Beethoven Beneath the Monolith

Tamsin Shaw

Salzburger Festspiele/Monika Rittershaus

For the obsessive seeker of meaning, contemporary opera productions can make for some difficult evenings. Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, is always challenging. Watching the Salzburg production, directed by Claus Guth, I was not shocked, but a little perplexed. By the end, the audience can no longer be sure what is supposed to be real and what unreal, who is imprisoned and who is imprisoning.

Clearing Up Ambiguity

Tim Parks

Herbert List/Magnum Photos

In every other sphere of expression ambiguity is a flaw. What is it about ambiguity that it is so highly praised in literature? Above all, how did it come to take on, at least for some, a cloak of liberal righteousness, to shift from being an aesthetic to a moral virtue, as if the text that wasn’t clear, that didn’t state its preferences clearly, were ethically superior to the text that does.

The Movies of My Youth

Italo Calvino

There were years when I went to the movies almost every day, around the time of my adolescence. Those were years in which cinema was my world. It satisfied a need for disorientation, for shifting my attention to another place, and I believe it’s a need that corresponds to a primary function of integration in the world, an essential phase in any kind of development.

The Situation-Room Comedy

Francine Prose

HBO

Offhandedly mocking our inadequate, improvisatory foreign policy in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, The Brink, the little-known HBO series that aired this summer and has been renewed for a second season, is so funny, so inventive—and so fearless in what it has to say about geopolitics—that watching it would be pure pleasure were the events it depicts not so uncomfortably close to the perilous reality of the world in which we live.

A Brutal American Epic

Charles Simic

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Charles Reznikoff’s long poem Testimony: The United States (1885-1915): Recitative is a compilation of case summaries, a sequence of self-contained pieces. These “recitatives,” as he called them, tell the stories of some five hundred court cases from all over this country and deal with a broad segment of the American population, urban and rural.

Climate Change: A Warning from Islam

Bill McKibben

Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

The real effect of documents like the recent Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, or Pope Francis’s encyclical, is less immediate policy shifts than a change in the emotional climate. It’s not necessarily that we take what the pope says as Gospel, or decide that because our university sold its fossil fuel stocks we will do likewise; it’s that these things normalize action, moving it from the category of “something that activists want” to “something obvious.” That’s the phase we’re reaching right now in the climate fight.

2016: From Peculiar to Worrisome

Elizabeth Drew

Scott Olson/Getty Images

The presidential campaign has gone from peculiar to worrisome. This isn’t only because of who’s ahead in the polls at the moment, but also what an accumulation of polls and anecdotal evidence tell us about the state of the electorate, and what that portends. Of big concern is whether there can be any mediation between the “governors” and the stronger-than-ever anti-government forces. Will whoever is elected be able to govern?

Mexico: The War on Journalists

Alma Guillermoprieto

Stringer/Mexico/Reuters/Corbis

Given the almost complete lack of trust under which law enforcement authorities labor everywhere in Mexico, it is not surprising that the Mexico City District Attorney’s preliminary conclusion, that Rubén Espinosa and his friend, the activist Nadia Vera, were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when they were murdered July 31, was met with general hoots of rage and derision.

Cuba: We Never Left

Esther Allen

Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos

The hoisting of the Star-Spangled Banner in Havana on Friday, for the first time in more than half a century, has been met with perplexing and contradictory reactions in the United States. Such are the two faces of our simplified understanding of the Republic of Cuba: that only we in the US can save it, or that, by our very presence, we will inevitably destroy all the things that make it appealing to us. Neither view is shared by the Cuban people I talked to on the island this spring.

Empty Cities

Pico Iyer

Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket/Getty Images

Any of us could list the differences between the two cities of mirages, Las Vegas and the North Korean capital Pyongyang. The one is a shameless efflorescence of capitalism that is, for its enemies, a glittering symbol of the decadence and emptiness of the West; the other the world’s last by-the-book, state-controlled monument to Stalinist brutality. Yet both cities are products of a mid-twentieth-century spirit that saw what power and profit could be found in constructing mass fantasies ab nihilo