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Teachable Moments

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Flickr: ToastyKen
Flickr: ToastyKen

Much has been written recently about the use of critical thinking skills. On one hand, Chief Justice John Roberts used his critical thinking skills to show why the Commerce Clause was not the defining word in analyzing whether or not the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was constitutional.

However, in their lust to keep logic fair and balanced, at the 2012 Texas Republican Party Platform's state convention in Fort Worth the following language was officially adopted:

"We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority."

Ironically, a short film entitled 55 Socks being screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival does a beautiful job of showing how this works. Based on a poem by Maria Jacobs, Oscar winner Co Hoedeman's poignant short shows how, during their infamous "hunger winter" of 1945, a group of Dutch women came up with the idea to undo a beautiful bridal bedspread so that they could use its yarn for more practical needs.

After knitting the yarn into 55 socks that they could barter for food, the women were lucky enough to find a farmer's wife who purchased all the socks, unraveled their yarn, and used it to knit herself the bedspread of her dreams!

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As someone who enjoys wordplay, I have always been partial to the following moment at the end of Act I of Stephen Sondheim's 1979 musical thriller entitled Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. As Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett hit on the idea of killing people and using the meat from their bodies as the stuffing for Mrs. Lovett's meat pies, the following exchange takes place:

LOVETT: (spoken) Now let's see, here... We've got tinker.
TODD: Something... pinker.
LOVETT: Tailor?
TODD: Paler.
LOVETT: Butler?
TODD: Subtler.
LOVETT: Potter?
TODD: Hotter.
LOVETT: Locksmith?

I enjoyed a Mrs. Lovett moment of my own the other night. A friend and I had stopped into a gelato store where the eager young staff were offering us samples of their newest flavors. I started joking around with the young gay man behind the counter who seemed exceptionally eager to please.

As we discussed strange and offbeat flavors -- and some of the items created by the folks at Humphry Slocombe -- he boasted that his company was willing to try to create any flavor, no matter how strange it seemed. When I suggested horseradish, he proudly replied that they had once created a wasabi gelato. And yes, in addition to their delicious cannoli gelato, they had even created flavors resembling borscht and sauerkraut.

When I asked if they had ever tried creating pumpernickel gelato, he confessed that although they had once created a flavor that tasted like rye bread, they had not yet attempted to recreate the taste of pumpernickel.

Then I got a devilish brainstorm and told him I knew of a flavor that I was willing to bet no other ice cream or gelato manufacturer had ever tried to create.

"Really?" he asked. "What's that?"
"Smegma," I replied.
"Really?" he repeated. "What's that?"

After explaining what smegma is and how it can be harvested, I stressed that trying to sell smegma gelato as his flavor of the month could give his company's marketing department a model lesson in supply-side economics.

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Speaking of brilliant ideas that might not work out quite as well as originally thought, let's talk about the San Francisco Opera's new co-production (with Milan's famous Teatro alla Scala) of Giuseppe Verdi's 1846 opera, Attila. Conceived and directed by Gabriele Lavia (with sets by Alessandro Camera, costumes by Andrea Viotti, and lighting by Christopher Maravich), the production tries to capture the parts of Attila the Hun's personality that shaped him as a warrior, diplomat, and a politician.

As Lavia explains:

"I thought that it would be interesting visually to tell the story through different historical moments. There are three phases on stage. First, there is Attila's historical time (5th century); then Verdi's historical time (mid-19th century); and finally our own contemporary age (21st century). In the third act, these periods coexist because we want to bring to light a sense of freedom that traverses all eras, and a sense of rebellion against the invader and destroyer. The metaphor of destruction is very important for this production, and it takes shape on stage through the material destruction of the space of the theater -- three different theaters, from each of the three eras.

First we have the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, then a 19th-century theater, and finally a theater so destroyed that it has become a movie theater in ruins. Our choice of the movie theater was influenced by recent barbaric Italian policies: many important theaters, that were also historical sites, were demolished or refashioned and turned into modern movie theaters. We modified scenes from two different films on Attila to create a new work that comments on the symbolic presence of Attila in our culture."

Act III of Verdi's Attila with film being projected upstage
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

While Lavia's concept creates more frustrating problems for a potential bride than Brigadoon, Lohengrin, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty all rolled into one, it also creates a severe staging problem which rubbed me the wrong way.

During tenor Diego Torre's Act III aria as Foresto ("Che non avrebbe il misero"), the audience's focus is constantly distracted by the dimmed film that keeps flickering on a screen behind the tenor. While Lavia has plenty of experience as a stage and film director, this was one of the most bone-headed directorial decisions I've seen in 45 years of attending opera.

Lucrecia Garcia as Odabella (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Much has been written in recent years about the difficulty of casting Verdi's operas, particularly works like Il Trovatore. While bassos Ferruccio Furlanetto (who sang the title role) and Samuel Ramey (a previous Attila at San Francisco Opera who appeared in this production as Pope Leo I) are veterans of the Verdian style, I was most impressed with the work of Venezuelan soprano Lucrecia Garcia, whose forceful Odabella made me yearn to hear her as Bellini's Norma.

Others in the cast included two graduates of the San Francisco Opera's Merola program: Nathaniel Peake as Uldino and Quinn Kelsey, who delivered a powerful portrayal of Ezio. Special kudos go to conductor Nicola Luisotti and chorus director Ian Robertson for bringing a strong sense of Verdian style to the performance.

Like many arts organizations, the San Francisco Opera has been experimenting with social media as a way of developing a more interactive relationship with subscribers, donors, Twitterers, Facebook friends, and opera fans worldwide.

In recent years, the company has been building a library of digitally preserved performances as it searches for a distribution model which will allow it to bypass the Metropolitan Opera's exclusive contract with National CineMedia's Fathom Events (my own personal recommendation is that they follow in comedian Louis C.K.'s footsteps with regard to pay-per-view webcasting).

In the meantime, the company's communications staff is using its imagination to combine new uses of video with opportunities for corporate branding. The following two video clips offer a fascinating preview of what will no doubt become common fare at many opera companies: the chance for fans to get direct feedback from the artists to questions that are not always asked by the traditional musical press.

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape