Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Reading in the Time of Covid

During last year's restrictions, I thought the best way to spend leisure time was reading. In the normal times I would have loved to have that much time to tackle a growing pile of books next to my bed. But 2020 was an abnormal year that stretched everyone's nerves to the point of snapping - not only with the pandemic, but also with the craziness surrounding the US presidential election and the aftermath. So I could not concentrate on any serious book. Only after the inauguration and the early 2021 vaccination campaign, tensions began to ease, and I was again able to read more than just news headlines. So here is a potpourri of the works I've read in the past year and a half. 

I don't recall in what order I read the works, so I will start with the most memorable: a shortish novel by Syrian writer Khaled Khalifa, titled Death is Hard Work. The summary, which said the book is about three siblings taking their father's dead body for burial through conflict-ridden Syria, was not at all promising. I expected more of the newspaper-style chronicling of the atrocities in the war-torn country. But instead of dwelling on the horrors of war, Khalifa's novel offers a portrayal of a disconnected family, further estranged by the political conflict. The head of the family is charismatic rebel leader Abdel Latif al-Salima, respected and perhaps even loved by his community, but feared and avoided by his children. The outwardly strong authoritarian figure is plagued by a  tragedy from his youth, which could have been avoided if he had had the necessary strength to act on his conscience.  He makes his three adult children promise they will take him across conflicted country to his native village to be buried next to his sister.  They never quite understand why it is so important to him, but feel that their promise is sacred and must be fulfilled. 

Abdel Latif's two sons and a daughter are as different from each other as can be, and feel no familial bond either with their father or with one another.  During the travel, confined in a van with the decaying corpse, the estranged siblings examine their lives, each painfully aware of past delusions and ultimate inability to take control of their destiny.

Fatima ruminates over her adolescent belief that she was beautiful and desirable because she had many marriage offers. By now divorced, she is painfully aware that her former husband always despised her and married her only to elevate his social status through the connection to her father.  The youngest son, Bolbol, understands that fear has turned his life into a complete failure. In the past, he did not have the courage to marry the only woman he had ever loved because she was Christian, and in the present, he lives in fear that his father's rebellion will cost him his job in the government-controlled area. The eldest son, once cocky and boisterous Hussein, becomes taciturn during the journey. After delivering the corpse to the remaining relatives in father's native village, the siblings separate to rush back to their own lives with no intention of ever seeing one another again. The father's body, delivered in a terrible state of decay, had to be buried in the nearest available place and that was nowhere near his sister's grave.

Despite its relative brevity (cca 190 pages), the novel had the same impact on me as the comprehensive classic family sagas, such as The Buddenbrooks or The Thibaults. The conclusion reveals Abdel Latif's painful secret and the reason why he wanted to be buried next to his sister.  The determination to atone for his failure to save her makes him more humane in the eyes of the reader, though not in the eyes of his children. Although the conclusion is well-founded and logical, it is not predictable, and it made this novel a real treasure for me! I am so glad I found it.

I also joined an online book club last year, which I had sworn I would never do. I did it not to discuss books as much as to get an idea what new publications are out there that might inspire me to read again. The first listing I came across, the award-winning Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, was wasted on me, except that it gave me an idea where the contemporary fiction might be heading: toward complicated writing that needs to be deciphered and explained to be understood. The characters change names and faces as we move along, making it hard to identify with any of them. Sometimes you don't know who they are and where they come from. Once stripped of these special effects, the plot boils down to a condemnation of child abuse, a worthy cause to be sure, but why be so convoluted about it?

The next few books of the month at the Vox book club, including a vampire trilogy, were never going to make it to my bedside table, but then came Akwaeke Emeze's The Death of Vivek Oji, which sparked interest. I had seen it at my local bookstore and was wondering whether it was worth reading, so the book club gave me the necessary nudge.  It was worth it.  The book is a classical tale of parent-child disconnect, but what made this one especially interesting was the context in which ancient Nigerian traditions and superstitions push against the contemporary trends and western influence. It was a good insight into the increasingly diverse world we live in and a revelation that similar social changes take place everywhere, not just in the west.  I also learned about the so-called Niger-wives, foreign women who marry Nigerian men and settle in Nigeria. The title character's mother is Indian. The description of his waist-long black hair made me wonder whether it was curly like his father's, or straight and slick like his mother's. What also makes this book a compelling read is the suspense that keeps you on edge from the very first page till the end, when you learn how Vivek died. 

Perusing through used books in a thrift store some months later, my attention was drawn to the only name I recognized: the more famous Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I had been thinking of getting Americanah, but Half of a Yellow Sun at 50 cents could not be passed up. And what a fortunate find! Everyone growing up in the Balkans has heard of very slim individuals being described as "coming from Biafra." The phrase was inspired by news media images of emaciated children, dying from starvation in the area that fought for independence from Nigeria. I had forgotten all about Biafra until Adichie's book, which looks at its history through the eyes of different people.  

