Art, it’s said, holds a mirror up to society — particularly on the stage. In Europe, especially, even traditional operas are frequently updated or reinterpreted with contemporary social commentary. Thirty years ago, Nazi uniforms were a veritable cliche in works by Verdi and Wagner. These days, the figure who’s appearing more and more as a symbol of power and its abuses — and clad in an iconic bouffant wig and overlong red tie — is Donald Trump.
Trump has been featured as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” in Linz, Austria, singing one of opera’s most famous arias, “La donna e mobile” (“Woman is fickle”), to excuse his philandering ways. (The Seattle Opera will offer its own Trump-like take on this piece in August.) He has appeared as Baron Ochs, the wealthy bumpkin eager to marry a beautiful young girl, in Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier,” in Melbourne, Australia. And in some cases — such as Anthony Davis’s “The Central Park Five,” which opened at the Long Beach Opera in June, or the Cantonese opera “Trump on Show” this spring in Hong Kong — Trump has even appeared as himself.
These appearances may seem like acts of protest or provocation, signaling a viewpoint that opera audiences abroad are likely to share, tapping into an easy laugh along the lines of “Saturday Night Live,” which has helped to propagate many features of the Trump iconography. But they also downplay the actual political issues: A singing Trump is a comic Trump and not a very serious Trump.
“I think I got about equal boos and laughs,” says Thomas Segen, a tenor who sang the role of Trump in “The Central Park Five.” “It was sort of a moment for people to let loose a little bit.”
For the soprano Sara Hershkowitz, Trump has become something of a breakout role. Every year, the Lowlands music festival in the Netherlands, a large, open-air festival akin to Chicago’s Lollapalooza, includes a single classical act on its program. In 2017, it was the North Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, which hired Hershkowitz to perform the eight-minute work “Mysteries of the Macabre,” a high-wire avant-garde piece for coloratura soprano that the 20th-century Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti excerpted from his opera “Le Grand Macabre.” But performing a piece for an audience of 15,000 at a pop-music festival is quite different than doing it in a concert hall. The orchestra told Hershkowitz that rather than just coming out in an evening dress, they wanted her to create a concept and a staging and that they’d like something provocative.
“I knew they meant a bikini,” Hershkowitz said last week by phone from Los Angeles. “I thought, ‘I should do it in a burqa.’ That would be provocative. But I don’t want to be perceived as mocking Islam, particularly as an American Jewish artist. I thought, ‘What is provocative in 2016?’ We hadn’t had the election yet. Everybody thought Hillary was going to win.”
In the opera, the character singing the excerpts is Gepopo, the head of espionage for the fictive Prince Go-Go. “He goes in preaching fear and hysteria to this little town about the end of the world,” Hershkowitz says. “It’s in nonsense language; it makes no sense at all. It’s mumbo-jumbo. But it’s mumbo-jumbo that hypnotizes people. It dazzles and entertains, even though she is saying nothing.”
So Hershkowitz decided it would be fitting to dress up as Donald Trump — in three incarnations: in a suit and red tie, as a tantrumming baby and in a Miss America pageant swimsuit. “It wasn’t a stretch at all,” she says.
But after Trump won the election, and before the festival, Hershkowitz was convinced that the orchestra wouldn’t let her continue with her idea. However, the orchestra supported it enthusiastically. So did the crowd. “They went absolutely bananas,” she says.
Now, “Mysteries of the Macabre” has become something of a calling card. In June, Hershkowitz performed it with the Bergen Symphony. She has three more iterations coming up, including her debut with the BBC Scottish Symphony in Glasgow in November.
What does it mean to play Trump in 2019?
“It’s almost like playing a mythological figure or a saint or something,” says Segen, the tenor. To prepare for the role in “The Central Park Five,” he watched old footage of Trump, who in the piece is supposed to appear in his pre-presidential incarnation. The events of the opera, about the incarceration of five young men for a crime they didn’t commit, take place in 1989, when the real Trump took out full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty to be reinstated.
In creating the opera, however, Segen and the director opted to incorporate some of the more familiar, and more recent, Trump shtick.
