Thursday, November 27, 2014


MUNICH – To understand the euro crisis, you obviously need to know about economics. But you also need to know about the deep cultural orientations of European societies.

With the summer holiday season in full swing, it is instructive to look at Europe’s leisure activities. When Europeans play and relax, they produce a counterpart of their financial and economic struggles. It is not just a question of what they do. How they do it – and, above all, who does it – helps to reveal the deep nature of Europe’s difficulties.

In June, the Euro 2012 football (soccer) championship readily lent itself as an analogy to the turmoil surrounding Europe’s single currency. Defeated teams were described as having “left the Euro.” Greeks were proud that their country survived the elimination round to reach the quarterfinals.

The semifinal between Italy and Germany presaged the apparent willingness of Chancellor Angela Merkel to give in to Italian demands for support of the government bond market. Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti was rapidly dubbed “super Mario,” and a photomontage in the press depicted him with the idiosyncratic Mohawk hairstyle of Mario Balotelli, the player who scored the two Italian goals.

The euro analogies are not just to be found on the playing field. In its annual festival this year, Munich’s Bavarian State Opera put on a new production of the apocalyptic Götterdämmerung, the final work in Richard Wagner’s four-evening cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. The doomed characters held onto a rocking horse in the form of a large golden euro symbol. The backdrop was a modern glass façade that alternated between a bank headquarters (with the word “Profit” in flashing lights) and a temple of consumer fashion. The crash at the end of the opera was a financial collapse in which corrupt bankers were eliminated.

In Andreas Kriegenburg’s Munich production, the euro is presented as the counterpart of Wagner’s own use of the Ring as a symbol for power, reflecting a widespread European quest for some conspiracy theory about what is going wrong. The Ring and the euro become the center of a bid by Rhineland businessmen for supreme mastery in Europe.

It is all a sort of musical parody of the view of the euro crisis expounded by Martin Wolf, George Soros, and others: Europe and the world are doomed by Germany’s relentless quest for export surpluses. The way the tale is presented by Germany’s modern critics in the financial press, that bid for power is ultimately futile. On the stage, it all ends in a German way – in terror and destruction.

This kind of interpretation is not new. Even in the nineteenth century, the socialist writer and critic George Bernard Shaw produced a cogent interpretation that Wagner’s Ring was really a fable about the rise and fall of capitalism. Wagner himself wrote letters to the mad Bavarian King Ludwig about the corruption of finance (though bankers’ remuneration at the time was not comparable with the handouts that Wagner received from the King). He may have had the idea for the final cataclysmic conflagration while fighting in the 1848-1849 revolution in Dresden alongside the Russian anarchist leader Mikhail Bakunin.

Opera is not just about directorial intentions. Like soccer, it is worth asking how the show is put on. On the playing field, commentators have long pointed out how much the modern national teams depend on immigrant talent: North Africans for France, Poles and Turks for Germany, and so on. Balotelli comes from a Ghanaian family; and the German goal in that match was scored by a third-generation Turkish immigrant, Mesut Özil.

Similarly, opera holds up a mirror to Europe’s contemporary problems. As Europe indulges in summer music festivals, take a look at the musicians. Fewer and fewer of them are Europeans.

The two Siegfrieds – both magnificent singers – in the Munich Ring production were North Americans. Singing has become just another version of the globalization process, and Europeans seem to be losing ground here, too.

One generation ago, when the soccer World Cup was held in Italy, matches were inaugurated by Italy’s super-tenor, Luciano Pavarotti. Together with two Spaniards, José Carreras and Plácido Domingo, “The Three Tenors” made it clear that singing was the old continent’s forte.

But today’s leading tenors – Rolando Villazon, José Cura, and Juan Diego Florez – are Latin American. Many of the female operatic superstars – Anna Netrebko, Elena Garanca, Angela Ghiorghiu, Magdalena Kožená, Aleksandra Kurzak – come from former communist countries. Others are Asian. The new generation of singers is just the tip of a vast influx of global vocalization. (The most charismatic singer in the Munich Ring was the woodbird from Siegfried, the Russian-born Anna Virovlansky.)

The explanation does not lie in professional training at conservatories or in opportunities for experience on the stage. On both counts, Europe still rates highly. Small publicly funded theaters are an excellent way for young singers to begin a career, and young Americans and Russians flock to Germany and Italy.

Instead, the explanation of Europe’s vocal decline is more obvious, but also more alarming. It lies in the mixture of the globalization of talent and rising levels of education outside Europe. Young Europeans have become demoralized by the rigor and intensity of the global competition that they face. Drive and enterprise evaporate.

Outside Western Europe, generations of young singers have emerged who are willing to make the sacrifices needed to develop successfully. Europe’s young musicians, by contrast, are simply too comfortable and too complacent to work as hard as they must at developing their potential. That failure may be as relevant to the fate of the euro as it is to the future of European opera.

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    1. CommentedJohn Silva

      i had just commented on an article by the same author, but i've got to make a second remark...
      how dumb can this text be?! there are young foreing talents in opera and football in Europe, ergo, the all continent is in decline and their youth should work harder... Now that's a sign of some «deep cultural orientations of European societies». Still he mentions Mezut Ozil, third-generation german, meaning that his father was already born in Germany, as a «foreign».
      Maybe the author should hit the books instead of the opera to know more about Europe.
      About football : «Defeated teams were described as having 'left the Euro'», did he really thought that this was some kind of pun? Because in 2008, and 2004 and before that: «defeated teams were (also) described as having 'left the Euro'» because they did!!!
      From the VIP stadium areas u really get a nice view, but it's not the best way to interpret the game...