One reason that may have contributed to my enjoyment of the book is that I read it immediately after Douglas Stuart's highly acclaimed Shuggie Bain. While the novel about an alcoholic mother and her three children living on the outskirts of Glasgow is well written, it is so depressing that I had to take long breaks in between chapters and ultimately struggle to finish it. The misery of the people, relentlessly pounded in your brain, page after page after page, desensitizes it to the point where you can't feel any compassion. The title character, the youngest of the three siblings, is additionally "different" from other kids and therefore the most vulnerable, and clinging to his mother the longest. But the book is more about his mother Agnes than about him. Instead of sympathizing with the victimized children and unfortunate parents in the impoverished Thatcher-era coal mine areas, the unending ugliness coming at me from every page alienated me from every character in the book and made me think: surely even the poorest and most helpless people have some happy moments every now and then in their lives. Critics seem to think differently, and the book has received nothing but praise.  Hardly anyone dares to admit they did not like it, except some Glaswegians who fear the book is giving the Scottish city a bad reputation.

I also combed through my own library, knowing there are books in it I have not yet read. One of them is a collection of writings from the Boka Kotorska area (an Adriatic Sea bay not so far from Dubrovnik) collected and lovingly presented by my friend Slobodan Prosperov Novak, a great linguist, literary researcher and top authority on Croatian literature. The 300-page book contains mostly poems, but also folk tales, letters and articles and from the Boka region, written between the late 15th and early 19th century.  The most surprising piece I came across was a letter written to U.S. Congress in April of 1782.  Signed by Warta (one word only and does not sound like a Slavic name) the letter appears to be in response to a message sent to the writer by members of Congress. The author praises the revolution against the English rulers and advises congressmen to avoid modeling their government after Plato's Republic or Thomas More's Utopia, which he says are unviable, but to create a new type of monarchy. Instead of placing on the throne a real person, the letter writer suggests they should make their king from oak to ensure his longevity and worldwide admiration. This strange, metaphoric letter ends with wishing the U.S. lawmakers success and their young country long-lasting independence. It is dated April 15, which is four days before the Netherlands recognized the United States, the second country to do so after Morocco. 

Then came a contemporary Croatian book Dark Mother Earth by currently the most exciting Croatian writer, Kristian Novak. I read it in the excellent English translation by Ellen Elias-Bursac, which is available on Amazon, unlike Novak's newest and best book Ciganin, ali najljepši  (Gypsy, But the Fairest of Them All ), which has not been translated yet and one has to ask why. Meanwhile, Dark Mother Earth displays all of the writer's best qualities, except for a somewhat banal opening. It would be a pity if that opening made someone put the book aside, because once you get past it, the work is mesmerizing. A young boy living in the Croatian backwaters north of the capital Zagreb, is haunted by nightmares, or so we think, until we learn that his seemingly unreasonable fears are inspired by the true evil around him. Adults only whisper about the crime in their midst, but pretend not to see. The boy's childhood memories fade once the family moves to Zagreb, but deeply buried dark visions resurface when least expected, and affect his behavior. They follow him to young adulthood, but having forgotten their origin, he is not aware what prompts him to act weird, until he delves deep into his past to free himself.  Extraordinary book and highly recommended.

Linked loosely to the same part of the world, is Tea Obrecht's Tiger's Wife, which was widely praised as a first book by a young author in America when it came out in 2011. Obrecht is an immigrant from former Yugoslavia, but the book did not seem to go well with her fellow expats who could not recognize any of the "folk stories" in it.  Tigers do not normally appear in the folklore from the Balkans, but the author may have used the exotic animal to underline the uniqueness of the woman in the story. I read the book because someone gave it to me, explaining that I knew the man who had married Obrecht's mother. Is this a good reason to read a book? Who knows. After a somewhat dull beginning, Obrecht's "folk legends" brought the book to life. True, they do not have much to do with the region. Perhaps that's exactly why credit must be given to the author’s imagination. Obrecht has written another book since, titled Inland, but somehow I am not tempted to read it.

My greater ambition: to finish Alex Ross's grand opus Wagnerism during the Covid-induced paralysis was a total failure. The main reason was my inability to concentrate on any reading last year, but knowing much about Wagner already had an effect too. Do I really need to know what every single European intellectual, no matter how obscure, said about Wagner? Ross is to be commended for this scrupulous study of Wagner's influence on the world during and after his lifetime, but I enjoyed his earlier book The Rest is Noise much more. About a third way through, Wagnerism was put aside and I have not yet been tempted to take it up again.

Among the new titles coming out this fall, I have noticed a new, never-before-published book by the 20th-century feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir. Apparently, Beauvoir and lifelong partner Jean Paul Sartre had decided this manuscript was not worth publishing, but her descendants thought otherwise. I am more inclined to trust Beauvoir and Sartre. Having read Beauvoir's novel She Came to Stay before and during Covid (yes, I actually did do some reading in 2020) I was bored to tears with tedious "intellectual" conversations that are all but meaningless today. Supposedly based on her own "open" liaison with Jean-Paul Sartre, this work of fiction tackles a ménage-à-trois comprising a sophisticated middle-aged Parisian couple and a young provincial girl whom the two have taken under their wings. The younger woman gradually takes over the man and ruins the once solid relationship between the intellectual equals. The only way to get rid of her is to kill her. Blah. Beauvoir is best known for her non-fiction work The Second Sex, a study of the treatment of women throughout centuries. 

