Wednesday, June 21, 2017

How to Survive Selling and Buying Real Estate in DC with Online Puzzles

The moment you think of selling your house, it stops being a home.  It's much like deciding to put up a child for adoption. You have to steel yourself against any emotion. I am not sure which is more painful because I've never given up a child, but I have sold a home before and the process was excruciating.

I loved my house but I always knew I would have to sell it eventually.  It's a four-level Victorian with I don't know how many stairs. While the stairs served as an exercise machine for many years - with time they were becoming more and more of a nuisance.  Then a roof leaked during a long rainy weekend when every roofer was out of town, and a clogged pipe caused flooding in the basement. Finally - it was a decisive moment - a strong wind woke me up one night and I realized it was blowing right over my head, inside my bedroom. A plastic window latch cracked under years of sun exposure and could not withhold the force of mother nature.  That and the stairs made me long for a flat. Here they call it apartment (or condo if you own it),  but the British word was more precise for what I had in mind.

No longer mine
Come spring, the time was ripe to contact that charming young agent I had preliminarily consulted last year, who knew the real estate market on Capitol Hill, and who had just returned from vacation in Croatia. He seemed a more suitable choice than the agent who had helped my buy the house, who was a real bully.

At the appointed time the charmer arrived with a huge smile, greeting me like a long lost nephew, and went over the sales process so casually as if details didn't matter among family members.  My mind did not even register a minor detail - that I would actually be working with his stepfather -in-law (it's a family business and I was going to be a member of the family), a nice older man, straight from a 1950s Hollywood movie. And so one of the most painful periods in my life began. 

First the staging-and-photo crew came in and shoved all my personal stuff in closets, drawers and hidden corners, under beds and behind sofas.  The house stopped being mine before it even went on the market. I could dress for work in those clothes I could find, not the ones I wanted to wear. There was no hope of finding a small item such as a nail file or a postage stamp if I needed it.  Two big rugs were so well hidden that they could not be retrieved until the moving day.

Once the house was on the market, living in it was akin to dwelling in a railways station.  An army of people went through. I was only able to spend the night in it, have a quick shower, clean up and disappear till the evening. After about two weeks of this my whole system began to rebel.  First I pulled out a few rugs, then a trash can. On a couple of occasions I even dared to leave some toiletries on the vanity. 

Meanwhile, my charming agent completely disappeared from the scene and I was left to deal full-time with his stepfather-in-law, a Fred-Astaire lookalike.  I felt like a groom who mail-ordered a bride resembling Marylin Monroe and got Greta Garbo instead.  Not unlike my previous agent, this Fred Astaire was only available to me if he had interest in it. He showed me properties I might be interested in buying - aka flats - at the time which suited him, and he answered my mail when it suited him.  When I ventured on exploratory expeditions on my own (you can always call a seller's agent to show you property) he would gently scold me, claiming it was not in my best interest.  Really?  I have always found that I can see and learn more about a property when I go on my own than when an agent holds my hand.  But in this business a client is his agent's hostage.

What it means is that you don't get to see a place more than once or twice before deciding whether to buy it or not. During the first visit you get blinded by the "staging", a carefully developed skill in the real estate business to presents a place at its best, hide all the flaws and give you little idea of how it really is to live in it.  You are a little more discerning during the second visit, if you are lucky to get one.  But you still don't learn how warm or cold the place is during various seasons,  or whether your would-be neighbor is Maurice Ronet or Marica Hrdalo. The places that are deemed "hot" (newly renovated, in a good location and of decent size) will not wait for you to learn all you need to know.  So if you are selling your home and need a new one at the same time in D.C., you have too little time to search and can't be picky.

My choice was especially narrow because I dislike the cookie-cutter open plan dwellings dominating the Washington area market today. You open the entry door and you find yourself in a kitchen with the ubiquitous bar and stools.  (I guess you stick your umbrella in the sink and your jacket in the refrigerator.  Shoes in the oven?)  Right next to the bar is a dining table, making you wonder why you would want to eat off a kitchen counter when a table with more comfortable chairs is right there.  And who wants to sit on a sofa and look at a sink, or a microwave oven?  Apparently everyone in Washington.

Everyone in Washington wants this

Well, maybe not everyone because my house was finally sold to a nice suburban couple who thought open-plan houses were like a bowling alley - you throw a ball and it goes right through to the other end. But the three-week wait for that couple to come along was an agony of uncertainty. Every day seemed an eternity plagued by the questions: Was I too late putting the house on the market? Are the selling prices taking a nosedive? And if it sells, will I find an adequate place to buy in time to move into it when I have to. As days went buy, the questions accumulated and the stress soared to pathological levels. Especially when I learned that many buyers came back several times to see if they can convert my ground floor into an open kitchen with bar stools, and the sofa facing a microwave oven. Invariably, they concluded it was not possible to knock out enough walls because of the central staircase. Sleepless nights began to make me feel dizzy and my concentration at work dipped dangerously low.

I used to resent that a number of people in my office have enough time to play computer games during work, but now it turned out to be a blessing. One day, when my nerves were especially frayed, I noticed a colleague putting together a jigsaw puzzle online. I had long considered boxed puzzles and knitting as most boring kinds of pastime, something for children and old ladies - until I learned they were both soothing for nerves. So the online puzzle my colleague was passing the time with suddenly had an appeal. Once I tried it, I got hooked. For the first time in my life I began to understand my son's fascination with computer games, although his involve guns and shooting. What a wonderful feeling of gratification when you find two pieces of puzzle that fit and they snap in place! They remain silent and detached if they don't fit and, so you can't make a mistake. That loud snap makes the adrenalin kick the same way a slot machine in Las Vegas does when you hit the jackpot. And what great joy it is to hear the little bells tinkle when the puzzle is completed successfully!

