How can we expect people to participate in a democracy when they have spent their twelve most formative years under the influence of an authoritarian dictatorship known as school?

They have learned not to ask questions, not to think, not to examine what’s being fed to them. Instead they have become obedient consumers and the willing slaves of a free market, corporate dominated, neoliberal economy.

Comes election time, they will vote, if they bother to vote, contrary to their own best interests, for the most big-daddy supporter of the causes of the wealthy. Cut social programs, provide benefits for the corporations, and sock it to the poor.

School is the most powerful, most dangerous, and most damaging institution in society.

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The Canadian government has recently received much praise and hoopla for guaranteeing to implement ten-dollar-a-day child daycare for the entire country. This is seen as a great benefit for working parents who can now afford to park their preschool children in a facility that promises care by certified professionals. The website Get Educated tells us that “A daycare worker is one of the earliest influences that many children encounter. Becoming a daycare worker is for those who want to make a difference in helping to shape our future leaders.” And shaped they will be, starting as young as 18 months or sometimes even in infancy. It’s also pretty clear that “influence” of the daycare worker supersedes that of parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings, or any members of family or friends. After all they are not experts in the proper techniques of child rearing and education; you never know what might happen if a child is free of professional influence.

Presumably, the certified workers know how properly to train and socialize their charges while gearing them up for the transition into Kindergarten and Grade One. In other words, it’s all about readiness for school—and success at school is considered the equivalent of success at life. If passing tests and doing what you’re told are prognosticators of success, then school has the key for sure. Preschool, daycare, and the like will take care of those by means of guided play, carefully chosen “educational” toys and activities, all led by the uniformly trained experts who will be sure that each child fits in and will be ready to accept the discipline of school. Misfits and the obstreperous will be dealt with by counselling, approved discipline, and prescription drugs.

I remember years ago reading about childhood education in soviet Russia. The idea was to start rigorous training at an early age to insure that children would grow up to be compliant and obedient members of the proletariat. Isn’t that what our Government-supported daycare is doing? Aren’t our little kids being trained in compliance and submission to professional adult authority? Aren’t they learning to become consumers rather than self-actuating individuals? As I have said before, school is an authoritarian dictatorship, hardly a prelude to participation in a democratic society.

The demands of aspiring to a 21st Century middle-class life style now mean that both parents must work. The goal, in addition to housing, clothing, cars, computers, and other hardware, is a university education, the yellow-brick-road to imagined success in life. This discounts an education, not available in school and decreasing in availability in universities, that would lead to creativity, imagination, independent thought, and self-direction. In other words, the kind of person that develops through the liberal arts. Do I need to mention that liberal arts are generally regarded as frills and foolishness that will not lead to making money? Schools now emphasize STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) as the essentials of an education that will promise a well-paying job. Incidentally, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, but I’ll save that for another time. Imagine an enlightened government that would spend money, and lots of it, on allowing at least one parent to stay home and care for the kids, perhaps even supporting home-schooling. The present school system would be junked and replaced with opportunities for children’s free play, introduction to artists, musicians, scientists, and other people of intelligence and learning. Take a good look at the system of school now prevalent in Finland, and you’ll get an idea of what I mean. Yes, it’s a revolution, but isn’t it about time?

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“Not even the Met can rescue Porgy and Bess from appropriation” wrote Michael Zarathus-Cook in the spring issue of Opera Canada. Seeing no way to rescue the opera from charges of appropriation, he simply says, “Porgy should go away.”  His main contention seems to be what he calls “profiting from the depiction of a minority culture solely from an external perspective, while simultaneously avoiding to include members of this demographic in the creative process.”

Let’s face it, Porgy and Bess was created by three white guys: Dubose Heyward, who wrote the novel (1925) and the play on which the opera is based, George Gershwin, who wrote the music, and Ira Gershwin, who created the lyrics to most of the songs. The opera was first produced on Broadway in 1935. The creators of the work insisted, from the start, that the cast must be all black singers and dancers. Since most theatres in New York of the time, and also the present, were owned and operated by white people, it isn’t surprising that stage crews, directors, and choreographers would also be white. But Zarathus-Cook finds this objectionable, saying, “Porgy productions invariably rely on nearly all white creative teams, and therein lies the act of cultural appropriation.”  Sorry, but I don’t get it.

