Category Archives: Current Events

Asking Simone About Opera….

I have been asked by my editors to introduce the “Ask Simone” feature. What better way to do this than to ask myself some questions which I will then proceed to answer.

Today’s topic is OPERA. So here goes!

1. If you wanted to introduce a total novice to opera which one would you select?

There are two possibilities: One is “Carmen” by Georges Bizet because it has a popular theme and is very easy to follow. I would rather choose “La Traviata: by Giuseppe Verdi because it is melodic from beginning to end and tells a love story with a tragic ending. There was also a very good film by Franco Zeffirelli that was made of it in 1983 starring Theresa Stratos and Placido Domingo, and you can watch this if an actual opera performance is inaccessible.

 

 

2. Which do you think is the most overrated opera?

Definitely “Tosca” by Puccini. The story is not credible. It is melodramatic and overblown from beginning to end. It does however have great arias.

3. What is your favorite feminine aria and why?

I think Santuzza pleading with Turridu not to abandon her. This is from Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana.” Turridu is leaving her to return to Lola, his first love and Santuzza is devastated. This sounds like a tearjerker but when expressed musically it acquires a poignancy that no mere spoken words can convey. This opera is also one I would recommend to a first time opera audience. It is about ordinary people rather than mythological heroes. About the middle of the 19th century opera was turning away from “Opera Seria” (Serious Opera) to “Opera Buffa” or “Opera Comique” (which in this instance does not mean “funny” but rather ordinary)

 

4. Favorite male aria?

There are two…The tenor in “La fille du Regiment” by Gaetano Donizetti sings a very difficult aria requiring musical agility and stamina. In this
famous aria that starts with “Ah mes amis…
he tells of his joy at having been accepted by the regiment he applied to, and of his proposal of marriage having been accepted as well.

 

 

The second aria is “Una Furtiva Lagrima” from “L’Elisire d’Amore” (The Elixir of Love) also by Donizetti. Nemorino, a poor peasant laments his fate. He is in love with Adina a very popular girl who plays games with him, and he drinks a love potion which he thinks will alter his fate. I think this is the best example of bel canto (beautiful singing).

5. Favorite chorus?

I choose “Va Pensiero” also called the Chorus of the Slaves by Giuseppe Verdi in the opera “Nabucco.”
In this opera, he recounts the period of the Jews’ Babylonian captivity after the loss of the First Temple in Jerusalem in about 500 BC. Some saw in this an echo of the longing for reunification of Italy known as Risorgimento in the 19th century. It is by far the most moving choral work I know.

 

Swimming Against The Currents

 

To think and act against the fashion of the day is the beginning of wisdom.

It is said that to get to the source you have to swim upstream.  Salmon swim that way to lay their eggs and to maximize their offspring’s chances of survival. Other fish too swim from the ocean to the stream where they wait for little insects to fly by.

Dead fish float downstream but it takes a live one to swim upstream.

Humans often make decisions not to settle for the obvious but to go counter to prevailing opinion. Often, this works out well.

I can think of three occasions where I had to make a choice between the beaten track or taking a different road. The first time was when my younger daughter was born premature and stayed at the hospital after I went home. At that time, the fashion was to bottle feed babies and that is what the staff did. They told me that because she was apart from me for a couple of weeks, I would not be able to breast-feed her. I ignored them.

I thought babies should be breast fed. After all cow’s milk was intended for calves, not humans. So I pumped my milk to keep it flowing and as soon as my daughter came home, we switched to breast feeding. My baby was happy and I was happy to live without sterilizing baby bottles. Swimming upstream gave me a good result.

My second little rebellion against convention happened when I discovered a book by Rudolf Flesch called Why Johnny Can’t Read. Flesch was critical of the way reading was taught in schools using he visual method instead of the phonetic one. Children were asked to memorize whole words instead of breaking them down into sounds. This method relied on memory instead of logic. Remembering each word by the way it looks is much more difficult and less efficient than recognizing the letter combinations that sounds are built with and then being able to do your own combining.

So, going counter to what was then current in schools, I used the techniques in the book to teach my younger daughter to read. By the time she entered kindergarten she was quite proficient at it. Her teacher was astounded when one day she drew a picture of butterflies and printed the word correctly at the top of her drawing. She pointed out to the teacher that words that end in “ly” have their plural in “lies.”

