Archive for the 'Culture' Category

Missing the glaring similarities

March 23rd, 2009

It’s sometimes surprising just how narrow the focus of some people can be, when they compare themselves, or a group they identify with, to people who aren’t them.

People will tend to expect others to see them in a much better light than they would themselves see other people placed in the same situation. Or than how they would expect other people to see other people in the same situation.

An obvious, and loaded, source for examples around here (Israel) is how many Israeli citizens see the neighbouring Arabs and Muslims. All too many times people react quite severely to bad/improper/unacceptable behaviour from them, while fully admitting they’d behave very similarly in the same situation. And they don’t see a problem, because it’s different. Somehow. In a way they can rarely articulate.

I’ll probably, laziness permitting, write a lot more about quite a few conversations like this that I had in the past. But this particular post is about a single issue, though I did talk with several different people who feel the same as the single example I’ll present here.

This one is not about any issue specific to Israel, but rather about the rise in Islam, or in the amount of Muslims, in Europe.

I was talking with this person, an Israeli Jew, and he mentioned reading about the “problem” of Muslims in Europe. He kept on for a while about how the Europeans[1] are having a problem, how it’s becoming a large issue there, and how it’s going to end in riots and violence.

So far nothing you can’t find in the headlines of a lot of newspapers, though his opinion was certainly on the anti-Muslim side.

Then he went on to explain that he completely understands why the Europeans don’t like the Muslims . It’s because they live in their own segregations, keep their own different culture and their own different customs, dress differently, and generally try to keep themselves different and unique instead of trying to completely blend in and assimilate themselves in the local culture of the country.

Funny that. Seems to be nearly identical reasons for Anti-Semitism against Jews. Let’s say circa World War II ? Separate communities? Check. Keeping their own different culture? Different religion? Different rituals, special days, behaviour codes? Check. Different cloths? Check[2].

But according to him (another reminder, this “him” is actually several people), not liking Muslims because of these reasons is fine and understandable. Not liking Jews because of these reasons, though, was/is bad, racist, and completely unjustifiable.

I was already staring incredulously while listening to this, when I was exposed to another gem. It’s not just that these Muslims keep themselves different, you see. It’s that they plot to make everyone be like them, to take control of Europe by any means necessary, and then take over the rest of the world.

Seriously? All these people, many regular everyday people, all planning together to control the world?

No, I was told. Of course it’s not all of them. But they do what their elders and religious leaders tell them to. And those, who lead them, they have a plan, and are driving towards it.

Ahem. Right. I heard about that somewhere. A while ago. I think it was a little bit different when I heard about it, though. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, anyone?

After being persecuted and attacked by people believing such nonsensical hoaxes, I’m talking to Jews (some religious, some old enough to have personal experience) who have no problem believing the same things, based on the same proof (none whatsoever), because it is about some other group that they don’t like.

And no, I was told, of course it’s not the same. How isn’t it the same? Because The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are vicious lies, but these Muslim leaders really are out to control the world.

I admit that as a Jew living in Israel I’m not feeling very happy about growing percentage of Europe’s population being Muslim. Especially since the lack of love really does go both ways, and most of them are maybe being taught to hate me a lot more than I personally don’t like them. But this sort of tortured logic (or lack thereof), wild accusations, and outright hypocritical nonsense… appals me.

You don’t like people because of who they are, or what they believe? Fine, that’s your right. But be frank about it. And stop it there. For someone who has been, or whose parents have been, in the exact same situation, and thought it horrible, to now be on the complete other side? And to feel fine and justified about it? Not to notice the similarities? Not even after they’re pointed out to you, though it’s obvious enough that it shouldn’t be required? Enough to get me depressed about humanity.

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  1. Ignoring the fact that these Muslims are Europeans, and citizens of their respective countries. None of the people I talked to seemed to pay attention to this apparently minor fact.[back]
  2. In many places, though not all. Which I suppose is the same for the Muslims.[back]

Pushing more impressive-sounding names

March 16th, 2009

Everyone wants to feel good about themselves, and marketers want people to feel good about their products. So it’s understandable that people will tend to present things in the most impressive and positive way possible. At some point, though, this can get too much, and too annoying.

When you want to get someone to cut your hair, you go to a barber, right? Well, wrong. Has anyone even seen a barber shop in the last few years? We have hair stylists and hairdressers, and go to them in the hair salon. Sounds much more impressive. Also longer, heavier, and (for most of them) somewhat ridiculous.

Some people have gardeners who come over occasionally to take care of their gardens, right? Wrong again. These guys are now landscape engineers, landscape artists, or landscape designers. Sounds very important, for someone who often just maws the lawn, pulls out weeds, and trims the roses, doesn’t it?

When a pipe leaks at your house, do you still call a plumber, or are you already surrounded by various sanitation engineers ?

There are plenty of occupations that get the same treatment, and the amount is growing. Someone feels that the label for their work is not prestigious enough, not impressive enough, doesn’t make them feel as important as they think they are, so instead of just getting over it they decide to do something and reinvent themselves. Except not really. Because reinventing yourself involves changing what you do, but here they just change how they call what they’re already doing.

In the case of occupations, this is somewhat aggravated by the fact that sometimes those fancy sounding names are actually used for something. As in something else, a different profession, implying a different skill-set or training. Doesn’t stop anyone, though.

And it’s not only occupations. It’s spreading to other fields, sometimes to an absurd level.

For example, ingredients. Take a look at the ingredient list on a shampoo bottle, or shower gel. These things contain a large percentage of water. Except that you won’t find water listed anywhere. It sounds mundane. Cheap. It comes out of the tap, after all, so why would anyone pay for a concoction that includes it? No, instead all these bottles proudly list aqua as the main ingredient. It sounds much more dignified. Even if it’s just the Latin term for… water.

OK, rant over. Maybe I’ll go see if there’s anything interesting on TV[1]. Oh, sorry, I meant on the Home Entertainment Centre.

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  1. Well, not really. I already know there isn’t, so why waste my time?[back]

The wrong way to write book reviews

January 10th, 2007

The basic concept behind reviewing books is fairly simple. You read the book, then you write the review. Not that complicated.

The details may vary, of course. How much of the plot should be included? What does the review focus on? How much of it should be subjective opinions, and how much objective descriptions and analysis? There are plenty of things that can change from reviewer to reviewer, and from review to review.

But the main and basic details, these never change:

  1. Read the book.
  2. Write the review.

Now, without the second part, there won’t be a review. So obviously you can’t write a book review without, well, writing the book review.

The first part isn’t quite a tautology as the second, though. But it sure seems to be required, no?

Well, no, apparently not for everyone.

A book reviewer on a Swedish newspaper has got himself into hot water for writing a review of a book that has not been written. To make matters worse, Kristian Lundberg claimed the book’s plot was “predictable” and said the characterisations were one-dimensional.

It was supposed to be a real book, by a real author. It was announced in the catalogue of the publisher. But it wasn’t actually written. Meaning that it wasn’t actually published. Meaning that nobody, including the reviewer, read it.

I do hope that this is an isolated case by an isolated jerk, and not a common phenomenon. Blah.

The Gregorian New Year’s Eve in Israel

January 3rd, 2007

A few days ago was the new year’s eve, by the Gregorian calendar. These days the Gregorian calendar is very common, so I expect it merited some new year’s eve celebrations even in places that officially go by other calendars.

Like here in Israel, where there’s the Jewish calendar. Officially, anyway. The Gregorian calendar isn’t official, but it is the de-facto calendar used almost anywhere. Large parts of the public sector (Meaning anything government related) use the Jewish calendar on official documents, but even those usually come with the Gregorian dates.

Because hardly any person uses the Hebrew calendar, or care about it, for any reason beyond knowing when the holidays are, or for religious purposes. It may not be very politic to say so, but that’s the case. Almost anything and everything goes by the Gregorian calendar.

One of the dates which people do notice in the Hebrew calendar is our very own new year’s, “Rosh HaShana”, for the start of the Hebrew calendar. So people feel very uncomfortable calling December 31st the new year’s eve. It’s the new civic year’s eve, or something like that. The new tax year’s eve, if you’re an accountant with a sense of humour.

