Thursday, January 31, 2013

Continuing ed

In music school, you learn about a pair of one-act operas: Cavalleria Rusticana, by Pietro Mascagni, and I Pagliacci, by Ruggiero Leoncavallo. They're the standard examples of the "verismo" style from the late 19th century, stories supposedly taken from the real lives of real people, people of usually of relatively low social standing, and stories almost inevitably ending in passionate violence.

You learn about them, but you don't have to actually listen to more than excerpts of them, never mind see them. And aside from seeing part of a broadcast of Pagliacci on TV some time maybe in high school, I hadn't seen either of them.

So when I saw them paired (as usual) on a ad poster in the subway, I seized my opportunity. On top of the attraction of the program, there was the building itself.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The return of Vašek

As Kate wrote about in this post, an important part of our stay in Prague in 2010-11 was Vašek Vacek. Part of it was that he was instrumental in making some connections that helped get us over there. And once we were there, he provided a range of companionship and hospitality.

A few days ago I saw a poster in the metro for a performance Thursday at the State Opera, the one of Prague's 3 opera houses that I had not yet been to. So I sent Vašek a text to see if he were interested in going. He was, and called back suggesting as well that I join him at a small cafe for some music the night before. Which I did, and which was tonight.

Šalmovská literární kavárna (Šalmovská  Literary Cafe) is a small place that holds about 50 people. It's tucked away on a side street half a block off of a major thoroughfare near Charles Square. Tonight was a French evening. A woman who teaches at a French "gymnasium" in Prague, and who has a wonderful voice, held forth with Edith Piaf and other chansons, accompanied by a relaxed piano player. In between songs there were humorous readings about winter in Czech (with one in Slovak), some translated from Peter Mayes.

As the singer was making her way to the stage, Vašek asked her if she knew any songs in English, since there was an American in the audience. She only knew a couple of lines, but she was very good-natured about him importuning her.

Towards the end of the first set, she called up a clarinetist, whom she introduced as a fellow with both God-given talent and good looks. He told about how he was heading to city hall the next day to deal with a fine. He and his buddies had been out playing on the street, and they hadn't wrapped it up right at 9pm, so the police had come through to disperse the crowd and fine the musicians. "But we resisted them."

"How did you resist them?"

"By not paying."

So now they have a bigger fine for having resisted a police order.

After some more banter with the clarinetist, the singer said that, in honor of the American guest in the audience, they'd do a song about Armstrong. The tune turned out to be "Let my people go," with French words from which I got roughly "Louis" and "Armstrong." Then the clarinetist and pianist did something loosely inspired by "Summertime," and the set was over.

Neither Vašek nor I could stay late, so we left at the break, but not before Vašek had chatted with the clarinetist and gotten his card.

Off we went into the city's drizzle. Another thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Thank you, Vašek!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Happy trails, atomic style

(When I started this post, I was in Kyiv [Kiev], Ukraine, with my Hartwick colleague Prof. Amy Forster Rothbart, on the first leg of our January-term course on "Post-communist transition." Amy is a political scientist with Ukrainian experience, and I'm an economist with Czech experience, so we visited Ukraine and the Czech Republic to see two different ways of dealing with the legacy of a communist past. Things with the trip got rather busy, and my computer was ignoring all attempts to reach it by WiFi, so I wasn't able to finish the post until now.)

On Sunday, January 13th, we made the trip to Chernobyl. In one of our pre-departure meetings Amy had mentioned that visiting the "exclusion zone" might be a possibility, and it turned out that everyone wanted to go, so we made it a course event.

A monument to the disaster, and Reactor 4, in its crumbling sarcophagus (the yellow scaffolding was erected to shore up the end after cracks were discovered near the base of the wall)

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Who's the worst

Today is the close of the Czech presidential elections, the first direct elections in the country's history. (From the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918 through the split of Czechoslovakia into Czech and Slovak Republics, the president has always been elected by the parliament.)

Earlier in the month, there were two days of voting in the first round, with 9 candidates. The top vote-getter was Miloš Zeman, who had been prime minister from 1998 to 2002 for the Social Democrats. In 2001 he formed his own party, the Citizens' Rights Party, or Zemanovci (Zemanites).

The second-place candidate was Karel Schwarzenberg, who's been the foreign minister since 2010. He's nominally the head of TOP 09, a party that was formed in 2009 (duh!) in principle as a classical liberal party (that is, small government).

Leftists are split. For some, Schwarzenberg is unacceptable because he's been part of a government that has diminished the social safety net. For others, Zeman is an untrustworthy boar (some of our students were riding the trolley and met a Czech student who spoke good English--he described Zeman as a "red-neck").

The second round, between Zeman and Schwarzenberg, started yesterday at 2pm and concludes today at 2pm. There are only 10.5 million people in the whole country, and of course not all of them are of voting age, and not all of those will vote. So even though there are paper ballots that will need to be counted by hand, results are expected maybe as early as 3pm today. (Czechs are good at math! There's also been zero concern about fraud. Most of the people we've been talking with have been pro-Schwarzenberg and seriously concerned about the direction the country will take if Zeman wins, but it seems like, if he wins, it will be universally acknowledged as the legitimate result.)

But in the meantime, while there's no news to report on the election, websites have to put something up. The tabloid Blesk had an online poll, "Who was our worst president." The Czechs are said to be obsessed with their own history. There's the time of glory under Charles IV (middle of the 14th century), the pride of King George of Poděbrady, the Hussite king (later 15th century), the battle of White Mountain, where Czech statehood was effectively extinguished (1620), ... Papa Masaryk, one of the founders of Czechoslovakia and the first president (1918-1935), Nazi occupation, liberation, communism, the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

And yet the rankings of this poll suggest the dominance of the present over historical perspective.

Who's the worst? As of 9:00 am Prague time, the winner is ...

Václav Klaus, the outgoing president, with 34%.

In second place, with 26%, Klement Gottwald, the first communist president, a drunken lout who imposed totalitarianism on the country and sent people to their deaths, to prisons, or camps.

In third place, with 18%, Václav Havel, the unifying figure of the November 1989 events that ended communism in the country. (His rankings may be hurt by being blamed for presiding over the dissolution of Czechoslovakia while he was Czechoslovak president--he went on to two terms as president of the independent Czech Republic.)

In third, with 7%, Gustav Husák, the man who took the reins after the Warsaw Pact invasion that put an end to the reforms of the Prague Spring in 1968. Husák went on to preside over the period of "normalization," in which Czech and Slovak intellectual life was smothered in order to keep this place a quiescent satellite of the Soviet Union.

There were 4% of votes for Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, president-liberator, the man who presided over most of the First Republic, a period that most Czechs look back to as a golden age. He thus comes out less popular by a hair than Emil Hácha, the man who took over the Czechoslovak presidency after the Munich accords destroyed the country in 1938. He spoke up for Czech interests every now and then, but he was basically a collaborator. In 1942, the Czech resistance assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (the Nazi ruler of the occupied country); Heydrich was also the principal architect of the Final Solution. In retribution for his killing, the Nazis destroyed the town of Lidice outside of Prague: the men were lined up and shot, the women and children were sent to camps (a few children were adopted into German families), and the village was razed to the ground. During the destruction of Lidice, Hácha was receiving a luxurious Mercedes as a 70th birthday gift from Hitler.

But sure, Masaryk was worse than Hácha.

And Klaus, corrupt as he seems to be, is worse than the guy who brought communism to Czechoslovakia.

And Havel, for all his naivete, was worse than the guy who put Havel (and others) in jail.

I sense a certain lack of historical perspective.