Opera, politics and censorship

Article by Tom Sutcliffe

The idea that there might be something profoundly political about opera never occurred to me until I read about the riots in Zurich. That was in 1980 and what the rioters were objecting to was the plan to spend a considerable sum on the renovation of the Stadttheater by the lake (home of the Zurich opera). The Swiss don’t generally riot. The theatre was being done up so it could function better and manage a larger roster of performances. Why should radicals suddenly emerge, in a country where they were never part of the landscape, and campaign violently to prevent money being spent on an opera house?

The opera in Zurich was a target because opera was seen as elitist entertainment for bankers living off the fat of the capitalist land. Opera was expensive and the state was (and, In Switzerland, still is) spending serious money on an art-form that was a minority interest. So opera, not for the first time, was seen as something provided for “them” from the public purse, that didn’t appeal to “us”.

Opera, a costly marriage of all the performing arts, has always contained within itself a certain tension between the popular and the arcane, the mass and the minority. The art initially arose as an intimate aristocratic experiment in Florence aiming to revive the mixture of music, poetic declamation and theatre that had characterised the Ancient Greek Drama – as seen and heard at those great communal religious festivals for which Sophocles and others wrote their masterpieces. The power of opera to move and engage vast numbers has always gone hand in hand with its particular attraction for the most powerful elements in society – as a forum where the concerns of power and the conflict between public responsibility and private passion are explored. A focus on the governing class, on classical gods and heroes (especially in the 18th century libretti of the poet Metastasio, for instance) has made opera an arena that the powerful will take seriously. However, if it has been worth taking all the trouble and spending all the money that opera invariably seems to require, it is also easy to see why the content and subject matter of operas should in the past have attracted the scrutiny of official censors. The operatic agenda always had a sort of official feel about it. And that remains true today, when the arena of live performance has been dwarfed by the technological facility, convenience and penetration of film, television and radio. The fact that opera (like live spoken theatre) demands an effort of its audience guarantees that their digestion of its emotional and intellectual contents is likely to be more thorough.

There’s been plenty of the “them” and “us” view of opera evident in Britain in recent years, thanks to the difficulties at Covent Garden. Of course, there’s nothing new about journalistic voices raised against the art of opera. The Rambler and The Spectator campaigned against the supposed absurdities of imported Italian opera in the early 18th century. The silliness and extravagance of opera is a well-established topic. But England is a tolerant place. Opera now only become politically controversial because public money is involved. In 1994, The Sun despatched a couple of hardy reporters to check out the entertainment at the Royal Opera House. They togged up in dinner jackets and black bow ties – conforming with the presumed dress code. Opera, they concluded, was over-priced, snobbish, and deeply boring: culture for tossers.

When the National Lottery awarded Sir Jeremy Isaacs’s indebted Covent Garden regime £78 million, there was an unanticipated outcry. In fact this was the first ever serious British public investment in operatic hardware. But the lottery money felt like a voluntary tax that was in practice being paid by the poorest almost none of whom were likely to afford a Royal Opera ticket. This crisis soon mushroomed into a raging storm at the Royal Opera House. Lord Chadlington and his Board resigned, claiming they’d made heroic efforts to stave off bankruptcy. Later that day I found myself discussing opera on Sky News with Joe Ashton, MP for Bassetlaw. A keen supporter of Sheffield Wednesday, Mr Ashton claimed he’d only been to opera once and “It bored me stiff”. In his view there was no more reason to subsidise opera than football. People should play for their pleasure themselves. The Royal Opera House crisis descended into a journalistic feeding frenzy. There were ripe contributions to (and from) the Parliamentary Select Committee on cultural matters chaired by Gerald Kaufman. Mary Allen, of the Arts Council and briefly Covent Garden, stirred the pot with her memoire of Alice lost in the operatic wonderland. Opera was decidedly political. Its costs, artistic pretensions and ephemeral character do certainly make it an arena for power-play in society.

The truth is that opera cannot survive without support at the highest political level. In Louis XIV’s France, opera provided the monarchy with a grand backdrop. The composer Lully, expatriate Italian, naturalised the art of his native country to suit the requirements of the French court – including far more dancing and parading than Italian opera was ever bothered with. Opera is an artistic gamble. But successful opera is a feather in the national cap. Opera travels well because its fuel is music – international not limited by language. The French and the Germans in the 18th and 19th centuries did a lot of theorising about opera which helped to sort out their national contributions to the genre. Carmen, though Spanish in location, has an indelibly French spirit and conveys a powerful sense of French culture and passion. Does Peter Grimes do as much for the attractions of Britishness, I wonder?