Many people don’t bother celebrating. Many more do celebrate, but like to pretend they don’t. It’s not really celebration, just a special meal, or meeting with a few friends for a party and drinks. Not a celebration at all. Honest.

It can be quite amusing.

What is stranger is another term for the evening. Sylvester. Which has a very curious position here.

Globally it’s not a very common name for new year’s eve these days. It is named after pope Silvester I, who died on December 31st.

But that term is currently popular, as far as I know, in only two places. Germany is one. And Israel is the other.

And what makes it so strange that his name is used to refer to the new year’s eve in Israel? Beside the (not insignificant) fact that Christianity isn’t a big religion here, it’s the fact that pope Silvester was a very big anti-semite who was responsible for a large amount of prosecutions of Jews.

Not the kind of person who usually get happy events celebrated in his name. Not in a country mainly full of Jews, anyway

So the name always strikes me as peculiar. If it was the common term world-wide, that would be obvious. But it’s not. Ask most Americans, or most non-German Europeans, about Sylvester, and they won’t have a clue what is it that you refer to.

That’s not hyperbole. I tried. I also know Israeli people who wished friends abroad a happy Sylvester, only to be met with a question of what is it exactly.

And the name is so prevalent here that it always surprises people. That is what people here know as the term, the only official term, for the Gregorian new year’s eve. So when you wish a foreigner to have a happy foreign holiday, by the name of that foreign holiday, you expect to be understood. And you rarely are.

It also causes problems, of course. Because enough people here actually know who pope Silvester was, and so refuse to celebrate Sylvester. An understandable enough position.

Which can be seen expressed in different ways. Some just refuse to treat the new year’s eve as if something happened. These are the same ones who actually don’t celebrate it at all, not even with a token nod, or a happy new year’s wishes. Others just make doubly sure that they always use the full title of “new civic year” whenever they mention it, emphasising the civic, as if it makes the distinction itself rather than mentioning the new year instead of the name of Silvester.

The large waves of immigration from former USSR countries also drastically increased the scope of the celebrations of new year’s eve. Here it was given token celebrations, while there it was celebrated full-scale. And since the celebrations are, in a large sense, civic and not religious, people keep celebrating it here with the same enthusiasm.

Though there is one problem with this that I never managed to get a good explanation of. The main calendar in most USSR countries when these people emigrated was the Julian one. But here they celebrate on the Gregorian one. Doesn’t it feel like they’re holding the celebration a few days too early? Sure, the Gregorian calendar is the one used here. But by this logic the Jewish calendar is the one used here, so why not celebrate new year’s eve together with Rosh HaShana? It seems inconsistent.

Then again, celebrations and holidays don’t have to be consistent, do they?

Another important aspect of the new year’s eve celebrations, as in many other places in the world, involves drinking a lot of alcohol. That is true for a very large percentage of all those who celebrate. Any excuse for a party. Which makes January 1st one of the non-holiday (officially acknowledged holiday, anyway) days with the highest work absence level in the year.

Quite a lot of people take a vacation, because it’s either that or get to work late with a killer hangover. My office was half deserted when I came to work, and that was the general case throughout the country.

Also, this year a lot more people celebrated new year’s eve than in the previous years. It’s a bold statement, I know. But I base it on facts. Well, on deductions from fact. Mainly, on the fact that the cellular telephony networks were unable to cope with the amount of “Happy new year” SMS messages that were sent close to midnight. Almost anyone I spoke to, and who tried to send such messages, reported getting back a notice that the messages were not sent, and had to retry.

Make me wonder how the systems will cope with wide scale messaging in cases of emergency. Not so well, I believe. Oh, well, here’s a wish for the new year then: May there be no large scale emergencies.

There, that should cover that.

Oh, right, new year’s resolutions. A widespread tradition, where people make bold statements on what they want to do differently, and better, next year. And which people rarely follow through, and usually sheepishly renege on but promise to do better next year. Hmm… OK, new year’s resolution: Not to make any new year’s resolutions I will fail to follow through on. Heh, I think I finally succeeded. Cool.

West End lowers standards

September 6th, 2006

West End, London, where the best musicals and theatre shows are performed. Where the best singers, dancers, and actors go on stage every evening to entertain the audience.

Tell people that you’ve seen a show in West-End, and they’ll naturally assume it was good. West End implies class. Quality. Careful consideration.

Or at least, all that was true until now. Apparently the standards are falling. And falling very very low.

Ashlee Simpson, also known as the pop singer who officially can’t sing live, has joined the cast of a West End musical.

And not a minor one, some fringe show nobody cares about. Oh, no. She’s now on the cast of Chicago. Chicago, for crying out loud.

And not as a minor character, someone on the swing team who has to stay out back. Oh, no. She’s to be the new Roxie Hart.

What were they thinking?! Were they thinking?!

Why my International Opera Program posts should not be considered to be proper reviews of the singers

July 26th, 2006

One of the problems I’m having with the posts about this opera program is that they get a lot of hits by people searching for the singers by name .

Some searchers are probably just people considering whether to pay a ticket someplace to hear them sing. But some are possibly by people considering casting/hiring these singers, and some may be by the singers themselves or their family members.

Many of these may not be particularly happy with running the name and just getting a paragraph or two of very short and inexact personal opinion on the singer’s performance, followed by some details on what the teacher in the master-class said to them and worked with them.

So I figured I should give a short explanation on what am I trying to cover, and why nothing here should be taken too seriously by the people I’m writing about.

[Update: This paragraph is another very important reason, which just seemed to me to be too obvious to mention. But since it may not be, I'm stating it explicitly] Most of the posts I make in these opera program series are about master-classes. Where the singers practice an aria in front of a teacher/”master”, and receive comments, tips, and lessons. The singer will almost never choose an aria they know very well, and which they practised to perfection, for two main reasons. The first being that if the lecturer won’t have anything to add then it will be boring for the audience. And the second being that it will prevent them from learning something they maybe didn’t know before.

This means that on a master-class the singers will almost always, by definition and intentionally, not be at their best. So me perhaps stating some of their faults in this setting does not imply it will be a real fault when they actually sing on a concert or in an opera. It doesn’t mean they won’t, but it also doesn’t mean they will. It is just what impressions I received during the master-class, where they were more taking a lesson than performing for an audience.

Beyond that To start with, I am not a musician. I like classical music, and I like Opera. But I go to these things to watch and listen. I have no formal training. Nothing more beyond any regular member of the crowd in any similar performance.

I also don’t even try to provide a serious musical review. These posts are a combinations of personal notes, to help me remember what and who I heard, and recaps of the interesting parts of the master-classes.

And I mean interesting in the most basic ways, the things which are non-standard events, the crowd pleaser events, the highlights. I omit a lot of things that may have had a place in a musical review of the singer, or the aria, because they’re not interesting to a non-professional, and possibly not interesting to me.

I also lack the proper terminology. Or, more correctly, often I do know enough to understand the exact terms and descriptions if I hear them, but cannot recall them on my own without some time and effort. So I use the closest regular word I can find. Which is sometimes accurate, and sometimes not.

Things can also get repetitive, a few singers per evening, every evening. It may be important for each individual singer to hear about all the things they have done right, but a large part of it is very repetitive, so I don’t bother.

And, perhaps most importantly, I write these posts at least a few days after the master-class, based on very bad notes. During the show I just scribble a few reminders on a piece of paper. I go to these things because I enjoy them, so I mainly want to listen and pay attention, not write. This results in even worse handwriting than my usual, and in clipped and non-grammatical lines. Often I can’t use a lot of what I wrote, because I can’t recall whatever some obscure line was supposed to remind me of. And I often don’t manage take notes even on things I’d like to mention.

So, to make it short, if you’re a singer, doing ego-surfing, landing on one of my pages, and discovering all I had to say about you was “had a clear voice but a little screechy”, and that then I proceeded to detail the harshest things the teacher told about you in the maser-classes, don’t take it too seriously. I don’t hate you, I probably don’t even think you were really bad unless I explicitly said it. And even if I did, you really shouldn’t care. OK?

