The Voices of Germany

 

The exceptional musical talents of my two daughters have come up one or twice in this blog (see “Glinke’s Clinkers” and “Fame 2.0 – Stage Mom”) In that second one, I ranted for a while about casting shows and why I forbade my daughter participation in any of those. As a successful cabaret artist / musician / friend of mine once told me, the best path for a budding musician is the most natural one. It begins with singing at family gatherings. From there it goes on to participating in musical events at school or in the village. From there one goes on to singing at weddings and baptisms and then local concerts and festivals. Good results in music competitions help too – first local ones and then ones encompassing larger geographical spaces. The child musician should slowly expand the circumference of their audience or those who recognize his/her talent. All the while, the budding musician should also benefit from having a normal childhood and a good all-around education.

My younger daughter is a wonderful pianist, but does not really enjoy the competitions or performances. She plays in two local concerts a year, purely for the sake of her teacher. The elder daughter, on the other hand, was clearly born for the stage. And her development and trajectory have been right on track. At seventeen, she is now in a band along with some of the best local musicians (all 10 to 20 years older and more experienced than she). Her successes at competitions in singing and songwriting have made her a known quantity in the province’s music scene. Last week, she hit a new high mark when performing at an international symposium in Vienna, attended by music teachers and professors from 25 nations. The concert consisted of nine varied contributions by music school students, one from each of the country’s provinces. Mitzi was “Miss Burgenland” so to speak. She played piano and sang two of her own songs. I realize I am not exactly impartial, but I will tell you anyway that she was fabulous.

And absolutely on the right track.

Yesterday, the husband came home from work and dropped a bombshell. He had received an email from a “scout” for one of the biggest casting shows in the German-speaking area, called “The Voice of Germany”. He (or she) had seen a video of Mitzi on the school’s website and wanted to contact her about participating in the show. (I am not sure if they realized they were writing to Mitzi’s father as well as her school principal . . . ) The fact that Mitzi was being actively recruited meant that she could skip past the first round of auditions – she would begin already in the “finalist” category. The husband added that he had called Mitzi’s singing teacher who was all for it. “Why not?” she had added.

Why not?

I confess, the whole idea creeps me out. I see in my daughter’s eyes that she wants to do it. I see in my husband’s eyes that he could be brought to a “yes” – his mouth is already forming the word silently. I hear my own voice repeating the mantra of earlier years: “No casting shows!” I smell danger. I picture thousands of anonymous voices of Germany whispering in my daughter’s ear for the proverbial fifteen minutes: “You are a star. I love you.” I feel her confusion about just how real these oh-so-unreal reality shows seem to feel. I envision the sudden spike in her trajectory and the deep and drastic dive that follows it. I sense I am alone in my rejection of this whole idea, this detour which will temporarily catapult all of our lives into the realm of sensationalism. I taste the bile of adrenaline as I contemplate the coming conflict.

 

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Morning at the Improv

 

(My Years of Montessori – Part 39)

 

At some point – I assume – every teacher will have a lesson when everything goes differently than their best laid plans. They arrive in class only to discover that some crucial piece of technology refuses to work, or a flu epidemic has halved the class size, or as is often the case with me, they suddenly look at what they prepared and think “This is stupid. I don’t want to do this.”

So they improvise.

And many teachers will tell you that these improvised, spur-of-the-moment lessons can be incredibly fun and much more memorable than the usual fare.

 

I went into my class Monday morning with a plan. We were kicking off a big, school-wide project around the theme of “Art”. Starting the next Monday, the kids would be able to try out different art forms for themselves – from ceramics, to painting, to sculpture, to carving, to weaving, etc. – but beforehand we would be learning about various artistic movements and different epochs in art along with their historical backgrounds, from cave paintings to Picasso, from da Vinci to Banksy. So all their lessons this week, whether World Studies, English, German or even Math, would somehow be connected to the topic of art . . . starting now. This lesson –this moment  – would be the big Kick-Off. I had it all planned out.