Solving a jigsaw puzzle does not require exceptional intelligence, but it does require concentration - just enough to take your mind off the anxiety caused by the loss of a home base.  For best effect, the puzzle must have the right number of pieces. Too few are not enough to serve the purpose  (of soothing the nerves).  Too many add to the anxiety, instead of relieving it.  I had the best results with puzzles made up of 150 to 200 pieces, depending on the available time. Putting them together became an instant obsession, but one that helped me get through the worst of the house sale and condo purchase. The temporary habit could have developed into a full-fledged disorder if the move hadn't created a more pressing occupation of settling into a new home.

Speaking of that - the ink had not yet dried on the settlement documents, when my Fred Astaire's smile dwindled to a frown.  He wished me a cold good-bye and walked out of my life forever.  His boss, my long-lost nephew who had hooked me for two lucrative  deals  (he earned commissions on both the sale of my old home and purchase of the new one), had been out of the picture for a while.  The last I had heard from him was an email  scolding me me for disclosing to the buyers some of the history of my house. I had expected a communication of a sort acknowledging that our business was pleasure - or at least concluded - but not a peep from him. The charming agent and his family had moved on and it appears I was not a favorite aunt.

Monday, May 8, 2017

WNO: A Butterfly for Our Times

What do you look for when you revisit such a frequently performed work as Madama Butterfly?  I prefer to see new or rarely shown works, but will also go to a piece I almost know by heart if a new production or a new singer promises to be interesting.  I went to the Washington National Opera's new staging of Madama Butterfly because I was curious to hear tenor Brian Jagde for the first time and wanted another impression of Ermonela Jaho, who was a poignant Suor Angelica a few years ago. In the end, what I took home Saturday night - to digest and store in memory for further contemplation - was the spellbinding blend of light, color and design of the WNO's fresh offering of the Puccini classic.

The media photos of women in polka-dot kimonos against a bright orange or magenta background betray little of the magic they produce when combined with all other stage effects. In the picture below, the characters may look like a group of hausfrauen in schlafrocks, parodying a Japanese party at a parlor game, but on the stage these costumes are integral parts of pictures that bring to mind the art of Alma Thomas.  

The kimono-clad women floated up and down a ramp, that symbolized a hill with Cio Cio San's house on top, in a perfect geometrical order with ringed parasols hovering over their heads like different-color halos. With matching-hued ribbons streaming behind, and brightly lit stage, they were a sight to behold. The dazzling flow of visions, ranging from cheerful to dark and dramatic, became a moving art exhibition, enhanced by drama and sound. Occasionally, video projections, although abstract, suggested the passage of time or the power of the emotion.

Japanese artist Jun Kaneko (who lives in Omaha, Nebraska) has produced this marvel in close collaboration with lighting designer Gary Marder, choreographer Adam Noble and many others involved in the project. The result is sensational.  Kaneko says in his production notes that Madama Butterfly has been "one of the most difficult challenges and one of the most exciting creative experiences" in his life.  He passed the test with flying colors, literally.

The performers cooperated with his artistic vision and worked well as an ensemble. Ermonela Jaho's passionate portrayal of the unfortunate girl-turned-woman garnered enthusiastic response from the audience.  Jagde's physical and vocal size added to her projection of vulnerability. In looks and voices they were well matched and convincing: Jagde as a robust American sailor and Jaho as a dainty Japanese doll.  Although a little rough around the edges, Jagde softened in the right places of the powerful Act I duet. And his rendition of Addio, fiorito asil was sensitive and appealing. I will be looking forward to this tenor's next endeavor.

In this production, Pinkerton does not rush on the stage in the final act to sob over Cio Cio San's dead body, but rather calls her name from behind the curtain.  Good idea!  That scene can otherwise be as embarrassing to watch as, I am sure, it must be to perform. 

Kristen Choi is an experienced Suzuki and it was obvious on Saturday. For those of us who had not heard of her before, she was a pleasant surprise. I am glad her Suzuki was able to express love and concern for her mistress without being syrupy. Choi is another singer I'd like to hear again. So is Michael Adams who gave us such a charming Yamadori that one wondered why Butterfly did not get over the braggart who had left her in dire straits, and moved on with the rich guy. 

Troy Cook's Sharpless was somewhat disappointing as was Ian McEuen's Goro. Although secondary roles, these can stand out in the hands of masterful performers. 

The orchestra under Philippe Auguin's direction excelled again on Saturday.  He is becoming one of my favorite conductors.

The highly stylized WNO's production of an operatic staple is an example of how Madama Butterfly, perhaps my least favorite opera, can be moved from the traditionally kitschy milieu into a powerful and unforgettable work of art.  Chapeau to WNO's artistic director Francesca Zambello for the strong finale of a season that also gave us Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking.  Perhaps not as memorable as the previous one, but who can beat a line-up with Wagner's Ring in it, and such a magnificent one at that.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

WNO's Dead Man Walking

On Saturday evening I witnessed an execution by lethal injection. OK, it wasn't a real execution, but an operatic one, terrifying nonetheless. A nervous but defiant "convict" stood center stage in a pair of underpants with a clearly visible diaper stuffed inside. His fear was palpable, his desperation permeated the theater as they dressed him in a white shirt and pants and strapped him to a gurney.  A nurse injected deadly substance into his arm. The audience stopped breathing.  Then his heartbeat, ticked off by a monitoring machine, began to slow down until it became a steady sound signaling death.   

The performance was Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, offered for the first time by the Washington National Opera. I am somewhat familiar with the work through a recording of the 2000 San Francisco production, but it did not prepare me for the impact this opera can have in a staged performance. Staggering!

