Russ Hurley for Congress in 2018 (Ohio’s 2nd Congressional District)

Ohio's_2nd

The voters of Cincinnati have been carefully divided up into two congressional districts, both of which are reliably Republican.  The gerrymandering is particularly obvious in the 2nd district, which reaches to Pike County, roughly 100 miles away from the carefully carved appendage slicing through Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Currently, this district is represented by Brad Wenstrup, a tea partier who beat the incumbent Republican in the 2012 primary.  Unlike many tea party types, Wenstrup is no lightweight.  A former pediatrician, he is intelligent and articulate.  He runs a very professional congressional office.  His campaign already has a half a million dollars on hand. Given all of the advantages of incumbency and the demographics of the district, whoever runs as his opponent is sure to be a long shot.

In order to win in this district, the Democrats need to step outside their usual box and give the voters something to be excited about in an off-year election.   In my opinion, there is one issue that can generate that excitement: the legalization of marijuana.

Teapot RussMany Years ago, when I was smoking pot regularly, I assumed that when my generation came to power, marijuana would become legal.  Belatedly, this is starting to happen.  It has been legalized in a few states, and many more, including Ohio, have approved if for medical use.  However, the federal government still classifies it as a Schedule I drug, putting it along side heroine and other highly addictive drugs.  It is time end this prohibition at its source, through national legislation.  A Quinnipiac poll says that most Americans (60% to 34%) agree “that the use of marijuana should be made legal in the U.S.”  This is a winning issue.

In the 2016 Democratic primary, there was one candidate for congress who put the marijuana issue front and center: Russ Hurley.  This is why I endorsed him then. Now, he has started an on-ine campaign for the 2018 primary and asked me to endorse him again.

King Court 2Since that primary, I have had the opportunity to meet Russ at his place of business: the King’s Court Master Barber & Shoe Shine Service.  I have not seen him address a crowd, but he strikes me as a down to earth guy who might appeal to the stereotypical Trump voter in a way that Wenstrup, with all his polished professionalism, might not.

I like candidates who let you know where they stand.  Hurley has done this, publishing his “top 10” issues.  Since this blog is about my point of view,  here is what I think of each or Hurley’s points:

  1.  Legalize industrial hemp and marijuana adding trillions of industrial $$$ into our economy. Saving 100s of billions on law enforcement. Eliminating the need for many prison cells across the nation. Close private for profit prisons and re-purpose them for indoor agricultural use making them more profitable for owners and providing even better jobs to the communities in which they reside.

One might question the wisdom of putting the marijuana issue first: we clearly have other important issues facing our nation.  However, the legalization of marijuana is what distinguished Hurley from the rest of the field in the previous primary, and it makes good sense to put this first.

Closing private, for profit prisons is a separate issue.  Even if we succeed in legalizing marijuana, the current Attorney General seems bent on incarcerating our way through the current opioid crisis, which will generate plenty of new prisoners.  America already jails a larger percentage of its population than any other developed nation.  This is horribly misguided.  Furthermore, we have a history of using prisoners for profit, and it is ugly.  We need to stop this now.

However, once we close the private prisons, we do not need to be directing the owners in how those facilities will be used.  Free market entrepreneurs excel at producing wealth from existing assets; they should not need our guidance.

2. Create a living wage increase commensurate  with CEO to minimum wage pay scale from the 1960s and double military base pay.

The increasing inequality in the distribution of wealth in our nation threatens the very foundation of our society.

I support increasing the minimum wage as one step in addressing this problem.  Seattle has set it at $15.00 an hour, which seems reasonable target to me.

As for military base pay, I do not know what is reasonable.  Currently, a Private (E1) with less than 2 years of experience earns $19,198.80, which is what someone earning $9.60 an hour would make working 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year.  Clearly, the base pay should be increased if we are increasing the minimum wage.  Doubling it seems over the top.

The growth in CEO wages in the last few decades has been obscene; we cannot simply replicate this obscenity throughout our society.  “Commensurate with CEO to minimum wage pay scale from the 1960s” might sound fair, but as near as I can tell, this would put the minimum wage somewhere in the neighborhood of $80 an hour.  This is ridiculous.  Hurley, using different sources, thinks it would be about $28 an hour.  Still ridiculous.