International Opera Summer Program in Tel-Aviv 2006

June 20th, 2006

The International Opera Program/Workshop will soon be here for another year.

And hopefully this time Joan Dornemann, the wonderful organizer and moving force behind the program and the International Vocal Arts Institute, will manage to finish everything without getting sick like last time.

The organization on the local side, at least as far as arranging a program and selling tickets, is sorely lacking. The website of the program had the general dates for the Israeli program published for quite a while now (Though I think the page with details on the people involved is somewhat more recent). But the exact list of shows, and prices, has just been sent to people who are on the regular subscriber’s list to receive it.

Together with a notice that sales only begin on the 22nd. Coupled with the policy of providing tickets by order of the receipt of faxes, I’m not sure if they mean that order faxes sent from now to the 22nd will be discarded, or just that they won’t be handled until the 22nd but will then get priority.

And this is pretty close for something starting on July 10th. Very close.

A few weeks ago I even called the agency responsible of selling the tickets, asking if they know when will they have details and be selling tickets. They didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. They guy I was talking to actually told me that they don’t sell tickets to the Opera, and that I’ll have to contact the Israeli Opera directly for that.

I had to explain to him that this program isn’t related to the Israeli Opera, and that his company was responsible for selling tickets to it for the last few years, and according to what I know is also responsible this year.

He checked with a superior, who apparently didn’t have a clue what I was talking about either since the reply I received was a half-coherent explanation that it’s really too early for something starting as far away as July 10th.

Another issue I have with the technical aspects of the program are the increasing ticket prices. They didn’t raise them from last year, and yes, these are still cheap prices for opera around here. But it’s still not the token payment it was in the early years, but real ticket price like for other types of shows.

Not a problem for people wanting to sample one or two evenings, but cause for serious reconsideration for anyone who might have otherwise wanted to go to about everything. It also makes it harder to convince people who aren’t sure if they like opera to come and try.

Still, as long as they manage to sell out most evenings, I suppose I don’t have a real case. It’s not realistic to expect people on the administrative side to put more effort into making the same, or less, money.

And I have no complaints at all on anyone involved in the artistic side. They’ve done an excellent work so far, and will probably continue to do so.

One thing that I do regret, though hard to say if it’s creative or administrative, is that there are only two weeks of master-classes. Their aria concerts, and operas, are nice, but the heart of the program are IMNSHO the master-classes.

Not that I have much to do about that either. And since it seems they’re still having a hard time convincing people to come to Israel, as Joan passes about half of the classes herself (Not that I’m complaining, she’s brilliant. It’s just that it’s hard work, so seems to indicate lack of additional people to take more evenings off her hands), that’s probably not going to change.

Anyway, now comes the part of deciding what do I want to go to beyond the master-classes (To all of which I want to go, but will settle on less for lack of willing partners), and of trying to get friends and family to accompany me.

Should be fun.

Warm welcome for ‘Playboy’ in Indonesia

June 16th, 2006

An Islamic group in Indonesia decided to aggressively object the publication of a local Playboy Magazine edition.

Two policemen were injured Wednesday when about 100 demonstrators, most of them Islam Defenders Front (FPI) members, attacked the Playboy Indonesia editorial office in South Jakarta.

Protesters pelted the building with rocks, shattering windows and panicking the tenants.

A very violent reaction. And while 100 aren’t that large a group in general, it’s a very large group if they’re all actually taking part in the riot and not just standing and looking.

There are legitimate ways to object to things you don’t like, but this sort of violence isn’t one of them. If they think there are legal issues, and they claim they do, then they should have used the courts. If they object to the content they should avoid buying the magazine, and encourage others to do the same.

The demonstrators earlier visited National Police Headquarters to complain about the publication of the magazine. They made a bonfire of about 100 copies of the magazine.

Burning about a 100 copies of the magazine is also not the way. And not only because book (and by extension magazine) burning is bad in general. It’s also because in order to create a bonfire of a 100 magazine they had to first purchase those 100 magazines.

This happened before the riot. So these weren’t copied found in the offices by someone breaking in.

Buying the magazine is a good way to encourage publication. It’s demand. Playboy doesn’t care if people read the magazine, or burn it. They earn the same amount of money either way. And either way they can claim the buyers think it’s hot (OK, lousy pun there, sorry).

Plus, imagine how this looks like in the organization’s expense account. Going over the general ledger of an Islamic organization and finding a purchase order for 100 Playboy magazines is bound to make some accountant giggle.

Imagine that, since it’s related to the organization’s goal, they ask the Indonesian equivalent of the IRS for a tax refund…

The Independent Journalists Association (AJI) condemned the attack. AJI secretary-general Abdul Manan said

“According to press regulations, the FPI could face a maximum Rp 500 million fine,” he said.

500 million Indonesian Rupiahs are a little less than $53,000. On the one hand it seems like a small amount of money compared to the damage described. On the other hand in local terms it may be quite a lot, I’m really not sure.

I’m also not sure why someone from a journalistic association is a reliable source in determining the maximum fine the organization may receive for the damages they caused. Even if the lawsuit for damages will be done by the AJI, and not directly by Playboy Indonesia, or the country (remember, policemen were hurt), their lawyer should make these kinds of comments, and preferably base them on what they request in the lawsuit. This, however, just seems pulled out of nowhere.

And just how seriously do these guys take it? Was that just a one-time riot because people got in a frenzy? Well, no, it’s more serious to them than that, according to their leader:

“If the magazine continues to be distributed, the FPI is ready to go to war,” he said

Of course, saying war when you’re an organization, rather than a country, carries a different meaning.

Still, it’s a shame that people can actually consider going to what they consider war for a purpose as important and crucial as preventing publication of a magazine.

Chief editor of Playboy Indonesia Erwin Arnada said

“Playboy Indonesia is in full compliance with Indonesian law and does not, and will not, contain any nude photography. We have also …

What was that? Playboy Indonesia magazine will not contain any nude photography? Hmm…

I never actually opened an issue of Playboy, but aren’t these things supposed to kind of be about… nude photography? Isn’t that like the whole point?

Or is this supposed to be the version where people finally, finally, actually mean it when they say they only read it for the articles?

Study claims atheists in the US are the most distrusted minority group

March 24th, 2006

A research by the department of sociology in the University of Minnesota claims that Atheist are the most distrusted minority group in America.

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

I’d really like to see some more technical info about this study. Sociology isn’t exactly my field, but this thing is just so strange that I have a very strong feeling they haven’t done something, or quite a few things, right.

Starting with the poll. Telephone sampling? For these type of questions? How exactly does that work?

Imaginary phone call:

Q: Hi. I’m calling from the department of sociology in the University of Minnesota. Can I please ask you a few questions for a research project we’re having?

A: Sure, go ahead.

Q: Would you say Muslims share your vision of American society?

A: What? Those terrorists?! Heck, no!

Q: How about recent immigrants?

A: Yeah, coming to steal our job with their cheap labor. Sure they share my vision of American society. Land of opportunities, right?

Q: What about gays and lesbians, do they share your vision of American society?

A: Those darn *censored*?! No way! They should get their head examined, and go find themselves a good woman. Err… Except for those lesbo *censored*, they should go find themselves a good man. No way they share my vision of American society!

Q: I see, sir. What about atheists then?

A: Atheists?

Q: Yes, atheists. How much do you think they share your vision of American society?

A: Those dumb *censored* don’t even notice that God exist. Even those crazy *censored* Muslims knows God exist, even if they have this funny name for him, and they don’t have a clue what he wants them to do. But the atheists, they don’t even believe there’s a God. I don’t want to live in an America where people can deny God. This is a shame. They should all be shot the damn *censored*, before they ruin America for all of us. And it would be fun to see the look on their face when they realize that they do have immortal souls, and that they got sent to hell because they’re dumb *censored*.

