How Political Conventions are Similar to Opera

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Mitt Romney and Barack Obama at their respective 2012 conventions

Though it’s generally not explicitly stated, there’s an underlying theme, concept or mission behind the presentation, the words and the music. Such a message is often carefully teased out by cunning writers, Broadway stage designers, and the occasional star-powered musician.

I am, of course, talking about the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Even if asking how a political campaign is like an opera sounds like the setup for a joke on par with “How many sopranos/senators does it take to change a light bulb?”, politics have in recent years become more theatrical, operatic. Conversely, opera—especially in the midst of a financial crisis that continues to cripple arts organizations—is no stranger to the political.

The face of political conventions in the US has been an ever-shifting one (not unlike the face of opera, a foreign art form that was at various points in this country’s history subject to scrutiny during periods of tense international relations). In the nascent stages of American politics, congressional caucuses took the lead on nominating presidential candidates. And, in 1816 and 1820 when the United States had essentially one active political party, that meant that congress picked the president since James Monroe ran unopposed in both years.

The institution of the two-party system following that also led to conventions being staged by parties in order to generate a groundswell around each of their respective candidates. “[A]s the nation grew and communications improved, political insiders saw a need to stage a national event to energize their base,” wrote Andrew Glass for Politico. And for a time they also were a grand unveiling for presidential and vice presidential candidates, though gradually that unpredictability factor wore off throughout the 20th century. Spirited debate, tense moments of uncertainty, and even the odd political murder gave way to glossy launch parties for candidates.

What conventions now give politicians are the chance to gather their party in one centralized location, the chance to solicit donors, and the chance to establish where you are in the political world to an audience of millions.

In short, conventions have become opera galas.

There is a great deal of production values, such as a $2.5 million stage designed to look like a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed living room that projects the message of one candidate being down-to-earth, in touch with the majority of Americans, warm and approachable. (Contrast that with the subliminal messaging of a national debt digital clock and you have a scene on par with Manon singing “Adieu notre petite table” to a ten-foot-wide sideboard.)

There's also a lot of star power and the chance for showstopping arias of sorts. Many Democrats found it hard to not be galvanized after Clinton’s speech on Sept. 5, and the world of Internet political commentary very nearly exploded the next day with discussions of what was prepared versus what was said. It was kind of like reading a Parterre comment analyzing a "Caro nome" cadenza or a curtain call that lasts so long the house lights are turned on while the singers are in the midst of their 30th bow.

Drinks outside the Met's opening night opening night gala. Photo: Stephen Nessen

Likewise, with an effort on the part of many opera companies to engage fans from around the world, performance videos and photos are released long before opening day. We know what a director’s concept will be for, say, a Donizetti warhorse and, unless there’s a technical malfunction during the performance, it’s not likely that there are too many moments of uncertainty during a production (though go into a restroom during intermission and you’ll still hear plenty of debate). Familiar works are heard, star singers return to familiar stomping grounds, and a dinner with the occasional dance floor opens the evening up into one of the largest development events in a company’s season.

But conventions and galas don’t just matter in terms of a bottom line. They can (or at least should) set the tone for the race or season to come. To me, that’s the most interesting aspect of the correlation, and one that can occasionally be lost on opera companies as they try to juggle so many balls at once. Cutting the noise of segmented, targeted and positioned ad campaigns, forgetting the various subscribe-and-donate-now initiatives, and ignoring the idea that every individual department within a company has its own mission, the best opera organizations can distill their season (if not their entire existence) down to one message. And, as most politicians will agree, trying to have multiple messages often leads to getting caught up in various contradictory semantics.

Unlike politics, however, there’s never a clear winner in opera. Regardless of how much competition we see between companies occupying the same turf to often win over the same exact audiences (my favorite example of this remains Berlin, with its three major companies), there’s no system of nominations or elections to categorically name one company as the “best” or the “leader” for any given term.

But should it necessarily preclude companies—metaphorically speaking—from shaking hands and kissing babies? Most arts audiences would probably agree that they don’t want to be pandered to; many probably also agree that they are wont to use art as an escape from politics. But like politicians in an ideal world, opera companies serve their communities, and cater to that very individualized relationship between audience and art. The next weeks are, in the opera world, a time of opening nights and fall galas, but they’re also a time for audiences (existing and potential) to ask of companies, “What’s your platform for the year to come? How is it different from that of other companies? And how will that benefit me?”

Even in an event heavily dictated by style, there's no excuse for a lack of substance.