Contemporary operas can be quite an ordeal to sit through. Composers are pressured to offer some new and groundbreaking concept, which usually means hard-to-like music, black-and-white scenography, and absolute absence of tradition. Melody is anathema. I came to Dead Man Walking almost directly from a performance of La Ciudad de las Mentiras (City of Lies) an opera by Elena Mendoza at Teatro Real in Madrid, which bore all these characteristics.

Stage set for La Ciudad de las Mentiras, Teatro Real, Madrid
Mendoza used four stories by Juan Carlos Onetti to explore theatrical and perhaps some musical possibilities, but her sopranos, tenors and baritones never sang. They recited lines from the stories so intertwined that only those familiar with Onetti's work could hope to understand what's going on. The English language surtitles kept the uninitiated out of a complete fog, and a written introduction gave some clarification, but I had to agree with a friend who argued that a work of art that needs so much explanation is not a good work of art. If Mendoza's singers did not sing, neither did the musicians played much music. At one point a man appeared on the stage with an accordion only to tap his hand on it a couple of times. An actor portraying a bartender scratched a metal tray with a knife, a piano player hit the keyboard a couple of times and the orchestra produced some "atmospheric" sound, sort of like a distant wind howling. Overall, it was an interesting, innovative stage production, but it was not an opera.

Dead Man Walking definitely is. Heggie did not veer off the traditional operatic structure, or as some would say formula, proving that what worked for Verdi and Puccini works for today's composers as well. The build-up, the drama, the climax - it was all there and it worked. It opens with a young couple frolicking by the lake to the sound of popular music, but disaster is already in the air. And it strikes swiftly. From then on the action moves energetically forward so the first act breezes through without any longueurs. Sister Helen's entry into the death row, with a chorus of men yelling profanities at her is a most powerful scene, musically and theatrically.

The second act starts with the title character, prisoner Joseph de Rocher, exercising in his cell to pass the time or to keep his muscles from trembling.  A great opening!  After that the energy drops and there are scenes, such as Sister Helen's conversation with Sister Rose, and her encounter with the convict's mother that one could do without. Tension returns to the stage full force with re-entry into Joseph's prison cell. He knows the hour of death is approaching and his desperation rises to a fever pitch.  Still defiant, but more dependent on Sister Helen's support, he finally feels compelled to confess his guilt. 

The death scene is one of the most powerful pieces of theater I've seen in recent years. I wish the opera ended right there. The final repeat of a religious song that served as a leitmotif throughout the opera was forgettable and unnecessary. In spite of minor quibbles (occasional clichés of sorrow and sentimentality) chapeau to Heggie and his librettist Terrence McNally for impressive work.

Kate Lindsey and Michael Mayes in WNO's Daed Man Walkong, photo Scott Suchman
In terms of production, this was one of the operas in which a simple, mostly black stage for once worked very well. The black scrim was lifted often enough to break the monotony and create a sense of movement. I usually don't pay much attention to lighting, but this time I thought it played a significant role in creating the right mood at the right time, whether it was camaraderie, anger, children's lightheartedness or dark depths of a tortured soul. Francesca Zambello, riding the wave of her recent success with Wagner's Ring, proved once again that she is an operatic force to be reckoned with.

Heggie's music is unapologetically beautiful throughout this opera, something that the audience loves and music critics condemn. 
It is the only modern opera I know in which the recitatives sound as good as the "arias" and blend seamlessly together. Dead Man Walking is unmistakingly American in the theme, language, and music expression. At times it sounds more like a musical than opera. But other than that, it was a classical opera in almost every sense. 

The singing and acting on Saturday were excellent throughout. In terms of voices, I would wish a stronger mezzo for the role of Sister Helen than the otherwise brilliant Kate Lindsey. Also, I am not sure if it was a good idea to cast Susan Graham next to her in a minor role. Graham reminded those familiar with the San Francisco recording of her outstanding interpretation of Sister Helen, and she overpowered Lindsey when they appeared together. Lindsey's Sister Helen was a gentle nun, different from the real life person the character was based on.  But such people can wield a power of their own quiet kind and so Lindsey's interpretation worked well, especially juxtaposed with Joseph's belligerence.

Dead Man Walking is one of the most frequently performed American operas at home and abroad, for a good reason. It is one of those works that makes you want to see it again in the same or a different production. Unlike Ciudad de las Mentiras, for example. It's an opera that you can just listen to without seeing it on stage, like La Forza del Destino or Porgy and Bess. If it does not break any new grounds, perhaps it proves that there is no need to keep fixing something that ain't broke. It's a pity WNO offered only four performances of what is arguably its most impressive production of the season, but I feel lucky that I caught the last one.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Sex in the U.S.A.

This Washington Post headline caught my attention last week: Americans, including married people, are having sex less than they used to. It took my mind back to the 1990's when a book titled Sex in America, the first national survey of sexual practices and preferences in this country, captured the nation's attention. I was a young journalist working for a conservative organization that had never mentioned the word sex, but I persuaded my editor to allow me to produce a radio report on the book because "it was scientific work, the most comprehensive study of sexuality in America since Kinsey, and definitely not some titillating fiction." 

The radio report turned a relatively obscure new writer into someone who was regularly stopped in the couloirs to expand on the topic.  The rest is history, as they say.

My first encounter with the subject of sex in the U.S.A. was Gay Talese's 1981 bestseller Thy Neighbors Wife, which I read in translation back in Europe. It was an exploration of sexuality in America of the author's time, including the discussion of the so-called "free love," based on his lengthy visit to California's Sandstone Retreat, for swinging couples. Today, I had to google the title of Talese's book. All I remembered was that he had been so enraged by a Croatian journalist (a woman who interviewed him during the presentation of his book in Zagreb in the 1980's)  that he stomped out of the interview in a huff. But Talese's non-fiction book, following John Updike's novel Couples and reports from Woodstock, gave us in eastern Europe the impression that "free love" and wife swapping were common and widespread in America. Stanley Kubrick's 1999 movie Eyes Wide Shut later reinforced that notion.

