Politics in Opera ImprintInformation Viva la Liberta! – Politics in Opera by AnthonyArblaster is published by Verso in 1992 in London, GreatBritain. It was the book’s first edition and publication. Thebook contains 340 pages of text, no illustrations, andincludes a tables of contents, nine main chapters, conclusion,notes and and an index. The chapters start with the period ofmodern politics, the French Revolution in 1789 and with”Mozart: Class Conflict and Enlightenment” from that periodtill modern opera / musicals in “Democratic Opera: Victimsas Heroes”. All nine chapters are written by the same author,Anthony Arblaster. Each chapter tries to concentrate on oneto a few composers from the same period who share similarpolitical views and actions.
Each chapter can be viewed asan individual work / essay. The nine chapters follow the timeframe sequentially and are respectively: Ch.1 Mozart: ClassConflict and Enlightenment, Ch.2 Opera and Revolution,Ch.3 Patria Oppressa: Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti andRisorgimento (Nationalism I), Ch.
4 Verdi: the LiberalPatriot, Ch.5 Wagner: from Revolution to Racism, Ch.6Russia, Czechoslovakia and a Footnote on England(Nationalism II), Ch.7 Women in Opera, Ch.8 Interlude -Opera without Politics: Puccini and Strauss and Ch.9Democratic Opera: Victims as Heroes. The introduction andconclusion helps in giving coherence to the vast time frameof two hundread years and the different emphasis on politicalof composers in their works.
The detailed index is alsohelpful in the cross referencing a particular work orcomposer which might be mentioned in different chapters forcomparisons. The notes offer a detailed bibliography withchance for further reference material on the issue of politicsin opera. General Summary Although the book does notformally state the meaning of “politics”, the definition usedthroughout the book is the “beliefs about how a countryought to be governed” instead of politics as in politicalpower and actions or activities.
The book also presents theargument of social context at the particular period and placeas “politics” and that if opera lacks the political element(social context), it lacks a convincing element in whichcommunication and mutual consensus among composer andaudience would be neglected, that opera cannot be ‘pure’music. Music and especially opera has to be out of’something’, a ‘something’ that lies outside and beyond themusic itself and in many instances, political beliefs play are amajor part in it. The book’s intend is not to illustrate politicsas the major cause or result of opera but that the influenceexist and to refute the common downplay and negligence ofpolitics in opera from critics. In all chapters, the authorfollows a similar pattern in presenting his arguments.
First,the history and beliefs of the composer in various stages ofhis life is discussed. Letters and books (in case of Wagner)of the composer are presented as evidence. The viewpointof the composer in that should opera include politics is alsodiscussed.
Individual operas are then discussed, citingparticular portions of the libretto as reference and evidence.The story lines for the operas are also discussed in detail.The audience’s reaction and the popularity at the time of theinitial performance is presented. Critics of different periodsfor the interpretation of the work is also quoted to give amore subjective point of view on the issue. Finally, for eachchapter, a brief conclusion on the period or the composer isgiven and the central themes are reiterated. ChapterSummeries Although Mozart by no means was a politicalperson, his works were cited as the dawn of modern operawith its certain political meaning in chapter one.
In hisoperas, there were the ideas of class and sex conflicts andwar. Class conflicts involved the abuse of aristocraticposition and rise of the common people in both Le nozze diFigaro and Don Giovanni. The sex war occures in Le nozzedi Figaro and Cosi fan tutte where women should be treatedwith respect, rather than assuming in age old chauvinist waythat is the women rather than men who are to be mistrustedin matters of love and sex. In Die Zauberflote, the momentof hope and optimism after the French Revolution can easilybe seen where light and wisdom triumph over the Queen ofthe Night and superstition. Arblaster in chapter three and sixargues that music, and therefore opera played a central rolein creating a sense of national identity and rallying people tothe national cause in the various European countries.
Oftenopera provided a forum for the expression of subversivepolitical sentiments disguised to get around census inpatriotic arias or choruses. In Italy’s case, the most explicitof all for the independence of Italy came from Rossini’sGuillaume Tell. Arblaster also states that all three operas ofRossini: Mose in Egitto, Maometto Secondo and GuillaumeTell are about national oppression and use of chorus inwhich arias are not for individuals but of whole nations. Allthree depicted the idea of militant liberal nationalism. Othercomposers of opera of Italy and other countries spreadsimilar ideas of nationalism in which helped to lead to the riseof the independent nations.
However, the most importantemphasis of the book is placed on two composers: Verdiand Wagner. Arblaster uses one-third of the book toportray Verdi as the liberal patriot with his heart for theRepublic and Wagner as the German with strong nationalist,racist and anti-Semitic views. It is also in Chapter 5 devotedto Wagner that the author changes the format to a moreargumentative fashion. Other critic’s arguments are put forthfollowed by his own rebuttal and presentation of evidence.Verdi was one of the composers with the strongest politicalconvictions and at one time even actually ran and succeededin entering the national parliament.
