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In Verdi Veritas?

Updates on controversies and committees.

A drama of operatic proportions disrupted the ordinarily routine annual authorization of the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities recently when Congressman Mario Biaggi (D-NY) proposed legislative amendments that could have resulted in outright federal censorship of the arts. So serious were the ramifications that House Subcommittee head Paul Simon (D-IL) persuaded the New York congressman to withdraw the proposals and compromise on discussing the issues in public hearings.

Biaggi’s beef? That federal funds had been used by two NEA opera company grantees for productions that Italian-American groups protested were “denigrating to Italian-Americans.” Coincidentally, both offending grants involved productions of Verdi’s Rigoletto—one, a Roaring Twenties version produced by the Virginia Opera in Norfolk, was depicted in promotional posters by a machine gun-toting gangster; the other, Jonathan Miller’s highly acclaimed London production, which transfers the opera’s setting from 16th century Mantua to New York’s Little Italy in the 1950s, is scheduled for production beginning late this month in Houston and New Orleans, before arriving at New York’s Metropolitan Opera June 20.

Biaggi, whose Bronx and Yonkers district epitomizes the culturally diverse urban melting pot community, is a champion of ethnic issues and heads the House Irish Caucus. His amendments would have authorized the NEA chairman to “take such actions as necessary to insure that the artistic content of such programs and projects does not contribute to promoting the stereotyping of any ethnic, racial, religious or minority group. Government officials and arts leaders alike have recognized the far-reaching implications of the averted amendments. NEA chairman Frank Hodsoll stated that, while he found the Virginia Opera poster “in poor taste,” he was “prohibited by law from interference with artwork produced by his grantees.

Debating the issue on the floor of the House of Representatives, Simon stated, “Clearly the gentleman [Biaggi] does not want censorship.” Biaggi responded, “It has never been my intention to invoke any form of federal censorship.”

A biting editorial in The Washington Post noted that Giuseppe Verdi has repeatedly given offense to politicians. Directing Biaggi to look even further, it pointed out that one familiar Rigoletto aria “makes the sweeping assertion that all women are fickle—another example of stereotyping.” The plot, the editorial continued, “can only perpetuate the widespread impression that all dukes are snakes, and all bassos are assassins.” In fact, in the novel on which Verdi based Rigoletto, the villain was a king; censors didn’t like the idea, so the king was demoted to a less sensitive rank.

The Virginia Opera furor received national television coverage, and the opera company hastily printed program-stuffers stating that no slur against Italian-Americans had been intended. The Metropolitan Opera controversy was settled at a press conference, when Met general manager Anthony Bliss, flanked by Biaggi and New York Senator Alfonse D’Amato, agreed to pull the libretto, whose introduction contained the offending language (references to the “mafia” and “cosa nostra”), from the Met’s book shop shelves. “Frankly,” Bliss later said, “it was much ado about nothing.” Emphasizing that no line changes were made, he said he “could not entertain” censorship of the production.

The forthcoming congressional hearings, said Simon, will aim to see if there is some way, without federal censorship, to send a signal “that we do not want these funds to be used to put down any nationality, any race, any creed, any group of people.”

Ten Openings on National Council

Ten positions out of the 26 congressionally mandated seats on the National Council on the Arts will be vacant come Sept. 3.

The openings again present an opportunity to redress the lack of nonprofit professional theatre representation on the Council. In the nearly 20 years since the Endowment began, although some individual theatre artists—primarily actors—have served on the Council, there has never been an artistic director, producer or managing director of a nonprofit professional theatre appointed. In each of the other major fields, the Council has historically included leading nonprofit arts institution heads—museum directors, choreographers, symphony conductors, opera producers.

According to the legislation which created the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965, Council members are to be appointed by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate, for six-year terms to advise the NEA chairman on policies, programs and procedures, and to make recommendations on grant applications. Council members are to include “practicing artists, civic cultural leaders, members of the museum profession and others who are professionally engaged in the arts.” The overall membership of the Council is supposed to reflect an appropriate distribution among the major art fields, and the President is “requested” to consider recommendations from leading arts organizations.

