Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Carmen at the Lyric Opera

Carmen resounds once again at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and I was fortunate to take it all in last week.  The opera is the final and most popular work of French composer Georges Bizet, and the most famous of all French operas.  Bizet’s only other commonly-known work is the opera The Pearl Fishers, known primarily for its marvelous tenor-baritone duet Au fond du temple saint, the first version of which I think I ever heard is the famous one by tenor Jussi Björling and baritone Robert Merrill.  Going back-to-back on Bizet, the Lyric has The Pearl Fishers on next season’s schedule.

Carmen of course tells the tragic story of the bold, seductive gypsy temptress who drives the beguiled Spanish soldier Don Jose into abandoning his duty and his gentle, innocent hometown sweetheart.  Don Jose falls hard for Carmen despite her telling him, quite openly, that she is an unfaithful lover, and when she eventually leaves him for the dashing toreador Escamillo tragedy ensues.  We see through vivid action and marvelous music how passion can be the road to ruin.

But despite all the wonderful music, so evocative of the Spanish setting, the realistic subject matter and the immorality of the main characters did not initially endear the opera to Parisian audiences.  Bizet died suddenly at age 36 just a few months after Carmen’s premier in 1875, and we are left wondering if disappointment played a part.  But Carmen has become one of the world’s favorites.  In his extensive review of the art form titled The Opera, Joseph Wechsberg highlights Carmen as “a perfect opera.”  It anticipates the Italian verismo form, which portrayed the everyday life, often brutish, of everyday people made of real flesh and blood.  The enticing Act 1 habanera, Carmen’s lusty number that snares Don Jose, is perhaps the most recognizable scene in the opera; an indication of its popularity is its appearance in the movie Going My Way, where famed mezzo Rise Stevens gives a spirited performance at the Metropolitan while watched in the wings by Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley.  Carmen’s rhythmic Act 2 seguidilla puts the finishing touches on Don Jose’s enchantment.  I’m not sure, but I may have first heard the rousing Toreador song in a Looney Tunes cartoon.  Then there is the great Act 2 tenor aria known as the Flower song for the bright red rose through which Carmen had selected Don Jose as her next lover, and Micaela’s Act 3 heart-felt pleading aria to Don Jose elicited enthusiastic applause at the performance I attended.  The Prelude and the Interlude are wonderful, and popular, orchestral pieces, and were performed very well by the Lyric’s orchestra.
The mood was set from the start of this production with the vivid, lush blood-red curtain that caught everyone’s attention as we took our seats.  The set though was a minimalist one, so common these days, but given that limitation it was surprisingly creative and effective.  The relatively brief ballet numbers added zest to the performance; of particular note was the exceptionally-creative and visually-arresting dance opening in Act 4 in which flowing dresses were used as bull-fighting capes against a flaming red background – the performance elicited an approving gasp from the audience.  The one disappointment, a small one, was the insertion of a distracting, writhing sideline ballet sequence between a shirtless man with a bull-head hat and a toreador in Act 4 while Don Jose and Carmen were having their final confrontation.  Sometimes, even in opera, less is more.     

The music is, of course, spectacular and we come to hear it all.  Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili was in fine voice in her Lyric debut as Carmen, although I thought she could have acted more seductively in her movements.  She has sung the role of Carmen at the Metropolitan, and The New Criterion music critic Jay Nordlinger wrote of her “big, glowing, smoky voice” in a 2012 performance.  American tenor Brandon Jovanovich was strong as the callow and hapless Don Jose.  He recently appeared last fall at the Lyric as Aeneas in Berlioz’s grand opera masterpiece The Trojans and did a great job in that role.  Nordlinger caught Jovanovich a few years ago at the Met in Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and wrote of him:  “I always knew him as a solid and appealing lyric singer [but] I had no idea he could pull off [this role].  Jovanovich was like a young Marlon Brandon. And he could sing: freshly and ruggedly, easily and commandingly.”

Italian soprano Eleonora Buratto was warmly received as the innocent Micaela, who contrasts sharply with the bold, alluring Carmen.  Lyric Opera Ryan Center alums/members, Americans all, were strong in their roles:  Christian Van Horn as the toreador Escamillo, Bradley Smoak as Don Jose’s superior officer Zuniga, and Diana Newman and Lindsay Metzger as Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercedes.  The Lyric chorus, including a talented group of kids, was terrific, as usual.

As is so unfortunately common in opera these days, the director changed the setting of the story in order to insert some sort of additional meaning or send some personal political message.  Rather than write his own opera, he hijacked someone else’s.  In this case, director Rob Ashford moved the story from early 19th Century traditional Spain to the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War – so instead of bright, traditional Spanish dress we get many performers plainly clothed in drab colors.  But the greater offense was the director’s transmogrifying the men with whom Don Jose takes up after his desertion from smugglers to revolutionaries fighting for “liberty.”  In an interview in the program, the director gives his reason – “The [Spanish Civil] war was often described as Fascism vs. Democracy – so it seemed a good parallel for the opera.”  Unfortunately director Ashford is completely unfamiliar with the relevant history despite opining on it.  In the Spanish Civil War, the “revolutionaries” were the traditionalists, commonly characterized as fascists, who were supported by Nazi Germany; that side was fighting communists and anarchists, loyal to the radical socialist government, who were supported by Communist Soviet Union.  There were horrible atrocities on both sides, and neither side was remotely fighting for “democracy” or “liberty.”  A modest proposal is that opera directors stick to operas as written and stay away from subjects about which they are unfamiliar.  The Lyric has a dramaturg on staff, but it needs an historian as well.

I first saw Carmen at the Lyric in the early 1980s, with Placido Domingo as Don Jose.  Quite coincidentally, just one week earlier also at the Lyric we attended a wonderful concert headlined by the now 76 year-old Domingo.  I had forgotten the exact year of that earlier Carmen, but the concert’s program informed me that it was 1984.  I’m fortunate to have seen Domingo at both ends of his remarkable career.

Carmen has permeated popular culture.  There are some non-traditional appearances of the opera’s story and music that I particularly enjoy.  In 1984 pop music star Malcolm McLaren released an album of pop adaptations of some well-known opera selections, and his riff on Carmen and the Habanera is quite entertaining.  The creative Oscar Hammerstein II transposed Carmen’s story and lyrics to the early 1950s in the American South and Chicago in the film Carmen Jones, which featured an all-black cast with Dorothy Dandridge in the title role.  Finally, the British duo Opera Babes sing a wonderful duet with words put to the Carmen Interlude, an enchanting piece of music; they have performed some of their entertaining repertory, including the piece from Carmen I would like to think, at the Los Angeles Opera House with none other than Placido Domingo.

R Balsamo

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Left-wing Media Howls About Trump Press Conferences

After eight years of Obama calling only on lap-dog liberal and ultra-liberal media outlets, after his actually trying to exclude Fox News from the White House Press Corps, and after his repeated bashing of private citizen Rush Limbaugh by name, and then after the mainstream liberal media’s continual smearing of Trump with Fake News such as, for example, that he was a frequenter of Russian prostitutes and is the incarnation of Hitler, the left-wing media is now cataplectic that at press conferences Trump is calling on non-left-wing news and commentary media outlets! 

How dare Trump not call exclusively on left-wing media outlets!  The end of the First Amendment! cries one pseudo-journalist, who displays his pathetic ignorance of what the First Amendment actually means.

