Estonia operetta lyricizes economic austerity
TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Tired of grumbling about economic austerity? Maybe it's time to sing about it.
So say two Americans living in Estonia.
Inspired by a lively social media exchange between Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, the two expats have composed an operetta that offers point and counterpoint on the value of austerity — an ever more prominent reality in Europe's struggling economy.
"Music and economics are not mutually exclusive," said Eugene Birman, who composed the music for the oeuvre premiering Sunday as part of the annual Estonian Music Days festival. Scott Diel wrote the lyrics.
In the 16-minute performance, an Estonian soprano presents both sides of the online spat, accompanied by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra.
Last year Krugman, writing in his blog in The New York Times, questioned the benefits of Estonia becoming "a poster child for austerity defenders" after the nation saw economic output collapse by nearly 20 percent during the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Unemployment soared and many Estonians fled the country for work elsewhere in Europe.
Ilves, a former U.S. citizen who gave up his passport to serve in Estonia's government, reacted with a Twitter salvo that slammed Krugman for being "smug, overbearing and patronizing."
The English language operetta's title "Nostra Culpa" — "Our Fault" in Latin — is taken from one of Ilves' sarcastic tweets: "But yes, what do we know? We're just dumb and silly East Europeans. Unenlightened. Someday we too will understand. Nostra culpa."
In another tweet, Ilves suggested that the dispute boiled down to "a Princeton vs. Columbia thing" — a reference to Krugman's professorship at Princeton University and Ilves' degree from Columbia University.
At a rehearsal this week, the orchestra led by conductor Risto Joost gave a powerful rendition of Birman's atonal score, as soprano Iris Oja tried to capture the sarcasm and indignation of Ilves' tweets.
"Silly. Eastern. Europeans? Unenlightened?" she sang, pausing after each word before bawling a high-pitched "Nostra Culpaaaa!"
Birman says he was fascinated by the "almost animalistic reaction" that he saw in Ilves' attempt to defend the honor of Estonia, a nation of 1.3 million, whose government raised taxes and cut salaries for public sector workers in response to the country's deep recession.
"A knightly crusade against the oppressor, if you will. Don't you think that's classic opera material?" said Birman, who was born in neighboring Latvia but grew up in the U.S.
Diel, who has followed Estonia's economic development in the past 20 years since it gained independence from the Soviet Union, picked up on the debate and proposed putting it to music to Birman.
Diel said the libretto is divided into two movements. The first quotes from Krugman's blog to reflect his Keynesian philosophy of spending your way out of crisis. The second part is based on Ilves' tweets.
Nowhere in the operetta are Ilves or Krugman mentioned, as the composers wanted to give the work a wider focus. "I thought this exchange between these two gentlemen was on some level a proxy for the larger argument," Diel said. "But let the listeners decide."
Birman, who also studied economics at Columbia, said it's not a piece about personalities or egos. "There is no winner or loser," he said.
With Cyprus joining the increasingly long list of European countries forced to swallow the bitter prescription of austerity — steep budget cuts that trigger joblessness and social angst — the theme hasn't lost its timeliness.
Birman's composition isn't easy to categorize. Oja said the work is best described as contemporary: "I find it very alive, almost like improvisation."
Neither Krugman nor Ilves responded to requests for comment. Birman and Diel said they had invited both to Sunday's performance but received no replies.
"Makes no difference to me whether they attend or not," Birman said. "It's not about particular persons."