Monday, March 31, 2008

Olympic gaming

A number of European politicians, including the chancellor of Germany, the president of the Czech Republic and the prime minister of Poland, have announced their intention to skip the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. This is a considerable sacrifice, because for sheer mind-boggling bad taste, nothing has ever equalled an Olympic curtain-raiser -- not the Grammys, not the Super Bowl, not the Three Tenors, not even a typical episode of American Idol. And you can be sure the Chinese are toiling round the clock to surpass Turin, with its marching trees and skaters with their heads on fire. Set your TiVo now.

Of course, there is no suggestion that the German, Czech, Polish or any other teams will stay away because of the brutality in Tibet. There's just too much money on the table. I'm not only talking about the corporate sponsors, the investment by NBC Sports, and the lucrative endorsement contracts coveted by "amateurs" who medal. In 1980, no one except the athletes had anything to lose by a US boycott of the Moscow games. American companies had little interest in reaching Soviet markets. But this is 2008, and no one can afford to ignore a billion potential Chinese consumers with money to spend on cars, electronics and other big-ticket items that fewer and fewer Americans can afford. The only way to reach those consumers is through their government so -- sorry, Tibet. You are in our prayers -- which is what Americans say when they witness an atrocity and don't feel like doing anything substantive about it.

Ironically, the Olympics probably do best under totalitarian regimes, which have a cold-hearted efficiency that the democracies lack. Remember the 1976 outing in Montreal? Neither the stadium nor the housing was ready on time. But the Has and Hitlers don't have to worry about labor unions, private contractors, environmental impact statements or restive citizens. If a million people happen to be living on a site the Great Helmsman has designated for a velodrome, then a million people can damn well pack up and move. Security? No problem. A hundred thousand children waving flags or banners for the opening ceremony? Grab them out of the schoolyards. The Chinese even plan to seed the clouds over Beijing a day earlier, to make sure it doesn't rain on their parade, setting a new Olympic record in the control-freakiness event.

When this floating sportsapalooza began in 1896, it was supposed to prevent war by having the privileged males of the Western nations compete on the playing field instead of the battlefield. Besides, all the significant European monarchs were blood relatives -- what could go wrong? I'm not denying the uplifting moments, like the expression on the Fuhrer's face when Jesse Owens won and won and won; or Abebe Bikila running barefoot through the streets of Rome; or Eddie the Eagle, a skier of irresistible klutziness. But the Olympics have not lived up to Baron Coubertin's dream either as a glorification of pure athletics or as a force for world peace. Too much raging nationalism, too many ugly incidents and too much commercialism have eroded the fun. Cities compete to secure this tourism bonanza by any means necessary, including bribery, with not much thought for the consequences. (Londoners who don't remember 1948 have no idea what they're in for.) In a world full of political criminals looking for a world stage, I wonder if anyone can really afford the Olympics anymore. China may be the last nation prepared to pay the price.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Come for the Isolde, stay for the Tristan

Of course I tuned in this morning (!) to hear Deborah Voigt's first broadcast Isolde from the Met, and of course she is thrilling, bringing a vulnerability to the role that Nilsson, for all her splendor, just didn't possess. I'm a little saddened that Michelle DeYoung's voice has roughened since she recorded Didon on the LSO's Les Troyens, but this is still impressive casting for Brangaene. But who is this Robert Dean Smith (Dean being the middle name of choice for tenors, it seems)? If he's as good "in the house" as he is on the radio, he's the best thing to come out of Kansas since Samuel Ramey. And this is his debut, replacing Ben Heppner! A keeper. Get out the long-term contract, Mr. Gelb. James Levine and the Met orchestra keep finding diamonds in this score that others just don't mine, and I don't want to hear any nattering about how slow it is. Opera time is not supposed to be like clock time.

I still hate the improvements to the intermissions, I hate the bells in the quiz, I hate the very idea of interviewing the singers between acts when they should be resting or snapping at their personal assistants, "I asked for decaf!" Juntwait or Siff, pick one. Their chatter reminds me of why I watch baseball with the sound off.

My enthusiasm for opera comes and goes, and right now it seems to be on the boil. I watched the New York City Opera Madama Butterfly this week on PBS, and came away more impressed than ever with Puccini's surefire music. Decently sung and attractively staged, it works even without memorably stellar performances and even with the pedestrian time-beating of George Manahan, and by "works" I mean it moves us to tears at all the usual places. (For the first time, I had time to wonder why, if Butterfly can't read Pinkerton's letter, she can read the name "Abraham Lincoln" on the ship. Never mind. And don't let your mind wander to the present ship of the same name, where Bush staged his "Mission Accomplished" show. If I'm in the mood for farce, I prefer Don Pasquale.)

