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Features Opinion Published 12 July 2011

Storming the Opera Houses

Opera has long trod a fine line between the despotic and the genuinely radical. Here Robert Barry traces this heritage, and suggests that rather than trading on past glories, opera might once again find itself a site of historic pith and moment.
Robert Barry

The last days of June saw the premier of a new biopic, The Undefeated, concerning the exploits of a “galvanizing reformer” to take on a “corrupt and compromised political class” and “rampant crony-capitalism” in America’s most northern Southern State. Yes, you guessed it: The Undefeated is the new Sarah Palin hagiography by the right wing film-maker Stephen Bannon, previously responsible for such tubthumping epics as Battle for America and In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed. However, it may not be entirely without significance that the film’s producers chose for its debut screening the prestigious hundred year-old Pella Opera House in Iowa.

As the most expensive (non-functional) art form ever devised, the opera has always danced an intricate gavotte with political power. Despots from Louis XIV to Chairman Mao have rarely shirked from using its grandeur to enhance their own prestige. And with recent cuts to arts spending in the UK, the lavish expenditure on our leading opera houses has come in for some harsh criticism. But opera is a contradictory beast: an art form that has almost never turned a profit, yet historically intimately tied to the capitalist mode of production; a theatre associated with the rich and the powerful which has leant it support to resistance and revolt throughout its history.

En route to the storming of the Bastille, a great crowd of people stopped off at the Paris Opéra where the opera house’s caterer, in possession of the necessary keys, let them into the props room for them to supply themselves with weapons. It is extraordinary to think at this moment, the very prototype of the violent revolutionary upheaval, the angry mob were battling their oppressors with swords and clubs that might only recently have been put to use in a production of Gluck’s Alceste. After the revolution, a new openness and freedom was brought to the opera and the other playhouses of Paris under an act known as the Liberty of the Theaters, but the privileged financial position of the Opéra was never in doubt. New operas based on revolutionary themes were commissioned. Robespierre himself took an especial interest.

In her afterword to Jacques Attali’s Noise, Susan McClary modifies somewhat the French theorist and economist’s idea that the politics of the nineteenth century were predicted in the music of the eighteenth. For McClary, the aesthetic regime Attali dubs ‘Representation’ begins a century earlier . It was not, after all, so much the feudal aristocracy which nurtured the new genre of opera from the beginning of the seventeenth century, but those northern Italian courts sustained by commerce, and the first public opera houses, and while the opera’s first ideologues liked to cloak their new ideas in classical masks (as did the French revolutionaries two centuries later), the singing style was derived from the improvisatory practices of contemporary street singers. Operatic libretti were subversive to wards authoritarian figures from the very beginning, somehow able to cock a snook directly in the king’s nose. This gnawing critique would find its violent expression two centuries later at the gates to the Bastille.

It was not only bourgeois revolutionaries who soundtracked their subversion with arias and recitative, however. The young Richard Wagner was a follower of the anarchist Bakunin and a reader of Feuerbach, who took an active role in the Dresden uprising of 1848, supplying guns and ammunition, acting as look out, and widely suspected of burning down his own opera house. Verdi’s name was so closely allied to the Italian risorgimento that his name became a common piece of graffiti. And at the height of the campaign for Czech national liberation, the Prague National Theatre, which became the very symbol of the movement, was built out of the donations from the broad mass of the people, eager for a proper venue to hear the operas of Smetana.

Upon his visit to Russia in the early 1920s, H.G. Wells remarked upon the resilience of Soviet operatic life to weather “the extremest storms of violence”. The first people’s commissar for enlightenment, Anatoly Lunarcharsky was a keen opera lover who had written esteemed essays on Wagner. He was instrumental in appointing futurists and constructivists to key positions of power in a state musical hierarchy which saw many new productions and radical re-workings from such innovators as Stanislavsky, Meyerhold and Mayakovsky. The opera was at the very centre of Soviet cultural life in its earliest and most dynamic phase.

So while we may be more inclined to see, in Stephen Bannon’s choice of venue for his Palin film, the heritage of Napolean’s use of Spontini for his own glorification and legitimation; there is, almost paradoxically, a sense in which this move is one more attempt on the part of the Tea Party and its darlings on the American Right to co-opt the signifiers of radicalism. Not for some time has the opera house been a site of political contestation in the west; now that Palin’s supporters have made it one, the door is open and waiting for a more substantive response from the Left.

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Robert Barry is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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