3.  Equal rights at work (equal pay) or home (marriage) and at the doctors  for all people (ALL MEANS ALL) in the USA.

In the bathroom too, although I think it’s fine that he didn’t mention that.

4. Create high speed rail and help update and improve inner city public transportation.  

We need major improvements in our transportation infrastructure.  However, it seems strange to emphasize high speed rail and inner city problems given the district that Hurley seeks to represent.

5. Return retirement age back to 65.

I oppose this.  We are living longer, healthier lives.  I think it reasonable to move the “official” retirement age up, as is happening now.   However, since I myself retired early, you may call me a hypocrite.

A more important improvement to Social Security concerns the earnings cap on the tax used to support it: this should be raised.

6.  Fix immigration with a true path to citizenship. provide better border security by creating more military bases across our border to keep terrorists out.

I support a quick path to legal status for people who are here.  This is much more urgent than the long term path to full citizenship.

Border security is problematic.  While it is plausible that some minuscule fraction of the people entering this country illegally are terrorists, this threat is magnified beyond all reasonable sense of proportion by our politicians.  Trump’s giant wall will not help much; nor will Hurley’s army bases.  This should not be on the high priority list.  We already waste more than enough money on security theater.

7. Strengthen and expand the A.C.A. until single pay comes for a vote.

Here, I think Hurley has exactly the right approach.

8. Eliminate corn subsidies for ethanol replacing corn with hemp, leading towards 100% renewable, cleaner, cheaper and closer to home energy sources.

I know Russ thinks hemp is more efficient than corn as a source for ethanol.  This might be true.  However, there are lots of ways to produce ethanol, and corn is clearly not the most efficient choice.  Thus, I agree that we should move away from corn subsidies.

I think the government has a role to play in subsidizing the production of ethanol from renewable sources.  I would prefer to support multiple options, rather than have the politicians choose their favorite.

9. Fund adult and child education building new schools.

We need to spend more on education.   However, I don’t think providing buildings is the best way to involve the federal government in this.  So here, I agree with the goal, but perhaps not the specifics of the proposal.

10. Expand wind and solar power, updating our power grid to eliminate the 30% lost energy every day.

Improving our electric grid is a major priority.  Efficiency and flexibility are needed to make use of these newer, less predictable, power sources.

We also need to protect it from cyber attack.  I think there are vulnerabilities here that the government could help address.

Thus, my judgment on Russ’s top 10 issues is mixed: I am enthusiastic about some of them, other I find  are too strident.   In my opinion, there are also a few things missing from this list:

  • Paying for it all.  Politicians talk only of benefits, never of costs.  Several of the objectives that Russ lays out cannot be reached without allocating the necessary financial resources.  This money has to come from some place.  There are several options available: borrowing the money, reducing the amount spent on defense, or taxing people who have money.  If Hurley is going to be specific on these priorities, he needs to be prepared to talk about how they are going to be funded.
  • Simplifying the tax system.  As long as our system is so complex and littered with so many loopholes, arriving at a fair method of taxation is impossible.
  • Providing good government, compromising when necessary to move us closer to our long term goals.  In normal times, this would not even be worth mentioning.  However, today there are politicians who take pride in their obstinance. As a result, our politics has become toxic and dysfunctional.  Our constitution was founded on compromise.  We need representatives in congress committed to making our democracy work.

Hurley

So often, campaigns are based on platitudes so broad and bland that it is impossible to have anything constructive to say about them.  Russ Hurley has stated positions that are clear and specific enough that I can have an opinion.  I appreciate this.  That my opinion differs from his in several points does not upset me; since I think for myself, it is inevitable.  I can endorse a candidate who is ready to lead us in what I perceive as the right direction, and is able to analyze problems, and evaluate proposed solutions. What I am concerned with is that he is pointing in the right direction and is able to think things through.

This brings me back to issue number 2, concerning the minimum wage.  What Hurley proposes might sound fair, but I don’t think he has thought this through at all.  Hurley’s position is so far over the top, so impractical, that I question whether  he can be taken seriously as a candidate.  I cannot endorse such lame thinking.

