Commentary Magazine


Topic: Singer

The Culture War Against Israel

In 2010, the hard-core left married pro-Islamic and pro-Palestinian organizations and gave birth to an entertainment-boycott campaign aimed at Israel. Cultural-boycott efforts have spilled over into 2011, as American soul singer Macy Gray is now the target of hysterical attacks for her slated Tel Aviv concerts in February. She appears to have defied the Israel-bashers, saying, “I like coming to Israel.”

She used some intemperate and unsavory language, however, when describing Israeli security policies. Gray wrote on Facebook that “I’m getting a lot of letters from activists urging and begging me to boycott by not performing in protest of apartheid against the Palestinians. What the Israeli government is doing to the Palestinians is disgusting, but I want to go. I have a lot of fans there that I don’t want to cancel on, and I don’t know how my not going changes anything. What do you think? Stay or go?”

After roughly 4,000 fans responded, she tweeted that she plans to perform in Israel. To her credit, she defied the Arab lobby’s campaign to silence artistic free speech, which appears to be intimidating some. According to a Reuters news item: “Earlier this month, French singer Vanessa Paradis, who is married to actor Johnny Depp, canceled a February 10 concert in Israel. She said it clashed with an important meeting, but the Israeli media have speculated that is was a political decision.”

Last year, Grammy winner Carlos Santana, the alternative band the Pixies, and British singer Elvis Costello pulled the plug on their Israel concerts, a sign of mass artistic cowardice. In sharp contrast, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Leonard Cohen, and Johnny Rotten of the now-defunct punk band the Sex Pistols all performed last year in Israel.

Rotten, who now goes by his birth name, John Lydon, summed up, in a flash of neoconservative punkism, the misguided Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) campaign against the region’s only real democracy: “I really resent the presumption that I’m going there to play to right-wing Nazi jews [sic]. If Elvis-f-ing-Costello wants to pull out of a gig in Israel because he’s suddenly got this compassion for Palestinians, then good on him. But I have absolutely one rule, right? Until I see an Arab country, a Muslim country, with a democracy, I won’t understand how anyone can have a problem with how they’re treated. ”

The lesson here? Go on the offensive, as did Lydon, when engaged in combating the BDS campaign to block entertainers from performing in Israel.

In 2010, the hard-core left married pro-Islamic and pro-Palestinian organizations and gave birth to an entertainment-boycott campaign aimed at Israel. Cultural-boycott efforts have spilled over into 2011, as American soul singer Macy Gray is now the target of hysterical attacks for her slated Tel Aviv concerts in February. She appears to have defied the Israel-bashers, saying, “I like coming to Israel.”

She used some intemperate and unsavory language, however, when describing Israeli security policies. Gray wrote on Facebook that “I’m getting a lot of letters from activists urging and begging me to boycott by not performing in protest of apartheid against the Palestinians. What the Israeli government is doing to the Palestinians is disgusting, but I want to go. I have a lot of fans there that I don’t want to cancel on, and I don’t know how my not going changes anything. What do you think? Stay or go?”

After roughly 4,000 fans responded, she tweeted that she plans to perform in Israel. To her credit, she defied the Arab lobby’s campaign to silence artistic free speech, which appears to be intimidating some. According to a Reuters news item: “Earlier this month, French singer Vanessa Paradis, who is married to actor Johnny Depp, canceled a February 10 concert in Israel. She said it clashed with an important meeting, but the Israeli media have speculated that is was a political decision.”

Last year, Grammy winner Carlos Santana, the alternative band the Pixies, and British singer Elvis Costello pulled the plug on their Israel concerts, a sign of mass artistic cowardice. In sharp contrast, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Leonard Cohen, and Johnny Rotten of the now-defunct punk band the Sex Pistols all performed last year in Israel.

Rotten, who now goes by his birth name, John Lydon, summed up, in a flash of neoconservative punkism, the misguided Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) campaign against the region’s only real democracy: “I really resent the presumption that I’m going there to play to right-wing Nazi jews [sic]. If Elvis-f-ing-Costello wants to pull out of a gig in Israel because he’s suddenly got this compassion for Palestinians, then good on him. But I have absolutely one rule, right? Until I see an Arab country, a Muslim country, with a democracy, I won’t understand how anyone can have a problem with how they’re treated. ”

The lesson here? Go on the offensive, as did Lydon, when engaged in combating the BDS campaign to block entertainers from performing in Israel.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Here’s one Jewish organization that’s not mute about Obama’s double standard for the Middle East: “The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has urged President Barack Obama to hold Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas accountable for a broadcast on PA TV on May 4 and May 7 which called Israelis thieves and advised them to return to Europe & Ethiopia. … Only four days following the second of the two broadcasts of this program by PA TV, President Barack Obama had a telephone conversation with the PA’s Abbas, in which he actually raised the issue of incitement,  but not in reference to this or any other PA act of incitement.”

Here’s one more sign the Democrats are in trouble: “Registered voters who identify themselves as conservatives are significantly more enthusiastic about voting in this fall’s congressional elections than are liberals or moderates. Those who say they are ‘very’ conservative are the most enthusiastic of all, with substantially higher enthusiasm than those who say they are ‘very’ liberal.”

Here’s one deluded liberal: Greg Sargent writes of Richard Blumenthal that “whatever the truth, he insisted with a great deal of conviction that his lapses weren’t intentional. And the evidence so far suggests that in other settings, he didn’t intend to mislead. Perhaps most important, no Dems are cutting and running right now. They seem to have closed ranks behind him. Bottom line: It seems clear he’ll survive. But man, what a colossal train wreck. Don’t do it again, Dick.” So “whatever” the truth, it’s a “train wreck,” but everyone stand by their man!

Here’s one more reason entertainers should just “shut up and sing”: “British singer-songwriter Elvis Costello this week became the latest in a list of stars to cancel performances in Israel as a political protest. … The singer’s withdrawal follows similar moves by other high-profile musicians, including Santana and Gil Scott-Heron.”

Here’s one Democratic incumbent who looks safe: “No major Republican has opted to challenge her, and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is comfortably ahead of the three lesser-known GOP hopefuls who’ve announced for this year’s special Senate election in New York.”

Here’s one wild goose chase: “White House seeking missing health care bounce.”

Here’s one more poll showing that Elena Kagan’s nomination isn’t a political winner for Obama: “Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan spent the past week introducing herself to the Senate and to the nation, but U.S. voters remain evenly divided over whether she should be confirmed for the high court. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 39% of voters believe Kagan should be confirmed by the Senate, while another 39% say she should not be confirmed.”

Here’s one Jewish organization that’s not mute about Obama’s double standard for the Middle East: “The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has urged President Barack Obama to hold Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas accountable for a broadcast on PA TV on May 4 and May 7 which called Israelis thieves and advised them to return to Europe & Ethiopia. … Only four days following the second of the two broadcasts of this program by PA TV, President Barack Obama had a telephone conversation with the PA’s Abbas, in which he actually raised the issue of incitement,  but not in reference to this or any other PA act of incitement.”

Here’s one more sign the Democrats are in trouble: “Registered voters who identify themselves as conservatives are significantly more enthusiastic about voting in this fall’s congressional elections than are liberals or moderates. Those who say they are ‘very’ conservative are the most enthusiastic of all, with substantially higher enthusiasm than those who say they are ‘very’ liberal.”

Here’s one deluded liberal: Greg Sargent writes of Richard Blumenthal that “whatever the truth, he insisted with a great deal of conviction that his lapses weren’t intentional. And the evidence so far suggests that in other settings, he didn’t intend to mislead. Perhaps most important, no Dems are cutting and running right now. They seem to have closed ranks behind him. Bottom line: It seems clear he’ll survive. But man, what a colossal train wreck. Don’t do it again, Dick.” So “whatever” the truth, it’s a “train wreck,” but everyone stand by their man!

Here’s one more reason entertainers should just “shut up and sing”: “British singer-songwriter Elvis Costello this week became the latest in a list of stars to cancel performances in Israel as a political protest. … The singer’s withdrawal follows similar moves by other high-profile musicians, including Santana and Gil Scott-Heron.”

Here’s one Democratic incumbent who looks safe: “No major Republican has opted to challenge her, and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is comfortably ahead of the three lesser-known GOP hopefuls who’ve announced for this year’s special Senate election in New York.”

Here’s one wild goose chase: “White House seeking missing health care bounce.”

Here’s one more poll showing that Elena Kagan’s nomination isn’t a political winner for Obama: “Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan spent the past week introducing herself to the Senate and to the nation, but U.S. voters remain evenly divided over whether she should be confirmed for the high court. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 39% of voters believe Kagan should be confirmed by the Senate, while another 39% say she should not be confirmed.”

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How the West’s Silence Undermines Its Mideast Policy

Kudos to Britain’s Zionist Federation for launching a campaign this week against the ludicrous decision by the country’s Advertising Standards Authority to ban an Israeli tourism ad featuring a picture of the Western Wall because it “implied that the part of East Jerusalem featured in the image was part of the state of Israel” rather than “occupied territory,” and was thus “likely to mislead.” But the ones who should be leading this campaign are the American government, the British government, and any other government that claims to view Israeli-Palestinian peace as a policy priority.

To understand why these governments should care, it’s worth perusing a seemingly unrelated article by Max Singer of the Begin-Sadat Center. Singer argued that for the Palestinians to be willing to make peace with Israel, two conditions must hold.

First, Palestinians must be convinced that they have no chance of destroying Israel — because if Israel can be eradicated, leaving them with 100 percent of the territory, they obviously have no incentive to sign a deal that would give them at most 22 percent. And while Palestinians know they can’t defeat Israel militarily as things stand now, Singer wrote, they remain hopeful “that their international campaign to delegitimize Israel will lead to international pressure that forces it into a series of retreats that ultimately makes it unable to defend itself.”

Second, Palestinians must be convinced that they can make peace with honor — and this “depends on whether the Jews are colonial thieves stealing land solely on the basis of force, or whether they are a people that also historically lived in the land.” But currently, he noted, “The Palestinian leadership is deliberately making an honorable peace impossible by falsely denying that Jews have a legitimate claim to any of the land.” They even deny that a Jewish Temple ever stood on the Temple Mount.

