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Chautauquans to gather for Institution’s 148th birthday at Old First Night

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The deep sense of community and tradition that Chautauqua embodies shines through on Old First Night. As the Institution’s sesquicentennial in 2024 approaches, it’s time to celebrate Chautauqua’s 148th birthday.

“It’s a birthday party, which takes a few moments to honor what’s gone before us — really trying to celebrate who we are today and those that are going to be an important part of our future,” said Geof Follansbee, senior vice president and chief advancement officer.

The day features many traditions and events for first-time and long-time Chautauquans alike. The day will kick off at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 2on Bestor Plaza with PLAY CHQ activities, as well as the Chautauqua Community Band’s annual Old First Night concert. 

“From continuing traditions, such as Community Band in the plaza, to offering cupcakes for all, to having a family movie at dark, we continue to explore how to extend the birthday party,” said Deborah Sunya Moore, senior vice president and chief program officer.

The festivities will continue with annual Old First Night event at 6:30 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater. 

“This year in particular, we are increasing our efforts to invite new people into cherished traditions that might seem difficult to decode when one experiences Old First Night for the first time,” Moore said.

The evening begins with music by Thursday Morning Brass before the official start to the program. Institution President Michael E. Hill will give remarks, followed by Vespers, and then the ceremonial Drooping of the Lilies. 

Vespers opens Old First Night every year, linking the present to the past. The litany was prepared by John Heyl Vincent for the first day of the first season in 1874, and it’s been used every year since. 

“It’s an evening where, it’s all about celebrating, and we begin by celebrating and honoring our past and recognizing how we began as an institution,” Follansbee said. 

The Drooping of the Lilies also reflects on the past, holding deep meaning as a Chautauquan tradition that remembers and honors those who are no longer with us.

After a reflection into the past, the evening moves to celebrate the present, with Children’s School and Boys’ and Girls’ Club joining for song performances and a gift presentation. The night then segues into the Chautauqua Fund’s invitation for community gifts to celebrate the birthday.

The call for of community gifts will feature a performance of “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta,” from Puccini’s La Rondine, by soprano Marquita Richardson, an Opera Conservatory student, and pianist Liza Armistead.

A stalwart of Old First Night, roll calls is next, led by Chautauquans Anita Lin and Dick  Karslake. They’ll ask questions, including a timespan of Chautauqua attendance; generational history at Chautauqua; and audience members’ home states. Chautauquans stand to convey their response. 

“All those pieces are really fun. I think they tell an important story about an intergenerational part of Chautauqua,” Follansbee said. “… I know a lot of people think it’s hokey, and there’s some hokey parts of it. Some of the roll calls are fun, and they may not be terribly meaningful right now to folks who haven’t been here as long as some others, but I also think it helps give them a sense of how Chautauqua gets into your system.”

Then, the winning Club Air Band performances begin. Group 6 Girls will perform “50 years of Title IX” and Group 8 Girls will perform “Museum Heist.”

“It’s certainly intended to be fun. For me, because I am a product of Boys’ and Girls’ Club and my children are as well, … it’s hard not to fall in love with Air Band,” Follansbee said. 

The celebration concludes with a rendition of “Happy Birthday,” accompanied by the Massey Memorial Organ. 

In an attempt to open the festivities to a larger audience, everyone is invited to dig into birthday cupcakes outside the Amp at Gates 2 and 3 in between the evening’s events.

To conclude the day of Old First Night celebrations, at 7:30 p.m., the Stars of Peking Acrobats take the Amp stage, and Disney’s “Encanto” will be screened at 9:30 p.m. on Bestor Plaza. These events specifically work to make Old First Night accessible and enjoyable to everyone.

“We want to offer a spirit of welcome and belonging to all Chautauquans — especially Chautauquans experiencing OFN for the first time,” Moore said. “Welcoming first-time Chautauquans to the party means it’ll be extra fun.”

Although Old First Night is a significant day steeped in tradition, at the same time, “none of us should take this too seriously. We should enjoy it, have fun with it,” Follansbee said. “We are 148 years old, and not a lot of organizations are able to say that.”

Peking Acrobats return for Family Entertainment to round out Old First Night festivities

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The Stars of the Peking Acrobats will return to Chautauqua’s Family Entertainment Series with a fresh, new show.

The troupe recently joined forces with the Shanghai Circus to create a program that Cynthia Hughes of IAI Presentations, who has been co-producing the Peking Acrobats’ shows for over 30 years, said will excite and thrill spectators.

“We’re producing a whole new show that’s full of youth and vitality, while still holding on to the traditions of Chinese acrobatics,” Hughes said.

The Peking Acrobats were founded in 1986 and have astounded international audiences with their array of stunning acts for decades. They will perform following the Institution’s Old First Night celebration at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 2 in the Amphitheater.

Hughes said that her late husband, Don, traveled to China in 1986 with the idea of creative cultural exchange. He connected with the China Performing Arts Agency and searched for performers across the country, and thus, the Peking Acrobats were born.

“Don saw an opening, with the opening up of China, to break down barriers between cultures and bring the youths of China to the youth and the people of America so that we would have a better understanding between cultures,” Hughes said.

Over the years, the Peking Acrobats have made their mark on popular culture and shattered world records. They have appeared on television in programs such as Nickelodeon’s preteen comedy Unfabulous and NBC’s Ring in the New Year Holiday Special, to name a few. In the realm of film, the acrobats played a role in Steven Soderbergh’s popular Ocean’s trilogy.

One of the Peking Acrobats’ death-defying stunts landed them a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. In 1999, they performed their Human Chair Stack act on Fox Network, featuring six chairs stacked nearly 20 feet in the air with six performers balancing on top of them.

The 10 performers in the current ensemble will perform a variety of tricks that incorporate a blend of traditional and modern Chinese music and costumes. There will be balancing acts galore, clowns, jugglers, hoop diving and a contortionist.

Also, the chair stack act, which Hughes described as thrilling and breathtaking, will hit the Amp stage. A performer will ascend a towering heap of chairs and perform acrobatic tricks on the precipice.

“It’s sort of like a Chinese carnival, or a circus without the animals,” Hughes said.

Hughes emphasized that the show will surprise and delight audiences of all ages.

“It’s a fun show, it’s a family show, it’s accessible for everyone,” Hughes said. “Whether you’re 6 or 60, or 3 or 80, you’re going to love the show. There’s something for everyone.”

Researcher Sidarta Ribeiro to define power of dreaming

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Most mammals dream, but only humans can share their dreams with others. Ancient civilizations searched their dreams with intention for answers, for revelations, and for spiritual truths — an effort that Sidarta Ribeiro thinks has been abandoned in contemporary urban society.

Ribeiro, a neuroscientist, professor and researcher of sleep and dreaming, spent 19 years refining his book, The Oracle of Night: The History and Science of Dreams, which provides a comprehensive study of dreams and their deeper significance. This dream exploration and Ribeiro’s neurophysiological knowledge will inform his 10:45 a.m. lecture Tuesday, Aug. 2 in the Amphitheater. 

Considering this week’s Chautauqua Lecture Series theme, “After Dark: The World of Nighttime,” dreams and dreaming had to be a topic of discussion, said Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education Matt Ewalt.

