Operatic Gods, and God

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In polite society, we have been told, it is not nice to talk about religion, politics or sex. This would mean that opera lovers are not polite company, which is wrong. We just happen to be more open to topics that are central to the human experience than people who are confined to talking about the weather.

I am writing this post on an Acela train en route from New York to Boston, where I will be giving a talk about how Rome and the Romans are depicted in opera -- L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Giulio Cesare, La Clemenza di Tito, Rienzi, Les Troyens, Nerone and Tosca are obvious. Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Il Trovatore are among the operas that premiered in Rome. Anyone want to comment as to why I will also talk about Tannhauser?

In thinking about Rome, the word “civilization” must be addressed. We talk about ancient Rome as a great civilization because of the progress that was made in government, technology, the arts, agriculture and thought. When Rome became the home of the Catholic Church, the pre-Christian world was confronted with the laws, beliefs and ideals of the new religion. I think the evolution of Roman culture and, by extension, much of world culture, is based on how pagan (a word suggesting pre-Christianity or a system that embraces multiple deities) and monotheistic religions coexist. They both seem to approach, in their own ways, why and how we humans do what we do. And are who we are.

As a New Yorker, I live in a city that has people of all faiths and what President Obama inclusively refers to as non-believers. It is also a city full of delightful pagans. People from around the world come here to experience how we live together, and weave the threads of all cultures and traditions into a crazy quilt that is at times beautiful and, at times, confounding. New York, for the time being, is still the new Rome.

In our city we have been doing things our way for almost four centuries. Monteverdi had not yet written L’Incoronazione di Poppea when the Dutch arrived in our waters, bringing their tolerant and entrepreneurial ways, and meeting the native peoples. While Boston took on a more British flavor with the arrival of the Puritans, New York has always used its Dutch DNA to be more open to all beliefs. I think opera took root earlier here than in Boston because New Yorkers were open to the issues opera addresses.

Lorenzo da Ponte came to New York after Mozart died and brought his books with him. They are now part of the collection at Columbia University. If the Puritans had read da Ponte’s librettos for Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni or Cosí fan tutte, they would have to be revived with smelling salts. While there are intimations of Divine retribution in Don Giovanni, these three operas embrace a world that is not so much pagan as human, in which our most basic impulses are acknowledged rather than suppressed. They are also considered by people of all religious and political stripes to be paragons of “civilization.”

The great religious and secular societies the world over have embraced artistic expression as a natural consequence and priceless benefit of their civilizations. The great poetry by followers of Islam, Hinduism, Shintoism, Christianity and Judaism does not always exalt those faiths but are explanations of the human condition as seen through them. Many early opera libretti and even those of today are by poets.

Expressions of Faith, from Mozart to Poulenc

Opera and its composers have always drawn from both sides. Mozart was religious and mentions God in his correspondence, but he also was a Mason, as anyone who studies Die Zauberflöte will know. In his personal struggles he found more charity among the Masons than from Christians, and yet his extensive religious music, culminating in the Requiem (K. 636), is clear evidence of his sincere Christian faith. Nevertheless, his da Ponte operas show a full embrace of the richest kind of humanity while La Clemenza di Tito, his final opera, features a libretto by the poet Metastasio, who demonstrated the virtues of clemency, acceptance and tolerance. Mozart embraced all of that and pointed the way to Beethoven.

While Beethoven wrote exquisite religious music, his one opera Fidelio speaks to both faith and human resolve. The bold Leonore dresses as a young man to get into a prison to liberate her husband Florestan, a man jailed because his beliefs run counter to those of the state. In his spellbinding solo, Florestan starts by wailing Gott! (God!) and exclaims how dark it is in his dungeon. And yet one feels there the absence of God. It is a masterful effect that Beethoven achieves in the orchestral passage that precedes the thunderous outburst.

Rossini, the direct heir to Beethoven in making the orchestra a protagonist in opera, had Jews, Christians, Muslims, pagans and everyone else in his stories. He could make fun of them and somehow got away with it. Anyone who saw Le Comte Ory at the Met this season or on its April 9 HD transmission will recall Juan Diego Flórez dressed as a hermit in the first act and a nun in the second (right), attempting to seduce women in both guises.

