Thursday, December 4, 2008

Cultural riches, cultural poverty...

Philip Kennicott writes an excellent review in The Chronicle of Higher Education of two books about the life of the much admired and much maligned late founder and director of the Opera Company of Boston - Sarah Caldwell. The reach of Caldwell's work and the extremes of her personality would need at least two books. Kennicott quotes Daniel Kessler's The First Woman of Opera:

Is that why she grew so obese? It seems a ridiculous question, the sort that would never be asked of a male conductor...Caldwell's physical size very quickly became a kind of shorthand for her reputation. In her best years, during the 1960s and 70s, the artist with a charming indifference to her physical self was seen as a maverick and an eccentric. But when everything started to fall apart, the overweight impresario was seen as out of control and undisciplined.

The truth was, she was all of those, and as long as she could scrape together the money, the maverick could do her astonishing work. But when the money ran out, memories of the maverick were almost instantly effaced. Her cultural exchange with the Soviet Union was a critical triumph, but she never bothered to cover the bills. Personal pressure from no less than Secretary of State George P. Shultz was required to keep the thing from becoming a fiasco.

Indeed, her unkempt appearrance would have been given less emphasis if she had been a man, but opera has a pretty glitzy veneer. The first class of every year of teaching opera singers acting, I would have at least one student show up to class in a suit or evening gown until I posted notices that sweat pants were preferred. Anyhoo, what I like about this review is how it recognizes the contradictions that were embodied in this single person (as is true of most of us) and sees these two books as a more honest portrait than either one of them alone. I really enjoyed this one excerpt Kennicott quotes from Caldwell's own memoir Challenges: A Memoir of my Life in Opera, not so much for the discussion as to the degree of Caldwell's self knowledge but because it places in context the job she took on as an artistic director in the United States:
The closest that Caldwell comes to acknowledging her deeper flaws in Challenges: A Memoir of My Life in Opera is an observation she borrows from one of this country's most influential leaders in the arts: "McNeil Lowry, head of the Ford Foundation, once said that when he went into a room he could always spot the arts directors because they all appeared to be somewhat wounded," she writes. "They were too thin or too fat; they smoked too much, or were nervous, because their fund-raising responsibilities weighed so heavily on them."
Having both run and assisted the running of several small theatre companies in the U.S., and knowing many others who have and do run them, I got a big chuckle out of that. And as I write this with the radio giving reports of hysteria over that abstraction called "the economy," and wealthy industries desperate for bailouts, my thoughts turned to a different kind of poverty we experience here by virtue of how little emphasis is placed on culture, on experiences of beauty and richness in the course of educating our children and living our daily lives as adults. How much better the world can be for those who would sacrifice everything - their possessions, their health, their physical attractiveness - just to make something that looks or sounds exceptional, and how mistrustful and disrespectful we can be of that impulse. It may not seem on the same order as the drop in the Dow but that is a kind of poverty too.

Hat tip: Books, Inq.

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