Q: I see, sir. And how do you think are they in comparison to gays and lesbians? You expressed dissatisfaction with both minority groups. Can you say which one do you think is further from sharing your vision of American society?

A: Are you *censored* kidding me? There’s no question! Compared to a *censored* atheist I’ll take a lesbo any time. Heck, I’d marry a lesbo before letting one of those atheist creeps through the door. I’ll have my daughter marry a lesbo, a lesbo named Muhammed even, if it was that or marry an atheist!

Q: Thank you very much sir, you’ve been a great help.

A: You’re most welcome. God bless you, dear.

How does one even start such a conversation? Calling people and asking them who share their vision of American society more? Heck, who will seriously answer someone asking them a question like that on the phone?

And I’d really want to know who they asked in order to surmise the answers they got are representative of the entire US population. Spread evenly across states, or by population size? All states, or selected states? Large cities, or small desolate towns? On a question like this I think they’ll find very big variations, so not controlling for a lot of factors, or separating the data sets, is problematical.

I also really don’t think that their idea of comparing these “minority” groups is sound, if that’s really the way they did it. I mean, comparing atheist to gay people? WTF?! Didn’t it occur to anyone that maybe some of those gay people are not exactly good Christians, and are not spending their lives being worried if they’re really going to hell for breaking some obscure biblical verses?

I’m not saying gay people can’t be, or aren’t, religious. But we get lots of press from religious figures going on and on about how being a homosexual is an abomination unto god and so on. Stand to reason that the gay people at least don’t follow those specific streams.

There will be a correlation. Which makes a question about preferences very complicated. Did they ask more specific questions about lesbian Muslims, lesbian Christians, and lesbian atheists?

The press release actually mentions “other minority groups”. The possibilities for interactions here are immense. Second-generation Puerto-Ricans are probably a minority group, but nothing stops them, or any other minority memeber, from being gay, or from being a Muslim or an atheist.

So claiming atheists are the most distrusted, compared to other groups which contain atheists… Doesn’t sound too good to me.

Also, with the amount of prejudiced people around, I have a hard time believing that most Americans will be happier having their kids marry Black/Hispanic/Muslim/Wiccan/Gay/etc, or a combination thereof, before marrying an atheist. My belief is of course meaningless from a statistical standpoint. But a sample size of merely 2,000 people can’t be that much more significant.

Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. “Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.

I was also surprised by that 3 percent figure. I know most Americans are religious, but I didn’t think it was by that high a majority. Though it’s important to notice that they very probably don’t include agnostics here. Still, the way they define Atheist for the research can have quite an effect. A pity they don’t make it more clear on this press release.

And being a threat to the American Way of Life(TM)? Did they really get that without asking extremely leading questions?

Oh, well, what do I know? I’m probably just a *censored* atheist myself, most of the time.

Purim, revisited

March 15th, 2006

Not really a post, I just thought that since it’s Purim again, I’ll link to my post from last year, So what is this Purim all about?.

The post is a humorous recounting of the story from the Scroll of Esther. There is one extra character not included in the original bible version of the story, but what makes the post funny is how very very close the rest of it is. Except the interpretations of course, those aren’t in the original. The actual deeds and happenings are, though.

I do realize that it could use some extra styling and editing, but I’m too lazy to do that, so it will just stay as-is for now. Maybe next year…

And there are worse things than Holocaust denial

February 22nd, 2006

On the same article regarding the guy being jailed for denying the Holocaust there were some responses. One of which, from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, I find totally objectionable:

The verdict was welcomed by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which also highlighted the issue of freedom of speech.

“While Irving’s rants would not have led to legal action in the United States, it is important that we recognize and respect Austria’s commitment to fighting Holocaust denial, the most odious form of hatred, as part of its historic responsibility to its Nazi past,” the center’s associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, said in a statement.

First, countries don’t have responsibilities to their past. They have responsibilities to their present, and should have responsibilities for their future. Nothing Austria will do today will ever change its Nazi past (inventing a time machine and going to kill baby Hitler excluded). It will only have an effect on how the country looks today, and will look in the future. And throwing people in jail for thinking something contrary to current doctrine, even if I believe that doctrine to be absolutely correct, doesn’t seem responsible to me.

More importantly, there are much more odious forms of hatred than Holocaust denial. Killing people, for one. Saying otherwise is greatly belittling every other sort of hate crime in the world. Against Jews, or otherwise. There’s plenty of hate to go around, unfortunately.

The audacity of this Rabbi Abraham Cooper to claim that nothing worse can be done than denying the Holocaust is something I find much more objectionable than someone denying the Holocaust. The latter I can define as an idiot and be done with it. Rabbi Abraham is Worse. Listen Rabbi, when someone murders a Jew for being a filthy Jew, or burns a synagogue, do you find yourself saying “oh, well, at least they didn’t deny the Holocaust?”. Because that’s what you apparently just said.

Heck, one of the reasons for founding Israel was to prevent such events as the Holocaust from happening again. But here we hear that doing similar things is not as bad as denying they happened in the past. So maybe we should just close shop, because we already have Austria guarding that particular front?

But don’t worry, Rabbi. Even though you’re saying far worse things, I don’t think you deserve to go to jail either. You just deserve some contempt and disdain.

In this series (Holocaust denier gets three years in Jail):

  1. Being an idiotic jerk should not be a reason get thrown in jail
  2. And there are worse things than Holocaust denial

Being an idiotic jerk should not be a reason get thrown in jail

February 22nd, 2006

An Austrian court sentenced a man to three years in jail, for denying the holocaust existed. Or, as the case may be, for trying to grossly misrepresent the events that occurred as something not even close in scope to what actually happened.

The historical evidence seems pretty overwhelming, so it never ceases to surprise me how some people can choose to ignore so much of it just because of their own personal views. Of course, my own opinion isn’t without bias, me being a Jew (though a secular one) and living in Israel. But still, I do believe that the evidence clearly shows that most of what we believe happened during the holocaust really did happen.

Therefore I do most sincerely believe that this guy, David Irving, is an idiot.

What strikes me as being too much, though, is throwing him in jail for it. Yes, the guy believes in quite a load of… manure. On the personal front I’d probably hate him, and it would very probably be mutual. None of that should be something worth being jailed for, though.

Many people believe in all sorts of totally wild nonsense, much of it extremely easier to prove wrong than it is to prove the holocaust happened (hint: That’s quite easy to prove), and yet nobody throws them in jail for it. Usually they’re not even thrown in asylums.

Many other people (though a large overlap probably exist) believe in all sorts of really offensive stuff, and yet they don’t get thrown in jail for it either.

So why this particular stupid belief, and even the attempt to propagate it in public, should be considered so much worse, is beyond me. I may personally find it more offensive than a lot of other stuff but, until the day I get to rule the world with my iron fist, that shouldn’t really count for much.

That said, the reason Austria has these laws forbidding holocaust denial is understandable. Germany and Austria suffered quite a lot of backlash over the actions of Nazi Germany under Hitler. And the Austrian governments, whether out of political expediency or actual feeling that they should carry a shame over the actions of someone who happened to get born in the same country they live in, wanted to make it obvious how badly they feel about it.

Fine. We got that. You think Hitler was really bad, and what he did was really bad. That’s alright, most of the world agree. Now get over it. Seriously.

Explaining during history lessons what went wrong, and why those views are wrong, that’s fine. Quite welcome, even. But making it illegal to hold a belief, as misguided as it may be, as long as nothing is done about it (Going out killing Jews is doing something. Merely thinking that a good Jew is a dead Jew, isn’t doing something. Not that denying the holocaust is exactly wanting Jews dead, but I think that passes the semantic point well enough), that’s misguided itself.

Yes, it would be much harder for someone with such views to rise to a position of political power where mentioning those views is illegal. That’s true. But is that worth running laws requiring what’s effectively a thought police?

There are so many other bad ideas people believe in. This one got into law because they had one such person who eventually managed to act on it on a large scale. So is that really the main worry they should keep carrying?

