Breaking the Waves, the breathtaking new opera by composer, Missy Mazzoli, and librettist, Royce Vavrek, had its New York premier on January 6, 2017 at NYU’s Skirball Center. It had premiered in Philadelphia in September 2016 at Opera Philadelphia, which had co-commissioned the work with Beth Morrison Projects. Based on the Lars von Trier movie of the same name, the story is set in an insular (literally) community on the Isle of Skye off the west coast of Scotland. A young woman, Bess, a member of the tight-knit religious community, marries an outsider, Jan, to the great consternation of her congregation. He works on an offshore oil rig (for us literalists, there are no oil rigs off of Skye - they are all in the North Sea on the other side of Scotland). Bess prays for his early return. He is injured and paralyzed and, from his hospital bed, asks Bess to have sex with other men and to recount her liaisons to him. The reasons for this request are murky (to keep their marriage and his hopes alive?) but her assent seemingly isn’t: she feels guilty for praying for his early return, feels she may have caused his accident, wants to do the right thing by her husband and believes she will thereby cure him. That said, Bess does like sex, as we saw when she asked Jan to consummate their marriage in a loo at their wedding reception - envisioning it to be a romantic setting when it was anything but. As she sets forth, hesitantly, on her sexual adventures/redemption, is she fooling herself, or her husband, or is she delusional, or full of faith? She certainly does not enjoy the sex. She is degraded, humiliated and victimized and meets a tragic end. Her husband recovers, presumably redeemed by her sacrifice.
A jagged stage set represents the jagged coast and sharp-edged lives of the residents (and the jumbled souls and psyches of the protagonists). The characters are trapped in a judgmental religious world, with clear rules and no mercy inside or outside the church. Bess is a small woman, as portrayed by Kiera Duffy, but with a large, clear voice, like the church bells that miraculously sound at the final curtain. A 15-piece orchestra conveys Mazzoli’s haunting and jagged score that captures the conflict, desperation and agony of Bess and Jan. A chorus, of 12 men, in soiled black overcoats and black hats, representing the church elders and Bess’s tormentors and assailants, were appropriately oppressive, unforgiving and menacing. The libretto was pared down and to the point. The staging was dramatic, and the voices were uniformly excellent. Kiera Duffy’s brave portrayal of Bess was riveting. She, and the opera, deserved the standing ovation the audience gave at the end.
Note: the author is a trustee of the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, which makes grants to Opera America, which funded the commission of this opera.
Halfdan Mahler, the former Director General of IPPF from 1988 to 1995, died on December 14, 2016 in Geneva. Dr. Mahler was formerly the Director of the World Health Organization and served there during the onset of the AIDS crisis from 1973-1988. I met Dr. Mahler at theInternational Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994. He was an imposing presence, at ease in the corridors of power and comfortable within the UN system of reaching consensus, even as he led IPPF in pushing for the recognition of the empowerment and rights of women in the final document. In addition to AIDS, Dr. Mahler focused on unsafe abortion as a scourge that must be eliminated. His leadership brought the IPPF Member Associations into uncharted (for some) territories of AIDS, abortion and the rights of women and he will be remembered for his firm vision and diplomacy that made it happen.
Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist is a crowd pleaser. On our first visit several weeks ago to the New Museum where her show, Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest, is up until January 15, 2017, the attendance was modest. Last week on our second visit, the line outside went around the block. Word had spread. The mostly Millennial hordes crowded the three floors of the museum devoted to the show, iPhones at the ready, posing, snapping, reviewing, re-posing, snapping again.
A viewer could walk through suspended sheets of sheer fabric on to which Rist projected videos. Or one could stick one’s head into a box to view another. Or one could lie on mattresses or cushions on the floor and take in the videos on the walls and ceiling. In another section, you had to walk through a forest of 300 glass LED light ornaments hanging from the ceiling, spaced maybe a foot apart. The idea was to slow down, be in the ornaments, observe the colors and pixels on the ornaments, make out the patterns, navigate carefully, not to disturb the hanging pendants, or, worse, crash them together. The visitors, being blithe New Yorkers and high-spirited Europeans - I heard at least a half dozen languages - were routinely knocking the glass lights into each other. A security guard told me that four pendants had been shattered that day, and it was only 2 pm. He routinely radios the curatorial staff and they come armed with replacements, stepladders and, presumably, a broom and dust pan. All part of the intended experience, I imagine. Breakable, elusive art. The fragility of life.
The Rist videos projected on walls and ceiling continue the theme and confuse. Are you, the observer, inside the body or outside? Underwater scenes, filmed in the Rhine, are surreal, bubbles and particles - of what? - abound. You are taken down narrow passages - are we in an artery, is this human skin we see and feel? Are the amoeba in the river or in us? Rist calls her art “glorification of the wonder of evolution”.
The installation envelopes with its dual screens surrounding you. You lie there not wanting to leave, yet conscious there is a waiting line. The accompanying music completes the envelopment. The experience takes you outside yourself and inside at the same time.
Audra McDonald, the star of Shuffle Along on Broadway, found herself pregnant last May, and, a month later, the show’s producers cancelled the remainder of the run, instead of bringing in another performer to take over her role. The producers had purchased an insurance policy from Lloyds, which reportedly covered them in case Ms. McDonald was unable to perform because of “accident or illness”. Putting aside whether the pregnancy was an “accident” (this will be litigated), is it an “illness”?