In 2016, I moved from one part of Cincinnati to another, crossing that carefully gerrymandered line.  So I longer vote in the 2nd congressional district.  However, if I had the opportunity, I would seriously consider voting for Hurley, despite my misgivings.

Did I mention that he supports the legalization of marijuana?

 

 

Wilmington Yearly Meeting 2017 Session: A Personal View

Jones Meetinghouse

T. Canby Jones Meetinghouse

Many years ago, I was bit of a purist.  That rather stifling position was shaken out of me in 1991 as I was confronted by Friends of vastly different perspectives at the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) gathering in Honduras.  There, I was opened up, particularly by my encounters with Evangelical Friends whose lives had been transformed by welcoming Jesus into their hearts.  I remained fixed in my essentially universalist point of view, but my understanding was both broadened and deepened by new perspectives that I had not taken seriously before.  Now, Quakers purists, whether liberal or conservative, might read me out of the meeting because of my participation in a Magadi, a Tswana tradition that is absolutely out of step with Friends testimony of equality.

It is one thing to encounter differences in the context of a multi-cultural  FWCC event, where people come ready to recognize and respect foreign ideas.  Welcoming such differences into your yearly meeting, your home, is something else.  How do you even define who you are if you embrace such differences?  Those who yearn for uniformity and purity cannot make a comfortable home is such a setting.

The yearly meeting epistle beautifully articulates the controversies expressed in the yearly meeting session:

We disagree about the nature of the authority of Scripture. We disagree about how to balance the witness of Scripture with the witness of the inward experience of God. We disagree about the authority of the Yearly Meeting over Monthly Meetings. We disagree about the continuing nature of revelation.

However, what this does not capture is the broader cultural context in which we live.  In this context, both sides in the yearly meeting controversy are profoundly conservative:

  • We care about the institutions in our society.  We want to preserve them, strengthen them, and make them meaningful to the present and the future. Otherwise, we would not even bother with Wilmington Yearly Meeting.
  • We want to pass on to the next generations the ethical and moral codes that guided our forefathers.  Moreover, we want to transmit to our children the spiritual inspiration that underlies these codes, so that they become not a mere collection of rules, but the foundation for a full and vibrant life.
  • We read and study the Bible with an intensity that we accord no other book.
  • We look to the writings of early Friends for inspiration and understanding.
  • In particular, we care about marriage.  We think that human sexuality is best expressed within a covenant relationship, which, with Divine assistance, will last a lifetime.  Our meetings take seriously the opportunity to celebrate the beginning of such a relationship  and the responsibility of bringing it under our care.

Yes, there is a cultural divide in this country, and it is evident within Wilmington Yearly Meeting.  However, this reality is not just a problem to be solved: it is an opportunity.  Can we build on the love and respect for each other that we have gained over the years? Can we build on all that we have in common to bridge this divide?  What is the significance of the Peace Testimony if we cannot even deal with our first world problems with love and respect?

Clearly, some within the yearly meeting want their old meeting back.  However, even if they were to prevail, it would not be the same.  Those few Conservative Friends who adhere to plain speech and plain dress in the this century are very different from those in the 18th century whose tradition they are preserving.  The cultural context matters.  We cannot avoid it; we can only choose how we address it.

My own vision for the yearly meeting is that it continue intact, that we continue to engage each other with compassion and respect, and that we hold our disagreements in our hearts, fully acknowledging them, but refusing to disengage, knowing that God will be with us.  It’s a tall order.

Wilmington Yearly Meeting 2017 Session: The Context

web1_From-CH-3rd-Floor

The parking lot during annual session of Wilmington Yearly Meeting, some time ago.

F/or  those unfamiliar with the loose structure of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), let me begin with an orientation.  Local Quaker meetings gather for worship every Sunday and for business roughly every month; they are called monthly meetings.  These are organized into yearly meetings. regional groups which assemble every year for worship, fellowship and business.  Yearly meetings are generally dividedinto smaller groups that meet four times a year, called quarterly meetings.  Thus, Friends organized themselves using time and geography.  There are national and international organizations as well, but to the extent that there is any authority outside the local meeting, it resides in the the yearly meeting.  Most yearly meetings have their own statements of faith and practice, sometimes called the discipline, which describe both spiritual testimonies and practical procedures.  Most Friends do not have a creed.