The new publication, titled Inseparable, is due in the book stores any day now.  It deals with Beauvoir's lifelong friendship with a woman, and perhaps she has some insights to offer into how that works.  But if it is anything like She Came to Stay, the book may topple the avant-garde icon from her pedestal. 

I have read a few more books in the past months that are not worth mentioning.

If you have any good ones to recommend, please make your comments bellow. I am looking for something that will really knock me off my feet. 

Monday, June 21, 2021

Kentucky Unfried

After a year and a half of short car trips only, it seems best to test the waters of post-Covid air travel gradually. For me, a non-stop one-and-a-half-hour flight to Louisville, Kentucky was it. Why Louisville, everyone I told about my trip asked. Why indeed? Apart from the relative proximity, Kentucky was one of only three states I had never visited and, I admit, I was a little curious about the people who keep electing the same turtle-looking senator term after term after term. Louisville turned out to be an excellent choice. The weather was perfect, and the city had a lot to offer, but...

Louisville is home to world-renowned Kentucky Derby Horse Race

... if you are inclined to spend less than a week in Louisville, make sure you visit between Thursday and Sunday. The city sleeps the rest of the week, which means most of the museums, shops and cafes are closed, there are no tours and the streets are generally deserted. It is hard to tell whether the pandemic has something to do with it, or the Kentuckians take seriously the finding that working too much is a health hazard.

Barge on the Ohio River

Cruises on the Ohio River run only on Saturdays, the Visitor Center and the Speed Art Museum work Wednesday through Saturday, and a top historical attraction, the Conrad-Caldwell House Museum, opens only on weekends.

Conrad-Caldwell House Museum in Old Louisville  

Louisville is the only city I have visited that does not have hop-on-hop-off tours. The closest thing is the City Taste Tour, run by a local entrepreneur, and sold out weeks in advance. Another company that offers tours is Trolley De'Ville, but it seems to specialize in catering to groups. I have not seen any individual tickets for sale online and no one answered the phone. I did find out that you can book a trolley tour for $414 for an undetermined number of people.  The most popular bourbon distillery tours can cost over $1,000 and the cheaper ones are impossible to get into. If they are available, that information is hard to find online. And any information about Louisville online is unreliable.

For example, a free circular bus Lou and Lift offers the following information: 

"The 4th Street bus travels 4th Street, from Churchill Downs to the Galt House, and circles around Fourth Street Live! entertainment district by taking 5th Street northbound and 2nd Street southbound. Weekday 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. • Saturday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Silver signs indicate stops for the 4th Street LouLift."

The silver signs I saw included a number to call for information, but all I got was a recorded message. After waiting for half an hour for the bus to appear, and getting no answer on the phone, my friend and I learned from a regular bus driver that the free circular bus has not run for more than a year because of Covid. So how hard was it to put that information online or on a recorded phone message?

One of the best things that is always available and at a short notice in Louisville is a walking tour provided by a local history buff David Dominé. It's fun, at $25 it's affordable, and you really learn something you did not know about Louisville: that Tom Cruise attended high school there, that the Happy Birthday song was composed there, that local witches whipped up a dangerous storm in 1890 after their beloved tree was cut down, and that they caused a new one to grow from its stump. Dominé has written several books on Louisville ghosts and said he lives in a haunted house himself.

Witches's Tree, a tourist attraction in Old Louisville

The Muhammad Ali Museum is closed only Mondays and Tuesdays so it is likely to be open during a short visit. Even if you are not a boxing fan, the museum is a must for young people to learn about Ali's path from a celebrity boxer to human rights activist. I saw enough of Ali on TV in my salad days, but did not remember he was from Louisville until I landed at the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport.  

The Muhammad Ali Museum

One of the rare institutions in Louisville that are open seven days a week is the Kentucky Derby Museum. It would be a real shame if it weren't. After all, that's the #1 attraction in Kentucky and makes the city famous worldwide. 

Another thing doable at any time in Louisville is crossing the Big Four pedestrian bridge over the Ohio River into Indiana. Not much to do there except grabbing a cool drink and fried food, and watching the Louisville skyline from the Indiana bank of the Ohio River.

Big Four Bridge, Louisville
Of course, you can always take a self-guided tour of the old city and admire the grand Victorian mansions, each boasting its own individual variation of the period architecture.


Downtown Louisville is also attractive. Not to be missed is the historic Brown Hotel with its elegant dining room on the second floor. Of course, the gift shop was closed when we visited on a Tuesday. Further up on the way to the river is 4th Street pedestrian area with pubs and eateries where you can have pizza or sample traditional local barbecue.

The up-and-coming East Market District, also known as NuLu, is home to small art galleries and a growing number of fancy restaurants and indie boutiques. We ate the best-ever hamburger and a fine Cuban sandwich, with a side of mouth-watering grilled Brussel sprouts, at The Grind Burger Kitchen Grille and had world-class espressos in several new coffee shops. The nearby area is home to the Slugger Field and popular Angel's Envy bourbon distillery. The tours fill up well in advance, so unprepared as we were, we could not get in. The downside of NuLu is its size. Places of interest are dispersed over a large area, surrounded by a network of major roads and highways. It takes long walks - too long under the mid-day sun - to get from one point of interest to another in NuLu. 

