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5 Operas About Politics

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Earlier this month, award-winning composer Derrik Wang wrote an operaScalia/Ginsburg, based on the friendship of Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. But it's not the first time politics have gotten the musical treatment. Here are five other political operas. 

1. Nixon in China

Mere months before the beginning of the scandal that would define his career, Richard Nixon broke ground in American foreign relations by arranging a visit to Mao Zedong in Communist China, marking the end of a 25 year period of separation between the two countries. While this doesn’t exactly seem like fodder for an opera, director Peter Sellars thought differently. In 1985—little more than a decade after Watergate—the young Harvard grad approached composer John Adams with the idea for an opera that, rather than satirizing the politicians, would show heroic intentions from both Nixon and Mao while to examining the potential for the mythical in contemporary history. Though Adams was skeptical at first, he was later sold by Sellars’s unconventional idea and set out to create an equally unique sound.

Using instruments relatively uncommon in opera, such as saxophone and electronic synthesizer, Adams joined forces with librettist Alice Goodman to paint the shiny, heroic scenes that had been broadcast back home—Pat and Richard Nixon waving as they descend from their plane—intermingled with quieter, decidedly less grand moments, like the final scene showing the main characters in their respective bedrooms, reflecting on the events of the journey. Though it opened to mixed reviews, Nixon in China is still being staged today, having made its debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2011. 

2. X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X

A full 20 years after the controversial civil rights icon Malcolm X was assassinated, his life was taken to the stage with X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. With a large cast and music that heavily featured jazz and hip-hop styles, X followed its eponymous lead from his Michigan boyhood onward, touching on his father’s death, his mother’s mental deterioration, and later, his involvement and friction with the Nation of Islam. Following through to his assassination, it ends with a rifle being pointed at him—the fateful shot is not actually heard.

After a fairly quiet 1986 premiere at the New York City Opera, the opera has been slowly gaining further recognition, having been most recently performed (as an abridged version) at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in May 2010.

3. Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov, a Russian opera composed by Modest Mussorgsky in the mid-1800s, is the semi-fictional account of the titular Tsar Boris Godunov and a civilian uprising that attempted to remove him from power. Godunov reigned from 1598 to 1605, with Russia devolving into the famine-ridden and largely anarchical Time of Troubles following the end of his rule.

Mussorgsky’s innovative style and subject matter were contentious for many, but none more so than the royal family. Allegedly, a Grand Duke approached the show’s prima donna, Yuliya Platonoava, exclaiming, “this is a shame to all Russia, and not an opera!” Cultural critic Vladimir Stasov later reported, “When the list of operas for the winter was presented to His Majesty the Emperor [Alexander III], he, with his own hand, was pleased to strike out Boris with a wavy line in blue pencil.”

The royal concerns with the opera were justified, as civilian unrest had already been proven dangerous to the crown. Alexander III’s father, Alexander II, was killed with a homemade bomb by a member of the Russian left-wing terrorist group The People’s Will. Alexander III’s son and successor, Nicholas II, would later be imprisoned and executed by Bolsheviks. At a time when the Russian opera scene was dominated by Italian imports, Mussorgsky created Boris in an attempt to carve out a distinctly Russian style of opera. However, the resulting work was met with skepticism and disapproval from the critics. Composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky even noted, “Mussorgsky’s music I send to the devil; it is the most vulgar and vile parody on music…” Today, however, a new appreciation has dawned for the opera, with many critics lauding its creators for the bravery and originality that went into a piece that was (quite literally) so revolutionary. 

4. Gloriana

Earlier this summer, the United Kingdom celebrated the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation with performances of this historical opera based on the life of her namesake, Queen Elizabeth I. Originally penned in the 1950s, Gloriana follows the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex, who was later tried for treason and executed.

