Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Happy Independence Day, USA!  As the US remains in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere fighting insurgents, it shouldn't forget it too started as an insurgency.  See the second half of the Declaration of Independence for a list of US grievances against the English oppressors.

Our love for opera does not abate on Independence Day.  From Puccini with love.

The musical Condottiero is back!  I took some time off to get a PhD in international relations in London and then to Washington DC, where I am a professor at the National Defence University. A few other things happened along the way too. 

I love professing.  My students are senior military and civilian leaders from the US and other countries, and I teach strategy, political theory and international relations.  In short, war.  Blissful times. 

Every lecture I open with relevant opera or classical music, be it the political philosophy of Plato, teachings of ibn Taymiyya, strategy of Clausewitz, or writings of Mao.  A good military education should be musical.

For example, let’s take today: July 4th.  The writers of the Declaration of Independence were heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, especially John Locke’s political philosophy that justified removing a king’s crown (and head) from his body.

So in the saucy style of the Condottiero, let’s play the traditional English Coronation anthem, Handel’s Zadok the Priest.

On what the US stands for, who can forget Lenny Bernstein’s “America” from West Side Story.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Balm to My Soul

Music is my lodestone in an irrationally horrific world. Opera's beauty offsets war's ugliness, and without such balance, we slip into insanity or numbness, both of which rob us of our humanity. Perhaps this is why the more horrors I witness, the deeper I cling to music.

I was recently invited to Rwanda to speak at a gathering of eclectic geniuses on peacebuilding and also to meet with President Kagame. Rwanda is truly the land of contradiction. I’ve never been to a more placid ex-slaughter zone. Not even Cambodia is so cool. It’s hard to believe – on the surface – that only 13 years ago there was the horror, the horror of Genocide. 800,000+ people slaughtered in 90 days. That’s almost two souls per minute. And some of those paid for the bullet rather than being hacked to death with a rusty, dull machete.

Rwanda then

While at Harvard, I had an opportunity to meet Roméo Dallaire, the UN Force Commander during the genocide. He was infamously ordered by Kofi Annan not to save victims because the UN might get bad press if a peacekeeper was hurt. Annan was not yet the UN’s Secretary General - that came later, as a promotion for Rwanda and other good deeds done. Dallaire remains a scarred man, as does Kagame, as does Africa.

Rwanda now

Ten years later, I found myself in Burundi, trying to silently prevent a relapse of the same genocide. The earlier genocide remains unfinished business, not just for Rwanda but for the entire region: Burundi, Congo, and Uganda. Since 1994, the area has known only war and ashes. Finally, ten years later, Burundi had a fragile ceasefire and tenuous government, split between Tutsi and Hutus. However, a simple spark would set the region in flames again.

A rebel group called the FNL yearned to be this match. The FNL, also known as the PALIPEHUTU-FNL, was/is the most extreme Hutu group in the neighborhood, seeking sanctuary in the Wild Wild West of eastern Congo, and crossing the border at night into Bujumbura, the capital, to wreak havoc. They knew that if they could assassinate the President of Burundi, the government would explode, followed by Burundi, followed by the region - sort of like Valhalla at the end of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. It’s all burnt.

My job was to keep the President alive, in public view, and not guarded by a bunch of white guys carrying machine guns wearing sunglasses. And I had a limited budget, no one could know I was there, and it had to be done yesterday. In short, it was mission impossible, for real.

I kept him alive, but that’s another story…

In the first days of my surreptitious visit, I made a special point to visit one of the various unmarked killing fields outside Bujumbura. It was an area where an untold many had perished. I had visited such ghastly sites before, from Phnom Penh to the beach dunes of Liberia. However, Buj was different, as was the entire Great Lakes region, owing to the vast scale of the atrocities. As I walked the ground, the tread of my boots scraped up old bits of clothing and children’s teeth, emerging from the earth a decade later. Big balls of twine in Minnesota get more memorialization.

I felt angry. I was livid. I wanted retribution. Then an opera aria wafted through my head. It was like cool water on hot pavement. It was “Vesti La Giubba” from the opera Pagliacci by Leoncavallo. It’s an aria of egregious pathos, scorned humiliation, and despair. It summed up all that I was at that moment, staring at children’s teeth in the dirt.

Skip to the climax, half way in (at 2 minutes, starting with “Ridi Pagliacci"). This is the famous Carlo Bergonzi version with Herbert von Karajan conducting the La Scala Theater Orchestra of Milan, who own this music.