The days of just three liberal national TV news networks and the New York Times filtering their way all the news Americans would see are long over, and it’s about time.  Their monopoly on the news is over. 

Looking back, the left-wing media’s infatuation and “slobbering love affair” with Obama was so bad that books have been written about it, and we were spurred to mock it in this post:

R Balsamo

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Trump Democrats Were There To See All Along

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, the conventional wisdom among the liberal punditry is that his election was a stunning “surprise” that hardly anyone saw coming.  Those experts were shocked by Trump’s strength among blue collar voters, who swung the election his way.  It was a close election in many critical states, to be sure, but Trump’s strength not only among blue collar workers but also among blacks and Hispanics was no surprise to anyone paying attention without political blinders on. 

In January, 2016, the Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union speech focused neither on Republican proposals nor on Democrat missteps but rather on stopping Trump.  At that point he was the early frontrunner in the Republican nomination process.  Trump’s anti-illegal-immigration stance was extremely threatening to the established elites of both parties, including Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House.  In response to the Republican elite’s anti-Trump barrage, on January 14, 2016, almost 10 months before the election, I posted this comment on this blog:

Open borders to basically any and all immigrants, a point we seem to be halfway to already, would for generations depress wages, already stagnant, for low- and medium-skilled workers in the United States.  Trump’s opposition to open borders and calls for tighter controls on immigration explains his strong support among blue collar workers, traditionally Democrats, even among blacks and Hispanics who understand the deleterious impact more immigration will have on their jobs and wages.  The Democrats want open borders to gain more Democrat voters, and they figure the workers who support them blindly will stay blind.  The Republican party elites, funded by business interests, want open borders to access a bottomless cup of cheap labor.  The American workers get screwed and they’re rightfully “angry” about that.  Those “Reagan Democrats” who now see clearly what's going on want to return to the Republican Party, but Paul Ryan and the elites of Republican Party don’t want them.  They’d rather have Hillary Clinton, corrupt to the bone, with open borders and cheap labor.  Republican elites would be happy to “pay to play” with Hillary – they think they can make a lot of money with her and her crowd; with Donald Trump and the “angry voices” of his supporters, not so much. 

Trump’s electoral strength should not have come as a surprise to anyone in touch with America.  It only took open eyes to notice and open ears to listen to the people struggling from the effects of open borders that have flooded this country with cheap labor and from the outsourcing of jobs to low-wage foreign countries.

R Balsamo

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Muslim Migrants in SE Asia – Where Should They Go, & Can All the Worlds’ People Come to the United States?

The latest dust-up over the fate of a group of illegal migrants stranded in New Guinea living on Australian charity encapsulates the great challenge the Western world faces from migrants dissatisfied with their own countries who arrive as low-skilled, welfare-dependent, and often culturally-hostile uninvited guests.  

In the waning days of his presidency, after Trump was elected, Obama agreed to take a thousand or two Muslim migrants off Australia’s hands and bring them to the United States.  This arrangement has now come to the attention of President Trump, and he and probably most Americans are unclear why the United States, having in recent years already taken in more migrants than most any other country in the world, should take in still more, let alone those in Asia who are currently on an island near Muslim Indonesia.  The Australian government doesn’t want them but is stuck caring for them, so it was delighted that Obama, on his way out of office, offered them free tickets to the United States.  It’s no surprise that Trump, elected as much as anything else on his promise to tighten immigration and seal our porous borders, looks askance at this.  Australia knew full well not only that Obama was a lame duck when he agreed to take these migrants but also that this hushed-up transfer would be very unpopular with most Americans, so no tears for our friends down under.

The big-picture point here is that every person in the world disenchanted with his or her current country cannot migrate to the United States.  The United States simply does not have enough space or resources to care for everyone in the world who would like to come here.  The rest of the world must be made a better place in which to live, and although the United States undoubtedly will continue to help others toward that goal, as it most generously has in blood and treasure for over a hundred years, it is not capable of, nor morally responsible for, ensuring that all other countries of the world are acceptable places in which to live.      

R Balsamo 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Off the Bookshelf: Sloan’s My Years with General Motors

I’ll never get through the many books I’ve been saving up to read if I keep revisiting old favorites.  I’ve just finished my third time cruising through My Years with General Motors by Alfred P. Sloan, the man who steered General Motors into the giant, influential corporation it is today.  I bought my copy in May of 1995 and first read it then; I know that because I've used the folded receipt as a bookmark.  The book is partly a history of the General Motors company and partly a history of the early automobile industry.  It is also a case study on developing an organizational structure that can properly manage and lead a growing company, and evolve with it.

Sloan was a young MIT-educated engineer who in 1898 at the tender age of 23 seized a risky opportunity to take over a failing company that made bearings used in machinery.  He and a partner slowly built it up through hard work, attention to cost-effective manufacturing, technological advancement, and responsiveness to customers.  Eventually in 1916 he sold the company to the fledgling General Motors, which then was a holding company of a hodge-podge of automobile manufacturers and related parts producers patched together by wheeler-dealer Billy Durant.  At that point Sloan took the second big risk in his life, trading his large stake in his company for mostly stock in General Motors, whose future, especially given Durant’s inattention to sound business administration, was uncertain.  Sloan survived many trying times as a senior executive under Durant’s erratic leadership, given that almost all of his net worth was tied up in the company stock.  But Sloan’s high risk, high reward gamble paid off in time.  By the early 1920s Durant was deep in a financial crisis, and eventually Sloan emerged as the chief executive.  He righted the ship by further developing the management techniques which had made him a successful businessman, methods that became the foundation of modern business management.

Although there are some dry parts when Sloan gets to discussing organizational structure and finances, most of the book is a very engaging read for someone with a general interest in the history of the American automobile industry.  The narrative covers a wealth of topics from the early days of the automobile, including:  Durant’s wheeling and dealing from his original base in Buick to buy the group of automobile companies that would become GM; the engineering and manufacturing issues presented by resident engineering genius Charles Kettering’s attempt to develop a competitive air-cooled engine; the success of GM’s consumer-focused business model – “a car for every purse and purpose” – against Ford’s failed “any color as long as it’s black” approach; the development of leaded-gasoline and high-compression engines; GM’s groundbreaking role in the development of the diesel-electric motors that would supplant steam power in railroad locomotives; the company’s struggles to survive the Depression; the challenges of shifting to production of military vehicles and war materiel during the Second World War; and the styling revolution led by the legendary Harley Earl.        

My Years with General Motors seems to be regarded as one of the seminal books on business management.  In an introduction, business administration guru Peter Drucker calls it “a must read.”  The cover of my paperback edition quotes Bill Gates saying that Sloan’s book “is probably the best book to read if you want to read only one book about business.”  I certainly cannot gainsay this sentiment.  But I read the book mostly for its narrative history and stories of engineering challenges encountered and solved.  Sloan’s book is a great read even for non-MBA types interested in how the great vehicles of today came to pass.