Gay Talese

So when I moved to Washington, I was baffled with what seemed like sexless and sterile social atmosphere. I never saw a man looking at a woman with an interest, let alone approaching her with any intention other than business. Flirting was an unknown term. But children were abundant, so I figured Americans, even in Washington, must be doing something that leads to sex and marriage.

In short, the 1995 book Sex in America was of great interest to me. Unfortunately, I lost the article that brought me my 15 minutes of fame at work. But I remember the most important finding from the survey on which the book was based: married couples 
had the most and best sex - more than younger people and swinging singles as one would have expected.  Sex was a benefit of being married, along with some tax cuts, shared cost of living and camaraderie.

The new study released last week reveals a dramatic reversal. It says that American adults are having less sex than they did a quarter century ago, with married couples showing the steepest decline. The overall drop in sexual activity has been recorded in all genders, races, regions, education levels and professions. But the rate of frequency of sex between spouses and between co-habiting partners has dropped the most, significantly reducing what was once considered the advantage of being married.

The data gathered between 1989 and 2014 show that American adults today have sex seven to nine times fewer times per year than in the 1990's. And married couples have less sex than people who have never married. Incidentally, during the same period, the number of people living with a spouse or a partner also declined.

The study does not examine causes for the dive, but it cites possible reasons: increased access to entertainment and social media, a decline in happiness among people over the age of 30, higher incidence of depression, and use of antidepressants associated with sexual dysfunction. It is not clear if people are less happy and therefore have less sex or have less sex and therefore are less happy. However, the authors of the study link sexual frequency to marital satisfaction. So the decline could mean that fewer Americans are happy in their marriages and similar relationships.

An important factor in the decline of sex in the marital context is fatigue. As more and more couples rely on two incomes to survive, both sides are tired after work and their minds are on things other than physical connection. Couples now postpone having children until later, and the combination of their more mature age and child-rearing obligations contribute to the decline in sexual activity. Most working couples leave sex for the weekend. But working parents also use weekends to spend more time with their children, making up for the limited time they have for their kids on work days. 

The availability of home entertainment provides a lot of distraction, the study says. People no longer wonder, "What can we do this evening, or this weekend?" when they have a choice of movies and digital games at their fingertips.

But some sociologist say the real reason may be a growing lack of intimacy among Americans, and the emotional effect it has on couples. Sex is not only about stimulating body parts to feel good, but also about connecting with another human being. The absence of this connection makes many couples today struggle with sexual dysfunction and relationship issues.

Experts on the subject say what you need for a sex life is energy, focus, time and the right mood. If you are fatigued or depressed, if you are not emotionally close to your partner, you may want to go to bed just to sleep.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Eviva España!

A visit to a foreign country leaves different impressions on different people. Some visitors to Spain will best remember its architecture, whether it is Barcelona's Gaudi or Andalusia's Arabic heritage. Others will enthuse about the tapas or the weather. And many will fondly remember a flamenco show or a bull fight. I enjoyed most of the above, but the one thing that truly awed me and stood above all the others was a sign on an otherwise unimpressive building across the road from the famous Prado Museum - El Ministerio de Sanidad, Politica Social e Igualdad.  

When I noticed it, I quickly pulled out my iPhone to check if "igualdad" really means "equality." Over the course of my life I have come across all kinds of ministries and departments, but I do not recall any that has the word "equality" in its name. Ministry of Equality.  Wow! I take that to mean that the government actually pays attention and works on helping all citizens enjoy the same quality of life.  Sure, we have the Equal Employment Opportunity law here and the U.S. Department of Labor has two agencies which deal with EEO monitoring and enforcement, but that's not quite the same. At least not in my eyes. The U.S. government works to prevent discrimination in hiring and promotion at work. It supports equal pay for equal work. It's about money. But Spain's ministry, according to Wikipedia, also is tasked with making suggestions and carrying out "the government policy in social inclusion and cohesion."

This time around, a friend and I visited four very different Spanish cities: Madrid, Toledo, Granada and Seville. It would be difficult to make an accurate assessment of the Spanish quality of life after a two-week visit. But first impressions are not to be completely dismissed. For example, I did not see any beggars in the streets or any signs of homelessness. Instead, we were approached by an occasional flower-seller or an African immigrant hawking cheap goods while we sat in open-air cafés. In Granada, there were also women offering "free" rosemary sprigs and, we were told, insisting to tell your fortune for an exorbitant fee if you accept a sprig.

I compare this to Washington, where I have never entered or exited the Eastern Market metro station, a few blocks east of the Capitol, without being asked to "spare" a dollar or a few coins to help some poor wretch "buy a ticket to get home," "get some food" or just "help."  I have never yet lit a cigarette in the street without being approached by at least one person asking for a cigarette. 

In Spain, we ate and had coffee at a variety of places along the way and noted little or no difference in prices between modest neighborhood cafés and fancy tourist venues.  On a Sunday in Granada, I learned that it is impossible to exchange or use a 500-euro banknote. The money exchange kiosk will only exchange one currency for another, but not a big bill for smaller denominations, and shops do not accept large bills either.  I was told that not even a bank would give you change for 500 euros unless you have an account in it. Desperate to get some money to buy coffee and food, I told my friend, "the only thing to do is to find the most expensive hotel in town and have a lavish meal there."  

The dinner including a glass of champagne, cherry, top quality ibérico ham, gourmet tuna and a steak was only $68 euros and so the waiter balked at the 500-euro bill, but after consulting with two managers he was able to accept it and give us the change.  I am glad of the experience because it was an opportunity to see a place where some ordinary Spaniards come to enjoy their Sunday lunch. I cannot see ordinary Americans lunching at the Willard hotel where I was once invited to a brunch that cost more than $100 per person.

