The Lion


Photo Courtesy of Barnard College.

To celebrate DSpar’s time at Barnard as we prepare to say farewell to her, we look back at the advice and personal stories she imparted during our interview with her.

As many people know, you have a doctorate degree in government, but you are also in the board of directors of Goldman Sachs and also a college president. So, those are two positions not normally associated with government majors. So what inspired and led you to pursue such a different career path than the one you actually studied for?

Story of my life! Uhm, you know, nothing specific. I’m always saying to students, based on my own experience, I think people’s lives move in zigzags rather than linearly. I certainly know mine did. I wound up getting a PhD in government largely because I always had thought when I was younger that I was going to be a diplomat or a spy, but then I actually decided not to pursue those paths, so I stayed in academia, even though that wasn’t really what my original intent had been. I’ve just been lucky, and I think, at some level, innately curious. So when interesting things come along, even if they are somewhat peripheral to where I am at the moment, I’m always intrigued to take a look.

On the subject of research, one thing that I was really surprised to read about was that you’re one of the first people to start researching and writing about the economics of alternate fertility, which I thought was kind of surprising. I’m interested to hear a little bit about that. What struggles did you face in the beginning when you decided to research this topic? Have you ever considered teaching a class at Barnard about that topic?

So this is a very specific, not all that interesting, story. Before I did that research, I read a book called “Rolling Waves,” which was on cycles of technological discovery. The book was really initially about trying to understand how the internet was likely to play out politically. My research has always looked to the intersection between business and politics.

So, I was working on the internet space, but the argument I made wound up having everything to do with these cycles of discovery, and when I was giving lectures about that book, which was in 2001-2002, inevitably, I would always get the same question, which was “Okay, what’s the next great technology that’s going to set off another wave of market creation?” And for about a year, I didn’t have an answer to that question, and then I figured I probably needed to get one, so I started looking around. I became increasingly convinced that the next sector that was going to have innovation big enough that was going to create a market, was going to be biotech. So, I spent about a year or so doing research about the biotech sector. This was early 2000s now, and I came to see that biotech wasn’t quite there yet; arguably, it probably is now, but it’s now 12 years later. 2003, it wasn’t, but almost by accident, I kind of discovered the world of assisted reproduction, and I was fascinated by it.

I hadn’t known anything about it, I didn’t go through it myself, but two things struck me as soon as I kind of saw what was happening. The first one was this was just inherently interesting, that people had been making babies the same way for millions of years, and all of a sudden, they are making babies a different way. That’s just cool! The second thing– and at this point I had been in Harvard Business School for 15 years–was that this was the first business I ever encountered where nobody was acknowledging that they were in a business. So generally, when you talk to business people, they brag about their business: “I’m making lots of money. You know, we have great market share.” In the fertility industry and years in the industry, everybody goes out of their way to tell you that they are not in business. The reporter in me that said somebody has to tell this story, and that’s how I winded up doing it. And I don’t teach a class, I teach a little piece of a class. There is a class here on science and public policy, and I do the fertility piece of that. I wish I had the time to teach a class because I’d really like to.

Would you want to? Do you think that you can have a class on this?

Yeah! You know, I taught some things about it back at Harvard Business School. I’ve just decided I can do my job, and I can either write or teach, but I can’t do both. So, I’ve decided to just stick with the writing and just teach a little team, that’s for better or worse.

Photo Courtesy of Steven DeCanio.

Photo Courtesy of Steven DeCanio.

Okay, so now, going off that, in your most recent book, I believe, “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection,” you addressed this idea that women still feel a pressure to strive for perfection and the problems resulting from that kind of thought. So, as president of an all-women’s college, how do you address what could be considered a vicious cycle of women trying to strive for this perfection among the student body here? And do you still feel like this challenge should be perfect, still?

Yeah, I think women in particular feel additional pressure to be perfect in lots and lots of different aspects of their lives. I see women today trying to be really successful in their careers, and at the same time, be wonderful wives, be wonderful mothers, be very sexy, look like models, be great athletes, and save the world. I think that pressure really winds up being a great obstacle for women because if your expectation is that you’re going to be perfect at everything, then by definition, you’re going to fail. And so I try to get that message out as best as I can without hitting my students over the head with it because I don’t see that as my role.

How have your experiences working at Goldman Sachs and Harvard Business School influenced your philosophy in leading Barnard, and how have those experiences impacted your development of The Athena Center for Leadership Studies?

Okay, I’m going to talk about HBS and not Goldman. You know, HBS is a complicated place, but it’s a well-run place, and I think I was very lucky to have spent such a large chunk of my career there and to have worked with older mentors who really went out of their way to give me a lot of experience. So, I worked for a dean who promoted me into a senior social dean position, pretty much right after I had tenure. And he was a great manager and a great dean, so I learned a lot from watching him. And of course, Barnard is a fundamentally different place from Harvard Business School, but managing a complicated enterprise is the same endeavor, regardless where it takes place, so I think I was lucky to be able to sort of watch management from a close place that doesn’t do everything right by every stretch of imagination, but it’s pretty well run: it has good policies, it’s transparent, people feel involved. So, that was a lucky thing for me.