R Balsamo 

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Les Troyens (The Trojans) at the Lyric Opera

Looking back upon the many wonderful musical performances I took in this past year, the highlight was the Chicago premiere last month of Les Troyens (The Trojans), the opera masterpiece from the prolific French composer Hector Berlioz.  The libretto, which he wrote in addition to the music, is faithfully based on sections of Virgil’s Aeneid, a foundational work in Western literature, which tells the story of Aeneas and his band of Trojans who survive the fall of Troy and wander the Mediterranean to reach the shores of Italy where they are destined to found the great city of Rome.  The opera focuses on two parts of that epic story – the fall of Troy and the Trojans’ time at the North African city of Carthage where its Queen Dido and Aeneas experience the great love affair that ends tragically when the reluctant Aeneas is ordered by the gods to leave for Italy to fulfill his destiny.  

"The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas," by English painter Nathaniel Dance-Holland
Les Troyens is considered one of the gems of Grand Opera, large-scale works with huge casts, elaborate sets, and evocative ballet which portray some great historical theme.  Berlioz fell in love with the Aeneid after reading it in Latin as a boy and bringing the story to the operatic stage was the toil of his later life.  It is now regarded as his opus magnus.  The story of the Aeneid, particularly its first half which mirrors Homer’s Odyssey, is still read in high school Latin courses (like mine of some years past) and still captures the imagination of many a young man. 

The opera if full of soaring melodies that flesh out the mythological historical drama.  The long, elaborate love duet (Nuit d'ivresse et d'extase infinie!) is one of the most beautiful in all of opera.  An Act 4 quintet is a particular favorite of mine.  In fact, the score is so full of treats that the two most recognizable tenor arias are given to singers other than the lead tenor role of Aeneas.  In Dido’s touching farewell aria (Adieu, fière cité), Berlioz reprises the main melodic line from the earlier sumptuous love duet just for a moment, then ends it all on a somber note, reflecting the love destroyed by fate and the gods.  Opera at its grandest. 

The singing was excellent – strong, clear, and passionate.  The strong cast was led by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as the ill-fated Queen Dido, Brandon Jovanovich as the conflicted hero Aeneas, and soprano Christine Goerke as the doomed Trojan seer Cassandra.    

The set was of the barren, minimalist variety one has come to expect these days in opera, although for this grand dramatic story I was expecting more.  One example: the cave scene in which Dido and Aeneas consummate their love and create their bond is not shown, thus omitting an important event that drives the plot.  Another: nary a glimpse of the Trojan fleet along the Carthaginian shoreline, where some of the events take place.  At the opera’s end, in the libretto Dido’s sister Anna and minister Narbal curse at the departing Trojans in their ships, but in the Lyric production there are no ships at which to gesture, so the two just sing at the audience.  There was creativity nonetheless; most notably, the Trojan Horse made its appearance as the arresting projection of its giant, awesome shadow on the war-ravaged walls of Troy. 

The costuming, though, was an affront – intellectually vapid and artistically offensive.  Rather than transporting the audience’s imagination back to the days of Troy and Carthage, the director Tim Albery and his accomplices sneered at the audience and degraded the masterpiece by costuming the characters in an incoherent array of random fashions of the last hundred years or so.  Ancient Queen Dido, for example, when first introduced is wearing a modern women’s business suit, and later the noble warrior Aeneas wears a cardigan sweater over what looked like a pair of chino pants and boat shoes.  Not only were such visuals ridiculous, reflecting poorly on both the immediate perpetrators and Lyric’s oversight, but some of the story’s drama got lost.  For example, at the end Dido orders Aeneas’s armor, clothing, and weapons burned on a great pyre.  Aeneas had left them behind at the palace when he abruptly sailed for Italy with his people on strict orders from the impatient gods.  In the story Dido climbs up onto the pyre and suddenly slays herself with Aeneas’s sword.  The symbolism of all this was lost in the Lyric’s production because placed on the pyre were no armor and sword but just some unidentifiable and formless cloth items (maybe that cardigan sweater!).  Dido’s kills herself not with the sword of the departed Aeneas, her unfaithful lover, but with some random dagger that was lying around.

One final point about director Albery, who displays an attitude all too common these days.  From "A Talk with the Director" in the Program Guide:  "You could say [that Aeneas's decision to leave Dido to found his own great city of Rome rather than marry Dido and become king of the city that she created] is a metaphor for male ego and ambition.... He's got his Italy right there, but he just can't accept it."  What a misunderstanding of Aeneas's motivations and of themes of the Aeneid – of self-sacrifice, of duty and honor, to accomplish a goal greater than one's own self-defined pleasures.  It's much easier, of course, for this director to alter the story of the Aeneid than to write his own opera, for that would require real effort.  Apparently it’s too much these days to expect solipsistic directors to faithfully portray an opera in its proper place and time rather than to degrade it to satisfy their own juvenile transgressive needs.

But despite the disappointing visuals, the story and the music were all there, plenty enough for the mind and the ear.  The Aeneid is a great narrative, a poem actually, full of the greatest human drama, and Berlioz brought much of it to the opera stage.  After one hundred and fifty years, Les Troyens finally made it to Chicago.  We can warmly thank the Lyric Opera for that.

R Balsamo

Monday, December 26, 2016

Cultural Counteroffensive

Islam-inspired mass murder continues apace in Europe, this Christmas season, and on cue some of the continent’s “progressive” leaders call for even more Muslim immigration as the antidote.  The prospects for a Europe free of major, violent social conflict diminish by the hour, and there the hour is late. 

Haters of western civilization, who grossly magnify its vices while minimizing its virtues, have convinced many unthinking people around them to join in their cultural suicide conspiracy.  All evils in the world are linked to the Judeo-Christian ethic, European history, and capitalism, while everyone outside that world is apotheosized.  Non-European peoples are lionized, all other faiths are whitewashed, and those whites who resist indoctrination are branded heretics from the true faith.  A new religion is amidst us. 

Western cultural norms and values stand in resistance to the aims of self-regarded enlightened elites to refashion the world in their image.  Islam, with particularly forceful elements now that stand in opposition to Western Culture, is for the elites a welcome enemy of their enemy.  Their airy dream is a world led to sunny uplands by self-appointed wise elders, free of the shackles of regressive religion and culture, where the benighted masses are separated from their guns and Bibles and that troublesome Constitution, and where dissent is suppressed for the greater good.  But the forces of light and liberty have regrouped, and counteroffensives have gained traction.  We leave 2016 in better shape than when we entered it.  Christmas is the season of hope.   

R Balsamo

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Recount Fever

In an effort to delegitimize the election of Donald Trump, Democrat operatives initiated recount efforts in three states such that, if the results were overturned, Clinton would win the election.  The public, ostensible leader of this effort is failed Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who professes to simply want to ensure that every vote is properly counted.  Why, however, she has not filed for recounts in states, like New Hampshire, that were won by a narrower margin, or in all 50 states for that matter, she will not say.  We know the answer, of course.

Some of the key people working with Stein on this recount effort are, to no one’s surprise, Clinton and Democrat Party operatives, even though Stein was nominally the nominee of a different political party.  And, the source of the millions of dollars needed for these recount filings is also very unclear, but anyone not born yesterday knows where the dough is coming from.

