Luskin: Operatic Politics

Jan 11, 2017

I love the live transmissions from the Metropolitan Opera. Usually, it’s the music and spectacle that carries the story, which – face it – can be pretty far fetched. But recently, these operatic stories are reminding me of current U.S. politics.

I saw Mozart’s Don Giovanni in October, just weeks after Donald Trump’s infamous 2005 “Access Hollywood” bus remarks were made public. As a result, the opera struck me as uncannily topical, despite having been written 230 years ago.

Don Giovanni tells the story of a licentious aristocrat, a libertine who relentlessly seduces women and gets away with it. He doesn’t just brag about his conquests; he tallies them. He pursues the noble Donna Anna and the peasant Zerlina with equal zeal. His behavior with men is also appalling. He mistreats his servant, offends Zerlina’s fiance, and murders Donna Anna’s father.

But Don Giovanni is hard to stop. His peer, Don Ottavio, doesn’t want to believe that a member of the nobility would behave so badly, so Ottavio is slow to admit that Don Giovanni is morally corrupt. Back in October, I guessed this scenario might feel uncomfortably familiar to many politicians allied with then-candidate Trump.

More recently, I attended the Met simulcast of Verdi’s Nabucco, which is loosely based on Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who destroys Jerusalem, enslaves the Jews, declares himself god and goes insane. While the opera takes liberties with history, the story of an over-reacher claiming absolute power and trampling on the freedom of others had a distinctly contemporary ring.

In real life, no less than Saddam Hussein was a great admirer of the historical Nebuchadnezzar. Saddam went so far as to hang side-by-side portraits of himself and the Babylonian king at the entrance to the restoration of the ancient Babylonian ruins in Iraq. The opera has a happier, if more apocryphal ending where Nabucco converts to monotheism and frees the Israelites.

The next Met simulcast will be Gounod’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the story of young lovers whose joint suicides bring a sadly needed reconciliation between their feuding families. I can’t help but see in it a reflection of the two halves of our divided nation - where one candidate won the popular vote and the other the Electoral College – leaving me to wonder if it will take a tragedy for reconciliation to be possible.

We’re living - it would seem - in operatic times.