What are some of your next long term goals for Barnard?

Well, we’re in an interesting moment right now because we’ve put a lot of initiatives. We completed the planning for a lot of initiatives last year, so we’re really in a sort of implementation moment right now. So, everything is ready for the new building, we just have to build it. We also spent lots of time last year thinking about transgender applications or transgender admissions, and now we have to figure out the fine details of that.

Photo Courtesy of Barnard College.

Photo Courtesy of Barnard College.

We wrote a strategic plan about 4-5 years ago, so no we’re implementing it. You know, I think in many ways, my greatest goal for Barnard is the one that the board laid out for me when I arrived, which was to elevate the college. Barnard is a wonderful place, it really is. But I see my role as being to make sure that anyone who might want to come here knows about the college, to make sure that if there is a smart young woman in Mississippi or Mumbai, Barnard is on her radar screen. So, we’re doing a lot to get the word out around Barnard. After that, it’s really to make Barnard the best Barnard it could possibly be, which I think means — we have a wonderful faculty, making sure that we retain that faculty, we have great students. We make sure we get exactly the students we want, and we do well by them. And then, as always, for any high rated institution these days, we have to make sure that we have the resources to do what we want to do, and that’s hard, but we’re getting there. I shouldn’t say we’re getting there, but we’ve had a lot of success in the past few years. Once people hear the Barnard story and understand it, they want to support it, so I just need to keep getting the word out.

So do you also plan to have more events? I think last year I remember seeing there was an event that happened for Barnard in Los Angeles. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Yes, it’s in the strategic plan which you can find on our website that we really want to expand the college’s reach and reputation. Part of that is doing Barnard events where there are interested Barnard people. We have the local symposium series now, so once a year we do a big event in another part of the world, which has been great for the college in many respects. We also experimented last year in LA, just having a fund raising gala in another part of the country, and it was terrific because the Barnard alumnae here in New York have a lot of opportunity to do Barnard things. The Barnard alumnae in LA don’t have that many opportunities, and they tend to be very devoted alumnae, and it’s just fun. People really had a good time at the gala, so we’re definitely going to repeat that. We’re doing more in the San Francisco Bay area, around Barnard in tech, building communities of our alumnae who are going into the tech fields. We’re really starting to look into some partnerships that will help us make sure that more young women stay in computer science, learn how to code, and those efforts probably will be entering in the Bay area.

Okay, that’s cool. So, it’s exciting to see Barnard expanding around the world.

Yeah, we’re getting there!

Kind of a vague question, but what advice would you give to women who are breaking into what is normally perceived as a male dominated field, like finance, government, or college presidencies?

That’s a good question. You know, I think the advice I’d give to young women is pretty much the same I’d give to any young person or any person. Anytime you’re going to be in a high-pressure environment, anytime you’re trying to make a way in a field–particularly if it’s a field that’s dominated by men or dominated by people who look different than you or dominated by people with different backgrounds–you got to be really good at what you do. I was on a panel last week with Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi, and she was just describing how she’s constantly pushed into a corner and ignored. You could probably find it online because I don’t remember exactly what she said, and what she said was great. It was something like, “I just understood that I was going to be the best in the room, and at some point, they were going to have to come to me because I could do a better job than anyone else.” That’s a pretty good lesson to live by. So you don’t get by in anything by putting your hand up and saying, “Look at me, look at me, I’m the best.” Ultimately, success comes from actually being the best or being really good at what you do.

I like that. Okay, and then last question: what advice would you give to current students uncertain about what they want to do after college?

Don’t worry about it. I was supposed to be a spy; it didn’t work out. I have had a perfectly nice life. You know, life is going to throw you curve balls, so do not waste time in college worrying about what you’re going to do when you grow up. Most people I know my age don’t know what they’re going to do when they grow up, so take that off the worry buffet, as I say. You know, have a good time, learn stuff, have as many experiences as you can, and don’t spend too much time worrying about the next steps; they will happen.

I like it, it’s perfect. Thank you so much for sitting down with me. It’s just really exciting. I learnt a lot.

My pleasure!

Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus.

The demon barber of Fleet Street has arrived in New York, and he’s come with a vengeance. With performances starting on February 14th, the Tooting Arts Club Production of Sweeney Todd has opened off-Broadway after previously playing in London. In following the style of the London production, which was hosted inside of Harrington’s Pie shop, the team has completely redecorated the Barrow Street Theatre in a similar fashion.

Indeed, upon entering the small theatre, one goes from a standard entrance into what looks and feels like an actual pie shop. This experience is intensified with a special addition: the option to purchase a pre-show pie and mash. Best of all, the pie and mash is created by none other than owner of The Perfect Pie company and former White House pastry chef, Bill Yosses. The pies come out hot and fresh and were a fantastic experience as audience members get ready for the show.

“Whatever pie you like, he will make it, and it will be the best pie you have ever eaten.” – President Barack Obama. Photo courtesy of Sweeney Todd NYC.