Not so the adjacent Highlands area. Its main drag, Baxter Avenue, is packed with shops, pubs, restaurants, karaoke bars and cafes that keep it busy day and night, especially Thursday through Saturday. Baxter Avenue may be flanked by cemeteries, but there is nothing somber about it. The locally-owned shops offer hand-crafted goods, indie fashion, books and artisanal breads. Unlike gentrified hubs in other U.S.  cities, central Louisville avoids mass-produced goods sold in chain stores such as Madewell, Gap, Zara, H & M, Urban Outfitters or TJ Maxx. The Louisville Zoo, with camel rides and a splash park, is also located in Highlands.  The Cave Hill Cemetery draws visitors who want to see the final resting places of boxing champion Muhammad Ali and founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant chain Colonel Harland David Sanders. Sister Patty and Mildred Hill, who composed the Happy Birthday song, also are interred there. Residential streets off Baxter Avenue are worth checking out for elegant homes and manicured gardens. 

Louisville seems to be a perfect place to live: with just over 600,000 inhabitants it's not too big, it's beautiful, it has good public transportation and a surprisingly large number of performing art venues for a city of its size. On our last evening in Louisville, we were treated to a free performance of Pinter's Shakespeare in Love in Central Park, just two blocks away from our B & B.

Local people did not seem any different from us here in Washington D.C., but I think I figured out Mitch's secret: he makes sure the elections are held Monday through Wednesday when Kentucky goes to sleep.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Arts and Culture in the Post-Covid Era

Sometime in May Washington area's music organizations started selling tickets for tentatively scheduled live summer concerts. The first sales went very much like the early offers of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. You had to get your computer ready ahead of the appointed start of the ticket sales and jump in as quickly as you could into the organization's website. The battle for a seat, or rather seats since individual tickets were not available, was as fierce as the battle for a vaccine in January and February. The experience reminded me of my youth in former Yugoslavia, where often we had to line up and fight for our share of coffee, tooth paste, toilet paper or some other scarce commodity.

The first concert to line up for as the Covid restrictions eased in May was the National Symphony Orchestra's performance at the Kennedy Center, featuring Russian virtuoso pianist Daniil Trifonov. The immediate obstacle was logging into my account. The website kept rejecting my user name and password. If I tried to get in as a guest, I was able to move two seats into the shopping bin, but when I reached the payment page the frustration continued. The system automatically added a $50 donation to your bill, which theoretically you could refuse, but when you did, your seats disappeared from the shopping basket. My friend was trying simultaneously on her lap top with the same result. We concluded that only people who agreed to pay the donation could purchase tickets. By the time we figured that out, all the tickets were gone. 

I managed to obtain a ticket through a different channel and saw what had sparked the fierce battle for seats. Out of 2,500 the Kennedy Center filled only about 260.  

Kennedy Center Concert Hall, May 28, 2021, photo: Z. Hoke

The small group of patrons ushered into the concert hall spoke in hushed tones as if going to a funeral.  Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter struck a cheerful note with brightly colored clothes, better suited for a summer lunch al fresco than a Friday evening concert. She thanked the patrons for coming, seemingly oblivious of the struggle they had gone through to win the honor.

On arrival to the podium, Maestro Gianandrea Noseda was so emotional that he cut  his greeting short. Overall, the event, with a drastically reduced orchestra as well as the audience, had the aura of a rehearsal rather than a real concert, but when the music started, the magic of yore returned.

The opening set was Four Noveletten, a rarely heard work by black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. U.S. music organizations are now including at least one piece by a black composer in every new program to make up for years of neglect of African-American talent. The Coleridge-Taylor piece and Haydn's Symphony No. 95 that framed Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No.1 were pleasant, fluffy and forgettable in the face of the powerful piece performed by masters such as Trifonov at the piano and William Gerlach with the trumpet. 

GianandrGianandrea Noseda conducting NSO's forst 2021 concert, Photo: Scott Suchman

The second NSO concert on June 3 was designed to entertain. Called "surprise", it did not reveal the program except to say that Maestro Noseda would engage with the audience. Perhaps that's why it was a little easier to get the tickets. I expected a list of popular short pieces by well known composers, but I should have given more credit to Noseda. In many ways, the event was more fun than a usual classical music concert because it comprised six pieces that were either written by little known composers or were obscure pieces by well known composers. Noseda was in a cheerful mood as he made the audience guess what the orchestra was playing. Again, he opened with a black composer, William Grant Still. I had never heard Still's Serenade before, but was able to recognize that the music was American. I even whispered to my companion: "sounds like old Hollywood." As it turned out, Still had written arrangements for Hollywood musicals. 

The program included another black composer, Washington D.C. native George Walker, with his Lyric for Strings. Richard Strauss, Samuel Barber and Ottorino Respighi were probably the best known composers in the program, while Still, Walker and Italian Giovanni Bottesini were lesser known. Bottesini, dubbed the "Paganini of the double bass" is credited with developing bass technique that has opened up people's eyes (or ears) to the instrument's versatility.  NSO's, principal double-bass Robert Oppelt was given the opportunity to shine in Bottesini's Elegy No. 1 for Bass and Strings.