“There was no one in the world better suited to help answer our biggest questions about humanity and the mysteries of dreams, and raise new questions for us to carry forward, than Sidarta Ribeiro,” Ewalt said.

Ribeiro said his talk will explore a “plausible neurobiological explanation” for spiritual beliefs around the power of dreams: that there are profound reasons for having them, that their contents are not essentially meaningless, and that the “extravagance of dreaming” is more than an “evolutionary accident.”

Cultures throughout history have perceived dreams as oracles, fonts of wisdom to reconcile the past and foresee future events. Ribeiro plans to speak about “spirituality, about the belief in gods, and how dreams may have boosted tremendously our belief in divine entities,” he said.

He presents dreams in modern life not as deterministic oracles, but as presentations of possibilities, simulating potential futures for the dreamer to consider.

“Based on yesterday,” Ribeiro said, one can posit “how tomorrow is supposed to be.”

Biomedical science has only recently acknowledged the usefulness of dreams, Ribeiro said. Research now shows that not just sleep, but dreaming with intention, is vital for cognition.

“If you dream of solving a task, you become better at solving the task,” Ribeiro said.

Ribeiro encourages the observation of dreams and keeping a dream diary to reap the oracular rewards. He advises people to absorb these words before falling asleep: “I’m going to dream, I’m going to remember. I’m going to record it.” In the morning, people should make note of every possible detail before doing anything else. It will be difficult at first, he said, but “after four or five days, you become much better.”

A crucial third stage is sharing those dreams with someone “who wants to listen, who knows you and understands your context,” Ribeiro said. “It has to be somebody who really cares.”

Having this “ability to share fears and desires,” Ribeiro said, “creates the possibility of group cohesion, uniting efforts toward a common goal, which has really made a difference” throughout humanity’s development.

Once this process becomes a habit, “it’s like putting together a puzzle. If you have many pieces in place, then you start having an idea of the whole picture. After a few weeks, you can see not only some aspects of your challenges, but the trajectory, where things are going. This really increases introspection, and is very important for psychological and emotional life, and for spirituality.”

Dreams hold within their mysteries the potential to speak for the future and reflect on the past, Ribeiro explained in The Oracle of Night.

“It is necessary to recover those dreams that are within everybody’s reach,” he wrote, “the ones we have every night but to which we pay little attention; the dreams our ancestors cultivated as oracles and which most people today ignore.”

This nearly-forgotten discipline of exploring all angles of a dream “can and should reactivate the ancestral habit of dreaming and telling,” he noted in The Oracle of Night.

“To remember dreams and to share dreams is something that is so ingrained in our bodies, it’s like breathing,” Ribeiro said, “Once you pay a little bit of attention to it, it becomes really natural.”

Author Mirabai Starr to analyze week’s titular poem from feminist perspective

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With an emphatic and delicate view toward religion and spirituality, author Mirabai Starr plans to enhance the view of “Dark Night of the Soul,” a poem by 16th-century Spanish mystic and priest St. John of the Cross.

Starr will give her analysis of the poem in her lecture, titled “Dark Nights of Our Souls: The Transformational Power of Spiritual Crisis,” at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 2 in the Hall of Philosophy, adding to the Interfaith Lecture Series Week Six theme, “Embracing the Dark: Fertile Soul Time.”

“What I’m looking at is the classic teaching of the ‘Dark Night of the Soul,’ ” Starr said. “But, I am claiming it through what I would call a more feminist lens.”

Traditionally interpreted, the poem moves through periods throughout someone’s spiritual life. Starr said the classical perspective is that when everything in someone’s spiritual path “dries up” and people are no longer excited, their belief system unravels.

“What’s happening is we’re being stripped of our attachments, and our concepts of God, our attachments to the ways spiritual life is supposed to feel ecstatic or blissful,” Starr said. “… (And) all of our concepts about God and reality no longer make any sense to us.”

This idea of being stripped of spiritual attachments may make some feel like they’re doing something wrong, or experience the anxiety-inducing feeling that there’s going to be bad news. But, Starr said when people feel “spiritually naked,” they are prepared for a direct encounter with God.

“It’s about an inner state in the spiritual crisis,” Starr said. “It may be invisible to anyone else from the outside, but it’s really a beautiful, transformative portal.”

She wants her audience to realize that difficult experiences and feelings toward current events — climate change, women’s rights, unraveling democracy — are opportunities for this transformative experience to make people into “compassionate agents of change in the world.”

Incorporating the empathy of the human experience into her feminine perspective, Starr said people need to welcome these brokenhearted feelings to become more in tune with the world. She said that the masculine version would be about rising above, rather than letting the feelings become one with the soul.

“The hallmark of John’s teaching is about the power of radical not knowing, complete unknowing, and that is my way,” Starr said. 

Starr said it is important to both experience the world from a place of unknowing, and feel a sense of not knowing in “the midst of the world, so that we enter the suffering with our hearts open.” 

Not knowing is a cornerstone of accepting the reality of the spiritual world, she said. There must be a deep sense of surrendering control and allowing for innate curiosity; then the relationship between those two can be at the center of change.

“It’s a path of fire and transformation and that is challenging,” Starr said. “It’s challenging for me to walk it, and it’s challenging for me to invite other people to walk that path with me.”

Starr translated “Dark Night of the Soul” from Spanish to English, and said her translation is the most contemporary version in existence. She has studied Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism, and is unaffiliated with the Catholic Church, so her translation of the poem brings “this classic work to the 21st century in a brilliant and beautiful rendering.”

Starr said she hopes her audience will gain a renewed sense of hope and meaning. She wants them to realize there is beauty in hopeless times.

“When I share these teachings and I reclaim them through a feminine, relational, truth-telling lens, I see people change. I see hearts open,” Starr said. “I see people finding their own unique way to step up and (challenge) themselves as instruments in this world.”

NYO Jazz, with artistic director Sean Jones, to be joined by Jazzmeia Horn

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Every year for the last five years, the process of selecting another Carnegie Hall National Youth Jazz Orchestra starts again.

“We begin, in essence, by getting the word out there to students all over the country — ages 16 to 19 years old — to put their best foot forward, not just musically, but as ambassadors for the country,” said Sean Jones, a Grammy Award-winning jazz trumpeter, composer and artistic director of NYO Jazz. “We want to know their personalities and what their ambitions are.”

After a lengthy pre-screening process, Jones said that there are generally 10 to 20 potential students per instrument in the band who still need to be narrowed down.

Those young musicians are then vetted, and they end up with the final 22 student musicians who will become NYO Jazz.

At 8:15 p.m. Monday, Aug. 1 in the Amphitheater, Jones will lead NYO Jazz in performance for a Chautauqua audience alongside singer and Grammy Award-nominee Jazzmeia Horn.

“I start thinking about programming a year out from the concerts, so that it fits the timing of current events in the world, and that also speaks to the people we’re going to perform for,” he said. “This particular year, we are going to the United States — we’re staying home. I wanted to make sure there was a program that reflected some of the challenges that we face in this country.”

That being said, according to Jones, it’s also important that the program for this year’s ensemble represents the “great majesty and beauty” of this country. 