The Met’s hiring of a black choreographer, Camille A. Brown, for this production is dismissed as an “an attempt to be ‘progressive.’” Wouldn’t it have been impossible, if not ridiculous, for the Met to replace its entire technical and backstage crew with black people? Not to mention the office, marketing and box office staffs. And what about the audience? Is it OK for a mostly white audience to be enjoying this spectacle?

For me Porgy and Bess is a drama about human emotions: longing for love, protection, and self-sacrifice. Yes it takes place in a black slum community, but the characters are just as human as they would be in any other setting. I would find it difficult to see anything like stereotyping in the playing out of Bess’s struggle with addiction and Porgy’s tender and devoted love for her.

So what about an opera like Madama Butterfly? Shall we condemn that, too, as cultural appropriation? Is it ever performed with Japanese singers, directors and choreographers? If anything might be objectionable it is the pseudo Japanesery of this opera, not to mention the Chinesery of Turandot. Nobody is fussing over those. The more you think about it, the more you can see that 99% of the operatic repertoire would have to be junked.

But it’s not only opera. If you want to go on, just think of plays like A View from the Bridge (Arthur Miller) that deals with love and violence in an Italian immigrant family. Is this stereotyping? And should the Italian characters be played only by genuine Italian immigrants? And don’t even think about The Mikado! The problems created are endless.

I think Michael Cooper pointed out what really matters when writing about Porgy in The New York Times: “The work seemed to be taking its place in an operatic canon full of contradictory, discomfiting, occasionally offensive works that time and again nevertheless demonstrate their relevance and power.”

As for the Metropolitan Opera, a look at the orchestra and chorus will quickly show that black and other non-white artists are hired based on ability. It’s safe to say that colour has nothing to do with it. Ever since Rudolph Bing broke the (American) colour barrier by casting Marian Anderson in Un Ballo in Maschera colour-blind casting has been the rule. If you want to know what that looks like, check out a recent Met production of L’elisir d’Amore in which the love-beats-all couple Adina and Nemorino were sung by African soprano Pretty Yende and American tenor Matthew Polenzani. Clinches and kisses abound in the final scene when love triumphs over all.

And then what? If we insist on avoiding anything that smacks of appropriation, won’t we end up creating ghettos of art works that can only be performed by identifiable racial groups? Wouldn’t that be worse than the mix and match that people like Zarathus-Cook are complaining about?

Dare I say that great art transcends racial, physical, and mental differences of all kinds? I think so.

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How odd that people say that opera is elitist and for those who go to be seen there rather than to participate in an experience of great art. Quite the contrary, opera has always been an art form of and for the people, and like any great art it can be demanding on the intelligence and emotions of the observer.

I have spent many years working in opera, sometimes with people who performed in opera, sometimes with people who were dedicated audience members and promoters of the art form, and sometimes as lecturer and teacher to people who were curious and keen to learn more. Never, in all those times, have I met anyone who could be described as “wanting to be seen” at the opera. Never!

The notion of opera as some kind of rarified art that is only of interest to the diamond tiara crowd is pretty well a North American phenomenon because it was the wealthy of New York who first brought opera to the United States. They wanted to see and bring to the public the great European operas and singers that they had heard about: Jean de Reszke, Nellie Melba, Adelina Patti, Victor Maurel, etc. Of course they dressed to the nines and sat in the golden horseshoe when they went to the opera in the very opera houses that they had built, but there were also multitudes of everyday working people in the balconies and stalls. They were all there to see the latest operas of the day: Pagliacci, Aïda, La Traviata, La Boheme, Lohengrin, etc. Right through to the 1950s opera was the purview of everyday people. And they went because they loved the great singing, the powerful emotions, and the wonderful music.

1. The first record ever to sell one million copies was Enrico Caruso’s 1907 recording of “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci. This recording still packs a wallop:
2. The duet ”Mieux veut mourir” from Auber’s La Muette de Portici, sparked a revolution in Brussels in 1830.
3. The chorus “Va pensiero” from Verdi’s Nabucco became the national hymn of the Risorgimento in Italy.  It still stirs audiences to demand an encore.

