Thoughts on the current conflict over the debt ceiling

“The validity of the public debt of the United States shall not be questioned.” From a merely etymological perspective, this Constitutional prescription is non-negotiable.


Debt Ceiling

The debt ceiling debate is, in my opinion, much more straight-forward and simple to argue for from a Constitutional perspective than the gun control debate. Let’s get right to the Constitutional clause in question, namely Amendment XIV, Section 4, which reads in part:

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including all debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned…

If there is one thing I learned from countless courses in philosophy and critical thinking, not to mention my dealings with contracts, it’s that certain words carry certain inarguable meanings. In the case of this Constitutional Amendment, the words are very clear. If one simply takes out the additional clauses from the middle part, and just focuses on the root meaning of the sentence, it reads: “The validity of the public debt of the United States shall not be questioned.” From a merely etymological perspective, this Constitutional prescription is non-negotiable. Case in point, the word “shall”. This is not an arguable term in the English language. It does not carry the same loose obligation as, say, the word “may” or even “will”. “Shall” denotes duty, responsibility, and most importantly for purposes of our current debate, obligation. It does not imply in any way, based on it’s historical definition, anything other than that which must be done. Period. End of story. Need I go on?

In other words, there is and shall not be any debate over whether or not the Federal Government should or should not pay for those services for which it has already accrued debt. As long as those debts have been previously legislated and voted on by Congress (which all current debt has), then the Federal Government has a strict obligation to pay those debts. The way that many in the Republican party are holding this issue hostage is counter to their Constitutional duties as members of Congress. They are, if one simply reads the words of the Constitution, not fulfilling their duties by “questioning” the “validity” of the United States debt.

Say what? – anachronistic language in our favorite period dramas

Who doesn’t love a good period drama?  Whether it’s the classic movie “Gone with the Wind”…, or the more recent successes of “Lincoln” and “Downton Abbey”, westerners (Americans) love reliving the “good ol’ days” when everything seemed more simple; more, tidy.  While these shows are certainly entertaining, do we really get an accurate picture for how real individuals from those time periods would have spoken about and acted towards issues such as equality? Think about it:  we watch these programs about 19th and early 20th century societies, but we wrap them in a cozy, warm blanket of 21st century, post civil rights viewpoints.  carson

As this NPR story details, the key to discovering how we impress our 21st century morals onto the past is by paying close attention to the use of words and phrases in our favorite Pre-WWI drama series’.  Did Abolitionist Republicans during the time of Lincoln use the word “equality” the same way we think of the word today?  Most likely not.  Are the butlers and maids in Downton Abbey really struggling with their own feelings of homophobia?  Probably not, considering the notion of “being gay” as part of a person’s identity and not merely a sexual behavior, is an idea prominently attuned to the 20th century.

Although, I guess this could happen in reverse too.  Think about those 1960s and 70s movies about what “the future” will hold.  More often than not, modern versions of the future are nothing more than a stylized reflection of the present.  That is of course unless aliens and superhuman’s decided to adopt from us such revolutionary styles as “the afro” and “polyester wear”.

The point is, try as we might to recreate the past, or project the future, we are always imposing upon it our own modern notions of right, wrong, and what outfit will make this character look most sexy?

Gun control grammar: why words actually matter in the Constitution

Ever since the 2012 Presidential Election I’ve made a conscious effort to take a break from politics.  All of the constant back and forth between talking heads is somewhat fun and exciting in the build up to election day, but becomes a rather depressing reminder of the absolute political intractability we currently find ourselves in as a nation.  However, while I may have stopped watching the “talking heads”, I still read the newspaper.  I find that reading the news as opposed to watching a news entertainment show (the operative word being entertainment), allows me more freedom to decide for myself what I think is absurd, and what is not.  The fact that I have cut out the candy of cable news, and increased the less processed, albeit still fulfilling newspaper, has  refocused my mind on that which matters to all intelligent debate: words.

Based on my reading of the headlines, one of the most contentious political issues currently dividing our nation is gun control.  If one merely skims the surface of this topic; giving equal weight to opinions on all sides, even if they are absolutely bat-shit crazy, one may begin to think that this issue really is “quite difficult” and “full of grey area”.  I, on the other hand, disagree that it is all that complicated based merely on the constitutional language in which the topic is rooted.  Specifically, Amendment II of the United States Constitution.

Gun Regulation

The 2nd Amendment reads as follows: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. 

Taken by itself, this short little amendment isn’t all that clear when you read it critically.  The use of commas and lack of conjunctions makes it carry a somewhat different meaning from what I think most people believe it to be.  First, take the contradictory phrases “well regulated” and “shall not be infringed”.  They exist together in the same sentence, and supposedly about the same topics.  Yet, how can something be simultaneously “well regulated” and “not infringed”? (Unless it is opposite day of course.)  It’s as if the Amendment says, “You can have guns and a Militia, but we’re going to regulate them, wait, just kidding!”

