The Top 10 Politically-Charged American Operas

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Last week, with the revolutionary airs of Verdi's Nabucco breezing through the Met, we took a look at the ten most politically-charged moments in the Italian master's operas.

Today, however, marks the 54th anniversary of Allen Ginsberg's influential poem Howl being ruled not obscene (the poem that eventually became the basis for Glass's opera Hydrogen Jukebox). With that and Q2 Music's Maximum Reich 2.0 festival underway, now's the perfect time to look at the agit-prop of American operas.

It may be a younger culture than Italy's, but American opera has wasted no time in provoking and probing audiences while touching on themes like feminism, racism, the thorny Israeli-Palestinian conflict and gay rights. What made the cut? Read on for our picks, and be sure to comment below with your own favorite political moments in American opera.

10. The Crucible (Ward)

Adapted from Arthur Miller’s 1953 play of the same name, Robert Ward’s 1961 opera came at a time when the wounds from McCarthyism were still fresh and raw. The utter American-ness of the score and libretto adds an intensely personal feel to the opera-ization of the Salem witch trials, coming through particularly in the final scene.

9. Three Tales (Reich)

Best known for his opera The Cave, Reich used his notable talent for incorporating archival footage and real-life interviews into his work (as he did in his recent piece WTC 9/11) to cement his music in its respective zeitgeists. His 2002 video-opera Three Tales covered a vast territory between the Hindenburg disaster, the equally-unsuccessful nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll and the cloning of Dolly the sheep, distilling each historical event to man’s quest to push the limits of technology and test the boundaries of immortality.

8. The Mother of Us All (Thomson)

Strong women abound in opera—from Monteverdi’s Poppea to Puccini’s Tosca—yet Virgil Thomson (to say nothing of librettist Gertrude Stein) added some more fuel to the feminist fire with his portrayal of Susan B. Anthony and dramatization of the women’s suffrage movement. The premiere in 1947 was even more potent, coming in the period between the Rosie the Riveter days of World War II and the second-wave feminism movement of the 1960s.

7. Harvey Milk (Wallace)

Long before Sean Penn sought to recruit you in the film Milk, Stewart Wallace’s revelatory opera explored the balance between American politician Harvey Milk and his duality as both gay and Jewish, focusing on the latter part with a score that veers heavily into Kaddish territory. There is, however, an added layer of meaning in giving Milk’s life the opera treatment: Not only was the Mayor of Castro Street an operaphile (he saw Tosca at San Francisco Opera five days before his assassination, a scene depicted in an oh-so-meta way in Wallace’s work), but Milk’s murder was what prompted the first public performance of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

6. The Consul (Menotti)

Menotti’s first full-length opera is set in a European country (evocative of many locales in the Soviet bloc), however civil libertarian Zecharaiah Chafee revealed the American relativity in the work’s real-life correlations to the struggle of non-American scientists attempting to enter the States in the 1950s. Moreover, the universal elements of bureaucracy are emphasized in the mountains of governmental paperwork. I think of Magda Sorel’s outburst every time I have to go to the DMV.

5. X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X (Davis)

Anthony Davis wastes no time in this probing, atonal opera, placing a great deal of tension in the first scene—in which Malcolm X’s father is killed in what a white police officer describes as an “accident” and Malcolm’s mother believes to be a Ku Klux Klan murder. Between this and Malcolm X’s own assassination, there are some vibrant and atmospheric descriptions of mid-century conditions for African-Americans and Muslims in America. Does that cover enough socially taboo territory for you?

4. Dead Man Walking (Heggie)

Has anything been more divisive in the U.S. recently than the death penalty? Jake Heggie’s opera (with a jarring libretto by playwright Terrence McNally) about two people connecting despite their very different situations—she’s a nun, he’s on death row—and the personal look into the life of a Green Miler rang even more relevant last month with the controversial execution of Troy Davis, and is sure to be landmark of American opera in the decades to come.

3. Soldier Songs (Little)

Part-monodrama, part-multimedia work, David T. Little’s Soldier Songs paints an astute portrait of veterans in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries and their experiences with PTSD, incorporating the stories of real-life military personnel and covering chewy territory between Vietnam and the Middle East. What Little best emphasizes in this work are -- behind the acts of valor often seen in operatic heroes -- complex human responses that must be negotiated reconciled long after the battles are fought.

2. Hydrogen Jukebox (Glass)

Like John Adams, Philip Glass is no stranger to provocative libretti or prestigious collaborators. The stars aligned for his 1990 Howl-based work, whose aim was described by librettist Alan Ginsberg as: “to relieve human suffering by communicating some kind of enlightened awareness of various themes, topics, obsessions, neuroses, difficulties, problems, perplexities that we encounter as we end the millennium.” Covering a period of American history between the 1950s and 1980s, Glass took no prisoners here damning everything from the Vietnam War to George H.W. Bush.

1. The Death of Klinghoffer (Adams)

The composer for whom the term “CNN opera” was coined, John Adams is no stranger to the political in his operas: Nixon in China painted complex portraits of mythical and controversial figures like Madame Mao and Tricky Dick, while Doctor Atomic captured the moral ambiguity of the creator of the atomic bomb. Yet no work caused such an uproar as his 1991 opus about the Palestine Liberation Front’s hijacking of the Achille Lauro and the ensuing murder of a Jewish-American passenger, whose daughters attended the opera’s world premiere and subsequently attacked it (along with many others) for Adams’s supposed sympathy with the PLF.