Politics in Opera

Discussions of politics in the arts are far more likely to focus on fiction and theater than opera. Yet public offices, doubts, and conflicts have been pervasive in opera since its emergence. Rulers, rebels, and renegades reign over operatic works of any length and in any language and style. Yet for a number of reasons pertaining to the circulation and consumption of the genre, critical and scholarly interests are more likely to analyze private/personal than public/political matters in it.

The operas of the hugely neglected Viennese, and as of 1938 American, composer Ernst Krenek (1900-91) offer an eminent example. None has entered the standard repertoire and very few have been recorded, yet they constitute a powerful artistic as well as political testament of the 20th century. For example, many of them work as what the composer called “dialectical political” dramas, foregrounding dilemmas of autocratic rule in terms of power and desire (Der Diktator, op. 49, 1926), state and family (Life of Orestes, op. 60, 1928-29), empire and church (Karl V, op.73, 1932-33), politics and religion (Tarquin, op. 90, 1940), and governance and democracy (Pallas Athene Weeps, op. 144, 1952-55). Prolific, Catholic, anti-Nazi, and deeply reflective, Krenek composed in several genres and idioms (from late Romantic to twelve-tone to aleatoric), seeking to reconcile the fundamental “duality of life” (and thus going against the advice of his good friend T. W. Adorno) whose forms include aesthetics and theology, art and idea, technique and ethics, method and freedom, necessity and autonomy, authority and individuality, materiality and spirituality.

It is unfortunate that, when opera houses produce an evening of one-acts, they still resort to Cav-Pag, Bluebeard’s CastleL’enfant et les sortilèges, or The Medium (or a diva’s showcase, such as Daphne and Iolanta), rather than revive challenging works by Krenek, Hindemith, Zemlinsky, or Wolf-Ferrari, let alone the endlessly subversive Mauricio Kagel. Works by these five composers were presented in a seven-hour “Long Night of Musical Theater Direction” at the Institute of Voice and Music Theatre of the Vienna University of Music and Performing Arts in student productions under the musical direction of Senior Lecturer Pantelis Polychronidis, my musical and philosophical “other self.” Fortunately universities undertake to study and promote works that remain outside the very limited operatic canon.

April 25, 2015

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