Marxism and opera

[I have become a big opera fan. My tastes had become jaded over the years and I was searching for something new. I had reached the point where the strains of a Brahms symphony or Vivaldi concerto would set my teeth on edge like the voice of Whitney Houston or Billy Joel.

I had the usual prejudices against opera, but they were slowly broken down by the inimitable Stefan Zucker, who used to host a show called "The Opera Fanatic" on the Columbia FM station on Saturday nights. He was expelled from WKCR because of his outspoken support for the mayoral candidacy of Rudolph Giuliani, another opera buff, who had been a frequent guest on Zucker's show.

Zucker is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as "the world's highest tenor." He is a specialist in the bel canto style, which includes Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti as the most notable examples. It is form that stresses vocal flourish at the expense of character and plot development, and is made to order for superstars like the late Maria Callas. Zucker represents himself as the only living practitioner of a tenor style that was heard in the bel canto era that is pitched much higher than the modern tenor style. It is supposed to have the effect of castrato singing but nobody's testicles get sacrificed. The joke with Zucker is that he can't sing to save his life. I went to one of his bel canto recitals a couple of years ago, which included a number of wonderful second-tier singers. When Zucker came out to sing, I went into shock. He sounded like Alfalfa on the Our Gang comedies.

What Zucker is good at, however, is interviewing retired singers, who had illustrious careers. He is especially close to Franco Corelli, who starred at the Met in the 1950s, and they would play his old recordings and chat. It was just terrific. He would also play ancient 78s and explain the difference between singing styles of the early 1900s and today. It is just amazing how the same Verdi aria can be expressed in such radically different ways.

While Zucker had opened my ears to Italian opera, I had become a Wagner fan through exposure to the Patrice Chereau Ring cycle that was broadcast on PBS about a decade ago. Conducted by Pierre Boulez, the opera was presented in fairly straightforward Marxist terms. The first part of the Ring, Das Rheingold, includes a famous scene in a foundry run by the gods, that Chereau depicts as a 19th century factory straight out of Engels' "Conditions of the Working Class in England."

Now that I have had the opportunity over the past five years or so to familiarize myself with the entire opera tradition from Monterverdi to Philip Glass, I would strongly urge others to give it a chance. The rewards are enormous, both musically and as a sourcebook for understanding the class struggle. There is no question that a radical thread runs through opera over the centuries. This profoundly democratic and anti-authoritarian streak is no accident, since opera composers were subject to the whims and cruelty of people who ruled society and who paid their wage.

The earliest example are Mozart's Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart was a Freemason, an important semi-clandestine group that promoted visions of justice and equality. Freemasonry got the most open endorsement in the Magic Flute, but it is Don Giovanni and the Marriage of Figaro which are the most consciously anti-aristocratic works. Even though Don Giovanni--i.e., Don Juan--is hunted down by other aristocrats for seducing and abandoning their women, the point of view is of the outsider in court society who would look at all their escapades as having a decadent character. The wisest, most down-to-earth and likable character in Don Giovanni is his servant Leporello, who I would argue is a stand-in for Mozart himself. Mozart allows Leporello to confront the aristocrat in a way that most court servants would not be allowed to: "My dear Lord and Master, the life you that you lead is that of a scoundrel."

In The Marriage of Figaro, the plot revolves around the efforts of another servant to prevent his master from enjoying the feudal right to have sex with his wife-to-be, another servant. Declaring his intention to frustrate the Count's ambitions, Figaro sings one of the opera's best-known arias, "Se vuol ballare" or "If you would dance":

If, my Dear Count, You feel like Dancing, It's I Who'd call the tune. If you'll come to my school, I'll teach you How to caper. I'll know how ... but wait, I can uncover His secret design More easily by dissembling. Acting stealthily, Acting openly, Here stinging, There mocking, All your plots I'll overthrow.

Since the opera was first performed in 1786, 3 years before the French Revolution, I'd like to think this aria is better titled as "Rovescier˛", or "I'll overthrow."