“Whatever pie you like, he will make it, and it will be the best pie you have ever eaten.” – President Barack Obama. Photo courtesy of Sweeney Todd NYC.

As quick as Yosses dishes out his signature pies, the pie shop quickly switches into performance mode as the actors begin mingling with the audience and preparing to take over the kitchen.

After clearing customer dishes, the lights dim and the actors get ready to start the show. For this production, the orchestra is pared down to the bare necessities: a piano, a violin, and a clarinet. Even though they were small in number, the orchestra performed beautifully, adding the perfect musical flair that helped to convey the tones of any given scenes.

The show’s interactive format worked fantastically with this Sondheim classic: actors walk along pie shop tables and are entering the theatre from numerous entrances. From the start, the viewer feels as if they themselves have been thrust into the lives of these character struggling to seek revenge and find love in an unforgiving world. In this musical thriller, Sweeney Todd (formerly Benjamin Barker) is a loving husband and father and professional barber until a Judge Turpin, enamored with his wife, sends him off to Australia. Upon his return several years later, he learns his daughter, Johanna, is a ward of the Judge and, after finding his old shaving razors, enacts a plan with nearby pie show owner, Mrs. Nellie Lovett, to kill many of his customers and turn them into pies as he waits to seek revenge on the Judge that ruined his life. Indeed, the show represents many of these horrific scenes with a stunning combination of music and lighting in order to showcase the power of the characters and add significance to the scenes in which these people–who have their own lives and experiences–are turned into cheap pies sold to anyone.

Within the show, the actors themselves phenomenally portray the characters they play. In particular, Siobhán McCarthy plays her character Mrs. Lovett astonishingly well as she effortlessly develops the character from a optimistic pie shop owner to a woman clearly gone mad, clinging at anything she can to keep her devious plan with Todd alive. 

Jeremy Secomb and Siobhan McCarthy star as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett respectively in the production of Sweeney Todd at the Barrow Street Theatre. (© Joan Marcus)

Jeremy Secomb and Siobhán McCarthy star as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett respectively in this New York City production of Sweeney Todd. Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus.

Her performance is equally matched by Jeremy Secomb, who drives fear into even the audience in his chilling take on Todd. Within every scene he appears, Secomb quite easily asserts his character’s dominance in the theatre while also beautifully revealing the complex layers of Todd, a man heartbroken over the loss of his family yet driven by anger and blood hungry revenge.

With its intimate environment, phenomenal casting, and great pie to boot, this show is one that every person should run and see.

Tickets to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street can be purchased at sweeneytoddnyc.com with tickets currently being sold through August 13th.

                                Image via DailyMail

That now infamous mess-up at the Oscars literally made my heart stop.

For some context, I had been anxiously awaiting 7pm all day. I stayed up late the night before, I finished all my work, I showered and ate dinner– nothing was going to come in my way of Hollywood’s most important night. As movie lovers will understand, the Oscars are the Superbowl of all things entertainment. And you don’t miss the Superbowl.

The night was going very well. I thought Jimmy Kimmel was an extremely tasteful host with a nice balance of political (but non-offensive) jokes and your average dig at Matt Damon. At one point, he even surprised a real LA tour group with a trip to the Oscars, a move which had me cursing my parents for planning our family vacation to LA at the completely wrong time. There hadn’t been any real surprises of the night by the time we got to Best Picture, with Emma Stone and Casey Affleck taking home the night’s top acting prizes, Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis taking supporting actor awards, and La La Land’s Damien Chazelle becoming the youngest person ever to win Best Director (he’s 32, even though you might think from first glance that he’s 15). Even though Lin-Manuel Miranda lost the Best Song award he so clearly deserved, the night went on pretty much without a hitch– until Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway took the stage to announce the night’s most coveted award, Best Picture.

From the start, Best Picture was really the only contended race of the night. La La Land was the early favorite, but Moonlight had recently begun to clean up at award shows, which left many wondering if it would steal the Oscar at the last minute. Plus, with all the backlash from last year’s #OscarsSoWhite, could the Academy really get away with awarding its top prize to an all-white film over an all-black one? Would they dare?

So when Dunaway announced La La Land as the winner, everyone took in a breath of confused emotions: Did Moonlight ever really have a chance? La La Land was great, but I guess I was kind of hoping for an upset. Is this racist? Am I happy right now? And then, when Oscar producers stormed the stage and we saw Emma Stone gasp and mouth the words “oh my god,” it was a whole different range of emotions entirely: Holy crap, did they say the wrong name? Holy crap, did La La Land not win? Holy crap, this is so awkward and uncomfortable for everyone involved. HOLY CRAP.

Okay, maybe that was a little specific to my thoughts, but you get the picture. Next thing we knew, the poor producers of La La Land had to stop in the middle of their speeches and announce that in fact Moonlight had won, and then we all sat uncomfortably, not knowing how to feel, as the Moonlight crew took the stage and gave their own speeches. Luckily, Jimmy Kimmel was again extremely suave, jokingly taking full responsibility for the blunder and easing the tension. But holy crap, was that a way to end.