Second, what is it, exactly, that “shall not be infringed”?  Is it the Militia?  The “bearing of Arms”? Both?  I think the answer lies in the priority for how the two topics are ordered in the sentence, and the use of commas.  It is the “well regulated Militia” that is “necessary to the security of a free State”, not the bearing of Arms.  The “bearing of Arms”, at least in how it falls in the sentence, is a continuation of the idea on Militias, a secondary supporting clause, but not the main idea of the sentence.  They do not hold equal weight in terms of what, “shall not be infringed”.  In other words, if the Founders simply used the word “and” to connect the two parts; i.e., “,and right of the people to keep and bear Arms”, then it would be very clear that they intended both the Militia and the bearing of Arms to hold equal weighting for things that “shall not be infringed” upon.  But they didn’t do that.  They made it read such that the implication for the importance of bearing arms is in service of a Militia, not merely as a recreational purpose, such as the 21st Amendment is to alcohol use (which I might remind everyone is a HIGHLY regulated “right” of the people).

This point of the importance held by the Militia in the 2nd amendment is further supported when looking at other Amendments in relation to a Militias place in society.  Specifically, put in context with two previous sections of the Constitution, that of Article I, Section 8, and Article II, Section 2, colors the 2nd Amendment’s meaning in a whole different way.  Article I, Section 8 reads, in part:

The Congress shall have Power To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions; To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress…

Article II, Section 2 reads, in part:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States…

In other words, the reason the right of owning a gun is afforded by the Constitution is not simply so that citizens have carte blanche access to whatever weapon they choose for whatever reason, but because owning a weapon is essential to the Government’s ability to call upon you as part of a Militia to defend the country against foreign invasions.

The way I read the mere language of the Constitution, the 2nd Amendment has absolutely nothing to do with an individual’s right to own a gun for personal reasons, but rather in duty and service to Country.  Read literally, the Constitution would also seem to imply that instituting the draft in war time is completely in line with the spirit and word of our most precious founding document.  And yet, we’ve managed to regulate that unpopular policy right into the annals of American history, Constitutional language not withstanding.

Bottom line: context and time period are everything.  The Constitution, with all its Articles, Amendments, and good intentions, was written during a time in which guns meant muscats, where transportation meant riding a horse, and when communication meant writing a letter.  For all those who scream and lose their minds over the far-out notion that the government is “taking their guns” should more closely inspect that founding document that they so dearly, with weeping red, white and blue tears, love to hold as a self-righteous banner to individual freedom.  The truth of the matter is, the founding document is more collectivist in nature than individualistic, at least in regard to this particular topic.  The sentiment of these Amendments is not in support of the current NRA platform of “rugged individualism, with a gun”, but rather of a more collective responsibility in which citizens are afforded rights, but along with those rights, major responsibilities as well.  The purpose of gun ownership is to serve a Militia, and that Militia is under the authority of the government if needed in time of war.  Last I checked, Militia’s st0pped being a viable fighting force for the government about the same time as the musket.

Escaping the industrial grip of the “Western Diet”

Over the Christmas holiday, I studiously devoted myself to completing Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food”. Granted, I chose a rather odd time to attempt to educate myself on the array of problems with our “way of eating” – “Pass the gravy please!”, but I was up for the challenge nonetheless.  I had heard many good things about this book from friends, and wanted to complete it prior to the New Year, and with that the always busy work schedule, and same mindless eating habits that would surely follow.  I’m glad I pushed myself to finish it, because what I read really opened my eyes to the realities of industrial food production, and set me on the right course for making better food choices.

Mr. Pollan begins the book with a history lesson on how the U.S. government’s policy towards nutrition took shape by guiding the reader through an explanation of how the modern idea of “nutrition”, or at least how the policy makers and food companies define it, misses the point entirely when it comes to defining food.  Not only by missing the big picture of what food is beyond mere nutrients, but environmentally and culturally as well.  He concludes the book, thankfully, with a “DO” and “DON’T” chapter of ways to eat more healthy, with actual food, providing valuable resources to help one escape the confines of the grocery store, and thus the over-processed food-like poison that incorporates a large majority of what constitutes a Western

What I found most intriguing was learning how we came, as a country, to have the food policies we have; policies that, as one might infer from my introduction, have been lobbied to death by food companies and related industries in order to protect the profits of food corporations over the general health of Americans.  How else do Fritolay and Lucky Charms cereal receive a seal of approval from the FDA and American Heart Association???

Most amazingly, and quite frightening, Pollan details how a regulation that would have required food companies to label food an “imitation” if it was altered so much as one molecule from the original, natural food, was completely killed by food industry lobbyists.  That is why, as Pollan points out, we can now have “multi-grain white bread”, a paradoxical (mutli-grain white bread??), frankenstein concoction that contains so many ingredients, one begins to seriously forget how true food is actually made.  One of the ingredients in this multi-grain white bread is “dough conditioners”.  Seriously.  I went to the grocery store and looked at the label.  Go check.  It’s there.  Was this bread having a “salon day” before it hit the grocery shelves?  It’s high time for better regulation of food labeling in this country!!