As the Religious Society of Friends in the United States began to fracture in the late 1820s, things became more confusing.  There are now four main branches of Quakers and a number of independent yearly meetings as well.  When the schisms began, the outside world would have had difficulty telling the branches apart.  Over the years, different branches absorbed different outside influences, and now you might have trouble seeing what they have in common.

The meeting that I belong to, Eastern Hills, is a bridge meeting, affiliated with both Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting and with Wilmington Yearly Meeting.  Ohio Valley traces its roots to the Hicksite side of the schism that reached Indiana Yearly Meeting in about 1830.   Its local meetings meet in open, waiting worship, usually with long periods of silence broken with a few short messages, spoken from the heart by anyone present.  Wilmington Yearly Meeting lies on the Orthodox side of that schism.  Most of its meetings for worship have a pastor, who brings a prepared message every week.  Most have at least a period of open worship.  When the meeting now known as Eastern Hills decided to formally organize, it looked at the Faith and Practices of the two yearly meetings and decided that it was feasible to affiliate with both.

Wilmington Yearly Meeting consists of 28 local meetings scattered among two quarterly meetings in southwest Ohio, a quarterly meeting in east Tennessee, and nothing in Kentucky.  When the underground railroad was active, the association between the meetings in the Tennessee foothills and the free state of Ohio made good sense.  In the current day, it seems awkward.

However, the geography is not the main problem.  This yearly meeting barely functions.  One of the Ohio quarters does not meet, and quiet a few meetings do not participate in yearly meeting activities, apparently having no need for the yearly meeting.  Like other volunteer organizations, most of the work is done by committees, and in this yearly meeting, most of the committees do not work.  One exception is the Quaker Knoll Camp, which is owned by the yearly meeting; this facility is being well cared for.   Elsewhere, there is a serious question as to whether there is enough energy in the yearly meeting to make anything happen.

When Community Friends Meeting, another bridge meeting, took the marriage of two women under its care in the late 90’s, there was plenty of energy.  Suddenly, the session was overflowing with angry Friends, many demanding that Community be disciplined.  The clerk and some Friends tried to bring the session into right order, and referred to the yearly meeting’s discipline.  One pastor angrily threw the book of discipline across the room, saying that what he cared about was the Bible.

Later, the Permanent Board, essentially a representatives meeting, came to a resolution: they adopted a “working document” that states “We, as monthly meetings within Wilmington Yearly Meeting will not bless same gender unions.”

This gets into the subtleties of Quaker process.  Friends strive to conduct business in accord with God’s purpose. The goal is to reach unity, something beyond a secular consensus.  When a group of Friends adopts a minute, that statement represents everyone in the group, not just the majority.  Since we hold that the divine speaks through individuals, one person’s voice is taken seriously.  If someone in the meeting feels strongly that an action is in error, then the action is not taken.   By tradition, Friends can, it they wish, “stand aside”: in this case,  they are not convinced the action is right, but allow to the meeting to move forward.

Even with a number of Friends standing aside, the Permanent Board was unable to come to unity on the above statement.  Community Friends would not stand aside for a statement that said, in essence, that they had erred in marrying two members of their meeting.  The board ended up coming up with the term “working document”, so that they would be able to do something.  Nobody knows exactly what a working document is, but the term implies that it is a work in progress, subject to further revision.  However, having gotten to something vaguely resembling a resolution, they put a lid on it and did not bring it up again.

Several years later, Community Friends found that none of its members wanted to actively participate in Wilmington Yearly Meeting.  They quietly withdrew their affiliation with Wilmington.

Meanwhile, the cultural shift continued.  Gays and lesbians became more visible, even in relatively rural areas.  As one pastor said, “God started sending gay people!”  Meetings that had not been in unity on the issue of same gender unions came to clarity, and others shifted their position.

Inevitably, a meeting violated the 1997 working document.  Cincinnati Friends had an opportunity to bring two people together into a covenant relationship under its care.  This was God’s work.  There was no question of putting the yearly meeting’s working document first.

