Climate Change
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Climate Change

How do new operas reflect the shifting political and economic landscape in the U.S.?
By Philip Kennicott
Illustration by Robert Neubecker

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Illustration by Robert Neubecker


IN OCTOBER 2000, before the premiere of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking in San Francisco, the creative team spoke at a press conference and insisted that the new opera wasn’t a political work. Although it was based on Sister Helen Prejean’s searing indictment of the death penalty, it wasn’t an opera about the death penalty, nor did it take a stand on the controversial issue. It was, they said, an opera about redemption.

It was a curious moment in the history of politics and opera. Heggie and his collaborators defined an aesthetic, which is still in operation today, that reversed two key elements of the larger inheritance of opera from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like other contemporary composers and librettists, the producers of Dead Man Walking were using topical themes and contemporary characters while trying to avoid any particular political viewpoint. Composers from earlier eras often did just the opposite: they looked to the past to examine the present. In Don Carlo, Verdi turned to the age of despotic Hapsburgs in the sixteenth century to indict contemporary clericalism and political illiberality. Wagner reached back to an age of mythic heroes to create extended allegories of nineteenth-century European politics. Meyerbeer explored the religious wars of the sixteenth century to condemn sectarian intolerance in the age of Louis Philippe and the bourgeois monarchy. 

We live in an age of new productivity in the opera world, especially in the U.S., so it’s a mistake to generalize too much about the breadth and wealth of new work that is being produced today. Contemporary American composers have also turned to the past to explore the present. But one large trend within the diverse and eclectic production of new opera today includes works such as Dead Man Walking, which stress relevance and emotional nuance over ideological viewpoint—and dissect the present without aiming to be explicitly political. They make a virtue of something that is rapidly disappearing from our larger public life—a sense of equanimity, broad empathy and multivalent discourse. Some of this country’s most venturesome opera companies, such as Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, have stepped into the vacuity of our civic life to create work that raises issues too volatile to broach productively in the usual arenas of debate. The company’s “New Works, Bold Voices” series has explored sexuality and sport, religious and political conflict, and it continues next season with Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang’s American Soldier, which takes on ethnic identity and hazing in the U.S. military.



WHEN WE LOOK TO THE POLITICS OF OPERA, however, we tend to be myopic. The topicality of many new American operas is a political fact in a larger sense: it defines a new relationship between the audience and the artist, and between the institutions of opera and the larger society. It can be hard to see those relationships when you live with them, but with the distance of a century or more they become manifest. When we explore the history of opera, we tend to ask more questions about who commissioned the work, and for whom, and to what purposes. We look to understand the internecine politics of the theatrical world, and how that impacted the subject and messages of older works. Verdi was writing for the popular theater, while Wagner was steeped in the disappointed ambitions of German nationalism. Monteverdi’s world was haunted by absolutism and Machiavelli, while Mozart wrestled with the Enlightenment and its larger and often darker inheritance. And yet, when it comes to the politics of opera in our own time, we tend to look at rather superficial things, such as immediate relevance and superficially embedded political sympathies.

What if we were to step back, for a moment, and ask the same questions of contemporary opera that we do of the historic canon? What impact does the commissioning and production process have on the political message of contemporary opera? What understanding of contemporary American political self-definition emerges from the stories we are telling on the opera stage, and the style in which we tell them?

One theme, common but not universal, is a sense of impotence. Many of the most successful operas of the past twenty years deal less with power or conflicts of power than with a psychological and political sense of powerlessness. The characters in Heggie’s Dead Man Walking are essentially stuck with their fate, trapped within a system; they cannot find a way out of their predicament but must, instead, search for psychological release. The same might be said of Heggie’s very successful Moby-Dick, in which a microcosm of the world is held in thrall to a megalomaniacal captain, a boatload of trapped souls tossed on the sea. Jack Perla’s Shalimar the Clown, which had its premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis last year, deals with sectarian and national conflict in Kashmir, and its characters are tragically caught up in violence that spins out of their control. The gay boxer in Terence Blanchard’s Champion (seen in a new version at Washington National Opera this past season) is trapped within his competing identities, as a gay man and as an athlete for whom violence is an essential tool for success. 

This sense of powerlessness has deep roots in American opera. Perhaps the most famous example is John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer, which dramatized a horrendous act of cruelty by a Palestinian terrorist faction yet depicted the events with such detachment that some critics accused the composer and librettist of sympathizing with the killers. The opening choruses of Death of Klinghoffer, which dramatize the frustrated hopes and embedded memories of two peoples set in seemingly permanent and intractable opposition, are as fundamentally definitive of contemporary American opera as the triumphal march from Aida is to nineteenth-century Italian opera, or the act-ending ensembles are to the operatic world of Mozart. They offer no hope of action, or resolution, and suggest to the audience that its duty is to listen and empathize. The emotional engagement of the experience isn’t through direct identification with the characters but through acceptance of a world that may be irredeemably broken. 

