DATE September 13, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: United Nations high commissioner for human rights Mary
Robinson discusses some of the issues raised by the recent summit
of world leaders held at the UN
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Mary Robinson has been exposed to man's worst inhumanities to man. She is the
UN high commissioner for human rights and has traveled to countries around the
world to gather information about human rights violations. Last week, she was
in New York for the UN's millennial meeting of world leaders. Before becoming
a UN high commissioner in 1997, she spent seven years as the president if
Ireland, 20 years as a member of the Irish senate. In Ireland, her priorities
included overturning laws that prohibited divorce, homosexuality and the
dissemination of birth control.
Among the issues she's dealing with now is last week's murder of three UN
workers in West Timor. They were assisting refugees who had fled the militias
in East Timor. The UN workers were attacked and killed by militia members who
had just attended the funeral of one of their leaders. I spoke with Mary
Robinson yesterday. She was in Geneva, where her UN office is located.
I want to read an e-mail that was printed in The New York Times that was sent
by one of the UN workers who was killed, and he sent this shortly before the
rampage. He wrote, `We sent most of the staff home rushing to safety. I just
heard someone on the radio saying that they are praying for us in the office.
The militias are on the way, and I am sure they will do their best to demolish
this office. These guys act without thinking and can kill a human as easily
and painlessly as I kill mosquitos in my room. You should see this
office--plywood on the windows, staff peering out through openings in the
curtains hastily installed a few months ago. We are waiting for this enemy.
We sit here like bait, unarmed, waiting for a wave to hit.'
Ms. MARY ROBINSON (UN High Commissioner for Human Rights): Yes.
GROSS: What is your reaction when you hear something like this and when you
hear about UN workers who are murdered?
Ms. ROBINSON: I must say I received a copy of that e-mail just when I heard
of the killings, and it still disturbs me terribly to think of the person who
was writing that and actually planning for the next day like a good human
rights humanitarian worker. And we have to remember there's a lot of
discussion at the moment about UN peacekeeping missions, but the humanitarian
workers work beyond where the peacekeepers go. There are no UN peacekeepers
in West Timor. It was unarmed men and women working for humanitarian
purposes, bringing food and shelter and water and health care to desperate
Now we have hundreds of thousands--certainly a hundred thousand refugees in
West Timor who potentially will starve, who potentially will die or become
seriously ill over the coming days because they will not be given that kind of
care and attention. It's also something that has happened in Sierra Leone,
something that's happened elsewhere. And it's happening too often to
humanitarian staff, be they UN or be they working for non-governmental
organizations. And I think it's really important that the world take note and
that we respect the integrity and the safety and security of humanitarian
staff, of all who work on behalf of humanity basically.
GROSS: UN workers and other human rights workers were evacuated from West
Timor after these murders. Does this give you more reservations about sending
UN workers to places where they are in grave danger?
Ms. ROBINSON: You know, the concern of humanitarian and human rights workers
is to get to those who desperately need help and support. Yes, there has to
be attention to security, and those of us who head programs such as Madam
Mogata(ph) heading refugees and my own job as high commissioner for human
rights. And we have a real responsibility to our staff, to colleagues and it
hurts like losing a family member when somebody is killed like that or
seriously wounded in action. It's terribly hard for families who, you know,
have seen their son or daughter go off, and they're very proud of them that
they're going to work to help the most vulnerable sectors. And then they hear
not only that they've been killed, but the appalling circumstances of some of
And I was in East Timor a few weeks ago, and I undertook and, indeed, I'm
following through on this to send a personal envoy following my visit to
address the whole situation of the refugees in West Timor, how to ensure that
they can return and begin a new life in the building up a society in East
Timor, security in East Timor itself, justice, accountability for past
atrocities. So it's an urgent problem that needs more political support.
GROSS: But, you know, that's the thing. Who do you hold accountable? Like,
these murders were done by men involved with militias. Militias aren't really
accountable to anybody.
Ms. ROBINSON: I think there must be a very serious responsibility of the
Indonesian authorities. I did, in fact, take the opportunity during the
Millennium Summit to raise this with President Wahid himself briefly when I
met him at one of the meetings of the millennium council, as did others. But
he said that they were sending additional troops. That is certainly
necessary. There's a need for a greater security of the population there.