Fairview Friends responded to the controversy with a minute concluding:

Fairview supports the ability of each Monthly Meeting to chart its own course on sensitive and complex issues.

Fairview Monthly Meeting advises that the Yearly Meeting not discipline any Monthly Meeting for their stand on such issues.

Thus, there are two issues: marriage equality, and local autonomy.  Logically, this allows for four groups:

  1. Meetings that endorse marriage equality and insist that meetings in their faith community adhere to the same standard.  There are many Quaker meetings that would hold this position, but none  in Wilmington Yearly Meeting.
  2. Meetings that define marriage as between one man and one woman, that teach that homosexual activity is sinful, and that insist the meetings in their faith community do the same.   This is the position of the 1997 working document, and a plurality of monthly meetings support it.
  3. Meetings that have endorsed minutes supporting marriage equality, but wish to remain in fellowship with the yearly meeting despite the disagreement on this issue.  There are a handful of meetings in this group.
  4. Meetings that think marriage should be limited to one man and one woman, but do not want to break the yearly meeting apart over this issue.  This is the position of Fairview Friends, though its minute does not explicitly address its position on marriage equality.

Before the session, David Goff, clerk of the yearly meeting, asked the monthly meetings to come prepared to state their position vis a vis the Fairview minute.  Almost half of the monthly meetings support the Fairview minute to some extent.  Clearly, unity is not going to be achieved around any proposal to discipline Cincinnati Friends for violating the 1997 working document.

A substantial proportion of the yearly meeting is ready to split over this issue, following the example of North Carolina and Indiana.  However, my own prognostication (a silly word) is that the yearly meeting will stumble along for several years, though not quite as it has done in the past.

The lid has been blown off.  It might indeed lead to a schism, but it does not have to.

Wilmington Yearly Meeting 2017 Session: Introduction

PresenceintheMidst-2

We face a cultural divide in this country: urban vs. rural, conservative vs. progressive.  This  divide, exacerbated by provocateurs who gain notoriety through ridicule and open hostility to those on the other side, is not just political.  It reaches into the heart of our religious institutions, where it is brought to a head by the issue of same sex marriage.  Here, differences in dogma become concrete, affecting how we treat people.  Do we welcome homosexuals into our fold as healthy, whole people, offering them the same covenant relationship that heterosexuals have for fulfilling their sexual desires, or do we work to help them overcome their sinful urges, trying to mold them into something that better fits our understanding of God’s plan.

The Religious Society of Friends has been confronting this for a long time.  Currently, it is leading some parts of the society to break apart, following a tradition of schism that reaches back almost two centuries.  The issues separating Friends are many, but the knife’s edge is what one side calls marriage equality, the other, an abomination before the Lord.

Wilmington Yearly Meeting was almost blown apart in 1997 when a local meeting took the marriage of a same sex couple under its care.  Since that time, the yearly meeting had put a lid on it, avoiding the discussion to the extent possible.  This allowed time to pass, but dissipated the vitality.  Recently, I worked to pry the lid open, succeeding so far as to bring Mary Heathman to the 2015 sessions for a extended workshop on human sexuality.  That same year, the Supreme Court upheld the right of same-sex couples to marry.  Last September, another local meeting took under its care a marriage between two women.  Avoiding the issue further became impossible.

Fairview Friends Meeting, a rural meeting generally thought of as conservative, adopted a minute urging the yearly meeting to accept local autonomy in dealing with such issues, in essence, embracing diverse points of view within the yearly meeting.  The yearly meeting clerk decided to make this minute the focus of this year’s session.

Predictably, there was no resolution.  We did not even agree to disagree.  Strong emotions were expressed.  Nobody backed down, or changed their tune, but nobody played provocateur.   People treated one another with respect, with love.

At the close of meeting, we expressed this love by rising in unity to honor and give thanks for the service of Ruth Brindle, who had just been laid off from Wilmington College as curator for the Quaker Heritage Center, and then for Doug Haag, who is ending his service to the yearly meeting as Executive Secretary.  Afterwards, we shared a meal together, not clustering into our little subgroups, but sitting and catching up with one another, without animosity.