The opera was commissioned for the crowning of Queen Elizabeth II, but it has rarely been performed since then. This is likely because of its unpopular portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I; rather than patriotic, grand, and noble, she is painted as a vain, disillusioned woman coming to terms with her own mortality. Following its debut, it was called “one of the great disasters of operatic history” and even given the nickname “Boriana.” However, the 2013 revival of the opera fared much better, most likely aided simply by the passage of time.

5. Mulroney: The Opera

Written by comedian and satirist Dan Redican, this 2011 on-screen opera focuses on the life of Brian Mulroney, Canada’s prime minister from 1984 to 1993. Spurred by the emergence of “CNN operas” like Nixon in China, the film lampoons the rise and fall of the Quebecois politician. Though it had a pretty large budget by Canadian standards— $3.8 million—and a cast chock full of Canada’s best opera singers, the film was largely a flop, or as one critic called it, “an epic failure.” Not without bright spots, the opera features an especially enormous prosthetic chin and, for fans of Whose Line is it Anyway?, Colin Mochrie as Jean Chretien, who later became Canada’s 20th prime minister.

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New Plant-Based Coating Can Keep Your Avocados Fresh for Twice as Long
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Apeel

Thanks to a food technology startup called Apeel Sciences, eating fresh avocados will soon be a lot easier. The Bill Gates–backed company has developed a coating designed to keep avocados fresh for up to twice as long as traditional fruit, Bloomberg reports, and these long-lasting avocados will soon be available at 100 grocery stores across the Midwestern U.S. Thirty or so of the grocery stores involved in the limited rollout of the Apeel avocado will be Costcos, so feel free to buy in bulk.

Getting an avocado to a U.S. grocery store is more complicated than it sounds; the majority of avocados sold in the U.S. come from California or Mexico, making it tricky to get fruit to the Midwest or New England at just the right moment in an avocado’s life cycle.

Apeel’s coating is made of plant material—lipids and glycerolipids derived from peels, seeds, and pulp—that acts as an extra layer of protective peel on the fruit, keeping water in and oxygen out, and thus reducing spoilage. (Oxidation is the reason that your sliced avocados and apples brown after they’ve been exposed to the air for a while.) The tasteless coating comes in a powder that fruit producers mix with water and then dip their fruit into.

A side-by-side comparison of a coated and uncoated avocado after 30 days, with the uncoated avocado looking spoiled and the coated one looking fresh
Apeel

According to Apeel, coating a piece of produce in this way can keep it fresh for two to three times longer than normal without any sort of refrigeration of preservatives. This not only allows consumers a few more days to make use of their produce before it goes bad, reducing food waste, but can allow producers to ship their goods to farther-away markets without refrigeration.

Avocados are the first of Apeel's fruits to make it to market, but there are plans to debut other Apeel-coated produce varieties in the future. The company has tested its technology on apples, artichokes, mangos, and several other fruits and vegetables.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases
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Our favorite basketball writer is ESPN's Zach Lowe. On his podcast, the conversation often takes detours into the origins of certain phrases. We compiled a list from Zach and added a few of our own, then sent them to language expert Arika Okrent. Where do these expressions come from anyway?

1. BY THE SAME TOKEN

Bus token? Game token? What kind of token is involved here? Token is a very old word, referring to something that’s a symbol or sign of something else. It could be a pat on the back as a token, or sign, of friendship, or a marked piece of lead that could be exchanged for money. It came to mean a fact or piece of evidence that could be used as proof. “By the same token” first meant, basically “those things you used to prove that can also be used to prove this.” It was later weakened into the expression that just says “these two things are somehow associated.”

2. GET ON A SOAPBOX

1944: A woman standing on a soapbox speaking into a mic
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The soapbox that people mount when they “get on a soapbox” is actually a soap box, or rather, one of the big crates that used to hold shipments of soap in the late 1800s. Would-be motivators of crowds would use them to stand on as makeshift podiums to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box then became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or getting on a roll about a favorite topic.