Noseda also showcased the orchestra's clarinetist Lin Ma, bassoonist Sue Heineman and harpist Adriana Horne in Strauss's Duet-Concertino for Clarinet and Bassoon with String Orchestra and Harp.

The most exciting piece for me was the closing, Respighi's Gli ucelli (Birds) whose tune I recognized immediately and could hum along all its five movements, but could not guess what it was. Don't you hate it when that happens?

The NSO will perform in Wolf Trap later this month, introducing another rare piece, The Anonymous Lover by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges from 1870, another black composer.  How I would love to be there, but I'll be away.  I will return to Wolf  Trap in July after a two-year absence. The tickets for the two concerts I plan to attend were sold in "pods" of two to eight. While the small audiences at the Kennedy Center concerts felt sad despite the obvious advantages (no rustling of cough-drop wraps, or patrons sucking at their water bottles right next to your ear) a smaller audience at Wolf Trap's Filene Center will be a blessing. For years I have eschewed the mass shows there, opting instead for a more intimate setting at the Barns. But this summer that option is not available.

Museums also are reopening to a reduced number of visitors and shorter hours. The need to secure timed passes eliminates the spontaneity of going to see art when you feel like it. After three years of waiting (nothing to do with Covid) and several letters of complaint, I managed to obtain passes for the National Museum of African American History and Culture for June 30. Who knows if it will be hot or pouring on that day, whether I will have a headache, or whether I will feel like doing something entirely different, but June 30 it is and I should count my blessings.

The pandemic has taught me lessons: not to take free museums in DC for granted, to feel privileged when I am able to attend a concert or visit a museum, and to prepare physically and mentally for the cultural event I am seeing. Arts and culture deserve our full attention and appreciation, which we often forget when they are easily accessible. 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Fashion in the Time of Covid

At this time of the year I like to look at the fashions for the coming season and so I am doing it now, especially curious how designers make their creations relevant for the time of Covid, when many people spend days at home in their pajamas. Other increasingly common clothing items have been running shoes, training pants, hoodies, fleece jackets and puffers. Even the usually elegant French women seem to have let themselves go a little bit under the circumstances. Designers must be perfectly aware of the mood because they seem to be offering more elaborate variations of the clothes people are already wearing.

Paris street fashion, 2021

Passing by a few clothing stores in Washington's trendy Georgetown on a Sunday in December, my friend and I came across a small boutique with a display of long evening dresses in its windows. We looked at each other with the question in our eyes: is there any place where you can wear something like this, even on a New Year's Eve? The shop looked like a relic from a bygone era. And maybe it was not even open. It was hard to tell on that Sunday.

Boutique Lovely, Georgetown, Washington DC

The Washington area clothing stores have not quite adjusted to the Covid era. The racks are still full of dresses, high-heeled shoes and fancy jewelry as well as formal suits and ties for men. There are also tons of sports and casual items, of course, but no more than before the pandemic.  Some stores have closed permanently - Camper Shoes among them - and some still have their fronts boarded up since the BLM and election riots. But inside the stores, nothing has changed.

Designers, on the other hand, exhibit more awareness of the world around them than most US clothing merchants.  The new apparel focuses on the comfortable to the degree of frumpy and ill-fitted. Wardrobe basics include oversized "boyfriend" shirts, thick sweaters, big jackets, baggy pants and huge overcoats, intended to accommodate all the bulky items underneath when you run out to grab a bottle of milk from the corner store. In a pinch, women can borrow men's clothes for any occasion. 

Balenciaga, Spring 2021  
I have been a great fan of Scandinavian fashions for years. But the Nordic favorite this year - a sleeveless sweater I have always hated - takes it down a notch or two on my top list.  The reincarnation of my grandmother's knitwear looks to be crocheted from the yarn leftover from a cottage blanket she made all those winters ago.  When I was the age of the model in the photo below, you would not see me dead in the concoction she is showing off. But knitting has seen revival during Covid and designers are letting you know they approve.

Copenhagen, 2021

Now the shoes: they must be super comfy, with solid wide bottoms and tight ankles to ensure that you don't wobble during the five-mile daily exercise walks, or cause even a hint of a blister.

Platform boots, 2021

Spring Fashion 2021

While the winter apparel leans toward comfy and cosy, designers show optimism that the pandemic might subside by the summer and turn to light, airy and cheerful items. We see a plethora of fluffy concoctions for women and colorful creations for men.

 Summer fashion, 2021

Men's fashion, spring 2021

Much to look forward to, even though we are not quite sure if there will be occasion to show off our new wardrobe. Will anyone still have desire to dress up if you cannot join a crowd that might admire your latest look?

Let's see: D.C. restaurants are currently able to serve indoors at 25% capacity. Valentine's Day is coming up, and though large gatherings are discouraged, couples are acceptable. With love and engagements in the air, people will surely want to don something other than training pants. I'll go check the evening spots this weekend and make that five-mile walk on the asphalt. I may wear comfortable shoes, but I promise to put on a skirt. Even if it snows!

