In its 425 years of existence opera has played a part in many political events–The Marriage of Figaro, though very much neutralized from its French source, caused some anguish in Vienna, Verdi composed his first fifteen or so operas advocating an end to Austrian rule in Italy, and Berg’s Wozzeck dramatized the plight of the impoverished, undernourished and invisible humans ground underfoot by society. Though opera is not the popular medium it once was, it still can and should have something important to say when our government goes astray.
The current President has trampled on the first amendment to the Constitution in prejudicing Muslims; he has ignored the restrictions on nepotism, some legal and others unspoken that are part of our democratic tradition, possibly accepted collusion with Russia in his election, violated the Logan Act and the emolument clause in the United States Constitution, sadly accustomed all of us to our President’s saying what his spokeswoman called “alternate facts”, done everything possible to turn the American people against the honest reporting of the press, and now embarrassed all Americans by withdrawing from the climate accord, so grouping our great country with only Nicaragua and civil-war-torn Syria among all the nations of the world. King George III never did any more to harm our colonial ancestors than the current President has done in a little over three months.
At least since 1600 leaders have been most afraid of two things: comedy and the theater. Both have helped America in the recent past. Two comics in the 1950s in Houston defanged the then growing ultra-right Facts Forum, and the theaters and film have done much to make Americans realize the value of civil rights. Opera has one cause célèbre in its history, even clearer than the reaction to Verdi’s operas: in 1830 a Belgian audience was so inspired by a patriotic duet in an opera by Daniel Auber that they rose up in the theater and began the revolution that broke their country free from foreign control.
We have two huge institutions, plus the public, that can check a President’s power: the courts and the Congress, both equal to the executive in power. The courts have already acted by not allowing religious prejudice to win. The Congress is investigating, but has not acted. All members of Congress take an oath to defend the Constitution, and they should remember why their body was created by the first article of the United States Constitution, thus being more important to our forefathers than either the executive or the judicial branches of government.
Now entering my ninth decade, I was born when Franklin Roosevelt saved the country from what could have been anarchy or Communism, grew into my teenage when Eisenhower successfully stalled the advance of Communism, thrilled to the call of service and civil rights called for by Kennedy and Johnson, hailed Nixon’s rapprochement with China, believed along with Reagan that we in America represent the best of the world, and delighted in Obama’s principled and forthright internationalism.
Since I believe that the theater through the last five hundred years has been a Petri dish for freedom, hated by autocrats and beloved by libertarians, I call for more than even Saturday Night Live or the many television comics do: let one or more artists step forward who with comedy, drama, film, or even a new, popular opera can galvanize Americans into Constitutional action so that our country can again become what President Reagan called a sparkling city on a hill.
On a lighter note anyone who has not seen the following should do so. It is not only funny but scrupulously musical: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hz7SfkhJe74&feature=youtu.be