Don Giovanni at La Scala

Daniel BarenboimRegular readers will know that one of my random fascinations is the opera Don Giovanni. It has it all: a great story; great characters; great music. But different performances vary a lot. And I’ve never been fully satisfied with the staging of the opera — even when it is done as a movie, as with Joseph Losey’s wonderful version. But over the weekend, I found a staged version that I think is the best that I’ve seen and certainly among the best I’ve heard.

In 2011, Daniel Barenboim took over as musical director of La Scala opera house in Milan. And the first production under his leadership was an all star version of Don Giovanni featuring Anna Netrebko as Donna Anna, Peter Mattei as Don Giovanni, and Bryn Terfel as Giovanni’s servant Leporello. But the entire cast is great. And the musical direction is more what I prefer: a modern interpretation.

What I like most, however, is the staging. In general, I’m not that keen on standard stagings of it. And one thing I really don’t like is the whole “tin man” staging of the statue of Don Pedro. In this production, when the statue comes to dinner with Don Giovanni, it comes from out of a coffin. That is kind of ghoulish, which is infinitely more cool than the creaking statue walking through the door.

Interestingly, it hasn’t been released on DVD or even on CD. There may not be much call for it. There are a whole lot of productions. And I am probably in the minority in liking this postmodern production. But I still highly recommend it to anyone at all interested. It is three hours long, of course. But you can listen to it in two sittings. I did.

Translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer

Arthur GoldhammerI was very taken with a sentence in the introduction to Thomas Piketty’s famous book Le Capital au XXI Siècle, “Pendant longtemps, les débats intellectuels et politiques sur la répartition des richesses se sont nourris de beaucoup de préjugés, et de très peu de faits.” This means roughly, “For years, the intellectual and political debates about the distribution of wealth have been nourished by many prejudices, and very few facts.” It’s a good line, although it could doubtless be said about pretty much any political debate. But in most debates, there actually are facts. It is just the case that when the facts don’t support the position of the power elite, they are ignored. And that is largely what I expect to happen to Piketty’s book in the years ahead, but I will leave that for later. Now I want to talk about something more uplifting.

When Arthur Goldhammer translated that sentence of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, it became, “Intellectual and political debate about the distribution of wealth has long been based on an abundance of prejudice and a paucity of fact.” That’s not just an important observation, it is a beautiful sentence. And that more than anything is what strikes me about the book: it is beautifully translated.

I know quite a bit about Piketty, but I had never heard of Arthur Goldhammer before. And there isn’t a lot of information about him online. That’s not surprising. Translators rarely become celebrities. And given that Samuel Beckett always translated himself from French into English and Goldhammer has never translated Gargantua and Pantagruel, there is no reason I would know him. But Goldhammer is a very well known translator. His translation of Democracy in America is highly regarded and now he has translated Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

According to the Wikipedia page on him, he got his PhD in math at MIT in 1973. And from 1977 onward, he’s worked as a translator of French nonfiction. That isn’t that strange: math, music, and linguistics all have much in common. They all have similar qualities of beauty. But I’m afraid that translators get the least credit of any creative workers. There are very few people who ever read more than one translation of anything. So there is a tendency to think of translation as a special kind of stenography. But just the one sentence above shows the lie to that.

In case you missed it, I finally got Capital in the Twenty-First Century. And it is a shockingly good read. I can attest to Piketty’s brilliance in telling a story. I can’t, however, say what he’s doing on the micro-level. But for my English language enjoyment and edification, Goldhammer has me covered. His translation is beautiful.


Goldhammer blogs about French Politics. I’ve only scanned it but it looks quite interesting.

Rich Yeselson’s Elevator Pitch for Unions

Rich YeselsonWhether you realize it or not, unions help you in countless ways. Union workers still hold a substantial wage and benefit premium over non-union workers. Basically, you’re more likely to be paid better, have more vacation time, a better benefit package, than if you’re not in a union. Your workplace is likely to be a lot safer (compare unionized vs non-unionized manufacturing facilities — and coal mines.) If union standards for pay, benefits, safety and health didn’t exist, there would be no pressure on non-union employers to, at least, try to approach them. Moreover, as the National Labor Relations Act states in its preamble, unions augment worker’s purchasing power and thus boost the entire economy.