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Minorities Dominate Upcoming Opera Seasons

 Minorities Feature Prominently in Upcoming New Operas

Contemporary operas can be 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. A few years ago, I came to Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking at the Washington National Opera almost directly from the world premiere of La Ciudad de las Mentiras (City of Lies) in Madrid. While Heggie’s opera leaned toward traditional, Elena Mendoza’s opus at Teatro Real in Spain’s capital, bore all the characteristics of a modern work.



La Ciudad de las Mentiras, Teatro Real, Madrid, 2017, photo: Z. Hoke


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 was 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 co-spectator who argued that if a work of art needs so much explanation, it 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 what an average person would call an opera. 


That word typically conjures images of Figaro, Carmen or Violetta singing their hearts out in melodies most opera lovers can hum in the shower. We usually think of opera as a dramatic or comic story related through song and instrumental music. It consists of melodic arias that express a character’s feelings, and spoken or almost spoken recitativi, which move the action forward. Of course, today, if you google the word “opera”, you may come across information about a browser for Android devices.


Many modern operas veer away from the standard structure. In September of last year, the historic Bavarian State opera in Munich, Germany, premiered a new music-theater work 7 Deaths of Maria Callas by controversial performance icon Marina Abramović. The New York-based artists is perhaps best known for her 2010 MoMA performance The Artists Is Present, in which she sat at a table speechless while long lines of visitors waited to sit across her and watch her expressions. 

7 Deaths of Maria Callas was presented as an opera. It featured seven arias Callas was most famous for, such as Vissi d’arte and Un bel di  sung by various sopranos, while Abramović, occasionally joined by actor Willem Dafoe, recited her own narratives. Music by composer Marko Nikodijević accompanied her recitatives and video projections, which showed Abramović being strangled by snakes or die in some other torturous manner. 

For a classical opera fan, the one-hour performance was an outrage as was Abramovic’s claim that she and Callas have a lot in common. But perhaps more importantly, Abramović’s latest opus was an homage to a great soprano that some of performance art fans may not have been interested in.  Similarly, the television series Lovecraft Country features an episode based on the 1921 Tulsa massacre that is accompanied by operatic music at the request of composer Laura Karpman. The soundtrack ends in a requiem. 


Belgian composer Jean-Luc Fafchamps opened the 2020 season at the La Monnaie opera house in Brussels with a “pop requiem” Is This the End?  Éric Brucher's libretto focuses on a woman caught in a twilight zone between life and death. There, she meets other people in a kind of transitional state between this world and the next.  The staging by Ingrid von Wantoch Rekowski contrasts the live action on stage with film sequences shot inside the theatre and then integrated into the live performance. But the piece is conceived for watching from home.


Fans of the traditional music theater may wonder why we even call some of these modern pieces of theater “opera.” But we should be reminded that in Italian, opera means work, labor or opus. Operaio is a worker or laborer. So the word opera is not restricted to the kind of music performances with which it is most often associated.


The new works we sometimes dismiss too quickly actually bode well for the future of the opera. Their creators acknowledge and often build on the timeless masterpieces and pay homage to old masters. 

Let’s look at some of the novelties in the pipeline for the upcoming opera seasons. 


In the United States, hopes are high that the Metropolitan Opera will be able to re-open on September 27 and make history by staging its first ever opera created by an African American composer and an African American librettist. Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones with a libretto by Kasi Lemmons, is based on the memoir by Charles M. Blow and will star Angel Blue, Latonia Moore, and Will Liverman.


The Met will premiere two other operas in its new season: Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice, starring Erin Morley in the title role, and Brett Dean’s Hamlet, with Allan Clayton portraying the tortured Danish prince. 


Cincinnati Opera’s ambitious plan for the next season includes two world premieres: Fierce by William Menefield and Castor and Patience by Gregory SpearsFierce focuses on four teenage girls who struggle to adjust to school, family, and friendship, and follows their journeys toward empowerment. In their college essays, one mourns the loss of a special friend. Another one hides behind her popularity. The third feels oppressed by her parents’ expectations. And the last one struggles with a troubled home life. Despite the chorus of trolls that taunts them, the girls unite in their fight against adversity. The libretto is inspired by life stories of real Cincinnati-area teenage girls.

Castor and Patience is centered on two cousins from an African American family who find themselves at odds over the fate of a historic parcel of land they have inherited in the American South. The opera probes historical obstacles to black land ownership in the United States. 


Spoleto Festival USA has commissioned a new opera by Grammy Award-Winner Rhiannon Giddens, inspired by a real-life character from the American South. Titled Omar, the opera is based on the autobiography of Omar Ibn Said – an enslaved African man from the Futa Toro region of present-day Senegal - who was brought to Charleston in 1807. Thirteen years later, Omar, a Muslim, converted to Christianity, but his manuscripts written in Arabic, especially his autobiographical essay, suggest that he remained faithful to Islam.  


Dayton Opera will present its first ever full-length opera premiere in its coming season. Finding Wright is a result of creative collaboration of four talented women: composer Laura Kaminsky,  librettist Andrea Fellows Fineberg, conductor Susanne Sheston and stage director Kathleen Clawson. In Finding Wright, 21st century Charlotte (Charlie) Tyler, a young, recently widowed, aerospace engineer and researcher learns about the extraordinary life of Katharine Wright, younger sister of flight pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright. The Wrights siblings were born in Dayton, Ohio.