Beforehand, I had no illusion that we would magically heal the divide.  I hoped that people would say what was on their hearts, and would listen to each other with the respect, the dignity that Friends of differing views should accord each other.  Friends did that.

Whether this loose organization can continue to exist in its present form is questionable, but continuing to meet year after year without addressing the pivotal challenges of our time seems pointless, indeed, lifeless.  This year, the dissonance remains unresolved, but at least it resonated! I believe this to be a positive step.

This is the first post of a series.  I hope to be able to fairly present the issue as seen by each side. Moreover, I hope to articulate the value of remaining in fellowship with one another, despite our strong disagreements.  Perhaps in this one sleepy corner of the Quaker world, we can plant the seeds of peace.

Frida at the Cincinnati Opera

fridaOh the whole, I enjoyed the Cincinnati Opera’s production of Frida, based on the life of painter, Frida Kahlo. However, I left with decidedly mixed feelings, which is part of the reason this post was so long delayed.

Frida Kahlo is a character well suited to the operatic stage: her life was full of grand passion, physical pain, and high art. However, this opera often felt like a docudrama trying to give a complete view of the life of this remarkable woman.  The result often felt cluttered.  This was especially true in the beginning, which depicts Kahlo as a teenager.  As a dramatization, fewer scenes would have been better.

With its combination of modern classical and authentic folk music, its small orchestra, its informal sections of spoken word, and even its Communist politics, this opera by Robert Xavier Rodríguez is much in the tradition of Kurt Weil (before he migrated to Broadway).  The reference to Mexican folk music started with the very first sound in the overture, a solo chord from the accordion, and  permeated the much of the score.  In general, I thought the music was often effective, but, much like the plot, frequently seemed to lack focus.

The leads, Catalina Cuervo in the title role and Ricardo Herrera as her famous husband Diego Rivera, sang with power and expression.  They were completely believable in their characters.  Among the rest of the cast, the beautiful high voice of Jennifer Cherest, as Frida’s sister Christina, stood out.

the-broken-columnAfter the opera, my wife commented that she welcomed the woman’s touch in the libretto (book by Hilary Blecher, lyrics and monologues by Migdalia Cruzby), especially in the perspective on sex. Indeed, there is scene which earned production an “R” rating, with Frida in the bathtub, wearing an outfit which I later learned was from “The Broken Column”, surrounded by lovers of both sexes.  Sitting in the back of the auditorium, my eyes (still recovering from surgery) were not good enough to see what was really going on, so I don’t really have much to say about this scene.

Otherwise, I found the staging very effective.  The set was on two levels, but the bones of it were quite simple.  When they were apart, Diego, the more famous painter of huge murals, was above, and Frida, the painter of more intimate self portraits, below.   Paintings of both artists were projected onto the set, which connected the action on stage to the art that is the reason we remember these people.

Musically, my favorite scene was the quintet in the second half.  Diego Rivera, who has had women parading through his bedroom for years, is accusing Frida of being unfaithful to him, with Leon Trotsky.  Frida is unapologetic  and emphasizes the intellectual aspect of her relationship with Trotsky.  Trotsky himself seems to be proclaiming innocence, but his rather dowdy wife is having none of that.  Meanwhile, above it all, Christina confesses to having betrayed her own sister.  Whereas I found the composition for much of the opera too cluttered, here all of the contrasting parts were integrated beautifully.  Rather than clutter, it felt like masterful counterpoint.

death2Another section that I thought memorable was the dance around Frida’s death bed.  Death was personified by three masked dancers who had appeared throughout the opera.  Unfortunately, the dramatic effect of this was eviscerated by the satiric dance of the monkeys which followed.  I thought the musical transition was lame, and the antics of the dancers were just not that funny.  Rather than providing comic relief after the intensity of what had just occurred, the monkeys, which do appear in many of Kahlo’s paintings, just added to my general feeling about the entire opera: it was trying to make sure to include everything, to the detriment of the drama.

This opera was in English, with occasional outbursts in Spanish.  This struck me as wrong.  An opera about a woman who was so defiantly Mexican, with so much Mexican folk music mixed in, cries out for Spanish.

