Early signs of the Washington Opera's current mania could be seen in "L'Italiana in Algeri," which is currently in repertoire at the Eisenhower Theater. Here is an opera -- a comedy, believe it or not -- that deals with such heavily political (and hardly, per se, funny) topics as terrorism, kidnaping, the Third World, slavery and women's rights.
Is the Washington Opera, that secure haven of erotic drives, harmonic tensions and melodic cadences, succumbing to the political mania that seizes its home town every four years?
You better believe it.
And Martin Feinstein's company is not the only opera presenter in town that is getting political. At the moment, the Opera House is showing "HMS Pinafore," a biting commentary on English class structures and political appointments. And March 26 the Kennedy Center itself will bring in the newest addition to the repertoire of hard-core political opera, John Adams' "Nixon in China," for six performances in the Opera House.
An obsession with political opera, of course, is hardly a local aberration. In the nearly 400 years opera has existed, it has probably used political themes more often than any art form except the editorial cartoon. Its political power has been strongest in Italy, where opera was once an important element in the people's struggle for national identity and remains a national pastime with an audience that extends through all classes including bus drivers and grocery clerks. Italy marched toward its freedom and unity to a chorus from one of Verdi's operas, and at his funeral, that tune -- "Va, Pensiero" from "Nabucco" -- was sung spontaneously by thousands of mourners as a tribute to a composer who had become a sort of national monument.
The Washington Opera's political cycle will go into high gear Saturday night when Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Consul" moves into the Eisenhower. This harrowing indictment of totalitarianism, dehumanization and bureaucracy dates from 1950, deep in the Cold War, but its themes seem likely to survive glasnost and perestroika as long as there are tensions between governments and their citizens; as long as there are secret police, barriers at national boundaries and "processing" for would-be emigrants.
"The Consul," musically and theatrically one of the great political operas of all time (see list), will be followed by another, Beethoven's "Fidelio," when the Washington Opera moves back to the Opera House Feb. 20. A week later, the company will revert to romance with Massenet's "Cendrillon," the archetypal Cinderella story. But if backstage rumor is correct, the Washington Opera will be back with another great political opera, "Tosca" with Placido Domingo, before the next presidential election.
As the foregoing series of titles indicates, political opera is not exactly a new idea. In fact, if you define the term to include dynastic struggles, intrigues at court, war, revolution and the relations between the individual and society, politics comes in second only to sex as an operatic subject. It has been that way since opera began.
Monteverdi's "The Coronation of Poppea" is historically the first opera in which the principal roles are filled by real human beings as opposed to the gods, heroes and allegorical fantasies of Greco-Roman antiquity. Its plot, dealing with the successful effort of Nero's mistress to have herself crowned empress of Rome, mingles sex and politics inextricably.
At the other end of the historical spectrum, Eros and revolution coexist in "Les Mise'rables" -- which is, like "Porgy and Bess" or "Sweeney Todd," an opera no matter what you choose to call it. Between these historic poles, the variety of forms taken by political opera is an impressive testimony to the power and versatility of human imagination.
Hard-core political opera can be heard in Carlisle Floyd's "Willie Stark," which is based, ultimately, on the life of Huey Long; or in Kurt Weill's "Mahagonny" and "The Threepenny Opera" -- critiques of capitalist society, with librettist Bertolt Brecht's pen dipped in acid and music by Weill to match. The overt political content can be heavy in operas on historic subjects: Thea Musgrave's "Mary, Queen of Scots," for example, or Benjamin Britten's "Gloriana," on the life of Queen Elizabeth I. Political theory, in such subtopics as the burdens of leadership, the nature of charisma, the difficulty of communicating a private vision to the masses, is part of the substance of Arnold Scho nberg's "Moses und Aron."
But there are serious political dimensions in many operas that seem to be about other subjects. Mozart's "The Magic Flute," for example, is a paean to Freemasonry and a platform for some of the ideals of the Enlightenment (if not of feminism). Giordano's "Andrea Che'nier" and Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites" both view the French Revolution vividly from the viewpoint of people headed for the guillotine. Britten's "Peter Grimes" tackles the knotty problem of the individual's relation to society, as does Dallapiccola's brief, intense "Il Prigioniero," about a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition who is tortured more painfully by hope than by any physical abuse.
Sometimes the watchful eye of the censor can see politics where the average opera-lover would see only human interest. Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," for example, was nearly suppressed before its premiere in Vienna because the Beaumarchais play on which it is based had been banned by the Austrian emperor. Not only is the primary villain a nobleman, but even worse, perhaps, he is outwitted by members of the servant class.