“This year’s program has some jazz standards, music by Duke Ellington and Mary Lou Williams, and music that was written for a video game,” he said. “We’re going to be playing some Charles Mingus and Endea Owens, who wrote a piece for Ida B. Wells, which celebrates the endeavors of journalism in this country.”

Jones said he plans on opening the show with an arrangement by John Clayton that features “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” combined. 

Horn will be performing music from her latest album, Love & Liberation, Jones said.

“One thing listeners should understand is that when they close their eyes, they’re not going to hear 16- to 19-year-olds,” Jones said. “They sound like any professional band that’s out there, and I treat them as such. Arguably this will be the most diverse big band program (Chautaquauns) have ever heard in their lives. So hold onto your hats.”

Jim Richardson, longtime ‘Nat’l Geographic’ photographer, to share shots illuminating ‘End of Night’

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Amid the red tomatoes and pale yellow ears of corn at the county fair, Jim Richardson, National Geographic photographer, won his first photography award: a blue ribbon and 75 cents.

“Seeing the judge come down the line, get to the photography section and, hearing the accolades that she had for my use of creative framing, and use of silhouettes, and giving me the blue ribbon,” Richardson said. “Then of course, after that, she went on to judge the big tomatoes and the ears of corn. But it was enough for me to have somebody say I was doing a good job.”

Richardson will share with Chautauquans the all-encompassing importance of protecting the night sky at 10:45 a.m. Monday, Aug. 1 on the Amphitheater stage through his lecture, “The End of Night.” He was integral in the genesis and completion of the National Geographic story “The End of Night: Why We Need Darkness,” and he will draw from this cover story to begin Week Six at Chautauqua, “After Dark: The World of Nighttime.” 

Richardson began photography through the example of his father, and spent summers photographing life on their Kansas farm — their dog, ducks in the pond and cows in the pasture. He experimented with photography, shooting from underneath microscope lenses and through telescopes. His Uncle Bob, who lived in a one-room shed next to a gas station, was an amateur telescope builder. 

“He was grinding mirrors for telescopes,” Richardson said. “He made his first telescope, and he showed me Saturn. When you see Saturn for the first time through a telescope, it’s pretty amazing. It’s really there, you know, all those rings and all.”

On warm summer nights, he and his cousins would spread quilts across their front yard “and wait, hoping it didn’t rain underneath the Milky Way,” Richardson said. 

These experiences solidified his desire to be involved with astronomy, and he began his career as a self-described “armchair astronomer.” He has traveled all over the world photographing the night sky. He has trekked out to the famed sandstone arches of Arches National Park at 3 a.m., caught the Milky Way rising above them, and he has seen the galaxy upside down from the Southern hemisphere at Easter Island. 

While he has photographed much of his Kansas home, the time spent traveling and collecting photos for the NatGeo story, “The End of Night,” is a part of his career that Richardson is most proud of.

“I continue, and have continued, to take every opportunity, when they were presented, to do more Milky Way pictures in far­­—flung locations. But, it was really (a) very intensive time of trying to find ways of showing what was going on — both showing the wonders and the splendor of it, and showing what was being lost,” he said.

Richardson realizes that not everyone had the formative experiences of his childhood and adulthood. He also recognizes that for people to become motivated to protect the night sky, they have to understand why it is important. 

He cited leatherback turtles hatching their eggs on beaches. The baby turtles emerge at night and become confused by lights on the beaches, moving toward those, and inevitable death, instead of toward the moon and ocean. Fireflies are also harmed by light pollution, as the males fly in the air, blinking as a mating signal to the females on the ground. If light pollution bars this communication, firefly populations will suffer. 

More locally, through the Dark Sky Initiative, Chautauqua encourages people to learn about light pollution and implements change, working with the Dark Sky Association to be recognized as a dark sky community. This same association has honored Richardson with, in his opinion, the coolest title he’s received: Dark Sky Defender. 

Richardson will continue to cultivate understanding with Chautauquans by sharing information on, “prosaic things as street lighting and how various kinds of street lights affect the night, and how population growth affects it, and how it spreads, and how it obliterates dark skies … and understanding which species are affected.” 

Before leaving the Amp stage, Richardson wants to instill in Chautauquans a sense of marvel at the human relationship with darkness. 

“That’s what I hope to be able to offer specifically, is more understanding, perspective,” he said, “and a sense of the wonder, both the wonder that is being lost and the wonder at our excesses, our human excesses, that threaten to take away this great gift — this great heritage — to take it away from us without us ever quite noticing.” 

Poet, author Mark Nepo to highlight ‘miracle of being alive’

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Everyone struggles with something; whether it’s physically, mentally or spiritually, there’s always going to be that looming, anxiety-inducing challenge of how to love one another.

Week Six of the Interfaith Lecture Series, “Embracing the Dark: Fertile Soul Time,” focuses on “Dark Night of the Soul,” a 16th–century poem by Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross. 

Mark Nepo, poet and bestselling author of The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want By Being Present in the Life You Have, will present his lecture titled, “Heartwork: Being a Spirit in the World,” at 2 p.m. Monday, Aug. 1 in the Hall of Philosophy to start off this week’s theme.

“I plan on talking a little bit about where we are in this very difficult time after the pandemic, and there’s so much stridency and polarization in the world,” Nepo said. “The challenge (is), ‘How do we love each other forward?’ The old world is gone, and like it or not, we have to work together and respect each other in order to move into the new world.”

Planning to place this idea in context generationally, Nepo wants to focus on how details are different, but people still experience unanticipated challenges.

He said he wants to highlight “re-remembering what a gift it is to be here and that we need each other, and that we’re more together than alone.”

From an early age, everyone creates their own unique way they relate to life, he said. As a child, he remembers relating to the physical world before he knew what poetry or metaphors were. But now, he said he always sees the world as “a metaphor in images.”

In his early 30s, Nepo was diagnosed with — and almost died from — a rare form of lymphoma. He said the journey turned him “inside out and upside down.” Ever since then, he has referred to himself as a “student of all hats,” in his personal work and with others.

“Lifting up the unique gifts of each (hat), but the common call of all them has been at the heart of all of my books and all my teachings,” Nepo said.

In Chinese medicine, the word “spiritual” refers to anything that is life-giving. Nepo said he likes this, as it moves away from orthodox traditions, and encourages one to pay as much attention to the inner world as the outer world.

Tradition and family influence everyone. The challenge of being in the modern world, he said, is how to uncover how “beautiful and powerful” the worlds are when aligned.

The most rewarding part of his work is looking at the spiritual traditions inhabiting people’s lives. Nepo said he likes to recognize that everyone is human, and that being alive is a miracle.

“Despite all the ways we can record and playback, this is all unrepeatable. This is all right now,” Nepo said. “The challenge is ‘How do we put down our fear? How do we undo a lot of the patterns?’ ”

An avid lover of metaphors, Nepo considers the spirit moving through people similar to electrical wires. 

“Spirit can move through us and between us. It’s the way electricity runs through wires,” Nepo said. “Unless you turn on the switch, it’s just wired. Living a spiritual life, which means being open-hearted, being receptive and giving, that’s how we turn on the switch.”

Long-awaited Opera Festival closes with Thomson/Stein’s ‘The Mother of Us All’

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Author Gertrude Stein was not afraid of repetition, and while this makes her work rich with literary merit, the script can pose a memorization issue for the cast of The Mother of Us All.