But there's also a need for accountability and for justice--for bringing to
justice those who are responsible for these recent atrocities, but also those
who were responsible this time last year. There was the referendum on the
30th of August. Before that, and in particular in the weeks following, there
was appalling killing and driving people from their homes, driving them up to
the hills and capturing women. I was in a church recently in Suai in East
Timor, where on the 6th of September last year, 200 hundred people were
massacred in the church. Young girls were raped in the church itself. And
some of the widows still don't have the bodies of their husbands or their sons
and their family members to bury.
So there is a very serious accounting that has to be done by the authorities
of Indonesia. I am aware that the attorney general of Indonesia, whom I know
personally, is trying, but much, much more needs to be done and it needs more
political, you know, authority of the Security Council, which did focus on
this during last week--during the special session of the Millennium Summit.
GROSS: My guest is Mary Robinson. She's joining us from Geneva. She's the
UN high commissioner for human rights. She's held that position since 1997.
Before that, she spent seven years as president of Ireland.
UN human rights workers don't carry guns, but their enemies often do. Do you
think that there are new protections that are needed for human rights workers?
Ms. ROBINSON: Yes. I think there needs to be a commitment to secure the
safety of human rights and humanitarian workers. Also, we need to look more
closely at the spread of arms and both legal and illegal trade in small arms.
And I hope that some of the initiatives in curtailing the sale of small arms,
and indeed arms generally, will receive much more attention from the Security
Council, from the rich countries that make so much money selling guns,
ammunition and fire power, helicopters and all that terrible destructive
arsenal to those who then will use this on human rights and humanitarian aid
workers at times in their countries.
And look at the arms buildup by both Ethiopia and Eritrea at a time when their
populations are starving. Look at the way in which there are sales of arms by
the United States, by United Kingdom, by France, by so many of the developed
countries to various developing countries who should not be committing so much
of their resources to buying arms at this stage.
And it's interesting that we are seeing important steps being taken in trying
to prevent conflicts. For example, if you look at Sierra Leone and if you
look at Liberia, at the heart of the continuing conflict there is diamonds.
Greed and fighting about diamonds. And for the first time recently, we had
the Security Council ready to focus on the illegal diamond trade. Well, now
let's focus on the trade in small arms and the trade in arms, generally, to
countries where there is conflict. And let's stop seeing huge profits being
made that ultimately result in lives being put at risk and, in that context,
lives of those who work for the United Nations being put at risk.
GROSS: I know one of the issues that you're very concerned about is the
growing number of children who are being deployed as soldiers. I know you're
worried about the human rights of the children. Are you also worried that
children with guns are much more unpredictable and irresponsible and,
perhaps, even more likely to threaten the lives of human rights workers?
Ms. ROBINSON: Yes. And I must say I'm very glad that the whole subject of
child soldiers has become such a primary topic now on the international
agenda. I met some child soldiers in Freetown in Sierra Leone when I was
there in June of last year. I sat in a shelter for homeless children in
Freetown--which is actually run by an Irish aid agency called GOAL--and I
listened to them. And the first thing they told me was that most of them had
been forced to become soldiers. They hadn't sort of gone with a sense of,
`It'd be great fun to have a gun.' It wasn't even that. They were compelled.
And they were drugged, some of them were physically--some of them were
sexually abused. And they were just pushed to the front line. And it's not
just boys, boys and girls. And they killed and then they maimed and, you
know, chopped off arms and legs of other children. They were then availing of
this shelter--they escaped and came to this shelter. And most of them--the
real thing they wanted to do was to find their parents. They were in
Freetown. Their parents were somewhere else in Sierra Leone. I mean, what a
childhood. What a denial of everything that childhood means. And the reality
is it's extremely important that all that emphasis on legal instruments is
GROSS: My guest is Mary Robinson, the UN's high commissioner for human
rights. She's the former president of Ireland. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Mary Robinson is my guest. She's the UN high commissioner for human
rights. She's held that position since 1997. Before that, she spent seven
years as president of Ireland.
What do you think were the most important outcomes of last week's millennial
assembly at the United Nations?
