Sunday, December 22, 2013

Pope Frank the Pin Up Boy

As we go into the Christmas period, we see how humanity craves a superman.  For the last two thousand years, many in the world have been transfixed by the about to be birthday boy, Jesus.  The adoration often eschews objectivity.  I am yet to see an ugly portrait of Jesus.  Humanity is so transfixed by JC that all representations are as unrealistically beautiful as a fashion model after Photoshop.  No weight problem or retreating hair line in JC’s portraits.
Now that need to bestow adulation on an anointed one has been transferred to His most important earthly representative – Pope Francis I.  Frankie One is the “Time Person of the Year” and consequently the object of op-ed pieces by opinion writers without the wit or imagination to think up their own end of annum hero.  This blog is no exception although to be fair, assessing religious figures is core business for this blog.
It seems that it is part of the human cognitive response is that we must venerate the great and invest in those idols a magical ability to solve all of our problems both global and individual.  Where that person exhibits frailties, like a recent member of the Over Venerated Club, President Obama, disappointment quickly kicks in (notwithstanding my continuing reverence.  My views are not shared by many of his fellow Americans).  Vaulting expectations can be unrealistic and I expect that will soon happen to Frankie.  But for the moment, I am joining the conga line of fans. Yep, I am the biggest sell out in the atheistic firmament.
 Catholicism is an interesting contradiction – at the same time growing gang busters in Asia and Africa as it depletes in its traditional heartlands. The growth areas in Africa where it is locked in a bloody struggle with Islam belies the poisoned well of Europe, USA and Oz.  It is sick here.  The sexual abuse scandal has demoralised the congregations and demonised the vocation of priesthood.  The venality of the Vatican is appalling. This is all well known.  The systemic issues are woeful – archaic, complicated, irrelevant, self serving and autocratic structures that resist reform.
My view is that this reform aversion means you need 5 Francis like reforming Popes filling the committees and corridors of power with armies of change junkies.  If Francis is followed by a conservative, then anything he tries will be fruitless.  His reform agenda is still being rolled out but it is useless without at least a 20 year program of follow up.  The lovely Pope John XXIII was the Times Man (sic) of the Year fifty years ago.  His breath of fresh air was transitory. He was followed by Paul VI whose myopia killed off the chance of Catholicism to be anything but the laughing stock that it is in many parts of the West. The three conservatives following John ignored the abuse crisis until it was too late and did nothing to challenge the Vatican with its expense, high handedness, links to crime and odour of corruption.
The last papal Times Laureate - a wonderful man with a short papacy whose successors were distrastrous.

Francis interestingly the first Jesuit after 500 years of that Order’s existence, made a number of symbolic gestures repudiating the Vatican venality.  Unlike his predecessor who appeared obsessed with the various frocks of office, he has embraced simplicity of dress, demeanour and apartments.  This has a symbolic power in a world where inequality (difficult to measure) seems to have grown in recent decades.  But more importantly it is a signal to the Vatican – the gravy train has to stop.  He has called in the auditors on the Vatican Bank.  That is a tick.
He has spoken up for the environment (big tick) whilst at the same time the leadership of the Australian Church has attacked carbon pricing.
The ticks also include his statements (but not much action) on child abuse, the role of women and the need to love gays and lesbians.  Whilst he has changed the rhetoric of the gay and lesbian issue, he has said that this is not a harbinger for rule change in his time.  This is clever.  He must understand that the ranks of the Cardinals and Bishops are populated by nasty reactionaries such as Cardinal Pell in Oz.  It will take several popes, a couple of decades deploying similar rhetoric before the institutional change can happen.  My own modest experience with organisational leadership is that organisations, populated as they are with change resistant officers, will undermine reforming leaders.  One needs many reformers over many years to see change eventuate.  Asian and African leaders, reputed to be more conservative, are gaining increasing influence in the Church because they are the growth areas.  I am pessimistic that the Church will be capable of major change in the absence of a major crisis.
Francis has described priestly celibacy as a matter of tradition rather than faith.  This is an opening to change.  Francis will not make that change.  This is bad for the church for the priestly vocation will look to many people outside the faith as a magnet for weirdoes. 
And despite some encouraging statements, he still has orthodox positions on contraception, abortion, ordination of women, campaigning nuns in the USA and liberation theology.  He talks a big show but will only embrace incremental change.  He must appreciate that too much change threatens the whole idea of “mystery”.  How can you embrace a Church which relies on faith and mystery to underpin the rules and practices when those rules and practices are subject to radical change imposed from the top? So the change will need to be a sophisticated project of give and take, alteration and conservatism.  He will need help.
Fifty years ago, Time Magazine promoted a lovely reforming Pope as a global hero.  Because of the Popes that followed, the Catholic Church is mired in abuse, crime and sin.  Will it be the same with another Times laureate, Pope Francis?
What is your view?
Is Francis a one off?
What will it take change the Church?
Are individuals capable of resisting the ineluctable slide into a secularised world?
Over to you...and Merry Christmas