The Washington National Opera is planning to continue its new opera initiative as soon as the circumstances allow with a short work intended for all ages, titled Elephant & Piggie, based on the book I Really Like Slop! The music is by D.C.-based composer and 2021 Sphinx Medal of Excellence winner Carlos Simon. The libretto is by author and illustrator Mo Willems, who is the Kennedy Center’s first education artist-in-residence.  

Looking beyond 2021, we can expect to see an opera adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours. The film adaptation featured Hollywood stars Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman.  Co-commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the opera by composer Kevin Puts will bring back star soprano Renee Fleming from her semi-retirement. Puts, whose opera Silent Night won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 is collaborating on The Hours with librettist Greg Pierce. The staged premiere, also featuring Joyce DiDonato and Kelli O’Hara is slated for 2022. 

San Francisco Opera is likely to bring in a performance of the new Finnish opera Innocence in the near future. The work by composer Kaija Saariaho and novelist Sofi Oksanenis a co-production of the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, the Finnish National Opera, the Royal Opera House in London, the Dutch National Opera, and the San Francisco Opera and is sung in nine languages: English, Finnish, Czech, Romanian, French, Swedish, German, Spanish and Greek.

Here is how Music Finland online describes the opera:  “Innocence takes place at a wedding in present-day Helsinki, Finland, with an international guest list. The groom is Finnish, the bride is Romanian, and the mother-in-law is French. But the groom’s family has a dark secret – ten years earlier, these characters were involved in a tragic event. When the events from long ago begin to unravel and the ghosts of the past revive their memories of the trauma, the family faces the question: where does the innocence end and guilt begins? 

Sounds bergmanesque and intriguing. 

Los Angeles Opera’s new season is highlighting a one-man opera by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Du Yun. In the work titled In Our Daughter’s Eyes, baritone Nathan Gunn portrays a father struggling to become a man his daughter would be proud of. As a gift for his unborn daughter, he writes a diary documenting his journey to fatherhood.   

More new operas than ever are written by and about minorities. Just a few years ago the best that a female or African American composer could hope for was a performance at a smaller local theater. Now, the world’s most eminent opera houses are fighting to commission their best efforts and turn the spotlight on them. If successful, these works may change the world of opera in unexpected ways. 






Thursday, January 14, 2021

The End Is Near

Like the rest of the world, I've been glued to the news feeds for the past few months, but unlike many, I have not been able to articulate what I feel about the current US state of affairs. The reactions from the US media and political leaders have been largely predictable, analyses largely superficial. So I am more interested in how the rest of the world is reacting, especially ordinary people - not pundits or philosophers. One comment from Croatia strikes me as typical. Many others are either too nasty or too gleeful, but this one, though not reflecting my opinion, reflects some of my confusion and, I am sure, the confusion of many other people around the world. Here is my approximate translation of the piece:


"There was a guy throwing money around, installing gold toilets, dying his hair with orange juice and grabbing women by the pussy, who also believed that the noise from wind turbines caused cancer and suggested that tornados and hurricanes could be stopped with nuclear bombs, and that Covid-19 could be cured with Clorox. And that guy was the U.S. president. 

On one occasion he gathered Baltic leaders and blamed them for the Balkan crisis. On another, his wife visited a camp for immigrant children, dressed in a jacket with a sign "I really don't care." And on yet another occasion his election-campaign chief organized a press conference in the luxury Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia but which took place outside a Four Seasons Total Landscaping center in a Philly suburb, in a parking lot between the local crematorium and a sex-toy shop.

So when he lost the election, the president urged his voters and followers to march on Washington and prevent the announcement of the voters' choice for the country's new leader.

There was another guy in the US state of Georgia who heeded the president's call to come to Washington, but he did not have a flag of his home state, so he ordered one from the Amazon. He logged into his account, typed in "Flag of Georgia" and placed an order. The next day he received an Amazon box containing a large, beautiful flag of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, which he hung on a pole, mounted on his car and drove nearly a thousand miles from his southern state through both Carolinas and entire Virginia to the nation's capital. He was cheered by truck drivers along the way while he turned up the volume on Willie Nelson's "Georgia On My Mind". Surreptitiously, he wiped away a tear or two of his patriotic pride, as he listened to "just an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind."

"Which flag is it, my friend?" shouted the truck drivers through their open windows, and he lifted his chin importantly and said: "Georgia, my friend."  "Georgia?" they wondered, slightly ashamed of not recognizing the southern state's flag but he would just croon along with Willie Nelson, "I said Georgia, heh, maybe it’s because I’m from Augusta, Georgia.“ His compatriots responded with wows and thumbs up.

That guy was among the first to attack the US Capitol. His photos appeared in all the news and were scattered all over the internet. Reddit was on to him, the whole planet saw him charging the Congress with a flag offered by the Amazon when you search for "Flag of Georgia." Little did he know that the first Georgia on Amazon's mind was a Caucasian state, on the shores of the Black Sea. And so the man waved a white flag emblazoned with five red crosses as he climbed the Capitol steps. Tovarish Stalin, Soviet Georgia's greatest son, would have been thrilled to see it.

