5 Operas About Politics
Earlier this month, award-winning composer Derrik Wang wrote an opera, Scalia/Ginsburg, based on the friendship of Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. But it's not the first time politics have gotten the musical treatment. Here are five other political operas.
1. Nixon in China
Mere months before the beginning of the scandal that would define his career, Richard Nixon broke ground in American foreign relations by arranging a visit to Mao Zedong in Communist China, marking the end of a 25 year period of separation between the two countries. While this doesn’t exactly seem like fodder for an opera, director Peter Sellars thought differently. In 1985—little more than a decade after Watergate—the young Harvard grad approached composer John Adams with the idea for an opera that, rather than satirizing the politicians, would show heroic intentions from both Nixon and Mao while to examining the potential for the mythical in contemporary history. Though Adams was skeptical at first, he was later sold by Sellars’s unconventional idea and set out to create an equally unique sound.
Using instruments relatively uncommon in opera, such as saxophone and electronic synthesizer, Adams joined forces with librettist Alice Goodman to paint the shiny, heroic scenes that had been broadcast back home—Pat and Richard Nixon waving as they descend from their plane—intermingled with quieter, decidedly less grand moments, like the final scene showing the main characters in their respective bedrooms, reflecting on the events of the journey. Though it opened to mixed reviews, Nixon in China is still being staged today, having made its debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2011.
2. X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X
A full 20 years after the controversial civil rights icon Malcolm X was assassinated, his life was taken to the stage with X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. With a large cast and music that heavily featured jazz and hip-hop styles, X followed its eponymous lead from his Michigan boyhood onward, touching on his father’s death, his mother’s mental deterioration, and later, his involvement and friction with the Nation of Islam. Following through to his assassination, it ends with a rifle being pointed at him—the fateful shot is not actually heard.
After a fairly quiet 1986 premiere at the New York City Opera, the opera has been slowly gaining further recognition, having been most recently performed (as an abridged version) at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in May 2010.
3. Boris Godunov
Boris Godunov, a Russian opera composed by Modest Mussorgsky in the mid-1800s, is the semi-fictional account of the titular Tsar Boris Godunov and a civilian uprising that attempted to remove him from power. Godunov reigned from 1598 to 1605, with Russia devolving into the famine-ridden and largely anarchical Time of Troubles following the end of his rule.
Mussorgsky’s innovative style and subject matter were contentious for many, but none more so than the royal family. Allegedly, a Grand Duke approached the show’s prima donna, Yuliya Platonoava, exclaiming, “this is a shame to all Russia, and not an opera!” Cultural critic Vladimir Stasov later reported, “When the list of operas for the winter was presented to His Majesty the Emperor [Alexander III], he, with his own hand, was pleased to strike out Boris with a wavy line in blue pencil.”
The royal concerns with the opera were justified, as civilian unrest had already been proven dangerous to the crown. Alexander III’s father, Alexander II, was killed with a homemade bomb by a member of the Russian left-wing terrorist group The People’s Will. Alexander III’s son and successor, Nicholas II, would later be imprisoned and executed by Bolsheviks. At a time when the Russian opera scene was dominated by Italian imports, Mussorgsky created Boris in an attempt to carve out a distinctly Russian style of opera. However, the resulting work was met with skepticism and disapproval from the critics. Composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky even noted, “Mussorgsky’s music I send to the devil; it is the most vulgar and vile parody on music…” Today, however, a new appreciation has dawned for the opera, with many critics lauding its creators for the bravery and originality that went into a piece that was (quite literally) so revolutionary.
Earlier this summer, the United Kingdom celebrated the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation with performances of this historical opera based on the life of her namesake, Queen Elizabeth I. Originally penned in the 1950s, Gloriana follows the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex, who was later tried for treason and executed.
The opera was commissioned for the crowning of Queen Elizabeth II, but it has rarely been performed since then. This is likely because of its unpopular portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I; rather than patriotic, grand, and noble, she is painted as a vain, disillusioned woman coming to terms with her own mortality. Following its debut, it was called “one of the great disasters of operatic history” and even given the nickname “Boriana.” However, the 2013 revival of the opera fared much better, most likely aided simply by the passage of time.
5. Mulroney: The Opera
Written by comedian and satirist Dan Redican, this 2011 on-screen opera focuses on the life of Brian Mulroney, Canada’s prime minister from 1984 to 1993. Spurred by the emergence of “CNN operas” like Nixon in China, the film lampoons the rise and fall of the Quebecois politician. Though it had a pretty large budget by Canadian standards— $3.8 million—and a cast chock full of Canada’s best opera singers, the film was largely a flop, or as one critic called it, “an epic failure.” Not without bright spots, the opera features an especially enormous prosthetic chin and, for fans of Whose Line is it Anyway?, Colin Mochrie as Jean Chretien, who later became Canada’s 20th prime minister.