My third example occurred much later in my life. For 9 years around 1970, my husband David’s job took him to Africa to introduce the concepts of trade unions and credit unions to African workers in Senegal. At the time I was pursuing a career at the University of California Berkeley Library. I loved my job, I was good at it, and I was on track for a promotion.

The expectations of the day and of my husband’s employer were that I was to abandon my career because a  wife was supposed to follow her husband wherever he went.

I realized that I was not going to sacrifice my job, erasing all that I had achieved, and losing my retirement benefits as well. I remained  at my post.

Because we both had long vacations, we usually spent the month of August in Europe and I cobbled  together enough holiday and vacation days to spend Christmas time in Dakar, Senegal.

 

My moral…Sometimes, you just have to think for yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy 97th Birthday Simone!

From the Editor….Here’s a video of Simone coming down the middle part of the 52 stairs from her front door to the street (taken about two weeks ago)  Our author turned 97 on January 14th and we wanted you to see her in motion. I complimented her on how well she was navigating. She replied, “I’m even better on the way up.”

Happy birthday to our dear author.

Simone On The Stairs

Send In The Women

Alexandra-Ocasio-Cortez

Political scientist Valerie M. Hudson wrote: “Men agreed to be ruled by other men in return for all men ruling over women.” It is because of male domination at home and in the political arena that women’s march toward full equality has been painfully slow and tortuous.

This year 110 women, nearly all Democrats, were sworn in as members of Congress. Among them is 29-year-old Alexandra-Ocasio-Cortez of New York who has cheerfully taken arms against the cavemen, including Caveman-in- Chief Donald Trump. At the same time, Nancy Pelosi has regained her gavel as Speaker of the House and Elizabeth Warren has stepped forward as a Presidential candidate.

Our valiant “leader” has taken up arms. He is leading the battle against women as he revives his kindergarten tactics of name calling and personal insult. Trump has also boasted of groping and making unwanted advances toward women. Other politicians have had to leave the political scene after admissions of sexual harassment, but Trump survives (for now), sitting defiantly in his chair with arms crossed and glaring.

During the campaign, Trump tried to silence two women by paying them off. But Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal have now told their stories and others have been encouraged to speak up.

Elizabeth Warren

In the global arena, dictators have bolstered their power using overt sexism. In Brazil, newly elected President Jair Bolsanaro includes in his “revolution” the fight against “uppity women.” In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte allowed his soldiers to each rape three women on the island of Mindanao. Viktor Orban in Hungary instructs women to bear more children. In Italy the right-wing regime seeks to eliminate child support and domestic violence laws.

Of course, it isn’t just now. During the French Revolution, the next order of business after toppling the monarchy was to ban women from inheriting property and holding senior teaching jobs. When fighting for their rights and liberties men have a willful blind spot. They do not include women in their demands and even go out of their way to remind them of their inferior status.

Before we give in to despair, let me mention that there are countries in Western Europe where women have a significant representation in Parliaments: 48% in Iceland, 44% in Sweden, 42% in Finland and 40% in Norway. These countries have a long tradition of gender equality at home with household chores and child-rearing shared equally. I think this is part of the reason for the political equality in these Parliaments.

Research shows the women in Congress have been more effective than their male counterparts at securing spending for their districts (The New Yorker, January 2019). This is good news for possible infrastructure projects.

Nancy Pelosi

Whenever and wherever possible we should find ways to contribute to the advancement of women in politics. This can only lead to the betterment of women overall.

Here are some names and links to organizations that help women run for political office at all levels:

Emily’s List

She Should Run

Mozart and Mambo

Gustavo Dudamel Conducting

Music is a contact sport. An electric current passes through the conductor to the orchestra and through the orchestra to the audience. Audiences clap or shout “Bravo” (unless they boo and hiss.) This response in turn rebounds back to the performers. Gutsavo Dudamel understands this phenomenon extremely well and maximizes the connection.

Dudamel is the conductor and music director of the Orquestra Sinfonica Simon Bolivar and (by the way) of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra. He was born in Venezuela in 1981. His mother was a singer and his father a trombonist. He played violin but showed an early aptitude for conducting.

Watching him conduct, hopping, jumping, dancing, with curls bouncing, you are struck by his enthusiasm, immense energy and sheer joy at sharing his passion.
Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and its Ode to Joy is the perfect vehicle for a man who throws himself into the music with such abandon.

