A Hard Night at the Opera

I’m just back from a very difficult evening,Fidelio at the SF Opera. Profoundly humbling and discouraging. There’s lots to like about Fidelio, of course, despite Beethoven’s transparent struggles with the demands of theater; for example, it gives us a brave, clever woman who rescues her endangered husband, and for a change there’s not a man in the story who does anything really admirable. Even with a merely good tenor instead of Jon Vickers the opening of Act II is electrifying, and the choruses are marvelous.

But the last time I saw it, perhaps a decade ago, it was about the kind of thing bad people in foreign, benighted, and afflicted lands did to their freedom fighters and those who spoke truth to power. Tonight, when the prisoners staggered out of their cells into the sun in Act I, ragged, haggard, and beat-up, all I could think of was how many of the wretched oubliettes around the world, with ragged, haggard, and beat-up people in them, have an American Flag or a CIA compass over the door, and God knows what horrors being practiced inside.

Florestan’s existence, let alone his presence in the dungeon, is simply denied by Pizzaro, who’s given out that he’s dead. Of course Napoleonic Spain didn’t have habeas corpus as we do, so he had no way to get any kind of officlal attention to his case. If his wife didn’t bust him out, he was gone forever, guilty or innocent. Sort of like the wretches in Cuban prisons now. And in our prison in Cuba now, and who knows what other ones.

I don’t suppose it ever made sense to be proud to be American; after all, I didn’t make America. Much more reasonable just to hope America is proud of me, given the direction of the causal arrow. But I enjoyed it despite its absurdity while it lasted, and the bitter taste of this evening’s entertainment is going to linger.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.