“Every word has to mean something, no matter what, but in this — particularly for memorization’s sake — if I don’t attach intention to every phrase, it falls apart,” said soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer.

Under the direction of Keturah Stickann and the baton of Chautauqua Opera Company’s General and Artistic Director Steven Osgood, composer Virgil Thomson and Stein’s The Mother of Us All, which follows Susan B. Anthony’s fight for women’s right to vote, is the third and final production in the Chautauqua Opera Company’s 2022 Opera Festival Weekend. The one and only time audience members can see this opera is at 8:15 p.m. Saturday, July 30, in the Amphitheater, the same location where Susan B. Anthony herself once spoke in 1891.

Dylan Townsend / staff photographer From left, Chautauqua Opera Young Artist Eric Botto, tenor, Guest Artist Alan Held, bass-baritone, and Young Artist Felix Tomlinson, tenor, rehearse for The Mother of Us All.

Stein wrote the libretto for two out of Thomson’s three operas that he composed in his lifetime.

Other than his operas, Thomson was a prolific classical composer, who also won a Pulitzer Prize for Music with his film score of “Louisiana Story” in 1949. Much like how Thomson is better known for his classical music than his opera composition, Stein is known as a novelist.

Stein grew up in Oakland, California, and eventually moved to Paris in the early 1900s. She spent the rest of her days there as an expatriate, hosting creatives in her salon such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. Her most famous lines are “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” and “There is no there there.”

Much like most of Stein’s work, the opera The Mother of Us All is highly experimental. It contains real-life characters and intertwines them with fictional or fictionalized characters, with Guest Artist Harmer playing Anthony, alongside Guest Artists Chauncey Packer and Alan Held.

The opera debuted in Brander Matthews Hall at Columbia University in 1947, a year after Stein’s death. While its debut was 75 years ago, people feel that its message, and the theme of democracy, is more pressing than ever. This belief is reflected at Chautauqua — the opera closes the Week Five theme “The Vote and Democracy.”

Stein explores this important idea through her stylistic libretto. Osgood noted — as did Harmer — that Stein’s libretto is difficult to understand at times.

“The trick to The Mother of Us All is drawing people into the language, and the language of Gertrude Stein is often like a Picasso portrait in that — in the very same frame — you’re at the face, the body of a person from 18 different angles. And so that nose is from that perspective, and then that ear is from a completely different perspective. If you look at it as a whole, you go, ‘That face doesn’t make any sense,’ ” Osgood said.

When everything finally clicks, though, it shows the beauty of the language and the intensity of the message Stein wants to convey.

“And yet, when you look at it from all the different angles, you can see how it fits together, and then it is perfectly logical what Picasso did in that portrait. And that’s what Gertrude Stein does,” Osgood said.

Another aspect of the Stein’s language is her use of the word “negro” in the original libretto, which she wrote in 1945-1946. The character of Susan B. Anthony uses it when she is waking up from a dream, and while in a dream-like state, she sees her friend, who is a Black man, and addresses him with the words “Negro Man.”

“She knows the person she’s talking to. He has a name. I’ve called him by his name in the opera, but in this moment of ‘I don’t know if I’m awake or asleep,’ I immediately classify him,” Harmer said. “… I think they very intentionally used that word to say, even at our very best, we classify groups of people.”

Chautauqua Opera has decided to replace the phrase with “Black man.”

“In some ways, I think that I’m sorry we altered the text only because I think it is shocking to hear it. In another way, I’m glad we altered it because I think it will allow people to just hear the piece in general and not panic about, ‘Oh, you’re using a word that we wouldn’t,’ ” Harmer said.

Harmer does appreciate that Chautauqua Opera is taking on this piece, because she feels some companies would shy away from this untraditional opera.

“It’s a really complicated piece,” she said, “and at first glance, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it seems almost absurdist.”

But she thinks Chautauqua is the perfect audience for this piece.

“They will have done their homework, and I think that’s something that most artists really love about Chautauqua is that you’re performing for an audience who wants to be here. They’re not just going because it’s a social event. … They’re curious about the subtext, they’re curious about the composer, they’re curious about what this really means,” she said.

Harmer believes people will leave the Amp thinking, as the opera continues to make her think. Because The Mother of Us All was supposed to be produced in 2020 to mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment, she has lived with this piece for almost three years.

“It leaves me with a sense of responsibility that I cannot be complacent,” she said.

With the delay of the opera because of COVID-19, the United States has lived through the 2020 presidential election, the Jan. 6 insurrection, and other historic events. 

“In many ways, I think it’s going to be more profound and more impactful because of what has happened in the last two years in terms of the polarization of America,” Harmer said. “… Susan B., I think, was quite afraid of that happening. Afraid of polarization, maybe, but even more so afraid of complacency. Susan B. was very concerned that if women got the vote, what would they then do with it?”

Chautauqua Theater Company opens run of Joseph’s ‘Animals Out of Paper,’ with Lamar Perry as director

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Lamar Perry, the director of Chautauqua Theater Company’s production of Animals Out of Paper, closes out his bio on his website by proclaiming, “This is totally a Whitney Elizabeth Houston stan account.”

Perry shares a birthday with the late Houston — Aug. 9 — and feels a profound sense of kinship with her. He grew up in a household ringing with the exultant sounds of gospel music and the voices of singers who poured their hearts into telling their stories. Perry rhapsodized about Houston’s singular ability to transfigure a note or a vowel sound into pure, aching emotion, calling himself a stan, or super-fan. 

“I also think of the ways in which she was commodified and made into a product and the tragedies of her experience — how people used her up until she had nothing left,” Perry said. “I think there are equal parts a reverence and a love for her, and a want to protect her story and her lineage. I think of not only myself as an artist, but also other artists who are coming up right now, and how we have to protect them from a world that is going to exact of them their life, if they will give it.”

Perry brings that commitment to empathy and safeguarding the souls of artists to his direction of Animals Out of Paper. A 2008 piece by Rajiv Joseph, the play centers on master origamist Ilana, a brilliant woman who is going through a divorce, and the characters Andy and Suresh, who enter her orbit. 

The intimate group of three explores the unsteady process of healing and how human beings deflect and connect with one another. The play will premiere with two performances, at 2:15 p.m. and at 7:30 p.m., Sunday in Bratton Theater.

The two other characters are hurting in their own ways. Andy, a high school calculus teacher who has long adored Ilana’s work from afar, struggles to forge human connections. His student Suresh’s mother was recently killed in a hit-and-run car accident, and Suresh is muddling through his grief. The characters coalesce imperfectly, marked by individual yearnings and needs.

“It really becomes a story of the relationships of these people as they’re going through different phases in their life of healing and finding themselves again,” Perry said. “The play ensues, and we just watch these people crash into each other, and redefine their relationships and redefine themselves over the course of about two hours.”

Luis Vega, the guest actor who plays Andy, testified to Perry’s philosophy of centering humanity in the rehearsal room. Vega said that the cast starts every day by circling up and genuinely checking in with one another. Perry also throws in a personal or fun question for everyone to answer.

“There’s this notion of giving yourself up for the arts, and Lamar has re-centered everyone’s well-being and humanity,” Vega said.