The ASA decision, far from encouraging these necessary Palestinian convictions to take root, does the exact opposite. First, it bolsters Palestinian hopes that their delegitimization strategy will succeed. As Jonathan noted last week, if Britain thinks Jews have no claim even to the Western Wall, the road is short to convincing it that Jews have no claim to any place in Israel.

And second, it reinforces the Palestinian belief that Jews have no historic ties to the land. After all, Western officials and journalists consistently refer to the Western Wall as Judaism’s holiest site. So if Britain thinks even this “holiest of Jewish sites” properly belongs to Palestinians rather than to Jews, Jewish claims of deep religious/historical ties to this land cannot be anything other than a massive fraud.

If Western governments are serious about wanting Middle East peace, they must confront these twin Palestinian pathologies head-on instead of catering to them, as the ASA did in this decision. And the longer they wait, they harder it will be — because the more time passes without any serious challenge to these views from the West, the more deeply entrenched in the Palestinian psyche they become.

Kudos to Britain’s Zionist Federation for launching a campaign this week against the ludicrous decision by the country’s Advertising Standards Authority to ban an Israeli tourism ad featuring a picture of the Western Wall because it “implied that the part of East Jerusalem featured in the image was part of the state of Israel” rather than “occupied territory,” and was thus “likely to mislead.” But the ones who should be leading this campaign are the American government, the British government, and any other government that claims to view Israeli-Palestinian peace as a policy priority.

To understand why these governments should care, it’s worth perusing a seemingly unrelated article by Max Singer of the Begin-Sadat Center. Singer argued that for the Palestinians to be willing to make peace with Israel, two conditions must hold.

First, Palestinians must be convinced that they have no chance of destroying Israel — because if Israel can be eradicated, leaving them with 100 percent of the territory, they obviously have no incentive to sign a deal that would give them at most 22 percent. And while Palestinians know they can’t defeat Israel militarily as things stand now, Singer wrote, they remain hopeful “that their international campaign to delegitimize Israel will lead to international pressure that forces it into a series of retreats that ultimately makes it unable to defend itself.”

Second, Palestinians must be convinced that they can make peace with honor — and this “depends on whether the Jews are colonial thieves stealing land solely on the basis of force, or whether they are a people that also historically lived in the land.” But currently, he noted, “The Palestinian leadership is deliberately making an honorable peace impossible by falsely denying that Jews have a legitimate claim to any of the land.” They even deny that a Jewish Temple ever stood on the Temple Mount.

The ASA decision, far from encouraging these necessary Palestinian convictions to take root, does the exact opposite. First, it bolsters Palestinian hopes that their delegitimization strategy will succeed. As Jonathan noted last week, if Britain thinks Jews have no claim even to the Western Wall, the road is short to convincing it that Jews have no claim to any place in Israel.

And second, it reinforces the Palestinian belief that Jews have no historic ties to the land. After all, Western officials and journalists consistently refer to the Western Wall as Judaism’s holiest site. So if Britain thinks even this “holiest of Jewish sites” properly belongs to Palestinians rather than to Jews, Jewish claims of deep religious/historical ties to this land cannot be anything other than a massive fraud.

If Western governments are serious about wanting Middle East peace, they must confront these twin Palestinian pathologies head-on instead of catering to them, as the ASA did in this decision. And the longer they wait, they harder it will be — because the more time passes without any serious challenge to these views from the West, the more deeply entrenched in the Palestinian psyche they become.

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First-World Guilt Won’t Fix Haiti

As aid workers continue to sort through the rubble in Haiti and the world continues to focus on the suffering of the Haitians, some familiar tropes of journalism and Western liberalism are surfacing in the news coverage. Case in point is the piece in today’s New York Times sports section by sports-business columnist Richard Sandomir, titled “A Manufacturer’s Debt to Haiti,” about the Rawlings Sporting Goods company. According to Sandomir, Rawlings owes Haiti because 20 years ago, they shut down their baseball assembly plant in Port-au-Prince and moved to Costa Rica. From his point of view and that of Josh DeWind, who has written a book about aid to Haiti, Rawlings did well in Haiti when the country was friendly to foreign business because of cheap labor and then bailed on it when the country collapsed in violence and chaos after the fall of dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. DeWind says that Rawlings now has a humanitarian obligation to go back. Sandomir thinks Major League Baseball, whose official baseball supplier is Rawlings, should pressure the company to return to the devastated country.

While the impulse behind this idea may be humanitarian — Haiti was already one of the poorest countries in the world, and after the earthquake, it can use all the help it can get — it also speaks volumes about the way well-meaning liberals misunderstand the problems of Third World countries. Much like the calls from celebrities like the singer Bono for more foreign aid for poor countries and the cancellation of their accrued debt, demanding that Rawlings move back to Haiti says more about Western guilt than the prospects for economic development. In an era where the global economy is open for participation to any place, it is no longer possible to blame the ills of the Third World on colonialism or predatory international companies. It is the absence of the rule of law (which, in Haiti’s case, not only means the lack of confidence in property rights but also a level of violence that has made it impossible for a business to operate), restrictions on free-market activity, and endemic corruption that create such a wasteland for investment.

It is possible that the earthquake’s impact will be so great that it will actually change the culture of Haiti and open an era in which gangs and political gangsterism will no longer be sovereign. But that would require not only a sea change in Haitian culture but also a massive commitment from donor nations to administer projects in a manner that forces change. Such a transformation cannot be affected by mere good will. The problem is that NGOs have tended to reinforce local elites and corruption throughout the Third World. If a new Haiti is to be created, it will require transformation of both Haitian culture and of Western humanitarian groups that funnel aid there.

In the absence of such changes, if Rawlings were to throw money and personnel into the maelstrom that is post-earthquake Haiti, it would not only be a disaster for the company but also of no help to the people there. Western guilt makes for good newspaper columns, but it will not build a country in which business or freedom can thrive.

As aid workers continue to sort through the rubble in Haiti and the world continues to focus on the suffering of the Haitians, some familiar tropes of journalism and Western liberalism are surfacing in the news coverage. Case in point is the piece in today’s New York Times sports section by sports-business columnist Richard Sandomir, titled “A Manufacturer’s Debt to Haiti,” about the Rawlings Sporting Goods company. According to Sandomir, Rawlings owes Haiti because 20 years ago, they shut down their baseball assembly plant in Port-au-Prince and moved to Costa Rica. From his point of view and that of Josh DeWind, who has written a book about aid to Haiti, Rawlings did well in Haiti when the country was friendly to foreign business because of cheap labor and then bailed on it when the country collapsed in violence and chaos after the fall of dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. DeWind says that Rawlings now has a humanitarian obligation to go back. Sandomir thinks Major League Baseball, whose official baseball supplier is Rawlings, should pressure the company to return to the devastated country.

While the impulse behind this idea may be humanitarian — Haiti was already one of the poorest countries in the world, and after the earthquake, it can use all the help it can get — it also speaks volumes about the way well-meaning liberals misunderstand the problems of Third World countries. Much like the calls from celebrities like the singer Bono for more foreign aid for poor countries and the cancellation of their accrued debt, demanding that Rawlings move back to Haiti says more about Western guilt than the prospects for economic development. In an era where the global economy is open for participation to any place, it is no longer possible to blame the ills of the Third World on colonialism or predatory international companies. It is the absence of the rule of law (which, in Haiti’s case, not only means the lack of confidence in property rights but also a level of violence that has made it impossible for a business to operate), restrictions on free-market activity, and endemic corruption that create such a wasteland for investment.

It is possible that the earthquake’s impact will be so great that it will actually change the culture of Haiti and open an era in which gangs and political gangsterism will no longer be sovereign. But that would require not only a sea change in Haitian culture but also a massive commitment from donor nations to administer projects in a manner that forces change. Such a transformation cannot be affected by mere good will. The problem is that NGOs have tended to reinforce local elites and corruption throughout the Third World. If a new Haiti is to be created, it will require transformation of both Haitian culture and of Western humanitarian groups that funnel aid there.

In the absence of such changes, if Rawlings were to throw money and personnel into the maelstrom that is post-earthquake Haiti, it would not only be a disaster for the company but also of no help to the people there. Western guilt makes for good newspaper columns, but it will not build a country in which business or freedom can thrive.

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The Hasbara Test

It has been nearly three years since the Israeli foreign ministry decided to “rebrand” the country’s image through a silly campaign that included pictures of beautiful sabrinas with little clothing profiled in Maxim magazine. Oddly enough, the campaign didn’t work. In the meantime, we’ve had the Goldstone Report, Swedish accusations of IDF soldiers ripping apart the bodies of Palestinians, some still alive, and selling their organs, and so on. The diplomats scratch their heads, wondering why Madison Avenue wasn’t the answer.

In the past few weeks, however, three major events have propelled Israel to the forefront of the public debate in a much more positive light. Following the unsuccessful undie-bomber attack on a Detroit-bound airliner, Americans effluviated about the need for improved airport security, and suddenly everyone was aware that Ben-Gurion airport has not had a security breach in a generation, despite the fact that its passengers never have to part with their favorite nail clippers or the 6-oz. bottles of perfume they picked up in Tel Aviv. The difference, it seems, is not that Israelis indulge in racial profiling, but that their security personnel are intensely trained to recognize the fact that people who know they are about to die behave differently than ordinary airline passengers (who knew!). Although that’s oversimplifying things, the fact is that Israeli airline security really does put a far greater emphasis on the human components of terror prevention: recognizing behaviors, building a network of informants, and so on.

The second event was the earthquake in Haiti. Within hours, Israel had dispatched more than 200 personnel, including rescue teams and high-level medical staff. They set up a full-fledged field hospital, the only one of its kind, complete with digital imaging, an ICU, and more. For the past couple of days, both this CNN report and this MSNBC one have been passed around the Internet, highlighting Israel’s hospital. In addition, today we learn that the Israelis also set up a global communications center, enabling journalists to use the Internet and phones via Israel’s Amos satellite. One American observer has described this as a “home run” for Israeli PR.

The third was the publication of Saul Singer and Dan Senor’s Start-Up Nation, which hit the New York Times bestseller list. Of all the pro-Israel books to come out in the past year, this one probably made the biggest splash: by highlighting what Israel is indisputably good at (business innovation), Singer and Senor succeeded in changing the subject and constructing a positive image of Israel that is not all war.