No doubt the fevered hope among Democrats was that recounts would show enough Republican hanky panky to cast a shadow of doubt, of illegitimacy, over Trump’s win in those states.  But Democrats are really in trouble when they start believing their own propaganda.  The party of voter fraud is actually the Democrats, who don’t shy away from illegalities in voter registrations, in election day counting, and in post-election recounts.  Democrats have long internalized Stalin’s maxim that it’s not who votes but who counts the votes that matters.  Democrats particularly like hand recounts, where crooked recounts in heavily Democrat precincts remarkably find gobs of additional votes, for their candidates of course, while the tallies in Republican areas change little.  In heavily-Democrat Detroit, for example, where ballots are being recounted under no doubt higher scrutiny than expected, many more Clinton votes were initially certified than voters who were signed in to vote.  The Detroit elections director blamed the discrepancies on old voter machines.  Sure.  As any alert and honest student of politics from Chicago knows, the vote overcount from fraud in heavily Democrat areas, from California to New York City and all points in between, must be huge.  Yuge, as Donald Trump might say.

Now that the partially-completed recount in Michigan has revealed significant fraudulent votes for Clinton in the Democrat cities of Detroit, Flint, and Lansing, and as Trump’s big margin holds in Wisconsin as votes are reexamined (including a hand recount in ultraliberal Madison – surprise!), coverage of the recounts has been disappearing from the liberal media and Democrat legal maneuvering is petering out, as the liberal hoped-for narrative value of this story explodes in their faces. 

R Balsamo

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

NFL Head Roger Goodell Tolerates the Thug, Domestic-Violence Prone Football Culture and Supports Anti-American Protests But Slams Trump

Now comes National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell as a prime example, among so many, of the Democrat Party operatives who reek of hypocrisy as they bring their political smears into every walk of private life. 

Recently in this election season Goodell said he doesn’t know how to explain Donald Trump to his daughters and wife, presumably referring to Trump’s decade-old “locker room” talk and the politically-convenient, highly-suspicious late-election flurry of women who suddenly claimed, years after the alleged events and without contemporaneous documentation, sexual harassment from Trump.  Goodell the ass doesn’t mention the known sexual harassment by Democrat Bill Clinton, with an intern in the White House when he was the President of the United States, or the contemporaneously-documented multiple allegations of rape and sexual assault against that same Bill Clinton.  He doesn’t mention Democrat Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton’s long involvement in smearing women to cover up Bill Clinton’s sexual assaults.  Honest people realize that the decades-long Clinton behavior is part of the real “war on women.”  How does Goodell explain all that to his wife and daughters?

Goodell certainly doesn’t mention, of course, the elephant in the room – the thug culture of his own National Football League, where real, documented episodes of sexual harassment and violence by players against women are commonplace.  From the linked Sports Illustrated article:  “Goodell and the NFL have come under fire for being too lenient on domestic violence after high-profile cases such as Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and more recently Josh Brown were penalized lightly.”  In response to such criticism, “Goodell noted he thinks people do not understand the complexity of domestic violence.”  How’s that attitude for the real “war on women”?

Goodell also supports and encourages the recent wave of anti-American protests during the national anthem at football games but suppressed player efforts to honor with armbands policemen slain by Black Lives Matter-inspired radicals. 

Goodell tolerates real anti-women violence.  He is nothing more than a Democrat Party operative politicizing his non-political role as head of the NFL.  Why the NFL owners want him and support him is a mystery.

R Balsamo


Thursday, November 10, 2016

Trump Wins – Sic Transit Gloria Obama

The country is now digesting the stunning electoral victory of Donald Trump and the Republican Party.  To be sure, the GOP did not win every election across this great country, but the Party is arguably as strong as it has been in many generations.  Although losing a few seats in the House and Senate, Republicans retain majorities in each, and they gained three governorships to bring their total to 33, the most since 1922.  And Republicans became even more dominant in state and local governments across the country.   

Some despondent Democrats have taken to the streets, shouting and smashing like spoiled brats in a temper tantrum.  The liberal media warned us about violence from those who would not accept the results of this election, and for once it was right.  As Wikileaks documents have confirmed in similar past outbreaks, the rioters are no doubt organized and egged on by shadowy Democrat Party operatives deep behind the scenes who seek to profit from the political and market reactions to their disruptions.

After eight years of Obama-era Democrat arrogance, corruption, and over-reach, the Republican Party has emerged stronger than it has been in memory, in seats and in spine and in will.  Trump, almost single-handedly, has vanquished the feckless and hapless Bush gang to the wilderness, and has consigned the malign Clintons and their disgraceful, corrupt profiteering cartel to the dustbin in the ignominy they deserve.

When Republicans sought some input and compromise in the years, not so long ago, when the Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a large majority in the House, Democrat Obama scoffed, famously saying I won, you lost, so get out of the way.   He also said elections have consequences.  Now that the shoe’s on the other foot, he’s about to get a taste of his own medicine.

R Balsamo

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Chicago Cubs Win the World Series. Hell Freezes Over

For the first time since 1908, 108 years ago, the Chicago Cubs are World Series Champions.  The curse of the billy goat is over.

The Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians in the 10th inning of game 7, after earlier blowing a four run lead and blowing a three run lead with six outs left.  The Cubs came back to win three games in a row after being down three games to one in the best of seven series.  Having last won a World Series in 1948, the Indians now are the major league baseball team with the longest championship drought.

Outfielders Zobrist, Fowler, Heyward, Schwarber, Soler, Coghlan, Almora, and Szczur.
Infielders Rizzo, Baez, Russell, Bryant, La Stella
Catchers Ross, Contreras, and Montero
Starting Pitchers Lester, Arrieta, Hendricks, Lackey, and Hammel
Relief Pitchers Cahill, Wood, Grimm, Rondon, Strop, Montgomery, Edwards, and Chapman

One of the more interesting stories of the Cubs' postseason concerns outfielder Kyle Schwarber.  He was a rookie in 2015, and in April of 2016 sustained a severe knee injury, tearing two ligaments, in the second game of the new season.  He underwent grueling rehab and did not play for the Cubs again until he was activated for the World Series.  There was universal astonishment that someone who had not faced major league pitching since April could possibly perform well with the pressure of the World Series.  Still unable to play the outfield, Schwarber was used as the designated hitter for the four games in the American League team's ballpark.  Remarkably, he got 7 hits in 17 at bats, plus 3 walks, for a batting average of .412, which led all Cubs in the post-season.  He even stole a base. Schwarber is now the first major league position player in history to get his first hit of the season in the World Series.

The Cubs ball club, whose original name was the White Stockings, is only one of two original National League franchises still operating (the other is the Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves), and the only one of the two to have played continuously in the same city.

The Chicago Cubs are no longer the American professional sports team with the longest championship drought.  That honor now goes to a team that last won a championship in 1947  the Chicago Cardinals football team, the oldest franchise in the National Football League, which lately has made its home in a warmer climate somewhat southwest of the city limits.

R Balsamo

Monday, October 31, 2016

Bud Light Drops Liberal, Haranguing Commercial After Sales Drop

Beverage conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev has stopped airing Bud Light beer commercials with liberal political messages that featured divisive ultraliberals Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen.  Sales took a dive since the commercials began.  In one ad, the two complained that women are paid less than men for the same work, a point that has been repeatedly debunked since it’s been shown that women make nearly 100% of what men make when careful apples-to-apples job and work-hours comparisons are made.  The lie makes for good Democrat propaganda to low information voters, but why spout this in a beer commercial?