Historical events leave scars, and effect laws and culture for many years. The bigger the event, the deeper the scars, and the longer the effect lasts. But as some point people have to separate between laws that have a positive influence on current and future events, and laws which only hurt those and their sole benefit is making people feel better about the past trauma.

Speaking of which, I think it’s quite possible we have similar laws here in Israel. And such laws are even more understandable here than in Austria, since it’s to be expected a country of Jews will be a lot more touchy on the subject. And yet I think even here holding such a law is misguided. Not to mention silly, since those views really have no chance of catching on here.

Let the idiots rave. No need to turn them into martyrs for the few other misguided people who believe them. Heck, most racist and anti-Semitic people (assuming that’s the group the Austrian legislators worried about) don’t deny the holocaust. They may think it was a very good event, and should have gone out longer, but from there to denial the way is long. Not to mention, denying the holocaust takes away from such people the biggest example they have of how things should run.

Which is why I think holocaust deniers aren’t, and shouldn’t be, anything too exciting. Nobody much cares about them and their views, on both/all sides. There’s no much difference between them and people who want to deny other historical events, except that this one is more loaded culturally and politically.

Throwing someone like that in jail is bad on two totally different front. The first is that it simply gives the issue too much attention. Why fight over whether it’s allowed to deny the holocaust? It happened, and anyone insisting the earth is flat (Though I do admit there’s a bit more evidence for that) should be of no interest.

The second is that it’s a bad precedent for arresting people due to simple beliefs and opinions. If people think that such a law is a good idea, the distance isn’t that great until other stupid thoughts and beliefs become illegal as well. And from there it’s a slippery slope. I like my freedom of speech to much for that. To be wholly inappropriate and paraphrase, I don’t want it to end in cases of… First they came for the holocaust deniers, and I did not speak up, because I wasn’t a holocaust denier

In this series (Holocaust denier gets three years in Jail):

  1. Being an idiotic jerk should not be a reason get thrown in jail
  2. And there are worse things than Holocaust denial

International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv, my last master-class for this year

July 31st, 2005

On Thursday was the last International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv’s master-class that I went to. The last actual one was on Friday, but since I couldn’t get to it (a pity, since Paul Sperry would have been very interesting to see, I think), I don’t count it.

Before I go on, though, there’s one comment I want to make. Something that came up because I did not really expect the amount of ego surfing (“Ego-surfing” is the term for when someone runs an Internet search for their own name, or possibly other close people, to see what people write about them) that I’ve been seeing from singers in the program. I got plenty of such hits.

Now, the general rule when posting is be aware that anyone may read it, and I generally follow it, but if people are going to fall on these on purpose, there is something that I think may not be entirely obvious to someone who goes looking for stuff about herself (or himself, but so far the statistics of hits I got here say otherwise). I’m not a music reviewer. More importantly, while I am actually capable of providing much more accurate review of their singing and performance, I don’t. I can go on for each one about how they sang specific notes, how well they did their staccatos, how bright or dark were the notes, and plenty of other musical and singing parameters. But it isn’t interesting. At least, not for the purpose of me posting here.

I don’t expect anyone considering hiring the singers to take my words for anything. And this is why I only say some very few words about how they actually were, and go on with what was done with them. The result is that I may seem to be rather harsh and very critical. That’s not the point. I just want to write about the interesting bits from the class that I remember, and for a class those would invariably be what got mostly mentioned on the stage. Which would be exactly the things that the singers did wrong.

So if I start by listing a singer’s faults, and go on about how much work they got during the master-class, it doesn’t necessarily imply they were bad. It doesn’t necessarily imply they were good either, but they could have been. Most of them are good, or very good. But if someone read these posts thinking (mistakenly) that the point is to review the singers, they could get the impression that I think most of them are really bad. So if you’re one of the a singers who came here ego-surfing, don’t assume I wrote anything about you beyond what’s explicitly there. OK?

Now that’s that out of the way, back to the business at hand. The maser-class was supposed to be another one of Joan Dornemann’s, but she came on stage and informed us all, in a hoarse voice, that she has a sore throat and can’t really speak. She sounded convincing. Although, of course, if she just wanted to bail out, I’m sure given the circumstances she wouldn’t have had a problem faking a very convincing sore throat, or getting vocal coaching to help her do it if she can’t on herself. Not that I’m saying she did that, but it’s an amusing thought. I hope she got better, and after all this is indeed one of the risks of speaking a lot.

So instead of Joan we got Lucy Arner. Something which surprised me a bit, because while on some of the past years she did have a few master-classes, she didn’t officialy get one on this year’s program. So I originally assumed she just didn’t come. But since obviously she did arrive, she was right there after all, I’m not sure why exactly was it that they didn’t schedule her originally.

I did see two previous master-classes with her in the past, once of which was alright, and one which was bad since in it she was very technical with the singer and didn’t pay much attention to the audience. So when Joan announced the switch, I was somewhat apprehensive. As it turned out, though, she was excellent and interesting, so my worries were entirely unfounded. Still, I must not have been the only one, since there were a few people who up and left when Joan got off the stage. Their loss.

The first singer was an Israeli mezzo-soprano called Maya Lahyani. She sang Must the winter come so soon?, from Vanessa, by Samuel Barber. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I was a bit concerned for purely prejudicial reasons, when I saw the name Lahyani in connection with opera. I am however glad to say that those concerns were unfounded, and she was a really good singer. She had a very lovely and clear voice, and while her diction was a little flaky it was still possible to understand everything. Of course, with the way many people around here speak English, it’s not such a surprise that it’s easy to understand English regardless of how it’s pronounced, but that’s not her fault.

And in case anyone cares, according to Lucy this is a very good audition aria, short and beautiful. It’s also one of Lucy’s favourites, apparently, but that means it’s a bad piece if she’s giving the audition, since she’s bound to notice every little thing.

In this case they just worked on diction. Lucy said that English is a hard language in this regard, all full of not only diphthongs, but triphthongs and quadriphthongs as well. Well, I’m not entirely sure about those last, but that’s what she said, even if in half-jest. She also said some of them are ridiculous, which is really no way to speak about a language, is it? Even one having ridiculous sounds.

Lucy also corrected some cases where Maya drew the sounds beyond where the word ended, telling her that there are no vowels there, so she shouldn’t sing them. And in an amusing twist gave an example of a famous singer, but one who does it wrong, instead of one who does it right “You may have heard Pavarotti sing like that. Pavarotti has all these extra vowels”.

We also received two comments related to other languages. One was that “French is a very good language for singing in English”, since it has vowels which correspond well to the sounds required when singing in English. The other was about parts of the song where the singer blows air which isn’t used directly for the note being sung “Air that doesn’t support the tone is a big no-no in Italian. But a yes-yes in English”.

There was another part where Lucy wanted Maya to sing more slurred R consonants. She asked her “How do you make a slurred R?”, and when she couldn’t give her a good answer responded with “People don’t think about that. I think about that… I have too much free time on my hands”. And went on to explain that you can make a slurred R by pulling the tongue out a bit, and the lower sides of the cheeks (She used a better terminology, but since the proper words elude me at the moment, that will have to do) inside. Now you know.

The second singer was Karina Lucas, a mezzo-soprano from England. She sang Il padre adorato, from Idomeneo, by Mozart. She had a nice voice, but a little flat. Mostly Lucy worked with her on staying closer to the score, stating that in this case, especially given the recitative parts, Mozart does not give the singer a lot of leeway, “go with the orchestra”. At one point she did say that in some cases, had it been another composer, then the change Karina made might have been a good idea, but in this case “Mozart, him I trust”, even if he was just 24 at the time.

Lucy also told her that in cases of recitatives she must pay a lot more attention to the consonants. Something which singers don’t do a lot when singing Italian, since “Italian is a vowel’s language”. Which I think is somewhat amusing considering Italian only has five of them, but it’s true that they are still what you mostly hear, and often the consonants get smoothed over.

