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No. 1182:
Tobacco and Opera

Today, we try to keep our minds clear, when we're asked to look the other way. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Last night I saw the Houston Grand Opera's new production, Florencia en el Amazonas, by Mexican composer Daniel Catán. It was lovely, light -- wonderfully staged. A riverboat takes seven people on a surrealistic journey up the Amazon to Manaos. The passage, through steamy jungle, takes them to their hidden destinies.

But then, a nasty shock: this opera was put on by a wing of the Houston Grand Opera called Opera New World. Opera New World solicits hard-to-get support for new works like this, and it lists the Philip Morris Companies, Inc. as its sponsor. The program reads like an advertising brochure for Philip Morris. Pages 19, 36, 37, 48, and 50 all draw attention to this major tobacco company. They don't use the name of one of Philip Morris's food industries. They use the name we all associate with cigarettes.

Scientific evidence clearly shows Philip Morris is a major dealer in a lethal, highly addictive drug. Its survival depends on addicting our young before they reach an age of responsible choice.

Tobacco is also very destructive to the human voice. How can my opera company sell tobacco advertising to pay for an engaging new opera? The unspoken message to young music lovers is, "If you choose to smoke, your opera company approves your choice."

Forms of legal bribery are becoming the way of our business world. When I go to my food market, it's increasingly hard to find the foods I choose unless their supplier has paid the store a slotting fee -- that's a bribe to get the store to stock the product and display it prominently. I have the same trouble these days in the major book chains. If book publishers don't pay slotting fees, I may never see their books.

Our opera people don't publish direct cigarette advertising in their program. But corporations have learned that advertising can be renamed, hidden away, made to look like something else. If I'm not alert in the food market, or in the bookstore, I'll respond to advertising so invisible as to leave me unaware of it.

Sandwiched among Philip Morris credits in the opera program is information about a commendable effort to bring opera into high schools. And students sat all around me at last night's performance. This opera, dealing in matters of love, youth, and age, offers much to the young. And these are not people whom we yet deem responsible for their own decisions.

How do we keep these manipulations from getting to us and to our children? By writing laws? Maybe; but it's conscience, not the law, that ultimately clarifies our thinking. Conscience is what'll keep our heads straight as we buy and sell -- books, groceries, opera. A waking conscience is what will conclude the work of establishing equity in race and gender. And it is by conscience that we'll see beyond this lovely opera, to recognize the blandishments of the tobacco industry -- for what they are.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

The Houston Grand Opera performances of Florencia en el Amazonas ran on October 25, 27, and 30, and November 5, 8, and 9, 1996. It was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, the Opera de Colombia and the Seattle Opera. It was an Opera New World production. And Opera New World is sponsored by (as we have noted) by Philip Morris Companies, Inc.

France, M., et al., The World War on Tobacco (The Tobacco Industry is Circumventing ad Bans by Putting Brand Logos on Awnings and Sponsoring Rock Concerts). Business Week, November 11, 1996, pp. 99- 100.

You might be interested in the Center for Disease Control's website on tobacco. See also the home page of The Houston Grand Opera (which, despite this gaffe, is one of America's great opera companies.)