Dudamel’s introduction to classical music was through a program called El Sistema founded by Jose Antonio Abreu in Venezuela, which features total immersion of children in ensemble music – a hundred people working as one.

Dudamel believes that music can transform lives. He has become a champion of the arts for young people around the world. He is also committed to exposing audiences to new and nontraditional music. In 2012 he set up the Gustavo Dudamel Foundation to promote access to music as a fundamental human right.

In 2007, Dudamel founded YOLA, the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, which provides access to music to underserved communities. He then worked closely with architect Frank Gehry who has designed a new facility for YOLA. It’s a glass fronted box with a glass pop-up roof which allows sunlight to stream into the 260 seat hall below. The facility will be located in Inglewood, California with construction expected to begin in 2019.

YOLA Concert Hall

Gustavo Dudamel has been criticized for his continued ties to Venezuela. This is a country suffering from a horrific economic and social crisis most of it engineered by former President Hugo Chavez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro. These regimes have insisted on adhering to authoritarianism and to outdated communist values. As a result most of the population lives in poverty.

Dudamel performed at the Hugo Chavez funeral, but otherwise tried to remain uninvolved with the woes of his country of birth. Then in 2017, a group of musicians was protesting Chavez rule and during an ensuing riot, an 18 year-old  viola player and El Sistema pupil Amando Canizcle, was killed.

Dudamel was moved and in a New York Times article, he condemned the violence and denounced the Venezuelan Government’s planned Constitutional Assembly as outside the law.

It is not easy to be involved in too many battles and every person must decide how and where to devote their energy so they can participate in what matters most to them.

 

Editor’s note: Below is an exciting and inspiring clip of Dudamel conducting a Venezuelan youth orchestra through some classic mambos. The whole scene is a feast of joy. It will make you happy for sure.

 

Putin Frolics in the Sea of Azov – The World Yawns

 

Last month, Russian forces seized and shot at three Ukrainian vessels attempting to cross through the Kerch Strait, a narrow passage between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Six sailors were injured.
The Russians then boarded two warships and a tugboat, detaining more sailors and completely blocking the Strait. Some of the seized Ukrainian sailors have now been flown to Moscow.

Now two Ukrainian Azov Sea ports, Berdyansk and Mariupol are under complete control by Russia and others are forbidden to enter the area.

 

Vladimir Putin very recently inaugurated a new twelve-mile bridge over the Strait connecting Crimea to mainland Russia. Russia’s aim is to completely control the land and water around Crimea, a highly populated area.

President Poroshenko of Ukraine, accused of corruption and running for reelection, has reacted by threatening total war on Russia and declaring martial law. So now we have two snarling dogs glaring at each other across the Azov Sea.

President Poroshenko

Ukraine would like NATO to intervene which it does not seem eager to do even though Ukraine had previously given up its nuclear arms in exchange for a promise of Western protection.

So why is Putin flexing his muscles now? For one thing the Russo-Ukrainian conflict has never been as dormant as the West would like to believe. Russia is backing a separatist revolt in southeastern Ukraine where more than 10,000 people have already been killed. The region of Donbass is controlled by pro-Russian secessionists and is in a constant state of conflict. The Western World has been focused on other important matters.

Why is the conflict now escalating? One explanation is that Putin’s popularity at home is low. He has just instituted a retirement reform which would raise the age at which people are eligible for pensions. At the same time, the Orthodox Ukrainian Church wants autonomy from the Russian Church. There is discontent in Georgia and in Armenia.

According to President Poroshenko, Putin’s nostalgia for the Greater Russia which existed both in the Czarist Empire and in the Soviet Union has never abated. This greater Russia cannot exist without Ukraine .”He sees us as his Colony” says Poroshenko. And now Ukraine would like to turn its back on Russia. This is intolerable to Putin.

Vladimir Putin

 

It could also be that the Russian President is testing the resolve of the new American President who does not seem to be particularly interested in Ukraine or in intervention. The European Union needs Russian gas so it will not want to intercede.

I believe the carefully plotting Vladimir Putin has decided to seize this opportunity and to engage in a little adventure while putting all the blame on Ukraine.

Using Blasphemy To Maintain Power

 

 

Assia Bibi, a Christian woman living in Pakistan, was sentenced to death in Pakistan for blasphemy for having participated in a protest march.