The original third singer did not arrive, with Lucy saying something I didn’t quite hear, but which resulted in her stating the singer was just too tired. Instead we got a duet, The Cherry Duet, from L’Amico Fritz, by Mascagni. The singers were Talia Or, who as usual had a great voice but was somewhat lacking diction and acting, and a tenor whose name I didn’t manage to catch. When he said it the name sounded a little like Pierre, but he didn’t look like a Pierre, so I really don’t know. He was nice, but gave me the impression he was more speaking, than singing, his aria.

When they announced what they are going to sing, Lucy said “Oh, too bad!”, going on to say that it’s one of her favourite arias (yes, again. She must have had a good day. Or she really likes a lot of arias). As another side note, this was one of the very rare times when the pianist received a mini-lecture as well, about something which he (Rolando Garza) apparently didn’t do right. Lucy is a known pianist herself, so it makes sense she pays attention.

In the aria Suzel and Fritz are meeting when she is picking cherrys, and he offers to help. Or as Lucy put it “They are talking about picking cherrys… Yeah, right!”. And tried to get the two singers to look a little more like there’s something going on beneath the surface. She went on in great length about the movie Continental Divide in which there is a scene where supposedly the two main characters have a discussion about ornithology which just barely mask that “they are actually making love with words”. Nobody in the hall seemed to have seen the movie, though. Including the singers. Still, the idea should have been easy enough to get. But neither of them seemed to be able to hold it for more than a few seconds.

There was another one of those pick a hot actor parts, and Lucy got Tom Cruise’s name back as an example. She wasn’t too happy with it, though, saying that “Everybody says Tom Cruise. Can you please be more original?”. Eventually I think they settled for Harrison Ford.

At another part she said that they needed to be a little less focused on the exact singing, and go with their instincts. That it’s a problem for them because the teachers “nag them all the time about their a vowel, and double consonants”, during which Talia Or started to very dramatically nod up and down with her head to show that they are indeed getting nagged a lot about their a vowels. Goes to prove that she does have the dramatic acting ability, she just needs proper motivation.

We then went on a break. The cue for the audience was the usual one: half the singers were gone, and nobody else rushed immediately on-stage when the duo left. Lucy took a little longer to get it, I think because she didn’t have a master-class in a while, and this was indeed a last minute thing. So kept yelling backstage for them to send the next singer. But soon enough people from the audience shouted at her that there’s an intermission, and she was kind enough to allow us (well, the half that didn’t reach the doors of the hall yet) to take a 10 minute break.

During which I saw the last duo and a couple of other singers leave. Usually the singers stay to watch the other master-classes and students, so I noticed that they leisurely went away. Not sure why, but it doesn’t matter much, I suppose.

The first singer after the intermission was Amit Friedman, an Israeli baritone. He sang Herr Gott Abrahams, from Elijah, by Mendelssohn. He had a good voice. But I feel sorry for the guy, because even if he was a totally amazing singer, which he wasn’t, he’s still going to have a hard time finding someone who will want him on stage. He’s very very tall, and thin. In addition to that he also stands very hunched and tucks in his chin, possibly due to years of talking to people who are shorter than him. The overall effect is that he looks extremely awkward and out of place. There may be a few roles he could fit into, but in most places he will look very inappropriate when on stage.

A large part of the lesson was therefore spent trying to get him to stand straight, and not look all hunched and tucked in. Which didn’t really help. At best he’s extremely used to standing like that, and at worst it’s now physical. This may be alright when talking to people, but is a great problem for his stage presence. Lucy did get him to force himself to straighten up a few times, but it never held.

Elijah is also an oratorio rather than an opera. So this aria is “an oratorio aria, not an opera aria. The singing is the same, but the details are different”. Meaning that they worked on several points done a little differently. It also has sequences which start in the high notes, and culminate in the low notes, with the climax at the lowest. This is the opposite of what usually happens in Italian, and most arias, so takes some practice to do right. Which he did after it was pointed out to him and he tried it a couple of times.

The last singer was Shlomi Wagner (not related AFAIK, but definitely raised the musical expectations), also a baritone from Israel. He sang Bella siccome un angelo, from Don Pasquale, by Donizetti. He’s still young, and lacking both his very high notes and very low notes, but he has a beautiful voice, strong vibrato, and will probably become an excellent singer once he’ll grow up some more and keep practising.

In this aria Dr. Malatesta tries to describe to Don Pasquale a women he wants him to marry. The women is… not impressive, to say the least, so the aria is in essence a sales pitch, full of empty compliments and outright lies. Much of what they did in the lesson was trying to get Shlomi to put it more in this perspective, mostly from the acting angle. As she told him, he’s trying to sell damaged goods, and should present the aria like the stereotypical slick used-cars salesmen.

They went on with him singing, while all the time she was throwing various metaphors at him related to what is going on in the aria. At one point the aria goes on about how the women is as fresh as the lilies, so Lucy pointed to one of the large flower pots at the side of the stage saying “as fresh as the lilies over there…”. Except those are plastic flowers, so she went straight on with “Fresh NOT like the lilies over there. Looking a bit fake”.

At another point the aria goes on about her enchanting smile, and Lucy added “The most beautiful smile… hiding the worst dental works in history”.

As for singing, there was a time when he held a note for a too short duration. After telling him to lengthen it, for a few times, she jokingly exclaimed that “You’re twenty. You’re into instant gratification”.

Also, when he needed to sing a note he couldn’t quite reach, she told him how to sing so it will be less noticeable “want you to do that soft, since your voice don’t have these low notes yet, and we don’t want them to know that”. And later “We’re going to take out the g-flat. For now. Next year, you get the g-flat.”

There was one more incident, going on during the time Shlomi was singing. I heard a cell-phone ringtone from behind me. I looked around, and saw some lady starting to rummage inside her bag. It seemed like she started to press some buttons, since the phone beeped in a manner fitting a cellphone keypad, but it didn’t quite stop the ringtone played. The lady got a lot of attention, and eventually managed quiet the phone down.

A few seconds later, that’s right, her phone rang again, but this time she quieted it rather quickly. About a minute after that… Anyone cares to guess? That’s right, her phone rang, and she once again started to fiddle with it inside her bag. Apparently the concept of shutting a phone down, or disconnecting the battery if they can’t locate the off button, is beyond the intellect level of some people.

Oh, and the best part? When she did that on this last time she quietly (But I was close enough to hear) and angrily uttered to herself “Nimaas li!”, which can be roughly translated as “I had enough of this!” or “I’m tired of this!”. She, you notice. Because she‘s the one being bothered. Not the rest of the audience, and the singer and coach on stage. She had enough… These people still manage to amaze me every time, though I should really get used to it by now.

A very enjoyable evening, overall, and a good master-class. As far as the program goes, I’m scheduled to go to one of their aria concerts, and one of the operas, but I’m not sure there will be anything warranting a post. Until next year, then.

In this series (International Opera Program 2005):

  1. International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv
  2. International Opera Program, part 2
  3. International Opera Program, part 3
  4. International Opera Program, Part 4
  5. International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv, my last master-class for this year

International Opera Program, Part 4

July 28th, 2005

On Tuesday I’ve been to another master-class in the International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv. The second, and last, one by John Norris for this year.

There were only five singers on the program this time. Not only that, but John started off by mentioning that two of them wouldn’t show up and will be replaced by others.

And of course, right after I used the previous post to say how there is an oddly high ratio of female sopranos compared to the other singers, on this class there was only one female singer. Though a soprano.

The first singer was Andrew Sritheran, a tenor from New Zealand. He sang E lucevan le stelle, from Tosca, by Puccini. He had an excellent voice, clear and deep. He might have had a slight problem on the high notes, but overall sang very well. His main problem was being too tense and rigid, which mainly affected his pose, but also, a little, his singing.

John worked with him to have him relax, and to get into the rhythm of the piece. The singer was also acting like he was singing to the back wall, while the aria should have been directed more inside, as if singing to himself. This probably came from basic singing lessons where singers are often told to sing out to the audience. By the time they reached the end of the aria together, there was a very noticeable improvement.