3. TOMFOOLERY

The notion of Tom fool goes a long way. It was the term for a foolish person as long ago as the Middle Ages (Thomas fatuus in Latin). Much in the way the names in the expression Tom, Dick, and Harry are used to mean “some generic guys,” Tom fool was the generic fool, with the added implication that he was a particularly absurd one. So the word tomfoolery suggested an incidence of foolishness that went a bit beyond mere foolery.

4. GO BANANAS

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The expression “go bananas” is slang, and the origin is a bit harder to pin down. It became popular in the 1950s, around the same time as “go ape,” so there may have been some association between apes, bananas, and crazy behavior. Also, banana is just a funny-sounding word. In the 1920s people said “banana oil!” to mean “nonsense!”

5. RUN OF THE MILL

If something is run of the mill, it’s average, ordinary, nothing special. But what does it have to do with milling? It most likely originally referred to a run from a textile mill. It’s the stuff that’s just been manufactured, before it’s been decorated or embellished. There were related phrases like “run of the mine,” for chunks of coal that hadn’t been sorted by size yet, and “run of the kiln,” for bricks as they came out without being sorted for quality yet.

6. READ THE RIOT ACT

The Law's Delay: Reading The Riot Act 1820
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When you read someone the riot act you give a stern warning, but what is it that you would you have been reading? The Riot Act was a British law passed in 1714 to prevent riots. It went into effect only when read aloud by an official. If too many people were gathering and looking ready for trouble, an officer would let them know that if they didn’t disperse, they would face punishment.

7. HANDS DOWN

Hands down comes from horse racing, where, if you’re way ahead of everyone else, you can relax your grip on the reins and let your hands down. When you win hands down, you win easily.

8. SILVER LINING

The silver lining is the optimistic part of what might otherwise be gloomy. The expression can be traced back directly to a line from Milton about a dark cloud revealing a silver lining, or halo of bright sun behind the gloom. The idea became part of literature and part of the culture, giving us the proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” in the mid-1800s.

9. HAVE YOUR WORK CUT OUT

The expression “you’ve got your work cut out for you” comes from tailoring. To do a big sewing job, all the pieces of fabric are cut out before they get sewn together. It seems like if your work has been cut for you, it should make job easier, but we don’t use the expression that way. The image is more that your task is well defined and ready to be tackled, but all the difficult parts are yours to get to. That big pile of cut-outs isn’t going to sew itself together!

10. THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

A grapevine is a system of twisty tendrils going from cluster to cluster. The communication grapevine was first mentioned in 1850s, the telegraph era. Where the telegraph was a straight line of communication from one person to another, the “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person, with some likely twists along the way.

11. THE WHOLE SHEBANG

The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.

12. PUSH THE ENVELOPE

Pushing the envelope belongs to the modern era of the airplane. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of a flight object. The envelope can be described in terms of mathematical curves based on things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. You push it as far as you can in order to discover what the limits are. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff brought the expression into wider use.

13. CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE

We say someone can’t hold a candle to someone else when their skills don’t even come close to being as good. In other words, that person isn’t even good enough to hold up a candle so that a talented person can see what they’re doing in order to work. Holding the candle to light a workspace would have been the job of an assistant, so it’s a way of saying not even fit to be the assistant, much less the artist.

14. THE ACID TEST

Most acids dissolve other metals much more quickly than gold, so using acid on a metallic substance became a way for gold prospectors to see if it contained gold. If you pass the acid test, you didn’t dissolve—you’re the real thing.

15. GO HAYWIRE

What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the “messed up” sense of the word.

16. CALLED ON THE CARPET

Carpet used to mean a thick cloth that could be placed in a range of places: on the floor, on the bed, on a table. The floor carpet is the one we use most now, so the image most people associate with this phrase is one where a servant or employee is called from plainer, carpetless room to the fancier, carpeted part of the house. But it actually goes back to the tablecloth meaning. When there was an issue up for discussion by some kind of official council it was “on the carpet.”

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