How come these recent events have been so successful at helping Israel’s image, while the “rebranding” stunt didn’t? I’m no PR pro, but it seems like the first rule in boosting your image is to not throw money at the problem but instead correctly identify what it is you want to sell. The Western public is deeply inured to vacuous PR. Just think of how many political candidates have been utterly devastated at the polls despite vastly outspending their opponents on ads, or how President Obama’s media-saturation assault over the past year has failed to prevent his slide in approval ratings. It really does come down to the product, doesn’t it?

So let’s take a simple test, involving three key statements Israel has made to the world in recent years. Which of the following do you think does the best service to the country?

1. Israelis have a fascinating, powerful, human-friendly, and human-sensitive instinct that makes them take care of Haitians, identify terrorists by their behavior rather than a TSA-approved checklist, and encourage creativity and entrepreneurship.

2. Israel has the Most Moral Army in the World, and when we blow things up, we do it with the fewest civilian casualties possible, given how ruthless our enemy is.

3. Israel has lots of attractive women.

The fact is that (1) is true and proved by events; (2) is true but only helpful as a rearguard maneuver when war is forced upon us; (3) is true but irrelevant. Israel has succeeded in Haiti for the simple reason that Israelis really wanted to help; took swift, creative, and effective action without letting bureaucracy get in the way; and only then made sure CNN and MSNBC crews had access. As for (2), it is true that the IDF did a reasonable job of using YouTube to show how bad the Hamas guys really were, but wartime is always bad for PR in most of the world, and all Israel could do was make the best of a rotten situation. And as for Maxim, it is very hard to avoid the conclusion that “rebranding” was anything but a waste of money and energy.

So I suggest a radical new approach to Israel’s PR woes: Be good. Do things that express your best side. And make sure everybody knows about it.

It has been nearly three years since the Israeli foreign ministry decided to “rebrand” the country’s image through a silly campaign that included pictures of beautiful sabrinas with little clothing profiled in Maxim magazine. Oddly enough, the campaign didn’t work. In the meantime, we’ve had the Goldstone Report, Swedish accusations of IDF soldiers ripping apart the bodies of Palestinians, some still alive, and selling their organs, and so on. The diplomats scratch their heads, wondering why Madison Avenue wasn’t the answer.

In the past few weeks, however, three major events have propelled Israel to the forefront of the public debate in a much more positive light. Following the unsuccessful undie-bomber attack on a Detroit-bound airliner, Americans effluviated about the need for improved airport security, and suddenly everyone was aware that Ben-Gurion airport has not had a security breach in a generation, despite the fact that its passengers never have to part with their favorite nail clippers or the 6-oz. bottles of perfume they picked up in Tel Aviv. The difference, it seems, is not that Israelis indulge in racial profiling, but that their security personnel are intensely trained to recognize the fact that people who know they are about to die behave differently than ordinary airline passengers (who knew!). Although that’s oversimplifying things, the fact is that Israeli airline security really does put a far greater emphasis on the human components of terror prevention: recognizing behaviors, building a network of informants, and so on.

The second event was the earthquake in Haiti. Within hours, Israel had dispatched more than 200 personnel, including rescue teams and high-level medical staff. They set up a full-fledged field hospital, the only one of its kind, complete with digital imaging, an ICU, and more. For the past couple of days, both this CNN report and this MSNBC one have been passed around the Internet, highlighting Israel’s hospital. In addition, today we learn that the Israelis also set up a global communications center, enabling journalists to use the Internet and phones via Israel’s Amos satellite. One American observer has described this as a “home run” for Israeli PR.

The third was the publication of Saul Singer and Dan Senor’s Start-Up Nation, which hit the New York Times bestseller list. Of all the pro-Israel books to come out in the past year, this one probably made the biggest splash: by highlighting what Israel is indisputably good at (business innovation), Singer and Senor succeeded in changing the subject and constructing a positive image of Israel that is not all war.

How come these recent events have been so successful at helping Israel’s image, while the “rebranding” stunt didn’t? I’m no PR pro, but it seems like the first rule in boosting your image is to not throw money at the problem but instead correctly identify what it is you want to sell. The Western public is deeply inured to vacuous PR. Just think of how many political candidates have been utterly devastated at the polls despite vastly outspending their opponents on ads, or how President Obama’s media-saturation assault over the past year has failed to prevent his slide in approval ratings. It really does come down to the product, doesn’t it?

So let’s take a simple test, involving three key statements Israel has made to the world in recent years. Which of the following do you think does the best service to the country?

1. Israelis have a fascinating, powerful, human-friendly, and human-sensitive instinct that makes them take care of Haitians, identify terrorists by their behavior rather than a TSA-approved checklist, and encourage creativity and entrepreneurship.

2. Israel has the Most Moral Army in the World, and when we blow things up, we do it with the fewest civilian casualties possible, given how ruthless our enemy is.

3. Israel has lots of attractive women.

The fact is that (1) is true and proved by events; (2) is true but only helpful as a rearguard maneuver when war is forced upon us; (3) is true but irrelevant. Israel has succeeded in Haiti for the simple reason that Israelis really wanted to help; took swift, creative, and effective action without letting bureaucracy get in the way; and only then made sure CNN and MSNBC crews had access. As for (2), it is true that the IDF did a reasonable job of using YouTube to show how bad the Hamas guys really were, but wartime is always bad for PR in most of the world, and all Israel could do was make the best of a rotten situation. And as for Maxim, it is very hard to avoid the conclusion that “rebranding” was anything but a waste of money and energy.

So I suggest a radical new approach to Israel’s PR woes: Be good. Do things that express your best side. And make sure everybody knows about it.

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They Figured It Out. So Why Didn’t He?

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have discovered the resentment toward Barack Obama and the media brewing among Hillary Clinton’s female supporters. The New York Times reporters seem to own up that their brethren in the mainstream media may have played a role in the Clinton dissing, declaring:

Mrs. Clinton’s supporters point to a nagging series of slights: the fixation on her clothes, even her cleavage; chronic criticism that her voice is shrill; calls for her to exit the race; and most of all, the male commentators in the news media who, they argue, were consistently tougher on her than on Mr. Obama. Some even accuse Mr. Obama of chauvinism, pointing to the time he called Mrs. Clinton “likeable enough” as evidence of dismissiveness. Nancy Wait, 55, a social worker in Columbia City, Ind., said Mr. Obama was far less qualified than Mrs. Clinton and described as condescending his recent assurances that Mrs. Clinton should stay in the race as long as she liked. Ms. Wait said she would “absolutely, positively not” vote for him come fall.

Meanwhile, the Post picks up on the generational element:

To Veronica Tonay, 48, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz and a Clinton supporter, Obama has become a pop star, the contestant on “American Idol” who wins votes because he’s cute, while the best singer is eliminated. “We are electing the leader of the free world, and that person has a finger on the nuclear launch code,” she said. “It’s not about likability.” Her stance was cemented when a young woman in one of her classes declared that she wouldn’t vote for Clinton because “she is not a beautiful woman.”

So what’s missing in all this? Perhaps a wee bit of analysis might be in order. How can a post-partisan, high-minded 21st century fellow like the Agent of Change participate in, even passively, in the conduct which brought this all about. As Abe has observed in other contexts, Obama is often delinquent in recognizing issues and has shown an unwillingness to take charge, guide the dialogue, and set an example. On an issue of personal dignity and equality, you’d think that he, of all people, would have been more on top of things.

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have discovered the resentment toward Barack Obama and the media brewing among Hillary Clinton’s female supporters. The New York Times reporters seem to own up that their brethren in the mainstream media may have played a role in the Clinton dissing, declaring:

Mrs. Clinton’s supporters point to a nagging series of slights: the fixation on her clothes, even her cleavage; chronic criticism that her voice is shrill; calls for her to exit the race; and most of all, the male commentators in the news media who, they argue, were consistently tougher on her than on Mr. Obama. Some even accuse Mr. Obama of chauvinism, pointing to the time he called Mrs. Clinton “likeable enough” as evidence of dismissiveness. Nancy Wait, 55, a social worker in Columbia City, Ind., said Mr. Obama was far less qualified than Mrs. Clinton and described as condescending his recent assurances that Mrs. Clinton should stay in the race as long as she liked. Ms. Wait said she would “absolutely, positively not” vote for him come fall.

Meanwhile, the Post picks up on the generational element:

To Veronica Tonay, 48, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz and a Clinton supporter, Obama has become a pop star, the contestant on “American Idol” who wins votes because he’s cute, while the best singer is eliminated. “We are electing the leader of the free world, and that person has a finger on the nuclear launch code,” she said. “It’s not about likability.” Her stance was cemented when a young woman in one of her classes declared that she wouldn’t vote for Clinton because “she is not a beautiful woman.”

So what’s missing in all this? Perhaps a wee bit of analysis might be in order. How can a post-partisan, high-minded 21st century fellow like the Agent of Change participate in, even passively, in the conduct which brought this all about. As Abe has observed in other contexts, Obama is often delinquent in recognizing issues and has shown an unwillingness to take charge, guide the dialogue, and set an example. On an issue of personal dignity and equality, you’d think that he, of all people, would have been more on top of things.

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Fire Mark McKinnon

Sasha Issenberg interviews John McCain’s top media advisor Mark Mckinnon in today’s Boston Globe. In what has become a remarkable act of insubordination, McKinnon has been telling the press for weeks now that he’ll probably leave the campaign once Barack Obama becomes the Democratic nominee because he just likes the Illinois Senator so gosh darn much. Indeed, McKinnon says he wrote a memo to the McCain campaign before he was hired last year stating as much.

As McCain’s comeback picked up speed, McKinnon cast jealous glances toward Obama, who was the beneficiary of two unconventional, online videos that McKinnon considers the best work of the campaign: an early bootleg spoof of Apple’s “1984” ad lampooning Hillary Clinton as “Big Brother” and a music video released in January by singer will.i.am featuring celebrities saying excerpts from an Obama speech.

McKinnon becomes visibly giddy when discussing the video, calling it “cool” and “really powerful stuff.”

“I’m a music guy,” said McKinnon. “You combine music and politics, I’m halfway there.”