Ms. ROBINSON: I think it was a very realistic, and almost somber meeting. I
was afraid that it might be a bit like some meetings in the past, where people
came with fine words and pontificated and then left. But it wasn't really
like that. Even the whole way in which it was organized--you had presidents
and prime ministers sitting around in a circle actually discussing issues.
You had a very serious and somber meeting of the Security Council, which began
with a minute of silence for the three UNHCR refugees workers who had been
killed in West Timor. You had a declaration of the summit, which has a lot of
In fact, my office is studying it at the moment because we can see ways in
which there will be follow-up to the millennium declaration. It discusses
a very important recent report on peacekeeping. It's called the Brahimi
report(ph) because the person who headed a senior panel of experts was a
former Algerian ambassador. And he has a very good understanding of what's
wrong about the UN peacekeeping at the moment. What are the weaknesses? And
why were soldiers captured in Sierra Leone? Why is the UN constantly on the
defensive and not able to do its job? And this report, both politically and
technically, spelled out what's wrong and makes it very clear what needs to be
done. And during the Millennium Summit, the leaders of the world were
addressing that report. And, you know, I think people have just run out of
patience with fine words. We're going to measure the progress on this
millennium declaration, which has a lot of practical issues in it.
GROSS: As a woman, do you see certain issues confronting women that have not
quite been defined as human rights issues in the past that you want to define
as human rights issues now?
Ms. ROBINSON: I think it's very helpful, to women in particular, that we
have this broad agenda of human rights. And therefore, that it includes
economic and social rights and recognizes that poverty is a terrible
deprivation of human rights. Because, of course, if you look at issues of
poverty, you have the feminization of poverty. It is predominantly women who
are the poorest and the most vulnerable in situations of poverty, in
situations of indigenous peoples. And to have that broader agenda makes that
whole human rights agenda more relevant to women.
But also there are special issues of concern to women, which are issues
surrounding female--you know, women's sexuality, reproductive rights, the way
in which women legislatively and in other ways do not have an equal situation
in many countries and that this has to be addressed. I sometimes have said to
me, `Well, you know, we have a different culture.' And I say, `No, I don't
accept that you can have a culture to justify violations of human rights or
denial of human rights.'
GROSS: Give me an example of what you're talking about there.
Ms. ROBINSON: I'm talking about, for example, female genital mutilation.
That young girls are genitally mutilated because it is, in quotes, "the
culture." And I say no, it is a traditional practice that damages women, it
damages young girls, damages their health, damages their whole psyche, I
believe. It cannot be tackled abruptly from the outside. It must be tackled
by education from within. And it's very notable. It was a very good Egyptian
study, which showed that women at second--girls who had access to secondary
education, much fewer of them were subjected to female genital mutilation.
When they went to third level, none of them would dream of accepting this
practice. And they would have the courage and the independence and the
capacity to say, `No, that's not for me.' It's those who are trapped in
situations of poverty, it's women who have had no opportunity to have a choice
in the matter who feel conditioned by the so-called customs and traditional
practices. So we have to address this through education.
Similarly, in certain countries women are not entitled to vote, in some
countries they're not entitled to drive cars and participate in economic
activity. We have a long way to go. And in particular, we have a long way to
go in ensuring that women have choice in relation to the number and spacing of
GROSS: Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the UN, wants the UN to more
regularly intervene in civil wars. Do you think that the UN should be taking
a greater role in civil wars around the world, or do you think it should be,
you know, more concerned with wars between different countries? And it is
equipped to take a more active in civil wars, even if it--you know, even if it
feels it should be the mission?
Ms. ROBINSON: I think it's a great tribute to Kofi Annan that he has the
vision to decide that it's time at the beginning of this century that we put
human security and the human person at the center of all of our work. When
the United Nations was established, there was great emphasis on the
sovereignty of nations. And if you look at the United Nations charter, it
pays great attention to state sovereignty, and that has been important. But
when there are serious violations of human rights taking place--what Kofi
Annan is urging and the members of the United Nations to think about and to
address is: How can we say that human rights or the protection of human
rights stops at the border, and that a sovereign country is entitled to
grossly violate the rights and the security and the lives, perhaps, of large
numbers of its citizens. That's just not acceptable anymore. And I think
this is a great advance.