I’ve always looked up to the Oscars, as has anyone who’s ever dreamed of working in the entertainment industry. It’s the ultimate goal, the final sign that you’ve made it. It’s glittery dresses and fancy sets and funny hosts and golden trophies– it’s literally the night at the ball that every Cinderella dreams of. So it was a shock for everyone watching this year to find out that, in fact, the Academy Awards are not perfect. They are run by human beings– accountants who, like anyone else, could accidentally give Warren Beatty the wrong envelope. Famous actresses like Faye Dunaway could ramble off the name from a card which was clearly wrong, and just like that the magic of the night is lost.

I think, really, that my heart stopped that night because I was struck with this reality for the first time as well. Despite being twenty years old, I still thought the Oscars were a glittery and perfect night at the ball. Obviously, the Oscars remain a (likely untenable) dream, but this past Sunday, some of the ethereality and perfection dissipated. Now, when I look at the industry I dream of going into, I am reminded of its humanity, and that pushes me to work harder, but in a different way than I did before. Instead of striving for perfection, I’ve realized I have to strive for realness.

And, honestly, maybe that’s for the better.

The Must-Binge List: It’s flu season, so if you’re stuck in bed for a couple of days, try out Netflix’s Grace and Frankie: a comedy about two older couples who divorce upon discovering that the two men have been having a secret affair for years. It’s hilariously written and has an all-star cast (Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, AND Sam Waterston!!) Check out the first two seasons online! My grade: A-

 

Photo courtesy of The Varsity Show.

The Varsity Show is Columbia’s annual student-led, theatre performance that is the one of the biggest hits of the Spring semester. This year will mark the Show’s 123rd performance, and its purpose serves to be both “subversive and sentimental,” as per its mission statement.

During the “West End Preview,” I was able to catch a sneak peek of some portions of the Show; it absolutely lived up to the hype! It captured the #struggles of a Columbia student, from being stuck in an EC wall to our fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude that dominates campus culture.

Photo courtesy of The Varsity Show.

Photo courtesy of The Varsity Show.

Because the songs and acts were performed out of context, I was unable to decipher the plot of the show, though I did discover some nuances that will give an insight into the 123rd Varsity Show.

The Show featured the head of Public Safety not only as a pseudo narrator for the audience, but also as the main instigator of mischief and chief critic of Columbia’s administration. The most detailed act of the preview revolved around a newly admitted General Studies student. Besides being ~20 years older than the rest of Columbia’s undergraduate population, there was very little to separate him from a typical first-year. As he falls in love with Columbia’s perks–from Tom’s Diner to Surf ‘n Turf–he quickly realizes that all is not well with Columbia.

Unfortunately, that’s where the preview ended! I hope this information gives you a little taste of the hilariously exciting preview I had a chance to watch. The 123rd Varsity Show will perform from April 28th to 30th. Hope to see you there!

Emily Nussbaum is a television critic for The New Yorker. With her analytic and sharp pieces of television criticism across various genres, Nussbaum has made an impressive name for herself. Since becoming The New Yorker’s television critic in 2011, Nussbaum has won two national awards, the National Magazine Award in 2014 and the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2016. She has written about a multitude of TV shows including “Mad Men,” “Scandal,” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” The Pulitzer Prize website characterizes Emily Nussbaum’s work as “television reviews written with an affection that never blunts the shrewdness of her analysis or the easy authority of her writing.”

President Lee C. Bollinger and Emily Nussbaum

President Lee C. Bollinger and 2016 Criticism Prize Winner Emily Nussbaum

I had the honor of interviewing Ms. Nussbaum in October. Nervously I asked Emily Nussbaum the first question I had prepared.

“Did you always know you wanted to write?”

Nonchalantly she responded, “Well I wrote in college.” She was a creative writing major at Oberlin College. She later did her master’s in poetry at NYU. “I always knew I wanted to write, just wasn’t sure how exactly, but I knew I wanted to write,” Nussbaum told me.

My next question proceeded naturally. “Did you ever imagine yourself as a television critic?”

“Not really,” Nussbaum replied. Emily Nussbaum went on to tell me she became very interested in television in the late 90s, when “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” aired. She told me that was a transformative time and a very transformative show. She filled her passion for television through various mediums. At Television Without Pity, she was involved (although distantly) in vehement debates and “wild” discussions that they held about television content. Nussbaum told me she would mostly write about academic issues while she pursed a graduate degree. She later got a job at Slate, but only wrote about TV when something truly interested her. She began to focus more on television at New York Magazine, where she was a writer and Culture Editor for seven years. From there, she went on to her current role, as the New Yorker’s television critic.

“Slowly television criticism has become a more respected arts medium,” Nussbaum told me as I asked how people reacted when they found out she was a television critic. Ms. Nussbaum said that at the turn of the century, with shows like “West Wing” and “The Wire,” television criticism became a more sought after enterprise.