 

First I was going to do a general survey of what the kids associated with the word “Art”. Then I had a set of 26 cards based on the book “Museum ABC”. Each card showed 4 very different works of art with some object in common. And these 26 objects each began with a different letter of the alphabet. They had to identify the objects (in English!) and lay them out from A to Z. After that, I would point out examples on the cards from different art movements (Realism, Impressionism, Expressionism, Art Nouveau, Abstract, Surrealism, etc.) and have the kids come up with differences.

 

So back to Monday. I sat down on the carpet in the circle of kids and announced the official beginning of the project.

And then there was a weird, fairly long silence because I suddenly found it difficult to bring the banal question “What is Art?” over my lips. I knew instinctively that it wasn’t going to work.  Talking about art was not going to edify these kids. To really learn something, you need to experience it.

Time to improvise.

“We, humans,” I said, “all see the world in our own unique way. And most of us want to show or communicate to others how we see things. Art gives us an almost infinite number of ways to do this. I want to do a little experiment with you guys to demonstrate what I mean. Now close your eyes.”

The kids eyed me somewhat dubiously, but then decided to play along.

“Picture a chair.”

There were some murmurs and short requests for clarification. (“What kind of chair?” – “That’s up to you.”)

I looked around the circle of kids with their eyes closed, and added

“As you are imagining your chair, think about a few details . . like, what color is it? What is it made of?”

I waited for a few seconds and then asked, “Does everyone have a picture in their minds?”

After everyone had said yes, I told them to open their eyes, then handed them a piece of paper and said “Now go draw it. You can use colored pencils if you want.”

There was a mild but palpable excitement in the room (which surprised me) and they all spread out.

About ten minutes later most of them had wandered back to the carpet with drawing in hand. I had them lay their pictures in a circle on the carpet around the word “chair”. We all then sat down around them and compared for a while.

“Clearly, we all have different ideas about what a chair is and we used different styles in drawing them. One style is called ‘Realism’ – it means trying to paint the object as realistically as possible – exactly like it is. Almost like a photograph. Which of these is ‘realist’?”

About 11 fingers immediately pointed at Benny’s drawing. He was the only one who had used a ruler and thought about perspective.

“Not all artists draw objects exactly. Instead they show the object the way they see it or feel about it or experience it. Their impression of it. This is called ‘Impressionism’ – which of these looks a lot like a chair, but not like a photograph of one, somehow softer, less exact, more creative, lines that aren’t straight . . .

Fingers pointed at several pictures this time. A discussion started up about one of the choices because it didn’t look enough like a real chair.

“But it reminds you of a chair. Or makes you think of chair without really being a chair, doesn’t it?”

Most of the kids agreed.

“That is called ‘Abstract’.  The form of the object is distorted but usually still recognizable – in this case as a chair. Though . . . sometimes you have to be told what it is before you can see it.”

From there we found something Expressionist (in which the emotion was more important than the object) in Fred’s attempt to draw a dentist’s chair. He had gotten frustrated and scribbled over the part where the patient’s face would be. The result was slightly frightening. We discovered a Cubist chair (a collection of rectangular forms) and Symbolist executive chairs – one of which could be mistaken for a (middle) finger (salute). There was even one slightly Surreal chair (with fluffy looking jetpacks).

I was amazed at how long this little demonstration held their attention and at how they really seemed to get it. Even young Jonathon, who was clearly embarrassed about his own chair and reluctant at first to add it to the others on the carpet. I could almost hear him thinking “Benny’s chair is so good and mine looks so stupid and wrong!” Ten minutes later he was beaming about his cool, abstract style of drawing.

Unfortunately, because this was all unplanned, I didn’t have examples ready to show them right then and there, but I prepared this poster in the evening. The following morning, we ended up talking about it again for almost a half hour as one kid after another asked me questions about one of the movements (mostly the one their own chair drawing was assigned to . . .). Then we finally got to the Museum ABC activity that I had originally planned. It turned out to be way too easy and they were done in two minutes flat. So – Thank Goodness for spontaneous inspirations!