Now, it needn't always be military intervention. There are political
possibilities. There's the possibility of using economic sanctions. There's
the possibility of public opinion. There's the possibility of all kinds
of ways of addressing it. And then ultimately the secretary-general has asked
the members of the United Nations to think very carefully of situations where
the United Nations can and should legally intervene where it is necessary to
protect human security where there is a very real threat of serious human
rights violations that threaten the lives and security of large numbers of
GROSS: We were talking before about how vulnerable human rights workers and
UN workers are when they're working in other countries. What about you and
your traveling and visiting countries in which there are flagrant human rights
violations. How are you protected during those travels?
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, sometimes I'm in situations where I would perhaps wish
for a bit more protection. But generally what I find is there is quite an
emotional toll because I listen to so many tragic stories of human rights
violations, whether it's in Chechnya, where I was last March, or Sierra Leone
in June of last year, or as I said more recently in East Timor, where I sat
with this group of women and they told me of the terrible stories. And one
woman handed up to me a little--beautiful little girl and she was the--she was
born from a rape at that church in Suai. And I asked what her name was and as
it happened, her name was Mary. And it was so important to re-enforce that
this child must not be discriminated against because she happens to be the
child of a horrific rape. And so I was encouraging this woman to--you know, I
do find that after a visit to a place of great conflict where I have listened
to such terrible first-hand accounts of man's inhumanity to man, that takes
So--but there have been times. There was a time in Colombia, in Bogota, where
I had gone to a meeting of human rights defenders and--to open a seminar on
human rights defenders, and I had left that meeting and we were told that we
were being threatened with a bomb attack. In fact, I went back to the meeting
because I had some security with me. And I felt that by going back, I would
help their overall security situation. But I was aware that there were risks
involved. I think because of my rank and status, I'm more protected than many
others. Those I admire are those who remain in situations of conflict. And I
do think that it is extremely sad and unacceptable that very brave
humanitarian workers pay for it with their lives. And I have met parents of
those that have died in doing humanitarian human rights work. And it's a very
painful thing to hear the pride of the parents, but that terrible sense of
GROSS: Mary Robinson is the UN's high commissioner for human rights. She's
the former president of Ireland. Our interview was recorded yesterday
morning. We'll hear more in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Mary Robinson. Since
1997, she's been the UN high commissioner for human rights. For seven years
before that, she served as president of Ireland. She spent 20 years in the
Irish Senate and also worked as a human rights lawyer.
Did coming from Ireland help you understand civil war?
Ms. ROBINSON: I think it did. It helped me to understand, in particular, the
concerns of developing countries because Ireland, after all, during the last
century, had a terrible famine, terrible potato famine over three years,
between 1845 and 1847. It had a huge dispersal of people who emigrated to so
many countries, in particular the United States and Canada. It had the
problem of struggling for its independence. It was for a very long time a
colony. It had the problem then of building up its economy and its sense of
statehood as a new state this century. That's the experience of many
developing countries, and I think it has given me insights and it has given me
room to maneuver, if I could put it that way, that I'm not just seen as a
representative of a developed Western country. I'm seen as a former president
of Ireland, which, after all, has shared the experience that a lot of
developing countries have now.
GROSS: You spent 20 years in the Irish Senate, and in that capacity you were
a leader in trying to overturn laws against homosexuality, birth control and
divorce. Why were those priorities for you?
Ms. ROBINSON: I think I was conscious, growing up in an Ireland which was
predominantly Catholic, but where the laws of the country overreflected the
influence of the Catholic religion, that it was important for a modern Ireland
that was to have good relations with Northern Ireland, where the majority were
Protestant, to create a state which would, indeed, fully respect the human
rights and civil liberties which are proclaimed in the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights; that there was a need for change.
I did introduce a number of proposals in the Irish Senate, the upper house of
the Irish Parliament, but I found that perhaps a more successful way of making
progress was to take cases to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. I had
several cases, as you said, on the law criminalizing all homosexual acts, on
the legislation in Ireland which discriminated against children born out of
wedlock, out of marriage. And these provided an opportunity to create more
space for individual freedoms, to reduce the role of the state, as I think it
was very appropriate to do. And that was the kind of human rights background
that perhaps prepared me for the different job that I'm doing now, which is
still centering on human rights.
GROSS: Now you personally oppose abortion, but you tried to make it possible
for women to get access to information about abortion and access to abortion.