The anti-aristocratic tradition was kept alive in the operas of Giuseppi Verdi, whose "Don Carlos" is probably the most perfect expression of his love of individual and national liberty and his hatred of aristocratic and clerical tyranny. The libretto is based on Schiller's "Don Carlos," who is also the author of the "Ode to Joy" that climaxes Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It should be noted, by the way, that Verdi, whose democratic credentials are impeccable, openly admitted that Wagner's aesthetics had influenced this late opera. He told people that he hoped that his own Neopolitan Opera House might become another Bayreuth.

Don Carlos is the Spanish monarch who is set to wed Elisabeth, a French member of royalty, in order to help bring about peace between the two countries. While he is of the nobility, Don Carlos harbors democratic aspirations. The main conflict in the opera is between Don Carlos and the more benighted elements of the court and the clergy. One of the archvillains of the opera is a Grand Inquisitor who urges the monarch Philip, Don Carlos's rival, to bloc with the church against all its enemies:

The ideas of the innovation have tainted your mind! You wish to break with your feeble hand the sacred yoke extending over the Roman Catholic globe! Return to your duty: the Church can offer to the man who has hope, who repents, complete forgiveness...

Since Italy had struggled against reactionary clericalism and the landed gentry for most of the 1800s, it is understandable why this would have influenced both Verdi and Puccini as well. Puccini is much more of a "popular" composer, whose emotional excesses were embraced wholeheartedly by Italy's working and peasant masses. The opera which best expresses his progressive politics is "Tosca," the story of a woman who would sleep with a right-wing torturer named Scarpia in exchange for his release of her lover Cavaradossi, a left-wing political prisoner. If you would purchase a recording of this opera, I would strongly urge the Callas/Di Stefano recording. Callas was identified with this role more than any other in her career.

Caravadossi has been arrested after intervening to save a woman from Scarpia's clutches. The theme of sexual predatory behavior is a constant one in Italian opera. Caravadossi sings:

Scarpia? That licentious bigot who exploits The uses of religion as refinements For his libertine lust, and makes Both the confessor and the hangman The servant of his wantonness! I'll save you should it cost my life!

There has been a strong affinity between Marxism and opera over the years. The Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw was an opera critic as well as a playwright who saw Wagner as a kindred thinker. In more recent years, Maynard Solomon has written books on Beethoven and Mozart that emphasize the social and political dimensions of their works, including their operas. Solomon is also the author of "Marxism and Art" and founder of Vanguard Records, a great label that recorded Beethoven piano sonatas and Pete Seeger alike. Mozart, Solomon says, was particularly sensitive to issues of economic exploitation and cites his comment that "No man ought to be mean, but neither ought he to be such a simpleton as to let other people take the profits from his work, which has cost him so much study and labor, by renouncing all further claims upon it."

I have my own interpretation about what fuelled the democratic sympathies of all these great composers, which I can only sketch out at this point. If I ever find the time for it, it will be a chapter in a book that I intend to call "The Plebian Democratic Revolution." As I have stated repeatedly on various mailing-lists, I reject the notion of a bourgeois-democratic revolution. This is a myth that was propagated by the liberal historians of the French Revolution and which Marx accepted uncritically. Later in life in moved away from this interpretation when confronted by the open treachery of the bourgeoisie in Germany and in the French revolution of 1848.

The problem for Marxists is that they can not conceive of revolutions in this pre-Communist Manifesto period as having anything but a bourgeois character. I would argue that there were anti-aristocratic and anti-clerical revolutions but that they were led by the plebian masses of the city and the countryside, the so-called "sans culotte". The reason that they were not successful, and could not be successful, is that the insurgent masses lacked the social weight and political cohesion to form an alternative ruling class.

These revolutions were embryonic forms of the socialist revolution.

The importance of the opera composers is that they were some of the most conscious advocates of revolution *within* the pre-Revolutionary social structures. They had feet in both worlds. Accepted by the aristocracy for their musical gifts, they were treated like lap dogs. But they were human beings, not lap dogs. Mozart's contempt for the aristocracy leaps from the scenes of nearly all his greatest opera.

It would take most of the 19th century for the socialist movement to emerge out of the working-class culture of the great European cities. As this movement develops, it has tended to have an ambivalent relationship to the artists, who are never sure whether to make art or propaganda. This tension will exist as long as there is class society. The proper way to make art that has political impact is a topic best left to another post, which I will turn to when time permits.