The seconds singer (not listed in the program page, so may be misspelled) was David Baumine. He sang Avant de quitter ces lieux, from Faust, by Gounod. His singing was good, but he was acting too indifferent, without clearly expressing what was going over the character.

John said he needs to “bring the aria to life”. He worked on developing a spatial relation to the piece, choosing specific direction on stage where Marguerite would be, and where the other fellow soldiers would be. They then worked on the proper pose and expressions suitable for when speaking to each of these and when praying to god, and later on the transitions and places where more complex things needed to be expressed. Since this is a class, John had him go a little overboard, including putting his hand to his chest when turning to Marguerite, something he said he’d never let him actually do on stage in a performance.

The third singer was Andrew Heggie (Yep, we had two Andrews on stage), a Baritone from England. At least, on the program he’s listed as coming from England, but he deemed it important enough to inform us that while he does live in England for several years, he’s originally from Australia. He sang Deh vieni alla finestra, from Don Giovanni, by Mozart. He was alright, but not impressive at all. He sang too weakly, didn’t hold some notes for the correct length, and had a slightly brittle voice. He also seemed much too bored for someone singing a serenade to a women in an attempt to seduce her.

As it turned out, he was also not entirely aware what was happening in the aria, thinking Don Giovanni was going after Donna Elvira. John reminded him that he’s not serenading to her, he already has her and she just left for some time, but instead was trying to seduce her maid. He told him he should act more like a scene of seduction “One girl out of the way, another in the way”.

Trying to get Andrew to look like he’s lusting after a women didn’t work, so John introduced the theatre concept of substitution. Finding something else which can act as a substitute to what is needed. And decided to go with food. Probably because the two things do tie together, and the reactions are somewhat similar, and not just because Andrew looked like he really likes food.

So John said to Andrew “Tell me some things you really like to eat, which are really bad for you”, and then proceeded to indicate three separate area on the stage which Andrew was supposed to pretend contained one a pile of pizzas, the second a pile of spring rolls, and the third a pile of lemon-meringue pies. Some older lady sitting a couple of rows behind me said to someone in a low voice that they have very similar tastes.

And then John had Andrew sing the aria again, while constantly drawing his attention to the imaginary piles of food. Which did wonders, since the guy really did manage to put on an expression full of desire, as he was directing his gaze from one food to the next on John’s cues, “Feel the oil, the oil!”. As John commented “Sometimes substitution is better than the real thing”.

The fourth singer will have to remain a mystery. The guy didn’t bother presenting himself when he came on stage. Actually, he didn’t even presented the piece, which is a big huge no-no. With most other teachers, for example I explicitly remembering it happening with Joan a couple of times, he would have been stopped and instructed to do it properly. Now, normally I’d assume he is who the printed program said he is, Nimrod Grinboim, a tenor from Israel, except that we were told there would be two changes, and the following singer was exactly the one on the list. The guy was an Israeli, though, so it’s possible it was indeed him. In any case, what he sang was Una furtiva lagrima, from L’Elisir d’Amore (Love Potion), by Donizetti. He sang reasonably, but looked too happy and smug for the aria.

John tried working with him, as usual, on getting into the mood of the aria, and connecting to it emotionally. And failed miserably. Whatever John tried to do, the guy just wouldn’t get it. I seriously got the impression he came on stage wanting to sing to the audience, but wasn’t interested at all in learning anything.

The first thing John did was the tried-and-true method of getting him to say the words in his own language. The intention is not to provide a translation, but to “say it in your own words”, to get something with the same semantic meaning, but which it will be easier to relate to. Anyone who saw practically any of these master-class would have gotten the concept, anyone studying a little singing should have, and even the friend who came with me to this evening (and who was seeing something opera related for the first time ever) got the concept. Yet this singer didn’t. He used a translation which resulted in sentences so archaic that nobody would have been able to relate to them emotionally. Later on, when he had to do the same for some other words, he had very hard time of coming up with anything that he would say to a women who he loves and knows loves him back in turn.

It went like that for the entire lesson. Horribly bad translations, and total failure to connect emotionally on any level. Nothing, Nada, zilch. He just didn’t bother trying, and only kept going through the motions until he’ll be released. Either that, or he just finds the entire concept of love so foreign that there is nothing for him to relate to. Laziness and lack of care seem more likely, I think and hope.

The last singer was Rinat Moriah, a soprano from Israel. She sang Glitter and be gay, from Candide, by Bernstein. She has a good voice, and good vocal control, but she sang a little too quietly and weakly. At one spot during the aria she stopped for a second as she forgot the words, and John came to her rescue and provided it for her. Apart from that it was a good performance, and she did make an effort to show some emotions and match her mood to the aria. Very good potentional here, I think, once she’ll learn how to get more breath.

One thing she didn’t do quite right, but rather easily corrected once it was mentioned, is that she sang to the audience (as Joan Dornemann said on a past master-class, they should sing for the audience, but not to the audience), while in the aria Cunegonde was talking to herself. Other than that they worked on making the acting even more connected, and more appropriate to the nuances and changes in the aria. When the aria went about her looks and clothes, John told her to imagine a large mirror between herself and the audience, and observe herself in the mirror. Later on a similar part he had her examine her supposed jewellery, since even though the master-class was done without costumes, the character has them, and will have them during a performance.

Some of the ways to elicit the proper behaviour and emotional mood were somewhat amusing. Like the part she had to go from the self-reassuring happy thought about her clothing and looks, to a more sad and introspective mood, and he said “And then we see the first wrinkle…”.

A very good evening overall. Though we did come out confused over that mysterious singer who came for some unclear goal…

International Opera Program, part 3

July 27th, 2005

Monday evening I went to yet another master-class in the International Opera Program in Tel-Aviv.

The well established fact – that it’s impossible for my father to go anywhere without meeting someone who knows him, was demonstrated once more, as we came across no less than three different people who said hello to him. At least this solved the problem of how to pass the time until the show started.

Another change was that they started selling those T-Shirts of the opera program. White shirts with blue prints. The money supposedly goes to support the musical studies, so a price of 50 ILS per shirt is understandable in that regard. Yet they did raise the actual ticket prices a lot over the years, so we weren’t too inclined to donate more.

The master-class was again by Joan Dornemann. On the latest years, when it becomes harder to bring extra talent to teach, Joan shoulders more of the burden herself. She does bring John Norris, but if I recall correctly he does exactly two master-classes on each years.

On this particular evening all the student singers were Israelis.

The printed program only listed five singers for the evening. The first one on stage was not on the list (ergo I may have misspelled the name), a girl called Lauren Yelinkovitz. She started by singing Oh Mio Bambino Caro, from Gianni Schicchi, by Puccini. She had an overall nice voice, good pronunciation, but sang too weakly and without any expressions of emotions. The hand-clapping of the audience were a bit mild, and Joan told her that she needed to show more personality, and act a little more. Joan then asked her if she had also prepared a different piece.

It does happen sometimes when for some reason the teacher doesn’t want to go over the aria which was just sung, but in this case it appeared to be out of the blue. Lauren said that she had, and shortly started to sing Popular from the musical (yes, that’s right, musical) Wicked. Not only that, but she sang it like a musical piece rather than an aria piece. And she acted it as well, instead of just singing. She certainly did show a whole lot more personality. It was quite obvious something a little fishy was going on. And indeed after she finished, and got plenty of cheers (she sang well, and it was fun, though her voice did tend to be a bit squeaky when she went to the higher notes), Joan said that it’s a preview for the Broadway evening. After that the singer went off the stage. She wasn’t really there for a master-class.

As one of the aria concerts in the series, there will be one where their singers will sing songs from musicals, instead of arias. Since they haven’t yet sold all the tickets, they decided to give us this song as a sort of a self publicity effort. It’s sadly understandable why it wasn’t sold out. The opera crowd they usually attract isn’t exactly interested in musicals, many of them are very old, and old fashioned in what they want to hear. And people interested in musicals may be reluctant to hear those songs performed by opera singers. Which is also why I’m not going to be there myself, since my one friend who realy likes musicals does not like opera, and so preferred to stay clear of this. It’s even sadder, considering that as hard as it is to see operas in Israel, it’s much much harder to catch a musical in English around here.