Thursday, December 05, 2013

The Ring Part 2 – Dealing with Wagner’s Anti Semitism

When does the moral repugnance of an artist or scientist or musician disqualify one from enjoying their work???
2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner. During November and December 2013, Opera Australia (OA) is performing complete cycles of the four blood stained operas which make up his epic vision – the Ring Cycle.  It was booked out a year ago even though it cost well over a grand and is 17 hours of not very tuneful dirges.
As you may know from my last blog, I was part of cut down, sawn up version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle for the Opera Australia Ring Festival.  It was for a cut opera company called Emotionworks.  As part of OA’s Ring Festival, Emotionworks performed all four enormous works in one hour as rock icons and gods of the late twentieth century.  This is cut opera at its most condensed.  It was really dense.   For my sins, I was Garry Glitter playing the murderous thug Hunding – a complete bastard playing a prick of a bastard.  The pictures below tell the tale of how we adulterated and butchered this endless work of 17 hours of operatic madness.  
Our performance was very true to the original Wagnerian conception.
Sadly its brilliant creator was a virulent anti-Semite.  He was a prolific writer which included his essay “Das Judenthum in der Musik, (Jewishness in Music), a nasty view on the influence of Jews in German culture and society at that time.   There is no doubt that essay “Jewishness in Music” will taint his reputation forever.  The evidence of his anti-Semitism is undeniable.  Moreover, there are suggestions of a sort of Aryan style racism emerging later in his life.

