Thursday, June 19, 2008

TV and the campaign season

it's that time again. there's a Democrat and a Republican candidate (well, almost: the conventions haven't been held yet, so it's more like the prewedding dinner than the reception), and with them, the inevitable onslaught of complaints about the media, in particular television. i'm one of those who complains about television, which Newton Minnow would surely say remains largely a vast wasteland. but i also get tired of people acting like television has created the problem of inane political discourse. anyway, the attacks have begun. in this past sunday's Boston Globe is an op-ed piece by Rick Shenkman called "the dumbing down of voters."

It's an odd and contradictory article, since Shenkman insists in the beginning that "politics today is conducted at a lower level than it used to be,'' and then tells us how uninformed the US voters were in the 1940s. We're no better, he says, even though we have a higher level of education than they had 60 years ago. I wouldn't argue with that. He cites sad statistics: only two in ten americans know we have 100 senators; only a third know Congress has the power to declare war, and a slew of equally dispiriting findings. He gives several reasons for this--the "collapse of the traditional two-party system" (i didn't realize it had collapsed--does this mean we'll have a Socialist or Libertarian president next year?); and the collapse of unions.

but the real villain, is, inevitably, television. "once television replaced newspapers as the chief source of news, this happened around 1965, shallowness was inescapable as americans began judging politicians by how they looked and acted." earlier, he had opined that "Not many voted against william howard taft because he was fat or abraham lincoln because he was thin. One can't imagine franklin roosevelt being judged by how badly he bowled or how convincingly he knocked back a tumble of scotch.''

Maybe not. but roosevelt himself cared enough about image to make certain that he was never seen, let alone photographed, in public in his wheelchair. that, supposedly, would show him as a 'weak man.' indeed roosevelt famously told orson welles that they were the two best actors in america.

nor did it start there. the media--whichever media there were at a given time--have always reported shallowly when the politicians gave them the chance. And the politicians usually did. in the early 1840s, william henry harrison ran against incumbent martin van buren, using the now famous ditty based on harrison's army triumphs 20 years earlier in the battle of tippicanoe, and on van buren's height ('he's a little man'). van buren answered with a ditty from his own supporters, which if less famous was equally fatuous.

television did indeed jump into the fray in the very beginning. who can forget the sight of richard nixon earnestly explaining to the camera that the democrats wanted to take away his children's puppy, the adorable little Checkers? and yes, the public bought it.

and in the same era, television also brought us edward r. murrow.

it's always like that.

so today, we get soundbites, and anemic "debates." we'll hear for weeks and weeks about obama's alleged connections to islamic terrorists and to che guevara. once the conventions are over, we'll hear equally unsubstantiated but entertaining reports about mccain. we'll know more about both candidates' wives than most of us ever want to.

but that isn't all we'll get. we'll channel surf and find bill moyers on pbs, examining issues closely and seriously, as we have done at least since watergate.
this past week, the nation has been stunned by the loss of a tv commentator whose committment to full, honest exploration of american politics was palpable. tim russert was beloved for a reason. he was a popular host on a major network tv show he made popular, even in its sunday morning time slot. he gave us content and context, with intelligence and civility. his death was a shock in part because he was fairly young (58), energetic, and apparently healthy. but it was also because he was a fixture in american political reporting, and it's hard to imagine the upcoming election without him. that his colleagues and friends mourn him is moving, but inevitable. that his loss affects so many average americans says volumes about what television can, and often does, do. that it doesn't do it enough is true. but just as its drivel is symptomatic of our public, so is its occasional depth. we are no better or worse than any other generation. television is no better or worse than any of the media that preceded it--from the 'bread and circuses' of the ancient romans through the elaborate pageantry of the Tudor monarchs' "progresses," through tippicanoe and tyler too, through FDR's make-believe walk, through poor little checkers, and beyond and probably before.

there will never be another tim russert, as there has never been another edward r. murrow. but there are and will be good television reporters and analysts, and stations that now and again give them a place to be heard.

it's up to us to listen.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

semi-staged opera

i have become, in recent years, a great fan of opera. i get to new york and the met a couple of times a year, and to whatever opera is in the boston area when it's here.

it's an expensive hobby, even if you get the cheapest seats. and if you don't live in new york or london, there usually isn't a lot around. but the boundaries expand if you get to concert operas--operas which, as their name suggests, are performed as if they were concerts and the singers extensions of the orchestra, standing in place and singing. for me, this has worked fairly well: if you are very familiar with the opera's story, you can follow it well enough, and usually you are provided with a decent explanation in the program. i've seen two at the boston symphony orchestra, conducted by the wonderful james levine. the first, 'moses und aron,' was new to me, but i was able to follow it. the two main singers were extraordinary. they had done this at the Met fully staged, and were able, even in this confined presentation, to display in body language as well as voice the emotional content of the piece. that was last year; this year they did 'les troyens,' a two-opera sequence about the trojan war based on 'the aeneid.' i know the aenead well, so i had my own 'production' visually clear in my mind. what an astounding expereince!

but there's a third kind of production that i've come to cherish--the 'semi-staged' opera. in boston at least this approach has expanded, and often performances defined as 'concert opera' turn out to be semi-staged. usually the singers wear the formal evening wear of the concert opera--gowns and tuxedos. sometimes, as with the yearly Boston Baroque opera, they wear their own clothing, not necessarily formal, and often match the clothing to the character. but in either case, while the orchestra and chorus are on the stage as in any concert, the singers act out the action, even ocassionally with very small props [a small table, a glass, a pen and paper, etc.] most importantly, they don't just stand there; they interact according to the plot. often the women vary their clothing [typically a woman will wear a plain gown, with different shawls or scarves].

these productions tend to be less expensive than fully staged operas, for obvious reasons. sometimes they are far better--large choruses, etc. and they extend the operagoing possibilities for the audience. they engage the imagination, and at the same time enlarge the visual and emotional information. there was a wonderful 'carmen' here recently, semi staged but artfully including the orchestra and chorus into the theatrical elements [in the first act, the vamp carmen flirted not only with the various male characters but with the conductor himself! clever, and leaving no doubt about the character of carmen, and the fate of her doomed conquest don jose.

a wonderful invention, semi-staging!