Perry also finds the practice of re-centering the voices and stories of historically marginalized people to be a vital one. He began his career as an actor, and as a queer Black man, he noticed that time and again, cisgender white men were sitting behind the table as directors and producers.

“They didn’t really have an understanding or capacity of extending grace for a queer Black body,” Perry said. “I kept putting my faith in these artists and in these gatekeepers to really transform this space for me to create stories and worlds that I could inhabit fully, to be seen and heard, and to feel safe. And I just kept being let down.”

Perry decided that he wanted to sit in the director’s chair and reclaim the power to tell his own stories, as well as the stories of other marginalized communities. In his production, guest actor Breezy Leigh plays Ilana, the first time a Black woman will do so; Leigh is excited to take on that role.

“I think that she’s such a complex character and to be able to have a Black female-identifying body in that role is an honor,” Leigh said.

Perry is passionate about the vitality in telling the stories of those who have been historically silenced and denigrated.

“The violence that myself and my community experience is directly correlated to how stories are told about us in television and film,” Perry said. “And even in that, I have to acknowledge my privilege as a cis man. So when I think about my artistic advocacy, I’m always thinking about centering or having a conversation that’s going to engage in some kind of liberation work for my community. So it was really important to me not only for Ilana to be a Black woman, but to be a plus-sized Black woman.”

Perry noted American culture and American theater’s uneasy relationship to larger bodies, at once unspoken and inscribed in the fabric of society. 

“I think that when we think of those who deserve to be loved, and romanced and chased and sought after, we think of one very specific type of body,” Perry said. “When we add the lens of Blackness to that, there’s a very specific type of Black man and Black woman that we think is desirable and we often portray in the media, and I’m really interested in breaking that down. All of us deserve to be loved. All of us deserve to be able to heal our shit. All of us deserve to be able to fail and find ourselves again. So I want to engage in a conversation through the lens of this really beautiful play.”

Perry is intentional in every artistic choice for this production, and hopes to spark a conversation about who is deemed worthy of grace and who is not deemed worthy, who is allowed the space to hurt and heal, and who is condemned for doing so imperfectly.

“I think the biggest thing for me, and I think that it’s the gift of this play, is just how we engage with conversation around the things that we take from people when we’re healing that we don’t necessarily always have permission to take, and the grace and the forgiveness that that deserves,” Perry said.

Perry thinks that television and film often present an idealized image of healing, a linear progression sparkling with yoga and waterfalls. Instead, Perry wants to draw attention to the messy reality of coping with trauma, especially given the collective and individual trauma that human beings are enduring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, drastic political divides and countless other factors.

“I just want us to be able to collectively breathe a little bit easier together,” Perry said.

Strategist Sean McFate to examine emerging ‘sneaky war’ paradigms for CWC

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There are five federally funded military service academies in the United States. Together, they provide for the undergraduate education and training of commissioned officers in the U.S. Armed Forces.

The oldest of these academies, established in 1802, is the West Point Military Academy, which describes itself as “the preeminent leader development institution.”

West Point’s curriculum for future Army leaders is heavily STEM oriented. Corps cadets choose their majors among computer science, information technology, geospatial information, chemistry and engineering branches — mainly civil/infrastructure, cyber/information technology, robotics, environmental, nuclear and systems engineering, but also electrical. 

Author, 21st-century warfare strategist, and National Defense University professor Sean McFate, said West Point’s continuing emphasis on training future leaders, or commissioned officers, to be engineers rather than generalists with multidisciplinary liberal arts knowledge and problem-solving skills, is not what is most needed now.

At 2 p.m. Saturday, July 30, McFate will return to the Hall of Philosophy and the Chautauqua Women’s Club’s Contemporary Issues Forum series to deliver a talk, titled “The Sneaky War: Russia, China, the U.S. and the Emerging Strategic Paradigm.” He delivered a previous CIF lecture on Aug. 10, 2019.

“What I’ll be talking a little bit about at Chautauqua is the war in Ukraine,” McFate said. “But Americans are worrying about the contest between democracies versus autocracies. People are worried that autocracy holds the best cards. … The point of my talk is that (there are) a lot of things democracies can do.”

A liberal arts education, counter to West Point’s curriculum, is actually what will serve the Department of Defense best, McFate said. And he would know, as he was not trained at West Point. 

While double majoring in history and religious studies and enjoying classical music and opera at Brown University, he was a cadet in the U.S. Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

Thereafter, he completed boot camp at the U.S. Army’s military installation in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and began his military career in the famed 82nd Airborne Division as a paratrooper and officer.

Graduating from Jungle Operations Training Center in Panama and other elite training programs, McFate served as a jumpmaster before leaving the Army in 2000. During the following three years, he worked for Amnesty International as a military-human rights bridge-builder and policy adviser.

After three months at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, he temporarily paused his Master of Public Policy studies because Blackwater, a private military academy, recruited him to raise an army in Africa, and to plan and run its operations there as a private military contractor and paramilitary, otherwise known as a mercenary soldier. 

Having returned to the Kennedy School to complete his master’s, McFate worked for a year for the U.S. Institute of Peace as a consultant. He moved on to executive-level political risk consulting for other organizations, and he conducted independent research on the future of war at New America, a centrist public policy think tank.

McFate also began teaching graduate courses to senior military and civilian leaders at National Defense University.

In 2012, in the U.K., he earned his Doctorate in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He titled his doctoral dissertation, “Durable Disorder: The Return of Private Armies and the Emergence of Neomedievalism.” Out of it emerged the first of his three nonfiction books to date, Building Better Armies: An Insider’s Account of Liberia, which was published in 2013.

It was followed by The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order in 2015, and The New Rules of War: How America Can Win  — Against Russia, China, and Other Threats in 2019, which Economist magazine named as a Book of the Year in December 2019. 

In addition, McFate has written eight scholarly book chapters for academic volumes, contributed articles to major newspapers and journals, and appeared on numerous television news programs. 

McFate also created a book series of fast-paced, action thrillers featuring protagonist Tom Locke who finds himself in dangerous circumstances similar to what McFate had experienced. He co-wrote his first two books of “faction” — Shadow War and Deep Black — with Bret Witter.

For the third, 2020’s High Treason, McFate wrote solo. Writing the first book of the series solo, and during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was a successful venture, as best-selling novelist James Patterson has given it high praise. 

After that, “the pandemic has slowed publishing down,” he said.

Since 2019, McFate has served as a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center; an adjunct associate professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies Program; an adjunct professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Washington; and an adviser at Oxford University’s Centre for Technology and Global Affairs.

He is also a consultant to the U.S. military and intelligence community, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and a U.N. working group on mercenaries. For the past six months, McFate said he’s been focused on Ukraine.

An important part of his work is advocating for liberal arts thinkers in the military. 

“The Department of Defense is busy trying to refight World War II with new technology,” he said. “It’s a strategic problem. They want to refight the Battle of Midway with new carriers. … A liberal arts background provides the best strategic thinkers. … We need people who can think through ambiguity and complexity. … West Point training is in engineering. It’s complicated, but not complex. They look at the liberal arts as absurd.”

By complicated, McFate means, for instance, a challenging but solvable and predictable problem, such as the ability to design, build, take apart and rebuild a 6 million-part Boeing 747.