A basic rule of thumb that Pollan gives is this: If your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize it as food, it’s probably not food.  Now of course bread is a food that has been around since the beginning of time, but bread with 35 ingredients, one of which is “dough conditioners”, certainly doesn’t pass the “great-grandmother” test.

Pollan provides some other useful rules when deciding what to eat:

  • Avoid foods that have ingredients you don’t recognize as food, or foods that have more than five ingredients all together.
  • If you must eat animals, eat less of them than plants
  • Drink 1-2 glasses of red wine per day, but always with a meal. (I’m particularly pleases with this one!)
  • Fat is not necessarily a bad thing
  • Hydrogenated vegetable oils are not good.
  • High-fructose corn syrup is always a bad idea.
  • Plant a garden if possible, even if it’s just an individual herb and vegetable plant on your apartment’s balcony.  By doing this one becomes more connected with the source of food, which in turn gives one a new appreciation for what it means to grow food and eat it.
  • Avoid foods that make health claims.  Anything that says, “Now with more Vitamin XYZ” usually means that it a) doesn’t have sufficient nutrients on its own, and b) is overly processed.

What I like most about this book, is that it leaves the reader with the resources necessary to begin the process of divorcing oneself from the unhealthy industrial food marriage that so many Americans live with daily.  My two favorite resources being Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) which details how one can go about finding a local farm and purchasing a “share” to obtain weekly deliveries of organically grown vegetables, and Eatwild – a website dedicated to understanding the facts and myths surrounding the proper “pasturing” of animals, as well as links to local farms where you can buy truly grassfed, or “pastured” animal products.  I have already taken the first step in purchasing a half share of my own from a local farm in Phoenix called Farmyard.  For a nominal fee, I will now receive a weekly basket of seasonally fresh, organic vegetables and a dozen free-range, fully pastured chicken eggs.

I know some of you may be thinking, “Get off your high-horse you crunchy, pinko-commie hippie!  Things aren’t THAT bad with our food.”  Okay, there are probably not many of you saying that.  It’s likely that if you’ve read this far, you probably already agree with the general premise of this post.  In fact, I would guess that many Americans would agree with me.  Even my conservative father is starting to come around to the idea that food corporations are not altruistic in their capitalist nature!  Who doesn’t want to eat good, wholesome healthy food?!

The problem is that most Americans exist in a sea of misinformation.  Misinformation about the reality of the food, or food-like products they’re eating, and their effects on the human body.  Misinformation perpetrated by corporate food conglomerates (see: Monsanto).  Misinformation from government and the media who, being so reliant on corporate dollars for their existence, avoid or ignore reporting the TRUTH about the danger of so many corporate food products.  The main reason for all of this is that always persnickety, yet “necessary ?” evil,  of the advertising and/or campaign contribution dollar.

Our food problems, and stark reliance on a “Western Diet”, obviously run deep.  Sadly, the overarching, large-scale solutions needed to wholly reform our food culture are nowhere to be seen on the horizon of regulatory reform.  So long as the government heavily subsidizes industries like corn and soybeans, politicians depend on corporate food lobbyists for campaign donations, and the media rely heavily on corporate advertising dollars, a serious discussion about change will never occur, and therefore nothing will change. In short, don’t wait around for the government to fix these problems any time soon.

The solution lies within each individual; you and me, and the purchasing power we have.  That’s right, the only way to change this system is from the ground up, turning the food industry on it’s head by not taking part in it at all!  With every dollar you spend on “multi-grain white bread”, just because it’s cheap and easy, you support the profit-driven and unhealthy food industry. The answer is simple:  return to the basics of food, real food, locally grown and/or raised, and committing oneself to a diet based on what one can acquire via these sources.  It’s not always easy, and it’s not always the cheapest route.  But if you have the knowledge, and the means, then there is no excuse.  I’ve already personally taken the first step by purchasing a farm share.  You can too!

Happy New Year!

Reflections on Connecticut Shooting Tragedy: the problem is far beyond gun control

As this weekend comes to a close, I cannot help, like the rest of America, to spend this Sunday reflecting in disgust and sadness at the awful events that transpired in Connecticut this past Friday.  However, while so many in the country are asking the expected questions that occur after such an event; “Why would this happen?”,”What were the shooter’s motives?”,”How could this happen?”, I am, sadly, not all that surprised that something like this happened, and doesn’t in fact happen more often.