Even though she was exonerated by the Supreme Court, she must now flee if she wants to avoid being attacked by an angry mob of people who fully intend to murder her. I believe their intent is to hang her.

 

 

Did this happen centuries ago? No. This is going on right now and the state of Pakistan will not protect her.

In Saudi Arabia Raif Badawi is in prison for the blasphemy of being an atheist.

In Indonesia, Jakarta’s Governor faces a two-year prison sentence for saying that the Quran does not mandate that voters support any Muslim over any non-Muslim.

In the US the activist Desiree Farooq was tried for “disrupting Congress” and faced a term of up to a year in jail. Her principal crime was that she laughed at something said by a Senator during the confirmation hearing for now former Attorney-General Jeff Sessions. The charges were subsequently dropped by the Department of Justice, which had brought them.

So what exactly is blasphemy? According to Wikipedia, it is: “The act of insulting or showing contempt for or lack of reverence toward a deity or something sacred or inviolable.”
The Bible does not explicitly mention blasphemy.
In fact there is no Hebrew word for it. In Exodus it only says: “You shall not revile God or curse a ruler of your people.” But the Bible does warn against taking the Lord’s name in vain. Moses asks God “what is your name?” and God replies :”I am who I am” (a nice cryptic answer).

The Bible does not say that one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit is guilty of an unpardonable sin.

Who is this “Holy Spirit” (in Hebrew “Ruah Hakodesh”) It appears to be one manifestation of God in the Holy Trinity. Who invented the Holy Trinity and why is it needed?

Let us just say that people like to group things in threes: The three little pigs, the three Stooges, three blind mice, three men in a tub…..

I suspect that at the root of all these injunctions is the fierce determination of the religious authorities to establish rules that will keep them firmly in control and not let anything undermine their authority. Dissent must be prevented.

Blasphemy came late to Islam and was imported there by the British Empire. In the Islamic religion, blasphemy is an impious utterance against God or the Prophet.
The Quran admonishes against blasphemy but does not specify a worldly punishment for the offense.
Closely related to blasphemy are the concepts of heresy or idolatry which centuries ago were punishable by torture and death.

As the Western world is becoming more secular such ideas are slowly fading. In the United States the First Amendment prevents Government from making laws about religion and speech and gives citizens freedom to exercise and express their religious beliefs.

In places where religion still pervades everyday life the concept of blasphemy is alive and well.

Jackie and Daniel

 

 

Hillary and Jackie is a 1998 film about the two British sisters Jacqueline and Hilary du Pre, one a cellist, the other a flutist. The film pretty much mirrors their actual lives.

Jackie became a virtuoso at an early age and rose to international prominence. Hilary struggled and eventually gave up performing to become a wife and mother.

Jackie was sent to Zermat, Switzerland as a teenager to attend a master class with Pablo Casals who called her a genius. She traveled extensively and in the sixties after returning from a Moscow concert she met Daniel Barenboim. (see previous blog) They recorded and made documentaries together.

Jackie and Daniel complemented each other very well. Both had been child prodigies and virtuoso performers. Their greatest joy was to play together. In 1967 they were married. She converted to Judaism and went to Israel with Barenboim where she met Itzhak Perlman, Zubin Mehta and Pinkhas Zuckermann.

Barenboim said of her: ” Music was not a profession for her. It was a way of life”. The couple has been compared to another famous classical music duo, Robert and Clara Schumann.

 

Robert and Clara Schumann

 

Here’s an excellent quality video of Jackie playing the first movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Barenboim conducting the London Philharmonic in 1967. Well worth a listen.

Jackie Plays Elgar

Then two years after their marriage, Jackie was beset with physical symptoms and in 1973, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

She tried to go on playing, but her body turned against her. Jackie lived for fourteen years after she stopped playing and died in 1987 at age 42.

Jackie said of herself: “In a sense I was lucky. Because the cello repertoire is small I had done most of what I loved and I can look back on a full musical life”.

During the last two years of Jackie’s life Barenboim moved to Paris to become director of the Orchestre de Paris and started an affair with Elena Bashkirova who eventually became his second wife.

 

Jackie du Pre

Who is he really?

 

He lists his nationality in this way: Palestinian, Argentine, Spanish, Israeli.

He was born in Argentina in 1942.