Though I admire the staging and the singing, I left the opera with serious reservations. I thought the libretto and much of the music lacked focus.  However, I also left with a deep appreciation for the fierce intensity of this great artist, Frida Kahlo.  So, from that point of view, the opera has to be judged a success.

 

 

The Magic Flute at the Cincinnati Opera

Magic FluteIf you expect reverence for the score written by this great composer at the height of his powers, you will find the  Cincinnati Opera’s production of the Magic Flute galling.  Not only do they make massive cuts, but they add interludes, excerpts from totally unrelated Mozart piano works.  However, I don’t think Mozart would have been bothered by this cavalier attitude.  He was, after all, just creating a bit of entertainment.  And much of this production was delightful.

The set consisted of a giant wall that served as a projection screen for the animation. The singers appeared on the floor in front of it, or in doors cut cut out of the middle or high up near the top.  Sometimes, the singer provided merely the face of the animated character: the Queen of the Night was a giant spider whose legs filled the entire screen.  Other times, the characters interacted with what was happening in the animation.

dragonThe approach was particularly effective in the opening scene: Tamino is chased by a dragon;  he is miraculously saved by a trio of magical creatures, who then turn out to be three silly girls, admiring the handsome young Tamino passed out from his encounter with the dragon. Obviously, this is a good plot for a cartoon. Several times, the music was covered by the laughter of the audience reacting to the sight gags.

The group that designed the production calls itself 1927, named for the year of the first talkie.  They create a unique combination of animation, live action and music in a style that harkens back to the movies of the 1920s.  The costumes and the characterizations were often straight out of the silent pictures.  Papageno is modeled on Buster Keaton, the evil Monostatos, on Nosferatu, the vampire.

The most direct reference to the silent cinema came in the interludes, played on a tinny, slightly de-tuned, piano forte.  It felt very much like an old  silent movie, where the piano player is improvising an accompaniment, setting the mood for whatever was happening in the movie.  They even used 1920s style titles to catch you up on the action.  In this case, the pianist was playing excerpts from Mozart’s D minor Fantasy.  The quick changes of mood in the piece were timed perfectly with the film, so that it seemed that the pianist was reacting to the screen, not the other way around.   Once I got over the fact that it was not The Magic Flute, I enjoyed it.  It felt intimate, quaint, and quite funny.

In the second act, for the most part, they let the music carry the moment.  By this time, their tricks were no longer so fresh and there was much less laughter from the audience.  However, there is a scene, the Trial by Fire and Water, where Mozart has written background music for what was clearly some spectacular stage trick in the original production.  Here, I was expecting our animators to pull out all the stops.  However, I thought this result was rather lame.  Perhaps I was simply no longer enthralled by the spectacle.

There was another problem with all of their cuts.  It is difficult to imagine that you could make the plot of the Magic Flute any more incoherent, but these guys managed it.  One of my favorite pieces is the duet of Papageno and his love, Papagena, near the end of the  opera, called “Pa-pa-pa” after the opening line (I like very simple ideas).  However, in this performance, I realized that part of the beauty and humor of the moment lies in how it has been set up.  Poor Papagena had been almost entirely cut out of the previous action, and her appearance at the end felt tacked on, not emotionally connected to the rest of the drama. Moreover, the production didn’t make nearly as effective use of the Papageno character, usually the source of the comedy, as you would expect; it is as if their imagination was not sparked when the jokes were handed to them by the libretto.

Did I mention that there was music in this opera?  The problem with the whole approach is that the show tended become a movie with live accompaniment.  Occasionally, my wife found it so distracting, she closed her eyes so she could listen better,

Chistopher AllenThe evening began with an overture, done straight, no visuals except the that you could watch the conductor and the musicians.  I have heard this work many times; never have I heard it done better.  So many conductors take “Allegro” as an opportunity to see how fast his players can go; the result is impressive, exciting, but rushed.  This performance was energetic and  lively, but the details were given enough room to sparkle. The orchestra, under the direction of Christopher Allen, played with the intensity that I have come to expect from this world class ensemble.  Here was Mozart the way it should be played. I look forward to hearing Christopher Allen lead them again.

