Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 10, 2007

Size Doesn’t Matter

Opera is about voices, not bodies. It is an art of long-distance perceptions: only a small portion of the audience is close to the stage, and TV or film distorts the medium entirely. Yet some opera house directors and managers (who cannot tell a good voice from a mediocre one) focus instead on an easier criterion—namely, who looks fat onstage and who looks thin.

The Met soprano Ruth Ann Swenson recently complained that she is underemployed because she is not “skinny enough” for Met general director Peter Gelb, who in his previous job as head of Sony Classical was guilty of promoting the ghastly, shrieking British “crossover” singer Charlotte Church. In 2003, the American soprano Deborah Voigt was fired from a London production of Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos because she could not fit into a skimpy costume.

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Opera is about voices, not bodies. It is an art of long-distance perceptions: only a small portion of the audience is close to the stage, and TV or film distorts the medium entirely. Yet some opera house directors and managers (who cannot tell a good voice from a mediocre one) focus instead on an easier criterion—namely, who looks fat onstage and who looks thin.

The Met soprano Ruth Ann Swenson recently complained that she is underemployed because she is not “skinny enough” for Met general director Peter Gelb, who in his previous job as head of Sony Classical was guilty of promoting the ghastly, shrieking British “crossover” singer Charlotte Church. In 2003, the American soprano Deborah Voigt was fired from a London production of Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos because she could not fit into a skimpy costume.

Ever since the art of opera developed—its first stars were castratos who became fat after being snipped— singers both fat and thin have gained stardom. Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1941), the Italian coloratura soprano after whom a caloric chicken-and-pastadish was named, would say in her later years: “I am old, I am fat, but I am still Tetrazzini.” Indeed, her buoyant, exuberant performances may be enjoyed on CD reissues from Pearl and Nimbus. The hefty German-born contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink (1861-1936), a legendary glutton, sang with gusto and virtuosity into her 70’s, as CD’s on Nimbus prove.

Other female singers with lower voices followed in the Schumann-Heink tradition, like the stout Italian mezzo-soprano Ebe Stignani in recordings of Bellini’s Norma, with soprano Gina Cigna, and Verdi’s Requiem, alongside tenor Beniamino Gigli. Both recordings are available from Pearl. The most exuberantly overweight singer today is the Catalan soprano Montserrat Caballé (b. 1933), whose soft singing and breath control were superhuman in her prime, as a new EMI set of vocal highlights shows.

Always humorous about her weight, Caballé celebrated her 74th birthday recently in Vienna by paying public tribute to the Sacher-Torte, singing a brief serenade to the dessert before sampling it and then announcing, “Calories don’t exist!” I recall witnessing Caballé’s 1985 performance of Puccini’s Tosca at the Met, during which she eschewed the title character’s traditional jump off the ramparts of the Castel Sant’ Angelo, and instead just walked offstage with dignity. Considering her ravishing singing in “Vissi d’arte,” the aria that preceded her exit, she was forgiven by the audience (if not by some persnickety critics).

Opera is an art of freakish, exceptional beings, not of marketing-friendly looks. If we allow unimaginative directors and opera house bosses to censor singers because they are fat, soon older singers will also be banned, and we will miss great autumnal performances like those of tenor Alfredo Kraus, who sang artfully into his late 60’s. Similar “realistic” criteria are already being used to keep singers of color from being cast in opera roles, especially in Europe. So cheer those fat ladies singing—after all, even Mr. Gelb’s Charlotte Church has put on weight.

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“The Road Home”

I confess that I don’t usually read the editorials in the New York Times. They tend to be full of high-minded imprecations to observe liberal principles. They seldom contain anything new or interesting. Sunday’s editorial, “The Road Home,” was different. It was, depending on your view, either more admirable or more appalling than what the Times and other critics of the Iraq war usually say.

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I confess that I don’t usually read the editorials in the New York Times. They tend to be full of high-minded imprecations to observe liberal principles. They seldom contain anything new or interesting. Sunday’s editorial, “The Road Home,” was different. It was, depending on your view, either more admirable or more appalling than what the Times and other critics of the Iraq war usually say.