No surprise that beer drinkers don’t want to be harangued with Democrat social justice warrior propaganda.  I enjoyed this:  “Comments on the video [of the beer commercial] have since been disabled on YouTube.”  One can only imagine.  Moreover, the two personalities spouting the nonsense are very polarizing.  For example, Amy Schumer at a recent appearance went on an anti-Republican harangue that caused much of her audience to walk out.  And Seth Rogen has compared the popular, pro-American film American Sniper to Nazi propaganda.

One can just imagine the scene around the conference table at a trendy New York City ad agency: 

Hipster 1:  None of us drinks beer, and no one we know does, so how do we pitch this stuff?
Hipster 2:  I know, let’s get Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen.  Everybody loves them and their politics!
Hipster 3:  Great idea!  And how about they complain about how women are oppressed by men!
Hipster 4:  Another great idea!  Man, we’re hot today!  We’re gonna sell a lot of beer!

R Balsamo

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Clinton Criminal Enterprise – The Unveiling Continues

Former Federal prosecutor and astute analyst Andrew C. McCarthy has summarized the case against Democrat Hillary Clinton that she ran the United States State Department as a criminal enterprise, selling out America to enrich herself and her husband, former Democrat president William Clinton.  This sordid episode in American history is far from over, as the fallout from FBI Director Comey’s whitewashing of Hillary Clinton’s felony mishandling of classified information has severely damaged his reputation and that of the FBI as a whole, and has corroded the American trust in that storied institution.  Comey yesterday announced that the FBI has reopened the investigation, purportedly because of the discovery of new evidence in the form of emails that somehow the FBI missed previously.  In addition, as far as I know the FBI is considering a Congressional request to open a criminal investigation into the Clinton Foundation in light of the growing evidence it is a front for a criminal enterprise.

As I have written previously, Democrat Hillary Clinton is the most corrupt major American politician in American history, and the depth and breadth of her corruption is breathtaking.  Furthermore, she is a congenital liar whose every word, including "and" and "the" (to borrow a phrase), is a lie.  From Whitewater and the "cattle futures" Tyson bribe in her early days up to the bribery thinly-camouflaged as “speaking fees” and Clinton Foundation “donations,” she has been a one-woman criminal enterprise. 

Some excerpts from the McCarthy analysis:
Whatever the relevance of the new e-mails to the probe of Clinton’s classified-information transgressions and attempt to destroy thousands of emails, these offenses may pale in comparison with Hillary Clinton’s most audacious violations of law: Crimes that should still be under investigation; crimes that will, in fitting Watergate parlance, be a cancer on the presidency if she manages to win on November 8.
Mrs. Clinton appears to have converted the office of secretary of state into a racketeering enterprise.  This would be a violation of the RICO law — the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1971 (codified in the U.S. penal code at sections 1961 et seq.).
Hillary and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, operated the Clinton Foundation.  Ostensibly a charity, the foundation was a de facto fraud scheme to monetize Hillary’s power as secretary of state (among other aspects of the Clintons’ political influence).  The scheme involved (a) the exchange of political favors, access, and influence for millions of dollars in donations; (b) the circumvention of campaign-finance laws that prohibit political donations by foreign sources; (c) a vehicle for Mrs.  Clinton to shield her State Department e-mail communications from public and congressional scrutiny while she and her husband exploited the fundraising potential of her position; and (d) a means for Clinton insiders to receive private-sector compensation and explore lucrative employment opportunities while drawing taxpayer-funded government salaries.
While the foundation did perform some charitable work, this camouflaged the fact that contributions were substantially diverted to pay lavish salaries and underwrite luxury travel for Clinton insiders.  Contributions skyrocketed to $126 million in 2009, the year Mrs. Clinton arrived at Foggy Bottom [the State Department].  Breathtaking sums were “donated” by high-rollers and foreign governments that had crucial business before the State Department.  Along with those staggering donations came a spike in speaking opportunities and fees for Bill Clinton.  Of course, disproportionate payments and gifts to a spouse are common ways of bribing public officials — which is why, for example, high-ranking government officeholders must reveal their spouses’ income and other asset information on their financial-disclosure forms.
 While there are other egregious transactions, the most notorious corruption episode of Secretary Clinton’s tenure involves the State Department’s approval of a deal that surrendered fully one-fifth of the United States’ uranium-mining capacity to Vladimir Putin’s anti-American thugocracy in Russia.  [...]
The WikiLeaks disclosures of e-mails hacked from Clinton presidential-campaign chairman John Podesta provide mounting confirmation that the Clinton Foundation was orchestrated for the purpose of enriching the Clintons personally and leveraging then-Secretary Clinton’s power to do it.  Hillary and her underlings pulled this off by making access to her contingent on Clinton Foundation ties; by having top staff service Clinton Foundation donors and work on Clinton Foundation business; by systematically conducting her e-mail communications outside the government server system; by making false statements to the public, the White House, Congress, the courts, and the FBI; and by destroying thousands of e-mails — despite congressional inquiries and Freedom of Information Act demands — in order to cover up (among other things) the shocking interplay between the State Department and the Clinton Foundation.
Under federal law, that can amount to running an enterprise by a pattern of fraud, bribery, and obstruction.  If so, it is a major crime.  Like the major crimes involving the mishandling of classified information and destruction of government files, it cries out for a thorough and credible criminal investigation.  More important, wholly apart from whether there is sufficient evidence for criminal convictions, there is overwhelming evidence of a major breach of trust that renders Mrs. Clinton unfit for any public office, let along the nation’s highest public office.  

R Balsamo

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Lucia di Lammermoor at the Lyric Opera

Lucia di Lammermoor is back in Chicago at the Lyric Opera.  It was last presented just five years ago this month, when soprano Susanna Phillips kept us in the audience spellbound, and a bit apprehensive, during the opera’s famous “mad scene” as she moved up and down a tall winding staircase without railings.  The staircase is gone in this season’s production but the set and the singing were just as outstanding.

Lucia is widely regarded as Donizetti’s masterpiece, written when the composer was just 37 years old and premiering in Naples in 1838.  The plot is simple, especially by opera standards, featuring proverbial “star-crossed” lovers in Scotland caught up in a blood feud between their families.  The tragedy is set in motion when Lucia’s brother Enrico and a retainer trick her, with a lot of browbeating thrown in, into marrying an aristocrat for her brother’s benefit rather than the man she loves.  Unfortunately, besides not being rich and influential her lover Edgardo happens to be her brother’s enemy.  Returning from an overseas mission, Edgardo bursts in on the scene just as the marriage is completed and confronts Lucia, each one mistakenly feeling betrayed by the other.  The famous sextet breaks out as the six major players simultaneously express their various emotions and desires.  The just-married Lucia, learning that her lover was true after all, goes mad and tragedy ensues.

As popular and famous as it is, I must confess that the opera’s so-called “mad scene” is not one of my favorite parts.  The long, multi-part Act 1 love duet is splendid, the deservedly famous Act 2 sextet is a highlight in all of opera, and the moving Act 3 lament by Edgardo that ends the opera is wonderful.  But opera aficionados do love that mad scene, in which sopranos over the years have added their own vocal embellishments to an already difficult score.  In his critical treatment The Opera, Joseph Wechsberg writes that the “Mad Scene is a ne plus ultra tour de force for prima donnas ...  Afterwards, nineteen other composers wrote ‘mad scenes’, giving their prima donnas such murderous fioriture [florid embellishment of a melody] that only a ‘mad’ woman would be expected to sing them.”      