While there are laws and cases on this (one report says, “no“), a look back at perhaps the first case on this issue, involving my grandmother, Margaret Sanger, might be instructive.
One hundred years ago, on October 16, 1916, she opened America’s first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. After ten days, the police shuttered the clinic as being in violation of the Comstock Law, which prohibited a person “to sell, or give away, or to advertise or offer for sale, any instrument or article, drug or medicine, for the prevention of conception; or to give information orally, stating when, where or how such an instrument, article or medicine can be purchased or obtained.”
My grandmother freely admitted violating the law, as she dispensed birth control information to the women jamming her clinic, was convicted and was sentenced to 30 days in prison.
She appealed her conviction, an unusual step since she had admitted her guilt, and argued that what she had done was within the exception to the law, which stated: “An article or instrument, used or applied by physicians lawfully practicing, or by their direction or prescription, for the cure or prevention of disease, is not an article of indecent or immoral nature or use, within this article.”
The issue came down to, what is “disease”.
My grandmother argued that pregnancy was a “disease”.
The New York Court of Appeals in 1918 in Sanger v. New York first noted that my grandmother was a nurse and not a physician and thus was not covered by the exception.
Nonetheless, obviously in sympathy with what she was doing, the Court unanimously said:
“This exception in behalf of physicians does not permit advertisements regarding such matters, nor promiscuous advice to patients irrespective of their condition, but it is broad enough to protect the physician who in good faith gives such help or advice to a married person to cure or prevent disease. ‘Disease,’ by Webster’s International Dictionary, is defined to be, ‘an alteration in the state of the body, or of some of its organs, interrupting or disturbing the performance of the vital functions, and causing or threatening pain and sickness; illness; sickness; disorder’.”
My grandmother took this to mean that pregnancy was exactly that - an alteration in the state of the body, and an “illness”. She was thereafter free to open her birth control clinics, mostly unhindered by the law, though raids happened from time to time.
While insurance law and contract law are a world of their own, public policy, and dare I say common sense, can intrude, just as the NY Court of Appeals showed in 1918. Pregnancy is no walk in the park, or on stage. If the Lloyds policy didn’t specifically exclude pregnancy, shouldn’t they be on the hook?
The outcome of last week's election was heartbreaking, devastating, and shocking. It is clear that under this new administration, we will face renewed attacks on our mission.
But mark these words: We will never back down and will never stop providing the care our patients need. We have fought back countless attacks during our past 100 years, and our survival of each attack has made us stronger. We’re going to use that strength to fight in the coming days, months, and years – for the patients who rely on us and for our allies across progressive movements. #WeWontGoBack
In addition to the threats we anticipate to access to reproductive health care, we recognize the threats to the safety and dignity of people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ people—to our patients, our staff, our neighbors, and our communities. We cannot allow the acceptance of institutionalized racism, sexism, and discrimination to become our new normal. We will do everything in our power to fight this hatred.
What can you do right now if you care about Planned Parenthood of New York City and the communities we serve?Here are 5 ways to join us in action!
1. Continue to support our work
Our doors will continue to stay open to everyone, no matter what. Your support helps so much.
Donate to support Planned Parenthood of New York City: Our five health centers—one in each borough—are open, and they are continuing to deliver vital, high-quality reproductive health care. We have already seen a huge surge in appointments as New Yorkers are worried they may lose access to birth control. We will always be here for all New Yorkers, and your support helps.
Learn about Planned Parenthood NYC Votes. There has never been a time when it's more important to elect local officials who will fight for our access to sexual and reproductive rights. Planned Parenthood NYC Votes is a non-partisan organization committed to supporting local candidates who are leaders on sexual and reproductive health.
Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to stay in the loop on actions you can take to support us and our partners.
3. Speak Out Against Hate
Our patients include many of the groups that the Trump-Pence ticket targeted: immigrants, Muslims, and others. They are Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ. Planned Parenthood of New York City’s patients come from all walks of life, and they all deserve access to health care in a safe and welcoming place. Show that you believe every single person is deserving of respect, dignity, and equal rights under the law.
Today, we come together. Many of us with our loved ones and colleagues close wondering what the future holds. Many of us far away from home wondering if there is a place for us in the nation we love.
For more than 60 years, we have fought against discrimination, hate, and bigotry. And while that road has not always been easy, we have persevered. We have defied the odds and done the unthinkable.
Today, we feel how far we are from the world we imagine for ourselves, our communities, and our world. But we must heal because we have no choice. We must build on the work and dreams we have created together as a movement. We must recommit to our pledge to stand united, to continue to push for change and bring forward solutions.
Democracy requires our participation every single day. You stand by our side because you know what’s at stake. You stand by our side because you know women and girls deserve better. You stand by our side because you know the importance of making sure young people feel valued, loved, and supported to reach high. And now, we need you more than ever.
We are united, determined and strong. Dignity and equality must, and will, win. We can get there together.
With reproductive freedom in jeopardy, Alexander Sanger, grandson of renowned family planning advocate Margaret Sanger and a longtime leader in the reproductive rights movement, has taken an urgent, fresh look at the pro-choice position—and even the pro-life position—and finds them necessary, but insufficient. In Beyond Choice he offers the first major re-thinking of these positions in thirty years.
“Well researched and readable, Beyond Choice should be required reading for both pro-choice and pro-life supporters.” —Governor Christine Todd Whitman