Ideas & Issues

How Is The White House Like The Opera House?

With the presidential election set for Tuesday, we take a look at operas that tackle today's toughest political issues. i i

hide captionWith the presidential election set for Tuesday, we take a look at operas that tackle today's toughest political issues.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
With the presidential election set for Tuesday, we take a look at operas that tackle today's toughest political issues.

With the presidential election set for Tuesday, we take a look at operas that tackle today's toughest political issues.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

With the election very nearly upon us, you might think the opera house would offer some respite from the dominant issues of the presidential campaign. Well, yes — and no. Composers from Monteverdi to Verdi used the operatic stage to further the debates of their days and to make political statements. In Monteverdi's case, he attempted to present Venice as the great superpower of his time; Verdi broached all manner of political intrigue in his work, from his allusion to the assassination of Sweden's King Gustav III in Ballo in maschera to Italian nationalism in Attila and Nabucco.

Following in this ageless tradition, today's composers have also used opera as a frame in which to explore today's most pressing concerns, from terrorism to the ups and downs of the U.S.-China relationship. What's changed, though, is how modern artists approach these topics. Rather than issuing polemics, the best composers delve deep for intimately drawn character studies portraying the lives and stories behind the headlines and sound bites — a world away from the stereotype of the opportunistic "CNN opera."

Five Contemporary Political Operas

Cover for A Portrait

Terrorism: 'Heart Of A Soldier'

Composer Christopher Theofanidis was searching for a way to create a work that referenced the World Trade Center attacks; he knew he'd found his subject after opera director Francesca Zambello suggested he read Heart of a Soldier. It is the true story of Sept. 11 hero and decorated U.S. Army veteran Rick Rescorla, who is credited with saving nearly 2700 lives that day, though not his own. Heart of a Soldier, with a libretto by Donna Di Novelli, premiered at San Francisco Opera in 2011 — on the eve of the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11.

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  • "A Portrait"
  • Album: A Portrait
  • Artist: Thomas Hampson
  • Label: EMI
  • Released: 1997
San Francisco Opera/YouTube
 
Cover for José "Pepe" Martinez: Cruzar la Cara de la Luna

Immigration: 'Cruzar La Cara De La Luna'

In 2010, Houston Grand Opera gave the world premiere of To Cross the Face of the Moon, which was billed the first mariachi opera. It is the story of three generations in a Mexican-American family that explores issues of self-identity and the pain of migration. Since the premiere of this opera by José "Pepe" Martínez (who has led the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán since 1975), it has played in Paris at the Theatre Chatelet and will go to Chicago's Lyric Opera in April 2013.

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  • "José "Pepe" Martinez: Cruzar la Cara de la Luna"
  • Album: José "Pepe" Martinez: Cruzar la Cara de la Luna
  • Artist: Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán
  • Label: Albany Music
  • Released: 2011
Houston Grand Opera/YouTube
 
Cover for John Adams: Nixon in China

Sino-US Relations: 'Nixon In China'

"News has a kind of mystery": one of the most famous lines from 20th-century opera. This collaboration between composer John Adams, librettist Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars (which also premiered in Houston) manages to dig into the nuances and ironies of some of history's most complicated actors, from President Nixon to Madame Mao. It has been recorded twice and the 2011 Metropolitan Opera production will appear Nov. 19 on Blu-ray and DVD.

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  • "John Adams: Nixon in China"
  • Album: John Adams: Nixon in China
  • Artist: Various
  • Label: Nonesuch
  • Released: 1988
Metropolitan Opera/YouTube
 
Cover for Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking

Death Penalty: 'Dead Man Walking'

Jake Heggie's beautiful 2000 opera Dead Man Walking is based on the true story — and the Oscar-winning film — about a man sentenced to death row in Louisiana and the Catholic nun who became his spiritual advisor. Against all odds, but entirely to the credit of Heggie and his musical champions, it looks like this one is entering the repertory. Not only has it been recorded twice, but it's been staged by more than two dozen companies around the world, with performances on the way in the next two years in Montreal, Boston, Eugene, Ore., Tulsa, Okla. and Dresden, Germany.

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  • "Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking"
  • Album: Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking
  • Artist: Joyce DiDonato
  • Label: Virgin Classics
  • Released: 2012
Houston Grand Opera/YouTube
 
Cover for Copland: Suite from the Tender Land; Appalachian Spring Suite

The Economy: Copland, 'The Tender Land'

Even though this election continues to hinge on "the economy, stupid," there frankly hasn't been a good recent operatic elucidation of this topic. (Has there? Readers, tell us what we don't know.) So we'll look back to Aaron Copland's 1954 work The Tender Land, which was inspired by both Walker Evans' Depression-era photography and Evans' collaboration with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Today the orchestral suite (excerpted here) is heard more often than sung excerpts from the opera.

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  • "Copland: Suite from the Tender Land; Appalachian Spring Suite"
  • Album: Copland: Suite from the Tender Land; Appalachian Spring Suite
  • Artist: Third Angle New Music Ensemble
  • Label: Koch Records
  • Released: 1997
Alton Adkins/YouTube
 

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