The reason Germany supports 70-plus opera companies is history and politics. When Germany was the heart of the Holy Roman Empire (the ideal model of a not too united Europe) every Princeling and Free City wanted to support and opera house and theatre company. The habit of opera-going and the taste for opera were properly established. For composers, performers and writers the infrastructure is vital.

If one seeks evidence of the political significance of opera, exhibit A must, of course, be Richard Wagner with his operas about German gods and the superiority of German culture. The shrine theatre he built for his Ring operas at Bayreuth in 1876 became, 50 years after his death, a favourite destination for Hitler and his Nazi supporters. Wagner’s daughter-in-law Winifred was a fan of the Fuhrer and Wagner was certainly anti-semitic in the manner of his era even if it’s a bit much to make him responsible for the holocaust. In today’s terms Wagner is institutionally racist.

Cosima Wagner’s diaries show her husband ranting viciously against Jews. But his real concern was to define the essence of the German cultural tradition in a fast-industrialising society, some of whose most successful and achieving members balanced their complete assimilation with maintenance of their Jewish social, religious and educational traditions. The Ring is deeply political, and not just an anecdotal tale of heroes with human failings. Wagner converted German mythology for a political purpose. Most opera has political resonance when examined closely.

Yet Wagner’s operas are not overtly political like Brecht and Weill’s satire on capitalism The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Nor have they suffered censorship the way Verdi quite often did for being an Italian nationalist and suspected radical in his social viewpoint. Once Wagner left the ancient Roman world of Rienzi safely behind him, he stuck to a metaphysical landscape. Wotan’s spear may have been shattered by the young Siegfried, yet Wotan as Wanderer was not a ruling monarch with serving ministers. Valhalla burst into flames safely in the distance. When death pays a visit to rulers in Wagner’s operas it is not in the shape of some inflammatory youth or conspiratorial political movement. Nothing to worry the censors.

Hitler and his Nazis banned Jewish operas. But Meyerbeer’s reputation was already thoroughly eclipsed by the 1930s, and Offenbach’s satires were French.

The other vile dictator Stalin at precisely the same period took grave exception to Shostakovich’s highly original and passionate Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk based on a story by Leskov about the wife of a rich, cruel merchant who obtains her freedom through forming a liaison with a workman and thereby gains the courage to poison her husband. In a 1936 Pravda article entitled “Muddle instead of music” (published on January 28, two days after Stalin and his entourage had walked out of a performance of the opera at the interval) Shostakovich’s work was condemned as “cacophony” and “din, gnash and screech”. What Stalin liked about the opera, and was eager to approve, was the glitzy grandiloquence represented in the warhorses of the Tsarist and nationalist tradition. Modern art, however, was naturally drawn to explore passions, personal feelings, humour even, outside that safe conformist zone. No doubt the dictator and the Russian proletariat shared similar prejudices – just as the mass market in opera, here and in the USA, is presumed to be as opposed as wealthy Covent Garden and Met patrons to experimental interpretations such as Richard Jones’s Royal Opera  Ring or Ruth Berghaus’s Don Giovanni  for Welsh National Opera. But what Stalin probably disliked most in the Shostakovich, I suspect, was its hostile depiction of a patriarchal Russian society, where power was abused and where the boredom and lack of stimulus from which Katerina (the peasant Lady Macbeth) suffered was presented as justification enough for her crime. To the dictator corrupted by power, this attach on orderly conventional society was deeply subversive, however satirically intended.

The composer was lucky to escape with his life. The director Meyerhold at much the same time simply disappeared without anybody who had been working with him until a few days earlier daring to so much as notice the fact. Meyerhold was then directing Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko (which the Kirov opera brings to Covent Garden this summer). He was declared (absurdly) to be an underground saboteur codenamed Semyonich! The film director Eisenstein, a former Meyerhold pupil, refused Prokofiev’s request to take over the production. He claimed he hadn’t the time – though immediately managed to fit in a staging of Wagner’s Walkure, Wagner and all thing German having suddenly become the flavour of that Soviet period. The history of Russian opera and 20th century opera generally was disastrously affected by Stalin’s banning of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which had been very successful with audiences in Moscow and St Petersburg. Shostakovich never wrote another opera.