And by complex, he means politics, which cannot be reverse engineered.

“A long war is armed politics at the strategic level,” McFate said. “… For Russia, conventional warfare means war shot (via) war crimes — in Chechnya, Syria and Ukraine. A lot of the media can’t get past the war crimes to tactics. War crime is a strategy. Russia is immune to naming and shaming. We need multidisciplinary generalists who can think around complexity. For engineers, a liberal arts education means cognitive dissonance and failure.”

The military academy at West Point has posted information about its military curriculum online, including the following: “Choosing an area of academic specialization deserves special mention. Without exaggeration, it is the most important academic decision a cadet will make at the Military Academy. Much of the rationale for the presentation of core topics before the selection of a major is to ensure that cadets have the best information available upon which to make that decision.”

During their first two years, plebes and yearlings, colloquial names for freshmen and sophomores, take college-level courses in calculus, chemistry, basic engineering, physical geography, information technology, math, physics, probability and statistics.

Their curriculum also includes a smattering of non-STEM introductory courses: economics, English composition, English literature, a foreign language, history (military, and U.S. or regional), philosophy and ethical reasoning, political science, and psychology. 

In years three and four, cows and firsties — juniors and seniors — focus on their branch of engineering, or less often, on their computer science, information technology, geospatial information, or chemistry major. They also take courses in constitutional and military law and leadership, international relations and physical fitness.

While there is no generally accepted agreement on a definition of strategic thinking, and no established list of essential competencies, there is a body of reputable social science research about strategic thinkers that highlights the importance of developing a capacity for foresight by exploring all future possibilities and by questioning conventional thinking in order to enhance current decision-making. 

“My greatest fear from the war in Ukraine, from the U.S. side, is that the Pentagon and others will learn all the wrong lessons,” McFate said. “Confirmation bias will feed our herd mentality. I don’t know what lessons China is learning for Taiwan, but I don’t think war with China is inevitable.”

McFate cited the benefits of liberal arts education in Washington economics. 

“All the strategic thinkers within the (Washington) beltway are wrong,” he said. “The best education is liberal arts. … It’s dangerous to learn all the wrong things and we don’t have to spend $1.5 trillion (on the Department of Defense). We can update our strategic prowess for much less.”

All told, with his parachutes in the air and boots-on-the-ground military training and action, private paramilitary experience, high-level consulting for nonprofits, international companies and nongovernmental organizations, advanced multidisciplinary liberal arts education, and experience teaching and advising students and professionals at four universities, McFate is qualified to weigh in authoritatively on the future of war and geopolitics, and on 21st-century warfare strategy and preparation. 

And, on whether or not West Point is truly “the preeminent leader development institution.”

Rabbi David A. Ingber to deliver week’s sermon series

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At the top of Rabbi David A. Ingber’s information page of the Romemu website is a quote: “What we need is a living breathing Judaism, not an object of veneration kept in a locked box. We need a Judaism with calluses on its hands and dirt under its fingernails.”

Promoting “a renewed Jewish mysticism that integrates meditative mindfulness and physical awareness into mainstream, post-modern Judaism,” according to Romemu’s website, Ingber will serve as chaplain for Week Six at Chautauqua.

Ingber will preach at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday service of worship and sermon in the Amphitheater. He will also preach at the 9:15 a.m. morning ecumenical worship services Monday through Friday in the Amp. His sermon titles for the week include: “Mystery,” “Morning/Awakenings,” “Broken Tablet,” “Evening/Hour of Change,” and “Sabbaths.”

Ingber is the founder and senior rabbi at Romemu in New York City, a community he founded in 2008 that now includes over 700 households. 

A disciple of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, Ingber was ordained by Schachter-Shalomi in 2004.

On its website, Romemu describes itself as “a welcoming, experiential, irreverently pious Jewish community engaged in spiritual practice that connects the heart, mind, and body to foster human flourishing,” and seeks to expand spiritual engagement in Jewish religious practices.

“I dreamed of a place that felt warm, inviting, open, and alive,” Ingber wrote. “I envisioned a community that would be fully embodied, emotionally mature, and intellectually honest. I imagined worship services full of beautiful uplifting music, deeply relevant and meaningful messages, and restorative, silent meditation.”

Raised in New York City, Ingber grew up in the Modern Orthodox movement within Orthodox Judaism, which attempts to combine Jewish values and law with the contemporary and secular world. 

He studied at several distinguished yeshivot in Jerusalem and New York, including Yeshiva University, Bais Medrash L’Torah, Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. 

He also studied philosophy, psychology and religion at New York University.

Ingber sees himself as a 21st-century Jewish thinker and educator, informed by his own curiosity and knowledge of a multiplicity of faiths in his approach to understanding the Torah, rabbinical teaching and ritualistic practice. Ingber is informed on both Jewish mysticism and teachings from the Hasidic movement of Chassidus, and combines these two branches of belief with ancient philosophies. Particularly influential have been the 18th-century Kabbalist and founder of Chassidus, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the 19th-century Mordechai Yosef Leiner known as the Ishbitzer, and myriad 20th-century thinkers — from Kabbalist Abraham Isaac “Rav” Kook to Carl Jung.

Ingber was named one of 2013’s top 50 most influential rabbis in the United States by The Daily Beast and The Forward listed him on their Forward 50 list of American Jews.

Ingber serves on the faculty for the Wexner Heritage Program, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and Israel, The 92nd Street Y’s program for Rabbinic Entrepreneurship and other institutions. He has been an American Jewish World Service Global Justice Fellow and a Rabbinic Fellow in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative.

Lovett returns to Amp stage with His Large Band

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Every year, Barack Obama releases his summer playlist on social media for all to enjoy. On Tuesday, his 2022 list was posted; among the 44 picks was Lyle Lovett’s “Nobody Knows Me.”

Tonight, Chautauquans will have the opportunity to hear one of Obama’s summertime favorites live in concert. 

At 8:15 p.m. Friday, July 29, in the Amphitheater, singer-songwriter Lovett and His Large Band will take the stage to perform their biggest hits, spanning over 40 years. 

Known for his unique Americana-country music, Lovett has won four Grammy awards, including Best Country Album in 1997 for his album The Road to Ensenada and Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 1990. Other albums include his debut record Lyle Lovett (1986), Pontiac (1988) and I Love Everybody (1994). 

Lovett’s country upbringing in Klein, Texas, shines through in his music, which encompasses genres such as folk, jazz and rock.  

Lovett has also acted in numerous films, including 1998’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” 1993’s “Short Cuts” and 1992’s “The Player.” His most recent television appearance was his 2022 performance on the CBS drama “Blue Bloods.” 

With a discography of 15 albums, the “Cowboy Man” comes to Chautauqua on his 36th stop on his 2022 U.S. tour. 

Lovett returns to the Institution with His Large Band after his first performance on the Amp stage in 2006.

“I’ve been wanting to bring Lyle Lovett for years, and am thrilled that he will be coming for his first visit to the Amphitheater since 2006,” said Senior Vice President and Chief Program Officer Deborah Sunya Moore. “Fans will be craving a listen of old favorites and also songs from his new album, 12th of June.”