Mozart's censors, however, were easy compared with those who plagued Giuseppe Verdi in the days before Italian unification, particularly when his operas dealt with efforts to assassinate heads of state. In "Rigoletto," the sexually promiscuous tenor who barely evades an assassin's knife was originally a king (Franc ois I of France) in "Le Roi s'amuse," the play by Victor Hugo on which the libretto was based. But Austria then dominated the separate Italian states, and government censors, nervous over suggestions of regicide, made Verdi demote his tenor to a duke.
The tenor of "Un Ballo in Maschera" suffered even worse indignities. The opera was based on the life -- or rather the death -- of King Gustavus III of Sweden, who was in fact assassinated at a masked ball in Stockholm on March 16, 1792. The censors insisted he be busted from a king all the way down to a colonial governor. And though the historic event had happened in Europe, its operatic echo was banished to the barbaric society of colonial New England; the king became Riccardo, count of Warwick and governor of Boston and vicinity.
The censors were not entirely wrong, of course, in their suspicion of Verdi. He embodied the spirit of the Risorgimento, used his art consciously to forward the cause, and was recognized by Italian patriots as a symbol of their aspirations to freedom from foreign domination and national unity. Even when an opera had a nonpolitical subject, Verdi would throw in political messages whether they belonged there or not.
In his crazy, mixed-up and musically magnificent "La Forza del Destino," for some unexplained reason, the Spanish village of Hornachuelos seems to be a hotbed of Italian nationalism. A Gypsy woman, Preziosilla, is brought in for no perceptible purpose but to enliven things with a bit of rabble-rousing. In her first appearance, she bounces into a tavern in Hornachuelos shouting "Viva la guerra" and tells the men drinking there: "Run off to be soldiers in Italy, where war has broken out against the Germans." "Morte ai tedeschi!" ("Death to the Germans!") shouts the men's chorus, and the Gypsy picks up the curse, calling the "tedeschi" the "eternal scourge of Italy and of her sons." Everybody joins Preziosilla in a vigorous, martial chorus with the refrain "E bella la guerra, evviva la guerra" ("War is beautiful, long live war") before the opera can get back to its basic themes of guilt, repentance and thwarted love.
Beyond his operatic efforts, of course, Verdi became a national hero because his name was a handy acronym for the name and title of the king ("Vittorio Emmanuele, Re d'Italia"), who gained the throne in 1861 after a long struggle against Austria.
When the Austrians heard the crowds in the street shouting, "VERDI, VERDI!" they knew that the opera composer was only part of what was being acclaimed. But what could they do about it?
Verdi lived to see his political dreams come true, and perhaps for that reason his successors in Italian opera did not have the same level of political energy.
Puccini produced only one opera with political overtones, and in "Tosca" the atmosphere of a police state is used with more artistic purity -- to intensify the drama, not to advance a political cause.
Menotti, too, uses his political theme for dramatic, not ideological ends. His opera takes place in an unidentified European country not long after World War II. John Sorel, a leader of an outlawed political movement, has been wounded in a secret police ambush and goes into hiding, leaving behind his wife, mother and infant child. Most of the remaining scenes deal with the efforts of his wife, Magda, to get a visa and emigrate to freedom.
The most harrowing scenes take place in the bleak waiting room of a consulate (also unidentified) where Magda and others try month after month to get an exit visa, blocked by the Secretary, one of a half-dozen characters in the opera who are never given names.
The Secretary represents a sterile world of filing cabinets, dossiers, forms to be filed out, documents to be obtained and endless, hopeless waiting.
She behaves inhumanly because she must function in inhuman situations. In a soliloquy, she explains: "One must try not to remember, one must not think, otherwise how can one do any work!"
The title role of the opera never appears except as an offstage shadow. Anyone who asks to see the Consul receives the same robotlike response from the Secretary: "No one is allowed to speak to the Consul; the Consul is busy."
The most memorable moment in "The Consul" is Magda's scene "To this we've come" at the end of Act 2. For its central portion, the music is adapted to the form of a questionnaire: "What is your name: Magda Sorel. Age: Thirty-three. Color of eyes? Color of hair?" Her answer is dramatically changed on the final repetition of this pattern: "My name is woman. Age: still young. Color of hair: gray. Color of eyes: the color of tears. Occupation: Waiting!" In the final climax, she evokes an image of mankind rising against bureaucracy: "Oh, the day will come when our hearts aflame will burn your paper chains! Warn the Consul, Secretary, warn him! That day neither ink nor seal shall cage our souls." In this scene, more than anywhere else in opera, an essential element of life in the 20th century is crystallized.
Compared with the torments of Boris Godunov or Macbeth, who murdered to reach political power, Magda's anguish may lack a certain majesty, but it more than compensates in universality. Like Alban Berg's Wozzeck, an ordinary person driven to desperation and finally to suicide by the forces of a society he cannot understand, Magda represents the democratization of opera in the 20th century. All of us have shared her experience, though the lucky ones have done so only at a bureau of motor vehicles.