A composer occupies the opera
In earlier posts (here and here), I referred to the Occupy movement during some semi-serious musings on the classical musical scene. But basically, folks, I was just kidding. Well, as reported in the Los Angeles Times's "Culture Monster" column, and by critic and blogger and critic Alex Ross, the movement and the music came together for real in New York last week. After the final performance this season at the Metropolitan Opera of his opera Satyagraha, composer Philip Glass joined the cause of Occupy Lincoln Center, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street. Ross's first-hand reporting and later update (with good links to other perspectives) are especially worthwhile.
I'll leave the politics of the movement and Glass's appearance alone, though would be interested in hearing your thoughts. I both like and respect Glass's music, and have programmed it on many occasions. But I would like to comment on the implication that Glass, by virtue of his composing Satyagraha, should be therefore regarded by anyone as an exemplar of the powerful ideals expressed in his opera. For those who don't know it, Satyagraha, with words translated from the Sanskrit Bhagavad Gita, presents a highly stylized and ritualized portrayal of Mohandas Gandhi's formation of the concept of ahimsa or non-violence during his time in South Africa, with scenes devoted to Leo Tolstoy, Ravindranath Tagore and Martin Luther King, Jr. Here, for instance, is the passage from the libretto that Glass read three times to the Occupy protesters outside the Met last week:
Rules the Land
We come into being
Age after age
And take visible shape
A man among men
For the protection
Thrusting back evil
And setting virtue
On her seat again"
I'm sure you know that the history of opera, like that of any of the arts, is filled with tales of its appropriation by those fighting for liberty, committing genocide, flaunting wealth, spreading propaganda, flattering royalty, and just about every good or bad purpose you can think of. For the most part -- and there have been exceptions -- the composers have been innocent bystanders, trying to please their patrons or the paying public by writing the best music they could, while at times having to navigate some perilous political shoals. The roster of noted opera composers contains a small number of great men (e.g., Giuseppe Verdi), a few absolute scoundrels (e.g., Richard Wagner), and mostly, average people with above-average musical and theatrical gifts.
The cast of characters on the operatic stage is even more varied, filled with heroes and heroines, villains, saints, sinners, gods, mortals and everymen-and-women. Indeed, the more flawed the character, the more the composer has to work with. And the richer the musical characterization, the more we in the audience can empathize with even some fairly unsavory sorts.
Consider again the two composer whose bicentennials will be coming up in 2013, Verdi and Wagner, and two of their most moving creations, Rigoletto and Wotan. Neither Verdi's bitter hunchback jester nor Wagner's unscrupulous, philandering God is especially admirable. But give them the soaring, heartbreaking music in which they express love for their daughters (Gilda and Brünnhilde, respectively) and we connect profoundly with them, human-to-human (and yes, Wotan, though immortal, is as prone to foibles as our flesh-and-blood selves). Broadway giant Stephen Sondheim is also good at writing music that compels empathy for very bad people, from serial murderer Sweeney Todd (in Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street) to would-be assassin John Hinckley (in Assassins).
And that's what music theater is all about, isn't it -- bringing words and music together to deepen our understanding of the human condition? Yes, composers such as Wagner (Parsifal) and Glass (in Satyagraha) have attempted to turn music theater into something holier. But did Parsifal make Wagner a better person? Considering the anti-Semitism he continued to spew after composing it, hardly. Is Satyagraha morally superior to upcoming Met fare such as Madama Butterfly or The Barber of Seville, and does it thereby qualify Glass or his fans to assume a position of superiority?
Here, for instance, is one sympathetic writer finding parallels between Glass's characters and Occupy protesters. Another reports protesters shouting “Your life is the play! Your life is the opera! Satyagraha!” to operagoers exiting the theater, and admits feeling goosebumps when Glass read the passage from the opera quoted above.
Please, people -- whatever your beliefs, and however you care to express them, don't place yourself on a higher plane than the operatic rabble you're hectoring. You haven't earned the privilege, and come across as vain, immature and sanctimonious. It takes no talent or unique wisdom to attend or quote an opera based on the life of a heroic figure like Gandhi. Neither does composing one make you a prophet of peace yourself. Anyone can do it, even if few could do it as well as Glass. If I had been among the Occupy Lincoln Center crowd, I might have urged those around me to learn about the checkered history of opera's co-opting by some of the most evil ideologies in history before I took my political cues from one. Then I would buy a ticket to see some real human beings express real feelings in song. I might not exit the theater a better person, but I might, just might, have learned a little about life while inside.