Article 25

Bread and Circuses and the World Choir Games

In Uncategorized on 07/04/2012 at 11:23 am


What is there to sing about?

By Martha Stephens



I love music, and I wouldn’t mind hearing the choirs coming to town for the World Choir Games. It’s not entirely clear to me, though, that I will get to hear even one of the 368 choirs. The bus routes downtown will be changed and difficult, and trying to park a car would defeat me, I’m sure.

For families, the two great ceremonial occasions on the waterfront are too expensive anyway; tickets are $20-150 for the opening and $20-50 for the closing, both in the U.S. Bank Arena. Ticket events at Music Hall and the Aronoff Center for Performing Arts are not cheap either. Sponsors of the big galas are folks like Macy’s, Cintas, Procter &Gamble, Fifth Third Bank. It’s a heyday for our friends, the corporations. All the hotels, all the restaurants – corporate entities, it seems.

In the evenings, though, there will be free Friendship Concerts. Churches and villages have been applying to host these events, so maybe I’ll be able to navigate a concert in Norwood. 

Being proud or not

Many of our visitors will see a U.S. city for the first time, and it would be a fine thing if we all lived in a town we could be proud of and wanted to show off to people. The trouble, though, for me at least, is that I’m not proud of Cincinnati these days. I’m not proud, for instance, that in the community down the road from where I live, the neighborhood of Avondale, we see not 50 or 100 but 350 foreclosed, abandoned and boarded-up homes. I’m not proud of that, and I’m not proud that in East Price Hill there are now 600 such homes. I’ve been on tours of these neighborhoods and helped put up signs in doorways saying, “People should be living here!”

No, I’m not proud of the vast array of lost and broken homes in Cincinnati, the hapless squatters you see peering out from the crooked windows, the yards with weedy growth up to your waist. The truth is that much of the town we’re trying to be so proud of is lying in ruins around us.

Family shelters are 101 percent full every night, and family homelessness has increased 42 percent during the Great Recession – close to 200 percent if you count those now living with relatives, with no regular place to call home. The waiting list for subsidized housing is up 115 percent, according to the “Family Homelessness and Housing Stability Study” by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless.

I’m not proud that in Cincinnati, according to the Columbia University School of Public Health, 48 percent of our children live below the poverty line. Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls herself regards this as a “shameful” rate. She points out that 1 in 4 families have no automobiles.

Avondale, like many once livable places, is a food desert, with terrible joblessness. Rack and ruin everywhere you turn.

It’s a circus

“Panem et circenses” was once the cry at the Roman games of those who wanted to distract and confuse the citizens into forgetting the political crimes against them. “Give ’em enough bread, give ’em enough circuses, and they’ll quiet down,” the rulers reasoned. In her books on The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins describes contests in which children are pitted against each other in deadly games for exactly the same purposes.

As for the 368 choirs –  why so many of them all at once? I don’t much care for competitions in the arts or for the arcane rules imposed. Each of the 23 styles of song to be heard in Cincinnati has been assigned its own complex formulas. No one said to these choirs, “Come to Cincinnati and sing whatever you want to and what you’re best at, and we’ll love it.”

The company instigating all the dicta is a German group called Interkultur, and it’s Interkultur, by the way, that collects the fees of the choirs applying to be included. I suppose it all started with Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger, in which we hear a singer intoning his original entry for the Prize Song and being much contested by the judges because he hadn’t put in this or put in that. No matter that his song happened to be beautiful and original.

Are we a musical city?

Cincinnati was once a queen of the music world, but how musical are we today? We’re about to downsize the main chamber of our famous Music Hall –  not enough customers any more. Singers who can fill that hall are too costly, tickets too high. Who can afford them?

Our opera season in that hall this summer will be pitiably reduced to two classic operas plus Porgy and Bess. Not many years ago at the zoo we had eight works each season; in Music Hall we went down to five, then four – now we see only two lonely shows still standing.

A private company is about to take over Music Hall and will put it, no doubt, to its own purposes. On June 21, in fact, it was in Music Hall that the Kroger company, headquartered in Cincinnati, staged its annual shareholders meeting; 75 protesters met them on the sidewalks with signs and chants asking them to beseech Kroger to pay one penny more per pound to the Immokalee tomato pickers, who get 50 cents a basket for their pickings. “One penny more, one penny more!” cried the crowd at the individuals entering the hall, but very few of them would even look our way.

Another large company based in Cincinnati, Western Southern Life Insurance, has its own battles with commoners of the town. It’s asking the courts to allow it to take over a handsome 100-year-old facility downtown that has housed low-income women for over a hundred years, the Anna Louise Inn. The Inn is trying to fight back with the help of churches and unions.

So yes, we need bread, we need circuses to help us forget what we are, what has happened to us.

We can hope that our visitors will get a glimpse, at least, of how people are actually faring in our town. We can be sure that our singing friends are being bled, down to their last nickels, by the same forces that imbibe the blood of working Cincinnati. Perhaps our visitors will realize, if they haven’t already, that the United States is not a citadel of prosperity and democracy, that it’s also full of shame and suffering, daily trauma not unconnected to the corporate names, the foreclosing names, for instance, on our great towering buildings downtown.

Perhaps people will figure that we’re all in this together and must struggle as one for a different world. Not more bread and circuses, but more song for peace and justice, more hope for humankind.

Martha Stephens is retired from the English Department of the University of Cincinnati. She is the author of The Treatment: The story of those who died in the Cincinnati radiations tests (Duke University Press, 2002). She can be reached at



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