    2. CommentedErnest Dautovic

      Harold, and project syndicate, please do us a favor. Avoid letting this professor articulate on Europe because is evident that he has a superficial knowledge and opinion on what's going on. The risk is that a lot of readers could take him seriously and this article is, by far, below the quality-standard of project syndicate.

    3. CommentedPieter Keesen

      Prima Donna's

      In a Greek tragedy the chorus serves a purpose as does the hero. Ten years ago I would subscribe to your notion of European complacency. European youth is certainly less competitive as their Chinese and American peers.
      I watched a documentary about tiger moms the other day. How Asian mothers go to extreme lengths to make their child successful. One Dutch social scientist pointed to the fact how important it is however, to also foster compassion and care in a child, which is often altruistic by definition.
      I think Europe is not wasting talent. The fact that non-Europeans come to the old continent practice their respective trade, indicates a sound appreciation of talent. It is policy to attract the talented, and offer a stage and opportunities. America has always been an example in this respect.
      Europeans also understand that the majority of people are only moderately successful. For instance, to run a hospital you need excellent doctors. But good nurses are just as important, and even the cleaning lady needs to do a good job if the hospital is not to be a dirty infection ridden institute.
      Sure, the old have always scorned the young being complacent, lazy and naive. But to judge the youth of an entire continent as jaded and lethargic, come on mr. Princton. What opera is concerned, today's youth is more interested in rock music and hip hop. Now where did that narcissistic style originate exactly?

    4. Commentedjean-louis salvignol

      Slight correction. Barcelona is in Catalonia, autonomous community of Spain. Barcelona is the city of birth of Josep Maria Carreras, who is of Spanish nationality.

    5. CommentedFrances Coppola

      Umm, Jose Carreras is Argentinian, not Spanish.....

      Opera is, and has for a long time been, a global art form. There have been great singers from many nations, not just European. The recent development has been the arrival of Chinese and Japanese singers on the international scene, but Russians, Americans, Latin Americans.....they've been there for ages.

      I am a singer, by the way, and I studied at the Royal College of Music in London. What I would say is that the standards have risen so much in opera now that it is much more competitive than it was fifty years ago.

    6. CommentedJoulie benoit

      "L’enthousiasme et l’envie d’entreprendre se dissipent peu à peu."

      Oui, c'est le problème fondamental. Mais n'est ce pas le cas aussi au USA ?


      "Drive and enterprise evaporate."

      Yes, this is the fundamental problem. But is not it also the case in USA?

    7. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      In order to solve this global crisis, in which the Eurocrisis is just one of the symptoms we simply need a simple psychological change.
      We simply have to understand finally that we, human beings are not enemies, we are not competing for some prize, some superiority against each other.
      We should stop worrying about, and hate globalization, these interconnections we evolved into are a huge present to all of us in order to maximize human potential, to elevate our existence onto a whole new level by mutually cooperating.
      When we see incredible talents appearing from other nations, or even from the neighboring street we should not envy it or try to suppress it in order to keep ourselves on top, but we should be happy that we have such a diverse talent, capability all around the world to put the beautiful, colorful mosaic together.
      We should readjust our socio-economic human system in a way where everybody has the chance to put his/her little, or greater piece into the common vessel to push all of us forward.
      Just imagine what we are wasting away, how much we held ourselves back by the envy, rejection, hate humanity has show during its history instead of combining what we all have.
      If we are all sitting on the same boat, only mutually working together can we sail forward.
      Maybe we could read the same article, or view the rest of the Olympics differently think about all this...

        CommentedEdward Ponderer

        Excellently stated!

        How much this analogous to a child frighted to enter the adult world...or to a young adult fearing the commitment of spouse and children.

        Yes, responsibility, but one that a person has matured to take on -- they are becoming something far greater than a child. But till now, neither could they appreciate the great privilege of great meaning and purpose to life, to sense goodness and bond in true love...

    8. CommentedLutz Donnerbolzen

      "it all ends in a German way – in terror and destruction." Seriously? Is this supposed to be funny? Or rather just a racist cliché?

        CommentedSiddhartha Gadgil

        I believe `German way' only meant `German literary tradition' or `what is generally considered the German literary tradition.

        CommentedLutz Donnerbolzen

        @ Antoni Jaume:
        "Who is being racist here?"
        Well, the german tabloid press surely is, and I personally feel sad and disgusted about that; but this article and its author are not on tabloid niveau - that is why I'm so baffled about the author's off-hand remark about "the german way".

        CommentedAntoni Jaume

        «Or rather just a racist cliché? »

        Like those about lazy southern Europeans? When we work more hours every year for less pay than Germans? Who is being racist here?

    9. CommentedAndré Rebentisch

      The analogies of the article do not hit. Opera singing has always been a supranational scene. I doubt you could expand work ethics to the arts. What is missing in Opera today is relevance of pre-modern 19 century Zeitgeist. Well-trained music robots simply cannot bridge that gap.