Council members with terms expiring in September are educator Thomas Bergin, arts patron Norman Champ, Jr., museum director Martin Friedman, painter Jacob Lawrence, State arts council director Bernard Blas Lopez, community theatre director Maureene Rogers, painter James Rosenquist, conductor Robert Shaw. arts administrator Jessie Woods and arts patron Rosaline Wyman.

In the heat of next fall’s campaigning, it is uncertain whether the new appointments will be made on time. If not, the winner of the November presidential election will make the new Council appointments. If President Reagan appoints the 10 new members, the Council composition will include 18 Reagan appointees out of the 26-member body next year.

Lindy Zesch

Buck Buys Building

Local governments in New York City and San Francisco are providing programs designed to aid theatres and theatre artists. New York’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development is selling real estate to be developed as rental or co-operative units for artists.

Development corporations, private developers, nonprofit organizations and artists themselves may apply to purchase buildings for a nominal price, as low as one dollar. The purchaser must rehabilitate the existing building within 36 months and resell or rent only to moderate income artists.

San Francisco theatres will benefit from long term, low interest loans of up to $100,000 to be used toward renovation or purchase of theatre space. The program, recently approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, will help theatres comply with fire and safety codes. The loans will be available to theatres with up to 499 seats and with budgets under $1 million. Legislation has also been introduced in San Francisco that will provide for a voluntary contribution system to arts facilities. This program will be aimed at private property owners who would be invited to add an arts contribution to their property tax bill.

Washington Update

A strong effort to cripple the Charitable Contributions Law (CCL) by capping it at its 1983 level was soundly defeated in the Senate Finance Committee on March 1, by a vote of 12-4. As committee chairman Robert Dole (R-KS) moved to include the provision as part of a tax package to reduce the federal deficit, the nation’s nonprofit community mounted its own successful effort to thwart the initiative. Through several days of hearings, a wide variety of programs was either repealed, reduced or capped.

The CCL was the only major exception. The New York Times, in a front-page story on March 2, noted, “A key vote of the day was the defeat of two proposals to curb the deduction for charitable contributions for people who do not itemize deductions.”

A variety of other legislation which could affect charitable contributions to foundations and other types of nonprofits through changes in current tax law is currently being considered in both the House and Senate.

Stating that “the government simply cannot ‘pick and choose’ its controversies as a means to restrict speech by those it views disfavorably,” the U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled that the federal government cannot exclude the legal defense funds of civil rights, environmental and women’s groups as recipients of the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC).

The court decision follows an earlier Executive Order which sought to prevent such groups from receiving funds from the giving program for federal employees. The Reagan Administration had made no decision to appeal the court ruling at press time.

The Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by James McClure of Idaho, heard testimony on March 1 from NEA Chairman Frank Hodsoll concerning the 1985 NEA budget. The administration’s request of $143.8 million for the 1985 fiscal year is well below the $162 million Congress approved for fiscal 1984. Subsequent hearings by the House Subcommittee on the Interior on the 1985 NEA budget were scheduled for March 28 (Administration Witnesses) and April 10 (Outside Witnesses). At the April 10 hearings, the American Arts Alliance pressed for $195 million in NEA funding for FY ’85. Members of Congress were expected to testify before the Subcommittee on May 3. The Subcommittee is expected to make its recommendation to the full House Committee on the Interior by June.

A New Endowment

The National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities may spawn a third agency if a proposal from Columbia University president Michael I. Sovern is taken to heart by Congress.

A federally financed National Endowment for International Studies, outlined in the Columbia president’s annual report and modeled on the NEA and NEH, would concentrate on Soviet studies, centers devoted to other regions of the world and the sharing of library resources.

Sovern envisions the endowment as a way to combat “the illusionary and irrational in American foreign policy—a failing that has plagued administrations of both parties.” He believes the antidote to America’s lack of diplomatic success is “more knowledge, deeper understanding, a willingness to face complexity rather than hide behind rhetorical shields, an ability to analyze information dispassionately, a fluency in the subtleties of more than our own language, an informed insight into the heritage and value systems of cultures far different from our own.” According to a recent report in The New York Times, Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI), the former chairman and ranking Democrat on the subcommittee that oversees the Arts and Humanities Endowments, is “impressed” with the concept.

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