Then there was an average American housewife with average American intelligence, from an average U.S. city, who looked as if she had walked straight out of The Simpsons animated series.  She was determined to prevent satanist-pedophile-vaxxer-communist conspiracy against Donald Trump and America. She was in all the papers all over the internet, and Twitter filled its pages with her memes and gifs.  The entire globe saw her charging the Congress and, in her patriotic fervor, attack journalists of the mainstream media and foreign reporters. Noticing their Cyrillic and Arab letters - she accosted Russian and Al Jazeera reporters telling them to go back to the communist China where they came from.

There was also a guy from Arkansas who broke into the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He also was in all the news, the internet and social media and the whole world saw him break into madam speaker's office, sit in her armchair, lift his booted feet on her desk, take a hundred selfies and then - in case he had not yet been identified - pose for TV outlets in the street with items belonging to Ms. Pelosi in his hands. He bragged he did not steal anything because he had left 25 cents on her desk.

Then there was an expert fighter from Maryland, who watched in disbelief as the moron from Arkansas practically wrote his own arrest warrant. He left work at the local branch of Navistar Direct Marketing to join the siege of the US Congress and, having learned to be cautious from the experience of living under the dictatorship of the Deep State, he took steps to ensure he was not recognized.  He wrapped himself in the U.S. flag, pulled a hood over his head and a MAGA hat over it, and entered the Congress in the way General Lee entered Veracruz.  

He appeared in all the newspapers and internet portals; Facebook and Twitter and the entire globe saw him marching through congressional halls.  Upon return home that evening, he found Deep State agents waiting for him as well as a notice of termination of employment form Navistar.  When he asked how they identified him so quickly, the agents showed him Facebook photos of him strutting through the Capitol with a Navistar Direct Marketing ID hanging around his neck. 

Finally, there was also a failed actor-singer from Arizona, who after mindless wondering through the wasteland of his life, re-invented himself as shaman and joined the people's liberation army of QAnon. He came to the Congress naked to the waist, with a fur hat and bison horns on his head. He urged people over a loudspeaker to topple the dictatorship of Masonic-Hollywood-satanistic-pedophile elites that kidnap little kids and take them to the infamous Washington pizzeria with a secret entrance into a large global network of underground tunnels, in which Soros, Gates and Rockefeller sexually abuse children and drink their blood to stay young.

The guy also appeared in all the newspapers, internet, Reddit, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. The whole world could see and hear QAnon's shaman with bison horns as he explained to the international press corps that he can hear high-frequency sounds, not audible to the ear of a mere mortal, and that he had a passport for all the galaxies of the universe.

In short, those answering the call of the president who confuses the Balkans with the Baltics were people like the guy who does not know the flag of his native Georgia, a woman who does not distinguish Arabs from Asians, a thief who takes selfies while committing crime, and a guy who is hiding from Deep State by wearing a badge with his personal information on it. They were led by a shaman who can hear frequencies of a bat and is leading an international movement against a network of satanist pedophiles from the basement of a Washington pizzeria (which does not have a basement). The imbecilic group that could have come straight out of The Simpsons psychiatric clinic entered one of the most protected buildings in the world, in the most protected capital of the world and the most protected country in the world as if they were walking into a suburban Walmart.   

This is not the first time we have seen such scenes on TV. A few years ago, for example, there was a broadcast of Ronald Emmerich's movie White House Down in which terrorists attack the White House. James Vanderbilt's team had to re-write the scrip at least 20 times to make the story of invading the stronghold of the American democracy believable. But while the fictionalized attack was masterminded by sophisticated operatives and was carried out by elite special forces, in real life the Congress was demolished by a cast of characters from Dumb and Dumber. 

These characters announced their march on Washington at least a month before. US Capitol Police, Homeland Security, FBI and CIA, agents that stage coups in foreign countries - all were activated. Video footage was showing convoys of vehicles pouring toward the US capital, and Facebook published the exact route to the Congress and the time of the planned attack, January 6. And still the invasion of the Capitol shocked the security experts.  They watched in daze as the  man who took Nancy Pelosi's lectern to sell it on eBay cheerfully waved to them. 

Some of the best photographs from the riot were sold to Getty Images Inc. and published all over the internet with the logo "Via Getty." Afterwards, Google was literally flooded with questions "Who Is Via Getty?" and the police and secret service were promptly informed of Trump's new guerrilla operative named Via Getty, who is self-advertising on the social media.

What you have seen is jackass civilization in the era of imbeciles. The 20th century had its romantic revolutions, dark lieutenants, secret agents, spies, mercenaries, inglourious basterds and ailing poets - dreamers who believed in equality and a just new world. The revolutions of our time will be led by shamans with bison horns, who buy liberty flags on the Amazon; conspiracy theorists who believe that the recent earthquakes in Croatia were caused by satanist-pedophile elites mining their underground tunnels for ritual drinking of children's blood; and those who believe that pandemic was created on purpose so people can be vaccinated with microchips, and controlled by dark powers.  These revolutionaries will be confronted by conscientious citizens chasing over the Internet new Che Guevaras such as Via Getty.

The global revolution of our century is led by the prophets whom you may remember standing on banana crates with a sign: "The end is near - prepare!" 

Hasta la victoria siempre!