Scenes from an occupation

There were rumors all day in the usual places, on the search string: Philip Glass, Lincoln Center, OWS.  The opera, though hypnotic, passed quickly, and Glass took a curtain call, got a hero’s welcome. Well, we thought, he can’t be both places at once.

And besides, OWS is emphatically leaderless, non-vertical. It needs no celebrity endorsements. And yet, of course, visionaries have been welcome. Slavoj Zizek showed up at Zuccotti, and Cornell West, and even people who weren’t there to theorize the revolution, but seemed to share its spirit. Jeff Mangum played a set, urging everybody repeatedly to sing along with a vanity-free, egalitarian zeal. There’s no need for star-fucking, but on the other hand if I can’t hum along self-consciously, Ms. Goldman, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.

We emerged, a little dazed from this glorious and soulful production. Three people in the plaza were holding up the propaganda that’s become familiar. “Not much of a showing,” we thought. And then, toward the street, the now familiar sound of the mic check.  The demonstration was sizeable—though, as usual, hemmed in by the NYPD* in a way that caused discomfort and confusion.

Opera patrons were corralled off the plaza as quickly as possible, through a bottleneck, past the edge of the protest where a black woman and a white woman with signs yelled warmly if a touch incoherently about Gandhi. Wary of an imagined us/them dynamic, I said to them “a lot of us are you, you know,” and started to go home. Now they were yelling “don’t listen to the police! They won’t arrest you!”

I crossed back over. How could I not? Lincoln Center feels like home so much that on opening nights when the n00bz show up, I feel like welcoming them, and OWS is the first political moment in years (since the progressive illusion that was Obama) that has not left me hopeless and disenfranchised. My convictions and my vice, hanging out at last!

Inside, we had seen messages of, alas, hope and change, alongside political imagery bearing little resemblance to anything in the last three decades. The mood at the end of the opera is one of nostalgia, of optimism beaten almost out of existence.

Glass had been on the plaza, we heard. One reads that he quoted the closing lines of the opera, most apposite. Someone got on the stack and announced that “Phil” was in a cab, but wanted us to know he was with us there in spirit. The speaker was Laurie Anderson.

People spoke briefly and were positive. They were clear: this was not some Khmer Rouge bullshit about the decadence of art, much as some of us had feared it earlier, reading announcements of demonstrations with phrases like “temples of elitism.” Many began by saying “we love opera!” and “opera is beautiful!”

Some mentioned ticket costs and the (yeah, overstated) impossibility of the 99% going to the opera.  It’s an interesting point and a complicated one, due to the Met’s cultural and institutional role, plus the fact that most people who work there are decidedly not the 1%.  Ticket prices are, of course, a symptom of the same things we were there yelling about but they’re not exactly the root of the problem, right?

According to Alex Ross, the protest “was directed not at the opera itself but at a certain disparity between its lofty moral message and the machinery of corporate arts funding.”  Ok, I’ll buy that.

A singer who identified himself only as Daniel said, if I’m remembering his words accurately: “I was fired by George Steel tonight. I am an opera singer, and I sang in that building for 25 years. I used to have a salary of $35,000 a year. He wanted me to take $3,200 a year. George Steel fired me because he is the 1%.”

People toed a careful line about the police, skeptical of their role without bringing in the Oedipal fury that attends these things at times. No “Fuck the Pigs”, which was a relief.  Mostly they resented being kept off the plaza itself, and hinted that there were enough of us… (“these barriers don’t look so big now.”)

Anderson, predictably eloquent, abandoned the dreamlike voice we know her by to speak with strength and solidarity. To hear Laurie Anderson on human megaphone is a rare moment in life.

And then it was suddenly far too late to be standing on Amsterdam coughing, and I took my leave.

*  Not the enemy, please remember. The NYPD, working overtime,  solidly 99%, following orders—not the enemy in any new sense at least, and an important bedfellow, if that can happen.

More thoughts from parterre pal Seth Colter Walls.

(Photo: Sadie Salome)