C'est moi.

Quills That Kill

Somewhere between the fire power of a 20mm Vulcan Gatling canon and the Treaty of Versailles lies Ms Cintra, whose quill could kill Kim Jong Il. She’s the keyboard dominatrix of the Dregulator (a blog of intellectual depravity), two kick-ass books (1 & 2), a few plays, and other sordid readings. She's death over a K street martini. Recent musings include:

The Musical Merc is (sorta) humbled to be included amongst such luminaries as Norris and Snow. Check it out.

The Madame

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Outed on NPR!

Yes, it’s true – my cover has been blown! National Public Radio (NPR) was kind enough to feature a 10-minute segment on “The Musical Mercenary” on the news program All Things Considered. You can listen to me wax lyrical about the intersection of war and opera.

Host Jacki Lyden’s witty cool could disarm even the toughest warlord, and everyone at NPR, especially Petra, was magnifico!

Hear the pop collision of war and opera:

Monday, July 9, 2007

A Night to Remember

Is there no better metric of civilization than the dinner party? We can thank the war-loving Romans for bringing this timeless tradition to the masses. Prior to them, it was pretty much constrained to royalty, albeit the odd Athenian symposium with naked dancing girls and paltry talk of philosophy.

However, Gertrude Stein is my personal patron of the plate. Although hailing from Allegheny, Pennsylvania, she lived in Paris with her life long lesbian lover Alice Toklas. Together, they hosted a salon that ushered in the avant-garde in the early 20th century.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso, 1906

She described her guests as the "Lost Generation,” which included: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, André Derain, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Ernest Hemingway ("Hemingway, remarks are not literature"), Ezra Pound, Thornton Wilder, Sherwood Anderson, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Paul Bowles (whom I practically worship) among others. Who knew that cordials, conversation and cuisine could shape 20th century culture?

One of my favorite places: the grand necropolis, Père Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris.

I had recent occasion to visit Gertrude in Paris. She now resides in the world’s most fashionable necropolis, Père Lachaise Cemetery. I like to frequent it often to visit old friends, from Abelard and Heloise to Chopin to Edith Piaf and many others. Maria Callas use to be a tenant, but her ashes were kidnapped, recovered, and then scattered across the Aegean Sea. Callas is as complex in death as she was in life.

The late, great Ms. Stein.

We can only aspire to crawl in Stein’s long shadow. Recently, the Pentagon Diva and I hosted an “Opera Gala Dinner,” for a few kindred souls, including the indefatigable Her Majesty Maeve. It was magnificent. We find it is best to start with a bottle of wine per person and one for the table. Here’s the menu (sans accompanying opera):

Il Condottiero and Pentagon Diva’s
Opera Gala Dinner

Champagne von Fledermaus
Johann Strauss Jr’s Die Fledermaus, Act 2 chorus “Champagne the Great!”

Assortment of cheese, fruits and wine a la The Magic Flute
Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Act 2 chorus “Seid uns zum zweitenmal wilkommen”

Il Primo
Artichokes Zuppa di Tabarro
Puccini’s Il Tabarro, choking duet “T’ho Colto!”

Il Secondo
Flank of Valkurie
Wagner’s Die Walküre, Act 3, “Ride of the Valkyries”

Aida Battle Spears of Asparagus
Verdi’s Aida, Act 2 post-battle “Grand Triumphal March”

Druidic Mushroom Risotto di Norma
Bellini’s Norma, Act 2 Roman-Druid duet “In mia man alfin tu sei”

Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, Intermezzo

Il Dolce
Falstaff’s Alcoholic Cheesecake with Hänsel und Gretel Strawberry Sauce
Verdi’s Falstaff, the whole thing
Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, Act 1, the strawberry-picking expedition

Honey-Nut Fruitcake a la Salome
Strauss’s Salome, final scene

Myriad Cordials
Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann, "Belle Nuit, O Nuit D`amour"

Don Giovanni cognac
Traviata port
Lammermoor scotch
“Girls of the Golden West” bourbon
Masked Ball aquavit
Boris Godunov vodka variations
The Bartered Bride’s dancing bear honey-liquors

If I could magically conjure anyone to my perfect dinner party, whom would I invite? Well, aside from the living, certainly the dead. I would start with the following: Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw (also a classical music critic!), Voltaire, Dorothy Parker, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and Gertrude Stein, at her old pad on 27 Rue de Fleurus. Wit combined with genius is potent stuff indeed.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Future Prophets

Somewhere between A.A. Milne and Joseph Conrad, I went through a Philip K. Dick phase. For the uninitiated, P.K.D. was a paranoid, impoverished, speed freak in San Francisco around the ‘60s and ‘70s. He eked out a living writing pulp science fiction. Well, ‘pulp’ say some; PROPHET say others.