The next time I try this – and I definitely will (!) – I’ll have the example pictures ready to go. But I can say with confidence already that it won’t be the same magical experience. It is also entirely possible that two minutes before class starts, I will suddenly think, “This is stupid. I don’t want to do this.”

Red (-White-Red) Wedding

 

I stopped reading the “Game of Thrones” books after Part Four. And the only reason I finished that book is because I had bought and started it, and I have this thing about finishing books. (That is also why I made it all the way to the end of “The Thornbirds” despite all the suffering it caused me to read the worst. book. ever. But I digress . . .) I actually detached emotionally from GoT in Book Three already. It was the Red Wedding. I never got over it. From that point on, I hated the sadism of the author – the way he manipulated us readers into liking a character, only to then have him or her die in some particularly gruesome way. I eventually coped by simply changing the events of Book Three in my mind – fantasizing up a whole scenario where everything turned out differently. Robb Stark lives, creates alliances, unites the kingdoms. The war ends. Winter isn’t coming. And all of that because a wolf was there, standing by and watching over the wedding.

That whole first paragraph is a very inappropriate introduction to what this post is supposed to be about: my husband’s nephew/godchild got married this weekend. It was a truly lovely ceremony in classic Austrian (“Red-White-Red”) style and not at all . . . games-of-thronesy. Let’s start with the fact that the bride and groom knew each other beforehand. They also love, like, and respect one another. And that’s only one of the many differences. Like the fact that the nephew got married with the uncle in attendance – in GoT it was the opposite.  Another difference that occurs to me offhand is that last Saturday, the bride and groom weren’t stripped naked by the guests in the middle of the celebration and then carried off to a bedchamber to consummate the marriage. There were also very few casualties and ALL of those involved wine glasses, not people.

That is not to say that Austrian weddings can’t be brutal in their own special way . . .

As is customary here, a Christian wedding consists of two ceremonies. The first is with a Justice of the Peace and the second takes place afterward in the church. The first part can often be officious and devoid of sentimentality, as the cramped guests in some undecorated, provincial courtroom try unsuccessfully to understand the inaudible droning of some nervous bureaucrat and then watch contracts being signed. Thereafter they shuffle onward to the church and basically sit through an hour plus of all the glorious trappings of Sunday-Morning-Among-the-Pious interspersed with five minutes of wedding stuff. A long administration of dry wafers and fermented grape juice happens. Meanwhile, collection baskets are passed through the congregation. The marrying couple waits patiently through it all, dwarfed by the picturesque pomp and gold grandiosity surrounding them.

My nephew-in-law and (now) niece-in-law-in-law managed all of this much much better, making their wedding not only a lovely pair of ceremonies, but an all-around nice day from beginning to end. It started with their choice of locations – in a south-Styrian village with a wonderful restaurant designed exactly for such occasions.

 

The sign we passed on the way to our chairs told us “Today two families will become one. So choose a seat, not a side”. (That would have been good advice for the Tullys and the Freys, too, I think.) We watched a sweet ceremony, thanks to a government official who made the effort to get to know the couple a little so that he could personalize the ceremony. The rain clouds also waited patiently till we were all safely under a roof again, sipping sparkling wine and snacking on yummy hors d’oeuvres.

 

From there we had a 90 second walk to a wonderful church that managed to be impressive and understated at the same time. If later internet research serves, it is a Franciscan church, i.e. related philosophically to our current Pope Francis (who even a heathen like me finds pretty awesome). The priest who conducted the ceremony was modest and pleasant to listen to. He framed his words around the concept of heaven on earth and even found ways to link the music selection to his messages and the occasion. It all somehow worked. It all somehow seemed right.

 

But the best part of this location was outside the church. A huge statue created by Bolivian artist, Fernando Crespo.

 

It depicts the story of Francis of Assisi and the Wolf of Gubbio which teaches the importance of finding a way to peaceful coexistence – even with feared and dangerous enemies. With this wolf watching over things, I can confidently predict a Happy End – for nephew and uncle alike.