If you have any concerns about the danger of large, concentrated private power and money — from the Koch brothers to the oil companies to the insurance companies — unions, even now in their weakened condition, are likely to be the loudest, most powerful ally you will have. Unions, as the old saying goes, the folks who brought you the weekend. And fight for your Social Security. And your Medicare and Medicaid. And — despite a long history of racism, like the rest of America — the Civil Rights Act. And now, increasingly, LGBT rights. Meaning a bunch of issues that have nothing directly to do with unionized workers (the minimum wage doesn’t either — and unions fight for that, too.) And safe workplaces. And on and on. At their best, unions try to make America a better place, not merely for their members, but for millions of others.

Unions aren’t perfect — they are not a “countervailing” power when what their own workers do is itself anti-social (see the police unions, for example, in the past few weeks post Ferguson). But, if you read the news you understand that governments, corporations, and non-profits like universities aren’t perfect, either. In the past several decades of democratic revolutions all over the world — from South Korea to Eastern Europe to South Africa and elsewhere — unions and workers are in the forefront of those struggles. And when those movements are crushed, it is the organizations of workers that are among the first to be destroyed or neutered. In a democratic society, unions are a critical part of the political culture, at their best transcending the differences of race, gender, sexual orientation and much more that divide people from one another, providing a democratic space in civil society between the family and the state. That’s what social solidarity is about — sometimes unions have to fight against the wealthy and powerful, but, in doing so, they bring people together.

—Rich Yeselson
Happy Labor Day. Are Unions Dead?

In Praise of Non-Cleese Monty Python

Mr NeutronI was recently reminded of the line, “Mr Neutron: easily the most dangerous man the world has ever seen…” It is from one of the last Monty Phyton episodes made. The joke is that Mr Neutron is really dangerous, but all he wants to do is hang out in the London suburbs gardening and wallpapering. When I first saw it as a teenager, I didn’t find it all the funny. But it was something that stayed in my mind and it became more and more humorous over time.

I found it online and watched it again. It is entirely typical for Monty Python: it is uneven. I found some of it hysterical and some of it tired. In particular, there is a recurring bit about an American general who is obsessed with his body odors. I find it kind of creepy, but I think that is just because the British find the American obsession with hygiene to be creepy. And they are right.

Here is the first part of it:

After watching it, I did a little research and I came upon an article by J Walker on the website This Was Television, Same As It Ever Was?: You’re No Fun Anymore – Monty Python Minus One. It is about the last season of Monty Python after John Cleese had left. The writer takes special aim at “Mr Neutron,” and claims that the problem was the lack of Cleese. It isn’t anything special about Cleese — it could have been any one of the cast members — it was just that the group had some kind of magic balance.

This is nonsense. The whole article suffers from what I wrote about this weekend, No Real Reason I Liked The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The writer had just decided to have a particular outlook on the episode and so focused on the problems in it. Above all, the complaint is that the episode is not like episodes that did have Cleese, which is a true but useless observation.

My guess would be that “Mr Neutron” was primarily the work of Michael Palin and Terry Jones. It is very much in keeping with their excellent series, Ripping Yarns. Much of the “now for something completely different” transitions are gone and a coherent plot is in place. If the absence of Cleese was important, it was that it gave substantially more power to Palin-Jones to take the series in a different direction. Looking at the fourth season overall, the worst you can say is that the show was heading for a new equilibrium that it hadn’t quite reached.

The whole thing reminds me of what is absolutely most annoying about self-proclaimed critics: their tendency to find fault with a work of art because it is not what they want to see. So as far as Walker is concerned, the fourth season of Monty Python is weak because it is distinctly different from the first three seasons. But it has to be judged on its own terms. And I agree: it is not as consistent as the best of the first three seasons. But the first three seasons were not as consistent as the best of the first three seasons. It also isn’t as good as Ripping Yarns. But again: Monty Python was not as good as Ripping Yarns. And even with Cleese, the fourth seasons was bound to have been somewhat tired. Cleese thought that in the third season — that’s why he left.

