Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Thirty-Four Minutes With An Opera Singer

Thirty-Four Minutes With An Opera Singer

November 18, 2014

Have you ever noticed that “Opera” and “Obama” are both five-letter words, starting and ending with the same vowels? Coincidence, or conspiracy?

The similarities don’t stop there.  Both words are of foreign extraction, both elicit deeply passionate reactions, and both evoke legends that often have very little relationship to reality.

After the riotous booing by the electorate after Scene I, Act II, there have been some cast changes, made with the expectation of a more harmonious collaboration between the leads, the chorus, and the orchestra.  The show must go on.

As you might have guessed, I wasn’t all that thrilled with the audience reaction, although I have to admit the performances could have used a little extra polish, so I went looking for some professional advice.

The great American mezzo, Joyce DiDonato, seemed the perfect place to start.  First, my daughter adores her.  Secondly, she loves baseball, a clear sign of a discriminating temperament: If you don’t know who she is, she sang the National Anthem (opera singer, baseball fan, and a patriot!) prior to the seventh game of this year’s World Series.  Third, she showed uncommon grace when something unexpected occurred.  And finally, the woman can really bring it.  Check out the range, check out those high notes.

So, what could Joyce DiDonato teach pretty much everyone in government, from Barack Obama on down?  Watch this clip of a portion of a master-class she gave at Julliard.

For this half an hour, she just talked to the students.  About life, and her (and their) choice of a career, and the incredible demands that career will make upon them, about success and failure, about commitment, about hearing that little critical voice in their heads, and knowing when to heed it and when to ignore it.  Most importantly, she talked about the work.  What it takes beyond just talent—the time in the practice room, the knowledge that you won’t be perfect in performance (and the audience will remember the botched F a lot more than the cascade of beauty that will surround it.)  She tells these eager, ambitious, immensely gifted young people to take their eyes, for the moment, off opera.  Instead, they should go abroad, learn Italian, French and German, since they will be singing in these languages, read books, look at beautiful paintings, immerse themselves in living, because only through that extra knowledge of experiencing and loving and feeling can they truly project on the stage all the emotions that a great performer must show and a great performance must deliver.

What she’s talking about, without saying it explicitly, is that her work demands a commitment to excellence, and excellence doesn’t come easy. Want pressure?  How about preparing for the lead in the Metropolitan Opera’s premier of Donizetti’s torturous Maria Stuarda and knowing that “there are 100 notes” she’s not perfect on.  That little voice, whispering doubts?  The only way you hold them at bay when you walk on stage is to do the work, all of it, so the mistakes you make have nothing to do with preparation.

Last week, I wrote about putting humans in charge, about freeing the individual from the narrow confines of bureaucracy to succeed, and I suggested that the Democrats learn from the pasting they took by advancing a broad-based agenda of liberty, with responsibility, on both social and economic issues. Like DiDonato, celebrate both the effort, and the accomplishment, of the individual.

This week, I want to take a different tact.  Government isn’t just about the individual, even the Presidency.  It's truly like an opera.  Even with the most stellar of leads, you don’t make beautiful music when the orchestra is dull, the conductor uninspired, and the chorus flat. 

Why do so many of our electeds make such an unpleasant sound?  Some just can’t help themselves.  But vast majority of others just haven’t taken the time to prepare themselves for their responsibilities. How many in Washington have done anything close to what Joyce DiDonato told her audience was a necessity for a life in music? What is their experience in running large organizations?  What technical expertise do they bring to the committees they head? What do they know of the private sector, or how legislation is actually drafted and enacted?  Do they speak any other languages, have they any understanding of the culture in Europe, in Asia, in the Middle East?  What background do they have in military deployment or procurement?   In short, have they put in the work, so when they get on the big stage, the false notes they will invariably hit won’t come from a lack of preparation?  Or are they there simply either because they were “electable” or just kooky enough to make it through the primaries in an ideologically driven district?

If you want an answer to that, take a look at the three most prominent pieces of legislation that have emerged in the Obama Presidency: First, Obamacare, well-intended but poorly thought-out and drafted, which would have been helped immeasurably if either side had the courage (courage is the right word) to amend and improve it with the technical fixes that are commonplace.  Second, Keystone, a pipeline over the United States, which does virtually nothing for the American consumer and has the potential for significant environmental risk, but does stimulate construction jobs and economic activity.  Finally, immigration reform, a seething mess of poor planning, appalling opportunism, ugly prejudice, and blatant political opportunism.  We couldn’t do better on any of these?

Of course we could, if only we demanded better of both political parties and the candidates they nominate.  We don’t because we, too, don’t do the work.  We neither inform ourselves on the issues, beyond slogans, nor bother to vote. They won’t or can’t, and we let them be that way.

About twenty years ago, my wife and I went to a performance of Aida. The male lead, Lando Bartolini, had been the victim of one of the worst opening night reviews imaginable (“crushing dullness” was one of the kinder comments.)  In Act I, Bartolini appears (to a few snickers) in tunic and elevator sandals, he looks into the audience with an expression that surely meant “oh, no, I’m sure they have all read it” and launches into his big, opening aria, Celeste Aida. He finishes, frozen, and is enveloped in silence.  It must have been the longest few seconds in his career.  Then a smattering of polite applause, and he exits, stage left.

Right now, there are a lot of people in Washington I wish would follow Lando’s lead.  Maybe if we promise them polite applause, they will agree to exit?

Somehow, I fear it won’t be that easy.  So I suggest we be proactive, and send them thirty minutes of Joyce DiDonato.  Or, better yet, add the two from her performance at the World Series.  Turns out that at the conclusion, she tripped and took a header in front of millions.  Got right back up to thunderous cheers.  When you do the work, you are prepared for anything.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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