A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Review: West Side Story, Hungarian State Opera

West Side Story
Hungarian State Opera, Erkel Theatre


West Side Story is dominated by two themes, both of them as recognisable and as powerful now as they were in 1957: love, and racial tensions. Racial tensions are particularly salient in the wake of the Syrian Refugees crisis, so what would be the reaction to such a politically charged musical, at a theatre less than ten minutes' walk from the very epicentre of the crisis?

Keleti Palyaudvar, one of Budapest's main railway stations: left, on 1st September 2015, right, on 26th September 2015. Left photo from the Evening Standard.
If you want an answer, I'd suggest asking someone who speaks Hungarian. Since I speak perhaps two dozen words of it at most, my review shall focus on the music, drama and staging of the performance.

The Erkel Theatre is unquestionably ugly. By contrast with the State Opera House, which is an ornate and elaborate declaration of the power and grandeur of the 19th-century Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Erkel Theatre is a shell of wood painted in brutalist colours. This doesn't matter too much during a musical, since your attention is on the stage, but it makes a bad first impression.

The scenery was similarly sparsely decorated. There was no particular background; merely a set of blocks which were used interchangeably as balconies and as platforms to separate the singers from the dancers, a table, and a rather grubby mirror which was lowered over the stage from time to time. The director alone knows why, since the aforementioned grubbiness of the mirror made it near-useless as a reflective surface.

To top off the soviet nature of the stage, the screen used to display Hungarian translations of the songs was a petty little thing, a board with dim-orange lights that would have been much more appropriately placed at a bus stop.

From some Hungarian website or other. The blue stuff is - I think - painted wood,
though going by appearance it may as well be concrete.
With that said, the lighting was fine - not having much of a clue about this matter, this is the highest praise I am ever able to give - and the costumes were used well. Whereas an American performance of West Side Story would typically use Hispanic actors, if not actual Puerto Ricans, to play the Sharks, and a British performance might struggle for Hispanics but would have no difficulty finding enough skilled actors of ethnic minorities to make up half a cast, this performance used costume to separate the groups. Hence the Jets wore chavvy clothing with a white-and-black theme, while the Sharks' garb was colourful verging on the flamboyant. An easy way for the audience to tell the gangs apart, although it made a mockery of Riff's instruction that, when challenging their rivals, the Jets should dress "sweet and sharp".

Sergeant Krupke patrols in front of the Jets. This, and all following photos, are
taken from the official website.
The orchestra was good - not up to the standard of the Hallé Orchestra, perhaps, but generally competent and with enough confidence to inject their own character at parts - holding longer onto the brief cello solo in "Tonight", for example.

Unfortunately the size of the theatre meant that, at least for those of us sitting near the back, the key advantage of live orchestral music was missing: one could not pick out the different parts and explore the subtleties, since the sound of the orchestra came as a single impression rather than a melange of different ones.

It's sometimes said that people lose their accents when singing, and had you told me that a couple of weeks ago I might have believed you. The actors on stage didn't; not one of them, for example, could pronounce the letter w. This wasn't too much of a problem during the solos, but it did sometimes impede clarity when there were groups singing.

While none of the singers could have been confused for a native speaker of English, the people playing Tony and Anita were at least fluent enough to emphasise certain words above others, and to do so intelligently - to inject that large amount of communication which comes from things other than our exact words and body language. The rendition of "A boy like that" was genuinely the finest I heard, beating even that of the seminal West Side Story album released last year by Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Fransisco Symphony.

Perhaps it's unfair of me to criticise their accents - after all, singing in a Hungarian accent may well have been more clear for most of the audience (though not for me personally). What I do feel ought to be criticised is the gross overuse of vibrato, which seemed to pop up in every note which could possibly sustain it. Vibrato sounds silly when used to this extent, and ought to be saved for those notes which really must be held on to.

The dancing was another thing that, not being qualified to offer even basic commentary on, I shall have to report as merely "fine". It was, though, rather odd to see Tony dancing with Bernardo and Riff even after the latter two had been fatally stabbed.