There’s nothing new, of course, about operatic characters caught up in forces beyond their control. What is new, however, is the way in which powerlessness isn’t just a narrative device but reflects our collective condition. The picture of the world that emerges from these works is antiheroic and anti-ideological. “These works are requiems for the lost political hopes of modern Western culture,” political scientist John Bokina wrote twenty years ago in his book Opera and Politics. He was referring not just to the works of Adams and Philip Glass but to John Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles, in which the political dynamics of the French revolution are recast to suggest that everyone involved, aristocrats and peasants alike, is sadly entrapped in a social dynamic beyond their capacity to reform. 

Bokina’s book arrived in 1997, when the political hopes of the Western world hadn’t been further deflated by the rise of sectarian terrorism, toxic new forms of nationalism and the unraveling of the basic democratic apparatus of the post-World War II Western alliance. Today, powerlessness as a motif goes well beyond an analogue for our sense of uncertainty and insecurity in the political world; it also reflects the inner dynamics of the opera world that commissions these works. Despite the success of many of these operas in relative terms—some companies are having better box-office results with topical “issue” operas than they are with the traditional canon—there is a prevailing sense of gloom in the larger cultural milieu that includes the opera world. The cultural centrality of opera is greatly diminished, and with that comes a sense of melancholy and sadness. Something is being lost, which is one reason, perhaps, that some of these new works are distinctly reflective, stories of broken people (such as the boxer in Champion) looking back on a life that seems to be slipping away from them. 

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Illustration by Robert Neubecker 


T HE REGNANT COMMISSIONING PROCESS, which often includes several opera companies working together to create a single work that then travels from city to city, isn’t driven just by the fraught economics of making new opera; it also indicates a belief in the virtues of collaborative enterprise. This, too, both reflects deep-seated political feelings and has a direct impact on the music and drama. As Western political ideals have tarnished, we increasingly look to corporatist models for leadership. The individual political leader no longer seems to carry with him or her genuine feelings of hope and loyalty, and often it seems our political leaders are incompetent compared to the titans of business. Not surprisingly, figures such as Apple’s Steve Jobs have become operatic subject matter, as in last summer’s Santa Fe Opera premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. More significant, however, is how many new works emerge as a collective product of an opera industry, rather than powerful, idiosyncratic, independent artistic statements. The workshop process makes many works theatrically tighter, but it also serves as a kind of beta-testing that produces a safe, reliable, user-friendly product. 

The creation of new opera has always involved a substantial amount of group effort, but the current process is subtly different. Today’s commissioning process gives opera administrators ever more control over the product, including how many singers will be necessary, how long it will last and whether a chorus will be available. Of course, this helps them control costs and ensure reliability. But the larger political importance of this process is how it aligns new opera with the values and worldview of opera trustees and board members, who are increasingly chosen for their practical business experience. Whereas nineteenth-century impresarios often sought the maximum spectacle for their investment, the corporate twentieth-century impresario seeks product that runs smoothly and can be produced on time and on budget, and then successfully sent on the road to other companies, where audiences with very different tastes or expectations must also find the work palatable. Efficiency, clarity and succinct rather than extravagant emotional expression become paramount.


MANY COMPANIES APPEAR to have achieved the success they sought with a new generation of topical operas. But this success also portends perhaps the most significant change in internal dynamics of the opera world in at least a century. Many companies report that they are reaching a broader audience, selling tickets to more households while the core audience of subscribers grows smaller. The opera audience is likely to lose the nature of a community—people who attend frequently and pay close attention to the form—and become more like the broader consumer audience that is typical of other kinds of entertainment. Selling more tickets to more and different people is hard work for the marketing department, but it is also celebrated as a key achievement in the broadening of the opera audience. But this is a fundamental change in the power dynamics between the audience and company.

The consequences of this change—the disempowerment of what many people consider an intractable core audience devoted to core repertoire—may be the most important connection between opera and politics today. As this audience shrinks, or is driven away, opera will look more like other forms of entertainment, more dependent on novelty and new work, and likely even more engaged with topical operas that parse the issues of our time. But something distinct will be lost, yet one more remnant of a preindustrial form of artistic expression, a world of values and ideas and emotions that could never be entirely integrated into modernity. Opera-lovers are not alone in watching the rapid assimilation of something that never quite found a sustainable place in contemporary life. It is happening all across our society, in multiple areas of human endeavor. One might offer up this image as a metaphor: Don Giovanni, in the grips of the Commendatore, slowly being dragged down—a vivid image of an old and aristocratic figure, sometimes arrogant and often unruly, who needed taming to fit into the world of reasonable, rational people. spacer 

Philip Kennicott, chief art critic for The Washington Post, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. 

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