McKinnon says that while he would have happily worked for McCain in a general election match-up against Hillary Clinton, he just can’t bring himself to support the presumed Republican nominee against Barack Obama. “I flash-forwarded to how I would feel in that position, and I realized that I’d be uncomfortable and it would be bad for McCain to have me in that slot,” he tells the Globe. McKinnon claims to deeply admire John McCain and wants to see him become president. Yet the desire to realize a McCain presidency evaporates into thin air once St. Obama steps onto the stage. What sort of loyalty is this, telling the media that you respect your boss only to the point that you would work for him unless your favored Democrat became the nominee? Not long ago, McKinnon could rightly be labeled as a “McCainiac” alongside Mark Salter, Mike Murphy or Marshall Wittmann. Now, McKinnon’s admiration for the Senator sounds about as genuine as that of John Weaver.

“We can live with whatever Mark has to do,” Salter tells the Globe. If this was last summer — after McCain had fired most of his top staff and was in serious debt — maybe such a forgiving attitude would be understandable. But now that John McCain will be the Republican nominee, why hasn’t the campaign fired McKinnon for going on like this? And, if he told the campaign that he wouldn’t continue working for McCain were Obama to become the nominee, why was he hired in the first place?

Sasha Issenberg interviews John McCain’s top media advisor Mark Mckinnon in today’s Boston Globe. In what has become a remarkable act of insubordination, McKinnon has been telling the press for weeks now that he’ll probably leave the campaign once Barack Obama becomes the Democratic nominee because he just likes the Illinois Senator so gosh darn much. Indeed, McKinnon says he wrote a memo to the McCain campaign before he was hired last year stating as much.

As McCain’s comeback picked up speed, McKinnon cast jealous glances toward Obama, who was the beneficiary of two unconventional, online videos that McKinnon considers the best work of the campaign: an early bootleg spoof of Apple’s “1984” ad lampooning Hillary Clinton as “Big Brother” and a music video released in January by singer will.i.am featuring celebrities saying excerpts from an Obama speech.

McKinnon becomes visibly giddy when discussing the video, calling it “cool” and “really powerful stuff.”

“I’m a music guy,” said McKinnon. “You combine music and politics, I’m halfway there.”

McKinnon says that while he would have happily worked for McCain in a general election match-up against Hillary Clinton, he just can’t bring himself to support the presumed Republican nominee against Barack Obama. “I flash-forwarded to how I would feel in that position, and I realized that I’d be uncomfortable and it would be bad for McCain to have me in that slot,” he tells the Globe. McKinnon claims to deeply admire John McCain and wants to see him become president. Yet the desire to realize a McCain presidency evaporates into thin air once St. Obama steps onto the stage. What sort of loyalty is this, telling the media that you respect your boss only to the point that you would work for him unless your favored Democrat became the nominee? Not long ago, McKinnon could rightly be labeled as a “McCainiac” alongside Mark Salter, Mike Murphy or Marshall Wittmann. Now, McKinnon’s admiration for the Senator sounds about as genuine as that of John Weaver.

“We can live with whatever Mark has to do,” Salter tells the Globe. If this was last summer — after McCain had fired most of his top staff and was in serious debt — maybe such a forgiving attitude would be understandable. But now that John McCain will be the Republican nominee, why hasn’t the campaign fired McKinnon for going on like this? And, if he told the campaign that he wouldn’t continue working for McCain were Obama to become the nominee, why was he hired in the first place?

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In Defense of Don B.

Donald Barthelme is among those writers, like Kurt Vonnegut and (please, no laughter) Richard Brautigan, whom I found funny—sometimes brilliantly so—before coming to resent them as one-trick ponies, responsible, albeit indirectly, for much of the dross which passes for humor in today’s literature. Years ago, when McSweeney’s appeared on my radar in website form, I found it funny for a while before getting the sinking feeling that many of its contributors were just “doing” Barthelme, piggybacking on a beloved formula. The consistent deadpan, the jarring concatenation of allusions and non sequiturs, the compulsive goofiness: It was déjà vu. It was depressing.

James Wolcott’s brilliant essay on Barthelme articulates perfectly the pleasures and limitations of his fiction. Having read it, I’m prepared to admit that I’ve been too hard on Don B. and his acolytes (not that they care one way or the other). How could they have resisted the influence of what they so thoroughly enjoyed in Barthelme’s work? To hear Wolcott tell it, nobody could escape that pull:

Over the years, Barthelme’s antic break with the traditional tactful manner of the classic New Yorker story, where every stick of furniture and motivation was neatly, firmly in place, would expand into an entire wing of the magazine’s house style. His mastery of incongruity and curveball allusions helped liberate the whiz brains in the office and scramble the genetic code of the magazine’s humor and fiction irregulars: By the ’70s, the set-piece fictions and “casuals” of Ian Frazier, Veronica Geng, Mark Singer, Marshall Brickman, and George W. S. Trow abounded with absurdist dialogues, box scores, chess notations, chicken-scratch scribblings, send-ups of familiar minigenres (liner notes, movie blurbs, capsule reviews, wedding notices), multiple-choice quizzes, and mash-up satires . . . . They ran riot while Ann Beattie stood slightly off to the side, strumming her hair.

Today, I would hazard (I’ve always wanted to hazard), the track marks of Barthelme’s suave, subversive cunning are to be found less in postmod fiction—although David Foster Wallace’s dense foliage of footnotes suggests a Barthelmean undergrowth and George Saunders’s arcade surrealism has a runaway-nephew quality—than in the conscientiously oddball, studiedly offhand, hiply recherché, mock-anachronistic formalism of McSweeney’s, The Believer, The Crier, and related organs of articulate mumblecore.

I would say to those heirs apparent that my disdain, for what it’s worth, is a classic case of “I’m not mad at you—I’m just disappointed.” They haven’t done the difficult job of dynamiting their idols, our idols, and building something new and superior with the rubble. A few days ago, after reading a string of disappointing “comic novels,” I asked my friends to name the funniest books they’d ever read. The list is growing pretty long—I hope to share it one of these days—but not a single person named a Barthelme collection. Perhaps when the market is flooded with knockoffs, even the Louis Vuitton can start to look a bit phony.

Donald Barthelme is among those writers, like Kurt Vonnegut and (please, no laughter) Richard Brautigan, whom I found funny—sometimes brilliantly so—before coming to resent them as one-trick ponies, responsible, albeit indirectly, for much of the dross which passes for humor in today’s literature. Years ago, when McSweeney’s appeared on my radar in website form, I found it funny for a while before getting the sinking feeling that many of its contributors were just “doing” Barthelme, piggybacking on a beloved formula. The consistent deadpan, the jarring concatenation of allusions and non sequiturs, the compulsive goofiness: It was déjà vu. It was depressing.

James Wolcott’s brilliant essay on Barthelme articulates perfectly the pleasures and limitations of his fiction. Having read it, I’m prepared to admit that I’ve been too hard on Don B. and his acolytes (not that they care one way or the other). How could they have resisted the influence of what they so thoroughly enjoyed in Barthelme’s work? To hear Wolcott tell it, nobody could escape that pull:

Over the years, Barthelme’s antic break with the traditional tactful manner of the classic New Yorker story, where every stick of furniture and motivation was neatly, firmly in place, would expand into an entire wing of the magazine’s house style. His mastery of incongruity and curveball allusions helped liberate the whiz brains in the office and scramble the genetic code of the magazine’s humor and fiction irregulars: By the ’70s, the set-piece fictions and “casuals” of Ian Frazier, Veronica Geng, Mark Singer, Marshall Brickman, and George W. S. Trow abounded with absurdist dialogues, box scores, chess notations, chicken-scratch scribblings, send-ups of familiar minigenres (liner notes, movie blurbs, capsule reviews, wedding notices), multiple-choice quizzes, and mash-up satires . . . . They ran riot while Ann Beattie stood slightly off to the side, strumming her hair.

Today, I would hazard (I’ve always wanted to hazard), the track marks of Barthelme’s suave, subversive cunning are to be found less in postmod fiction—although David Foster Wallace’s dense foliage of footnotes suggests a Barthelmean undergrowth and George Saunders’s arcade surrealism has a runaway-nephew quality—than in the conscientiously oddball, studiedly offhand, hiply recherché, mock-anachronistic formalism of McSweeney’s, The Believer, The Crier, and related organs of articulate mumblecore.

I would say to those heirs apparent that my disdain, for what it’s worth, is a classic case of “I’m not mad at you—I’m just disappointed.” They haven’t done the difficult job of dynamiting their idols, our idols, and building something new and superior with the rubble. A few days ago, after reading a string of disappointing “comic novels,” I asked my friends to name the funniest books they’d ever read. The list is growing pretty long—I hope to share it one of these days—but not a single person named a Barthelme collection. Perhaps when the market is flooded with knockoffs, even the Louis Vuitton can start to look a bit phony.

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Opening This Week: Southland Tales

It’s possible that Southland Tales, the apocalyptic satire from Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly, is not actually as stultifying and incomprehensible as it seems, that somewhere amidst its frantic mess of pop-culture allusions and political reference points, there is a coherent narrative, or at least a reasonably cogent idea or two. Of course, it’s also possible that Dennis Kucinich will be the next President of the United States. But I wouldn’t bet on either.

The film’s influences are easy enough to spot: the paranoiac science fiction of Harlan Ellison and Philip K. Dick, the surrealist menace of Terry Gilliam and David Lynch. But it musters neither the cohesion nor the sustained mood of any of their work. Attempting plot summary would likely prove a fruitless endeavor, though I think David Edelstein makes a valiant effort in his review:

World War III has erupted; Middle Easterners nuke Texas (Why Texas? Why not?); the government is run by totalitarians, among them Miranda Richardson as Cruella De Vil; mutant Iraq-war vets hover like lifeguards over Venice Beach; Wallace Shawn in transvestite makeup invents “fluid karma energy” to solve the energy crisis; and Nora Dunn masterminds a “neo-Marxist” rebel group with the aid of hard-core porn star Sarah Michelle Gellar. There’s time travel, too, as well as a paranoiac screenplay that begins to blur with reality—or is the screenplay the real reality?