In a world then enamored with the Summer of Love and the Gilligan’s Island, he presaged post-modern madness. His worlds are dark and dystopian, where humanity is held hostage to mega-corporations. The idea that companies would control countries was preposterous in the 1960s, less so now. His novels are also epistemological horror-thrillers, where people (including the reader at times) have trouble discerning (de)illusion from reality. It’s all a bit creepy, if you think about it too long, which is P.K.D.’s aim.

Fittingly, it was Hollywood, the master of illusion, that embraced his vision. Starting in 1982 with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner - one of the greatest movies every made - which is about what constitutes a life. Following this, a slew of films were produced based on his work: Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, and more.

One of the many things that made Blade Runner a revolutionary film and ageless science-fiction flick was its amazing futuristic music. Composed by Vangelis, it is completely electronic and synthesized, much like the synthesized human "replicants" the Blade Runner is hunting. Also, in the early ‘80s, synthesized music was as future-cool as, say, the digital watch.

Sample the music of replicants crying in “Tears in the Rain” by Vangelis:

An orchestrated version of Vangelis’s music provides an interesting and no-less successful experience:

Converts joined this future noir, inspiring movies like Aliens II and Johnny Mnemonic; video games like Resident Evil or Doom (which were also turned into movies); and cyberpunk literature, such as author William Gibson. No longer does our future feature the gallant Captain Kirk, bravely going where no man has gone before. Now humanity is enslaved by its own greed, ingenuity, and despair. Ask any Nexus Model 6.

And, yes, P.K.D. exists even in opera! His supreme novel, VALIS, has been transmorphed into an opera. VALIS (which stands for “Vast Active Living Intelligence System”) was written a year before his death in 1982 (the same year Blade Runner premiered). In many ways it was his spiritual autobiography, weaving together mystical Taoist forces and Gnostic visions that unlock the secret knowledge of the cosmos. For those who want a fuller exegesis of VALIS, start here.

The opera VALIS was composed and written by Tod Machover, and premiered at the Pompidou Center in Paris on December 1, 1987. Only one recording of it exists.
So what does a musical interpretation of P.K.D.’s ontological universe sound like? Imagine a collision of Vangelis, Pierre Boulez (modern French atonal composer and conductor), and the amplified sound of a Toyota Prius being crushed by a Hummer.

Also, most of the words are not sung but actually recited, like an over-produced poetry reading. All that is needed are the bongos, a cigarette, sunglasses, black beret, and beat cafe. Not that P.K.D. would be caught dead in such a joint.

But don’t take my word for it. Sample protagonist Fat’s Dream:

Or, just to confirm opinions, Sophia’s Aria:

Small wonder it’s never performed.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Unsung Heros

Mercenary or not, the 4th of July is always a poignant moment for us military veterans. In my experience, soldiers do not fight and die for ideas. Leave the ideas to those with “other priorities.” Soldiers fight and die for one another.

I have been a military leader in and out of uniform. I have led elite US Army units and I have led African conscripts. It is relatively easy to lead highly motivated, trained, and equipped elite forces. The real test is leading untrained, poorly equipped, unmotivated, soldiers – ordinary people asked to do extraordinary things – who frequently are given the most dangerous jobs. It is one of war’s timeless axioms.

Today, it is the leaders of the Army National Guard/Reserve who get my vote for best leadership. They have to convince plumbers, school teachers, and others, for whom war is not a chosen calling, to stand on a checkpoint each night and become ambush bait. Each night.

For me, the 4th of July is not noisy fireworks or jingoistic flag-waving. It is a time for quiet appreciation, in a special American sort of way. No one captures this mood better than American composer Aaron Copland, in his music for the film Our Town, adapted from Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning play. It is a quiet, humble piece on a grand scale.

Some may gripe that the London Symphony Orchestra's playing is less than pristine, however Copland is his own best interpreter of his work. However, others may prefer Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's tighter, faster (2 minutes!) version.