Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Kiri Te Kanawa Encounters the Triumph of "Lower Understanding"

This morning's Telegraph Web site ran a story that was a perfect case study in how the media would rather provoke than inform. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa was being interviewed by the Radio Times about the BBC Radio 2 Kiri Prize, a competition conceived to discover and cultivate the next generation of opera talent. Having seen Te Kanawa give a Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I know that she takes these matters very seriously; so I can imagine how she felt when the interviewer tried to compare her competition with Britain's Got Talent and the most "famous" (scare quotes deliberately inserted) product of that series, Susan Boyle. From that point of view, her decision to let discretion lapse in her reaction to the interviewer's move was more than justified:

You insult me by even wanting to bring it into this conversation. I'm not interested.

This competition is named after me and has far more stability.

It's judged seriously by people with integrity who know what they're talking about.

However justified these remarks may be though, I wonder whether or not Dame Kiri recognized the ring of familiarity from her side of the repertoire. I am referring to the folk poetry of Des Knaben Wunderhorn set to music by Gustav Mahler and specifically to the poem "Lob des hohen Verstands," which, on its page in The Lied and Art Song Texts Page Web site, has been translated into English by Emily Ezust as "In praise of higher understanding." Ezust's translation captures the significance of this poem in the context of Dame Kiri's interview perfectly:

Once in a deep valley,
The cuckoo and the nightingale
Had a contest:
To sing the Masterpiece.
To win by art or to win by luck,
Fame would the victor gain.

The cuckoo said: "If it pleases you,
I will nominate the judge."
And he named the donkey right away.
"Since he has two huge ears,
He can hear so much better
And will know what is correct."

They soon flew before the judge
And when the issue was explained to him,
He told them they should sing.
The nightingale sang out sweetly!
The donkey said: You make me dizzy!
You make me dizzy! Eee-yah!
I can't get it into my head!

The cuckoo then quickly started
his song through thirds and fourths and fifths;
The donkey found it pleasing, and only said
Wait! Wait! Wait! I will pronounce judgement now.
Well have you sung, Nightingale!
But, Cuckoo, you sing a good chorale!

And you keep the rhythm finely and internally!
Thus I say according to my sublime understanding,
And, although it may cost an entire land,
I will let you win!

I do not wish to dwell on the animal characterizations of the competitors; but the donkey is certainly the best possible embodiment of the level of judgment found in Britain's Got Talent and all of its "reality-based" American cousins. Nevertheless, the media never fail to find ways to add insult to injury; and in this case the Telegraph seems to have found a cherry to place on top of the Radio Times sundae. Consider what one finds above the headline for this story:

That's right, in the classification system for Telegraph stories (and RSS feeds) Susan Boyle has her own category (and Dame Kiri does not)! Those of us seeking news about nightingales will probably have to draw upon other sources!

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