Tapas of octopus and cod in Seville

But mostly we enjoyed tapas, comparable to small dishes or starters in the US. They ranged from 2 euros to 4 euros and were most often the size of a main course. The two dishes shown above with two drinks came to no more than $12 altogether, including tax and tips. In my estimate the equivalent meal would amount to more than $40 in D.C. because the dishes would fall under the category of main course. Despite huge tips in Washington, many area waiters complain of not making enough money to live on.

Another thing that makes Spain (and other European countries) attractive is public transportation.  You absolutely never - ever - have to wait for a subway train longer than 3 minutes.  The Madrid Metro is clean, reliable and efficient.  It gets you everywhere - even to the airport.  

Museums offer times when everyone can get in for free. Seniors get huge discounts in theaters, cultural institutions and all other public venues that charge an entrance fee. 

It would take a serious analysis to figure out why a poor southern European country can offer all these benefits to its citizens. We know that Spain is almost bankrupt. But wherever I went in the country - whether it was Teatro Real, a classy bar or a simple local restaurant - I saw middle class people with no one standing out for looking particularly rich or particularly poor. Bernie's campaign cry kept coming to mind: "we are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, and millions of families are struggling day by day just to keep their heads above water."  The income gap in the United States is huge.  "Unbelievably, and grotesquely, the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent," Sanders wrote in an essay titled American Poverty.  

Surely there are wealthy people in Spain - those who own a flat in Madrid and a beach house somewhere on the Mediterranean coast, and perhaps a bank account in Switzerland. But the Royal Palace in Madrid clearly needs renovation. The white paint is peeling off the shutters and the gray facade could use a fresh coat of paint. Maybe the king wants to identify with his people, maybe he is poor himself.  Maybe....

All I know for sure is that we desperately need a Department for Equality here in the United States.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Black History: Do We Know It?

Was it last year that Hollywood was chastised for nominating mostly white actors for awards?  The media also berated Tinseltown was making too few movies about Americans of non-white races.  The U.S. movie industry hastened to prove it is not least it would seem so by looking at the selection of the movies currently playing in the theater near you.  You can choose from Fences, I Am Not Your Negro, Moonlight, Loving and Hidden Figures and there are also Australian Lion and British A United Kingdom whose protagonists also are non-white. Movie theaters also may be doing their part to show these movies in honor of Black History Month. It is worth watching how long the trend will last.

I generally avoid Hollywood movies, but the subject of Hidden Figures had enough appeal to attract even a foreign movie junkie like me.  And it was not disappointing. Although formulaic like most Hollywood movies, it featured such charming characters that you could not but enjoy spending two hours in their company, cheering their victories. And perhaps more importantly, the movie sparked an interest in the real and fascinating history behind it.

The history of racism in the United States is much like the history of ethnic hatreds around the world.  In the civilized countries it is regulated by law and therefore less obvious, but it is always there, always present, simmering under the surface, waiting to bubble up.  Still, there have always and everywhere been people who are not racist, as we are reminded by Loving and A United Kingdom.

Filmmaker Kari Barber
Though I enjoyed Hidden Figures, the most fascinating black-themed movie I've seen this month is not one commercially made for entertainment, but a documentary that resulted from years of painstaking research, travel, interviewing and recording.  It is focused on the valiant efforts to save the remaining all-black towns in Oklahoma. I was lucky to see the film, titled Struggle and Hope thanks to my friendship with the filmmaker Kari Barber, an Oklahoma-born journalist, now a professor at the University of Nevada in Reno.

Few people know that Oklahoma once had at least 50 all-black towns and it hoped to become an all-black state. Even an Oklahoma-born journalist like Barber did not learn about it until later in life when she saw a blurb in a playbill for the Oklahoma musical, staged by Washington's Arena Theater.  "That part of history was not taught at schools," she told me. So Barber took interest and researched Oklahoma's black heritage.  She visited the remaining all-black towns and was amazed with what she learned. Only a dozen of those historic black towns remain today, some of them with no more than 25 residents who are struggling to survive.  They are building museums, organizing black rodeos and concerts, and raising funds online to pay their communities' debts and keep the towns on the map. A lot of time and effort without any guarantee of success.  Is it worth it? "I don't ever want to say that I was born and raised somewhere in the town that does not exist any more," said one woman in historic all-black town of Tallahassee in Oklahoma.  So yes, it is worth it if you are fighting to preserve your identity.

The Oklahoma land rush of 1889
Thanks to Barber's dedication, the project Struggle and Hope resulted in a series of web videos and finally a feature-length documentary summarizing the main themes. The film was launched in February in Oklahoma and will make a tour of independent film festivals in the United States and Europe where, I suspect, it will get more attention than here.  Europeans, who fell in love with the Wild West by watching Hollywood westerns and reading Zane Grey's books, will be interested in the real story behind the fiction they were fed during their youth. 

Oklahoma Rancher featured in Struggle and Hope

As the saying goes, history is written by the victors.  Most of the U.S. history books expound on the American War of Independence, the excellence of our "founding fathers", the Constitution, the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement and various steps in the fight to eliminate segregation. Only en passant do they mention that Jefferson, a principal writer of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves and that his grand thoughts on liberty probably did not include them.

In recent years, more curious scholars have come up with less than shiny details about our great ancestors. Jefferson, it appears had a relationship with a black slave after the death of his wife, and had at least one child with her.  Very likely more, but he never acknowledged any.

One of the best history books that I have read in recent years is Nancy Isenberg's White Trash. Refreshingly, American people, including the poorest, play the main role in this book while the victors, the leaders and the wealthy only have supporting roles.  I'll let you read the book and make your own judgement, but one of the remarks that really opened my eyes had to do with the poor white people's attitude toward African Americans.  Isenberg or someone she quotes in the book noted that the most disadvantaged white people, those at the bottom rung of the social hierarchy, those often called "white trash," could accept their destiny a lot easier if they had someone else to look down on. In the past, they could look down on black slaves, today many choose to look down on non-white people in general.