Sadly, the only reason for the abolition of theatrical censorship in Britain in 1968 was a decline in the importance and popularity of live performance – compared with television and cinema which continue to require supervision and attract controversy. That was not how the development was seen at the time, when it was presented as a further stride in civil liberty.

Briefly, in Handel’s era, opera became an arena for political competition between the party of the Prince of Wales (the so-called Opera of the Nobility) and the party associated with government and crown (Handel himself). But opera here has seldom been identified with Royal patronage. Generally opera has been kept politically uncontroversial in London by the fact that its paymasters have been the aristocracy and the wealthy, and also because – during the 18th and 19th centuries – it was traditionally sung in Italian, which few in the audience properly understood. Verdi’s 1842 London commission, I Masnadieri, was based on Schiller’s play The Robbers, which was effectively an endorsement of anarchistic bitterness and resentment. In 1782 this play had made the poet’s reputation as a rabble rouser and stirrer-up antisocial sentiment. But Schiller in the 1840s was highly respected in British culture.

Benjamin Britten’s Coronation opera Gloriana in 1953 raised eyebrows and aroused mean gossip on the grounds of taste, not because it was a threat to civil order. It was considered a mistake to present the new Queen Elizabeth with a picture of her great forerunner in physical decline and also in the middle of a foolish infatuation, and the lese majeste was further exacerbated by the presence of the composer’s lover Peter Pears in the role of Essex.

It’s difficult nowadays to regard The Marriage of Figaro as a revolutionary opera, since it is not really about politics (apart from the issue of the abolished ‘droit de seigneur’) so much as about personal morality and honour. But the Beaumarchais play which Mozart and Da Ponte transformed into one of the most moving and affirming of all human comedies, had originally attracted the attention of theatrical censors in Vienna. Similarly the original version of La Muette de Portici (‘The Mute Girl of Portici’) aroused the displeasure of the Paris censors, when its author Delavigne submitted it to them.

Turned into an opera by Auber, this was the work that actually precipitated the 1830 revolution in Brussels that created the state of Belgium. The story of Masaniello’s Neapolitan revolt against the Spanish tyrants ruling the land might have been calculated to stir up political emotions: just think of the Auto da fe scene in Don Carlos where Carlos, at the head of a group of Flemish deputies, makes his dramatic protest against the maltreatment of the Low Countries by King Philip and has to be disarmed by his best friend Posa. Auber and Scribe’s mute girl of the title, Masaniello’s sister Fenella, has been seduced by Alfonse, the son of the Spanish viceroy. So there are powerful personal as well as political motives at work.

The revolt fails. But it’s easy to see how, in the history of the low Countries, a tale of Spanish autocracy could produce such political ferment on the streets. In 1829 Auber’s opera was given at the Monnaie in Brussels before the hated Dutch King William I, after which the work was banned by the Dutch censors. It was the lifting of the ban in August of the following year that led to the riots and revolution that created the separate Belgian monarchy.

No wonder Verdi in 1857, a mere quarter of a century later, had such trouble with the Neapolitan censors over his commission from the Teatro San Carlo. The idea of making an opera out of the story of the assassination of the theatre-loving and homosexual King Gustav III of Sweden was bound to be seen as provocative.  The plot of Un Ballo in Maschera had already been used by the dubious Auber, composer of La Muette de Portici, as a successful opera in 1833, and Verdi’s librettist Somma was reworking Eugene Scribe’s text for Gustave III ou Le bal masque. Nor was the historical event itself particularly distant, having taken place in 1792, though Scribe’s text suppressed the catamite references in his English source, published in London in 1818, to “voluptuous and depraved parasites, such as might be expected to abound in an Asiatic court”.

Verdi toyed with the idea of King Lear as the subject for his Naples contract, but in Antonio Somma he was working with a new, untried and (as it turned out) worryingly inexperienced poet as far as opera was concerned. The ambition to tackle Shakespeare’s most monumental tragedy lingered on unresolved (the Fool was to be a contralto). But in the end the Neapolitan commitment was delayed a year – and even then the project for the Swedish assassination subject was only selected in the absence of anything better: “I’m scaling down a French drama,” Verdi wrote to the San Carlo secretary. “It’s vast and grandiose; it’s beautiful; but it too has conventional things in it like all operas – something I have always disliked and now find intolerable.”