I followed up the response with asking how she felt since winning the Pulitzer and what had changed. Nussbaum openly said, “I was more nervous than anything at first.” With increased visibility, Nussbaum told me, she felt her pieces were in more scrutiny. “After a couple more articles, however, I went back to my normal work,” Nussbaum added.

In recent years, television has been changing. Nussbaum reminded me, however, that television on Netflix or on cable was the same fundamentally.

“TV has changed, yes, but just the visual medium, TV remains TV.” Nussbaum qualified her response, saying that Netflix has provided different ways of viewing television, with the recent addition of the “binge watch” into our television culture, and these changes do come with required new forms of adjustment. These changes are not entirely unprecedented, she stated, as she brought to my attention the shift that DVR caused, as people could now suddenly record and pause shows, and thus alter the traditional viewing experience.

For those who might want to pursue a similar career as Nussbaum, I asked her if she had any advice to give to young people. Her response was quite simple, “Things are changing so much. I would recommend talking to an editor, and asking him/her how the current conditions are predicted to be for the specific field one wishes to pursue.” Nussbaum offered more of her knowledge, saying that one of the most important ways of moving up in journalism was developing strong relationship with editors. “Demonstrating your passion for the work you do is always important,” Nussbaum highlighted. She warned, though, to make sure one checks in to see what job opportunities may be available before becoming fixed to a specific career path.

As the interview was coming to a close, I threw out the last question.

“What is a piece that you are most proud of?”

Nussbaum responded confidently, “I wrote a piece about ‘Sex and the City’ that I really liked.” She went on to say that in this piece she explored how comedy could be held at the same level as drama. “It was more of a statement piece,” she mentioned. Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post summarized this piece as, “an essay arguing that ‘Sex and the City’ was just as important as ‘The Sopranos’ in expanding the idea of what was possible on television.” Nussbaum discussed how pieces that challenge her and “don’t come natural” are her favorite work overall. Expanding on the question, Nussbaum said that work that created conversations and developed a relationship with her audience often offered the most satisfaction.

Emily Nussbaum has been a trailblazer in her field, helping raise television criticism to prominence. Nussbaum is the second television critic in almost 28 years to have won the Pulitzer. Examples of her work can be found here.

As the new semester begins, The Lion will be spending some time in Uniquely Human on other people — how we interact with them, how they interact with us, and how those interactions shape our personality. This is the first column in our new series.

Columbia students spend a lot of time in elevators. Imagine – you step into an empty elevator on the top floor of a building. As you descend, one, two, even three people walk into the elevator, an experience so typical you hardly notice. But this time as they enter, something curious happens.

After walking in the elevator, each person faces the back instead of turning around to face the front doors. While one person doing this may go unnoticed, after two or three people perform this strange action you too turn around to face the back.

Although your instinct may be to resist that ending to the story, from its origin on Candid Camera in the 1950s, through multiple scientific studies the result is always the same — the majority of people will adopt the new social norm.

This action of changing your behavior to adapt to those around you is called social referencing, and for decades, its powerful sway over social activities has been confirmed in sociological and psychological studies. That people would adapt their behavior to their social situations is not itself revolutionary, although the extent to which people adopt ‘non-logical’ behaviors to fit in a new social norm can often be humorous.

The truly controversial idea is a much newer one, and comes out of modern neuroscience: not only do you change your external behaviors to adjust to a new social environment, your core personality adjusts to fit with a new social reality.

This brain re-wiring can perhaps paradoxically be best illustrated by when the system goes wrong. Have you ever flinched when you have seen someone get hit in a particularly painful location, or felt warm when you have seen two people hug? Now imagine if instead of experiencing a vague sense of those feelings, you physically felt every sensation you saw in someone else. Every touch is replicated on your arm, with every swallow you see you feel the food slither down your throat, and the pain of another sharply becomes your own.

This condition is called mirror-touch synesthesia, and it is one of the most common synesthesias –  an estimated 1.5% of the population experiences the world this way. While the physical aspects of this disorder are fascinating and deserve their own column, where it really gets interesting is in how synesthetes experience emotional reactions.

In a number of mirror-touch synesthetes, the act of seeing someone respond emotionally causes a mirrored emotional response. Because they can acutely feel the happiness, sadness, anguish of the people around them, it can become incredibly difficult for mirror-touch synesthetes to distinguish their own emotions from the emotions of those around them. They find themselves disappearing into others.

As is common in neuroscience, observing such an extreme example of a system going wrong teaches us about how the system should work under normal circumstances. One possible explanation comes from mirror neurons. Discovered a little over a decade ago in monkeys and recently in humans, mirror neurons are cells located in parts of the brain corresponding to sensation and motor activity.

Unlike other cells nearby, these special mirror neurons fire identically both when they are performing an activity, like processing touch or moving your arm, and when observing someone else do the same task. While the purpose of these neurons is still speculative, there is evidence of their role in subconscious mimicry, empathy, self-awareness, and even theory of mind.