Gaetano Donizetti
Speaking of singing, it was uniformly terrific, featuring as leads Russian Albina Shagimuratova as Lucia, Pole Piotr Beczala as Edgardo, and American Quinn Kelsey as Lucia’s nefarious brother Enrico.  The sets were arresting and enhanced the experience.  Large multi-sectional panels divided the stage into a foreground and background, and particular arrangements of the panels in various scenes allowed for an interesting visual complexity, accentuated by skillful use of strong light and deep shadows.  With an otherwise minimalist set, which I usually do not care for, the effect was powerful and a strong stimulant to the imagination.

The recording I enjoy is from 1971 with a truly all-star cast – Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Chicago’s very own Sherrill Milnes, and Nicolai Ghiaurov, with Sutherland’s husband Richard Bonynge and the Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus.  Opera doesn’t get any better than that.

R Balsamo

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Illinois River Ride & War Memorials

Ottawa Civil War Monument
On a beautiful, unusually warm Indian Summer day, we decided to take a long and leisurely drive along a stretch of the Illinois River and see the beginning of the fall colors.  We were a bit early for the colors but it was a wonderful tour just the same.  I hoped to visit the war memorials in Ottawa and Marseilles.

Ottawa is a small Illinois city which sits at the confluence of the Illinois and Fox Rivers, near the historic Starved Rock.  The old Illinois and Michigan Canal pathway runs through town on its way to its terminus a short way to the west in the town of LaSalle.  The Canal ran parallel to the river, connecting Lake Michigan, via the Chicago River, with the Illinois at the point where the latter became sufficiently navigable for larger cargo ships.  From the Illinois River a ship can travel to the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf of Mexico.  The Canal is no longer operable and many sections are dried up, but its path can still be seen. 

Statues of Lincoln & Douglas Debating
Ottawa was the home of the founder of the Boy Scouts, and there is a Scouting Museum now open.  The town was also one of the sites of the infamous Radium Girls tragedy, in which clock-making workers licked radioactive paintbrushes only later to suffer radiation illness.  And perhaps most famously, Ottawa was the site of the first of seven Lincoln-Douglas debates, held in 1858 between the two men to promote their candidacies for the United States Senate.  Lincoln famously lost, of course, but was so impressive that he was nominated two years later as the second Republican Party candidate for the Presidency.

Plaque at the Site of the First Lincoln-Douglas Debate
In the center of town, near old stately courthouses, is the large Washington Square Park, the site of that famous debate and now of two touching war memorials.  The larger is a tall obelisk dedicated in 1873 to the fallen of the Civil War.  Names were etched at the base but are mostly eroded now from wind and rain.  

Recently, stone panels were laid nearby with the names etched once again, of the fallen in the Civil War and the Spanish American War.  I didn’t see it, but no doubt present is the name of General W. H. L. Wallace, an Ottawa resident and one of the heroes of the critical Hornet’s Nest valiant hold out at the battle of Shiloh, which allowed the rest of the Union Army to survive and bought time for Grant to regroup his forces and eventually win the battle; Wallace was mortally wounded there and died three days later in his wife’s arms, saying in his last breath "We meet in heaven."  

Ottawa Memorial to the fallen of WWI, WWII, Korea, & Vietnam 
A second, later monument in Washington Square Park is dedicated to the fallen of World Wars One and Two and of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, all of whose names are once again etched in stone. 

East of Ottawa, also along the Illinois River, is the small town of Marseilles and the site of the Middle East Conflicts War Memorial.  It’s a bitterly sad and haunting place, with tall, granite sections of wall crammed with the names of the fallen, sitting high on the river bank where one can see and hear the rapids below.  As the water churns one contemplates the heroic but tragic loss of brave and sweet life, nobly sacrificed on people so often filled with rage and hate and for a confused and misguided purpose of such fleeting effect.

The Marseilles Memorial to the Fallen of Middle East Wars

R Balsamo

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Republican Cowardice Is a Provocation: Democrat Lawfare Misconduct Stopped in Wisconsin But Will Just Move Elsewhere

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal by three Wisconsin Democratic district attorneys who sought to revive an immoral and unethical ginned-up, years-long faux-criminal investigation into Gov. Scott Walker’s recall campaign.  These despicable Democrats, unhappy with Walker’s success in curbing Democrat union excesses, until finally stopped by the Court mounted a "John Doe" lawfare campaign that issued dozens of subpoenas, seized equipment, and confiscated millions of documents from those many Wisconsin law-abiding Republicans they illegally targeted.  These disgraceful Democrats no doubt were encouraged to conspire to abuse the law and their political offices by past Republican weakness in similar Democrat lawfare operations, and felt, almost certainly correctly, that even if stopped they would suffer no consequences. 

I haven’t followed the case closely, but Walker seems to have hardly fought back to help those who worked hard to support him.  If the parties had been reversed, Republican prosecutors would never have brought invalid and unethical charges in the first place, but even if they did a Democrat governor would have used all the powers at his disposal to destroy them.  Walker, with his eye on a run for the White House, had other priorities than vigorously defending state Republicans against unfounded lawfare attacks by rogue Democrats.

Democrats are masters at ginning up prosecutions for their partisan gain.  Three recent, particularly impactful examples come to mind.  In 2005 county Democrats in Austin ginned up an investigation of Texas Republican Tom Delay, then Majority Leader of the U.S. House and one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress.  He was driven from office, and then later his conviction was overturned by the courts.  But not before the Democrats had taken out one of their strongest opponents.  And the Democrats seem to have suffered no consequences for this malicious lawfare.

Later in Texas as well, Democrats ginned up a case against Republican Governor Perry and weakened his presidential chances.  In 2014 Perry was indicted by a grand jury in a heavily Democrat county by a vicious Democrat prosecutor for threatening to veto a bill the Democrats liked and urging the replacement of that Democrat prosecutor after she was convicted of drunk driving and incarcerated but had refused to resign.  The courts threw out all charges against Perry as unconstitutional, but not before the Democrats had harmed his national standing and reputation.  The Democrats seem to have suffered no consequences for this malicious lawfare.

In Alaska in 2008, Democrat prosecutors ginned up a case against sitting Republican Senator Ted Stevens, which caused him to lose his upcoming election.  In the wake of the “scandal,” a Democrat won the seat in an otherwise Republican state and that Democrat cast the 60th vote for Obamacare.  After the election, the conviction against Stevens was overturned when a Justice Department probe found evidence of gross prosecutorial misconduct.  The federal judge on the case called it the worst case of prosecutorial misconduct he'd ever seen.  As an aside, the Democrat federal prosecutors were part of the Bush administration, which just underscores the environment of profound Republican spinelessness in which rogue Democrats everywhere operate.  But the Democrats got what they wanted, and suffered no real consequences for this malicious lawfare. 

The cowardice of Republican leaders, who refuse to vigorously defend each other when under attack, invites more and more of these Democrat abuses.  In the movie The Untouchables Eliot Ness was advised to bring a gun if his criminal enemies brought a knife, but Republican leaders respond to knife attacks by turning the other cheek.  Obama publicly tells his Democrats to “punch back twice as hard” and “get in the faces” of their enemies, but Republicans hesitate to fight back.  Their weakness is a provocation, and, as Osama bin Laden said, when people see a strong horse and a weak horse they are naturally drawn to the former.  This sordid story of Democrat misconduct and Republican spinelessness explains, more than any one single issue, the popularity of Donald Trump.  As Lincoln said of Grant, “he fights!”