Bellini had contemplated this subject. Mercadante used it (as well as Auber) for an opera called Il Reggente. Verdi battled away, teaching Somma his business – and eventually had a solution which exploited all the opportunities for irony and emotional revelation that the plot allowed. But Verdi was warned, soon after he submitted the synopsis to the opera management, that a relocation would be required. “What a pity”, he commented in his reply to Vincenzo Torelli in Naples, “to have to give up the pomp of a court like that of Gustav III! Then too it will be difficult to find another monarch on the lines of that Gustavo”. The changes demanded by the censors were substantial. Instead of the assassination involving a king, it must be a duke. The period had to be adjusted to a pre-Christian era when witchcraft would seem more credible. The location could be northern but must not be Scandinavia. The “duke’s” love would have to be moral and remorseful. The conspirator’s motive should be resentment felt by a powerful but penalised class. The context of the killing might be a celebration of the type fitting the era, but there could not of course by any firearms.

The result was a transfer of what was now to be called Una vendetta in Domino to Pomerania, and killing with a dagger. Then history stepped in once again. On 13 January, 1858, Napoleon III was nearly assassinated in Paris, and the Neapolitan chief of police ruled that the whole text must be re-written. The duke was to be demoted to an ordinary common or garden aristocrat. The minister’s wife was to be changed into his sister. There must be no dancing. The murder must be offstage. And there should certainly be no choice of actual assassin by any romantic drawing of lots. You couldn’t be too careful, the authorities felt, about carbon copies.

Verdi drew the line at all these changes. Naturally the management threatened to sue him. They had already engaged a new librettist and switched the location to 14th–century Florence. Gustavo was now to be leader of the Guelphs, and the conspirators (Counts Horn and Ribbing) were transmuted into Ghibellines. Verdi wrote “In matters of art I have my own ideas and convictions which are clear and precise and which I neither can nor should give up.” Both sides went to law, though the case was settled out of court in Verdi’s favour – except he had to agree to provide a substitute opera – which, as it turned out, was a revival of Simon Boccanegra.

But where to have the Gustavo subjected premiered now Verdi has got stuck into it? Somma thought it should go to Milan, where the Swedish location and the almost contemporary story would probably get through uncensored. But Verdi preferred Rome because it was “almost on Naples’s doorstep” and would “show them that the Roman censorship has allowed this libretto”. Also Verdi anticipated a pleasant stay in Rome seeing a lot of the agreeable sculptor Luccardi and Luccardi’s friend the lawyer Vasselli. The latter, Donizetti’s brother–in-law, in fact looked after the negotiations with the roman censors very satisfactorily on the composer’s account. Things went well for the project. The roman censors were content with the text as it existed – as long as the events depicted did not happen in Europe. “What would you say to North America at the time of the English domination?” Verdi asked Somma.

So Gustavo became Riccardo, Duke of Surrey and governor of Boston, Ankarstrom became Renato, Riccardo’s Creole secretary, Madam Arvidson became Ulrica, and the conspirators were renamed Sam and Tom. Eventually Riccardo/Gustavo was demoted to Earl of Warwick. Somma accepted the deal though he refused to have his name on the libretto. The opera became and remained a success, though when staged for the first time at the Theatre des Italiens in Paris, the location was switched yet again – to Naples in the 17th century – and Oscar was turned into Edgardo.

The intervention of the censors reflected the fact that, however unnatural and “unreal” the operatic convention might make stories, they were still sufficiently lifelike to reflect dangerously on contemporary circumstances. The censors have other concerns today, and the operatic repertoire is ageing so fast (with so few new elements coming forward in public esteem and acceptance) that it’s hard to see any work of recent years that would cause any sort of genuine political upset. Perhaps Britten’s Death in Venice, with its homosexual theme, would fall foul of the censors if the moral majority of evangelical Christians came to power. Apart from the violence in Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy, opera these days is unlikely to raise many hackles. It’s hard to see any 20th-century opera precipitating a crisis or threatening genuine political consequences.

Yet there is an example of censorship of a kind recently. The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adam’s 1991 opera about the hijacking of the cruise liner Achille Lauro and the unprovoked killing of one of its elderly Jewish passengers, was found in New York to be seriously politically incorrect – far too sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. And, in fact, Klinghoffer has effectively been supressed. Though co-commissioned by Glyndebourne, its impressive Peter Sellar’s production (seen briefly in Brussels) has been given neither at the Sussex festival nor in London.

Tom Sutcliffe is opera critic of the London Evening Standard and author of Believing in Opera (Faber). He has just edited the Faber Book of Opera.