The usual line is that we should get out of Iraq ASAP, but don’t worry, everything will be OK; without American interference, the Iraqis will get their act together and live happily ever after. I exaggerate slightly, but not much. The Times editorialists dispose of this fantasy:

It is possible, we suppose, that announcing a firm withdrawal date might finally focus Iraq’s political leaders and neighboring governments on reality. Ideally, it could spur Iraqi politicians to take the steps toward national reconciliation that they have endlessly discussed but refused to act on.

But it is foolish to count on that, as some Democratic proponents of withdrawal have done.

The Times doesn’t try to put lipstick on this pig. It is brutally candid in acknowledging the likely result of an American bug-out:

Americans must be clear that Iraq, and the region around it, could be even bloodier and more chaotic after Americans leave. There could be reprisals against those who worked with American forces, further ethnic cleansing, even genocide. Potentially destabilizing refugee flows could hit Jordan and Syria. Iran and Turkey could be tempted to make power grabs. Perhaps most important, the invasion has created a new stronghold from which terrorist activity could proliferate.

Kudos to the Times for its honesty. But what makes this editorial appalling is that, even after acknowledging the worst, the Times still calls for a pell-mell scramble to leave, suggesting that almost all U.S. forces could be out of Iraq in as little as six months. All that would be left would be aircraft and Special Forces positioned around Iraq proper, perhaps in the Kurdish region or in Kuwait or Qatar “to stage effective raids and airstrikes against terrorist forces in Iraq.”

It is hard to know why the editorial board thinks this option would work, given the Times’s own scoop, published the very same day that the editorial appeared, detailing how, in 2005, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pulled the plug on a planned raid to capture senior al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan’s tribal areas. If even Rumsfeld, who was hardly known for observing diplomatic niceties, feared to make such a bold move, what are the odds that in the future, decision makers will approve a steady flow of raids into a hostile Iraq? Not very great. And as I have previously pointed out on Contentions, even if such raids were approved, a few Special Forces operatives could not prevent al Qaeda from consolidating its grip on major portions of the country, as it did recently in Baqubah.

So why does the Times favor a withdrawal in spite of the serious consequences? The editorial argues:

The political leaders Washington has backed are incapable of putting national interests ahead of sectarian score settling. The security forces Washington has trained behave more like partisan militias. Additional military forces poured into the Baghdad region have failed to change anything.

This is the counsel of despair, and it is at odds with the situation on the ground. What we are actually seeing is that the political situation is improving at the grassroots level, with tribal leaders increasingly allying themselves with the coalition and the government of Iraq. Iraqi troops are also fighting much better, and though sectarian infiltration remains a problem (especially in the National Police), an increasing number of Iraqi army units are displaying conspicuous bravery and competence. And it’s simply wrong to say that military forces in Baghdad haven’t changed anything. Sectarian murders in the capital are 50 percent below the pre-surge level. The surge has the potential to change the situation on the ground even more positively if General David Petraeus is given a chance to implement his plans—a chance that the Times would like to deny him. And damn the consequences.

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Nicolas Sarkozy, Cherry-Picker

The buzz is growing about Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempts to woo center-left and socialist politicians. Yesterday, in the New York Times, James Kanter noted Sarkozy’s endorsement of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a socialist elder statesman, to head the International Monetary Fund:

President Nicolas Sarkozy has formally endorsed putting a prominent member of the Socialist Party opposition, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in charge of the International Monetary Fund, in yet another sign that traditional French politics is being turned on its head.

It is seen as another potential blow for the French Socialist Party, which has already had other leading figures from its ranks cherry-picked by Mr. Sarkozy to help run his new, reformist administration. Among other things, it would possibly remove Mr. Strauss-Khan [sic], a strong centrist candidate, from the running for a party leadership position.

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The buzz is growing about Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempts to woo center-left and socialist politicians. Yesterday, in the New York Times, James Kanter noted Sarkozy’s endorsement of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a socialist elder statesman, to head the International Monetary Fund:

President Nicolas Sarkozy has formally endorsed putting a prominent member of the Socialist Party opposition, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in charge of the International Monetary Fund, in yet another sign that traditional French politics is being turned on its head.