One can never be too earnest in one's operatic adventures
But Wagner’s main sins occurred after his death.  His music was appropriated to be an iconic part of Nazi ritual.  The Die Meistersinger (Overture) was chosen by Hitler to open the Nuremberg rallies.  For the music buffs, here is a recent version. The dramatic anthem celebrating the Ride of the Valkyries is another example of work popular with the Nazi in war time news reels.  However, it was also used for that anti war work of Apocalypse Now.  Which appropriation counts the most?
Can you really be responsible for those who appropriate your work?  Are the great composers responsible for the toilet paper their work now promotes in advertisements around the world?  The appropriation of Wagner’s work by the Nazis was aided by the coincidence of their ideas.  Wagner’s family knew Hitler.  This was an appropriation that seems to have been abetted by the coincidence of views between Wagner and the Nazis.  That however is speculation by me.
The issue of Wagner was a pointed one in the production I was involved in.  Three of the performers were Jewish. One of the singers was a German scholar who was also a Cantor (ritual singer) at the local progressive Jewish Temple.  The cut opera was performed in the Jewish heart of Melbourne in St Kilda.  So the troubling aspect of Wagner and his anti-Semitism had to be addressed. 
Jewish Wagnerians from Stephen Fry to Daniel Barenboim ( wrestle with this issue in this, his 200th year.  At the same, many areas of Jewish life boycott the Wagnerian Operas.   My opera chose this means of acknowledging the Wagnerian anti Semitism.  We ran a competition (which was a bit of token gesture as it was virtually invisible).  This was put out before the performance:
“Emotionworks, wishing to acknowledge the historical blight (of Wagner’s anti-Semitism) is running a competition.  The winners receive free tickets to the cut opera which will be performed in a boxing ring.  The competition is this:
What gesture, statement or symbol can be used in the program notes, costumes or set (although there really isn’t a set other than the boxing ring) to acknowledge the vileness of Wagner’s anti Semitic attitudes and legacies?  Emotionworks is concerned not to use cheap Nazi paraphernalia but does feel the need explore the contradiction of performing tainted cultural product in a tolerant multicultural society.  Good luck!
Many would see this as an arse covering exercise.  On the other hand, it was a public acknowledgement of the problem and might have led to some people at least reading about and discussing the issue.  Friends of mine, however, refused to come or thought it was inappropriate to celebrate Wagner's work.
The suppression of cultural product is very vexed.  Indeed the Nazis themselves were infamous for their cultural suppression from book burning to the non playing of the music of Jewish composers.  Cultural repression seems to be the handmaiden of many totalitarian regimes. 
Moreover, there is no complete freedom of cultural expression.  We reasonably suppress by law, some culture for reasons of defamation, intellectual theft, treason and in an effort to stymie criminal communications.  We used to suppress culture where it transgressed community standards on vulgarity and obscenity but in these coarse times, that suppression is now too fucking difficult and is pretty fucked up (to coin a phrase).
I do support the suppression of Holocaust denial because of its dangers, its divisiveness, its offensiveness, its dishonesty and its historical distortion. So clearly there are cultural and pseudo historical statements that ought to be suppressed.  
The need and legitimacy of suppressing cultural output that is socially corrosive must diminish over time.  My view is that Wagner’s sins should not be forgotten and should at least be publicly acknowledged at performances of his works (as we did).  But I think I would draw the line at outright suppression in any environment except perhaps those where Nazism is particularly shocking such as Jewish, Gypsy, Gay and say Russian circles.  In some of those circles, the Nazi crimes might still be so raw as to justify suppression.
What is your view?
Should the creative works of nasty people be suppressed?
Should creations appropriated by nasty people be tainted by that appropriation?
When does time run its course so that the suppression loses relevance?
Over to you guys…

PS  Apologies for the late posting of this blog.  Being an opera tart is time consuming business.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Ring Cycle and Its Mythical Foundations

The Ring Cycle written and composed by the nasty anti-Semite Richard Wagner is famous for many things.  One thing it is not famous for is that yours truly is part of a presentation of the Ring as part of the Opera Australia (OA) Ring Cycle Festival in Melbourne.
The version of the Ring I am in.  Cher (Miss Sharry), Madonna (Justine Anderson) The King (Richard Wood) Kiss (Peter Hanway). I am Garry Glitter (at the right - not the best the character to play) who is playing Hunding (a thug - also not the best character to play).  If you want to see The Ring in a Ring Spectacular, Saturday and Sunday at 5 pm this weekend and next (the whole thing for an hour and a bit) email:
In celebration of Wagner’s 200th birthday, OA is mounting the whole 17 hour ordeal.  The Ring Cycle is a 4 opera extravaganza of helmeted women warriors (the Valkyries), adulterous gods, incestuous siblings, incestuous nephew and aunt and heaps of gratuitous killings.  It is a cult classic and the whole season was booked out a year ago at over a thousand bucks for the tetra-logy. 
But it is a funny thing to be so popular.  The story and music are inaccessible.  The story is remote from the modern world and complex.  The operas are mainly unmelodious recitative without any really catchy tunes.  The most hummable is the Ride of the Valkyries but that is the exception rather than the tuneful rule. 
The rest can be a turn off.  Indeed the phrase, “it ain't over till the fat lady sings” derives from the pain endured waiting for the Valkyrie Brünnhilde to finish off the last 5 hour song fest with a twenty minute aria.  But the piece has survived and thrived.  The dramatic music apart, the power comes from the stories that make up this narrative.
Stories often have a mythic power that overcomes objections about lack of plausibility or evidence.  The truth though fascinating, is never a big thing if a legend is either loved, consoling or addresses troubling issues.  The founding fathers of sociology such as Weber and Durkheim documented the power of the story to the troubled human.  Durkheim in particular documented stories that are almost identical in variety of different cultures because of their power to console.
We see this universality of popular tales in the Ugly Duckling.  The narrative where the downtrodden conquers pain and oppression is found everywhere.  Cinderella, Forrest Gump, most romantic comedies, Oliver Twist (and lots of Dickens) are just some of the countless stories that speak to us all of a mythic justice in a cruel world.  In Christian liturgy, the equivalent of the Ugly Duckling is the Magnificat where Mary’s prayer assures us that those in suffering are raised high by God and bastards get it in the neck.  This is Cinderalla and the notion of Karma, writ large.
"My soul doth magnify the Lord: and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

