New Opera Immortalizes Spat Between Paul Krugman, Estonian President

A new opera immortalizes the online spat between New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and the president of Estonia. Robert Siegel speaks with Eugene Birman, the composer, about his new work and the debate over austerity and stimulus.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Over the past couple of centuries, opera has drawn on a great variety of sources for material: Norse legend, the Book of Judges, the diplomatic travels of Richard Nixon. But even in the eclectic company of incestuous Teutonics, anvil-crashing Italian gypsies and consumptive Bohemian Parisians, a forthcoming operatic piece - granted, a short one - has an unusual basis. It is based on a blog and Twitter feud between a New York Times columnist and the president of a Baltic Republic.

The composer of this work, Eugene Birman, joins us from Oxford where he's pursuing an advanced degree in musical composition. Mr. Birman, welcome to the program.

EUGENE BIRMAN: Thank you very much. It's great to be on. Thank you.

SIEGEL: I want you to tell us about the premise of your composition, the "Nostra Culpa." Latin for "Our Fault"?

BIRMAN: Yes, correct.

SIEGEL: Which, I guess, begins with a New York Times economics columnist Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate, writing a column saying: Everything you've heard about the success of Estonia's policy of austerity leading to great growth is overstated. It really isn't working that well.

BIRMAN: And President Ilves responded by saying that essentially Professor Krugman was pontificating on a matter that he had no authority to discuss, but this has worked for us and we're not so much interested in what you have to say because you're not on the ground. Of course, the response is a lot more colorful and interesting.

SIEGEL: President Ilves of Estonia actually engaged in some vulgarity in responding ultimately to Paul Krugman.

BIRMAN: There was some color, but this is why it makes great drama because people are naturally attracted to arguments. We try, you know, when we're eavesdropping and the arguments are the best kind of subject matter for that. And in a way, he was seen as defending the honor of Estonia's policies, that people in Estonia have lived through so much; through the occupation of Soviet Union and many other things. And that austerity for them was a piece of cake, while for other countries in the world perhaps they couldn't stomach it.

SIEGEL: I would sort of have expected you to have written this for a tenor and a baritone. But unexpectedly, for me at least, the two characters - Paul Krugman and President Ilves of Estonia - are both sung by the same mezzo-soprano.

BIRMAN: Right. Well, the mezzo-soprano is somebody I've worked with before and she's, I think, one of the greatest talents in Estonia as a dramatic singer. And my idea - my sort of inspiration to set these words was not so much to make some kind of argument, but to have the singer portray the people themselves who are stuck in this - between these two sides.

SIEGEL: Now, one writer observed that the entire exchange between Krugman and Ilves consisted of a 70-word blog post with chart, and then four tweets. Puccini had a lot more to work with when he sat down to write "Tosca," let's say.

BIRMAN: Well, one could write an opera, a full-length two-hour opera, using just this content, in my opinion. Because, in a way, why is the story interesting? To me it's interesting because we have been discussing this ever since 2008, 2009 - what to do and how to get out of this, and we're still not out. And the story is being written as we go.

SIEGEL: Well, Eugene Birman, a composer, thank you very much for talking with us about your forthcoming piece.

BIRMAN: Thank you very much. It's really been an honor and thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: "Nostra Culpa," a 16-minute opera in two acts will debut April 7th during music week in the Estonia capital, Tallinn.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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