Why did you support that if you personally oppose it?
Ms. ROBINSON: I came from a very fortunate background. I was the only girl
among four brothers, treasured. Any of my close relatives had that same
approach, etc. So I wasn't living the experience of many women, where they
were in danger of having, and especially in an Irish context, an unwanted
pregnancy which would threaten their health, which would create very serious
both physical and mental difficulties for them. And I was aware that the
limits on access to information about family planning were actually augmenting
the number of unwanted pregnancies and putting pressure on women to have
So for the 20 years that I was in the Irish Senate, I was trying to bring down
the Irish abortion rate by widening the choice by legalizing family planning.
Eventually, access to contraceptives was legalized. But I was also aware
that, in reality, hundreds and, indeed, ultimately, several thousand Irish
women were going to various clinics, in Britain mainly, for abortions, and
they had made that choice themselves. Again, I worry about whether they had
adequate counseling to open up options for them. But they were taking the
boat and taking the plane; some of them very poor, borrowing money, giving
false names, being at risk of being exploited, being at risk of not having
proper medical care.
And these are real concerns. They remain real concerns in the Irish context,
so that I think it's a problem that needs to be addressed from the point of
view, obviously, of the issues involved, of the importance of the right to
life, the importance of the right to life of the unborn, but also the
importance of the health and choice and counseling and range of options open
to women, some of whom can be in extremely difficult circumstances.
GROSS: So now contraception is more available and legal in Ireland?
Ms. ROBINSON: Yes. There was--I made three attempts in the Irish Senate, and
then eventually the government passed what, at the time, was a very inadequate
family planning bill. But now the legislation is much better, and, indeed,
there is much more promotion of family planning. And, indeed, there is active
discussion of more education about sexuality and relationships in schools, and
many schools are now giving good leadership in this area, and that is a very
welcome change. And, of course, Irish people are traveling abroad, and Irish
people who have done very well abroad are coming back to make their lives in
Ireland, bring up their children in what is a very good educational system.
So there have been a lot of very positive changes.
GROSS: Abortion is still illegal?
Ms. ROBINSON: Abortion is still illegal, but under the constitution, there is
an issue at present before the Irish Parliament as to whether, in certain
circumstances, where there's a risk to the life of the mother, abortion would
be legal under Irish law. It's a complex issue. I am out of Ireland at the
moment and obviously don't want to broach it very directly, but it is a matter
that is being actively discussed, and there has recently been a government
paper on the matter. And it is, in a sense, pending before the Irish
GROSS: And divorce?
Ms. ROBINSON: Divorce has been legalized.
GROSS: And homosexuality?
Ms. ROBINSON: The Irish government accepted the ruling of the court in
Strasbourg that it was contrary to the European Convention to criminalize all
acts of homosexuality. And there was Irish legislation providing that it
would not be criminal for consenting adults.
GROSS: My guest is Mary Robinson, the UN's high commissioner for human
rights. She's the former president of Ireland. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Mary Robinson is my guest. She's the former president of Ireland, the
current UN high commissioner for human rights. She's speaking to us from
You know, you are so involved now in human rights issues in civil wars around
the world. It's probably unfair of me to relate this, but let me just ask
you, you are Catholic and married a man who is Protestant. When you married
him, your parents were so upset that you were marrying outside of your faith
and marrying a Protestant that they wouldn't come to your wedding. That must
have said something to you about how deep feelings are in ethnic and religious
feuds and differences.
Ms. ROBINSON: Yes. In a way, it certainly has helped to, I think, give me
insight and, indeed, my husband and our children insight by the fact that we
are an interchurch marriage, or as they call it in Ireland, a mixed marriage.
There were complex reasons why none of my family were at the wedding. I was,
as I said, the only daughter. I think they had huge expectations and hopes,
and they didn't think that I had made the right choice. I'm glad to say I
knew I had; we're coming up to our 30th wedding anniversary.