Before you get all huffy-puffy and say, “Now is not the time to politicize this issue.”, I challenge you to ask yourself the question, if not now, then when?  I would remind someone who makes that statement what the original meaning of the word “politic” is.  It comes from Greek politikos “of, for, or relating to citizens”.  Well, if this isn’t a situation that doesn’t “relate to citizens”, and especially to their well-being in the country they live in, then I don’t know what is.

We have more violent deaths in this country by guns than any other western, developed country.  By recent reports, the estimates are around 17,000 gun related deaths per year due to violent crimes. That’s not even including the amount of accidental gun deaths from hunting accidents, or self-inflicted gun deaths due to suicide.  This stark number of deaths would, in another context, cause an outcry from our citizenry demanding something be done.  Just think about all the activities of daily life that the government already regulates in order to protect the best interest of the general public.

We have DUI laws, primarily because of Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD), we have speeding laws to control traffic deaths, we have have a national drinking age to (supposedly) control the numbers of alcohol related deaths among young people (although I think these do more harm then good by causing binge-drinking among youth).  We have extremely invasive security procedures at airports to protect us from the foiled plots of shoe bombers and underwear bombers.  And even, shampoo-bottle bombers?  And yet, gun violence like we saw this past Friday, while temporarily causing us grief and to ask the generic questions, will likely not amount to any changes in our nation’s gun laws.  Why?  Because, unlike American gun owners and manufacturers, terrorist bombers, of the shoe or underwear kind, do not have a war chest of lobbyists buying Congress and preventing any meaningful change.  And, because money is closely tied to the success of political careers, to few politicians (especially on the conservative side) are too in fear of losing the support of their constituents over the fight for stricter gun control laws.  It is easier to placate your constituents, telling them that gun laws are fine and that there is no need for change, that it is the “person” not the gun that kills, than it is to try and have meaningful substantial conversations about what the reality is.

I will admit, it’s not all gun control issues that are the problem.  It is also the poor state of mental health care and support in this country, as well as the mindless culture of violence perpetuated by our media.  We live in a culture and society that is generally more offended by two men kissing, than by two men shooting each other to death.  There is something seriously wrong with this picture.  Regarding mental health care, it is time our state and national legislatures realize that allocating money towards programs that provide these much needed services is in the best interest of the public at large.  Mental health care, just like dental and medical health care, is not a luxury that should only be afforded to those who can pay for it outright.  Why? Because an overall healthier citizenry, both physically and mentally, is in the long-term best interest of society.  Call it what you will – socialism, or whatever.  The truth of the matter is, we are ALL better off when more people are healthy and happy.  Not only does a happy/healthy citizenry contribute more to their communities, but violent crimes go down, addictive behaviors go-down, thereby lowering the overall financial cost to society in terms of burdens placed on police departments and hospitals.

I could probably go on about this forever.  But for now, I will leave you with one more thought.  Maybe we’ve got it all wrong when it comes to how we measure the well-being of society.

Today, our government’s way of measuring “standard of living”, and how “well” the country is doing, is via the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  This is a macro-economic indicator that measures “…the market value of all officially recognized final goods and services produced within a country in a given period of time.”(Wikipedia).  What is wrong with this measurement? Any guesses? Well, it assumes, just by it’s very premise for what is measured, that “well-being” and “standard of living” are equal to “happiness” and “contentment with life.”  It assumes that more “stuff produced” and “having more stuff” will make a more content, happy society.  I think the data in happiness studies presents a different picture.

The new way to measure success in a country, Gross National Happiness, is starting to garner more attention these days.  The country of Bhutan, located in landlocked central Asia, applies this philosophy to measuring the well-being of the people who live there.  Based on this idea of measuring well-being, people’s contentment with life is prioritized over how much money or stuff they have.  I think the United States could certainly take a lesson in this philosophy.

To bring it all full-circle, the shootings in Connecticut this past Friday are merely a tragic symptom of a much larger problem.  That larger problem is multifaceted.  It is a Congress that is afraid of the gun lobby, a broken mental healthcare system, a culture that glamorizes and promotes violence, and a Federal government that values the well-being of it’s citizens not in terms of their health or happiness, but by how much credit card debt they can rack up during the holidays.

Why New Student Loan Interest Deal is a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

You may have heard in the past couple days that Congress recently passed a bill to prevent student loan rates from doubling 3.4 to 6.8 percent. How “noble” of them.
What you HAVEN”T probably heard is that as part of this bill, students have now LOST the ability to defer the interest on their loans while still in school, and have LOST the 6-month grace period after they graduate to start paying on their loans. This is a big deal.

My Rachel Maddow side is about to come out…

You may have heard in the past couple days that Congress recently passed a bill to prevent student loan rates from doubling 3.4 to 6.8 percent.  How “noble” of them.
What you HAVEN”T probably heard is that as part of this bill, students have now LOST the ability to defer the interest on their loans while still in school, and have LOST the 6-month grace period after they graduate to start paying on their loans.  This is a big deal.