Tony (centre) stabs Bernardo (right), to avenge Riff (left).
Overall the evening was worth seeing, especially given that tickets start at the bargain price of 300Ft (about £0.70) and spiral up to the heady heights of 3500Ft (about £9). For someone who has been in love with West Side Story for several years but had never seen it live, though, it was something of a let-down: I could have tolerated poor playing of the music, having heard it all at least fifty times before, but the performance offered little, dancing aside, to improve upon just staying at home and listening to Spotify.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

A Quick Thought on Hassoun and Autonomy

I'm part-way through listening to the New Books in Philosophy interview with Nicole Hassoun, in which she discusses her book on Global Justice. One claim she makes is that people subject to coercive institutions ought to be in a position to consent (or not consent, for that matter) to these institutions. In order to meaningfully consent, she says, they must be autonomous - which requires that they already possess various basic goods such as healthcare.

The first sentence seems sensible enough. The second worries me somewhat. Suppose I pick up a stone and attempt to skim it across a lake. I am, in a sense, behaving coercively towards the stone. I am taking control of it for my own ends, and not paying any attention at all to whether the stone might like this or not. This is not, however, something we take to be immoral. Stones are incapable of autonomy.

Suppose it were in some way possible to give the stone a form of agency, so that it might or might not consent to my skimming it. Would I be obliged to do this and to actually obtain consent before skimming it? Surely not. Why, then, might we be required to ensure that other people are autonomous in Hassoun's sense before we interact with them?

There's an obvious, gaping worry with what I'm saying. I seem to be suggesting that it may be acceptable to treat people as objects. I think that there are two ways for me to resist this, both of which are entirely comfortable positions, compatible with each other, and both of which display a great deal more respect for the people of the third world than Hassoun's account.

The first is to object that people in general already are autonomous. Perhaps not as autonomous as we might wish, but nevertheless capable of making their own choices, trades and sacrifices. They do not need a white knight to come in and make them autonomous with provision of free healthcare and education.

The second is to suggest that, even when people fail to be (to use a piece of philosophical jargon) "persons", possessing a morally important type of autonomy, there are still limits to what may be done to them - perhaps not that much less stringent than the limits on what may be done to persons. This is hardly an unusual position - after all, without such a view it is hard to explain how children and the severely mentally ill have rights.

In sum, I'm highly sceptical of the idea that, in order to obtain valid consent from all people for coercive institutions, it is necessary to bring them up to a particular level of autonomy.

NB: It is not my aim to defend third world states. The coercive institutions I have in mind to defend are those of global capitalism, those institutions which say "This car is mine, and if you try to take it from me then I have the right to use violence in order to keep it in my possession."

NB2: As mentioned, I have not read Hassoun's book and I am only part way through the podcast. It is possible that I have misrepresented Hassoun's position, in which case I can only apologise and note that it is not my intention to do so.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Is morality part of wellbeing?

In ethics, there is a common view that part of human wellbeing includes being a morally upright person. This is a rough sketch of an argument against this thesis. I'm not certain how much weight to give to my argument, but it seems to be worth recording.

The thesis I am attacking is closely related to internalism about moral motivation (the view that moral beliefs are inherently motivating). Indeed, perhaps they are the same thing. I don't know enough about the subject to know, so for the purposes of this essay I shall refer to my target as "morality as a constituent of wellbeing", or MCW.

P1: If MCW is true, then attempting to cause other people to act morally is paternalistic.
P2: In general, it is impermissible to be paternalistic to other people.
L1: If MCW is true, then in general it is impermissible to attempt to cause other people to act morally.
P3: It is not in general impermissible to attempt to cause other people to act morally.
C: Hence, MCW is false.

P1 I'm uncertain about. Is paternalism confined to forcing people to act in a way that you regard as good for them, or can it apply to a wider range of cases where you privilege your own reasoning over some else's?

P2 seems right. My position is that paternalism is usually wrong except in cases where the patient is incapable of acting rationally, or in accordance with their own considered judgement.
One response might be that by acting immorally, and therefore (according to the defender of MCW) irrationally, people demonstrate that they fall into the "incapable of acting rationally" category. But this seems highly dubious. Most obviously, the fact that someone chooses to act irrationally does not mean that they couldn't have acted rationally.

L1 follows from P1 and P2.

P3 seems sensible. In the words of Leah Libresco, "Breaking a promise is a betrayal, but walking with your friend or partner into evil isn’t loyalty." We rely on our friends and family to keep us on the straight and narrow.

One possible intervention, which could come on either side of the debate, is Joseph Heath's idea that self-binding is one of the crucial "benefits of co-operation". I can see this being used to argue in favour of P3; on the other hand, I can also see it being used to argue that forcing others to act morally isn't really about paternalism.