Oklahoma's Cowboy
Also recently, historians have pointed out that there have been all-black U.S. military battalions whose bravery in various battles has never been adequately recognized, and that there have been wealthy, accomplished and successful black businessmen in fields other than basketball, football and entertainment.  Stories about the role of other racial groups in the U.S. history also have begun emerging. But most textbooks still would have you believe that all the progress in this country has been achieved by the white race. African Americans are portrayed mostly as descendants of slaves whose whole heritage is nothing but fight against racism and discrimination.  

"There's so much that has been left out," said Barber. "There are so many stories that have not been told and, really, when we tell these stories, it makes us a richer country and it makes us appreciate and understand each other better." Barber hopes her film will inspire others to make books and movies that explore parts of the U.S. history that are missing from the textbooks.

Many of the movies shown this month do exactly that.  The question is whether there will be more of them after February ends.  I also wonder if any future remake of the classical Oklahoma musical will feature black cowboys.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Made in .... at home

Winter in Washington is really dull, especially from mid-January till mid-March. This year, the new administration will try to generate some energy into Washington's dreary winter with its inauguration spectacle, but who can get really excited about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Or any of the million-dollar balls? Except for being more glitzy, these crowded "galas" are about as stimulating as rehearsed American weddings. However, at least some goings-on stand out from the ordinary as the winter sets in.

Ford Motor Company created some sizzle this week when it announced it is scrapping the plan to build a new plant in Mexico and is expanding business at home. Although the move is carefully calculated and Ford is doing nothing to hurt its profits (its Mexico production continues as usual in an older Mexico plant ) the management gave some credit to the President-elect Donald Trump, for pressuring companies to keep jobs in the United States. Trump has since targeted more carmakers, but other U.S. companies making their goods in China, Mexico and elsewhere, are weighing the pros and cons of following Ford's suit. Even Apple is said to be looking into how much it would cost to move the production of its cell phones from China to the United States.

Attempts to promote local businesses are not new. In the past decades, the United States has seen a nationwide boom of farmers' markets selling locally grown produce. I found my first decent American tomato in one of those. And then there was American Apparel, formed in 1989, that branded its clothes as made in the U.S.A. But small farmers produce little and don't make significant profits and American Apparel went bankrupt in 2015, in part due to its relatively high labor costs. In my opinion, the bigger reason is that its garments are so unappealing there is no incentive to buy them when you can get more attractive and cheaper stuff at H&M or Zara. Whatever the reason, that company is not a role model to follow. 

Slogan "Made in the USA" could not save American Apparel
Regardless, the latest reports say Amazon now wants to buy the failing U.S. clothier. The question is why. The online retailer already is expected to surpass Macy's as the top U.S. garment seller in 2017. One reason may be to gain Trump's support (Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos has locked horns with Trump in the past) and another could be to appeal to the currently fashionable patriotic sentiment. American Apparel employs about 4,000 people and boasts of producing sweatshop free garments.  Buying an American Apparel T-shirt is akin to choosing a steak that is labeled as coming from a humanely raised cow.

But perhaps more importantly, Amazon is expanding from e-commerce into brick-and-mortar stores, with food and other goods, even books. (Ironically, the company that forced bookstores around the country to close is now opening its own). Most people like to try clothes before buying them and American Apparel already has retail stores throughout the country. If Amazon can rebuild the brand's image, it may be worth taking on its losses.

The United States is not alone in seeking ways to produce things close to home, although the trend is far from widespread. I was surprised recently by an article about Italian designer Brunello Cucinelli whose garments I remembered for their luxurious fabrics, sleek design and unaffordable prices. And they were unaffordable even in now-defunct discount stores such as Loehmann's and Filene's Basement, where I became familiar with the brand. 

Cucinelli vest on sale for $1,500, 40% off the original price
The article describes Italy's "king of cashmere" as someone who strives for quality not just in his products, but in the working lives of his employees. His business empire is based in the medieval village of Solomeo in the idyllic hills of central Italy. Cucinelli imports cashmere from China and Mongolia, but all his manufacturing is done in Italy. His factories are no sweatshops either. They are fitted with floor-to-ceiling windows so workers can enjoy the view.

“I don’t think it’s time wasted watching a bird in the sky when you are in the middle of sewing a button. On the contrary, nothing could be more beautiful,” he said in an interview. His workers get a 90-minute lunch break, go home at 5:30 PM and are not expected to check their office mail once they get home.

“Today in the world, we work too much. We are too connected and I don’t think that’s fair. I find that if I make you work too much, it’s like I’m stealing part of your soul,” said Cucinelli. Hmmm... Is something like that possible in the United States?  I am not sure any of my bosses care for the health of my soul.

Cucinelli Factory, Solomeo, Italy
Like American Apparel's employees, Cucinelli's are paid more than the industry's norm. But his business is thriving.  He has spent much of his profits in his village, helping renovate a 13th century castle and build a theatre, a library and an art school. According to the report, his brand has quadrupled in size in the past decade and his investors are not complaining either.

Cucinelli said 
it is important to return dignity to workers in western countries who feel they have been forgotten. The rise of Donald Trump and Brexit testify to the widespread dissatisfaction among Western workforces. But just giving them a job is not enough. 

"We cannot have companies that earn incredible amounts and our workers earning tiny sums to work 12 hours a day staring at a wall under an electric lamp. We have to put dignity back at the heart of our economic activity."

One of the main reasons for promoting local businesses is to improve the quality of life of local populations. As Cucinelli demonstrates, if you live where you work, you have a vested interest in making improvements in your community.  The luxury clothes designer is able to secure better living for his staff and contribute to his hometown by selling his high quality garments at extremely high prices. Not everyone can do that, but much can be learned from Cucinelli.