The bill Congress passed supposedly will cost them “an estimated $6 billion for one year.”  However, they will rake in an additional  $18 billion over the next decade from students who now will be required to pay on interest while in school, and no longer have a 6-month grace period.  I am no math genius, but I’m pretty sure Congress is coming out on top in this deal, and the average American student is getting the shaft.  Think about it.  Congress is foregoing $6 billion in revenue over 1-year by keeping the rates lower, yet they are changing provisions in the law that will require students to pay $18 billion more than before over the next 10 years.  18 divided by 10, is 1.8.  So, Congress will easily make back their $6 billion in a little under four years, leaving them an additional six years to take in additional $12 billion that they would not have otherwise collected.  Bottom line, Congress makes out well in the end.

If this all seems “off message”, and against the typical “talking point” of Congress, it’s because it is.  All we ever hear about is how “the cost of tuition is going up”, “higher education is unaffordable”, “student loan debt is such a problem in this country”, and that we must do something to stop it.  Every politician, on both sides of the aisle, spouts the same rhetoric.  And yet, a deal is made, a one-year TEMPORARY deal, that will keep interest rates lower, but require students to begin paying sooner.  This is a deal that looks good in a headline: “Congress prevents student loan rates from doubling!“, but one that actually hurts students financially right now.  Instead of more STUDENT debt, students will now have to take on more high interest CREDIT CARD debt in order to live AND begin paying off their loan interest.  In short, while the bill prevents students from paying more loan interest in the long term (at least for the next year), it forces them to come up with more money NOW, thus increasing their financial burden in the present at a time when most students have the least amount of money available to them.

I, like many, believe this is just another example of a larger problem.  The fact that more and more average, everyday Americans are forced into paying for the privilege of the 1% maintain their current obscene wealth, is a problem.  GOD FORBID we increase the marginal tax rate on upper income earners, even by only 3.5%!!! They’re the “job creators”.  Right, because the first thing that people with a lot of money want to do is spend it on hiring people and paying benefits.  In addition to not being a mathematician, I’m also not an economist, but I do understand that the last resort of a business owner or entrepreneur is to hire MORE people.  This costs money, and is only in response to an increase in demand.  However, if there is no demand because no one has money to spend on their products because they are too busy paying off STUDENT LOAN INTEREST, then there is no reason to hire more workers.  Thus, the cycle of unemployment and debt continues.  Get the picture?

Here are the details of the deal as reported by the Chicago Tribune –,0,4384922.story

Reflection on my Master’s Thesis – in short, opera companies are still struggling to relate culturally

A year ago, I had only ever been an intern in opera. Now I am fully employed in opera, and even more terrifying, I’m partly responsible for my companies future.

It has been over a year since I first began writing my thesis, and about nine months since I completed it.  When I first began this daunting assignment, I made this post as a way to “kick-off” the whole process and mark an official start date.

As I delved into the research, I began to wonder how American cultural history affected the trajectory opera took in America and where it finds itself today.  The thought behind all of my research became, “How did this, or does this, affect how opera was/is experienced and/or perceived by the audiences?”  Exploring the issue from this perspective allowed me to go deeper into the various social factors surrounding the art form, and how they influenced what the art form was and what it became in America.

It is amazing how much has changed in my life since its completion.  I now work full time in artistic administration for an opera company, and get to see day to day the theories of my thesis in action – both for good and for bad.  What’s most interesting, is that my opinions about opera companies and opera in America have changed very little over the course of time that has elapsed.

A year ago, I had only ever been an intern in opera.  Now I am fully employed in opera, and even more terrifying, I’m partly responsible for my companies future. I did have some doubts throughout the course of my writing that, perhaps, I was being a bit too idealistic with my arguments, and even maybe a little naive.  However, when I read back through it today, and I think about the problems I face daily, much of what I wrote still rings true for me.

You can read the full thesis as a Google Doc.

Here is the unabridged conclusion to my research…


            “What you need to know about the past is that no matter what has happened, it has all worked together to bring you to this very moment.  And this is the moment you can choose to make everything new.  Right now.” – Author Unknown

 To be certain, opera’s relationship to the American audience has, over the course of history, proven as nuanced and varied as America’s cultural fabric.  The numerous angles and side-stories one could take on the subject of opera’s cultural history in America, and how they have contributed to opera’s current place in society, could easily fill volumes.  As such, it has been the attempt of this work to present this story as concisely as possible, while offering examples and addressing all the requisite areas.  The preceding body of work is by no means a comprehensive study of all the varying topics addressed herein, but rather is intended to paint a picture of the author’s interpretation of the literature, and how he relates these many unrelated areas into one cohesive theory.

Opera, both as an art form and institution, is at an interesting crossroads in its history.  The culmination of all the arguments herein were to show that opera has been a heavily centralized and controlled cultural form for at least the last 150 years in this country.  There have been elements and moments where it waxed and waned in and out of popular demand, but for the most part, it has remained a significantly segregated art form in terms of to whom it appeals.

