Opera and Politics in the Big Apple

Geraint Talfan Davies reports on a week in the arts and politics of New York

Monday, 28th September

New York is astonishingly familiar, not because I have been here many times before but because it is ever present in our fictional baggage. As a result of film and television we are more familiar with the look and sound of its streets than with the streets of any European city: its policemen and bagel sellers, the yellow taxis, the aggressive bullhorn of a fire engine, the steam rising from manholes in the chill morning air, and that urgent, no nonsense accent that, as Gwyn Thomas said of the Cardiff accent, “cuts through your aural sensibilities like a wire through cheese.”

Yet it still demands of you some cultural fine-tuning: to the freneticism of its television not least in Taxi TV, the television service that now regales you in every cab, as plastic as the seating; the famed and refreshing egalitarian ease of restaurant service, and waiters that actually want to catch your eye; and, reassuringly, the sobriety of the prose of the New York Times – less partisan than any of the British broadsheets, though with a layout as old fashioned as the clubby décor of too many hotels.

If British broadcasting can claim to be superior to the bulk of US television, among the quality prints perhaps it is America’s New York Times and the Wall Street Journal that take the laurels. How many British broadsheets would carry an apology (as the NYT did this week) for misspelling Cosi fan tutte as Cosi fan tutti, even if they had spotted the mistake.

Tuesday, 29th September

Today, two case studies in American philanthropy.

First to the mansion of the steel and coke magnate, Henry Clay Frick, overlooking Central Park. Frick assembled an eclectic collection of European paintings and sculpture, and bequeathed the collection and his restrained but opulent pile to the American nation on his death in 1919. His agents must have been at work at the same time as the agent of Wales’s Davies sisters whose collection of impressionist paintings, bequeathed to our own National Museum, is now on a tour of American cities.

Frick and the Davies sisters had one thing in common, their collections were drawn primarily from outside their own countries. Only two American artists feature in the Frick collection – five paintings by Whistler, and a solitary painting by Gilbert Stuart, there only because it is a patriotic portrait of George Washington. The Davies sisters were clearly more resolutely contemporary in their patronage than Frick.

Wales today may not have the wealth of New York, or even of the heydey of Welsh coal, but how many of today’s Welsh millionaires – of which there are a surprising number – busy themselves assembling collections of contemporary art whether Welsh, British, French or American?

Second, further down Park Avenue that evening, to the deconsecrated former Christian Science church, that now serves as an elegant up-market function room – a cross between Morriston’s Tabernacl chapel and Barry’s now vanished Bindles ballroom – and the setting for a recital by Bryn Terfel – the inaugural event of the American Friends of Welsh National Opera.

WNO enjoys two considerable assets at the moment – the support of the brightest star in the global opera firmament, Bryn Terfel, and the fact that WNO’s Chief Executive and Artistic Director, John Fisher, was for many years a senior figure at the ‘Met’. As a result the evening produced a remarkable turnout of patrons of opera in perhaps the richest city in the world, as well as of Welsh Americans.

Philanthropy is more deeply ingrained in the civic culture of the USA than in Britain. It is an historical phenomenon that has to do with much more than a benign tax regime, though that has helped. For its 125th anniversary the New York Metropolitan Opera raised no less than 175 million dollars!

What was heartening for all of us in the WNO team was the obvious warmth and high regard for our company, the ready association of Wales with song, and the determination of so many to visit Wales next June for WNO’s new production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger in which Bryn will sing the lead role of Hans Sachs for the very first time. In this influential group the forthcoming Meistersinger is more important and enticing a prospect even than the Ryder Cup, though some opera goers play golf and vice versa. Bryn Terfel’s handicap is 12.

For WNO, the event was a flying start for the long-term task of building an American network of support for Wales’s best-known cultural asset, as well as deeper two-way creative relationships. It builds on the successful Welsh presence this summer at the Smithsonian Festival in Washington – at which a WNO Max team arranged song workshops with local children. But it also underlined how much more Wales could do to exploit to the full the potential of the arts to raise our profile abroad. Its now almost 20 years since the full WNO company performed in the US.

I can offer Wales’s image builders one moment of encouragement: one opera lover who has visited Cardiff regularly told me he particularly enjoyed his hotel, with ‘a lovely view of the lagoon’. Cardiff Bay will never be the same again.

Wednesday, 30th September

The almost overwhelmingly large Metropolitan Museum of Art is presenting an exhibition of the work of the American photographer Robert Franks – The Americans. His documenting of Americans in the immediate post-war years in grainy black and white pictures is a masterpiece. But good to see that the museum shop is also selling London/Wales – Franks’ contrasting take on London bankers and Welsh miners in the early fifties. In 1953 he spent many months in Caerau and Maesteg capturing an industrial culture that would be all but dead within 20 years. The contrasts that Franks captured seem especially and painfully relevant today.

Thursday, 1st October

In political terms New York is a Democratic Party stronghold. As a result conversations turn quite quickly to the saga of health care reform. This week the Senate Finance Committee ruled out all attempts to include a ‘public option’ in the reform proposal, concentrating instead on forms of insurance. For many east coast democrats this was a depressing result, not just on policy grounds but because it underlined again the hideous gulf that now exists between liberal and neocon America.

This led one seasoned commentator, Thomas Friedman, in a New York Times column, to argue that “our leaders, even the president, can no longer utter the word ‘we’ with a straight face. There is no more ‘we’ in American politics.” He went on to worry that much of the language of attack on President Obama is so vitriolic that “someone might draw from [them] a licence to try to hurt the President.” He drew a parallel with the political climate in Israel before the Rabin assassination in 1995.

Among the contributing factors, Friedman cites the dark side of the blogosphere “that gives a new power to anonymous slanderers”. Seeing a serious commentator like Friedman feel the need to express such fear for the consequences of the collapse of rational debate, pulls you up short. It should remind us in the UK of the value of the requirements of fairness and impartiality placed on broadcasters – requirements that James Murdoch, in his recent Edinburgh lecture, was so keen to get rid of.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

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