Rossini and River Rouge

THE skirt of her black dress fluffed in the stage-floor dust. She walked to the singer's bay at the crook of the piano. Her dress was drawn tight at the waist, scooped at the neck, its sleeves puffed from the shoulders. White skin, black hair, scarlet gloves. She beamed to the applause, glanced at the accompanist who had followed as her shadow, and began, "Or che di fiori adorno.

In Jordan Hall, the 25-year-old mezzo-soprano sensation Cecilia Bartoli made her Boston debut last Friday. She was to follow in two days with a Tully Hall recital in New York. All part of a tour in which the young Roman singer, with the coloration of Snow White and the coloratura of the bel canto era, is part of the vanguard to celebrate the anniversary of Rossini's birth 200 years ago this week. On his birthday, Feb. 29, the Metropolitan Opera will perform "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" (what else?), with ba ritone Thomas Hampson as Figaro. As the requiems for the Mozart celebration year subside, the vocal fireworks of the Rossini bicentennial begin.

A lost cultural art revived says something about the potential for public policy, when viewed in generational, long-term arcs.

Rossini's pyrotechnic compositions, except for the Barber, had largely fallen out of favor and of sight. Will Crutchfield writes in the latest Opera News about the American musicologist Philip Gossett, a Rossini champion: "With tireless labor and the keenest sort of insight, he has brought forth editions, analyzed and explained the music, trained students, advised managements, coached singers, taught audiences through lectures and general-readership articles, assisted colleagues and fought needful battle s on Rossini's behalf for a quarter-century."

Forty years ago, barely a handful of singers could toss off Rossini's playful trills and leaps. Then Maria Callas came along. And Joan Sutherland. Today, Crutchfield writes, "without stopping to think, one could name forty sopranos, mezzos, tenors, baritones, and basses ... who can do what 40 years ago it would have seemed preposterous to expect."

Bel canto is back. The very youthfulness of Miss Bartoli suggests that a new generation of singers and audience has been found.

Can River Rouge, home of Henry Ford's auto manufacturing revolution, come back like Rossini?

In Detroit, the eccentricities of Ford gave way to the corporate domination of General Motors. By the 1950s, GM dominated world auto sales. Detroit was synonymous with autos. Automobiles and manufacturing led America into and out of recession. Historically, the auto industry in America has always led a precarious existence. Just since World War II, the names of Hudson, Studebaker, Packard dropped from sight. An industry once focused on Detroit's East Side dispersed to other sites in the Midwest and acros s America. Cycles of layoff and hiring, boom and bust. The best young design and engineering talent went to Michigan's universities. America's love affair with the automobile was at its most passionate in Detroit. Michiganders knew automobiles the way Italians did opera.

GM this week reported losing $4.5 billion last year - a US corporate record. Americans see Detroit's decline as a failure of the nation's competitive culture. But first it must be remembered that trouble has never been far down the road for Detroit. Second, though it is losing market share to the Japanese, what remains of Detroit's domestic and world manufacturing empire is still huge. And third, to recover its past bravura industrial performance, it must start with its youngest employees. It will take t ime to prepare a fresh cadre for a new corporate culture.

The five-year model cycle has given way to continuous product update and redesign. In its market tectonics, Detroit for too long had not taken Asia as seriously as it had Europe. It must embrace the advantages brought by the Japanese. It must keep moving its mode of auto manufacture from the stamp-press era into the electronics era.

Revivals do occur. And Detroit may only take some young talent's arrival on the scene to make us notice it is happening.

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