Faced now with the inevitable realities of the current cultural changes, opera is trying to adopt a more de-centralized cultural mindset.  In a way, it is trying to revert to the creative spontaneity allowed many decades ago.  Now, however, it is being done in the context of a society that is, for the most part, hard to please, not very patient, and not nearly as musically understanding as it once was.  These are uncharted waters not only for opera, but all the classical arts.  The formulas used in the past to appeal to audiences no longer work as well, in part, because they were created for a culture that no longer exists; for a society that no longer views music and entertainment the same way.

As discussed herein, opera’s cultural history in America, along with the influences of shifting musical tastes, shifting attitudes about “who” and “what” determine culture and relationships with technology, have shaped the general American perception of the art form.  Additionally, and to a certain degree consequentially, there are multiple perceived threats to opera’s future in this country. Many of these perceived threats are a by-product of the American cultural relationship with art, as well as the previously described changes in society that have affected perceptions of the art form.

In the series of interviews conducted for this thesis, each interviewee was asked the same question at the end of the interview: “What is the biggest threat to opera’s survival as an art form in the United States?”  The answers were varied and included things like, “Ambivalence”, “Remaining relevant”, “Complacency”, “The Internet”, “Short Attention Spans”, “Money”, “over-corporatization of the art form”, “demise of arts education”, “trying to capture or affix what opera ‘is’ or ‘should be’”, and “poor business model”.  One person even insisted that the incessant negative focus by many on the idea that opera and classical music have an inherent problem culturally would in fact eventually lead to such a demise.  What is consistent is that everyone agrees opera in America faces many challenges now and in the coming years.

As dire as things may appear, however, there is reason to be hopeful.  Opera does not have to end as tragically as most of its stories do.  However, changing opera’s storyline from a negative one to a positive one will depend on opera companies digging down deep, and analyzing their missions, visions, communities, and programming.  For many this will mean drastic change.  For some companies this change, if followed through to complete fruition, would transform those companies into something unrecognizable in comparison to what they are now.  This fact alone is a primary reason why so many companies are holding onto tried and true programming choices.  Immediate survival is the primary concern.  While this is an understandable mindset, it is not sustainable.  Those companies that do not come to terms with the current cultural reality, and how it affects what they do or do not do, will before long cease to exist.

There are equally as many positions one could take on the condition of opera in America, as well as what the answers are to its continued survival.  For some, making the art form as accessible and easy as possible, to as many people as possible, is the answer to opera’s future survival.  For others, opera will never, nor should it try to pander to the masses.  For this latter group, it is opera’s ability to remain artistically true to itself, and allowing for the composer to create, free from influence over the concern for marketability of his or her work, that makes opera and to a larger extent art, special.

Regardless of where one comes down on the “opera for all” versus “opera as niche” argument, there are some hard realities about opera in this country that cannot be refuted.  First, producing opera is likely to only get more expensive, not less.  The rising cost of everything, not just labor, will inevitably affect artistic decisions.  Because of this, opera companies will have to rethink their strategies, not only in terms of how they can produce opera more efficiently, but also in terms of figuring out ways opera can be experienced and thus made a commodity through different communication mediums.

Second, while it has improved in recent decades, the lack of support by opera companies and the opera public for homegrown American opera, is a factor in understanding why opera continues to feel foreign for many Americans.  Organizations like American Opera Projects continue to work tirelessly towards reversing this course of history (American Opera Projects, 2011).  Third, the larger culture in which opera now finds itself is increasingly more and more resistant not only to things perceived as elitist and foreign, but is also averse to activities and forms of entertainment that are both overly complicated and not in alliance with the pervading culture of consumer-oriented marketing and programming.

It is the opinion of this author, supported by numerous leaders in the field, that until opera is valued not merely as a performance spectacle, but also as a respected and valued form of creative expression, it will continue to be viewed in America as nothing more than a social playground for the rich, a “special attraction” for tourists, and a genuine, yet generally misunderstood and disrespected interest of a minority population.

Interestingly, this scenario is acceptable for some people in opera, and actually preferable.  These are the people who say, “better niche than mass appeal” and “better purity than pandering.”  These people would likely accept the state motto of New Hampshire as the motto for opera – “Live free or die.”  They are perfectly content with keeping opera small in the sense of its appeal, and actually revel in the fact they can feel it is their own niche interest, generally unspoiled by the influences of hype, marketing, and popular culture.

