Freedom, at the Opera and Everywhere Else

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If you were in New York City on September 11, 2001, you need no reminder of what that experience felt like. New Yorkers live with it still, even if it is not always part of the discussion in daily life. And yet, when the anniversary of that dreadful day comes round again, we cannot help but reflect on what it has meant to the city, the nation and the world. Sometimes art, especially music, helps provide insight.

One of the many consequences of 9/11 is that the word “freedom” has become charged with new meanings that are divergent and discordant. “Freedom” can now be used as a cudgel rather than being the representation of an ideal condition of human life. Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, I think that if we lose a common vision of freedom, it is a dire threat to us all.

The word is bruited about so much that it risks being devalued: There are the “Freedom Tower” and “Freedom Fries.” The American intervention in Iraq in March 2003 was termed “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” We hear opponents of the recently-enacted changes in health care law say that patients would be denied “freedom of choice” and yet, as I see it, these same people often oppose the “freedom to choose” when it comes to decisions about women’s reproductive health.

To some people, “freedom” means “I can do what I like but you cannot do what you like if I don’t approve of it.” This is tyranny. To others, “freedom” says that “everyone is free to do whatever they want” even if this leads to anarchy and no sense of the common good. For example, if pollution of air or water happens in one state but affects a neighboring state, someone else is harmed when “freedom” is asserted.

“Freedom” can also be the desire to honor and protect another person’s freedom to do and be what he chooses, just so long as that means that harm is done to no one else in the process.

In thinking about musical examples that explore freedom in different ways, I first thought of popular songs whose lyrics directly address the word. Who can forget the iconic statement Janis Joplin made in “Me and Bobby McGee": Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. In other words, the absence of options or choice can actually be freeing.

When Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones sang They are saying I’m free to do what I want and... to get what I want. I’m free to choose what I please. I’m free to please who I choose in “I’m Free,” it is not so much an assertion of self-determination as defying the listener to believe otherwise.

Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom" is more an expression of exuberance with its catchy tune and lyric (I’m living free with Philadelphia Freedom) than any articulation of what freedom means.

In contrast, George Michael's song “Freedom 90” contends that freedom comes through unconditional honesty and unfettered autonomy (All we have to do is take these lies and make them true somehow. ....I don’t belong to you and you don’t belong to me).

When Diana Ross and the Supremes sang Set me free, why don't cha babe in “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” they were describing the universal fact that a person unhappy in love will never feel free. “Freedom” in some cases means being unencumbered.

Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love” is a paean in words and, especially, music to the particularly American notion that the open road and the unexplored places one might discover confer a true sense of freedom. In this song, unlike most Aretha Franklin performances, that message is conveyed not so much in her voice and words as in the insistent beat and the throbbing saxophone solo by the late, great Clarence Clemmons.

In opera, freedom is described in ways that are more indirect but also more profound. I happen to be one of those people who believe that The Who’s Tommy is an opera. Admittedly, it is in the rock idiom and not your great-grandfather’s opera, but it has all the elements (great music, theatricality, strong narrative) that the best operas do. When Roger Daltrey, as the title character, sings the song “I’m Free," it bluntly describes the sort of freedom that demands adherence to a belief system to be truly free:

I'm free - I'm free,
And freedom tastes of reality,
I'm free -I'm free,
And I'm waiting for you to follow me.

If I told you what it takes
to reach the highest high,
You'd laugh and say 'nothing's that simple'
But you've been told many times before
Messiahs pointed to the door
And no one had the guts to leave the temple!

When Don Giovanni (like Mick Jagger) proclaims Viva La Libertà it can be viewed as an expression of 18th century thinking but is, more likely, the brash declaration of a libertine who might, in today’s terms, be defining his freedom by calling himself a libertarian. 

Violetta, in La Traviata, says she is Sempre libera (always free) but the music tells us that she is trying to convince herself she is happy to lead a life on her own. Her emotions are opposite of Diana Ross’s wish to be unencumbered.

In opera, freedom is often defined by being able to take flight, whether in a literal or figurative sense. When Nedda, in Pagliacci, sings “Strillono lassu," you can hear birds in the orchestra (at about 1’55”). She longs to fly away, but only birds have that fredom.

Carmen’s Habanera L’amour est un oiseau ribelle describes love as a rebellious bird and is a declaration of autonomy at whatever the cost.

Va pensiero, the chorus of enslaved Hebrews in Verdi’s Nabucco metaphorically ask that their thought (of freedom) take flight on golden wings. It echoed Verdi’s wishes and his exhortation to Italians to dream of and strive for freedom from domination by the Austrians and the French.

The most gripping expression of a yearning for freedom comes in Beethoven’s Fidelio with Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! sung by Florestan, the political prisoner who, in his delirium, cries Freiheit (freedom) linked with an apparition of his wife Leonore as an angel.

As it happens, I am writing this article in France, the nation that created the concept of liberté, egalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, brotherhood). I think we all can learn from this that liberty (or freedom) as a state of mind and a state of being is made strong when it is paired with a fervent belief in equality and a fervent adherence to the belief, as Beethoven and Schiller remind us, that all men are brothers (and, needless to say, women are fully equal partners in this formulation). When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Leonard Bernstein led a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in which he changed the word Freude (Joy) to Freiheit (Freedom), making it an Ode to Freedom of which Beethoven and Schiller would have surely approved.