Viva la Liberta! – Politics in Opera by Anthony Arblaster is published by Verso in 1992 in London, Great Britain. It was the book’s first edition and publication. The book contains 340 pages of text, no illustrations, and includes a tables of contents, nine main chapters, conclusion, notes and and an index. The chapters start with the period of modern politics, the French Revolution in 1789 and with “Mozart: Class Conflict and Enlightenment” from that period till modern opera / musicals in “Democratic Opera: Victims as Heroes”. All nine chapters are written by the same author, Anthony Arblaster. Each chapter tries to concentrate on one to a few composers from the same period who share similar political views and actions. Each chapter can be viewed as an individual work / essay. The nine chapters follow the time frame sequentially and are respectively: Ch.1 Mozart: Class Conflict and Enlightenment, Ch.2 Opera and Revolution, Ch.3 Patria Oppressa: Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Risorgimento (Nationalism I), Ch.4 Verdi: the Liberal Patriot, Ch.5 Wagner: from Revolution to Racism, Ch.6 Russia, Czechoslovakia and a Footnote on England (Nationalism II), Ch.7 Women in Opera, Ch.8 Interlude – Opera without Politics: Puccini and Strauss and Ch.9 Democratic Opera: Victims as Heroes.
The introduction and conclusion helps in giving coherence to the vast time frame of two hundread years and the different emphasis on political of composers in their works. The detailed index is also helpful in the cross referencing a particular work or composer which might be mentioned in different chapters for comparisons. The notes offer a detailed bibliography with chance for further reference material on the issue of politics in opera.
Although the book does not formally state the meaning of “politics”, the definition used throughout the book is the “beliefs about how a country ought to be governed” instead of politics as in political power and actions or activities. The book also presents the argument of social context at the particular period and place as “politics” and that if opera lacks the political element (social context), it lacks a convincing element in which communication and mutual consensus among composer and audience would be neglected, that opera cannot be ‘pure’ music. Music and especially opera has to be out of ‘something’, a ‘something’ that lies outside and beyond the music itself and in many instances, political beliefs play are a major part in it. The book’s intend is not to illustrate politics as the major cause or result of opera but that the influence exist and to refute the common downplay and negligence of politics in opera from critics.
In all chapters, the author follows a similar pattern in presenting his arguments. First, the history and beliefs of the composer in various stages of his life is discussed. Letters and books (in case of Wagner) of the composer are presented as evidence. The viewpoint of the composer in that should opera include politics is also discussed. Individual operas are then discussed, citing particular portions of the libretto as reference and evidence. The story lines for the operas are also discussed in detail. The audience’s reaction and the popularity at the time of the initial performance is presented. Critics of different periods for the interpretation of the work is also quoted to give a more subjective point of view on the issue. Finally, for each chapter, a brief conclusion on the period or the composer is given and the central themes are reiterated.
Although Mozart by no means was a political person, his works were cited as the dawn of modern opera with its certain political meaning in chapter one. In his operas, there were the ideas of class and sex conflicts and war. Class conflicts involved the abuse of aristocratic position and rise of the common people in both Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. The sex war occures in Le nozze di Figaro and Cosi fan tutte where women should be treated with respect, rather than assuming in age old chauvinist way that is the women rather than men who are to be mistrusted in matters of love and sex. In Die Zauberflote, the moment of hope and optimism after the French Revolution can easily be seen where light and wisdom triumph over the Queen of the Night and superstition.
Arblaster in chapter three and six argues that music, and therefore opera played a central role in creating a sense of national identity and rallying people to the national cause in the various European countries. Often opera provided a forum for the expression of subversive political sentiments disguised to get around census in patriotic arias or choruses. In Italy’s case, the most explicit of all for the independence of Italy came from Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. Arblaster also states that all three operas of Rossini: Mose in Egitto, Maometto Secondo and Guillaume Tell are about national oppression and use of chorus in which arias are not for individuals but of whole nations. All three depicted the idea of militant liberal nationalism. Other composers of opera of Italy and other countries spread similar ideas of nationalism in which helped to lead to the rise of the independent nations.
However, the most important emphasis of the book is placed on two composers: Verdi and Wagner. Arblaster uses one-third of the book to portray Verdi as the liberal patriot with his heart for the Republic and Wagner as the German with strong nationalist, racist and anti-Semitic views. It is also in Chapter 5 devoted to Wagner that the author changes the format to a more argumentative fashion. Other critic’s arguments are put forth followed by his own rebuttal and presentation of evidence.
