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Nostra Culpa: An Interview with the Writers of a 'Financial Opera'

Source: Illustration by Toon Vugts

Last week, the news broke that Scott Diel, a contributing editor for ERR News, and composer Eugene Birman are creating what has been called a "financial opera," recounting last year's Twitter duel between Estonia's president and economist Paul Krugman.

ERR News interviewed Diel, the librettist, who is an American writer and lives in Estonia; and Birman, a Latvian-born, Juilliard and Columbia-educated composer whose works have been performed across the United States, Europe and Asia.

"Nostra Culpa" is a 15-minute, English-language dramatic orchestral work in two movements. It will be performed by Estonian mezzosoprano Iris Oja at the House of the Brotherhood of Black Heads in Tallinn as part of the Estonian Music Days. It premieres on April 7. Ticket information is not yet available, but readers can keep an eye out here.


Tell us about the creative process and working together.

Scott: I checked with Eugene to make sure he would also have an interest in the topic – no point taking up a topic which he would dread working on – and then I wrote the libretto. The first draft was four stanzas with alternating Krugman-Ilves voices. Eugene asked if I couldn’t do it in two movements, and so that change was made. But my work is done now, and given that my music education ended when I quit the trumpet in 6th grade, I don’t think Eugene is going to be calling me up to ask for any advice on how to do the music. God save him if he does.

A question for Scott: have you written lyrics before?

Scott: Yes, sort of. I am quite a bad ukulele player, and I sometimes write songs for my son. But this was the first time I had written a libretto. To answer more seriously, I’ve published fiction and long essays in US literary journals. And what fiction writer hasn’t vainly attempted poetry? So a libretto was not a crazy stretch.

What inspired you about this episode?

Scott: There aren’t many things that happen in Estonia that are of international interest or consequence, but the Krugman-Ilves “twitter war” (as the press has called it) certainly was a colorful distillation of the larger austerity-stimulus debate. I was interested in it partly for that reason.

Why did you choose to frame it in operatic form?

Scott: Perhaps President Ilves himself is a natural dramatist?

Eugene: There is something intrinsically dramatic in this story. The economy affects us all; government policy affects us all. Art has always challenged us to examine the current state of affairs and perhaps think beyond it. I’d like to think we are old-fashioned about this project. And personally, as a composer, the words “austerity” and “stimulate” are particularly evocative musically. Arguments just make great listening sometimes.

Tell me about the characters of the story and the dynamics of their interaction. And their roles - is there a good and bad guy?

Scott: As the librettist I was conscious not to take sides, although many who saw President Ilves' tweets did take sides. Some saw his tweets as delivering a rightful blow to Krugman, defending Estonia's honor. Others saw them as an embarrassment to the country and inappropriate for the president. But I left this alone.

The libretto is only the libretto. Once the composer sets it to music, once the conductor and orchestra get their say, once it's interpreted by a soloist, then it's certainly possible that you, as an opera goer, will walk away with the feeling that there is a winner or a loser. But perhaps the listener seated next to you will reach the opposite conclusion. But for my part there was no winner or loser chosen or intended.

Eugene: I’m above the fray on this as well. My role is to write music that affects people emotionally – and makes them think. I read a lot of Paul Krugman when I was at Columbia. Ironically, the Economics Faculty seems to like what he says – despite the President’s joke that it’s a Columbia vs. Princeton thing. We won’t know what the right choice was, economic policy-wise, for a long time. As an economist, I do think austerity has served Estonia well.

One of the main criticisms of Ilves was that he acted in an unpresidential manner, focusing not on debating the issue, but rather launching an aggressive and perhaps rude attack.

Scott: There were certainly lots of Estonians I know on both sides of that issue. I don’t really have an opinion on the president’s behavior, other than to say that had he responded in a more low-key manner, I doubt that the world would have taken notice.

Eugene: If it weren’t for the tweets, we wouldn’t be writing this piece. There would be no press interest. At least we have a debate in the open, and that’s important to have.

Estonians seemed to rally behind their president. Did it help confirm the legitimacy of austerity policies in Estonia?

Scott: I’d not want to wade too deeply into the economic debate. There have been a few good articles published about the relevance of stimulus policy for a small country like Estonia. Other articles have highlighted the Estonians’ (and Latvians’) high tolerance for pain and discomfort, arguing that Westerners aren’t tough enough to undergo an austerity program, anyway, that they’d be out setting fire to their parliament buildings. The topic is far more complicated than I could do justice to in a short answer. I’d say only what I think it would be risky to assume that what worked for Estonia would necessarily work in the US.

Eugene, you have studied economics in addition to music. You told the Wall Street Journal that you would like one day to do a full-length financial opera.

Eugene: When I came to Columbia, I was probably the only one studying economics not to get a job at Goldman Sachs. When I graduated in 2009 in the depths of the financial crisis, I was pretty calm. I was enrolled concurrently in the Juilliard Masters’ program anyway. I think any composer out there is dying to write an opera: it satisfies our egotistical tendencies to subject audiences to hours of our own music. But quite seriously, I think the financial world has such characters that are seldom found in fantasy literature. My friends who work as investment bankers in Manhattan live in an alternate reality.

The austerity debate has been going on for a long time. Is there a clear winner in your piece? Have the Estonian government's fiscal policies paid off for Estonians?

Eugene: Well, we can see low public and private sector debt and a reasonable GDP growth in the short-term. I suppose that validates the Estonian government’s policies. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone feels like they have deep pockets right now. If you are paying taxes to the government and services keep being cut, the question has to be asked: what are my politicians doing for me?

One of the movements is named "Krugman on the Beach"; what's that about?

Scott: That isn’t officially the name of a movement, but rather an inside joke that has somehow found legs. It’s a nod to Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach.”

Eugene: Glass wanted to create a dramatic work based on a person of international, historical significance. He chose Einstein (protractedly). We could put both these gentlemen, Mr. Krugman and the President, on the beach but we thought they wouldn’t get along.

Is this a one-time collaboration between the two of you, or is there a future in the financial operas genre? What other current events would you like to see made into art?

Scott: One story that struck me recently was about the Tallinn Zoo chimpanzees. One of them was found aboard a ship in the harbor in the 1990s. Apparently some sailors had traded cigarettes for him in Asia. I guess he wasn’t the ideal sailing companion, so the zoo ended up getting him. I think there’s a fantastic story in that. I don’t know how Eugene feels about chimps, so maybe it’s just a children’s story. If you’re seeking something political, perhaps Viviane Reding’s campaign to put women on the boards of companies would be operatic fodder.

Eugene: I wouldn’t mind writing about chimpanzees. This past summer, I worked with the artistic director of T&M Paris to write a mini-opera about an ATM machine. It became a story about the disappearance of humanity in our daily lives. The ATM machine came to life and fell in love with the client. It was a bit silly. A chimpanzee on a boat in Tallinn is a serious thing, but I’m afraid the monkey-suit-on-stage thing has been done to death in opera.

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