Opera has a long history of stirring up controversy. It looks as if Saskatoon in the province of Saskatchewan, Canada, may be the next site for a public furor over the content of an opera.
The Edmonton Opera Society has announced performances of "Lysistrata and the War" for the spring of 1979.The opera is by Bob Fink, a composer who lives in Saskatoon. But already the director of the opera-to-be has had a brick thrown through his window. And a recent phone call to an Edmonton newspaper reporter brought the word that "if the opera went on, the caller would bomb it." When the reporter asked who was calling, the answer was, "The Phantom of the Opera, buddy."
What's the problem? After all, "Lysistrata" is hardly new or news. It is the famous anti-war play by Aristophanes in which the playwright protests the constant warring between the city-states of Athens and Sparta, and suggests that the women of those cities withhold all sexual favors from their men until the men make peace. The play is roughly 2,400 years old.
In Fink's operatic version, the story is updated to include certain satirical references to Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gen. William Westmoreland of Vietnam war fame. That kind of thing is hardly new in opera either. Only weeks ago the New York City Opera brought Washington its bouncy production of "The Golden Cockerel" by Rimsky-Korsakov.
There is a direct parallel between the Russian opera and Fink's present source of controversy. In 1908 the Russian censors banned any performance of "The Golden Cockerel" until after the composer died. The ban was imposed because the opera's King Dodan bore a strong resemblance to Czar Nicholas II, while its General Polkan's wildly inefficient management of the war against Dodon's enemies recalled far too painfully the inefficient conduct of the Russo-Japanese War that turned out disastrously for the Russians.
The forces opposing the new opera about Lysistrata would love "The Tigers" by England's Havergal Brian. Though it was completed in 1932, it is only now about to enjoy its first performances. The whole point of "The Tigers" is a satire on the heroics and wartime attitudes in World War I. Where Fink, in his "Lysistrata," calls for one General Wantsmorewar, Brian, who died in 1972 at the age of 96, throws in a wild parody of the entire Battle Scene from Richard Strauss's tone poem, "A Hero's Life." And, for an extended police manhunt, he writes a long set of variations on "Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?"
The opponents of "Lysistrata and the War" claim that they can get an injunction to stop the performances. But lawyers in the area have said that they doubt such a possibility. The opponents have lined up some church groups in support of their position. And that is a reminder of what happened to Alberto Ginastera's "Bomarzo," which was commissioned by the Opera Society of Washington and had its world premiere here.
When the Teatro Colon in Ginastera's home city of Buenos Aires announced that "Bomarzo," which had enjoyed huge public and critical acclaim here and in New York, and had promptly been recorded, would be given in the Argentine capital, the Roman Catholic authorities produced a ban that kept the opera from being heard there for several seasons. Their objections were, they said, on the grounds of the "sex, hullucinations, and violence" in "Bomarzo." Boy, would those grounds decimate most of the world's most popular operas!
In Edmonton, those who want to stop the new "Lysistrata" are talking about its socialism. Now that kind of talk takes us right back to the days of Beaumarchais and Mozart and "The Marriage of Figaro." That play was such political dynamite, with its open challenges to the aristocracies of the day, that Emperor Josef II of Austria had forbidden its performance. It was only after Mozart's wily librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, persuaded the emperor that he had toned the thing down enough that the monarch told him, "Good! In that case, I will rely on your good taste as to the music and on your wisdom as to the morality." Even so, what still reached the stage was enough to set audiences on fire.
The leader of the opposition to the new "Lysistrata" in Edmonton says he is "sick and tired of the modern liberalism that is cropping up everywhere . . . and if they're going to start now turnings the opera pink, too, that's the limit.
He probably would not approve of "Figaro" at all. I wonder what he thinks of Wagner's Ring Cycle.