Like, you, I’ve seen all manner of Interweb blather regarding the recent election. For all the good it will do, I’ve certainly added my portion of spleen to the mix. I am particularly galled (we’re apparently using organ metaphors today) by the reactions of so many of my left-coast pundits who cry, scream and generally act like babies about the results–occasionally using the same rhetoric as those on the right, eg. the “The election was rigged, I tell ya!” gag. But being intellectuals, this varietal is, “The Electoral College was rigged!”
My feelings have been somewhat more consistent over the past few years. At the risk of sounding like some obnoxious “Neener, neener, neener!” child, I’ve been screaming at the left for years about it’s estrangement from the very working people who built the Democratic Party back in the days of Roosevelt both here and at The Rational Christian Ranter.
Don’t Get Mad. Write An Opera!
My way of (cough) ‘expressing my concerns’ was to write Detroit, the main point of which was to chart the rise and fall of not just the city, but the opportunities of that city for three generations of new-comers. I wanted to show how work, how having a good job was the essential transformational elixir. Whether you’re a Lithuanian Jew in 1900 or a Somalia cab driver in 2016, the moral is the same: a good job, that provides real dignity, is the American Dream.
One of my main source texts for Detroit The Opera was Studs Terkel’s ‘Work’ and I still recommend it highly to understand the white (and non-white) working class that swung this election. For me it is an invaluable time capsule, something akin to the 1970’s version of today’s ‘Storycore Project’.
The thing I want to say is that ‘the left’ and most of the ‘elites’ (which includes most NPR listeners regardless of income) need to be educated as to what went wrong. Since these rants are supposed to be about my work and not just another unnecessary forum for ranting about politics, I’ll share one anecdote of musical bitterness which may have some relevance. Again, if it sounds like a childish, “Told ya so!”, I am truly sorry.
Regular readers will note that, like any aspiring opera composer, I work me arse off attempting to obtain various arts funding grants, both to write music like Detroit and then, once written, to actually get it performed. Just writing these grant applications is a ridiculous amount of work given the low probability of success, but that’s just the deal. In any event, each year since 2012 I’ve competed for a chance to have Detroit performed by a number of companies of various sizes, including Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. Backing up a minute, almost all companies have ‘new/unknown/emerging (emerging from what one wonders?) composer’ grants to encourage the next generation of composers. The big prize is almost always a single full performance.
Right. In 2013, the year after I finished Detroit, I was runner-up for this prize. Be still my beating heart! The winner? A show about a plucky woman overcoming adversity in an unfair world. I didn’t enjoy the music so much, but I chalked that up to, at least in part, SOUR GRAPES. 😀 So I go back in 2014, assuming that I would do even worse (which I did). And the winner? A show concerning a gay couple overcoming adversity in an unfair world. Again, the seemed a bit conventional but, OK. Try, try again. Now in 2015 I had a better showing, being sixth on the list. The winner? Japanese Americans singing about their travails from a World War II Internment Camp with a fairly conventional score. And now this year? The winning entry was a story about a transgender person. Am I detecting a pattern here? 😀
Now a certain type of person already has their antennae up that I am some alt-right kind of guy. But I submit that such persons are actually showing their own biases; not mine. For me the above experience shows the decision-makers’ obvious bias towards works that further certain social issues and under-represented minorities over the actually quality of the drama being presented. And this does make me wonder: Does opera require a program of Affirmative Action? (Not for the composers, but rather for the operas themselves?) One year, in what was meant as something of consolation, a person on the deciding committee told me, confidentially of course, how hard it had been to get support for a piece about working people in a rust-belt town. It just didn’t feel (in her words) “relevant” to “today”. Ouch. And she was one of my supporters!
Lessons From An Operatic Failure–And Dr. King
As Hamlet says, “The play’s the thing to uncover the conscience of the king.” When everyone on the left–in the media and among the elites and including those who fund the arts, feel that the working class is not ‘relevant’ or is somehow inherently racist or out of touch with where the country needs to go? Something is seriously wrong with this country. (Note how ‘white’ is almost always prefixed to ‘working class’; the problems of working people are now automatically conflated with racism in much of the media discourse. This has to change.)
As radioactive as it is to say this, I would encourage everyone to view the election results through the lens of one of our President-Elect’s catch-phrases: jobs, Jobs, JOBS. Viewing it through a lens of racism or misogyny or patriotism or whatever, whether factually accurate or not is simply unproductive. Which is to say, as any marriage counselor will tell you, lots of things in life are true, but not helpful to solving problems between people.
The one thing that we can all agree on is something Dr. King tried desperately to tell us near the end of his life, at a point when most of America had already stopped listening to a large part of his message: The most pressing problems in America (and the world) are economic. Good jobs for people at all socio-economic levels are a balm to sooooooooooo many social ills. And if nothing else, I wanted Detroit The Opera to demonstrate that. The characters in Detroit all fail and succeed based on their ability to find good jobs.
Few people now recall that King’s “I Have A Dream” speech was part of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”. (emphasis, mine)