“There’s sort of an iconography of Trump,” Segen says. “It’s more what people are looking for, rather than the actual nuances of character. That simian kind of smirk he has. The long tie.”
The production even included a scene in which the character sits on a golden toilet — and makes a phone call. (Twitter had not been invented in 1989.)
Having Trump evoked in opera isn’t new — not since Peter Sellars set his provocative 1988 staging of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” on the 52nd floor of Trump Tower. (The opera centers on a wealthy aristocrat who has decided to abandon the “droit du seigneur,” his right to sleep with every woman on her wedding night before her husband does.) And obviously, the phenomenon is far from exclusive to opera: The spoken theater has already seen everything from Trump stagings (the Public Theater in New York staged Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” to evoke Trump in 2017) to Trump plays.
But Trump, as president, certainly lends himself well to opera: Whatever you think of him, he’s a larger-than-life figure who evokes large-scale reactions and is prone to easy-to-imitate gestures. Therefore, he slips easily into comic opera, in particular — such as a “Mikado” in the Swiss town of St. Gallen that had the Japanese aristocrats use what one reviewer called “typical Donald Trump gestures” of the hands. (W.S. Gilbert, “Mikado’s” librettist, conceived of the work as a sendup of British mores in any case, and it’s traditional to insert contemporary references.)
Admittedly, Trump isn’t the only world leader to get this kind of operatic recognition. He’s often paired with other equally recognizable, not to say infamous, figures — such as Kim Jong Un of North Korea, who was a character in the Cantonese opera about Trump, based on the premise that Trump had a long-lost Chinese twin brother. Similarly, the Hamburg State Opera’s production of Verdi’s “Nabucco” in March cast the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar as a cross between the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin and Trump (with the slogan “Assyria first!”). (The show’s director, Kirill Serebrennikov, was under house arrest in Russia for two years at the time he was directing it and had to do all his work by means of images and messages exchanged on computer USB sticks.)
Putting political figures onstage in veiled or allegorical form is a trope as old as opera. But a watershed event in the depiction of actual politicians came with “Nixon in China,” the 1987 opera by John Adams and Peter Sellars, about President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. There followed a whole wave of docu-operas, including some roles for presidents — a notable recent example being Philip Glass’s revision of “Appomattox” at the Washington National Opera, which included a part for Lyndon Johnson, in one scene sitting on a toilet.
A concern, though, is that the feel-good amusement generated by the snickers is a way to conceal the actual political threat — just as the Nixon figure in Adams’s opera, and Alice Goodman’s libretto, became a kind of simple American guy out of his depth, rather than the far more malign figure he actually was. Does it contribute to Offenbach’s opera “The Tales of Hoffmann” to have the creator of the mechanical doll, Olympia, appear as a Trump look-alike, as he did in Meiningen, Germany, in 2017? Or does it safely defuse Trump to have him appear onstage, over and over, as a buffoon?
Even when the intent is to skewer Trump and his policies, it may not always come across. The music/theater piece “Kein Licht” by the French composer Philippe Manoury got great attention before its 2017 premiere, since Elfriede Jelinek, the Austrian Nobel Prize-winning author, wrote a Trump role into the piece. But for some critics, in practice, the result didn’t actually amount to a strong attack.
And not every observer agrees that Trump onstage is a trend in opera. Citing three productions, including the Serebrennikov “Nabucco,” Manuel Brug, the critic of the German paper Die Welt, said, “There are probably a few more, but [Trump] hasn’t really become a permanent guest on German stages.”
But for Hershkowitz, it has been eye-opening.
“Singing Ligeti to millennials at a rock-concert setting was a huge eureka moment for me, about how if we got more creative about presenting classical music,” she said.
“We talk about, ‘How do we make classical music cool, bring in the young people?’ ” she said. “You don’t. Classical music is not cool. It’s thrilling, visceral, raw and sexy but not cool. But if you simply present all the juiciness that’s already there, just go to where people are camping at a rock festival — they got it. This is avant-garde.”
Hershkowitz is even in discussions about bringing her interpretation of the piece to the United States. At the same time, she doesn’t want this particular moment to last forever.
“As much fun as I’m having,” she says, “I hope I get to create a different version in 2020.”