As the illegally-targeted Wisconsin Republicans pick up the pieces of their lives and livelihoods, the Democrats have moved on and are scouting their next targets.  

R Balsamo

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Jan Morris of the Pax Britannica Trilogy at 90

Today is author Jan Morris’s 90th birthday.  What a treasure trove of writing she has given us.  She has been as prolific as she has been masterful, and I have read much of her work though far from all.  She mixes history and culture and travelogue into most interesting evocations, and of these I have especially enjoyed, many times over, her treatments of Venice, Trieste, and Hong Kong.  But I believe her masterpiece is her trilogy of the history of the British Empire – the Pax Britannica Trilogy.  History it is, but really a pointillist portrait of the sights and sounds, the ethos and the pathos, the glory and the tragedy, of that remarkable historical phenomenon. 

I have reread that work many times, and I always find something new to reflect on, to marvel at.  I often pick up a volume and begin reading on a randomly-opened page, it’s that good.  I can’t think of another book, three actually, that have enjoyed more, or learned more from.  Formally prose, so many passages reach the poetic that it is as pleasurable to read, for those who enjoy the English language, as it is informative and stimulative.

Jan Morris wrote these volumes as a young man, as James Morris before her gender change.  She writes in the Introduction to the last volume:

Mine is an aesthetic view of Empire, and there is no denying that as the flare of the imperial idea faded, so its beauty faded too.  It had not always been a pleasant kind of beauty, but it had been full of splendor and vitality, and when the Empire lost its overweening confidence and command, its forms became less striking and its outlines less distinct....  My book is therefore sad without being regretful.  It was time the Empire went, but it was sad to see it go; and these pages too, while I hope they are not blind to the imperial faults and weaknesses, are tinged nevertheless with an affectionate melancholy....  I hope my readers will discover in themselves ... at least some of the mingled sensations of admiration, dislike, amusement, pity, pride, envy and astonishment with which I have watched and pictured the passing of the British Empire.    

Morris is very witty, and I have captured a few examples of such in my two previous posts, the first seven years ago now.  One more:  The early British West African trading firm Swanzy’s, later to form a part of the conglomerate Unilever, at one point gave its historic, ceremonial staff, an important totem at one time, to the British Museum, “and thus [it] disappeared from human knowledge.”  Yet another (it’s hard to stop):  The appointed successor to Tennyson as Poet Laureate was one Alfred Austin, and enthusiast of Empire and of mixed reputation, who, writes Morris, “was apparently impervious to criticism, and this is lucky, for nobody has had a good word for him since his death in 1913.”

Morris visits cemeteries.  She reads the stones, she sits and soaks in the sights and sounds, she finds the stories that end there.  I’ve also walked among the stones, wondering about the stories untold, or half-told.  Near one of my family’s graves there is a four-grave plot, with a large monument.  The ‘darling beloved” James Jr. died in the early 1930s at the age of six.  One ponders for a moment the inestimable sorrow of the parents, and then one sees that a second grave is that of James Sr., who died just a few years later.  The other two plots are unfilled.  What became of the mother?  Were there other children?  Did she remarry and does she now lie a thousand miles away next to her second husband, leaving the first joys of her life lying together without her?   

Morris visited the southern England grave of the enigmatic romantic T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) in 1976 on the anniversary of his 1935 death, and found the grave covered with flowers.  In South Africa she visited the graves of the British killed there in the Second Boer War, writing “when I was there in 1975 I thanked the gardener for tending the British graves with such care.  ‘So long as you’re satisfied,’ he gently replied.”  She found the grave in Bermuda of a young lieutenant who died in 1837, buried under the epitaph “Alas he is not lost / But is gone before.” 

One last clip, which I have quoted before, for me one of the most touching.  In the southeast tip of Europe, she visited a cemetery holding the bodies of the many young Australians and New Zealanders whose lives were thrown away there through the criminal incompetence of the British military leaders in an especially senseless and horrific war:   

"In one of the lonely cemeteries in which, buried where they died, the Anzacs lay lost among the Gallipoli ravines, the parents of one young soldier wrote their own epitaph to their son, killed so far away, so bravely we need not doubt, in so obscure a purpose: 'God Took Our Norman, It Was His Will, Forget Him, No, We Never Will' ... for all too often the sacrifices of the Great War, as its contemporaries called it, were given to a cause that was already receding into history, like those discredited grey battleships, their smoke-pall filling the sky, hull-down on the Aegean horizon."

The most beautifully evocative writer I have ever read. 

After supposedly retiring, two years ago she published “Ciao, Carpaccio! – An Infatuation,” a personal appreciation of the 15th century Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio who populated his carefully detailed paintings with whimsical animals and objects.  Morris tells us that she is no scholar of art and that her “infatuation” with the painter is “largely affectionate fancy.”  One day while looking through a book with photographs of his work she saw in a small, curiously perched bird, overlooking a great scene, the spirit of the artist himself, writing “that before I went to bed I resolved to write, purely for my own pleasure, this self-indulgent caprice.”  Would that she will have more such caprices in the coming years.

R Balsamo

Monday, September 26, 2016

Lands’ End Finally Ousts Polarizing, Disastrous CEO – But Can It Fix Its Own Stupidity?

With today’s departure of its misbegotten, short-lived fashionista CEO, retailer Lands’ End has a chance to right its past wrongs and rise again.  But can it do it?  Will it, for example, follow the path of a resurgent Apple, or that of its former owner, Sears, thought by some to be near bankruptcy? 

Lands’ End retailer was once a successful and popular seller of well-made and comfortably-fitting casual clothing.  It was founded in Chicago initially as a seller of sailing gear and gradually transformed itself into primarily a clothing retailer.  It expanded with a move to southern Wisconsin and became a strong national brand. 

Then disaster struck.  The first blow was its sale to Sears in 2002.  Quality took a sharp dive no doubt as the accountants squeezed the bottom line.  At the time Sears took over I think most of my dress shirts, polo shirts, neckties, and casual pants, and all my socks and underwear, were from Lands’ End.  My wife was also a big customer in clothing for not only herself but for our kids, and household stuff like bedding and towels was mostly from LE.  But with new purchases after the Sears takeover we noticed gradually cheapening fabric, poorer fit, and declining quality.  We began buying less and less.

Finally Sears, struggling itself, released Lands’ End from bondage in April, 2014, spinning it off as once again a stand-alone company.  Then a remarkable thing happened.  The new Board of Directors decided to abandon the company’s deservedly eroding customer base and transform itself into a retailer of “fashion forward” trendy hipster clothing.  It hired an Italian fashionista of the New York City glitterati set to pursue the transformation.  Out were comfortable shirts and shoes and rain gear and in were stiletto heels.  The new CEO, Federica Marchionni, wondered, peering westward and downward across the Hudson River from her Manhattan penthouse, Bellini in hand, just who in the hell would actually wear the clothes Lands’ End was selling.           

