Over on Slate this week Brian Wise posted a piece about Donald Trump and his playing of Puccini’s Nussun Dorma at campaign events. Trump had been using a recording of Pavarotti singing the aria and the singer’s family had contacted him to ask him to stop.
Musicians have been complaining for years about politicians using their music at events without permission, and it’s always fun to ridicule a pol with whom you disagree when the artist whose work they’ve chosen to associate themselves with repudiates the “honor.”
So Wise writes:
Trump’s use of it might read as yet more evidence for those who already view the bombastic businessman as a fascist in the making… Not only is Turandot an opulent, Orientalist fantasy set in imperial China by a composer who never set foot in Asia; Puccini also held a sympathetic spot in his heart for the fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. The composer’s late-career admiration for Mussolini’s policies has prompted a new generation of historians to see his operas—especially Turandot—through a political lens.
It is “quite easy to read Turandot as a political allegory,” writes Arman Schwartz in the book Puccini’s Soundscapes, “one consistent with fascism’s own narrative of the degradation of post-World War I Italy and of Mussolini’s heroic rise.”
While I applaud the urge to dump on Trump (for so many reasons), trying to associate him with fascist sympathies because his campaign plays one of the most famous arias on the planet is a yuge overreach. Trump is essentially historically context-free. He grabs things and uses them (facts, images, music, ideas, tweets) because they are shiny objects that caught his attention in that jumbled stream-of-consciousness river that flows through his head. The backstory is irrelevant to him.
He uses a Star of David in an ad on Hillary Clinton because it’s a star and he didn’t stop to think it might have more specific meaning. He thinks US obligations to NATO allies are dependant on allies’ behavior because he’s unaware of the history. And he uses Puccini because it sounds heroic to him. Powerful. Not because it resonates with the fascist child within. Debates about connections between artists’ political views and their work have raged for years. But when you’re as devoid of context as Trump is, a song is but a song…