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Hadani Ditmars

Global drama and duelling arias herald politics' opera season

Dead Man Walking, starring J'nai Bridges, offers timely observations [Tim Matheson/Vancouver Opera]

Date of publication: 10 May, 2017

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Blog: Opera buffa, the comedy of yesteryear, may yet shine a spotlight on today's political farces, writes Hadani Ditmars.

As the whole world seems gripped by political unrest and election fever nears a global peak, it's instructive to note that May also ushers in the season of opera festivals.

From Glyndebourne to the New York Opera Festival, in St Petersburg and Istanbul, from Tashkent to the Tyrol and from Brazil to British Columbia, May and June will see a plethora of impassioned arias as well as unfolding political drama.

And as voters ponder candidates and election results in England, France, Iran - and even in Canada's westernmost province - the world of current affairs is experiencing its own operatic moments.

With tensions between the US and North Korea taking on an apocalyptic dimension, and a new pro-dialogue president in South Korea, some enterprising company in DC or Seoul should really stage a production of Nixon in China - ripe for a revival with a Trumpist twist.

And with the latest Trumpian drama unfolding - as his firing of FBI director James Comey sends shock waves through Washington - I do hope there will be an imminent American run of the opera about a modern day Machiavelli, The New Prince, by Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz with libretto by American journalist David Ignatius and a cast of characters ranging from Dick Cheney to Osama Bin Laden and Henry Kissinger.

While opera was dismissed for a few countercultural decades as elitist froth, it often had revolutionary origins, and is no stranger to politics - from Giuseppe Verdi’s Romantic idealism to more contemporary works like the Death of Klinghoffer.

And in these days of fake news, there's an emotional truth and immediacy that often makes opera feel more real than say, nightly broadcasts on CNN

And in these days of fake news, there's an emotional truth and immediacy that often makes opera feel more real than say, nightly broadcasts on CNN.

After a recent tour de force performance in Vancouver by American mezzo-soprano J'nai Bridges in Dead Man Walking, (another possible Trump vehicle in the wake of the Comey firing) with images of American flags, prisons and grisly death chambers in my mind, I contemplated just how I'd rather spend my final moments in case of looming execution or, say, apocalypse via North Korean missiles.

Watching sound bites of duelling politicos from Paris to Pyongyang? Or sitting in a theatre taking in anthemic overtures?

Considering the huge fuss and expense (and, in the case of American elections, the agonising duration of the campaign trail), as well as the ongoing underfunding of the arts, here is my modest proposal: instead of elections, why not have candidates battle it out via fervent cadenzas rather than predictable campaign speeches?

Opera festival elections would be a lot more fun, and can only likely result in a higher voter turn out.

Let's take the French elections for example. The Bellini opera Norma - about a political conflict rooted in the Roman occupation of Gaul, as well as a clash of religions - with the priestess heroine caught between both - would seem the perfect vehicle for Marine Le Pen.

Instead of screaming "death to the Romans", she could shake her fist at the EU, and perhaps Jean-Claude Juncker could even make an appearance as the Roman pro-consul Pollone. I'm not quite sure how the final scene - where Pollone joins Norma in her funeral pyre - would play out.

We'll have to wait and see what happens in June's French parliamentary elections, not to mention on June 8 in the UK.

As for Macron, he would be well cast as any number of Verdi's Romantic heroes, but, with his teacher turned wife by his side, would be ideally cast in Gonoud's Romeo et Juliette, albeit with a happier May 7 ending. And since his victory speech was accompanied by Beethoven's Ode toJoy (the EU anthem) perhaps a contemporised version of Fidelio - with his faithful Brigitte (or again - perhaps another vehicle for Jean-Claude Juncker) at his side, would be apropos.

Of course, depending on which way the wind blows come June, he may be fighting for his life in a Parisian production of Handel's Guilio Cesare.

Rossini's Barber of Seville could provide
an allegory for Iran's election [AFP]

For the upcoming Iranian elections on May 19, we have a variety of choices - from Verdi's Nabucco, with its religious and political intrigue, to his Macbeth with its Machiavellian character motivations.

But honestly, with such a diverse cast of candidates and various political disguises and machinations, perhaps opera buffo is the way to go. Say, Mozart's Marriage of Figaro or Rossini's Barber of Seville, with a cameo by Ahmadinejad singing Figaro's famous aria, Largo al Factotum (perhaps in the style of the late Luciano Pavarotti - just to stick it to Trump) 

With the long awaited Lebanese elections originally also scheduled for May and June - and now postponed yet again - perhaps the best option here would be a Levantine version of Turandot, where a handsome young prince solves the riddle of just how to break the nation's political deadlock.

Putin, meanwhile, would be a shoo-in as the lead in Boris Godunov, Mussorgsky's 19th century opera and semi-fictional account of the titular Tsar Godunov and a civilian uprising that attempted to remove him from power.

It's really a shame there are no upcoming elections in Uzbekistan - even a sham one like 2016's - because, given the popularity of the Tashkent Opera Festival, I bet Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan allegedly fired for decrying human rights abuses, could get a gig writing a libretto about a human rights activist who escapes being boiled alive and runs off with the daughter of former strongman Islam Karimov - the ex-billionaire/catwalk model/roving diplomat/popstar Gulnara Karimova.

Perhaps there could even be a recitativo from the Central Asia Amnesty International office.

I can well imagine Theresa May in a June production of Benjamin Britten's Glorianna, about Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex (played by Boris Johnson, of course). And while a Jeremy Corbyn opera would seem almost oxymoronic, perhaps a very low key, no frills production of Bobbies on the Beat would gain a few voters/spectators.

All Corbyn's arias would no doubt be mumbled from the sidelines.

While a Corbyn-driven opera may seem dull, it couldn’t possibly be worse than 2011's Mulroney, the Opera, a satirical film about Brian Mulroney, the Canadian prime minister known mostly for his chin, his championing of free trade, and singing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling with Ronald Reagan in 1985 (and more recently for a beleaguered Trump).

But in this season of polling stations and prima donnas it seems nothing can be taken for granted.

While most operatic outcomes are well established, when it comes to current elections around the globe I'm afraid, it ain't over 'til the fat lady sings.

Follow Hadani Ditmars on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars



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