Top Five Political Satires in Opera

Friday, October 26, 2012 - 12:00 AM

A Scene from Act III of Shostakovich's 'The Nose' A Scene from Act III of Shostakovich's 'The Nose' (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

"Saturday Night Live" and Comedy Central don’t have a monopoly on political satire. Commentary on the state of government has been showing up in for centuries in operas by Monteverdi to John Adams. We’ve gathered our five favorite send-ups of government officials.

1. Shostakovich’s The Nose

Imagine you wake up one day not only to find you nose missing, but it’s grown several thousand times in size and now has a rank well above your own. This absurdity makes up the plot in Shostakovich’s The Nose, based on the Nikolai Gogol story of the same title. While originally a play on the absurd, the tale gets a darker reading in hindsight, perhaps foreshadowing some of the composer’s own struggles within the U.S.S.R. In fact, the opera was banned by authorities from 1930 until 1974.

2. The Gonzales Cantata

The congressional hearings of US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales were a low point for the George W. Bush administration. But the events inspired composer Melissa Dunphy to write The Gonzales Cantata, a choral piece that premiered at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in 2009. The story follows the investigation into Gonzales's role in the firings of nine federal prosecutors and, curiously, has an all-female cast. It was featured on both opera websites and "The Rachel Maddow Show."

3. Mulroney: the Opera

The life of Brian Mulroney, Canada’s prime minister from 1984 to 1993 may not be well known to Americans, but the Quebecois politician’s rise to fame and subsequent fall from infamy provided composer Alexina Louie and former Kids in the Hall writer Dan Redican to pen Mulroney: the Opera (its working title was apparently Politics is Cruel: the Opera). Baritone Daniel Okulitch sang the roll of beleaguered politician for the opera’s HD screenings, which were broadcast through the Metropolitan Opera’s network.

4. Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe

W. S. Gilbert, a master of the bon mot, and Sir Arthur Sullivan, a master of scoring the former’s barbs, skewered English society and mores through most of their 14 collaborations. And none took better aim at British government than Iolanthe. The work pits the fairy kingdom against Britain’s House of Lords, who are impossible to take seriously once they enter singing “We are the peers of highest station/paragons of legislation/pillars of the British Nation." You can be sure the fairies get the best of the political rivals.

5. Menotti's The Hero

The premiere of the Gian Carol Menotti opera The Hero was staged by the Philadelphia Opera Company the same year of the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. However, the farcical piece skewered American politicians. The plot centers on a Rip van Winkle-type character, who wakes up after a 10-year-long doze (just short of the world record for longest sleep) and the mayor who wants to capitalize on his town’s newest attraction. 

Weigh in: What's your favorite political satire in opera? Share your comments below.

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Comments [1]

concetta nardone from Nassau

When John Ashcroft was in hospital (forgot which office he held) Gonzales and Andrew Card (believe it was Card) burst into Ashcroft's room, disregarding appeals from Ashcroft's wife that John was ill, and demanded that he sign some kind of illegal search warrant. John refused saying that this was unconstitutional. Soon after, Ashcroft resigned his office.
This happened during W's tenure and I forgot the exact details.

Oct. 26 2012 01:41 PM

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