Trump won his way to the White House in large part by promising to keep manufacturing jobs in the United States. Companies such as Ford in Michigan and Carrier in Indiana have made small moves in that direction to see how it goes.
But small moves are better than none. Michael Gilligan, a Ford employee in Dearborn said, "at least we get 500 to 700 jobs extra and we need that in our state, terribly."

By acquiring American Apparel, Amazon could save about 4,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs. 
But Amazon is a multinational company, and notoriously a harsh place to work.  Its employees have complained of being exploited - too often to be ignored.  If it does acquire American Apparel, Amazon would do well to invest in a fashion designer who can do better than H&M or Zara so its financial losses are not recuperated by exploiting the workforce.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

L'amour de loin - et de près

If you like Pelleas et Melisande and Le roi Arthus, you will like L'Amour de loin, a turn-of-the century opera by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, which finally premiered at the Metropolitan Opera this season.  First seen at the Salzburg Festival in 2000 and two years later in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the story of a medieval troubadour in love with a woman he has never seen can easily be transported in today's era of virtual reality.

Robert Lepage's production, featuring ribbons with LED lights stretched across the stage to create a stylized version of the sea surface, was perfectly suited to contemporary music expression and overall feel of the work. Alas, they dressed Eric Owens in some sort of "princely" garb and stuck a lute in his hands to make him look more like a Latin American dictator than either a medieval prince or a modern day lover.

The production has been described as mesmerizing and dazzling, but I must admit that it was a little déjà vu for me. I also suspect that I would have enjoyed the radio broadcast more than I did the video simulcast. Except for Owens that is. If there ever was a person miscast for an operatic role both in looks and in sound, it was Owens in the role of Jaufré Rudel, a 12-th century troubadour from France.

We all remember the big hoopla about Deborah Voigt losing her signature role in a London production of Ariadne auf Naxos because of her size. The producers said they had envisioned an Ariadne in a mini skirt and our Debbie did not fit the image. The U.S. media screamed foul, but Voigt seemed to understand. Movie and theater directors audition hundreds of actors before choosing the one they deem best suited for the role. Why should opera be different? If we only needed the right voice, we could just have concert performances and do away with acting and sets.

Countess Clémence of Tripoli, the pilgrim and Prince Jaufré Rudel are the only characters in L'amour de loin, but there is also an excellent chorus à la grecque
With Owens, it's not just the size that's wrong- it's the whole persona. He was a powerful Alberich (Der Ring des Nibleungen) convincing, though not perfect Stephen Kumalo (Lost in the Stars) and an OK Orestes (Elektra). But a medieval prince he ain't, either to the eye or to the ear. On Saturday, Owens sounded more wobbly than I had ever heard him and his French was simply atrocious. There, I said it. Hence, I think he would have ruined the radio broadcast for me as well as the video simulcast. With the abundance of French baritones in today's operatic world, and Canadian Phillip Addis who sang the role recently, one wonders who decided on Owens for this production. 

Susanna Phillips, on the other hand, was well chosen and convincing as the countess d'Outremer.  Her  scaly dress made her look like a siren most of the time. Maybe it was intentional.

Saariaho’s opera has been described as “transfixing," "lushly beautiful," "groundbreaking," "haunting" and "elegiac," among other things. The libretto by Lebanese-born Amin Maalouf is simple: Prince Jaufré, a troubadour (based on a 12-th century character) in Aquitaine is tired of earthly pleasures and seeks something more transcendental. He finds it in his own imagination of a beautiful noble woman, Countess Clémence of Tripoli, described to him by a pilgrim. Clémence spent her infancy in Toulouse, and yearns to return there. From their respective shores, Jaufré and Clémence yearn for idealized images of something that may be different in reality.

Half-way across the sea on the way to meet his beloved, Jaufré gets cold feet and tells the pilgrim, "The sun shines beautifully from afar, but it burns you if you get close." The premise is reminiscent of a popular Serbian poem Strepnja by Desanka Maksimović in which she says that "joy is beautiful only while you wait for it" and that "everything shines like a star only from a distance."  She implores her lover not to come closer so she would not be disappointed. In this respect, Maalouf's story is almost identical to the Serbian poem. 

But while Maksimović wisely stops there, L'Amour de loin becomes cloyingly sentimental in its search for a conclusion and eventually veers off into religion. Jaufré becomes deathly ill during the sea voyage and dies upon meeting his dream woman. Dies happy - we are made to believe. She is brokenhearted, but says she will find consolation in loving from afar because after all, we love God from afar. Do we need that message? For me the story would have been more convincing and the opera more meaningful if the lovers had never met and continued to yearn for each other sight unseen. Or if they did meet only to realize they were idolizing a non-existing person. 

L'Amour the loin with its 21st century music and the Met's hi-tech production would be better matched with a contemporary story in which two people fall for each other (as many do these days) through the Internet. In some cases they later meet in person and really get to love each other. In others, one side has criminal intentions and the story ends tragically. But most people who "fall in love" online are simply disappointed when they meet the other party in person, and they politely tell each other good-bye. Eric Owens would fit perfectly in one such story.

Very often, real life stories are much more inspiring than the fictional ones.

Take for example American astronaut John Glenn, who died on Thursday, and his wife Annie. They knew each other since they were children. When they married (and naturally before that) she stuttered so badly that she would not go shopping except in places where she could pick up what she needed from the shelves.  Glenn was first a war hero, then after his 1962 flight into orbit became a world celebrity, and later a senator. He even ran for president in 1984. So for most of their married life he was a man of fame and power and she was low-profile. But he was a devoted husband and, as far as we know, the glory did not tempt him to stray from his wife.  