I think it’s a safe bet that neither reality—nor, for that matter, anything approximating it—is among the film’s chief concerns. What’s clear, though, is that Kelly thinks his film is saying something, and probably something important. Any movie that kicks off with a nuclear cataclysm on U.S. soil, quickly moves on to news reports about America going to war with Syria and North Korea, employs Sarah Michelle Gellar to play a combination porn star/talk show host, and features Wallace Shawn as a demented (probably evil) environmentalist who shouts things like “No longer can even the most jaded neocon fatcat deny the majesty of our mother ocean!” clearly aspires to some sort of socio-political relevance.

Sadly, there’s not a shred in evidence. It’s all a hazy, manic jumble, in which dream sequences with pop-singer Justin Timberlake as a scarred, drug-dealing Iraq-war veteran make just as much (which is to say as little) sense as any other scene.

In a strange way, however, it’s refreshing. After a season full of smug, irritating political diatribes posing as prestige pictures, it’s almost pleasant to see a film that tackles current events—the energy crisis, terrorism, the war, just to name a few—without an air of smarmy self-satisfaction. Discombobulated as it all may be, it’s a step up from insolence and dimwitted self-certainty. Southland Tales obviously has no idea what it wants to say about the state of the nation’s politics. But at least it’s bold enough to own up to its confusion.

It’s possible that Southland Tales, the apocalyptic satire from Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly, is not actually as stultifying and incomprehensible as it seems, that somewhere amidst its frantic mess of pop-culture allusions and political reference points, there is a coherent narrative, or at least a reasonably cogent idea or two. Of course, it’s also possible that Dennis Kucinich will be the next President of the United States. But I wouldn’t bet on either.

The film’s influences are easy enough to spot: the paranoiac science fiction of Harlan Ellison and Philip K. Dick, the surrealist menace of Terry Gilliam and David Lynch. But it musters neither the cohesion nor the sustained mood of any of their work. Attempting plot summary would likely prove a fruitless endeavor, though I think David Edelstein makes a valiant effort in his review:

World War III has erupted; Middle Easterners nuke Texas (Why Texas? Why not?); the government is run by totalitarians, among them Miranda Richardson as Cruella De Vil; mutant Iraq-war vets hover like lifeguards over Venice Beach; Wallace Shawn in transvestite makeup invents “fluid karma energy” to solve the energy crisis; and Nora Dunn masterminds a “neo-Marxist” rebel group with the aid of hard-core porn star Sarah Michelle Gellar. There’s time travel, too, as well as a paranoiac screenplay that begins to blur with reality—or is the screenplay the real reality?

I think it’s a safe bet that neither reality—nor, for that matter, anything approximating it—is among the film’s chief concerns. What’s clear, though, is that Kelly thinks his film is saying something, and probably something important. Any movie that kicks off with a nuclear cataclysm on U.S. soil, quickly moves on to news reports about America going to war with Syria and North Korea, employs Sarah Michelle Gellar to play a combination porn star/talk show host, and features Wallace Shawn as a demented (probably evil) environmentalist who shouts things like “No longer can even the most jaded neocon fatcat deny the majesty of our mother ocean!” clearly aspires to some sort of socio-political relevance.

Sadly, there’s not a shred in evidence. It’s all a hazy, manic jumble, in which dream sequences with pop-singer Justin Timberlake as a scarred, drug-dealing Iraq-war veteran make just as much (which is to say as little) sense as any other scene.

In a strange way, however, it’s refreshing. After a season full of smug, irritating political diatribes posing as prestige pictures, it’s almost pleasant to see a film that tackles current events—the energy crisis, terrorism, the war, just to name a few—without an air of smarmy self-satisfaction. Discombobulated as it all may be, it’s a step up from insolence and dimwitted self-certainty. Southland Tales obviously has no idea what it wants to say about the state of the nation’s politics. But at least it’s bold enough to own up to its confusion.

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Annapolis — Will It Matter At All?

Pray for low expectations when it comes the Annapolis summit, because then it will not lead inexorably to disaster. That seems to be the consensus to emerge from a very interesting symposium at jpost.com featuring (among others) Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz, his colleague Saul Singer, and Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum.

Horovitz: “The greater the expectations pinned on Annapolis, the more serious the dangers if it fails. And a stark failure, as Camp David 2000 proved, can unleash devastating terrorism, and deprive moderate forces of hope….For it to stand as a positive event, Annapolis has to be seen as a beginning — a beginning of a return to sanity first and foremost on the Palestinian side.”

Singer: “Annapolis won’t ‘fail’ because by the time it happens the standards for success will be set so low that they are, almost by definition, met.”

Pipes: “The consequences of Annapolis failing depend on whom the US government blames. If it basically faults the Palestinian side, as happened in 2000, then nothing much changes….But should the Bush administration primarily fault the Israeli side, watch out.”

The strangest aspect of the walk-up to Annapolis is that the only person really talking up the epoch-altering nature of the Annapolis summit is Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — the same fantasist over-promiser who vowed in the summer of 2006 that the war in Lebanon would lead to the destruction of Hezbollah.

“This is a good moment,” Olmert said on Sunday. “I am excited by the chance to contribute to our chances. I know all the excuses and arguments why not, but I believe – from the bottom of my heart – that the time has come. In this spirit, I will come to Annapolis; to extend my hand in friendship and good will to all those who come to the meeting, and I promise: the State of Israel will be there. Indeed, we will come with caution; we will examine every issue responsibly; we will consider every proposal sensitively; but we come in good will, happily and full of hope.”

A serious world leader does not offer dewy-eyed pronouncements like this just before he is to enter deadly serious negotations involving the most basic existential questions of his nation’s future. Managing expectations so that they do not come back to haunt your cause later is one of the most basic rules of diplomacy. Olmert, yet again, disappoints. Worse yet, he is behaving exactly as he behaved during the war last summer — as though he doesn’t know the first thing about what to do when the spotlight is shining on him and on Israel.

Pray for low expectations when it comes the Annapolis summit, because then it will not lead inexorably to disaster. That seems to be the consensus to emerge from a very interesting symposium at jpost.com featuring (among others) Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz, his colleague Saul Singer, and Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum.

Horovitz: “The greater the expectations pinned on Annapolis, the more serious the dangers if it fails. And a stark failure, as Camp David 2000 proved, can unleash devastating terrorism, and deprive moderate forces of hope….For it to stand as a positive event, Annapolis has to be seen as a beginning — a beginning of a return to sanity first and foremost on the Palestinian side.”

Singer: “Annapolis won’t ‘fail’ because by the time it happens the standards for success will be set so low that they are, almost by definition, met.”

Pipes: “The consequences of Annapolis failing depend on whom the US government blames. If it basically faults the Palestinian side, as happened in 2000, then nothing much changes….But should the Bush administration primarily fault the Israeli side, watch out.”

The strangest aspect of the walk-up to Annapolis is that the only person really talking up the epoch-altering nature of the Annapolis summit is Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — the same fantasist over-promiser who vowed in the summer of 2006 that the war in Lebanon would lead to the destruction of Hezbollah.

“This is a good moment,” Olmert said on Sunday. “I am excited by the chance to contribute to our chances. I know all the excuses and arguments why not, but I believe – from the bottom of my heart – that the time has come. In this spirit, I will come to Annapolis; to extend my hand in friendship and good will to all those who come to the meeting, and I promise: the State of Israel will be there. Indeed, we will come with caution; we will examine every issue responsibly; we will consider every proposal sensitively; but we come in good will, happily and full of hope.”

A serious world leader does not offer dewy-eyed pronouncements like this just before he is to enter deadly serious negotations involving the most basic existential questions of his nation’s future. Managing expectations so that they do not come back to haunt your cause later is one of the most basic rules of diplomacy. Olmert, yet again, disappoints. Worse yet, he is behaving exactly as he behaved during the war last summer — as though he doesn’t know the first thing about what to do when the spotlight is shining on him and on Israel.

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Iraqi Jews

Readers may recall a Time magazine article from July, “The Last Jews of Baghdad,” reporting that, in the Iraqi capital, only eight Jews remain of a population that numbered around 150,000 in the 1940’s, before decades of anti-Semitic persecution forced them to flee. This Diaspora is the subject of a moving, deftly written 1975 memoir Farewell Babylon: Coming of Age in Jewish Baghdad by the Baghdad-born Canadian author Naïm Kattan (born 1928). The book is newly reprinted by David Godine Publishers.

In his book, Kattan describes the culture of Baghdad’s ancient Jewish community, which produced the Babylonian Talmud. By the modern era it was a teeming, multi-lingual society that was doubtless inspiring to a young writer. One of Kattan’s boyhood friends, described in Farewell, Babylon, was Elie Kedourie (1926-1992), the distinguished anti-Marxist historian (who memorably asserted that Marxism turned the Middle East into a “wilderness of tigers”).

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Readers may recall a Time magazine article from July, “The Last Jews of Baghdad,” reporting that, in the Iraqi capital, only eight Jews remain of a population that numbered around 150,000 in the 1940’s, before decades of anti-Semitic persecution forced them to flee. This Diaspora is the subject of a moving, deftly written 1975 memoir Farewell Babylon: Coming of Age in Jewish Baghdad by the Baghdad-born Canadian author Naïm Kattan (born 1928). The book is newly reprinted by David Godine Publishers.

In his book, Kattan describes the culture of Baghdad’s ancient Jewish community, which produced the Babylonian Talmud. By the modern era it was a teeming, multi-lingual society that was doubtless inspiring to a young writer. One of Kattan’s boyhood friends, described in Farewell, Babylon, was Elie Kedourie (1926-1992), the distinguished anti-Marxist historian (who memorably asserted that Marxism turned the Middle East into a “wilderness of tigers”).

Kattan poignantly offers an eyewitness account of the 1941 anti-Jewish pogroms, which incited a mass exile of Jews from Iraq. During the so-called Farhud or “violent dispossession” of June 1 and 2, 1941, hundreds of Iraqi Jews were murdered. As Kattan related at a 2004 Jewish Book Week event in London, he was twelve years old at the time and

suddenly felt that I was going to be killed. We were sitting on the roof and then we tried to hide and listening to firearms coming closer and closer…. And all that my father could do to protect us, the only thing that he had to protect us, was to recite the psalms. He spent all the night praying and reciting psalms. Fortunately he knew a lot of psalms by heart.

Before this savage violence, despite ambient anti-Semitism, Kattan and his fellow Jews felt at home in Baghdad. An avid filmgoer, Kattan explains that he never went to the movies alone: “As I was a Jew, the young boys of my age, Christians or Muslims, would have attacked me with kicks and slaps.” Still, he recalls exulting in the Arabic films of the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum (1898-1975) who made audiences “throb with joy.”