However, the mostimportant aspect is that he allowed himself and hispersonality to be in his music and his operas, and lacks thefeeling of distance between creator and creation that we findin Mozart or Rossini. One of his great display of nationalismwas stated in Nabucco with the High Priest, Zaccaria whichfamous chorus ‘Va pernsiero’ was spontaneously sung atVerdi’s funeral, sixty years after its initial performance. In the1840s, Verdi’s operas could be roughly divided intoprimarily dramas for individuals which would include Ernani,I due Foscari, Il corsaro, I masnadieri and Luisa Miller withAlzira and Macbeth as borderline cases. The secondcategory, which are primarily political, public and patrioticinclude Attila, Giovanna d’ Arco and La battaglia diLegnano. Issues such as conflict between patriotic duty andpersonal emotions in Giovanna d’Arco and Aida arediscussed.
Italian patriots, against barbarian invaders as inAttila are also portrayed. After the defeat of the Italianupraise and fall of the Roman republic in 1849, Verdiswitches to more personal dilemmas and social matters.Rigoletto and Boccanegra were both about class conflictand La traviata about social issues. Near the end of hiscareer, Don Carlos was targeted at the Catholic Churchindicating that is more powerful and more ruthless than thestate. Aida, ended Verdi’s line of political or party politicaloperas with anti-clericalism sentiments.
Although Wagner’sworks were adopted as cultural symbols by Hitler and theThird Reich and Wagner shared many of the anti-Semiticand racist views of the Nazis, Arblaster stressed that thatdoes not indicate that Wagner would approve the actions ofthe Nazis. He simply states that the racist and nationalisticviews of Wagner in his operas, or music-dramas cannot beignored. Rienzi, was against aristocratic rule and carried astrong suggestion of fascism which many say turned Hitler’sambitions away from art towards politics after seeing the firstperformance. The Ring, which spanned twenty-six yearscarried different political meaning during various stages ofthe opera corresponding to Wagner’s beliefs in life. In DieWalkure, there was incest which in a way signified ‘pureblood’ and ‘pure race’. In Siegfried, there was thinlydisguised racism with Siegfried’s treatment of Mime.
Siegfried, arrogant, aggressive and above all mindlessNordic hero was supposed to be the ‘most perfect humanbeing’. In Das Rheigold, Wagner’s obsession with the’fire-cure’ to cleanse the world was indicated by the doom ofthe gods even with the return of the gold. With Chapter 7,Arblaster discusses the social role of women in opera andthat they are almost always the victims but are given moreweight and sympathy in opera than in the real world. Pucciniand Strauss in Chapter 8 are shown as composers who tryto compose non-political operas in an increasing politicalworld and how this affects the coherence and validity of theiroperas. Finally in Chapter 9, modern day opera toBroadway musicals are included stating that opera is nolonger about the elite or privileged but about commonpeople as heroes.
Critique Arblaster in both the introductionand conclusion emphasized that music was the basic and themost important element of opera. However, throughout thebook, his discussions were around the libretto giving littlereference to the music and how they express political,nationalistic or patriotic feelings. He had no detailed analysisof the orchestra or the score. At best, he indicated theinstruments in a particular section. This might be due to thestrong history but weak music background of the author.Arblaster sometimes also use the original versions of operasrather than the revised or the version that we can obtain.
This might provide limited benefit to our studies and practicaluse. The author also stretches the definition of politics to thesocial context in the opera, especially in the chapters ofMozart and women in opera. The social context might justbe a background in which an action takes place instead ofthe beliefs of the composer in which he would want tospread to increase awareness. For example, in Le nozze diFigaro, there is class and sex conflict. However, theses areideas which were rising at the time but not politics which arebeliefs which would help govern the country.
Opera in manycases spread ideals and visions but that does not equal tospreading ideas of politics. Opera carries more meaning thansheer entertainment but not necessarily politics. This alsogive rises to the pinpointing of certain parts of the libretto toestablish the political element of the opera.
The opera mightto a great extent non-political and trying to express otherideas but by extracting and emphasizing these elements, thereader might get a wrong intention of what the opera isabout. For example, although in the conclusion the authorstressed Wagner’s musical achievements are not impactedby his racist views, the reader would concentrate too muchon these controversial and politically non-correct libretto ofthe composer while neglecting the music and the othermeanings to the great work such as The Ring. To conclude,Anthony Arblaster might have tried too hard in that insteadof looking for a line that would connect all the operas, hesearched too deep for individual evidence for each opera forthe composers he discussed. The content does notcorrespond accurately with the title Viva la Liberta –Politics in Opera.