Ms. ROBINSON: I must say I've been very fortunate indeed. But I would say
that, in particular, it helped me to understand some of the issues that were
beginning to surface in relation to Northern Ireland. And in 1985, when the
first Anglo-Irish agreement was agreed between the British and Irish
governments, I was one of the few voices that said, `This agreement will not
bring about the peace that we want in Northern Ireland because it hasn't been
fully discussed and there hasn't been adequate consultation with northern
Now I was, I think, more able to have insight into that because of the fact
that I was married to a Protestant, that he had relations in Northern Ireland,
that I had very broad contacts in Northern Ireland. I resigned to the back
benches of the Irish Parliament to become an independent voice, able to
address some of these issues. And so I think that, in many ways, it was
fortunate to have this insight.
Now, of course, I look in a much broader way. I look at issues, for example,
in relation to the religions of the world and the great gathering of religious
leaders that took place at the time of the Millennium Summit, and I am hoping
that those religious leaders will address the issues that will be relevant to
the World Conference next year in South Africa. It will take place, you know,
the end of August, beginning of September next year, and it's to be like the
Beijing Conference on Women, the Rio Conference on the Environment(ph). It's
to address all issues of racism, discrimination, intolerance, anti-Semitism,
anti-Islamic religion, sources of ethnic cleansing, all of these issues.
GROSS: Did your parents ever reconcile with your husband?
Ms. ROBINSON: Oh, within a month or so. I mean, it was a very short-term
thing, and, you know, my husband is--he was a political cartoonist in his
time. He has a very good sense of humor, a very good sense of balance, and he
helped to make sure that it didn't last longer than about a month.
GROSS: During the period when you were in the Irish Senate and then president
of Ireland, and you were working toward overturning laws against divorce, laws
against homosexuality, laws against birth control, were you still going to
church? And was your priest giving you a hard time about your political work?
Ms. ROBINSON: I have a very strong sense of spirituality, and I was certainly
not distant from the church. And I also was ensuring that my children were,
in fact, given the benefit of being of a family that had strengths of both
Catholic and Protestant religion. And, therefore, they would come into Mass
with me, go to church services with me or with my husband, with both of us,
perhaps. And I think that this was one of the enrichments.
GROSS: And were you given a hard time in church for your political stands?
Ms. ROBINSON: I was given a hard time publicly. When I first introduced a
bill on family planning, I was denounced from the pulpit. It was extremely
hard on my parents, particularly on my mother.
GROSS: And did the climate change?
Ms. ROBINSON: Yes, I'm glad to say the climate changed very dramatically,
and I think it's recognized that I have acted with integrity. I believe in
what I'm doing. I believe very strongly in the importance of valuing the
rounded contribution of women. And, indeed, as president, I particularly
recognized the role of women who devote themselves to child minding, to child
rearing, although I was also encouraging husbands and male partners to play
their full role. But I think that I tried to be very inclusive as a woman
president, to be a president for all of the people. And I think I drew on the
strength of the fact that I came from a Catholic background, was married to a
Protestant husband, was not alienated from a religion that I was, I think
understandably, very critical of from time to time. And I would remain
critical of it when necessary.
GROSS: Well, one more thing: Having challenged the Catholic Church in
Ireland about things like divorce and birth control, I'm wondering if you feel
a little more comfortable than you might otherwise have challenging the
customs of other countries now, such as female genital mutilation, countries
where they say, `Oh, this is cultural, so butt out'?
Ms. ROBINSON: I do. Yes, I think it helps to be able to discern what is
fundamental and what, in fact, is a custom that is actually quite damaging.
And those customs may be the hold that, at times, the Catholic Church has had
on Catholic women in rural areas, for example, on their minds and hearts and
ways of thinking. Similarly, in African countries, there may be a hold. In
Asian countries, there may be a caste system or other ways of discriminating.
And I think I can seek to discern what are the fundamental human rights values
and try to promote those, not in a judgmental, finger-pointing way, but
putting emphasis on empowerment, on education from within, on ensuring that
women themselves are supported and educated to be able to make their choices.
And when that happens, women do exercise choices that are in the interests of
their own human rights and their own self-development.
GROSS: Mary Robinson, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. ROBINSON: OK. Thank you.
GROSS: Mary Robinson is the UN's high commissioner for human rights and the
former president of Ireland. Our interview was recorded yesterday.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Latest CDs by countertenors are examples of purity and
beauty of this vocal range
TERRY GROSS, host:
The countertenor, a male singer with a high vocal range, usually associated
with women, has become more familiar to today's audiences due to the early
music movement. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has been listening to
two new recordings by contemporary countertenors. Here's his review.
