Sunday, August 11, 2013

Three Performances: A-Rod, Obama, Verdi

Three Performances, A-Rod, Obama, Verdi

It started out as a pretty depressing week.

This past Monday marked the return from rehab of Alex Rodriguez, the once-gigantically talented third baseman, now aging relic playing out the string on two reconstructed hips, a chemically infused body, and an irreducible ego. 

But first, a little drama.  A-Rod, if you somehow managed to be trapped on a desert island without newspapers, cable or Internet, stands accused, along with 12 other Major Leaguers, of indulging himself in the wares of a seedy Florida  “anti-aging” clinic known as Biogenesis.

What has A-Rod done?  Allegedly, of course, because he denies it. He juiced.  He led some of the younger players to the clinic (A-Rod as juicing pimp).  He tried to buy up the evidence and perhaps even intimidate witnesses (A-Rod as mob boss). These are all bad things, for which he merits punishment. 

And yet, there he is, holding a press conference and talking about how excited he is to be back with his teammates.  There he is, trotting out to third base.  Because A-Rod isn’t just a man with the largest two contracts, or all-time record for self-esteem, he's also a gutter-fighter with a gigantic pocket, unwilling to concede anything.  The other twelve accepted their suspensions without appeal, but A-Rod is fighting tooth and nail.  And, perversely, because A-Rod appealed, he is the only one actually back out on the field. 

That is what makes the A-Rod vs. MLB saga so awful.  He is a daily offense to our sense of justice and a reminder of our powerlessness. We either watch him, or we don’t watch.  He takes what should be a simple pleasure and drags it into the adult world of money and influence and special rules for special talents, and makes it stale and sour and joyless.

A-Rod wasn’t the only person holding a press conference.  This week another celebrity, President Obama, also had the microphone.  The issues were bigger; the future of Obamacare, the GOP threats of another shutdown, our relationship with Russia (meaning, his relationship with Putin) and, of more immediate impact, the entire apparatus of domestic and international surveillance, Edward Snowden, the NSA, the FISA Court, and the balance between liberty and security. 

And once again, as has been too often the case during his Administration, the poetry of the campaigner slammed into the prose of actually governing.  On the NSA and FISA, Mr. Obama, while offering some reforms, has absolutely no intention of materially cutting back on what some would call “anti-terrorism” measure, but I would call domestic spying.

I fully understand that the country faces horrible people who wish to do us great harm. That being said, there is absolutely no reason why the government needs to know what websites I visited today in order to keep the country safe.  To save them time, I’ll own up to an unhealthy fixation on baseball and politics. 

The net of Mr. Obama’s presser; the spying will go on, and that is a small tragedy for those of us who supported him as a change agent, as an idealist, as someone who didn’t embrace the Dick Cheney form of government.  The optimistic young Senator who asked for our support is gone.  Sadly, for him, and for us, he’s had to become a grown-up. 

It is wonderful to be young, before all those adult responsibilities hem you in.  You can take magnificent risks; you can backpack the world, spend late nights playing drums in an alternate rock band, or drop out of college to start Microsoft or Apple.  Grown-ups have families and responsibilities; a spouse, mortgages, jobs, bosses.

In short, adults have to calibrate risks, rather than take them.  They must be careful not damage what they already have.  That’s what Mr. Obama is doing now, as the Uber-Adult.  He can’t relax the security state.  His dilemma, even if he can’t publically articulate it, is simple: Practically, he has to keep us safe.  Politically, no American President wants to take the blame for a terrorist attack under any circumstances, particularly if he or she has eased up on security.  He knows these things, he knows he isn’t the President people hoped he would be, and I think he might be a little disappointed in himself. Watch Obama’s body language when he talks about the security state; he’s detached, and without joy, like a doctor explaining an unpleasant but necessary procedure.

People have noticed, and not just the far right fringe that sees an Obama-monster under every bed.  It’s striking that Mr. Obama’s support has dropped most sharply among younger voters, the ones who aren’t burdened by having to calibrate risks. They are the ones with the most expansive views of civil liberties, they are the ones who want to trust their futures to openness, and they are the ones who thought Mr. Obama shared their values. 

I had the chance to spend some of this last week with all those risk-takers and optimists, and it recharged me a little.  I saw well over 100 short performances by teenagers who also happened to be classical vocal students; there were opera scenes, arias, and art songs. They trotted out in tuxedos and gowns for solo recitals, in costume in threes and fours and fives for the opera scenes.  They were terrific, not yet ready for La Scala, but raw talent, enthusiastic, and in love with the music.  The performances ended with all of them on stage, dressed in simple black pants and shirts, singing the great "Va, pensiero” chorus from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco. 

Nabucco is the story of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco) vanquishing Judea, the destruction of the Temple, and the exile of the Israelites. The 28-year-old Verdi was given the libretto at a low point in his life.  His second opera had failed and his wife and infant children had all died. He later said that he had tossed the libretto on to a table, and when he glanced down, it had opened to “va, pensiero.”  The words themselves sang to him.

In the third act, the defeated and enslaved Israelites, under sentence of death, rest on the banks of the Euphrates, and dream of their homeland and redemption.  Va, pensiero is a work of both sadness and optimism, of loss and hope.  In later life, Verdi was a great supporter of Italian reunification (Risorgimento), and some scholars see Va, pensiero as an early anthem for Italian patriots.  It has remained that way.  At Verdi’s death, bystanders lined the streets of Milan, and sang it as his funeral cortege passed by. In 2011, the Conductor Riccardo Muti interrupted a performance of it to protest cuts in the arts under then Prime Minister Berlusconi.  He then asked the audience to join the cast in singing the aria in support of culture.   

The young artists who walked on stage last night might have known little of Risorgimento, and probably cared even less about who A-Rod’s lawyers were, or what the specific provisions of the Affordable Care Act are.  They were not ready for world-weary cynicism, or the cold calculation of adulthood.  So they reached out, and put their hands on their friend’s shoulders, and sang of yearning and dreams. With unspoiled joy. 

Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate; Fly, thought, on wings of gold.