In Verdi, gods and God appear in different ways. In Aïda, the numi (various deities) are invoked by both Aïda and Amneris. Priestesses sing incantations to ancient Egyptian gods. In La Forza del Destino, we have a protective priest (Padre Guardiano) and Fra Melitone, the funny little monk who provides comic relief. Leonora, who has hidden in a convent, asks God for peace and to let her die (“Pace, pace mio Dio…O Dio, fa che io muoia”).

One of the greatest explorations of God and man is Verdi’s Don Carlo, set during the Spanish Inquisition. King Philip II seems in charge until we discover that he too kneels before the Grand Inquisitor who, most tellingly, is blind. I would reckon that Verdi, who read widely and deeply, probably was a believer but was also anti-clerical. He lived with the singer Giuseppina Strepponi for many years before they married and felt the sting of church condemnation, which he thought was hypocritical.

Wagner, in his all-encompassing way, brought all forms of paganism and Christianity into his life and work. Parsifal is his most overtly Christian opera while Christianity and older beliefs co-mingle in Tannhauser and Lohengrin. But the Ring cycle is not cognizant of Christianity. These figures live in a pre-Christian hierarchy of many gods and other beings, just like the ancient Greeks.

The telling of the Faust story, whether in Gounod, Berlioz, Boito or others, is about the epic tug-of-war between God, whom we do not see, and Mephistopheles (the devil) who is very much there for our delight and fear. This character usually gets some of the best music in the opera, sung by a bass or bass-baritone.

If you know Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, one of the finest of all operas, you know how the art form can unite the spiritual and the secular. The story of nuns who bravely go to their deaths during the French Revolution can be interpreted in many ways. One, of course, is a belief that God has set this course for them. All die under the guillotine, some with fear, some with quiet resolve, and some ecstatically.

Of Gods, Men and Unconditional Love

I thought of this opera recently while watching a French film, "Of Gods and Men," which is remarkable on many levels.  It is a masterful achievement in cinematic language, with sublime visual images and unforgettable music. It is the story of eight French Cistercian brothers who lived in Algeria in the 1990s. They tended their flocks, grew their food, provided medical care to local people and sang glorious music together as their expression of devotion. This was the essential soundtrack of the film, with one exception.

In one of the most powerful scenes I have seen in a film for many years, as the brothers face all kinds of stresses due to the threat of their being killed, they sit for their Spartan meal and one of them puts on a recording of music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. We see them overtaken with the emotion they had contained. While the same music was played in the lurid, silly film “Black Swan” and provoked horror film responses, here it is about the overwhelming power of beauty. It brings to mind too something that is profoundly human that is shared by believers, non-believers and pagans: the immense power of giving unconditional love.

I am reminded of the words of the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, “He who wants to do good knocks at the gate. He who loves finds the gate open.”

I wrote those words as my train entered Rhode Island. This is the state that was the first to fully embrace religious openness of all kinds. Last October I visited the synagogue in Newport whose congregation in 1790 received a letter from George Washington in which he said that our nation’s creed is to give bigotry no sanction and persecution no assistance.

Washington wrote, “The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy, a policy worthy of imitation.” He concluded saying “May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.”

I am thinking of all of these things as I journey through New England, cradle of our nation and many of its philosophers, in this time when Christians and Jews think about renewal, about freedom, about who each one of us is in relation to ourselves, to one another, to our society and to whatever deity to which we pray.

At the same time, legislators in Washington, the city named for the man who wrote those wise words, have again tried to cut funds that would promote creativity and expression. As Churchill said, when asked in wartime whether funds for the arts should be cut, he growled, “Then what are we fighting for?”

In Boito’s opera, Nerone, Rome falls as Nero fiddles. All that is beautiful and noble in the human spirit, whether addressed with religious fervor or unconditional love, is what makes life rich, meaningful, and complex. And this is what I learn every time I go to an opera. What opera makes you feel that way?

Image credit: Le Compte Ory - Marty Sohl/The Metropolitan Opera