          

 

 

Dam Cracked

 

Not to diminish the insult or pain caused by Confederate statues, but it strikes me that discussions around them take our attention away from the true horror of Charlottesville. There were Nazi’s and KKK people marching proudly and openly in front of live cameras!  With guns and torches. Quoting first Hitler and then Donald Trump. In an American city.

Take a moment and really consider that.

It demands a response from every thinking person with a conscience. But what can possibly be written that hasn’t been said already by 1000 talking heads and one or two Republican senators?

As my subconscious gnawed on these recent events, a childhood story popped into my head. The one about the little boy who plugs a hole in a dike with his finger and saves the town (or was it the whole country?) I guess I thought of this story because it was somehow the metaphorical opposite of what I want to see happen.

In my three weeks in the States, I detected changes in the vocabulary people used to discuss the latest daily Twump farce. Way back during the campaign we had heard tentative expressions about “false statements”, “untruths”, “misrepresentations” and “distortions” – now people were saying straight out “he lied again”. An earlier “unprecedented outrage” was now yet another “idiotic” stunt. Words like “narcissist”, “pathological”, “obsession”, “unhinged”, etc. were now being thrown around with impunity. Newscasters began to smirk when saying the words “The president tweeted today that . . . .”  and no one talked about his brilliance in business or deal making anymore. And yet, everyone still danced on tiptoes around two topics. The first was his mental state. The second was fascism. Any remark comparing Trump’s playbook to that of historical fascist regimes was immediately pronounced “out of bounds”.

Still, it seemed to me that the vocabulary of dissent was growing in volume and intensity. I discussed this with my sister many times to make sure it was not just wishful thinking or me hearing what I wanted to hear. I was sure this drip drip had turned into a trickle at least. I wondered what it would take to turn this dribble into a stream and then, finally, maybe a torrent. What would make the dam break? Access Hollywood didn’t do it. Nor did the Comey firing. None of his many nasty attacks got his party members running, nor did the fact that he lied five times a day on average since taking office. Could Charlottesville be the thing? – the one that finally could not be simply waited out? When an important senator openly questioned the pwesident’s mental fitness for office and CNN started debating the question the next day, I thought this might really be it. The three words “on many sides” would open the flood gates. I braced myself and . . .

dribble . . . dribble . . . dribble . . .

I should have known that the senator’s words would not equate with metaphorically unplugging the hole in the dike. (His name was “Corker”. It was a sign.)

I googled the story anyway (search terms: boy finger dike) and discovered a lot of confusion. No one seems to know the origins of the story, but it was made famous by an American woman in the 19th century when she included it in her book about life in Holland: “Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates”. This woman had never been to Holland when she wrote it and apparently most Dutch people were not and are not familiar with the story. (This detail doesn’t surprise me at all. I have met literally thousands of Austrians and can only name three who have seen “The Sound of Music”.) Even so, there are (erroneously named) “Hans Brinker” statues in many cities in the Netherlands today. Wikipedia suggests they were put up for the benefit of American tourists.

And now I am back to statues.

It seems our objectionable statues have about as much true connection to our country’s heritage and traditions as the Hans Brinker ones do to Holland’s. Who believes that these ugly monuments, put up during Jim Crow, were meant to glorify a bunch of 19th century generals fighting a lost and immoral cause or the man who occupied a short-lived and illegitimate presidency? No, they had a different purpose and it surely wasn’t to attract tourists. And who believes that the present day defenders of these pieces of concrete are there to honor history? If anything, it is a bunch of 21st century generals fighting a different lost cause they are chanting for, along with the current man occupying a (short-lived?) and illegitimate presidency. The man whose words encouraged them to creep out of the closets and remove the hoods. These people clearly have an affinity to and recognize a common cause with the pwesident.

So . . . it seems that self proclaimed neo-nazi’s can say publicly that “he is one of us” but the rest of us are still not allowed to say “he is one of you”.