I myself met Naïm Kattan, a diminutive, mustachioed gentleman, at a 2003 Quebec writer’s conference at the time of the invasion of Iraq and toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime. I recall that Kattan kept silent as other Canadian writers around him expressed their outrage with anti-American tirades. Despite its context of grief and exile, Farewell Babylon has a tone of secure survival, inspired by the faith expressed by Kattan at London’s Jewish Book Week: “The Jews have this kind of difference: it is that they have a Book. Wherever they go they can refer to a Book…. They live by that Book and I hope they will continue to do so.”

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Art or Family?

Last week the Romanian-born soprano Angela Gheorghiu was fired from her role in Puccini’s “La Bohème” at Chicago’s Lyric Opera because, according to the Opera’s general director, she missed several essential rehearsals by leaving Chicago “without permission, a direct violation of her contract.” Gheorghiu’s excuse? She needed to be with her husband, French tenor Roberto Alagna, who is in New York singing two roles at the Met. Gheorghiu claims, “I asked Lyric Opera to let me go to New York for two days to be with him, and they said, ‘No.’ But I needed to be by Roberto’s side at this very important moment.” Gheorghiu, 42, has received much bad press for diva-ish behavior (often in articles by righteous critics who routinely display just as much diva-ish behavior as she).

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Last week the Romanian-born soprano Angela Gheorghiu was fired from her role in Puccini’s “La Bohème” at Chicago’s Lyric Opera because, according to the Opera’s general director, she missed several essential rehearsals by leaving Chicago “without permission, a direct violation of her contract.” Gheorghiu’s excuse? She needed to be with her husband, French tenor Roberto Alagna, who is in New York singing two roles at the Met. Gheorghiu claims, “I asked Lyric Opera to let me go to New York for two days to be with him, and they said, ‘No.’ But I needed to be by Roberto’s side at this very important moment.” Gheorghiu, 42, has received much bad press for diva-ish behavior (often in articles by righteous critics who routinely display just as much diva-ish behavior as she).

Gheorghiu’s understudy, Elaine Alvarez, a promising Cuban-American soprano who nevertheless lacks her predecessor’s track record, will take over the performances. Last month, the celebrated Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel suddenly withdrew from a long-prepared Covent Garden performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle in London, citing a “particularly stressful family situation.” The situation is that his six-year-old son in Wales broke a finger, which required surgery. Terfel’s wife Lesley defended her husband in the press, stating: “People expect too much of Bryn sometimes. He’s more than a singer, he’s a husband and a father, but opera companies don’t want to hear that.” The Royal Opera’s talented music director, Antonio Pappano, is reportedly “shocked” and even “incensed” by Terfel’s reaction to what may be seen by some as a common childhood boo-boo.

Time was when performing artists of the caliber of Terfel and Gheorghiu were more or less expected to deny themselves a family life, dedicating everything to their art and audience. The paradigm is the late English ballerina Alicia Markova (1910–2004) who famously renounced any private life, focusing on performing and teaching. The noted British mezzo-soprano Janet Baker has asserted that she consciously chose never to have children, because singing was “more important to her.” Are singers finally beginning to realize that striving for a happy family life may be even more humanly important than disappointing fans and enraging opera bosses? If so, they would only be following the example set by a conductor 25 years ago, when the veteran maestro Carlo Maria Giulini gave up a thriving career as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in order to care for his ailing wife in Italy, without a hint of criticism. What is good for the Italian goose is good for the Romanian (or Welsh) gander.

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A Soprano Rediscovered

All too often a singer’s fame does not correspond with his or her actual musical mastery. The Clarksburg, West Virginia-born soprano Phyllis Curtin (born 1921) is a case in point. Although she enjoys legendary status at Yale and Boston Universities, where she taught for many years, Curtin’s lengthy singing career was hampered, (as Peter G. Davis recounts in his well-documented American Opera Singer) by being forced out of a promised starring role in a New York City Opera production of Handel’s “Julius Caesar,” after the more influential Beverly Sills twisted arms to obtain it. However, posterity is offering some belated rewards to Curtin in the form of a series of fascinating reissues on CD and DVD, which show her artistry at its peak.

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All too often a singer’s fame does not correspond with his or her actual musical mastery. The Clarksburg, West Virginia-born soprano Phyllis Curtin (born 1921) is a case in point. Although she enjoys legendary status at Yale and Boston Universities, where she taught for many years, Curtin’s lengthy singing career was hampered, (as Peter G. Davis recounts in his well-documented American Opera Singer) by being forced out of a promised starring role in a New York City Opera production of Handel’s “Julius Caesar,” after the more influential Beverly Sills twisted arms to obtain it. However, posterity is offering some belated rewards to Curtin in the form of a series of fascinating reissues on CD and DVD, which show her artistry at its peak.

The most recent of these is VAI’s release of a 1963 televised performance of Britten’s “War Requiem” from Tanglewood, in which the statuesque Curtin sings the Latin portions of the Requiem with womanly warmth and dignity. As the soprano soloist in Britten’s “Requiem,” Curtin is vastly better than the unbridled Slavic-accented yowlings of Galina Vishnevskaya as conducted by the composer himself on Decca. On Phyllis Curtin in Recital, another recently issued live recording from VAI, also from 1963, the soprano performs a variety of songs and arias by European and Latin American composers, from Gluck and Tchaikovsky to Alberto Ginastera. Her utter directness and conviction is wholly admirable, while her ability to communicate emotion in foreign languages is exemplary. Her English diction is no less fine in VAI’s CD Phyllis Curtin Sings Copland & Rorem, although the characterful Aaron Copland songs on this CD necessarily overshadow the weak-as-water banalities of the ever-puerile Ned Rorem. VAI has also cobbled together a CD of previously unreleased material, Phyllis Curtin—Opera Arias (1960-1968) including music by Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini.

Taken together, these interpretations construct the image of a singer of great poise and even majesty, of gleaming intelligence and devotion. Two years ago, as part of a convocation address which she delivered at the Northwestern University School of Music, Curtin observed: “Working with composers on new music I learned how to look at Bach freshly and at all music as newly alive, and, as well, much about my own time I never dreamed of!” She advised the listening students: “Serve your composers. Don’t present only the dead ones to your audiences.” She added as an example of her longtime generosity of spirit: “At Tanglewood, I have insisted that my classes be open to anyone walking by. Visitors have to sit in the back of the hall, and I direct nothing at all to them. Some stay a little while. Some come back, and often, year after year…. Some, I learn, have even made financial contributions to the vocal program.” New York’s movers and shakers in the classical world (especially at pricey locales like Carnegie Hall) would do well to imitate this kind of openness.

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Knowing What You Sing

In opera, as in life, discretion can be the better part of valor. Last month the Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli announced that she was canceling her debut as Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, scheduled for next year. The reason? Her command of Russian isn’t good enough, as she candidly admitted: “After studying for more than a year, the language, alphabet, and pronunciation continue to elude my grasp. To hope for a ‘miracle’ can only put the production at risk.” Chicago’s Lyric Opera duly hired a native Russian singer to replace her, but will be hard-pressed to match Frittoli’s combination of warm tone, musicality, and striking good looks. These attributes can be seen on DVD’s of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater from EMI; of Puccini’s Turandot on TDK; and of Verdi’s Falstaff on Euroarts. Frittoli is not allergic to foreign languages per se. At a La Scala song recital this February, she sang some French music, but showed a clear preference for her native tongue by choosing vocal works in Italian, even rare ones written by Beethoven and Schubert.

Music fans have long grown resigned to hearing linguistic massacres like the Spanish tenor José Carreras’s singing of the all-American role of Tony in Bernstein’s West Side Story or the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne’s mangling of the French spoken dialogue in Bizet’s Carmen. The Australian soprano Joan Sutherland, in a recently reissued set of Romantic French Arias from Deutsche Grammophon, displays stunning platinum pipes, but scant attention to linguistic niceties.

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In opera, as in life, discretion can be the better part of valor. Last month the Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli announced that she was canceling her debut as Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, scheduled for next year. The reason? Her command of Russian isn’t good enough, as she candidly admitted: “After studying for more than a year, the language, alphabet, and pronunciation continue to elude my grasp. To hope for a ‘miracle’ can only put the production at risk.” Chicago’s Lyric Opera duly hired a native Russian singer to replace her, but will be hard-pressed to match Frittoli’s combination of warm tone, musicality, and striking good looks. These attributes can be seen on DVD’s of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater from EMI; of Puccini’s Turandot on TDK; and of Verdi’s Falstaff on Euroarts. Frittoli is not allergic to foreign languages per se. At a La Scala song recital this February, she sang some French music, but showed a clear preference for her native tongue by choosing vocal works in Italian, even rare ones written by Beethoven and Schubert.

Music fans have long grown resigned to hearing linguistic massacres like the Spanish tenor José Carreras’s singing of the all-American role of Tony in Bernstein’s West Side Story or the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne’s mangling of the French spoken dialogue in Bizet’s Carmen. The Australian soprano Joan Sutherland, in a recently reissued set of Romantic French Arias from Deutsche Grammophon, displays stunning platinum pipes, but scant attention to linguistic niceties.

Should listeners care about poor pronunciation? Mastering a language, being able to express emotion in a foreign idiom, is a challenge equal to singing the mere notes of any musical work. Some non-native speakers of French have become superb singers of the language, like the Texas-born mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in an unexpectedly idiomatic CD of music by Reynaldo Hahn on Sony. Or the British soprano Felicity Lott on an EMI Classics DVD of the Offenbach operetta La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein. The Japanese-born mezzo-soprano Mitsuko Shirai has mastered the German language completely, and her CD’s of lieder by Brahms, Schumann, etc., are widely considered among the most authoritative and exemplary recorded anywhere.

Singing with a distinct accent does not obviate real understanding of a language, as the British tenor Peter Pears’s performances as the Evangelist in Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion and in Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle, for instance, prove. Classical singers who downplay respect for a foreign idiom are sending out the wrong message to “crossover” pop superstars. Grating recent examples in the pop realm include the British soprano Sarah Brightman and tenor Michael Bolton, both of whom perform the Puccini aria “Nessun Dorma” with scant attention to the words they sing. All the more reason to cheer Barbara Frittoli’s resolve not to display her lack of expertise in Russian; would that more classical singers shared her high standards and capacity for self-criticism.