It is seen as another potential blow for the French Socialist Party, which has already had other leading figures from its ranks cherry-picked by Mr. Sarkozy to help run his new, reformist administration. Among other things, it would possibly remove Mr. Strauss-Khan [sic], a strong centrist candidate, from the running for a party leadership position.

Today, Charles Bremner, writing in the London Times, reveals the full extent of Sarkozy’s efforts, and of the outrage they’ve provoked among his political opponents:

Crying foul along with the Socialists, François Bayrou, the leader of the centre Democratic Movement party, said that Mr. Sarkozy was behaving “like a piranha loose in a bowl of goldfish.” Mr. Bayrou is one of the piranha’s big victims. After threatening for a time to defeat Mr. Sarkozy in the elections, he has been left with only three MP’s. The rest of his party has defected to Mr. Sarkozy’s camp, three of them as ministers.

After poaching six left-leaning MP’s as ministers Mr Sarkozy has rattled the Socialist leadership by continuing to woo party stars with job offers. The latest of these are Hubert Védrine, a former foreign minister, and Jack Lang, a popular Cabinet minister in the 1980s and 1990s. Mr. Védrine has accepted. Mr. Lang has been told that he faces expulsion if he accepts an offer to serve on a commission to propose changes to the Constitution. It has emerged that Mr. Sarkozy even telephoned Julien Dray, Ms. Royal’s campaign chief, with an offer of a place in his Cabinet.

Védrine, you may remember, popularized the use of the term “hyperpower” in the late 1990’s to denote (and criticize) the political hegemony exercised by the United States. But if Sarkozy continues at this pace, the word may come accurately to describe his own position within the sphere of French politics. L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace!

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Islamic Medical Terrorists

Why do some Muslim doctors want to kill?

The arrest of eight Muslims in Great Britain, most of them physicians or in allied medical fields, raises the obvious question of what led men and women in the healing profession to seek to maim and kill innocent civilians by the dozens if not the hundreds. Why did these men and women pack nails together with explosives in a lethal cocktail and seek to ignite them in crowded places? We may never get the full story from those now in custody; one of them has burns over 90 percent of his body from the gasoline he was pouring on the Jeep Cherokee he was trying to detonate in the Glasgow airport.

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Why do some Muslim doctors want to kill?

The arrest of eight Muslims in Great Britain, most of them physicians or in allied medical fields, raises the obvious question of what led men and women in the healing profession to seek to maim and kill innocent civilians by the dozens if not the hundreds. Why did these men and women pack nails together with explosives in a lethal cocktail and seek to ignite them in crowded places? We may never get the full story from those now in custody; one of them has burns over 90 percent of his body from the gasoline he was pouring on the Jeep Cherokee he was trying to detonate in the Glasgow airport.

But a fascinating picture of a doctor’s conversion to radical Islam, and to membership in a terrorist organization, can be found in an essential new publication put out by the Hudson Institute’s Center on Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World.

In the latest issue of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology one finds “The Development of a Jihadi’s Mind” by Tawfiq Hamid, a medical doctor who tells of his journey, baffling to an outsider, from an upper-middle-class childhood in Cairo—the son of an orthopedic surgeon father and a French-teacher mother, both of them secular and liberal—to the aspiration to become a shaheed, or martyr.

This desire was to bring him to Afghanistan in the 1980’s to join the anti-Soviet resistance. “We viewed both the Soviets and the Americans as enemies,” Hamid writes. “The Soviets were considered infidels because they did not believe in the existence of God, while the Americans did not follow Islam. Although we planned to fight the Soviets first, our ultimate objective was to destroy the United States—the greatest symbol of the infidel’s freedom.”

In the course of his training as a Jihadist, Hamid was to meet, among others, Ayman al-Zawahari, also a doctor—a highly skilled surgeon—and now, depending on one’s guess about whether Osama bin Laden is dead or alive, number one or number two in al Qaeda. It was in this period and in this milieu that Hamid descended into a murderous ideological framework. He describes in close detail the evolution of an Islamic fanatic’s mind, namely, his own:

I passed through three psychological stages to reach this level of comfort with death: hatred of non-Muslims or dissenting Muslims, suppression of my conscience, and acceptance of violence in the service of Allah. Salafi religious indoctrination played a major role in this process. Salafists promoted our hatred for non-Muslims by emphasizing the Quranic verse that read, “Thou wilt not find any people who believe in Allah and the Last Day loving those who resist (i.e., do not follow) Allah and His Messenger” (Quran 58:22).

