Opera Betty: Opera and Politics

Given the season, I’ve found myself exploring politically inspired themes. I had a lot of material to chose from – so many operas have been – and continue to be – inspired by political situations.

“Scalia/Ginsberg” is a new opera by Derrick Wang. According to an article in Salon, “Justices Antonin Scalia, with his devotion to the Constitution’s original meaning, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, more willing to adapt the Constitution to changing times, were ideological opposites and longtime friends with a mutual love of opera.”

I couldn’t find a recording or video for “Scalia/Ginsberg,” but for once I have an actual excuse to play something from “Nixon in China.” I think this particular selection is especially timely. “News has a kind of mystery….”

According to Tim Ashley’s opera guide in the Guardian, Jurgen Flimm’s 2004 Zurich Opera production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” emphasizes that “the opera is not only a demand for freedom and individual dignity, but is also a reminder of the lengths to which we must sometimes go in order to achieve them.”

Following the 2008 election, Guerilla Opera came out with Curtis Hughes opera “Say it Ain’t so, Joe,” about the vice presidential debates between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. The opera is described as a musical re-imagining of the 2008 Vice Presidential Debate, along with glimpses of other contemporaneous events and figures – with some fantastical digressions. It goes on to say that it’s not about Palin and Biden as real people, so much as about their public identities as constructed in the imaginations of the American people. It’s intended to evoke the subjective experience of watching the debate, including some emotional twists and turns and musical reflections on the nature of political speech. The libretto is adapted from public records – so the dialog will seem eerily familiar.

There was also an opera about Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, by Dan Redican. Its premiere was described as an epic failure, but it’s short, sweet, and judging from the trailer, worth the watch.

Also worth the watch is the upcoming movie of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The opera version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Poul Ruders premiered at the Danish Royal Opera in 2000.

And let us not forget “Powder Her Face,” the explicit opera by Thomas Adès about the “Dirty Duchess”, Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, whose sexual exploits were the stuff of scandal and gossip in Britain in 1963 during her divorce proceedings. I played the overture on the radio, just to be safe.

Then of course there’s Boris Godunov. Boris comes out of the gate with everything I love about Russian opera. I love the traditional melodies, the bells, the heaps of choruses and the sound of the Russian language. It’s the story of Boris Godunov, obviously, who became tsar when someone had Ivan the Terrible’s heir, Dimitry, killed as a baby. We’re not saying who.

Opera means many different things to many different people, says a New York Times review. One meaning with a long history is “opera as musically accompanied declamation,” which is how ”X (The Life and Times of Malcolm X)” by Anthony Davis struck a reviewer in its formal world premiere at the New York City Opera. X “falls into the category of message theater, and by definition its message will not appeal to all who hear it.” See what you think:

A new opera by Mohammed Fairouz opened at Washington National Opera earlier this month that may or may not be about Trump. According to a Washington Post article, in “The Dictator’s Wife” the attractive wife of an authoritarian political leader bemoans the challenges of her position.

Recordings of “The Dictator’s Wife” are not yet available, but there are about 16 pages of other videos by or featuring Fairouz. This is the rabbit hole I went down:

And then of course there’s the whole Trojan war, summed up nicely in In Les Troyens

In a show about political operas I can’t not play something from “Satyagraha,” by Philip Glass. “Satyagraha” is about Gandhi’s years in South Africa, where he developed non-violent protest, or Satyagraha. In Gandhi’s words:

“Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love.”

I’m sorry you can’t see it, but the music is some of my favorite:

There has been quite a lot of talk about who will and will not be playing at the inauguration. In a tweet, Charlotte Church announced that she had declined, followed by some choice emojis. I find it funny that the only thing I have by her is the evening hymn from Hansel and Gretel. It’s lovely.

When at night I go to sleep,
Fourteen angels watch do keep,
Two my head are guarding,
Two my feet are guiding;
Two upon my right hand,
Two upon my left hand.
Two who warmly cover
Two who o’er me hover,
Two to whom ’tis given
To guide my steps to heaven.
Sleeping sofly, then it seems
Heaven enters in my dreams;
Angels hover round me,
Whisp’ring they have found me;
Two are sweetly singing,
Two are garlands bringing,
Strewing me with roses
As my soul reposes.
God will not forsake me
When dawn at last will wake me.