Of course, when a typical human observes other people, they don’t acutely feel those external sensations in the same way. That is because there are other inhibitory neurons ‘downstream’ of the mirror neurons, which stop you from acting on their firing. It’s likely that in mirror-touch synesthetes, that ‘turn off’ signal does not get sent, or the original signal from mirror neurons is so strong that it cannot be turned off.

So while mirror neurons might allow us all to understand each other at low levels of activity, cranking their response up causes people to in some ways become other people. Mirror touch synesthetes brings a normally subconscious process to the surface, and they raise some interesting questions in the process.

If we’re somehow experiencing the actions and emotions of other people within our own minds on a subconscious level, do these ‘outside’ factors become a part of us? Do we correspondingly change parts of our core personalities in response? We will seek to explore these very questions in the next column.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and Isabel Leonard as Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

 

Valentine’s Day didn’t go so well? Did Ferris again disappoint? Don’t worry, Werther’s day was equally abysmal.

The Met opened this season’s production of Jules Massenet’s Werther on Thursday night. The Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo stars in the title role and the American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard invigorates Charlotte, Werther’s love.

This production, led by Sir Richard Eyre, is mostly identical to the Met’s Werther of 2014. There is even one prominent holdover in the cast: David Bizic again gave a convincing performance as Albert, Charlotte’s husband. However, I noted small changes. For example, Werther in his opening nature aria does not address the looming statue of Charlotte’s deceased mother to as great of an extent. 

The dominant theme of nature’s attractive force is established in Werther’s entrance in Act 1. Here, Werther sings about the beauty of the brook, the coolness of the shade, and the vibrancy of the bursting flowers. His imploring hand movements and facial expressions convey his utter devotion to nature, reflecting wise choreography decisions by Sara Erde. Looming in the back and foreground are long, drooping branches and shadows of linden trees,  which connote nature’s omnipresent power.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role of Massenet's Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role of Massenet’s Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

One of Massenet’s major plot defects is the establishment of Werther’s and Charlotte’s relationship. In the opera, Werther declares his love for Charlotte in Act 1’s clair de lune scene. Later, during Charlotte’s Act 3 letter episode, Werther implores her to remember their times spent together, “Here’s the harpsichord that sang of my joy and trembled with my pain as your voice joined in with mine.” The impression is that Werther and Charlotte completely fall for each other after only one meeting. While this is not uncommon in opera, it does not correspond with Goethe’s original text.

To reconcile the plot hiccup, the prelude could be repurposed. Instead of emphasizing the mother’s death, which feels out of place in context of the work’s focus, Werther and Charlotte could be shown making music at the harpsichord, laughing while playing silly games and crouching excitedly over books—mouthing words to each others’ eager ears. These scenes would occur behind a grey, translucent curtain—hinting at the memories of a blossoming love. In so doing, the Met would give more substance to the lovers’ devotion.

Yes, this addition would disrupt a sense of linear time. However, establishing their relationship is more important to the work than a preservation of a continuous narrative arc.

Eyre stages Acts 1 and 2 with receding, left-tilting rectangles. These outlines disorientate the viewer: Eyre wants his audience to feel Werther’s internal anguish. He achieves a similar effect with Werther’s chamber in Act 4, which looms over the preceding act’s library. Since it is a smaller, intimate space than the prior act’s, it conveys actual and psychological distance.

The choreography during the clair de lune scene effectively communicates Charlotte’s attempts to detach herself from Werther. Werther bends his whole body toward Charlotte, slowly bringing his hand to her shoulder. Charlotte keeps her back to him, afraid of his transformative, dark allure.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and Isabel Leonard as Charlotte in Massenet's Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and Isabel Leonard as Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Scenes like these make us empathize with Charlotte. Charlotte is tortured by love, torn between her love for Werther and the promise she made to her mother to marry Albert. Werther is oblivious to the conflict he is inflicting upon her. For instance, when she says she must honor her mother’s dying wish, Werther responds by expressing his desire to “keep these [her] eyes all to myself, this charming face, this adorable mouth,” – in essence completely ignoring her problems.

Despite Massenet’s labeling of the opera as a drame lyrique, hints of opéra comique surface. Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister, twirls around the stage with a little origami bird – a light blossom intruding on the work’s dark aura. Anna Christy’s performance as Sophie exuded the necessary optimism, but her vibrato and voice presence were too great for the light, jovial role. And, Maurizio Muraro as Le Bailli, Charlotte’s father, brought a Santa Claus-like boisterousness to the role.

In the second act, Massenet plays a musical joke with the drunken characters Johann and Schmidt, who blasphemously sing their praises of Bacchus while outside a church. Spelled out – Johann, Schmidt, Bacchus (J.S.B.) – their tune sounds positively Bachian. These characters were enlivened with besotted revelry by Philip Cokorinos and Tony Stevenson.

Leonard imbued her Act 3 letter aria – “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes!” (Go! Let flow my tears!) – with the appropriate pathos. Each of her notes was conceived with careful thought, dripping with the despair of Charlotte’s streaming tears. Leonard understood that a trembling, vulnerable quality was needed here, not a powerful, confident bravado.