The singing that followed was up to the standard that had set in the overture.  With all that was going on on stage, it was quite a while before I realized how good the tenor, Aaron Blake, was in the role of Tamino.  He has a nice clear voice, and sings with expression.  Similarly, Kim-Lillian Strebel, in the role of Pamina, sang beautifully.

Queen of Night SpiderThe Magic Flute features two roles with extreme ranges; the Queen of the Night is impossibly high, while Sarastro is impossibly low.  Both are written to convey super human mastery: the Queen of the Night’s sinister magic, and Sarastro’s profound understanding of unfathomable mysteries.  Tom McNichols covered the low part with enough power to be heard, which is impressive, but the sound was more annoying than profound.  On the other hand, Jeni Houser not only managed, she blew me away.  Her high notes sounded like a baroque trumpet (except they are higher).  It was acrobatic, powerful, and beautiful.

Among the rest of the cast, the three spirits stood out.  This trio is written for young boys, that is relatively light voices with excellent musicianship and enough power to be heard in an opera house.   Ashley Fabian, Abigail Hoyt, and Paulina Villarreal are not exactly boys, but their voices, in the context of the outsized world of opera, were  perfect for the part. Their singing was delightful. I particularly enjoyed the aria where they interact with the heroine Pamina.  The singing was expressive, and the contrast in the quality of the trio with the soloist worked perfectly.

In sum, the plot was even more of a mess than usual.  The staging was inventive and delightful, and certainly worth seeing. And the music was just great, Mozart at his finest.

Come see it you can

 

A Prophecy

I brought you into a fertile land
to eat its fruit and rich produce.
But you came and defiled my land
and made my inheritance detestable.
“Therefore I bring charges against you again,”
declares the Lord.
“And I will bring charges against your children’s children.”
Jeremiah 2:7, 2:9

In ancient times, when God’s chosen people were making a mess of things, which they did  fairly often, God sent them warnings via the prophets.  This was revealed truth, not to be questioned, but to be obeyed.  However, the people usually did not obey.  After all, these prophets seemed crazy, and they demanded way too much sacrifice.  Consequently, the people suffered what  they would come to understand as God’s wrath.

Today, we no longer need to rely solely on revealed truth.  Using our natural talents and our ability to pass detailed knowledge from generation to generation, we have developed a method for understanding the world around us based on careful, systematic observation.  This understanding has deepened over the years through continually building on what came before, by repeatedly questioning the received wisdom, testing it, verifying some ideas, refining others, and discarding those that did not correspond to the world as it actually is.  Thus, in the place of revealed truth, we have theories that can be verified or disproven by observing the results of reproducible experiments.   In ancient times, people understood the world to be controlled by God: disobey and you will be punished.  Our scientific understanding is founded on cause and effect: touch a hot stove and you will get burnt.

This approach to human understanding has proven extremely effective.  It has enabled us to transform large areas of the planet to suit our needs and build cities that reach to the sky.  Our modern technological civilization stretches around the globe.

Today, scientists observe that the planet, on the whole, is getting warmer.  This was predicted decades ago by people whose ideas used to seem rather far fetched.  Now, these assertions have been verified by careful examination of what has actually happened since the predictions were first made.  The idea is simple and profound.  Our civilization has become so ubiquitous that our collective waste is effecting the climate of the entire planet.  Glaciers are melting, sea level is rising, and storms are becoming more destructive.

There are times when the gentle correction of a modern Quaker simply will not suffice, times that call for the fierce intensity of the prophets.  You don’t have to believe in the wrathful God of the Old Testament for the message revealed through Jeremiah to reverberate in the depths of your soul.   And so I repeat his prophecy:

If we continue to trash the planet, there will be a catastrophe of Biblical proportions, and our children’s children will suffer what the ancient Hebrews understood to be the wrath of God.

Of course, all this is in response to the announcement that the United States was withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord.  However, like those Biblical warnings of old, this is not just about the behavior of far off kings and princes and presidents.  Each of us needs to examine our own actions, because simply by living in this society, we are complicit in the ongoing devastation.

So, let me conclude with a query taken from the Faith and Practice of Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends:

Do you endeavor to live in harmony with nature, avoiding pollution and the destruction of our environment? What are you doing about your use of the world‘s irreplaceable resources?