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End of a very brief era

Eliot Spitzer had to go. Not because he betrayed his wife -- that's between them. (She probably has a pre-nup that's longer and more involved than the NAFTA agreement.) Not because he allegedly violated the Mann Act, which hasn't been enforced since Jack Johnson was heavyweight champion. He had to go because he has terrible judgment.

Did I read that right? $5,400 for one night with one woman? Nobody can screw that good. If she looked like Michelle Pfeiffer and combined the acting skills of Meryl Streep with the athletic ability of Nadia Comenici, she still wouldn't be worth the money. Clearly, you're paying for the sizzle, not the steak, when you join the "Emperor's Club." Even if you are chief executive of the Empire State, the local Albany talent should be perfectly adequate. This is not someone you want in charge of the world's sixth-largest economy, which is what New York State represents, and I say that knowing that the vile Joseph Bruno is now a blind man's stumble away from being governor, and strongly suspecting that Spitzer was targeted by the excruciatingly politicized Cheney-Bush Justice Department. Even so.

Speaking of economics, any of you kids hear from Alan Hevesi? Or is he laughing too hard to come to the phone? Hevesi, you may recall, was the New York State comptroller who was re-elected by a generous margin in 2006 but was forced to resign because -- get this -- he used a state employee to drive his wife to the doctor. The voters knew this, mind you, but they didn't seem to care, yet the so-pure-it-floats Spitzer Administration could not countenance such lawlessness. It took the confectioner a while to get the icing just right, but I'll bet that revenge tastes sweet.

Fun fact: New York now leads the nation in governors with disabilities, having had two who survived polio, Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Lehman.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Sundays, bloody Sundays

The men who started the United States wrote a Constitution which reserved the vote for property-owning men, who presumably would have both the education and the leisure to study the issues before deciding upon them. They threw in an amendment prohibiting Congress from making any laws respecting freedom of religion. Then they went home to their plantations and farms, satisfied that they had protected their new Republic from fanatics, fundamentalists, and the ignorant unwashed. They were so wrong. Today, the fanatics and their dull-eyed congregations are so numerous that all serious politicians must court them. Which brings me to the latest and most amusing developments of this endless presidential campaign.

This week, Barack Obama had to make a whole speech distancing himself from the views of his pastor of some two decades, Rev. Jeremiah Wright (whose analysis of American history makes a lot of sense to me, a European-American). It goes without saying that no thinking person agrees with everything his or her church teaches -- for one example, most American Catholics long ago broke with their church on the issue of contraception -- but in politics, nothing goes without saying. Obama may have succeeded in drawing a firm line between himself and Wright, but he is still encumbered with the endorsement of Minister Louis Farrakhan, whose incendiary views on Judaism and on white people generally are well known.

At around the same time, John McCain was accepting the support of Rev. John Hagee, a televangelist who hates The Catholics as much as he hates The Gays and is either too honest or too dumb to keep quiet about it. Imagine: the Opus Dei wing of the Supreme Court was just about to signal Big John, "Throw it to us, we've got your back," and this has to happen. It's too soon to use the word "panic," but I see the heilige Fuhrer Himself is coming to Washington next month to meet with his operatives. Wouldn't you love to be a fly on the wall?

The clear winner is of course Hillary Clinton. Since all three of the Near Eastern death-cults fear and despise non-subservient women, she isn't likely to pick up much support there. And considering what the support of the religion industry can mean, who needs it?

Those Freemasons and Deists back in the eighteenth century -- the Age of Reason, as it's called for a reason -- were some smart guys, huh?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Oh, crap

Terry Pratchett has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He is 59.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

This just in

With all media eyes focused on Eliot Spitzer's crotch, the Sky brings you the news you may have missed, stories they would otherwise be fixated on:

  • Admiral William Fallon has resigned as head of Central Command, paving the way for an attack on Iran by the lunatics in the Cheney-Bush regime.
  • The Federal Reserve is allowing Wall Street banks to borrow money on mortgage debt, as Ben Bernanke frantically tries to patch up the leaking rowboat he inherited from Alan Greenspan.
  • A national study reveals that one teenage girl in four has a sexually transmitted disease. Since the study only involved girls who regularly receive medical care, the actual figure is probably much higher. Apparently the "abstinence only" surge is working.
  • Barack Obama won the Mississippi primary, even though many polling places ran out of paper ballots for the "Democrat Party" by 10:30 am. He got another boost from intemperate comments by Geraldine Ferraro, a Clinton supporter, who accused him of getting a free ride from the media because of his race. Ms. Ferraro, meet Mr. Limbaugh.
  • Andre Carson has won a special election in the 7th District of Indiana for the House seat held by his late grandmother, Julia Carson. He becomes (cue scary music) the second Muslim in Congress.
  • The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has finally run out of real rockers, and has inducted Madonna and Leonard Cohen.
You're welcome.