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Bookshelf

• What did Leonard Bernstein, Victor Borge, Dave Brubeck, the Budapest String Quartet, Johnny Cash, Noël Coward, Miles Davis, Doris Day, Bob Dylan, Vladimir Horowitz, John Gielgud, Glenn Gould, Michael Jackson, Marshall McLuhan, Albert Schweitzer, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Igor Stravinsky, and the original casts of Waiting for Godot and West Side Story have in common? They all recorded for Columbia. Gary Marmorstein’s The Label: The Story of Columbia Records is a breezily written primary-source history of the company whose artistically serious, technically innovative approach to the making of records—it was Columbia’s engineers who invented the long-playing record album in 1948—left a permanent mark on the history of American music.

Although Columbia was founded in 1889, it wasn’t until a half-century later, when it was bought by CBS, that it began its rise to cultural power. To an insufficiently appreciated extent, the label was soon reinvented in the image of one man, an aspiring classical composer turned record-company executive named Goddard Lieberson, whose wit, elegance, and unshakable self-assurance set the tone for Columbia’s postwar activities. Lieberson is more than deserving of a full-length biography of his own, but The Label offers the most detailed portrait to date of this spectacularly improbable character. A polymath who wrote a string quartet and a comic novel, Lieberson stole one of George Balanchine’s wives and used the profits raked in by such Mitch Miller-produced exercises in sugar-frosted pop banality as Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House” (as well as the Lieberson-produced original-cast albums of such Broadway musicals as South Pacific and My Fair Lady) to underwrite the recordings of the complete works of Stravinsky, Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Anton Webern.

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• What did Leonard Bernstein, Victor Borge, Dave Brubeck, the Budapest String Quartet, Johnny Cash, Noël Coward, Miles Davis, Doris Day, Bob Dylan, Vladimir Horowitz, John Gielgud, Glenn Gould, Michael Jackson, Marshall McLuhan, Albert Schweitzer, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Igor Stravinsky, and the original casts of Waiting for Godot and West Side Story have in common? They all recorded for Columbia. Gary Marmorstein’s The Label: The Story of Columbia Records is a breezily written primary-source history of the company whose artistically serious, technically innovative approach to the making of records—it was Columbia’s engineers who invented the long-playing record album in 1948—left a permanent mark on the history of American music.

Although Columbia was founded in 1889, it wasn’t until a half-century later, when it was bought by CBS, that it began its rise to cultural power. To an insufficiently appreciated extent, the label was soon reinvented in the image of one man, an aspiring classical composer turned record-company executive named Goddard Lieberson, whose wit, elegance, and unshakable self-assurance set the tone for Columbia’s postwar activities. Lieberson is more than deserving of a full-length biography of his own, but The Label offers the most detailed portrait to date of this spectacularly improbable character. A polymath who wrote a string quartet and a comic novel, Lieberson stole one of George Balanchine’s wives and used the profits raked in by such Mitch Miller-produced exercises in sugar-frosted pop banality as Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House” (as well as the Lieberson-produced original-cast albums of such Broadway musicals as South Pacific and My Fair Lady) to underwrite the recordings of the complete works of Stravinsky, Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Anton Webern.

In addition to writing about Lieberson, Miller, and John Hammond—the producer-talent scout who spent much of his celebrated career recording jazz and pop for Columbia—Marmorstein depicts a cast of lesser-known backstage characters equally worthy of recognition. George Avakian, who brought Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis to Columbia and recorded some of their best-remembered albums, is given his due, as is Deborah Ishlon, the master publicist who first spread the word about Glenn Gould, and talked Stravinsky into writing his “conversation books.”

To write consistently well about a company that recorded everyone and everything from Liberace to Don Juan in Hell demands a degree of cultural competence not possessed by the average human being. While Marmorstein has done his homework—to the point of having read Lieberson’s forgotten novel 3 for Bedroom C and Ishlon’s equally obscure roman à clef Girl Singer: A Two Part Invention—he does not exhibit a complete knowledge of classical music. (Somebody at Thunder’s Mouth Press should have told him that the Brahms First Symphony isn’t a piano concerto.) But the small errors that disfigure The Label do not diminish its effectiveness as journalism, and Marmorstein’s breathless summary of Columbia’s significance is in no way overstated:

In the overlapping epochs of the 78-rpm platter, the 33-rpm vinyl disk, the cassette tape, and the compact disk, Columbia Records seemed to be everywhere. That ubiquitousness was true for no other record label. . . . Decade by decade, Columbia launched the careers of our most seminal recording artists and deposited their sound prints onto the permanent record.

All that came to an untimely end when Columbia was bought by Sony in 1987, a transaction that led in short order to the dumbing-down of the classical and jazz divisions that had been Columbia’s pride. Now that the entire recording industry has been devastated by the rise of Web-based new media, younger music lovers are largely unaware of the role that Columbia Records played in the shaping of postwar American culture. Kudos to Gary Marmorstein for telling them what they missed.

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Why We Remember Jerry Hadley

My fellow blogger Terry Teachout has already posted an apt expression of poignant regret at the news of the suicide of the American tenor Jerry Hadley, who shot himself at age 55. A career in music can be cruelly difficult, and many performers are worn down by the stresses and frustrations inherent to the profession. Yet classical musicians who commit suicide do so for different reasons, rarely linked to their choice of career.

Listeners to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts will recall how, in 1988, the Bulgarian-born singer and vocal coach Bantcho Bantchevsky (1906-1988), in failing health, threw himself off the balcony of the Met’s auditorium during an intermission between the 2nd and 3rd Acts of Verdi’s Macbeth, ending both that day’s performance and his own life. In 1994, the Duo Crommelynck—two married pianists, Patrick Crommelynck (1947-1994) and Taeko Kuwata (1945-1994)—committed double suicide after an apparent crisis in their relationship. A gifted Australian-born pianist, Noel Mewton-Wood (1922-1953), reportedly committed suicide after the death of his gay lover. The acclaimed Viennese-born conductor Georg Tintner (1917-1999), honored with a posthumous series of CD reissues from Naxos, leapt off the balcony of his apartment after a lengthy battle with cancer. Another conductor, Austria’s Oswald Kabasta (1896-1946), whose performances have been reprinted by Music & Arts, killed himself after World War II, supposedly because, as a Hitler supporter, he feared the aftermath of the Nazi defeat . Meanwhile, the suicide of the modern German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) is ascribed to depression and eye problems , and the impoverished Czech-American composer Jaromír Weinberger (1896-1967), whose opera Schwanda the Bagpiper is available on Naxos, ended his life after being afflicted with brain cancer.

Still, suicide is a human problem, not a peculiarly musical or artistic one. French Jewish sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), in his treatise On Suicide, now available in a new translation by Robin Buss, confirms this assertion. Reading Durkheim, we may conclude that it is not prudent to venture instant guesses about the motives of a suicide, whether the unfortunate subject is a singer in decline, or a disappointed Nazi conductor.

It is best to recall Jerry Hadley for his bright lyric tenor, featured in a 1992 Handel’s Messiah conducted by Sir Neville Marriner and available on Philips; or in a 1986 Schubert Mass No. 6 in E-Flat Major conducted by Claudio Abbado on Deutsche Grammophon. Singing in English, Hadley was particularly forceful and self-assured in such CD’s as Weill’s Street Scene on Decca; Mendelssohn’s Elijah on Telarc; and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat on EMI. These CD’s furnish evidence of why we should remember Hadley’s life, instead of merely his tragic way of leaving it.

My fellow blogger Terry Teachout has already posted an apt expression of poignant regret at the news of the suicide of the American tenor Jerry Hadley, who shot himself at age 55. A career in music can be cruelly difficult, and many performers are worn down by the stresses and frustrations inherent to the profession. Yet classical musicians who commit suicide do so for different reasons, rarely linked to their choice of career.

Listeners to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts will recall how, in 1988, the Bulgarian-born singer and vocal coach Bantcho Bantchevsky (1906-1988), in failing health, threw himself off the balcony of the Met’s auditorium during an intermission between the 2nd and 3rd Acts of Verdi’s Macbeth, ending both that day’s performance and his own life. In 1994, the Duo Crommelynck—two married pianists, Patrick Crommelynck (1947-1994) and Taeko Kuwata (1945-1994)—committed double suicide after an apparent crisis in their relationship. A gifted Australian-born pianist, Noel Mewton-Wood (1922-1953), reportedly committed suicide after the death of his gay lover. The acclaimed Viennese-born conductor Georg Tintner (1917-1999), honored with a posthumous series of CD reissues from Naxos, leapt off the balcony of his apartment after a lengthy battle with cancer. Another conductor, Austria’s Oswald Kabasta (1896-1946), whose performances have been reprinted by Music & Arts, killed himself after World War II, supposedly because, as a Hitler supporter, he feared the aftermath of the Nazi defeat . Meanwhile, the suicide of the modern German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) is ascribed to depression and eye problems , and the impoverished Czech-American composer Jaromír Weinberger (1896-1967), whose opera Schwanda the Bagpiper is available on Naxos, ended his life after being afflicted with brain cancer.

Still, suicide is a human problem, not a peculiarly musical or artistic one. French Jewish sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), in his treatise On Suicide, now available in a new translation by Robin Buss, confirms this assertion. Reading Durkheim, we may conclude that it is not prudent to venture instant guesses about the motives of a suicide, whether the unfortunate subject is a singer in decline, or a disappointed Nazi conductor.

It is best to recall Jerry Hadley for his bright lyric tenor, featured in a 1992 Handel’s Messiah conducted by Sir Neville Marriner and available on Philips; or in a 1986 Schubert Mass No. 6 in E-Flat Major conducted by Claudio Abbado on Deutsche Grammophon. Singing in English, Hadley was particularly forceful and self-assured in such CD’s as Weill’s Street Scene on Decca; Mendelssohn’s Elijah on Telarc; and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat on EMI. These CD’s furnish evidence of why we should remember Hadley’s life, instead of merely his tragic way of leaving it.