Verdi was one of the composers with the strongest political convictions and at one time even actually ran and succeeded in entering the national parliament. However, the most important aspect is that he allowed himself and his personality to be in his music and his operas, and lacks the feeling of distance between creator and creation that we find in Mozart or Rossini. One of his great display of nationalism was stated in Nabucco with the High Priest, Zaccaria which famous chorus ‘Va pernsiero’ was spontaneously sung at Verdi’s funeral, sixty years after its initial performance. In the 1840s, Verdi’s operas could be roughly divided into primarily dramas for individuals which would include Ernani, I due Foscari, Il corsaro, I masnadieri and Luisa Miller with Alzira and Macbeth as borderline cases. The second category, which are primarily political, public and patriotic include Attila, Giovanna d’ Arco and La battaglia di Legnano. Issues such as conflict between patriotic duty and personal emotions in Giovanna d’Arco and Aida are discussed. Italian patriots, against barbarian invaders as in Attila are also portrayed.
After the defeat of the Italian upraise and fall of the Roman republic in 1849, Verdi switches to more personal dilemmas and social matters. Rigoletto and Boccanegra were both about class conflict and La traviata about social issues. Near the end of his career, Don Carlos was targeted at the Catholic Church indicating that is more powerful and more ruthless than the state. Aida, ended Verdi’s line of political or party political operas with anti-clericalism sentiments.
Although Wagner’s works were adopted as cultural symbols by Hitler and the Third Reich and Wagner shared many of the anti-Semitic and racist views of the Nazis, Arblaster stressed that that does not indicate that Wagner would approve the actions of the Nazis. He simply states that the racist and nationalistic views of Wagner in his operas, or music-dramas cannot be ignored.
Rienzi, was against aristocratic rule and carried a strong suggestion of fascism which many sayturned Hitler’s ambitions away from art towards politics after seeing the first performance. The Ring, which spanned twenty-six years carried different political meaning during various stages of the opera corresponding to Wagner’s beliefs in life. In Die Walkure, there was incest which in a way signified ‘pure blood’ and ‘pure race’. In Siegfried, there was thinly disguised racism with Siegfried’s treatment of Mime. Siegfried, arrogant, aggressive and above all mindless Nordic hero was supposed to be the ‘most perfect human being’. In Das Rheigold, Wagner’s obsession with the ‘fire-cure’ to cleanse the world was indicated by the doom of the gods even with the return of the gold.
With Chapter 7, Arblaster discusses the social role of women in opera and that they are almost always the victims but are given more weight and sympathy in opera than in the real world. Puccini and Strauss in Chapter 8 are shown as composers who try to compose non-political operas in an increasing political world and how this affects the coherence and validity of their operas. Finally in Chapter 9, modern day opera to Broadway musicals are included stating that opera is no longer about the elite or privileged but about common people as heroes.
Arblaster in both the introduction and conclusion emphasized that music was the basic and the most important element of opera. However, throughout the book, his discussions were around the libretto giving little reference to the music and how they express political, nationalistic or patriotic feelings. He had no detailed analysis of the orchestra or the score. At best, he indicated the instruments in a particular section. This might be due to the strong history but weak music background of the author. Arblaster sometimes also use the original versions of operas rather than the revised or the version that we can obtain. This might provide limited benefit to our studies and practical use.
The author also stretches the definition of politics to the social context in the opera, especially in the chapters of Mozart and women in opera. The social context might just be a background in which an action takes place instead of the beliefs of the composer in which he would want to spread to increase awareness. For example, in Le nozze di Figaro, there is class and sex conflict. However, theses are ideas which were rising at the time but not politics which are beliefs which would help govern the country. Opera in many cases spread ideals and visions but that does not equal to spreading ideas of politics. Opera carries more meaning than sheer entertainment but not necessarily politics.
This also give rises to the pinpointing of certain parts of the libretto to establish the political element of the opera. The opera might to a great extent non-political and trying to express other ideas but by extracting and emphasizing these elements, the reader might get a wrong intention of what the opera is about. For example, although in the conclusion the author stressed Wagner’s musical achievements are not impacted by his racist views, the reader would concentrate too much on these controversial and politically non-correct libretto of the composer while neglecting the music and the other meanings to the great work such as The Ring.
To conclude, Anthony Arblaster might have tried too hard in that instead of looking for a line that would connect all the operas, he searched too deep for individual evidence for each opera for the composers he discussed. The content does not correspond accurately with the title Viva la Liberta — Politics in Opera.