That being said, she still knew how to excite a powerful, Met-Opera-Hall-enveloping sound when she needed to. An example was her crescendoing line, “The emptiness is too great. Nothing can fill it (the heart)…” Here, Charlotte is overwhelmed by her love for Werther, longing for him to comfort her overflowing heart.

I wish Leonard’s diction was a little clearer in parts of her solo, especially when she sang high in her range. The upper register’s vowel-sounds sometimes sounded over-modified, which distorted their meaning.

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Isabel Leonard as Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

The saxophone obbligato during Charlotte’s aria did not express the meaning of the libretto. With its contrapuntal, legato line, the saxophone represents Charlotte’s undulating internal tears set against the outpouring of her external ones. To capture the solemn sentiment, faltering yet directionally-aware phrases veiled by a subtle vibrato are requisite. However, the saxophonist’s performance was too loud, without any vibrato, and strictly in time. I recognize that orchestral players are demanded to reach the back of the hall with good, quality sound, however, this sonic goal must always exude the correct character.

Despite the saxophonist’s decisions, the Met Orchestra, led by Edward Gardner, gave a stellar performance. During Charlotte and Werther’s dialogue in Act 2, I watched as Gardner carefully followed their accelerating movements, surging the orchestra to follow suit. Earlier in the same act, there appeared to be a slight synchronization problem with Albert’s solo, but it was quickly resolved.

The orchestral interlude between Acts 3 and 4 was dynamic: trombones, trumpets, and bassoons soared a foreboding, accented triplet figure, foreshadowing Werther’s impending demise. Here, the brass and woodwinds, even after well-over two hours of playing, remained pointed and energized.

Shortly after Charlotte’s tearful epistolary grief in Act 3, Werther storms on stage for his anticipated Christmas arrival. He beseeches Charlotte to remember their pleasant evenings together. Partly to assuage herself and partly to distract Werther, Charlotte gives him the Ossian poetry that he was translating. Grasping it in his hand, Werther begins his, “Pourquoi me réveiller,” aria.

“Pourquoi” was spectacular. Grigolo approached the phrasing – especially the repeated three-eighth-notes rhythmic unit – with an organic sense of time that vitalized his singing. Propelling from these eighth-note figures, Grigolo leaped to emotionally-gripping summits—pleading, shaking, desperately grabbing his audience’s hearts. His solo was rightfully met with an uninterrupted minute of enthusiastic applause and raucous bravos.

During his final bows, Grigolo ripped opened the top buttons of his blood-stained, satin shirt, gesturing with large, circular arm motions stemming from his heart and whirling toward us. Pink bouquets were tossed like footballs by an enraptured concert-goer in the front row.

Two tenor titans within three years for Massenet’s take on The Sorrows of Young Werther: The Met has a lot to be proud of.

Massenet’s Werther runs through March 9, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live March 4, at 1:00 PM, on WQXR 105.9FM. Information and ticket listings (including student and same-day rush tickets) can be found online at metopera.org

In an email to students earlier today, Columbia Housing has announced that all housing prices will be flattened to a single rate – $9,292 – beginning next year for all upper-class residence halls. With this change, students will no longer have to decide on a building based on its cost. The change is still pending approval from Columbia’s Board of Trustees, but is likely to be approved.

The Lion has reached out to Barnard Housing to see if they plan to adopt the same pricing structure.

The full email can be found below:

Dear Students,

In response to your feedback, we are happy to announce that Columbia Housing will be changing our rates to provide for a simpler and fairer cost structure, beginning with the 2017-18 Academic Year.

Following the model of our first-year residences, all upper-class residence halls will be one rate: $9,292.*

With this new rate structure, lottery and class standing become the only determining factors in selecting a residence hall. This will allow you to choose housing based on where and with whom you want to live, not what you can afford. Additionally, with the new rate, the majority of students who live in our residence halls will see a lower average housing cost over their four years at Columbia versus the previous system.

Visit the Columbia Housing website for more information about the new rate structureplanned renovations, or Room Selection. If you have additional questions or concerns, please contact our team at housing@columbia.edu.

Best Regards,

Joyce E. Jackson
Executive Director
Columbia Housing

*Please note that this is the anticipated 2017-18 rate. Final rates are subject to approval by the Board of Trustees in June.

Courtesy of Unsplash.com

This week, I told my friend I was going to make my next column about something even better than sex. To which she responded, “So… like…orgasms??” No, dear friend, no more blatantly risqué pieces… at least not this week.

This week’s column discusses self-love. Self-love is arguably better than sex. If you have self-love, technically, you really don’t need anything else. Realists who have studied International Relations would agree.

These realists believe that states are the main power players in international politics. They argue that the world is an anarchical system, in which no single authoritative power can enforce laws so as to protect one state from another. Realists believe states institute a “self-help” doctrine. This doctrine suggests that states rely on their own resources and capabilities to protect their own sovereignty, with the ultimate goal of survival or sovereignty.