(Soundbite of orchestral music and singer)
Unidentified Singer: (Singing in foreign language)
LLOYD SCHWARTZ reporting:
One of the least-understood types of singer by the general public is the
countertenor. People often think they're hearing a woman singing or a man
imitating a woman's voice by singing falsetto. But some of the most exciting
and dramatic music for countertenors was composed for the castrati of the 18th
century, the promising young boys who were castrated in order to keep their
voice soprano register. Some of them became superstars. There's nothing
necessarily feminine about the repertoire. Handel wrote one of the most
masculine roles in opera, Julius Caesar, for just such a heroic, high voice.
Two of the most admired young singers of the Baroque repertoire today are
countertenors. They both have new recordings, and each has something
different to offer. The young German countertenor, Andreas Scholl, is
probably still better known in Europe than he is in the US. On recordings you
can never be sure how large a voice is, but when I heard him at the Dresden
Music Festival, I was impressed not only with the agility, but also with the
size of his voice. Most countertenors don't have nearly the vocal thrust and
focus that Scholl does. But he's also a singer of unaffected refinement and
purity. His new album is a collection of religious music for solo voice by
Vivaldi. Here's an aria from the Psalm setting "Nisi Dominus."
(Soundbite of orchestral music and Scholl)
Mr. ANDREAS SCHOLL: (Singing in foreign language)
SCHWARTZ: The American countertenor, David Daniels, has performed beautifully
in 18th-century opera, especially Handel. But his new album, called
"Serenade," includes some remarkable departures from the standard countertenor
repertory. Daniels mixes songs from the 17th and 18th centuries with
Beethoven, Schubert, Gounod and 20th-century art songs by Poulenc and Vaughn
Williams. Daniels proves himself quite comfortable in all of these. Here's
Schubert's captivating boating song, "Auf Dem Wasser Zu Singen."
(Soundbite of "Auf Dem Wasser Zu Singen" with Daniels)
Mr. DAVID DANIELS: (Singing in German)
SCHWARTZ: Because women vocalists, from Elizabeth Schumann to Barbra
Streisand, have recorded this song, it's odd at first to hear a man singing it
and in what is usually a woman's register.
There are awful countertenors whose vocal strain makes you think the high male
voice is a freak of nature. I once heard a concert featuring Mozart soprano
arias sung by a male soprano in drag. But because both Daniels and Scholl are
serious and imaginative artists, they make you stop thinking about peripheral
issues like gender to concentrate on the music itself.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix. He
reviewed new albums by countertenors Andreas Scholl and David Daniels.
Coming up, Henry Sheehan reviews "Almost Famous," Cameron Crowe's new film
based on his experiences as a teen-aged reporter for Rolling Stone. This is
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Film "Almost Famous" is apt description of an era
TERRY GROSS, host:
"Almost Famous" is the new semiautobiographical movie about the time in the
'70s when screenwriter and director Cameron Crowe was a teen-aged writer for
Rolling Stone magazine. Crowe wrote the film "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"
and wrote and directed "Say Anything" and "Jerry Maguire." Henry Sheehan has
HENRY SHEEHAN reporting:
When a period rock movie opens in 1969 and unwinds mostly during 1973, you
know it's going to be full of long hair, bell bottoms, Volkswagens and all the
other details production and costume designers love to pile on. But the
moment when you know that the 43-year-old Cameron Crowe has perfectly nailed
the era doesn't really need any of that useful stuff.
It happens early on when a young woman tells her mom that she's leaving home.
The daughter has no hope that her mother will ever understand her reasons, but
if she really wants to try to understand her daughter, then Mom should listen
to a song her splitting offspring is going to play on the family record
player. I won't say what the song is because hearing it is kind of a
nostalgic rush and kind of a joke, too, but the encounter does perfectly
recall an age when young people, formerly called teen-agers, could hear all
their frustrations and dreams summed up in a four-minute rock song, or 15
minutes with guitar and drum solos. And while you might tell your parents
you're playing your song for them so they might understand, you didn't really
believe that. You played it as a sign of your scorn, for they just didn't
have the ears to listen.