In May 2022, Lovett released 12th of June, an 11-track record that contains originals as well as reimagined classics from Nat King Cole and Dave Frishberg. 12th of June comes a decade after his last album, 2012’s Release Me and marks the first album with Verve Records. 

A lot has changed for Lovett within those 10 years; in 2017, he became a father to twins, whose birthday inspired the name for 12th of June. Lovett will play songs from his albums of the ’80s, and his most recent, which draws on the joys of fatherhood and his home in Texas, for Chautauquans to enjoy. 

His 2022 tour is a homage to his Texan roots and familial ties, performed with the same 15-person band that he recorded the album Lyle Lovett and His Large Band with in 1989. 

“This album reflects the music I grew up around,” Lovett told the music series “Austin City Limits.” “My music is like me: I live on land that belonged to my grandfather. I live next door to my mother. I think the music reflects where I’m from and who I am.”

Lyle Lovett and His Large Band will bring southern Texas to Western New York tonight in what Moore predicts to be a memorable performance. 

“From thanking crew for moving a piano on Twitter, to appearing on ‘Dinner Drive with Kyle Petty,’ to singing about fatherhood, Lyle Lovett is someone who is going to resonate with our audience and create a celebratory evening of great music,” Moore said. “Friday night at Chautauqua with this Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter is going to be an evening to remember.”

Lee Drutman to ponder potential of multi-party processes

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A Democrat voting for a Republican, or vice versa, seems to Lee Drutman like an impossible chasm to cross these days. What can America build to bridge that wide gulf? In Drutman’s view, it’s a “proportional multi-party democracy.”

He believes the political reform America needs now is a solid third, or fourth, or fifth choice of parties beyond the two that currently lead national politics.

Drutman, a political scientist and senior fellow in the Political Reform program at the New America Foundation, will round out this week’s Chautauqua Lecture Series theme, “The Vote and Democracy,” with his lecture at 10:45 a.m. Friday, July 29, in the Amphitheater, making the case for why we should embrace a multi-party system.

“We are at a moment of potential transformation of our democracy,” Drutman said. “This is a real hinge point moment in history in which things could go in a lot of different directions. The stakes are incredibly high. But there’s also a tremendous opportunity to innovate and build something new.”

A political system with additional parties could “better represent the diversity and pluralism of America, providing ways to forge new compromises and bring new voices into our representative system of government that is always changing and evolving,” Drutman said.

Many voters feel increasingly alienated by the lack of a political middle ground on which to stand, and feel obliged to “choose the lesser of two evils,” Drutman said. A growing number of Americans now identify as Independents, rejecting the forced duality of the current system. Many are voicing wishes for more than two options on the ballot.

How does the nation progress toward a multi-party system? One new initiative known as fusion voting — where multiple parties can support the same candidate on the ballot — would provide disheartened voters a step toward moderation in place of the two-party system. The increased influence this might present third parties “would be a tremendous step forward,” Drutman said, in the building of a “much needed moderate party in our politics.”

“Really, we need five or six parties to effectively represent the diversity of values, experiences and perspectives in this country,” Drutman said. 

The key is striking a balance — a healthy range of political groups competitive enough to give voters the chance to make “real and meaningful choices,” while avoiding excessive fragmentation.

Beyond these proposals, Drutman advocated for a broader move toward multi-member congressional districts, which would enable new parties to thrive. He has also made the case for enlarging the House of Representatives to ease proportional multi-party elections, a topic on which he testified Thursday before the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

“We need more diversity and pluralism in our elected bodies. We need new voices. There’s a lot of perspectives that are not well represented there,” Drutman said. “Expansion is the best way to bring more people in without kicking out the people there now who also have valuable experience to offer.”

Without expanding the House to include districts with multiple representatives, Drutman said, gerrymandering continues to hinder equal representation. This constituency manipulation, further enabled by mandatory redistricting following the 2020 census, allows candidates to win regardless of whether they have the majority’s support or not, and exists solely because of the single-member district.

“A proportional voting system helps to combat the evils of gerrymandering, because if you have proportional multi-member districts, gerrymandering basically becomes irrelevant,” Drutman said.

Drutman raised the question of why seemingly more Americans than ever distrust the voting process and perceive their vote as insecure. He thinks it’s an “outgrowth of our binary two-party system, fomented by political leaders” seeking to sow distrust and demonize opponents.

“Because this country is evenly split,” Drutman said, “you have these narrow elections, and tremendous hatred for the other side. So it’s natural — if the election margins are tight, you’re likely to believe it if your side says ‘the system is rigged, it was corrupt, they cheated.’ ”

In studying other countries with multi-party structures, Drutman has found that voters in losing parties are “more likely to accept their losses in proportional systems, because the stakes are lower. A coalition will form roughly around the political middle no matter what.” In the current American system however, “if you get 50.1% of the vote, you get all the power,” he said, leading voters to feel much more of a blow, especially when the competing side is seen as a dangerous and distant foe.

“It’s hard to have legitimate elections when you don’t think the other side is legitimate opposition,” Drutman said.

In his talk, Drutman will reflect on the ways in which a multiplicity of parties will actually bring Americans closer together, not create further division. The gap between political extremes may be narrowed not by less political debate, but by more.

“Our binary arrangement shuts down thinking,” Drutman said, but, “the more sides we have, the more thinking we do, and the more we’re willing to consider.”

Wajahat Ali to pitch three-part argument for multicultural work in U.S.

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With one foot in the door of the American dream, and one in the American nightmare, Wajahat Ali’s myriad experiences have led him down the path of fighting for justice.

To some, America may not “seem racist anymore,” but Ali, a writer, public speaker and former attorney, said this is not the case, and wants to make a three-step pitch to his Chautauqua audience.

Ali will give his lecture, “Go Back to Where You Came From: Or, How to Create the Ethnic Avengers,” at 2 p.m. Friday, July 29, in the Hall of Philosophy to close Week Five of the Interfaith Series Lecture “The Ethical Foundations of a Fully Functioning Democracy.”

He said he wants his audience to invest in “a multicultural coalition of the willing,” what he refers to as “the ethnic avengers.” 

He wants Chautauquans to invest in hope during hopeless times, and to understand why diversity and inclusivity is a win for everyone.

“I can tell you as a Brown dude and as a Muslim, as a person who has been living this and talking about this for a long time, that many of our fellow Americans thought that the election of Obama, in particular, signaled a post-racial America,” Ali said. 

He realized this as people referred to racism as “an old thing” and said to “stop whining and complaining, we’ve elected Obama.” Ali said this dialogue then did a complete 180 after the 2020 murder of George Floyd.

“That seemed to be an inflection point for many people to be like, ‘Oh we’ve got to talk about this,’ ” Ali said. “There’s a moment when people realize, ‘Oh, you have to fight for democracy. You have to fight for rights. You have to fight for freedom. And this thing called America, we took for granted, which we assumed was a multiracial democracy — even that we have to fight for.’ ”

Ali said the list of everything going wrong in America — climate change, human rights issues and abortion restrictions, to name a few — is “very depressing,” and can make some people seem selfish or cynical when it comes to fighting for rights.

“I think what we have witnessed, and are witnessing right now, is that it requires work,” Ali said. “But it also requires people to throw down in the ring and (realize) the avengers aren’t coming. You can’t outsource this problem.”