…And his mercy is on them that fear him: throughout all generations.

…he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away."

 So the strength of the narrative of the Ring is buttressed by the potent story lines that appeal to those humans in search of consolation in a harsh and unjust world.
The Ring story is based on Nordic myths just like the Lord of the Rings.  Here is a Durkheim/Campbell type comparison of stories in the opera that are found in other fantasies in European culture.
A magical ring that both empowers and corrupts those who wear it.
Nordic and Tolkien ring stories
A narrative about the corruption of absolute power and the inability of power to make the powerful happy.  It is both consoling to the powerless and a warning to would be dictators
Brünnhilde is asleep until kissed
Sleeping Beauty
Don’t worry if you wait years for a bloke, someone will come along.
A magical sword only a son of Wotan the King of the Gods can extract
Somehow, a man born to lead will find the means to get there.
The hero Siegfried slays a dragon
St George and the dragon
There is always a hero out there to save us from shit.
The Rhinemaidens are beauteous women who live in the river Rhine and have no sense of the cold
There are always inaccessible hot magical women who blokes can only dream of. Get over it.
Pay your debts.  The whole saga is essentially a building dispute because the Gods wanted to avoid paying the builder of their wonder home, Valhalla
Many tales of Aesop were about work and the need to do it such as the Hare and the Tortoise. Many bible stories are about fairness and payment.
No free lunches in Wagner’s world.

Brünnhilde sacrifices her life to save the world
Sacrifice and martyrdom are good to do. (Problematic for the godless).
Sigmund and Sieglinda are twins who have an incestuous relationship.They die and their heroic but dumb son is murdered.
Zeus and Hera Greek Gods who are husband and wife and brother and sister – not to mention Oedipus. Lots (a pun) of biblical stories.
Incest is problematic.

The great commentators on the function of myth such Joseph Campbell (with his 4 reasons for myths) and Claude Levi Strauss all stress the role of myths to support the social order.  Myths hold out the hope of magic, stress moral lessons and convey the sense that we are cared for. 
For the godless like me who specialize in challenging the stories that underpin our culture, we need to know what we have gained and lost by challenging the veracity of our myths and legends.  Our cause will be served by making those myths that are still perceived more like Aesop tales.  These fables are seen as beguiling fantasies with a messages because they are acknowledged as fictional.  Let us save the stories but not be seduced into either accepting that they are true or that we need to endure 17 hours of difficult music to get them.
What is your view?
What is the enduring power of myth?
Will we ever live in a world without a need for myth?
Does the bible fit well into this analysis of myth?
Over to you….

Next time - what does one do if a great artist like Wagner is a racist, sexist swine whose music was appropriated by the Nazis???