs to get over herself, and I doubt that falling for Calaf is going to do the job.

Where was Mao Zedong when the people of Peking (Beijing) really needed him?

Letters to The Living Church

One of the really nice things about The Living Church is that it provides so many opportunities to write whining Letters to the Editor. Well, I've had mine for this quarter (and editor David Kalvelage is always very gracious about giving me some whining space every few months); it appeared in the July 5 issue, asking why the Episcopalians for Traditional Faith were pushing the 1928 Prayer Book to celebrate Independence Day. (And that makes sense because....?)

I think David is a fair man (I often don't agree with him, but I think he's a fair man) and therefore it's not appropriate that he give me more space in the TLC Letters column so soon. But this doesn't mean I don't have more whining to share.

1. In the current (July 5) issue, the Episcopalians for Traditional Faith are at it again, this time with a full page ad encouraging couples to choose their wedding ceremony from the 1928 Prayer Book (pages 300-301). And why would that be, do you suppose? Well, in case we missed their point, they use a text highlighter on page 301: "...this Woman to thy wedded wife" and "...this Man to thy wedded husband." Aha. Well, never mind that the 1979 Prayer Book uses almost exactly the same words (page 424). Apparently the point is that the 1928 BCP is the most certain way that folks can proclaim, "No Gay Cooties!" I never knew that about the '28 book, and I grew up with it. But at least we now see what the issue really is. Not that there was really any doubt, I guess. ("Bash a homo! Use the 1928 Prayer Book!")

2. In a response to Bishop Rowthorn's very good article about the proposed expansion of Lesser Feasts and Fasts (now to be titled Holy Women, Holy Men -- Celebrating the Saints), Mr. Kalvelage thinks it's too much, particularly since a number of the persons proposed for commemoration are "unfamiliar to Episcopalians and other Anglicans." Indeed. I unearthed my original copy of Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1963, when we were still using the you-know-which Prayer Book) and looked through the Calendar, which even then included the majority of the commemorations in the current LFF. Except that in 1963 we had never heard of a lot of them; at least I suspect most Episcopalians had never heard of them. But we know them now, and remember them with joy and thanks to God for their witness. And maybe this is the point, yes? Do we really need to be so stingy about how many of God's Holy Ones we commemorate? (And after all, these have all always been optional in any case.)

3. In an adjacent editorial, Mr. Kalvelage argues in opposition to the proposed approval by General Convention of any formal blessing of committed same-sex relationships. He writes (TLC, July 5, page 21): "Such action is contrary to 2,000 years of Christian tradition, and would damage even further The Episcopal Church's already tenuous relationship with much of the rest of the Anglican Communion. Approval of same-gender [sic] blessings also would hasten the departure of conservative Episcopalians from a steadily declining church. In addition, as we have pointed out on numerous occasions, these innovations are non-scriptural." I believe Mr. Kalvelage is a decent and honest man, and no more homophobic than is the case with most of us Straight Guys. But he is missing the point here. (a) We need to be a little careful about "2,000 years of Christian tradition," especially about marriage. Although there is little evidence of committed same-sex relationships before the modern era, it's pretty clear that during much of Christian history, marital sexuality was not very well regarded except as a way to make babies. ("Just close your eyes and think of England.") (b) Please explain to me, David, why we should continue to marginalize our devout and devoted gay and lesbian couples in order not to offend Peter Akinola. (c) Are you suggesting that if we revert to gay-bashing, we're going to recover and keep all these "conservative" Episcopalians who are otherwise departing? (d) Non-scriptural innovations? Episcopalians/Anglicans? Oh, surely not! (Does the word "divorce" strike a familiar note?)

Enough for now....

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Political Note of the Day

(This has nothing to do with Liturgy, or even with Curmudgeonhood, though I guess it does have to do with God, because everything has to do with God:)

I see that the Minnesota Supreme Court has just ruled that Al Franken has defeated Norm Coleman for election as United States Senator from Minnesota. (The very very close election has been in the courts since last November.)

The United States Senate will be a much more interesting place for the next six years....

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thought for the Day

On your keyboard, think of a line connecting PC. Then think of a line connecting BS. The lines don't go in the same direction, but they do cross.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Comments on the Office readings

One of the things that some of us have discovered over the years, by God’s grace, is that we do not become familiar with the Bible just by reading it once or twice. One of the blessings of the Daily Office is that after we have worked our way through the office lectionary for twenty or thirty for forty years, we still keep finding new insights in texts that we thought we “already knew.” (The same would be true for those who may not formally pray the daily office but who do have a system of reading through the Bible once a year, or however often.)

Well, in the Daily Office these days we (at least those of us using the American BCP!) have been working our way into 1 Samuel (always a joy). The Philistines have captured the Ark of God, and in the process the priest Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas were killed in battle. When Eli heard the news he fell over backward and broke his neck. We saw all that coming, of course. The Lord was ticked that the Ark of God was in Philistine hands, and knocked over the statue of Dagon in the temple at Ashdod and struck the people with tumors (possibly the bubonic plague, which is spread by flea-infested rats, possibly the “mice” referred to in chapter 6). The plague followed the Ark from Ashdod to Gath to Ekron (and apparently to Ashkelon and Gaza as well), and the Philistines finally caught on that keeping the Ark of God was Not A Good Idea. So they sent the Ark back to the Israelites. A wonderful story!

Okay, now I would be interested to hear from the folks who are very much into a strictly literal interpretation of the whole of the Bible: Just what are we to make of this story?
(Remember Ichabod Crane, from Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”? I remember him especially from the 1949 Disney film. The name “Ichabod” means something like “the glory is gone,” and the Biblical Ichabod was the son of Phinehas, born just as the news of the death of his father, his uncle, and his grandfather, and the capture of the Ark, arrived at Shiloh. Ichabod’s mother named him, and then died following childbirth. “Ichabod” is obviously not a very auspicious name! Although apparently a lot of schools in upstate New York are named for Ichabod Crane. But I digress.)
A canticle later we read from the 5th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, about the counsel of Gamaliel regarding how to deal with Peter and the apostles. “So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.” In regard to the current dissensions in the Episcopal Church, there might be some argument as to which side is who, but in any case Gamaliel gives good advice: “Well, let’s just see.” I don’t suggest that anyone should be flogged, and certainly not that anyone be ordered not to speak in the name of Jesus, but I also think no one should be permitted to walk away with the church silver.

One of the things that I find interesting is some of the more traditional folks, noting that membership/attendance in the Episcopal Church is going down the toilet (that’s true in some places, not true in others), blames it all on selling out to the “homosexual agenda.” (I’m not quite sure just what that “agenda” is. I don’t think “Just give us a fair break” constitutes an “agenda.”) In the past, of course, the reasons why our membership has been going down the toilet for the last forty years have included getting involved in civil rights, protesting the Vietnam War, ordaining women to the priesthood, and revising the Book of Common Prayer. The decline in our membership statistics is, of course, a serious issue, and needs to be taken seriously. It may be the case that the Episcopal Church would once again flourish statistically if we would just quit meddling in politics, support our President no matter what, put women back in their place, return to Jesus’ own Prayer Book (1928), and, above all, get rid of the gays.

But I don’t think so.