I think people should be more like the states in realists’ theories. Simply put, we need to stop hating ourselves. If you hate yourself, you inevitably cannot protect yourself from the world you must reside in. Once you recognize your own resourcefulness and capabilities, you take your first steps towards implementing a “self-help” doctrine of sorts. Only in seeing and utilizing your own value can you survive external threats.

These external threats are undeniable constants of our every day life. Sometimes you are choked by the guilt at the bottom of an ice cream tub, or you wrestle with unprecedented loneliness that you just can’t quite satiate. Sometimes great loves come to an undesired end, blinding you with remorse. On the other hand… sometimes you are ahead of all of your assignments, or you are unashamedly doing nothing and enjoying the sweet reprieve of relaxation. Sometimes you find a jewel of a person who makes your cheeks hurt from grinning and is steadfast in their friendship, unable to be scared off by trivial anxieties.

However, in all of these examples, there is only one main character. That is a creative way of saying, no one is going to be able to experience these events in exactly the same way as you, and therefore no one is going to be able to protect you from them except yourself. Your only strategic move is to love yourself first. Focusing inward on your development will yield progress with time, inevitably giving you the strength to deal with the bullshit that surrounds you.

I know I sound cheesy, but let’s look back at our realist state model. Alliances break, economies crash, victories are won, and sometimes people learn how to get along. But states only survive because they work through their domestic problems first, and then begin to tackle their international ones. Colloquially: weak states usually get crushed in international politics. Sure, other actors influence an individual state’s development, but ultimately it boils down to that state’s innate ability to survive the unique circumstances it has been placed in.

Self-love, or self-help, or whatever you want to call it, is the beginning. It is the first defensive move in international politics, the first step towards survival, and the first step on the journey to progress.

Well, friends, it’s been a hell of a week. Last Thursday, I accidentally scheduled two super important meetings for the same time and had to reschedule. On Friday, I lost my wallet and found myself stranded at a downtown grocery store with bags of chicken I could no longer pay for. Add all that to the typical CU/BC student stress-level and I’m sure you can imagine how I was feeling on Sunday, when I finally sat down to watch my beloved Jane the Virgin.

[If you’re a fan of Jane’s (as well you should be) and have not yet watched the past two episodes, stop reading now. I repeat: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.]

For those of you who did watch, though, you’ll know that last week, the evil writers of television’s smartest comedy killed off Michael, Jane’s beloved, wonderful, sweet, cute, all-around-amazing husband. They were married for all of a few months, after they finally got back together at the end of last season and he survived a gunshot to the chest. And then, this happened.

I waited for the next week’s episode to cast judgement. Despite my heartbreak (and I’m talking literal crying on the subway), I still had hope that Jane the Virgin’s smart, funny writers wouldn’t let me down. The show had always been a satire of a telenovela, so I figured they might use this plot twist in a satirical, funny way to revamp the show’s lighthearted nature. (Of course, this was after I read countless interviews with the producer which assured me Michael was actually dead, because for a long time I was really hoping this was all just some kind of sick joke).

So, last Sunday, I turned on my computer, hoping desperately for another lighthearted episode to put me in a better mood. But I was disappointed. Instead, it was three years later, and Jane suddenly had a new life with her son Mateo and her baby daddy Rafael. Michael was gone, Jane was fine, Mateo was fine, Rafael was fine– everyone was FREAKIN’ FINE. And here I was, staring at the screen helplessly, desperately crying for Michael to come on screen and remind everyone that it was NOT FINE. The show had lost its sweetest, most genuine character, and they thought they could just move on? Skip ahead three years as if their fans weren’t still reeling from the loss of their number one guy?

Now, maybe I’m a little bit more invested than your average TV watcher. From day one, I’d always been Team Michael (Rafael is hot and all, but he was no match for Michael’s love for Jane). He made me cry, he made me laugh, and he felt so genuine that I found myself falling in love with him too. I saw traits in him I see in the people I love in real life, and in the hilarious but non-believable satire that was Jane the Virgin, he often felt like the only real person on the show. He had faults, but they weren’t overly dramatic, like the embezzlement cases Rafael was swept up in, or the premise that Jane was accidentally artificially inseminated. Michael was a normal guy, desperately in love with a woman, living a normal life.

As I watched this week’s episode, my heart ached for the one vein of normalcy I had experienced in this show. I cried for Jane’s sorrow, but I also cried because I felt the show had lost something– and I fear it’s something they can never get back.

The Must-Binge List: This week, I encourage you to watch Amazon’s new original series, Z: The Beginning of Everything. It’s a show about F.Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and their epic and completely insane love story. Christina Ricci is fantastic as Zelda– she’ll catch your ear with her electrifying Southern accent and hold your attention with her dazzling performance of the emotionally torn and conflicted woman who tried desperately to hold the attention of one of the greatest writers in our time. David Hoflin’s F. Scott has some trouble holding his own against Ricci, but when she’s on screen, who needs him anyway? Booze, dancing, and sexual exploits galore, this show is definitely worth your time. My grade: A-