1. Once at San Francisco opera (a few years ago) during an intermission I observed two men talking, one was in formal dress (black tie) and the other was wearing blue jeans and a leather jacket. They were discussing the merits of singers in the opera they were attending that night.
2. Another time, years later, I was at a performance of The Marriage of Figaro, also San Francisco. I had a marked-down cancellation seat in about row five in the orchestra section. Next to me was a beautifully dressed lady with an obviously expensive fur coat. We struck up a conversation at intermission, and she spoke knowledgeably about the opera, commenting on the merits, pro and con, of this particular production.
3. Just before a performance of Richard Strauss’s Salome, Karita Mattila, who was singing the title role, was asked how she approached this difficult role. Her reply: “Just get out there and kick ass.”

Ever so elitist!

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Imagine a society that forcibly incarcerates 20% of its population, placing them under arbitrary and non-negotiable rules and regulations for a minimum period of twelve years. During this lock-down, freedom of movement is severely curtailed. Individuals are confined to well-defined areas out of which they are not permitted to wander. Each area or group is made up of individuals who have been carefully selected and segregated; mingling with members of other groups is not allowed. Among other restrictions, access to toilet facilities is strictly limited. Use may be granted, though rarely, and then only under supervision. Eating is allowed according to a strict timetable, and inmates must go hungry until permitted to eat, and, even then, they are usually expected to provide for themselves. Talking is restricted to selected times only. The hours of the day are marked with bells and other signals requiring some kind of action. Freedom of speech and freedom of association do not exist within the confines of the institution. Though occasional privileges may be granted, individuals have no rights. Obedience to the authorities in charge is strictly required, and disobedience will be met with sanctions. While inmates are released for several hours every day, their time will be controlled by assigned tasks to be completed upon their return.

While under incarceration, time is occupied by predetermined mental and physical exercises, with each individual being judged and rated by his or her performance. It is significant that these exercises, which are highly prized by those in control, should be meaningless to the inmates. This is important because tasks that make no sense to those who are charged with performing them are most amenable to arbitrary judgment. Throughout this process, the subjects will be constantly told that their performance is of critical importance to their survival after release.

The institution that is charged with this operation is controlled by a hierarchy of top-down management made up of individuals who have been certified to carry out this work by passing through similar institutions. The routines of the institution are mandated and enforced by the highest authorities. At the same time, there is a steady stream of propaganda designed to convince the relatively free 80% of the population that the subjugation and training of the 20% are for their own good and of undeniable benefit to society. Any unfortunate individual who fails to comply with the demands of the institution is threatened to be faced with a life of ignorance and poverty.

We’re talking about school. School is the only institution aside from prison that holds its subjects under such severe control. Even though sentence is pronounced only on those who have committed the crime of being six years old, there are preparatory programs that are strongly advised. These programs, sometimes given labels like “Strong Start,” are to guarantee that the child will be inured to the demands of full-time school once the sentence has been pronounced. Then, after twelve years under an authoritarian dictatorship the young are expected to emerge as responsible citizens in a free and democratic society. Curious, isn’t it?

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When the Metropolitan Opera began live high definition transmissions to movie theatres worldwide in 2006, the word was all about how this was going to revitalise opera, bring culture to the masses, and increase attendance at live performances. Well, it hasn’t happened that way. While it’s true that as of 2013 over three million people around the world were buying tickets to HD performances, ticket sales at opera houses continued their steady decline. After all, who would pay $100 to $500 to see a live performance by a local or regional company when a ticket to the “best-in-the-world” from the Met can be had for around $25 or less? But that’s not all, media emphasis has shifted from reporting about classical music, opera and other artistic events to relentless promotion of popular music (“here’s the hit from Maryanne So-and-so’s latest album”) and sports (“Yay, team!”). At the same time, public schools have pretty well dropped any reference to the arts in a desperate attempt to train kids to become scientists and technicians. (“There’s no money in being an artist or musician.”) Such “frills” have been either dropped from the curriculum or given grudging lip service. We all know that audiences at symphony concerts and opera performances are becoming older every day—”aging out” it is said. This is also true of the Met in HD shows. Could it be that young people either don’t know that these exist—or simply don’t care? Could it be what Harold Bloom called “the degradation of popular taste”?

