The power of music

April 04, 2004|By Todd Buell

VILLACH, Austria - In six months of living in Europe, it has become clear to me that many Europeans, especially young Europeans, do not have a positive impression of America.

As a teacher, I have found that nearly all of my students believe that America, not its people but its national policy, is on the wrong side of many issues. The environment, health care and social security, genetically modified foods and foreign policy top the list of issues in which many Europeans believe that their countries' approach is superior to the divergent American model.

Some rebellious European youths reflect this disdain for America in ways that to me are emotionally painful. In Venice, I saw graffiti depicting planes hitting the World Trade Center. A spray-painted caption read, "Where is twin towers? Boom! [Expletive deleted] Amerika!" The spelling and grammatical errors don't obscure the meaning. Also, here in Villach during the carnival celebration, two men dressed themselves in a costume that clearly represented a plane hitting a twin towers-like building, with fire coming out of the side.

A facile explanation for these insensitive anti-American messages and more sober displeasure with U.S. policy is that they are a consequence of U.S. action in Iraq.

However, as I recall from studying in Munich before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it is not only foreign policy that has cut a rift between the United States and continental Europe. At that time, young European students were quite vehement with me in their disdain for American environmental policy and lack of aid for the developing world.

It is frustrating for me to see my country perceived in such a negative light.

In addition, friction between the United States and the European Union threatens the future of mutually beneficial cooperative ventures between the two, such as joint security operations that could help apprehend terrorists.

Also, enmity between the two peoples hurts each other's economy. If Europe does not buy our food and we refuse to buy French wine, everybody suffers and nothing is gained. Though Americans can constantly project blame on Europe's intransigence, this also is feckless. Rather we, as Americans, should find ways to improve our image in Europe.

One relatively simple and apolitical way for America to improve its image is to encourage support of the arts.

Europe has a great tradition of support and appreciation for the arts - both classical and traditional art and music, and more pop or avant-garde forms of expression. Art is such a vital part of Austrian life that the evening news gives a five-minute culture report during every broadcast. It is even aired before the sports report.

Within the world of the arts, New York's Metropolitan Opera is one of the most renowned artistic organizations anywhere. Recently, I listened to a Live from the Met broadcast on Austrian radio. It was the season-ending performance of Verdi's La Traviata, with Renee Fleming staring in the lead role of Violetta.

When I heard the voice of narrator Peter Allen describing the action as the first act ended, I felt closer to home than the thousands of miles and ocean that separate me from the United States. At that moment, I also felt great pride in being an American: My country was providing a great service to the world - art. Americans should be proud.

Moments later in the broadcast, I heard the announcement from Beverly Sills that the Met had found a sponsor for one year to replace its current one. She further explained that the Met was embarking on a $150 million campaign to endow its worldwide broadcasts forever.

I hope that the Met succeeds in its fund-raising venture. As Ms. Sills noted in her announcement, Live from the Met has been a staple around the world for 60 years.

Like sports, art can unify people in a way that mollifies vast political differences.

It would be a profound tragedy if America, when it desperately needs to offer something unifying to the rest of the world, fails to support an entity that has displayed the country's and the world's best singers for over half a century. Such a failure would give Europeans further reason to dislike us; and they would be right.

Todd Buell, a 2003 graduate of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, was selected by the Fulbright Commission to teach English in Austria.

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