How do opera companies reconcile the two schools of thought – to be niche or to be for all?  How does a place like The Metropolitan Opera simultaneously balance being innovative and risky with traditional and safe?  The answer is neither easy nor clear.  What is clear is that Peter Gelb is trying to do something different.  The Met: Live in HD series is not only innovative, but is also re-defining, intentionally or not, how opera is perceived, produced, and experienced.   It is understandable, however, given that the Met relies a considerable amount financially on the support of opera traditionalists, why many long time audience members at the Met do not approve of Gelb’s vision.  That being said, Gelb walks a fine line between boring the innovative mind and deterring the traditional one.  It is a constant balance between the two.  Perhaps, then, the answer is to choose between the two.

There is such a thing as trying to do too much, and spreading oneself too thin.  Opera companies should strategically evaluate what it is they are trying to accomplish artistically, and whether that vision aligns with the interests of their community.  They must figure out how they can offer something in their community that is not already offered, and think creatively about what niche they can fill and that will be compatible with their budgets.  Americans live in a culture of customized experiences and on-demand entertainment.  We more and more rarely experience randomness in our lives. Our lives and our choices increasingly shaped by algorithmic formulas and intelligent databases that gather and categorize our market-profile, in turn allowing companies to market to us with fine-point precision.  Opera companies should take a lesson from this.  Instead of everyone trying to live up to the Met’s standard of grand opera, companies should figure out what they can do best, within their means and with heightened attention paid to strategic audience engagement, and produce opera that uniquely represents them as a company.  The story of Urban Arias is a perfect example of this.

The “opera for all” boat has sailed, and all those it left behind do not seem to care.  As such, continuing to waste resources on generic “outreach programs” that “bring opera to the people,” will only further prove opera’s irrelevance to those the programs are trying to serve.  The more opera is seen by the layperson as something from the past, as an act of recreating art from the past, the more irrelevant it will seem to them.  Furthermore, even with new inventions like HD and the various other technological avenues one can choose to experience opera, opera must move beyond simply presenting the classics.  Even in these new mediums, opera cannot sustain itself as a presenter of relic performance art, even if it is in high-def or 3D.

Instead the keyword should be about creation and showing how opera is not old, but current, alive and new.  Opera must realign itself as a worthy creative endeavor for composers and musicians, while simultaneously present itself in the minds of a new generation as a relevant option for shared artistic experience.  Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco is one example of an opera company that understands the importance of this mindset.  They have realigned their mission so that it truly serves their community.  HGO’s approach to its community positions it not as an entity that exists in Houston and serves a particular group of wealthy people, but an entity that serves all of Houston both through performances in the opera house and creative projects within the greater community at large.

How will we know when these changes have begun to occur?  What will be the cultural signs that the image of opera has begun to change into something more current?  One place to look for these changes are in the images and cultural references generally used to refer to opera.  If one currently searches the word “opera” on Google, a cartoonish image of Brünhilde from Die Walküre is one of the first images to appear.  The fact that this image most highly represent’s the word “opera” on the internet, reflects the reality in modern American society that opera is from the past, foreign, and frankly, quite silly.  If, however, this same search reveals at a point in the future an image of American opera creation, then one can at least have the assurance that the signpost for opera has changed, and likely found a new connection within our complex and varied culture that is America.

Completing a Masters Degree in Arts Management

I write this post on the morning of my graduation day.  I had set my alarm for 9am ( I thought I would “sleep in” today), but I couldn’t sleep past 6:30am.  I suppose the excitement and anticipation were simply too great.

Today, after two years in the making, I will finally graduate from American University with an M.A. in Arts Management.  It certainly has been an interesting two years.  One thing is certain – my experiences were not what I would have predicted two years ago when I was applying for programs.  However, is this not the case with most things in life?  We often expect one thing, yet get another; for better or for worse.

So, let’s get right into it…

First, expectations.  For me, undertaking this degree was a necessary life decision.  Three years ago, I was in a job and career path that I hated.  So, I made a decision while I was still young and unencumbered with obligations, that I would “take the plunge” and go after a life and career that would be personally fulfilling.  Since I approached graduate school with this mindset, I suppose I viewed everything in the beginning with rose colored glasses; everything would peachy keen and perfect.  It was the option that made the most sense, and was the best thing for me to do if I ever wanted the opportunity to work in the arts.

Second, the reality.  But before I get into it, I know what many of you think I’m going to write.  You think I’m about to say, “grad programs in arts management are a waste of money.”; that they are “all fluff”.  Well, you’re wrong.  The truth is, those thoughts have crossed my mind, but they are not the ultimate conclusion about my experience.  It’s a little more complicated than that.  I will say that I do not think a master’s program is for everyone.  If you are thinking about entering into one, I would suggest looking over this rational and frank advice from Yale University professor on what life is like for a graduate student. This website on online masters degrees does a fairly good job as well, explaining what is involved in graduate studies, and also compares traditional masters programs with those offered though online courses. Ultimately, the choice of whether to commit to several more years of college education has to be determined on the individual level. It all depends on one’s prior experience…

Here is what these degree programs CAN do, from my perspective:

  • Fast forward your career.  If you are new to the field and/or you are making a career transition, an arts management degree can exponentially increase your professional network, and quick.  The connections I have made within the last two years, and the doors that have opened, would likely have taken twice as long if not longer had I tried to make inroads of my own.  Having the professional backing from the Arts Management program and faculty at American University undoubtedly played a tremendous part in my ability to get great internships and meet great people.
  • Lay a solid foundation of the fundamentals.  If, for example, you are ignorant of the role development plays in supporting the larger mission of an arts organization, then an arts management program can teach you.  If you have never written a grant, developed a strategic marketing plan, done prospect research, developed an organization-wide budget, or understood the complexities of the role played by governments, foundations and corporations in the support of arts and culture, then an arts management program can teach you.  You will learn about all these areas, and more.