Salafi writings also helped me to suppress my conscience by holding that many activities I had considered to be immoral were, instead, halal—that is, allowed by Allah and the Prophet. My conscience would normally reject polygamy, for example, because of the severe psychological pain it would cause my future wife. Salafi teaching encourages polygamy, however, permitting up to four wives as halal: “Marry women of your choice, two or three or four” (Quran 4:3). I accepted such ideas—ideas that contradicted my moral outlook—because I came to believe that we cannot negotiate with God about his commandments: “He (Allah) cannot be questioned for His acts, but they will be questioned [for theirs]” (Quran 21:23).

One would expect any human being, and especially those in the medical professions, to be revolted by the thought of killing fellow human beings in cold blood. However, the difficulty is that even if our categories and concepts about human life are universal in application, they are not universally shared. To those in the grip of Islamism, physicians and everyone else, killing infidels is fair game.

During the cold war, perhaps the most important essays and books on the USSR were those which explored the Communist mind. What was the nature of the appeal which led men and women to murder their neighbors—“class enemies”—by the millions? One thinks immediately of the logic of obedience portrayed in a book like Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler.

A similar body of writing is beginning to appear in response to the murderous currents flowing in the Islamic world; no great works of literature have yet to appear, but there are essays that have become vital reading if we are to understand why doctors would plant car bombs on London streets and then attempt to blow up a civilian airport. Current Trends in Islamist Ideology has performed a public service by bringing Tawfiq Hamid’s essential memoir to public attention.

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Lost in Translation

On last Friday’s Lou Dobbs Tonight, CNN’s John Vause highlighted one more danger of boarding an international flight in the United States: many pilots don’t know enough English to communicate with control towers. This April, for instance, an Air China flight headed to Kennedy Airport repeatedly failed to understand air traffic control commands both in the air and on the ground. “Nobody seems to speak English here today,” a frustrated controller finally said before Flight 981 stopped on the tarmac.

Air China, of course, declared it was the tower’s fault. “He didn’t use the standard RKO language,” explained Xu Xiukai, an English instructor for the airline. “That’s why the pilot didn’t catch the actual meaning.” (Xu apparently garbled his words during the CNN interview—he probably meant ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization.) Even if Air China is correct in this regard, pilots should know enough English, the language of air traffic communications around the world, to understand overworked controllers.

The problem is not limited to Chinese fliers, of course. Miscommunication occurs with pilots of virtually all nationalities. Yet China’s situation is especially acute. Chinese airlines have approximately 8,600 pilots flying international routes. Only 651 of them have passed the ICAO oral English exam.

It will be next March before all pilots on international routes must pass the ICAO’s test before being allowed to fly. Until then, my advice is to take ground transportation.

On last Friday’s Lou Dobbs Tonight, CNN’s John Vause highlighted one more danger of boarding an international flight in the United States: many pilots don’t know enough English to communicate with control towers. This April, for instance, an Air China flight headed to Kennedy Airport repeatedly failed to understand air traffic control commands both in the air and on the ground. “Nobody seems to speak English here today,” a frustrated controller finally said before Flight 981 stopped on the tarmac.

Air China, of course, declared it was the tower’s fault. “He didn’t use the standard RKO language,” explained Xu Xiukai, an English instructor for the airline. “That’s why the pilot didn’t catch the actual meaning.” (Xu apparently garbled his words during the CNN interview—he probably meant ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization.) Even if Air China is correct in this regard, pilots should know enough English, the language of air traffic communications around the world, to understand overworked controllers.

The problem is not limited to Chinese fliers, of course. Miscommunication occurs with pilots of virtually all nationalities. Yet China’s situation is especially acute. Chinese airlines have approximately 8,600 pilots flying international routes. Only 651 of them have passed the ICAO oral English exam.

It will be next March before all pilots on international routes must pass the ICAO’s test before being allowed to fly. Until then, my advice is to take ground transportation.

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