Annie underwent a successful treatment for her affliction when she was over 50 years of age. Until she was ready to step into the limelight, Glenn was fiercely protective of her.  The Washington Post on Friday quoted him as telling Annie after his return from the space, “Look, if you don’t want the vice president or the TV networks or anybody else to come into the house, then that’s it as far as I’m concerned.” 

“They are not coming in and I will back you up all the way and you tell them that! I don’t want (Lyndon) Johnson or any of the rest of them to put so much as one toe inside our house,” he said in a phone call upon landing.

They were married for 73 years. What a great love story! Forget L'Amour de loin.

A clip from the Met's production:

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Tristan und Isolde by Mariusz Treliński

Mariusz Treliński was movie-star good looking when I met him in the Kennedy Center foyer ahead of his first U.S. appearance in 2001. The acclaimed Polish film director had attracted the attention of then-Washington Opera director Placido Domingo with his innovative production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly in Poland and Domingo invited him to stage it in the U.S. That event changed Treliński's life forever. Since then he has directed operas in several major U.S. cities, and many others in various countries. His operatic journey has culminated with the production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera's new season.

Treliński's Butterfly was the first truly exciting opera production I had seen in Washington and, I thought, one with uniquely central European uncluttered esthetic. Although it is my least favorite opera, that one production of it remains memorable thanks to Treliński's genius.

In our interview that October of 2001, he told me (surprise, surprise) that the role of the opera director today is to make an old art form attractive to contemporary audiences, while retaining the original spirit of the work. He achieved that by making simple effects highly symbolic. Instead of recreating the early 20th century Nagasaki, he used lights to create images of shimmering water, boats silhouetted against the setting sun, the flow of Butterfly's blood. There were very few props. The stage was almost always bare, but never less than striking.

In a hitherto uncustomary prologue to the opening scene, three Polish mimes tiptoed over the dark and silent stage making grand theatrical movements at a slow pace as if performing some macabre dance. One of them slashed the air with a long knife. It was clear from their ominous expressions there will be no happy ending to the story.

The mimes reappeared throughout the opera in different roles - as servants, thieves, ghosts or spirits depicting Butterfly's moods - their movements and expressions reminiscent of the traditional Japanese kabuki theater. Similarly, Goro moved around the stage in bows and squats like an oversized sneaky cat with gestures and facial expressions that conveyed his shrewd and manipulative character better than words.

In the last highly symbolic scene the sky turned bright orange-red due to the eclipse of the sun. For Butterfly, the sun was gone with Pinkerton, said Treliński. "Butterfly sacrificed everything for the man she loved because she saw him as God. And that was her sin," he said. "Her excessive love for a man violated the first of the Ten Commandments."

The success of that production was such that Treli
ński got invited to return to Washington with his next creative endeavor, Andrea Chenier - also a very symbolic rendition, but in my view less focused and less memorable than his Butterfly. From the first act showing the nobility wrapped up in their cocoons (which I liked), the scene changed to something like an American country fair (which I didn't like), and the rest I forgot.

Treliński reappeared in the U.S. a few years later with productions of La Bohème and Don Giovanni that were not well received, and then I heard nothing of him, until he reappeared in New York in last season's spell-binding Met productions of Iolanta and Bluebird's Castle. The double bill performance made it crystal clear that during a decade and a half since his Butterfly in Washington, the Polish director had moved on. In his hands and Anna Netrebko's interpretation, the usually kitschy and pathetic princess Iolanta became a passionate young girl striving for independence and awareness. But it was in Bluebird's Castle, that Trelinski and his designer Boris Kudlička really outdid themselves. The double bill production was described as film noir, and seeing it
in a movie theater as I did, was probably more impressive than seeing the live performance on account of the copious use of cinematic effects. Treliński believes that fairy tales always contain deeper levels and he is a master of unveiling them. He said he wanted the fairy-tale women to become real - the characters we can identify with. Both pieces were spectacularly successful, although for me Bluebird remains especially unique and unforgettable. It created a sense for the audience of being in a nightmare together with the performers. 

No wonder, the Met snatched the talented Pole again for this season and this time with an offer he could not refuse. What can be more flattering for an opera director than the invitation to present his vision of Tristan und Isolde and no less than at one of the world's topmost opera houses.

Photo: Ken Howard for the MetropolitanOpera
This time around the reviews were not unanimously complimentary. Some critics thought the modern warship setting and various video projections were unnecessary and distracting. One reviewer particularly hated references to Tristan's early loss of parents. None of this bothered me. I found Trelinski's contemporary setting as acceptable as any, and in an opera without too much action, an occasional appearance of Tristan's father's ghost, or some image from his childhood did not take away anything from the beauty of the music or from the central theme. The military costumes were not a novelty either. In fact, I was surprised to find this production of Wagner's work a lot less revolutionary than expected from such an innovator as Trelinski.

Still, his interpretation did reveal at least one new layer of Tristan for me. While for years I watched the opera as a great love story, this Saturday at a movie theater I saw it for the first time as an opera about death. Partly, it must have been due to the dark setting which highlighted all the talk about hating daylight and embracing night, and seeking relief in the blackness of the netherworld. But I am sure the shift in my perception was a great deal due to the protagonists who in this performance were anything but lovers. I have never been Nina Stemme's fan and no amount of imagination or goodwill on my part could turn Stuart Skelton into Tristan. To make matters worse, there was zero chemistry between the two. The only interpreters worth sitting through four hours of this opera were Ekaterina Gubanova, a convincing and lovable Brangäne - the best I've ever seen - and René Pape as dignified King Marke. Gubanova also never looked better. Neil Cooper's Melot was noteworthy, although less so.

Tristan und Isolde may be about death, but it is still primarily about star-crossed lovers, and definitely not about their companions and relatives, and so despite Trelinski's efforts and overall decent singing, this production fell flat.