The first actual master-class singer was Shira Raz, a mezzo-soprano. She sang Svegliatevi nel core, from Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar), by Handel. I’ve heard her in the past, and she’s a very good singer. I really liked her voice, and her singing. Her only problem was with the pronunciation and diction. Joan thought so too. She started off by saying that this is a very difficult aria, and that it’s usually sung by a contra-tenor. That the piece is bouncy, and very personal, and listeners usually either really like it, or really don’t like it. She went on to say that as far as this aria is concerned, singers are divided clearly into two groups, “Those who can sing it, and of those who can’t sing it. Those who can, there is nothing to say to them about it, and those who can’t, well, there is nothing much to say to them either”. And that Shira certainly can sing it.

And then of course came the heavily emphasized “However”, followed by a lot of criticism on her pronunciation and diction. She said that what Shira sang wasn’t Italian, it was an amalgamation of all sorts of languages, including bits of ancient Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and so on. She turned to the crowd, and asked how many people speak Italian. There were something like 3-5 people who raised their hands, including my father. She then asked if they understood the words Shira sang, to which the replies ranged from occasionally to sometimes. Certainly no yeses.

Joan went on to say that there are basically two reasons for lousy diction, that the singer is “either lazy, or dumb”. She then went on about how industrious and hard working she knows Shira to be. But before the crowd got too full of mirth, Joan also said she doesn’t think Shira is dumb either, “which leaves one thing, you didn’t think about it”. Joan went on to explain to her that paying attention to diction is important, and that she should take it seriously and work on it.

Joan then went over the aria with her, in the typical master-class fashion, correcting various diction errors as she went along. The thing is, Italian only has five vowels. A lot less than many other languages. So very often you hear singers who aren’t native Italians singing Italian arias with all sorts of sounds which just don’t exist in the language. On a master-class some years ago Joan called it “singing Italian in French”. And she said, with some hyperbole, now “Italian has 5 vowels. French has 27 vowels. And German has 528 vowels”. By the end of the lesson, my father said Shira’s words became a lot more understandable.

Then came Assif Am-David, a male (The only one this evening. Actually, most classes feel skewed towards females, and sopranos. I’m not entirely sure why) baritone. He sang Tutto è disposto, Figaro’s third aria, from Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), by Mozart. He had good voice, and good clear diction. Basically a very impressive performance, except that he seemed to get too harp at times. More so than I noticed at other times I heard this Aria performed. Joan described it better, by saying he sang it as if Figaro was angry. She started off by asking him a little about how much he worked on the aria and if he practice it a lot (yes). She said that it looks very structured and formed, like it was already very fine-tuned by him and his teacher, to reach a very specific and well crafted performance. She said she doesn’t really want to work with him on any specific part, since doing so may shake something of the structure of the aria he has established for himself, and make it all tumbling down forcing him to learn it from the start.

Yet she did tell him that he should try to do it less angry. That “Mozart did not write angry people”. The style at the time in Italy, and the way Mozart wrote, was more witty. Figaro does rant against women in the aria, but it’s all slightly veiled and hinted. Figaro doesn’t go around screaming in anger, but more circumspectly tries to warn his friends about the dangers of women. They went over parts of the aria where he tried to sing and act a little less angry, and it was an improvement.

The next singer was Gal James, singing Mi chiamano Mimì, the first Mimi’s aria, from La Bohème, by Puccini. She has a good deep voice, dark high tones, and barely passable diction. Mostly Joan worked with her on fitting her acting and tone to what is going on in the opera. Joan had Gal sitting on a chair, and brought a guy to sit in front of her on a second chair to pose and Rodolfo. This was slightly more complex than the similar things from the previous master-classes I listed here, since he also had to move a little according to the aria’s progression.

They elaborated on the situation on the aria. Such as that Mimì isn’t originally as shy as Gal portrayed her, since she did come to Rodolfo of her own accord on a made-up pretext. Or that in two points during the aria Puccini inserted the same note he used by the end of the opera when Mimì died, and this can be used to show a little hint that not all is entirely well.

There was also a little joke from Joan, coming up as part of the discussion, going something like “Of course it’s possible to fall in love in half an hour! You don’t believe me, go to Italy, you’ll see… Of course, you may also not stay in love for more than half an hour.”

Dana Marbach, another Soprano, sang Saper vorreste, from Un Ballo in Maschera (Dance in Mask? I don’t think I encountered an official translation in English), by Verdi. A very short aria, with plenty of “Tra la la la la” bits. She was very nice, but the “la” words sounded half swallowed sometimes. The character played, Oscar, is a guy. Joan told Dana that she crossed her hands like a women does, and to go get some sessions with John Norris to work with her on walking like a boy.

Joan also tries to make her stop pulling her shoulders up whenever she was drawing a breath, stating that her lunges are more down, and that it doesn’t help the singing a single bit. She did say that dancers sometimes breath higher than singers, but then asked Dana if she thinks she’s a singer, the answer to which was of course a No. Joan put hands on her shoulders to remind her to keep them down. Later on she had her singing while standing on one foot, to help her concentrate on her body’s position and balance.

Joan also mentioned the “La” words, saying that in Italian she needs to make a sharper “L” sound with the top of her tongue, not a think one with the back of it.

The last singer was Anastasia Klevan, also a soprano. She sang Donde lieta uscì, the second Mimi’s aria, from La Bohème, by Puccini. She sounded alright, with decent diction, but nothing too exciting or inspiring. She also occasionally went on notes that weren’t according to the text. Another big problem with her was that she was being very much out of character, since (as we found out once Joan asked her about the story) she was wrong about what is going on in the aria.

This aria occurs after Mimì discovers that her love Rodolfo broke up with her. Joan asked Anastasia why is that, and she said that she thinks Rodolfo is jealous. At which point Joan went on about how some singers just read their own text, and the pages of the opera they need to sing, without reading the rest. Mimì is very sick at this stage of the story, and Rodolfo earlier in the story said to a friend he cannot stand being with her, watching her dying, knowing that he cannot help, and does not have the money to get help for her. But since Anastasia didn’t read this part, she was only aware of the official excuse, that Rodolfo was jealous. And so the whole aria was sung differently. The aria should have been more tragic, with internal desperation, not with annoyance.

Anastasia also sang a few notes longer than specified. And some notes differently from what was written. Joan said something like “You don’t get to do that. There are rules. You park here. You sing this note that long. You don’t do that, they take away your car, they take away you job”. Later on, on a more general note to all the singers there “You guys don’t read the music”, or “You poor composers. You make up these things, thinking I won’t notice”.

When going over the aria, someplace near the end Anastasia smiled, eliciting from Joan a comment of “That’s a very big smile for a very sick girl”. There was also a point where she tried the method of getting Anastasia to say some of the words in her own language, in this case Russian. She told her to say in Russian “Listen to me!”, to which Anastasia replied that there aren’t words for that in Russian. Joan dismissed that with “I was in Russia. And they said Listen to me! They had no problem with that.”

Reading this post of mine again, there is just one thing I think I need to explicitly clarify, about Joan Dornemann. I quoted (From memory and hastily half-scribbled notes, so all quotes are approximate) plenty of stinging and sarcastic comments. She isn’t really like that. She does use barbed words sometime to drive a point home, but she’s extremely nice, warm, and friendly. A lot of it is a matter of tone, but I can’t say anything that would be clearer than read those quotes with a Joan Dornemann voice. Since most of the people reading it doesn’t know it, assume it sounded totally without malice, and with underlying humour. Plus, of course it’s mostly those type of sentences which stick to my mind well enough to quote, so the sample you get is already biased. All the totally nice and happy things may matter more for a singer, but lack any… journalistic appeal from me side. You’d be bored senseless from this post if I quoted those.

Overall it was still a nice and enjoyable evening, but not the best master-class I’ve been to.

Oh, and as we were leaving we saw the fire hydrant outside leaking a lot water. Despite telling someone from the staff about it last week…