Moments like this provide a vital and kinetic backdrop for "Almost Famous,"
Crowe's story of his formation as a young writer. Brought up by his
strong-willed mother, whose convictions ran the gamut from conventional--she
was strongly anti-drug--to eccentric--she celebrates Christmas in September to
avoid the commercialization--Crowe's character, William Miller, is almost
doomed to be exceptional.
As a 15-year-old neophyte rock writer, he captures the attention of the
legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, ably played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Bangs warns him against the temptations of going native, of letting rock bands
and their record companies seduce him into thinking he is cool. But young
William ends up in temptation's lap in the form of Stillwater, a working band
on the eve of a commercial breakthrough. A Rolling Stone editor, not knowing
William's tender age, assigns him to go on tour with the group. Along the
way, William befriends them, especially their talented lead guitarist, Russell
Along with Bangs and his mom, Russell becomes one of William's gurus, but
gurus can clash, as happens when Mom catches up with William on a backstage
pay phone, and Russell, not knowing what he's walking into, tries to
condescendingly placate her.
(Soundbite of "Almost Famous")
Mr. PATRICK FUGIT: (As William) Russell--yo, Russell...
Mr. BILLY CRUDUP: (As Russell Hammond) Hey, Mom! It's Russell Hammond. I
play guitar in Stillwater. Hey, how does it feel to be the mother of the
greatest rock journalist we've met?
(Soundbite of scream)
Mr. CRUDUP: (As Russell Hammond) Hello? Hello! Look, you got a great kid
here. There's nothing to worry about. We're taking good care of him and you
should--you know, you should come to the show sometime, join the circus.
Ms. FRANCES McDORMAND: (As William's mother) Hey, hey, listen to me, mister.
Your charm doesn't work on me. I'm on to you. Oh, of course you like him.
Mr. CRUDUP: (As Russell Hammond) Well, yeah.
Ms. McDORMAND: (As William's mother) He worships you people. And it's fine
by you, as long as he helps make you rich.
Mr. CRUDUP: (As Russell Hammond) Rich? I don't think so. We sit...
Ms. McDORMAND: (As William's mother) Listen to me. He's a smart,
good-hearted 15-year-old kid with infinite potential. This is not some
ignorant mother you're speaking to. I know all about your Valhalla of
decadence, and I shouldn't have let him go. He's not ready for your world of
compromised values and diminished brain cells that you throw away like
confetti. Am I speaking to you clearly?
Mr. CRUDUP: (As Russell Hammond) Yes. Yes, ma'am.
Ms. McDORMAND: (As William's mother) If you break his spirit, harm him in any
way, keep him from his chosen profession, which is law--something you may not
value, but I do--you will meet the voice on the other end of this telephone,
and it will not be pretty. Do we understand each other?
Mr. CRUDUP: (As Russell Hammond) Yes, ma'am.
Ms. McDORMAND: (As William's mother) I didn't ask for this role, but I'll
SHEEHAN: That's Frances McDormand as William's mom, and in a movie full of
good performances, hers stands out like an eagle among doves. She's just
about as predatory, too, until it comes to her young. Then McDormand, the
actress, is as nurturing as her character. As young William, newcomer Patrick
Fugit is intelligent and likeable, but he wouldn't come across as quite so
complete without his scenes with McDormand.
The movie is sprinkled with Crowe's insider looks at rock 'n' roll, but
there's a bigger truth to Crowe's emergence as a filmmaker in "Almost Famous."
One of William's new friends is Penny Lane, a groupie played by Kate Hudson.
Almost as young as William, Penny nurses, under a Holly Golightly exterior, a
secret crush on Russell. The guitarist, played by Billy Crudup, uses that
crush when he sees fit, but he guards his prerogatives and status as a rock
star, too, refusing to take seriously the affections of a woman who may be too
good for him.
This, in a nutshell, is what Crowe's films are always about. Whether it's
Ione Skye not realizing what a treasure John Cusack is in "Say Anything," or
Tom Cruise overlooking Renee Zellweger in "Jerry Maguire," Crowe's films are
full of the blindly presumptuous not appreciating the secretly ardent. What's
remarkably mature about Crowe is that since he was 15, he's been able to see
it all as part of the human comedy.
GROSS: Henry Sheehan is film critic for the Orange County Register.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.