Then came the coup de gras for long-suffering Lands’ End.  To signal their bona fides to all the right people – the bicoastal liberal elites and hipster glitterati – the new CEO and the Board decided to enter the Culture Wars.  Lands’ End celebrated one of the most polarizing figures in America – ultraliberal, radical “feminist” and abortion extremist Gloria Steinem, who once is said to have said that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.  The special, prominent catalog homage to Steinem was a marvel of incoherent incompetence – celebrating a woman likely to be anathema to its core customers and utterly unfamiliar to the sought-after young urban hipsters.  Negative reaction was swift, and I posted a note about the disaster at the time (link).  In comments to articles all over the web, outraged customers, those still left, vowed to abandon Lands’ End.  Although my family’s purchases were way down from a decade earlier and gradually declining, we were still occasionally buying some things like sheets and jackets.  That came to an abrupt end and we were done with Lands’ End.

In late July, LE reported results for the three-month period February through April of 2016, the first financials after the late-February celebration of Gloria Steinem.  As only two of the three months in that period were after the catalog’s appearance, the full effect of the Steinem glorification and taking sides in the Culture War is not reflected in these numbers.  Here is the bottom line – LE reported a net loss of $5.8 million, compared to a profit of $1.7 million in the year earlier period.  All in all, a disastrous financial report.

Now today, nine months almost to the day after that ill-fated adulatory splash on Gloria Steinem, the hipster, fashionista CEO is out.  She lasted 21 months. 

The Lands’ End stock price also tells a sad tale.  From February 27, 2015, the last trading day of the month that Marchionni took over as CEO, through September 23, 2016, the last trading day before today’s announcement of her departure, Lands’ End stock was down 51%.  In other words, in the short time that the new hipster CEO was in place, Land’s End stock lost more than half its value.  Furthermore, at the close of trading today on the day of the announcement, LE stock dropped another 14%, investors no doubt fearing that the not-yet-reported recent financials are even worse than imagined given the firing of the CEO.  Losing two-thirds of a company’s stock value in 21 months is not easy, but the LE Board has managed to pull it off.

The articles I’ve read in the past year on this ongoing story typically spun the Lands’ End problem as one of rubes in the hinterlands bitterly clinging to their “frumpy duds” and refusing, like truculent children, to follow the lead of a sensible NYC fashion leader who is simply trying to help them improve themselves.  Rarely a mention of the Gloria Steinem contretemps, of course.  Example: a Marchionni-admiring Wall Street Journal article of May, 2016, is subtitled “At the catalog retailer, frumpy duds are out.”  The Board of Directors apparently buys into all this nonsense.

The sorry saga of Lands’ End, damaged first by Sears and then bled further by an incompetent Board and CEO, provides a well-worn cautionary tale for American business.  It’s as Barack Obama, no doubt a role model for the now departed elitist, hipster LE CEO, once said – “don’t do stupid stuff.”  But as Obama has failed to learn over and over and over again, to America’s detriment, that's easier said than done.  The Lands’ End saga shows us, not that we really need yet another demonstration, that not being stupid is, for some people, harder than it looks.  Can the Lands' End Directors fix their own stupidity?  We’ll see.  They could take a promising first step by all resigning.

R Balsamo

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

La Traviata at Michigan’s Harbor Country Opera

You don’t always have to be in a big city to find opera.  The other day we enjoyed a wonderful performance of Verdi’s La Traviata, the world's most popular opera by the world's most popular opera composer, in the sleepy little town of Three Oaks, Michigan.  The hamlet sits amidst corn and bean fields a few miles inland from the Lake Michigan shore in the southwest corner of the state (surprisingly only 90 minutes from downtown Chicago).  The production was the latest offering from Harbor Country Opera.  [“Harbor Country,” for those who might be wondering, is the somewhat fanciful marketing label that the local Chamber of Commerce cooked up for a string of Lake Michigan shore beach towns in the southwest corner of Michigan, an area that contains but a single actual harbor.  Furthermore, Three Oaks is included in this trademarked marketing “region,” despite being seven miles inland.  Whatever.] 

McMurray, Caraman, & Steyer (L to R) in HCO's La Traviata
Harbor Country Opera is a little gem, and its majordomo Bob Swan, an opera singer himself, has been staging productions for quite some time.  In recent years we have taken in, for example, a most enjoyable showing of La Boheme and a wonderful concert by Isola Jones, the famed Met star, accompanied by Bill McMurray and John Concepcion.  That La Boheme was a full production of the opera in the large auditorium of the high school in New Buffalo, the one town in Harbor Country with an actual harbor.  For La Traviata the setting was the small stage at the Acorn Theater, a modest space in a converted factory that once made corset stays from turkey feather quills when whalebone was getting hard to come by.  Fortunately, corsets went out of style before turkeys became hard to come by.  Swan and company put on a production of the major scenes from the opera, with a cast of essentially the three main characters who do most of the singing in the complete opera.  The performers were in full costume, though understandably the set was minimal.  A narrator explained the story line between scenes.  La traviata means "the fallen woman," and the libretto is based on La Dame aux Camélias – The Lady of the Camellias, a play adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils.  The camellia flower in bloom is an iconic image for this opera.

The voices were strong and clear, and the acting was convincing.  I don’t know how Swan managed to get performers of this caliber to this rural corner of Michigan, but he did.  Christine Steyer was Violetta, the consumptive courtesan, Emanuel-Cristian Caraman was her paramour Alfredo, and Bill McMurray was Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father.  All three have extensive performance resumes, and in fact McMurray appeared in the above-mentioned La Boheme as well as in concert with Isola Jones.  The baritone-soprano complex duet between the elder Germont and Violetta, in which he seeks to convince her to forego her loving relationship with his son for the sake of his family’s reputation, is one of my favorite duets in all of opera.  And the touching “Parigi, o caro” duet between Violetta and Alfredo, in her last moments, was splendidly done.  All in all, a wonderful show from a wonderful cast.  And notably, the bar was stocked with chilled Prosecco, a Venetian sparkling wine appropriately served and enjoyed at an opera that debuted at the storied La Fenice opera house in that very city.

At HCO’s “Broadway Blitz” show earlier this summer, Bob Swan introduced the show and mentioned some recent health trouble.  The other day he looked stronger, a most welcome sign for fans of Harbor Country Opera.  Salut, Mr. Swan.

R Balsamo

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Lyric Opera Under the Stars – 2016

The opera gods had their way last Friday and stopped the light drizzle just as the concert began.  It turned out to be a beautiful evening under the stars at Chicago's lakefront Millennium Park for the annual Stars of the Lyric Opera concert.  

The concert, though, was a bit more mixed than the weather.  The new regime at the Lyric does not seem overly-enamored with Italian opera, and the concert as well as the new season reflects that (just two of the upcoming season's eight operas are Italian, with not a single Verdi or Puccini; but in fairness the two chosen – Norma and Lucia – are two of the very best). Selections from four of the new season's eight planned operas were performed, highlighted by mezzo Tanja Ariane Baumgartner's appearance in a flaming red dress as Carmen for the habanera, which she sang wonderfully.

Other than the selections from Carmen and Lucia and a crowd sing-along of the stirring Va Pensiero chorus from Nabucco (a highlight of last season), there wasn't much red meat, operatically speaking, on the bill.  No duets or trios, and just how many concerts feature not one but two bass arias?  I was hoping for a selection from the upcoming Berlioz masterpiece Les Troyens (The Trojans), which I have been studying, but no dice, and nothing from Norma.

Nevertheless, a wonderful way to spend a Friday September evening by the lakeshore, gratis, thanks once again to the Lyric Opera.

R Balsamo