The opera is called “The Dictator’s Wife.” In it, the attractive wife of an authoritarian political leader bemoans the challenges of her position: the protesters who chant outside while her husband showers her with expensive gifts, forces himself on her sexually and cowers in the bathroom guarding the briefcase with the nuclear codes.
Here’s the question for the Washington National Opera, which will offer the work’s world premiere Friday night, a week before the presidential inauguration: Is the opera pure farce — “Grand Guignol,” in the words of its director, Ethan McSweeny? Or could it, just possibly, be about Melania Trump?
Those responsible for the world premiere don’t have the same answer.
The composer, Mohammed Fairouz, 31, makes no secret of his political leanings. Prolific and popular, he is an outspoken syndicated writer drawing on his Emirati American heritage in columns for Foreign Policy, the Independent and others. “I wanted to do it [i.e. bring out the Donald Trump associations in this production] one way or the other, whether he won or lost,” he says. Now, “our closing matinee is five days before the inauguration. [If] we set this in some exotic South Asian country, we’re going to look like idiots.”
Francesca Zambello, the artistic director of the Washington National Opera, feels differently. The production “is not set in the White House,” she says. “It is not about the president-elect or his wife.” But, she adds, “of course there are analogies with anyone who takes power.”
And McSweeny, the theatrical director who has been in charge of the last two world premieres of one-hour operas in WNO’s American Opera Initiative, is trying to find a middle ground.
“This is a one-hour opera, not a ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch,” he said, speaking by phone before a rehearsal at the company’s Takoma Park studios. “I think we’d be doing it a disservice if it was limited to that.” But he doesn’t want to conceal the relation to current events, either. “I’m preparing one version that has an element that would go that far, and another version that doesn’t go so far,” he said. It will remain to be seen in rehearsals how far the performances will go.
WNO certainly didn’t mean to wade deeply into questions of political art and political self-censorship when it commissioned the opera almost two years ago. The opera’s libretto, by the Pakistani army officer-turned-journalist-turned-best-selling-novelist Mohammed Hanif, is based on a dramatic monologue that Hanif wrote in 2008 for his actress wife, Nimra Bucha, to perform around the world. If it was based on anybody, it was Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, the authoritarian ruler of Pakistan from 1978 until his death in 1988 (who is also the subject of Hanif’s breakout comedic novel, “A Case of Exploding Mangoes”).
But for the operatic version — which adds other characters to the action — the creators wanted to emphasize that, rather than being limited to Pakistan, this could happen anywhere. “It could be Mrs. Putin,” McSweeny observes.
Fairouz says he wanted the American setting — he mentions the Oval Office — all along. “We always depict authoritarian governments as something that happens there, it can’t happen here,” he said.
He made no secret of his intentions to the production team. “We were all joking among ourselves,” McSweeny said, “that if that guy Trump got elected, this would be the most politically prescient piece of opera ever produced in America. Well, that happened.”
Suddenly, on Nov. 9, the idea of a figurehead wife revealing what she really thinks about an erratic, authoritarian ruler took on a whole new resonance. “Those parallels surface because we bring them in as audience and creators,” McSweeny said. “You don’t have to bang them over the head, but you have to acknowledge them. You can’t run away from them.”
“The Dictator’s Wife” bears little relation to the literalist genre of docu-opera that has put Anna Nicole Smith, Harvey Milk and Malcolm X on the operatic stage. It does contain some pointed allusions — protesters chanting about a wall, reference to the last leader to use the nuclear arsenal: “Truma-n, or was it Roosevelt?” But it deliberately transcends specificity in many regards. Its heroine is an almost archetypal figure, a mash-up of Eva “Evita” Perón, Imelda Marcos and countless other historical first ladies. The dictator himself is never seen onstage. The stripped-down, abstract staging of the WNO production does not include sets specific enough to designate a location. Even the outspoken Fairouz doesn’t intend the opera to be irrevocably associated with the Trumps.
“Donald Trump doesn’t have a very long shelf life,” he says. “In five years, this piece is going to have to be done with a different figure in mind.”
At the moment, though, the whole team is faced with the question of how to be most effective in what nobody denies is a political satire — one of the hardest genres, they observe, to write.
“Isn’t it our collective job to let the audience deduce these things?” Zambello says. “I’ve been just as guilty of hitting the audience over the head; I’m not exempt. [But] I think that a little subtlety helps bring it across.”
Linked to this is the question of how far to go in taking a political stand. In the minds of everyone who hears about a new opera satirizing Trump, there’s an underlying nervousness about possible consequences — a nervousness that only underlines the point that the satire is trying to make.
“If that’s what we’re going to succumb to even before he takes office,” Fairouz says, “then — ” and he adds an unprintable suggestion.
But what exactly do you do when reality overtakes your ability to satirize it?
“What I would like,” McSweeny says, “is for everyone to come out of [the performance] talking about exactly this.”
Fairouz sums up his objectives more wryly. “We’re going,” he says, “to make opera great again.”
The Dictator’s Wife will be performed Friday and Sunday at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater as part of WNO’s American Opera Initiative, which also includes performances of this year’s round of three 20-minute operas on Saturday night. Tickets are sold out.