Here is what the degree CANNOT do for you.  Again, from my perspective:

  • Act as a magic bullet.  Like with most things in life, an arts management degree is what you make of it.  By simply enrolling, coming to class, completing assignments on time, writing a Capstone and graduating, you will likely feel at the end of two years that you paid a lot of money to read some books and write papers.  Approaching it in this way will leave you just where you started two years prior, only with head full of new information and a mountain of debt.  One has to be proactive in making the degree bear fruit beyond the ivy walls.  Your career will not flourish just because you attended.
  • Add value to an already established arts management career.  I write this last point with some trepidation, as I know it will likely draw flack from “the powers that be”; those powers which depend upon enrollment in such programs for their continued survival.  My own experience has been that those who come to the degree program with a few years of arts management experience under their belt, are likely left feeling under-challenged.  The reason for this is not because what the programs teach is not valuable or correct, but because the perspective from which subjects are taught are often taught from an introductory perspective.  This is fine for people like me; people who are career transitioning or going straight from undergraduate to graduate school.  However, for someone who has worked in the field; who has dealt with boards; who has managed a strategic marketing plan; the academic instruction of these subjects might seem a little too, for lack of a better word, “academic”.

Again, please do not misunderstand my point of view.  I do believe these programs have value.  The question is:  Can they be equally beneficial to all levels of arts management experience?  To be fair, professional degree programs in arts management are young.  As an academic field, arts management is still young.  It is still exploring its surroundings and trying to figure out the world and how it fits into it.  Ultimately, I want arts management programs to offer the most comprehensive, intensive training possible.

For all those considering an arts management degree, my one point of advice would be this:  Asses your experience, assess your goals, both personally and professionally, and then make the decision.  Do not just go to graduate school because it’s what you’re “supposed to do.”  For me, it was the right decision, and I do not regret it.  For others, they may realize too late that it was a waste of time.

In the end, the answer to this intensely personal question is the same answer to most questions in arts management:

“It depends.”

Let the Thesis writing begin!

I think this topic is valuable to the field of opera. I have seen a lot recent writing around creative cost-saving measures. A few examples that come immediately to mind are the use of projections in place of scenery, using the same core set structure for multiple operas in repertoire, the utilization of various social media techniques to take the place of more expensive traditional and expensive marketing campaigns, and the utilization of “demand pricing” – the same way airlines determine ticket prices.

I can hardly believe I am at that point where I have to ACTUALLY begin my thesis!  Wow, this really snuck up on me fast. So much has changed in a year and half about how I view the arts world.  My interests, though varied, have collected around the topic of opera and classical music.  More specifically, how they will survive and adapt to 21st century culture and technology.  Thus, the topic of my thesis…

My proposal is this:

Ever since Baumol and Bowen wrote in the 1960s about the inherent “cost disease” facing every non-profit arts organization, there has been a lot of focus on how performing arts organizations can increase their revenue, both earned and contributed, to offset this inherent flaw in their business model.  However, there is only so much donor money to go around and only so much ticket prices can go up before you completely isolate a majority of your audience.  With earned revenue still only accounting for approximately 50-60% of income (sometimes even less), and with reports of governments slashing and/or eliminating arts budgets, endowments losing their overall value, and foundations and corporations more heavily scrutinizing their giving, what creative ways are opera companies using to maintain artistic quality while also cutting costs?  Also, what efforts are there to better educate the average opera patron of the inherent flaw in the earned income/cost ratio, and the need for individual giving to sustain the art form?

It’s a daunting subject, but “doable” according to my thesis advisor.  (I have at least one cheerleader!)

I think this topic is valuable to the field of opera.  I have seen a lot recent writing around creative cost-saving measures.  A few examples that come immediately to mind are the use of projections in place of scenery, using the same core set structure for multiple operas in repertoire, the utilization of various social media techniques to take the place of more expensive traditional and expensive marketing campaigns, and the utilization of “demand pricing” – the same way airlines determine ticket prices.

This certainly will be the most daunting writing assignment of my life, but one that I am certain will discover numerous other creative cost saving measures, educate the public, and act as a conversation starter amongst my colleagues in the opera field.

Happy writing!