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Gone, But Not Forgotten

Baseball fans who recall Jackie Robinson’s heroic role in integrating baseball in 1947 tend to forget other pioneering African-American players in the major leagues like Larry Doby, Hank Thompson, and Sam Jethroe. Likewise, music fans often pay tribute to African-American singers like the contralto Marian Anderson (1897 –1993), and soprano Leontyne Price (b. 1927) for their triumphant Met Opera debuts, in 1955 and 1961 respectively. Yet other mightily talented singers who also battled early opposition have often been overlooked, which makes a new CD reissue from Bridge Records of a live 1940 concert at the Library of Congress by soprano Dorothy Maynor especially welcome.

Virginia-born Maynor (1910-1996) is accompanied in 1940 by the expert Hungarian pianist Arpád Sándor (1896-1972), a student of Bartók and frequent recital partner of Jascha Heifetz, who knew when to be reticent and when to make passionate keyboard points. Maynor’s flexible lyric soprano has a rapid beat, akin to the voice of the endearing Brazilian diva Bidu Sayão. Maynor’s singing of French in works by Bizet and Charpentier is particularly impressive. She fully deserves this commemoration from Bridge, a doughty, small label run by two New Yorkers, Becky and David Starobin.

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Baseball fans who recall Jackie Robinson’s heroic role in integrating baseball in 1947 tend to forget other pioneering African-American players in the major leagues like Larry Doby, Hank Thompson, and Sam Jethroe. Likewise, music fans often pay tribute to African-American singers like the contralto Marian Anderson (1897 –1993), and soprano Leontyne Price (b. 1927) for their triumphant Met Opera debuts, in 1955 and 1961 respectively. Yet other mightily talented singers who also battled early opposition have often been overlooked, which makes a new CD reissue from Bridge Records of a live 1940 concert at the Library of Congress by soprano Dorothy Maynor especially welcome.

Virginia-born Maynor (1910-1996) is accompanied in 1940 by the expert Hungarian pianist Arpád Sándor (1896-1972), a student of Bartók and frequent recital partner of Jascha Heifetz, who knew when to be reticent and when to make passionate keyboard points. Maynor’s flexible lyric soprano has a rapid beat, akin to the voice of the endearing Brazilian diva Bidu Sayão. Maynor’s singing of French in works by Bizet and Charpentier is particularly impressive. She fully deserves this commemoration from Bridge, a doughty, small label run by two New Yorkers, Becky and David Starobin.

The same is true of another neglected African-American singer, Georgia-born Mattiwilda Dobbs (b. 1925). A silvery lyric soprano capable of emotional warmth in Schubert lieder and coloratura flash in arias by Rimsky-Korsakov, Dobbs made precious few recordings, one of which is happily available from Testament. Her Met Opera debut was as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto in 1956, and she sang 29 performances there of six roles during eight seasons. Yet Dobbs’s career mostly flourished in Europe, where her recordings were made, including a scintillating 1950’s performance of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, reprinted on Preiser Records.

By contrast, there are apparently no CD’s available of early recordings by the tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1977), who was an international celebrity starting in the 1920’s. Perhaps because Hayes was a concert artist rather than an opera performer, with a sometimes eerie (although compelling) vocal tone, he has been relatively neglected. The same is true of soprano Camilla Williams (b. 1919), who sang the title role of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in 1946, yet can only be heard today on a 1950’s Sony recording of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and as one of a multitude of soloists in Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 conducted in 1950 by Leopold Stokowski.

Still, fans of the resonant, characterful contralto Carol Brice (1918-1985) can delight in the recent reissue of two of her long-unavailable recordings from 1946: of Falla’s El Amor brujo and Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, both conducted by Fritz Reiner. Before these reissues, Brice was only represented in the catalogue by brief performances in Broadway musicals for which she was clearly overqualified, like 1959’s Saratoga and 1960’s Finian’s Rainbow. Kudos to the CD companies helping us remember these vocal pioneers.

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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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Getting to Know Beverly Sills

Commemorating a cultural figure like Beverly Sills (1929–2007), who died last week of lung cancer at 78, is not easy. After a much-publicized career as a coloratura soprano, Sills served as general director of the New York City Opera and chairwoman of Lincoln Center, and later of the Metropolitan Opera. On July 3, in a bizarre tribute, the New York Philharmonic gave a conductorless performance, purportedly in her honor, of a work that most certainly requires a conductor—Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. (The Philharmonic’s press office announced that this silly “tradition began with the death of Bernstein.”)

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Commemorating a cultural figure like Beverly Sills (1929–2007), who died last week of lung cancer at 78, is not easy. After a much-publicized career as a coloratura soprano, Sills served as general director of the New York City Opera and chairwoman of Lincoln Center, and later of the Metropolitan Opera. On July 3, in a bizarre tribute, the New York Philharmonic gave a conductorless performance, purportedly in her honor, of a work that most certainly requires a conductor—Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. (The Philharmonic’s press office announced that this silly “tradition began with the death of Bernstein.”)

A far better way to honor Sills would be to address a problem mentioned in an astute obituary by critic Tim Page: the fact that Sills made most of her studio recordings after her voice had already begun to deteriorate. Exceptions may be heard on VAI, including a 1969 concert DVD of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, a 1964 Offenbach Tales of Hoffmann from New Orleans, and a 1968 Handel Julius Caesar from Buenos Aires, conducted by Karl Richter. Deutsche Grammophon alos offers a few choice recordings, including a 1958 Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore, a 1969 Donizetti Roberto Devereux led by Charles Mackerras, and a 1970 Donizetti Lucia Di Lammermoor conducted by Thomas Schippers. These and a few other high points are slim pickings for a singer who banked on the sensuous sheen of her voice as a major part of her artistry, in addition to acting smarts and a surprisingly agile stage presence. Sills’s actual performing is probably less known today than her post-retirement persona of jolly, steel-willed fundraiser and promoter of culture.

Getting closer to Beverly Sills—and away from Sylvia Bills—would require transferring to CD a number of surviving performance tapes. They would include a 1967 Handel Semele from Cleveland led by Robert Shaw, and a 1966 production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie co-starring Placido Domingo. Sills’s work in contemporary music, like a Boston performance of Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza from 1965 conducted by Bruno Maderna, or a 1959 New York City Opera staging of Hugo Weisgall’s Pirandello-based opera, Six Characters in Search of an Author, should be of high interest. Roles that Sills eventually repudiated for extra-musical reasons (like the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, which can be heard in a 1966 Tanglewood version led by Erich Leinsdorf, or Suor Angelica in a 1967 City Opera performance of Puccini’s Il Trittico) would also make essential listening on CD.

Add to these a number of concert works never recorded in the studio, like a 1967 rendition of Poulenc’s Gloria from the Caramoor Festival, and a number of Boston Symphony events conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, like a 1966 Schumann Scenes from Goethe’s Faust; 1967 and 1968 versions of Haydn’s Creation Mass; and a 1969 Beethoven Ninth Symphony from Tanglewood. These and other documents from her vocal prime, if made available on CD, would be revelatory posthumous tributes to Beverly Sills.

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This Old (Presidential) House

Generations of schoolchildren once learned that George Washington was the Father of the Country—a platitude, of course, but one that encapsulated an essential truth. Now an exhibition on the site in Philadelphia where he lived during his presidency will concentrate on his role as a slave-owner. This too is a truth, a tragic one that requires telling. But is this the central truth about our first President—that he hypocritically spoke of liberty while enslaving others?

This question has become urgent with the rediscovery of the first President’s house, where Washington (and later John Adams) lived between 1790 and 1800, when Philadelphia served as the country’s capital. The house was demolished in the early 19th century, leaving behind only a few print images, and its precise form and location became a matter of historical controversy. This was recently settled, and in spectacular fashion, by Edward Lawler, Jr.—not a professional historian but a singer. (Full disclosure: I knew Lawler in graduate school in the early 1980’s.)

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Generations of schoolchildren once learned that George Washington was the Father of the Country—a platitude, of course, but one that encapsulated an essential truth. Now an exhibition on the site in Philadelphia where he lived during his presidency will concentrate on his role as a slave-owner. This too is a truth, a tragic one that requires telling. But is this the central truth about our first President—that he hypocritically spoke of liberty while enslaving others?

This question has become urgent with the rediscovery of the first President’s house, where Washington (and later John Adams) lived between 1790 and 1800, when Philadelphia served as the country’s capital. The house was demolished in the early 19th century, leaving behind only a few print images, and its precise form and location became a matter of historical controversy. This was recently settled, and in spectacular fashion, by Edward Lawler, Jr.—not a professional historian but a singer. (Full disclosure: I knew Lawler in graduate school in the early 1980’s.)

Working systematically through original documents, Lawler disentangled two centuries of pious historiography to pinpoint the site of the house with forensic exactitude. His work made possible this year’s excavation, which has brought to light a surprising amount of the original house; it is easily the most important archaeological find for American history in a generation.

Finding the house was easy, however, compared to figuring out how to present it to the public. Designed by the Philadelphia firm Kelly/Maiello, the new museum that will rise over the foundations of the original house is an unfortunate object, both didactically and architecturally. The original executive mansion consisted of a front house on Market Street, a back building with servants’ quarters and a kitchen, and a stable to the rear. In a tiny wing connecting this stable to the back building lived Washington’s slaves. It is the physical remains of these slave quarters that dominate the museum’s educational program, whose six “substantive themes” are:

The House and the People Who Lived There; The Executive Branch of the U.S. Government; The System and Methods of Slavery; African-American Philadelphia, especially Free African-American; The Move to Freedom; and History Lost and Found.

One notes that Washington himself will not be a “substantive” presence in his house, other than as one of the “people who lived there.” The result will be, in effect, a museum of American slavery.

The issue of architectural merit may, perhaps, pale beside the larger questions this new museum raises. Still, it should be noted that the proposed design of the new visitors’ center is comically inept. Several generations ago, Americans celebrated their historical buildings by contriving plausible facsimiles (as at Colonial Williamsburg). Recently, Robert Venturi suggested a more imaginative approach when he reconstructed the lost Benjamin Franklin House—of which no contemporary images survived—as an abstract and ghostly lattice. The Kelly/Maiello design is an unhappy conflation of the two, a plaintively literal array of classical pediments hanging in the air that manages to starve both the eye and the imagination at the same time—no mean feat.

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