I am almost desperate in my need to hear Washington lawmakers and serious news people start openly discussing this man’s true political leanings as well as his mental capacity and health. He keeps going lower and he’s taking the country down with him.

There were Nazi’s and KKK people marching proudly and openly in front of live cameras!  With guns and torches. Quoting first Hitler and then Donald Trump. In an American city.

Take a moment and really consider that.

A Round Dance

I should probably do something to make up for my last post. During my three weeks in the States, most of the conversation and the ENTIRETY of the news revolved around the antics of the pwesident and his circular firing squad of cronies. It was “All Twump, All the Time”. He eventually wheedled his way into my blog. But now I am home again and after stumbling through two days of jetlag, I am ready to write about something that has nothing to do with American politics – maybe something European and cultured . . . sophisticated . . . snooty, even.

Luckily, it just so happens that I went to the opera yesterday. “Rigoletto” by Giuseppe Verdi. And not just in any ol’ opera house – but one that had been built outdoors inside a huge stone quarry:

As we took the roundabout walkway that descended into the quarry, the impressive stage slowly came into sight. And when we took our seats, I was happy to see that the ones directly in front of mine were empty for four rows – leaving me a perfect view. The stage itself was at least four times the size of a normal one, and having no ceiling, it allowed for dramatically large objects in the stage design.  The natural rock wall behind it was integrated into the backdrop and light show. The sound system surrounding us would put us deep inside of the music:

 

 

The sun set and the opera began. The sheer enormity of the stage props made the players seem tiny at first – but that might fit well with one theme of the opera – the general smallness of people. They scurried around the stage like insects while huge projected images loomed over them. (Only their singing voices were large enough in dimension to compete.)

For those that don’t know the story (as I myself didn’t until reading up on it during the two hour drive to the quarry), Rigoletto is a court jester serving a womanizing Duke whose most profound statement is that love must be free (and apparently, fleeting). He then proceeds to seduce (ruin) one girl after another with Rigoletto’s help. The jester’s reward is the kick he gets out of ridiculing the girls’ husbands and fathers once the deed has been done. However, when one of these offended men puts a curse on Rigoletto, it begins to haunt him obsessively – to the point where he considers paying to have this father killed. It is a glimpse that somewhere inside him, there might be something like a conscience. Why else would this curse get to him so badly? For one brief moment, he seems to realize that as a person, he is not much better than a hired assassin. He uses his tongue as his sword while aiding and abetting the juvenile, narcissist/playboy in charge, possibly against his own character. I couldn’t help but think of all those rep . . . (nope, no, not going to go there, back to the plot . . .)

Rigoletto’s most human quality is the love he has for his daughter whose existence he has kept a secret from everyone. (You see where this is going now, don’t you?) Oddly enough, he also keeps his real name and what he does for a living a secret from her – as if he asked himself “How could I look my daughter in the eye and say I support this man?” (Oops, darn it! back to the opera.)  Of course, he wouldn’t want his own daughter anywhere near the Duke, much less, god forbid, alone with him.

 In a Shakespearean-style, implausible mix-up, Rigoletto ends up unwittingly helping in the kidnapping of – you guessed it – his own daughter who then becomes the Duke’s next conquest. Enraged, Rigoletto returns to the assassin and this time goes through with the deal – but with a new target: the Duke. When his daughter tells him that she still loves the man, he forces her to watch the Duke go after his next conquest and then sends her away. She sneaks back and sacrifices herself to save the Duke. She manages to stay alive just long enough to be discovered by her father, sing a (fairly long!) aria and apologize, as if it were her own actions and not her father’s that brought all this about. Then she dies.

Things never seem to go well for the female characters in operas.

But that is not quite the end. Rigoletto holds his dead daughter and screams out something about “The Curse!!”  In other words, “look what has been done to me!” rather than “look what I have done!”

Aahhh, 19th Century morality. Gotta love it. Those were the days. So great. Wish we could be (made) so great again . . . (oops, sorry!) . . .

