David Ignatius writes a column on foreign affairs for The Washington Post, has occupied leading editorial positions with the paper and has written nine novels. He is also, now, an opera librettist. “The New Prince,” composed by the brilliant 29-year-old composer Mohammed Fairouz and directed by rising star Lotte de Beer, was announced in recent days at the Opera America conference in Washington. Its world premiere will be in 2017 at the Dutch National Opera. Ignatius, 64, discussed his new departure. The interview has been condensed for print.
How did this project come to be?
I was in my office at The Post one day last summer, and I had a phone call with somebody I had never met. He said, “I am working with the Dutch National Opera on an opera about Machiavelli.” I said, “I have to ask why on earth you contacted me out of the blue?” He said, “I’ve been reading over your shoulder for years, and I thought you’d be a good partner.” And I just had the impulsive immediate reaction that it was something I wanted to do.
The initial phase for me was just reading deeply in his life.
Machiavelli is a deeply complicated and modern person. He was in almost every respect a complete failure during his lifetime. “The Prince” wasn’t published until seven years after he was dead. The opera opens with his torture at the hand of the person he then, in this kind of desperate, suck-up way, tried to make his patron. I think of him like a political consultant, or a pundit who’s trying to get on the Sunday talk shows. He spends his career hustling, trying to get the patrons. The one thing that he was successful at during his life as a writer was as a writer of sex comedies.
He had an intense omnivorous sexual life that he wrote about very openly. He was famous for having said, “Fortune is a woman.” So I made Fortuna his muse, sort of his love object, and the opera begins and ends with the two of them.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a writing project that was as challenging or as exciting. What I didn’t know until I got into this project was that there’s a certain kind of great big sentimental [story] that you couldn’t possibly write as a novel for modern sensibilities. Opera to me seems almost to require that you paint in this much broader way. You can engage themes that are much bigger.
Can you tell me what the three chapters are about?
The first chapter is about revolution and disorder. Revolutions, like children, are lovable when young, and they become much less lovable as they age. The second lesson Machiavelli tells us is about sexual obsession, among leaders. And then the final chapter is basically is the story of Cheney [and] bin Laden, the way in which those two ideas of what we’re obliged to do as leaders converged in such a destructive way.
The epilogue takes Machiavelli into the one place where he was entirely comfortable, which was his writing study. One of the most beautiful things he ever wrote [was] a letter to his best friend about what it was like as a writer to enter his study and sit down and write without regard to anybody or anything except the truth.
Why was this project so much more challenging than other things you’ve done?
Because I had no idea what I was doing. Opera was completely new. [It was new in] trying to structure a story in a way that was discontinuous, since I am not experimental in the structure of my novels [and] in terms of writing a kind of free verse.
Do you draw distinctions between journalism, your novels, art, not art, in terms of your writing?
Every kind of writing that I do, I’ve learned that the secret is to let go, to let your preconscious do the work and kind of get out of the way for that creative process to happen. My fear with this was that it was so new to me that I won’t be able to let go.
One reason I really hope that audiences like this is that I’d love for somebody to say to us, “Why don’t you try another project?”