Opera and the Politics of Protest, Part 1

Chen-Ye Yuan as Chou En-lai, Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon, Robert Orth as Richard Nixon and Thomas Hammons as Henry Kissinger in Opera Colorado’s 2008 production of Adams’ “Nixon in China” (photo: Matthew Staver).

By Graeme Kay

“Culture shouldn’t be interested in day-to-day politics,” composer-conductor Iván Fischer told The New York Times in October. But he immediately qualified this eyebrow-raising remark, made in the context of a discussion of his new opera, The Red Heifer, the tale of a 19th-century blood libel and a musical bellwether for encroaching anti-Semitism in Fischer’s home country of Hungary. Nailing his colors to the mast, the message was plain enough for Hungary’s political masters to read: “We want to be valid next year and the year after,” Fischer said, “but I think culture has a strong responsibility to find the essence, the real concealed truth which lies behind the day-to-day.” A courageous statement for a musician whose livelihood, and those of his musicians, depends on state support.

In a year that celebrates the bicentenaries of Verdi, whose works have been interpreted and reinterpreted as rallying cries for Italian reunification, and of Wagner, subject of an arrest warrant for revolutionary activity in Dresden in 1849, plus the centennial of Britten, whose relationship with muse and lover Peter Pears was common knowledge at a time when homosexuality was still a crime, it is particularly appropriate that opera companies and opera lovers are even now being called to the barricades. Gay activists taunted conductor Valery Gergiev and soprano Anna Netrebko at the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera, lambasting them for refusing to dissociate themselves from recent anti-gay legislation emanating from the Russian government, and Gergiev continued to be greeted by catcalls at Carnegie Hall and, most recently, London’s Barbican Hall. Managements under siege have been supported by members of the audience who counter that a musical performance is not an appropriate platform for political protest, and that once the audience’s and performers’ attention has been drawn to the object of protest, the music should be allowed to speak for itself.

But what happens when the repertoire itself defines the very nature of political engagement?

The European Legacy

The machinations of royal and ducal courts from medieval times to 18th-century Sweden were bread-and-butter for Verdi in I Lombardi, Simon Boccanegra, Rigoletto and Un ballo in Maschera, as was Mozart’s attack on aristocracy in Le nozze di Figaro. But these too were courageous acts: both composers risked falling foul of the censors and other guardians of propriety — and often did. Mussorgsky, composer of Boris Godunov, initially struggled against a ukase (decree) prohibiting the portrayal in opera of Russian Tsars.

A useful exegesis on the continuum of this subject is provided by John Bokina, whose Opera and Politics: From Monteverdi to Henze links repertoire at various stages of operatic history to “the trajectory of Western politics, the ascendancy and demise of the aristocratic rule, the troubled reign of the commercial classes, the failed search for a radical alternative.” Monteverdi’s operas reflected Machiavellian notions of absolutism, but by the time of Mozart’s Figaro and Don Giovanni, absolutism was a spent force, shortly to be overturned completely by the French Revolution, the iconic Bastille prison of which is symbolized in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Wagner’s Parsifal evokes a political Utopia, and the post-Romantic operas of Richard Strauss, notably Elektra, embrace a Freudian world of mental hysteria.

As late as 1953, the British courtiers attending the premiere of Britten’s Gloriana, heralded as a coronation gift to the new Queen Elizabeth, were outraged to discover that the U.K.’s leading composer had delivered a warts-and-all portrait of the turbulent and intrigue-riddled life, loves and death of her distant predecessor, the “Virgin” Queen, Elizabeth the First. Had modern jurisprudence not on the whole disfavoured the incarceration (or worse) of errant composers, the outlook for Britten might have been bleak. It is a sobering thought that the British Government’s Lord Chamberlain’s Office was responsible for the censorship of all theater until as late as 1968, when the role was finally abolished.

For Britten, Gloriana was part of a pattern in the post-war decade: in Peter Grimes and Albert Herring, he tackled small-town politics respectively in tragic and comedic vein; The Rape of Lucretia was a grim exploration of sexual politics; and Billy Budd mined the politics of those in power to crush the powerless individual’s patent goodness. And while the 1960s and 70s sparked radical questioning of the established decorous values of cultural conservatism, Henze’s The Bassarids appeared in 1966 as a voice of dissent. While based on the conflict between Pentheus and the Dionysus, as found in The Bacchae, Henze’s opera is seen to offer a paradigm of the struggle between the Establishment and the New Left. That same year Pierre Boulez, displeased with contemporary repertoire, famously suggested in a newspaper interview that the most elegant solution to the moribund state of opera was “to blow the opera house up.”

Writer and broadcaster Graeme Kay is a former editor of Opera Now magazine. His publications include an audio biography of Beniamino Gigli, published on the Naxos label. He is currently a multiplatform producer for BBC Radio 3.

This article was excerpted from the Winter 2013 issue of Opera America Magazine, the quarterly of the national nonprofit service organization for opera. Members of OPERA America receive the print and digital editions of Opera America Magazine as a benefit of membership. Join today.

Read part 2.

A single golf clap? Or a long standing ovation?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.