No, I did not think about Twump and his minions all through the opera. In fact I didn’t give them a second thought. They came slinking back today as I wrote this post. Thankfully, last night the music and singing and stagecraft were so wonderful, that they allowed me to suspend the present and shake off my modern feminist and political sensibilities for three straight hours (which went by in a flash!) I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of this horrible horrible story.

 

PS. The cool fireworks afterward helped too. You don’t get those in a dumb ol’ opera house.

      

At the Core

 

I’ve heard it said many times that Milwaukee is “the most segregated city” in the United States. It has been hard for me to believe this, because the particular area I live in here seems to be very multicultural. Not only do we see all colors in the rainbow, but the groups of people walking together are often a mixture too. On the other hand, there is a whole section of the city that we almost never enter on our trips home because there was no particular thing located in these streets to draw us there. When I was young, people used to refer to this area as “The Core”.

So I got to explore some of that part of the city when we decided to go to the Wisconsin Black Historical Society Museum at my daughters’ request. When we first arrived, I took in the neighborhood, which like so many in this part of town was hard to get a real sense of . . . mostly because of everything that was NOT there. There was a very nice looking public library with a green area around it, but the parking lot in the back could have come straight out of Addis Ababa. The road clearly should have been a commercial one, but a lot of the buildings seemed empty. There were no grocery stores, or pharmacies, or clothes stores, or hair salons or non-fast food restaurants. There were almost no pedestrians.

The museum was locked and we assumed closed, but we pushed the buzzer anyway. A friendly woman came and let us in. She said yes, the museum was open and that someone would come to show us around. In the meantime, we had the whole place to ourselves. We looked at some of the wall exhibits. Most seemed to be documents or pictures printed from computers, pasted on colored paper and then taped or tacked to the wall.  Many were showing signs of wear or exposure. The room seemed more like a classroom than a museum.

 

To be fair, I think we didn’t see the more professional exhibits because the main hall had been cleared for an event. The website, at any rate, has this picture:

But when we were there the hall was nearly empty:

 

So I don’t know what we missed due to unfortunate timing, but I don’t think it matters.

Because the curator walked in, introduced himself, and proceeded to devote the next two and a half hours to us. First there was a long but interesting talk filled with things I had never heard or known before. Then he discussed ideas with my daughter for the focus of her graduation research paper (the original reason we decided to go there). And then he went off to compile/photocopy articles for her.

While the curator talked, I found my mind and attention gravitating toward this picture:

I had seen it before. Was it something iconic (at least for Milwaukeeans?) – or was there something else about it that grabbed my attention? At one point I asked the curator who those people were and he said “I’ll be coming to that.” He went back to his talk which was somewhere between Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. Eventually, he reached the 1960s.

It turns out that almost exactly 50 years ago today, Milwaukee experienced civil rights protests that earned this city the nickname “Selma of the North”.  A group of extremely courageous mostly black people began marching again and again, under the most dangerous of circumstances, FOR 200 DAYS IN A ROW (!) to protest unfair housing policy in the city. Looming large among these protesters was Father James Groppi – a Catholic priest (who happens to resemble my own father):

                  

Father Groppi had already traveled to the South to take part in many civil rights protests including some with Dr. Martin Luther King. At some point he realized that many outside activists were moved to fight against abuses in the South while ignoring the problems in their own northern cities. He returned to Milwaukee and got involved in raising consciousness about unfair housing policies that kept African American confined to certain parts of the city and in sometimes abysmal conditions.

All of this was news to me. And it captured my attention and imagination. While telling my sister about our museum visit, she mentioned that there were exhibitions and events going on in Milwaukee to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of the marches. She also suggested a book called “Evicted” which tries to elucidate why the problems identified in 1967 still haven’t been resolved. I am 100 pages into it and can already recommend it to anyone who cares about the fact that big profits can still be made from people in desperate circumstances – especially those trapped at the corners where Racism Road, Segregation Street, Poverty Lane, and Opioid Alley intersect.