Describing his life as a constant back and forth flip of rags to riches, Ali said he has a unique experience of what America looks like through the lens of both the dream and the nightmare. He said he started out as a privileged suburban kid and lost everything after 9/11; his parents were in jail and lost their money, their credit and healthcare coverage, which led to the American nightmare.

Another formative experience for Ali occurred 10 years ago, when he had a near-death experience while at the gym. He had the pre-existing heart condition atrial fibrillation, and when he was on the treadmill, his heart rate spiked to 230 BPM, over double the average. 

“It made no sense, because I wasn’t doing anything strenuous,” Ali said. “It was just a very light workout, and so as a result of that, they had to defibrillate me three times to reset my heart rate.”

He then went into congestive heart failure and pulmonary edema, and his lungs were filling up with water.

“I almost didn’t make it,” Ali said. “As a result of surviving that, and then finally having the surgery, I thought, ‘Life is short.’ My only regret was if I die alone, I should’ve invested in a relationship, in a marriage. That was my one mistake. I should have started a family.”

Knowing to some this may sound crazy, Ali said as soon as he thought about getting married and starting a family, his heart rate finally stabilized.

“Maybe this was a sign from the universe,” Ali said, “Then somehow, like eight months after that, boom, got married. Still married.”

Ali said he will include personal stories, such as this near-death experience, in his public speaking. While not too formulaic, he said he sustains a similar approach in most of his talks. First, he will make his three points, then tell a specific personal story, which he uses as a “Trojan Horse” to introduce the lecture theme, and make the lecture more of a conversation.

This will be Ali’s second time speaking at Chautauqua — most recently in conversation with James Fallows in 2017 to examine American perception of Muslims post-9/11.

Ali said he’s a pragmatist, not a “wide-eyed, naive optimist,” and he understands the demons America is currently facing. But he wants people to leave with the belief that America is still worth fighting for.

“That moment of urgency has to be acknowledged and has to be met with a forceful response,” Ali said. “It’s going to require everyone to step up.”

Opera Festival continues with Puccini’s ‘Tosca’

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The Chautauqua Opera Company’s Festival Weekend continues today with Giacomo Puccini’s grand opera Tosca, which — on first glance — might be an unconventional choice for an event celebrating women’s rights and the 102-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave white women in America the right to vote.

But stage director Sarah Ina Meyers hardly thinks it is a misstep.

“The opera is extraordinarily vital, and perhaps, right now, more vital than ever,” she said.

The weekend showcases the three operas that Chautauqua Opera will produce this season with Kamala Sankaram and Susan Yankowitz’s Thumbprint, staged for the last time Thursday, Puccini’s Tosca, and Virgil Thomson and librettist Gertrude Stein’s The Mother of Us All, which wraps the festival at 8:15 p.m. Saturday, July 30, in the Amphitheater.

Tosca has its festival weekend performance at 4 p.m. Friday, July 29, in Norton Hall, telling the story of opera singer Tosca and her lover Cavaradossi during 1800 amid a socially and politically turbulent two-day period in Rome. Tosca, with a crumbling and unruled Rome around her, must save her lover from Scarpia, the chief of police, who wishes to remove Cavaradossi from the picture and take Tosca for himself.

Thumbprint, on the other hand, takes place in late 20th-century Pakistan. Protagonist and real-life activist Mukhtar Mai must fight in the courts for justice for herself after being the victim of government-sanctioned rape.

While the two operas have very obvious differences, Meyers cannot help but see many thematic connections between them.

“The same way in which Mukhtar Mai is trying to rescue her brother and in trying to save her brother, her love is then used against her … that’s very similar to what Tosca is trying to do,” Meyers said. “She’s trying to rescue her love, and Scarpia takes that love and perverts it and turns it against her.”

Steven Osgood, the general and artistic director of Chautauqua Opera, also sees these parallels.

“We have to broaden beyond the 19th Amendment in order to bring in Thumbprint and Tosca, but you don’t have to go very broad,” he said.

Echoing Meyers in saying that Mai fights for her family, he included Susan B. Anthony in The Mother of Us All and her battle for every step toward women’s suffrage.

Like Mai and Anthony, Tosca is truly fighting for the right to autonomy.

“Tosca has that same fight,” Osgood said. “She steps up and says, ‘I will fight for my right to live free and have the love that I want.’ ”

In all three of the operas, the women face betrayal by the men in power as they struggle to be seen, heard, and receive recognition of their humanity.

“The three operas show women fighting that exact same fight against betrayal and for their rights,” Osgood said.

UPenn scholar Anthea Butler considers responsibility, promise of polis

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People often question what their role is, if they’re doing enough, and what they could improve on to be a productive member of society. Anthea Butler, author and Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania, offers a three-step guide to answer these questions.

Butler will give her lecture, “The Promise of the Polis: Guidance for Living in Trying Times,” at 2 p.m. Thursday, July 28, in the Hall of Philosophy for Week Five of the Interfaith Lecture Series theme “The Ethical Foundations of a Fully Functioning Democracy.”

Butler will begin her lecture by outlining the three-step guide.

“One, is that we have to think about what we look like as a society, and the comparison between what the Greeks were trying to do, and where our society is being fractured,” Butler said.

Next, she wants people to ponder what their place is in society. Then, ask how they can break out of the fractured society that has been created. 

“I think one of the things that I want to do is talk about what we’ve lost in being citizens of something greater than just our personal lives,” Butler said.

Butler said people need to focus more on how to get involved with taking care of others — along with their role and responsibility in the society they live in — rather than isolating themselves.

“They are part of something much bigger than themselves, and if we really are to survive this series of calamities … they will need to become involved in a different way, rather than sitting around listening to people,” Butler said.

Talking to the public personally through various forms of media is something Butler said she does well. She was the 2022 Marty Award winner, given by the American Academy of Religion; this award is presented to an individual whose work has helped advance the public understanding of religion.

“I think it is important to not just engage the public through writing; you talk to the public personally, through social media platforms, and you don’t stand apart from the public,” Butler said.

She said she will answer any question anyone asks about religion, politics or the two intertwined. Butler said she engages her social media audience the same way she does with students in her classroom, and it is how she plans to engage with Chautauquans. 

“(My lecture) gives people a balance of what they need,” Butler said. “I know that’s one of the questions they wanted answered this week: ‘Do we always need religion?’ I think the issue is that religion can help for a fully functioning democracy.”

But as of now, religion is breaking American democracy, Butler said, and people need to realize, hear and understand that using religion may be counterintuitive in the context of people who aren’t religious.

“I think it’s really important to talk about the ways in which religion, when it is used to put one group over another, really does not help democracy,” Butler said. “There also needs to be space for people who don’t have a use for religion. … It is not something that should be used to make people feel like that’s how they need to be part of the democratic process.”

Her commitment to her work stemmed from a dedication and interest in history and religion. She described her journey to share untold African American stories as “a war, lifetime–kind-of-work.” A facet of this work is her 2021 book, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in North America.

As an African American woman in the United States, Butler said her whole life has been spent working against racism, how people perceive her, and the treatment of people of color in this country.

“I don’t have some epiphany moment because that’s been my life,” Butler said. “I think that it’s really important for people to understand that some of us have to struggle through a whole bunch of different things just because of who we are.”

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