At fourteen, James Baldwin “underwent … a prolonged religious crisis” and discovered “God, His saints and angels, and His blazing Hell.” At the same age, Hilton Als was given a copy of Nobody Knows My Name and discovered James Baldwin. He then entered into a tempestuous love affair with Baldwin’s work, one that shifted, over the years, from ardent infatuation and reverence to disaffection, settling somewhere in between: “no matter how much I tried to resist my identification with Baldwin,” he writes in his 1998 New Yorker essay “The Enemy Within,” “we were uneasy members of the same tribe.”
Last month, Als discussed Baldwin’s legacy at the Windham-Campbell Prize festival, where he was honored for his work in nonfiction. His interlocutor was Jacqueline Goldsby, a professor of English and African American Studies at Yale. What follows is a sliver of that conversation, published with permission by the Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes.
—Caitlin Youngquist Read More
“Nessun dorma,” Donald Trump, and the best and worst of fans.
Ever since Jacopo Peri wrote Euridice (1600, the earliest extant European opera) to celebrate the marriage of Henri IV of France and Maria de’ Medici, opera has been ripe for political interpretation, partisanship, and misappropriation by its makers and its fans. Unfortunately, one of opera’s most fervent, prominent boosters used Richard Wagner’s music for anti-Semitic propaganda in Germany in the thirties and forties. Opera fans who aren’t Nazis—especially, perhaps, Jewish musicians—sometimes feel a little embattled about our fan community alliances and image; defensively, we latch onto more congenial fellows like hard-core Wagnerite W. E. B. Du Bois, who attended performances of Lohengrin and the Ring at Bayreuth. Or the ten-year-old fan who listened to Marian Anderson’s 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert on the radio, later wrote about it for a high school speech contest (“there was a hush on the sea of uplifted faces, black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality and fraternity”), and married a classical singer, Coretta Scott (who said of the New England Conservatory of Music, “This is where I knew I was supposed to be”). Or Juilliard-trained pianist Nina Simone, whose opera fandom would leave an indelible mark on Porgy and Bess and The Threepenny Opera.
Then Donald Trump joined our fan club. Last November, the fact that his rally sound track featured the late Luciano Pavarotti singing the aria “Nessun dorma” (“Let no one sleep,” from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot) was just a weird frisson troubling opera Twitter. By July, when the Pavarotti family argued that Pavarotti’s “values of brotherhood and solidarity” were “entirely incompatible” with Trump’s worldview, none of us could ignore the aria’s message anymore: “Vincerò!” I will win! Read More
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