His Russian-Jewish parents emigrated to Israel when he was 9. He had already performed his first piano recital.

Like so many musicians, he was precocious. He started playing the piano at age five, but his greatest achievements were to be as a conductor.

In 1954, Daniel Barenboim took conducting lessons. His teacher, Wilhelm Furtwanger said, “this eleven-year-old is a phenomenon.”

Barenboim traveled all over Europe and America giving piano concerts and making recordings. As his career matured, he started to spend more and more time as a conductor.

 

Music is a universal language and its practitioners can live and be creative anywhere in the world. They can also choose their allegiances and the ones he chose are interesting in their priorities.

Barenboim is now director of the Berlin State Opera and the Staatskepelle Orchestra of Berlin. In addition, he is musical director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In 1999 he and Edward Said (a Palestinian-American Professor of Literature at Cornell) founded the West- Eastern Divan Orchestra. Headquartered in Seville, Spain, it is made up of young musicians from Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Israel and Spain. It is meant to be a model of cooperation across political and religious divides. The intent is to promote understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

 

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

 

The Orchestra is named after a collection of poems by Goethe inspired by Persian prophet Hafez.

Barenboim says, “Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance and to create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.” Barenboim is a critic of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

In 2012 the West-Eastern Divan orchestra performed for Pope Benedict XVI in the courtyard of his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo in Italy.

This year, Barenboim’s book, The Sound of “Utopia was published. It traces the history of the orchestra from its beginning.

In the next blog, I will further explore Barenboim’s life and career including his association with the cellist Jacqueline du Pre.

 

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Editor’s note: Here is a link to an interesting YouTube about the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Very compelling personalities in this group.

Intro to West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

The Man Who Repairs Women

Denis Mukwege

His name is Denis Mukwege. He is a doctor at Panzi Hospital which he created in Bukavu in the Eastern Congo (formerly Zaire) near the border with Burundi. This beautiful region, (parts look like Switzerland and parts like the Caribbean), is being ravaged by more than 20 years of ethnic conflict, tribal wars between rival groups of thugs’ intent on plundering Congo’s vast riches.

View of Bukavu

Mukwege’s father was a pastor and, as a child, he used to accompany him on his visits to the sick and wounded. He was struck by his father’s inability to help them except by praying with them and, encouraged by his mother, he decided to study medicine. In the first hospital where he practiced he came to work one morning and found that all the patients he worked so hard to treat had been murdered. He could not understand it. Why kill helpless people in their beds?

After his first experience of treating a woman who had been raped and savagely mutilated, he traveled to France to study gynecology and obstetrics. He soon realized the full extent of the ongoing violence. The destruction of women’s genitals was systematically used as a weapon of war. After he performed reconstructive surgery on the same woman for the third time he understood that more than surgery was needed to deal with such extreme cruelty and systematic violence.

The uncontrollable military groups were operating with impunity because the State did not intervene. In fact, there was no State It had been taken over . It was complicit. When there is no rule of law the law of the jungle prevails.

Those brave women got up again and again despite being raped by their own husbands, despite being rejected by their families for having dishonored them. Mukwege mobilized them, encouraged them to speak out, to support each other, to educate their sons and their husbands, and raised their spirits. “Be outraged! Say NO to violence,” he taught them,

Still because there was no support from any lawful authority, Mukwege himself was discouraged in a menacing way from speaking at the UN General Assembly, His life was in danger as well of that of his wife and children. Mukwege and his family went into exile in Europe.

Meanwhile, the women he was helping organized themselves, raised enough money by selling their crafts and sent him a ticket back to Africa. Thousands of women greeted him on his return. They called him The Messiah. He could have stayed in Europe, but he came back to continue his work. He now sleeps at the hospital, has a permanent guard that protects his every step and travels in a convoy of several vans. “The Man Who Repairs Women” (The Wrath of Hippocrates) is the title of the film he made of his experience. It was at first censored but has since been released. Denis Mukwege has received the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament and the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018.
Panzi Hospital now treats more than 3500 women a year and Denis Mukwege performs more than ten operations a day.

We are often discouraged from judging people by their appearance but when I look at a picture of Denis Mukwege, I see the face of a man who cares.

(Editors note. Here is a link that will allow you to learn more about Mukwege’s work)

https://www.mukwegefoundation.org/about-us/