I recommend checking out the fourth season episodes. But do it as you would any new comedy series. Because it isn’t the old Monty Python. But if they had gone on another two years, there might be a raging debate now among fans as to whether Python I or Python II was the best. To me, it would always be a mixed bag. You are always better off with Fawlty Towers and Ripping Yarns and the two main films.


Here are the six episodes with (probably temporary) links:

The Golden Age of Ballooning
Michael Ellis
The Light Entertainment War
Mr Neutron
Party Political Broadcast

Hemant Mehta and His Seventy-Eight Questions

Hemant MehtaHemant Mehta is known as The Friendly Atheist. And he really does seem very friendly. Look at that face! If that doesn’t say “earnest nice guy,” I don’t what does. This may sound like I’m being sarcastic, and if so, I’m sorry. It is just an indication of how much he’s charmed me.

The truth is that most atheists do come off as, well, jerks. And I say this as more or less one. (I discussed this in a recent article, Time as a Construct of Consciousness.) What bugs me the most about atheists is the degree of their certainty when their own understanding of ontology is at best childish and often simply absent. Humility is a really important aspect of being a decent human being.

Mehta really struck me in a point he made in one of his videos, Nine Things Atheists Should STOP Saying. The ninth one was, “You can’t just pick and choose what you want to believe.” This is the idea that Christians are being silly when they accept the Bible when it tells them God loves them but blow off the vile parts about slavery being just fine and the need to stone our LGBT friends.

As Mehta pointed out, this is just the opposite of what atheists should want. It is better to have liberal minded Christians than fundamentalists. But there is a deeper issue. It just doesn’t make sense to say that if you are a Christian, you must be a Biblical literalist. Who says?! There are lots of ways to rationalize buffet Christianity. But above all, most Christians think the Bible is “divinely inspired” not “the literal word of God.”

But this is the essence of what I’m talking about with the arrogance of the atheist community. Only someone who has a really primitive conception of religion would think that the Bible must be read literally. We all understand that Ken Ham is such a person. But atheists pride themselves on being rational and smart. Making straw man arguments against liberal Christians is neither rational nor smart.

None of this is to say that atheists can’t have a whole lot of fun mocking the theists of the world. This is part of being in a group. The theists do it to the atheist; the atheists do it to the theists; and I do it to both. (Because I’m better than they are!) And Mehta is really good at this as well. And he’s damned charming while doing it.

Here is his video, Seventy-Eight Questions for Christians:

For the record, the standard Christian answer to the best questions here is, “I don’t know. I am not God. But I know that God is good.” I find such answers extremely frustrating. Consider the question, “Is Anne Frank burning in hell for the rest of eternity?” If she is not, then the whole heaven thing is a bit more complicated than Christians have made it out. If she is, doesn’t that make God undeserving of worship? By refusing to engage with such questions, Christians are refusing to take their religion seriously. Of course, the very worst Christians — the literalists — would have no problem with the question. “Yes!” they would tell you. “She had her chance!” On the other side, the very best Christians — the Universalists — would also have no problem with the question. “No!” they would tell you. “Everyone goes to heaven!”

One question Hemant Mehta didn’t ask was, “If Hitler had a spiritual awakening in his bunker, is he now in heaven with God?” But that’s just because he’s too nice. “Friendly,” you might say.

Billy Preston

Billy PrestonOn this day in 1946, the great musician Billy Preston was born. People know him mostly for his hits like “Nothing From Nothing” and “Will It Go Round in Circles.” But he was a great keyboard player who started playing professionally by the age of ten. At 16, he was playing organ for Little Richard. At 22 he was working with Ray Charles.

He really came to prominence for his work with The Beatles. And most notable about that is his Fender Rhodes part on the song “Get Back.” In fact, according to Wikipedia, the song was credited to, “The Beatles with Billy Preston.”

Shortly before his death, I saw him perform at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. He put on a great show. He was quite a showman in addition to being a great musician. He died much too young.

Here he is at the height of his fame doing “Nothing From Nothing”:

And here he is doing Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”:

Happy birthday Billy Preston!