Diplomacy is a buttoned-down profession — carefully-crafted talking points for the Ambassador’s meeting with the Foreign Minister; well-scrubbed reports to Washington; exquisite courtesy toward esteemed counterparts.
With all this on-the-job self-control, diplomats need a chance to unbutton. Extra-curricular activities take many forms. Mine were music and acting:
Kuwait: After a small role in Man of La Mancha, I signed up for Gogol’s Inspector General, a send-up of bureaucratic stupidity. A couple weeks into rehearsals, our director quit. We couldn’t find a replacement, so we decided on a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland-ish Let’s put on a show in the old barn!!
We thought we all knew our lines and blocking, but, in performance, that turned out to be an illusion. It was emphatically not a success, though we may have inadvertently mirrored exactly the bureaucratic stupidity we thought we were satirizing. What in the world were you/we thinking?!
Abu Dhabi: I joined a chorale, led by a mild-mannered Sri Lankan with a surprising Scottish accent. He was a good musician, but too nice. Rehearsals were convivial but undisciplined. Every sub-group or soloist who wanted a concert spot got it, including the madrigal group I was part of.
I knew our concerts were not great, but I thought we were ok. That is, until a few years ago when, in a fit of madness, I listened to a tape of one of our Christmas concerts. What in the world …?!
The madrigal group was a bit more disciplined and of slightly higher quality, with one indisputable success when we were roving choristers in straw-hats at the Ambassador’s 4th of July reception. The guests seemed to enjoy it, possibly with the help of alcohol. Most important, the Ambassador was pleased.
Israel: I didn’t sing or act in Israel, but music was more vital to me there than in any other posting.
When the Gulf War broke out, the family was evacuated. We who stayed, when we weren’t working, were instructed to stay home. If we had to be out, we were always to carry a gas mask. It was a desperately scary, lonely time.
To keep myself sane, I turned to our long-neglected piano. By war’s end, I could play Turkey in the Straw and Onward Christian Soldiers almost completely from memory. I knew exactly What in the world …?! I was thinking.
Singapore: I sang in a choral group there, but it was two solo gigs that stood out.
One was at the Embassy’s annual karaoke competition, the first of which was won by a guy who, honestly, couldn’t sing as well as me. But he had a prop and a schtick. Ah, I realized, acting and singing. I can do that!
The following year, I threw everything I had into Heartbreak Hotel, and won it. Afterwards, one of the Embassy’s local employees came up to me and gushed, I didn’t know political officers could do that kind of thing! Plus, I got a radio.
As gratifying as that was, my most notable artistic contribution to diplomacy came more informally:
A few of us at the Embassy occasionally had lunch with Chinese Embassy counterparts, taking turns hosting. At one gathering, idly conversing with the woman next to me, I asked if she knew what a kazoo was. She didn’t. Too bad, I said, I could have demonstrated.
Our Deputy Chief of Mission overheard and called my bluff. He had a comb and was sure that the waiter could get the flimsy of a credit card receipt, which he did.
I couldn’t back out, but what to play? One of our luncheon guests had studied in the States, at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., so I played Way Down Upon the Swanee River on my makeshift kazoo.
Not long after that, U.S.-China relations seemed to warm. Draw your own conclusions.
China: I’ve already recounted my Pirates of Penzance experience (The Pirates of Mischance; Feb 4, 2014), which was the entree to working with the play’s music director, Nick Smith, in his choral group.
Our first, and most gratifying, performance was singing Mozart’s Requiem in the Concert Hall of the Forbidden City, reportedly its first performance in China since the Cultural Revolution.
The second was Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand, to open the 2003 Beijing Music Festival. Our chorus joined about five hundred other voices from a variety of Chinese choruses, plus a chlidren’s choir, and a group flying in from New York. We had two rehearsals together.
Putting into the mix all these singers, who may or may not have prepared well, who didn’t know each other or our conductor, on an enormous stage where those in back couldn’t hear those in front, nor those on the left those on the right, all singing at the top of their lungs one of the most exhausting choral pieces ever composed, may not have been the best path to artistic excellence.
Our performance merited a stern What in the world …?! but, at least, not from the Chinese government and Communist party luminaries, most of whom slept soundly in their front-row seats.
Switzerland: In Geneva, I sang with the choir of the European Center for Nuclear Research (the CERN Choir). We were not great, but we were not awful. What we were, at least, was polylingual — French for rehearsal directions, whatever language a particular piece was in for performance, and a virtual United Nations at break time.
We rehearsed, and sometimes performed, in the CERN headquarters complex, with sub-atomic particles whizzing soundlessly at unimaginable speeds in the tunnel beneath us. They did not interrupt us, and, most notable, we had no What in (or beyond) the world …?! moments.