The Ghosts of May Day

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So much can happen in one day. For most people, the first day of May 2011 will be recalled as the moment when United States announced the death of Osama bin-Laden. That event led to an outpouring of joy in some areas and meditative reflection elsewhere about the value of human life.

Perhaps it was due to the full arc of my day, much of it informed by music and theater and history, but I received this news at the end of the day with a combination of admiration for the heroism for those who carried out this mission and more than a thought spared for those who died on September 11, 2001 and in its wake, whether in London, Madrid, Bali, Mumbai, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and many other locales. Death is still death, no matter the context, and I see each and every one as requiring reflection rather than revelry.

In opera, we are moved when a sympathetic character such as Mimi or Violetta dies, in part because they have touched our hearts but also because the composer gave them pretty music. But what do we feel when a character such as Gilda (in Rigoletto) or Senta (in Der Fliegende Holländer) sacrifices herself to save a man? Is it a waste? Is it heroism? 

What about a character who is both appealing and repugnant, such as Don Giovanni? Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte did not end the opera with the title character’s descent into hell, but with a closing scene in which the surviving characters reflect not so much on the Don as on what they will do in their lives now that he is gone. Many people think this scene is anti-climactic but, in the 18th-century context, it was meant to provide something of a morality lesson after a bad guy (one we often love nonetheless) gets his comeuppance. To me, it always seems as if the lives of the surviving characters might become more stable, but certainly also a lot more empty.

What happens when an evil character in opera dies, one for whom we have not developed positive feelings — Hagen in Götterdämmerung or Scarpia in Tosca? Do we feel bad? Do we rejoice? Is there a sense of relief?

I ask these questions because, when I teach opera, I often remark that this art form is a huge reflection of real life. While those who try to sell tickets or create productions that are “relevant” strain for ideas that might capture audiences, they often ignore the essential fact that opera already is relevant in that it is about every aspect of the human condition. We see ourselves not just in words but come to deeper understandings through the music that is opera’s main narrative vehicle.

So, I ask you again, what do you feel when Scarpia dies?

An opera that was very much on my mind this first of May was Satyagraha, by Philip Glass. This is the work I would send people to who say they do not like Philip Glass operas. (My other favorite of his is The Voyage (1992), which I think is ready for a well-cast revival.) Satyagraha is a word coined by Mohandas (“Mahatma”) Gandhi, who is the subject of the opera. It suggests a soul-force or truth-force that puts non-violence at the core of one’s response to extreme adversity. He said, 

Gandhi (Wikimedia Commons)

“Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence, and gave up the use of the phrase ‘passive resistance,’ in connection with it, so much so that even in English writing we often avoided it and used instead the word ‘satyagraha’ itself or some other equivalent English phrase.”

How, I wonder, would Gandhi respond to the controversy surrounding Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, a new biography by Joseph Lelyveld that has been banned in parts of India because of its suggestion that Gandhi may have had a romantic relationship with a man (or, as it is usually described, “with a Jewish bodybuilder,” as if that is even worse)?

The lessons of Gandhi, which inspired Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and other heroes of mine, still seem to have trouble gaining traction among billions of people around the world. I wish that Satyagraha, which returns to the Metropolitan Opera from November 4 to December 1, could be seen in every nation during its worldwide HD transmission on November 19. The libretto is in Sanskrit, yet its message is miraculously comprehensible through its music and the excellent staging by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch.

I began the first day of May, 2011 doing some reading about Arturo Toscanini in preparation for a panel I will be leading about him next fall. I was amused, as I searched YouTube, to find a clip of the maestro from Parma performing the Internationale on May 25, 1944. I sent it around to a few people, one of whom remarked that this recording was done back when people still understood what it meant. I looked at the lyrics (adapted from the French by Billy Bragg) and tried to imagine what inspired Toscanini as he conducted soon after Mussolini fell but World War Two had not yet ended.

Stand up, all victims of oppression
For the tyrants fear your might
Don't cling so hard to your possessions
For you have nothing, if you have no rights
Let racist ignorance be ended
For respect makes the empires fall
Freedom is merely privilege extended
Unless enjoyed by one and all...


Also on May 1, I went to an evening performance of Larry Kramer’s play, The Normal Heart. First staged in 1985, when the AIDS crisis was still in its early phases, this play was remembered for its raw anger and sense of helplessness. This revival, directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe, unleashes its anger and power in a more universal way.

After the performance, I ran into a dear friend whom I have known over the arc of decades but seldom see because he lives in California. I am the one who introduced him to opera (Manon Lescaut starring Mirella Freni in 1984). Each opera he has seen becomes part of the fabric of his memory and, as any good operagoer will, he remembers the ideas and the humanity in these works as much as the music, sets and costumes. We went to dinner with two friends of his and discussed the play, recalling people we knew who had died of AIDS in the “pre-cocktail” era, a time when there was no sense of hope and most people who were sick were reviled rather than loved and supported.

During the meal, I received a text on my cellphone that Osama bin-Laden had just been killed. I and the others at the table agreed to abandon etiquette just long enough for them to search their “smartphones” for confirmation of the news. We then put away our electronics, looked at our almost empty wine glasses and clinked them quietly, each of us full of contemplation and, I suspect, many forms of wistfulness and gratitude. The ghosts of May Day were all around, but so too was a spring’s awakening.

What must we do to not become the evils we deplore? What examples in music, opera, art, literature and all culture would you recommend as examples for what creative artists can teach us?