But what about seeing opera transmitted to a movie theatre as opposed to attendance at a live performance in a theatre? Aside from obvious matters of cost, having to put on some decent clothes, sitting in your seat, applauding at the end of each act or after a great performance of a famous aria and not eating popcorn, there are more important issues about the experience itself. Opera in HD is looking more and more like a movie rather than stage performance. Now we have close ups of good looking singers in action, we can observe every detail of costumes and scenery, we read subtitles instead of listening to music, and the camera, never a dull moment, directs our attention to whatever those in charge have decided we should notice. As in movies and television there always has to be something going on. If it isn’t the tiresome staging of the overture or prelude, the camera will be trained on the conductor with occasional glances at this or that musician in the orchestra. This is nothing like being at an actual staged opera in a theatre.

Opera is a theatrical art form, to be staged and to be experienced while sitting in a theatre with an audience. There are no close ups or managed attention. Being seated in a theatre asks you to pay attention to what’s happening on the stage. Audience members are expected to bring something to the performance: enthusiasm, knowledge, or curiosity. Remember that before the days of surtitles or subtitles, people would read about the opera either in the program or in books they had at home. In fact, people were engaged in the lost art of paying attention.

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So, are you surprised to hear that Back-To-School, or B2S(!) shopping is now second only to the buying frenzy of Christmas? Marketers are happily salivating to know that in 2018, parents in the U.S. spent $27.6 billion on school fashions and supplies. I think we can safely say that Canadian parents are not lagging far behind. No question but what 2019 market will be even more profitable. According to a report by Deloitte, the average parent will spend well over $500 per child on back-to-school stuff, with kids making most of the decisions.

Why? “Because you know finding the perfect first day of school look is half the battle. The start of a new school year can be chaotic and stressful …” So says But that’s not all, because once you’ve found the look, “all they need is the perfect backpack and lunchbox and they’ll be good to go.” So it’s not surprising to know that 55% of the B2S budget goes to clothes. The remainder is divided 22% for school supplies and 23% for computers, cell phones, tablets, and such necessities.

You’ll also not be surprised to learn that most of the advertising is directed at teenage girls, who must, at all costs, be “cute.” And by cuteness we don’t mean anything like ingenuous charm, unh uh, we mean up-to-the-minute, sassy, and provocative or, as Nordstrom puts it “so fresh and fun.” Why you can buy a tatty-looking pair of abbreviated torn-off faded blue jeans for a cool $54.38 Canadian.

On a cooler note, boys are advised to choose their style as defined by WikiHow, “be it casual (safest and most common style), sporty, preppy, skater (fun and functional), goth (dark and brooding), emo (philosophical and sensitive), hipster (anti-establishment), or classy (you aren’t afraid of being different).”

And you thought school was about education …

Pity those unhappy private school kids in their (also expensive) uniforms, who are deprived of the thrill of showing up for school arrayed in the latest fashions, destined for popularity. Well, we needn’t mention the poor or unattractive kids, they don’t really count anyway in the sub-culture world of school’s well-trained mindless consumers.

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I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of hearing about sports as though this or that game is the most important thing going on. The CBC now announces who won some tennis match or which little league has made it to the finals side by side with international political and social news. “Mary Jo Geenan came third in the Wimbleford finals and civil violence resulted in the death of ninety-two people in an uprising in Urgmikstan.”

I’ve already commented on Canada’s national obsession with the NBA basketball tournament and the furor aroused by the performance of our hired hero Kawhi Leonard who has now been lured to the Los Angeles Clippers by a mere $142 million. We can only hope he’ll be able to pay the rent. Nevertheless, he is still celebrated as “our” hero.

I am reminded that even Wayne Gretsky sold out for greater financial rewards than Canada could offer him.

Not to be dismayed however, coach Nick Nurse has great hopes to get Canadian basketball into the Olympics, no matter, I imagine, whom we have to pay to do the playing on our behalf. It is, he said, “a dream that hasn’t been realised for two decades,” and he intends that Canada shall “make its mark on the basketball world.”

Pardon my ignorance, but I didn’t know we were living in a basketball world.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to sports, athletic achievements, or encouraging young people to devote themselves to becoming great players. But what about all the Canadians who are making their mark on the world of art, music and literature? Alas, their stipends are not in the multi-millions, so I suppose they don’t really count. But, hey, they are the products of the serious but unacknowledged culture of this country. Serious? Who cares? Let’s just have fun and pretend that we’ve won something!

Did I mention music? Don’t get me started on the CBC’s relentless promotion of so-and-so’s latest album. Every fifteen minutes or so we are inflicted with a feeble electronically enhanced voice “singing” inane lyrics to the accompaniment of a strummed three-chord guitar. Enough already!

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Anyone living in Canada would be hard-pressed to have missed the hoopla and furor over the recent performance of the Toronto Raptors, the only Canadian team on the roster of the National Basketball Association. As we all know, the Raptors won NBA Tournament Finals, causing an enormous sensation across the country. Thousands, if not millions, of people were leaping about and cheering “We won! We won! We won!” There were parades and parties and, no doubt, drunken revelries. The national anthem was even “sung” by Sarah McLachlan. The official final word was “The north has spoken,” as though some significant event had occurred or, as they say. the Raptors have united the country and inspired thousands of youngsters to want to become basketball heroes.

Now, I believe it’s very nice when your team wins a game, whether it’s the local little league team your kid plays on or a major event like the NBA Finals. However, I can’t help but wonder what all the fuss is about. How can the prowess of a hired team of professionals be seen to represent the pride and patriotism of the country? It is, when all is said and done, only a game. Someone wins and someone loses. So what?

“So what” is a lot of money spent on the players and on tickets. The Toronto Raptors consists of sixteen players (Only one, as far as I can tell, is actually Canadian.), and, since it is a professional team, all the players are hired and well paid. In fact, paid beyond any idea of what most of us would think of as “well.” The payroll for the sixteen totals $134,213,077 or an average of over to $8 million per individual. Of course, key team members are walking away with considerably more: Kyle Lowry acquired a cool $31,200,000; there was $24,119,025 for Marc Gasol; $23,114,067 for Kawhi Leonard, and so on. These players, and others, will receive even larger sums for continuing contracts. There’s a reason why some parents dream of their sons becoming basketball stars.

Tickets for the games were selling for an average of $8,000 and as high as $60,000 for one seat. Tickets for the series sold out the minute they went on sale through Ticketmaster, so fans were driven to the “secondary market,” otherwise known as scalpers. Nevertheless, every seat was full for every game. As someone pointed out $8,000 could also be a year of university education or a nice holiday in Europe. Oh well, the thrill of seeing “your” team win some trophy beats an education hands down.

Let’s just admit that a tournament like this is all about big money, and lots of it. The estimated revenue—revenue, that is—of the Toronto Raptors in 2017-2018 was $275 million US dollars! No wonder it’s necessary to work the public up into a frenzy. National pride my foot!

There are many things the people of this country can be proud of and celebrate. We have one of the highest standards of living in the world, a wonderful medical system, an elected government responsible to rule by law, and numerous artists, writers, and musicians who are famous the world over.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, one of the best in the world, operates on an annual budget of just over $24 million. There are 93 musicians in the orchestra. Top pay is around $114,000, and that’s for ten months of service. You can attend a TSO concert for as little as $42 or. if you want a seat on the main floor, around $115.
Go figure.

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How is it that some people think they can make other people be and do what they want by just giving orders? Like the teachers I hear saying Sit up straight! Be quiet! Pay attention! They have to keep saying these things for twelve years or so because nobody is really listening. Sure, everyone kind of does what they are told because there are probably consequences, like failure or detention. Even I would get down on my knees and say Yes, O Mighty One, if there were a gun held to my head or even if I were threatened with being dragged before the authorities—as in the principal’s office.

I would probably even cram a lot of useless information in my head if I knew there was test coming. And, in school, there always is. But my compliance would merely be play acting, and I would see the authorities on hand as monsters or, at best, idiots. If I want people to respect me, should I go around saying, “Respect me! Or else!”? A funny notion, isn’t it.

Not only that, but don’t we encourage rebellion by handing down arbitrary commands? Of course. It’s amazing what you can get away with in the way of subtle, or even not-to-subtle, rebellion when confronted with authority figures telling you what you ought to be and do. Just ask any school kid—or maybe they aren’t even so aware of their own tactics. You might have to observe. Yes, observe, if you can, the charade that goes on in school day after day, year after year.

Nobody learns.

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