Everything I Need To Know About Politics (I learned at the opera)

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Frasier: NILES! Niles, get a hold of yourself! Stop it! Stop, stop. It’s all right. You’re no longer an awkward teenager, you’re a renowned psychiatrist. Danny Kreizel may have won a battle or two back in junior high, but that’s where he peaked. You won the war. You know the expression, “Living well is the best revenge“?

Niles: It’s a wonderful expression. Just don’t know how true it is. Don’t see it turning up in a lot of opera plots. "Ludwig, maddened by the poisoning of his entire family, wreaks vengeance on Gunther in the third act by living well."

Frasier: All right, Niles. [heads into the kitchen]

Niles: [follows him] "Whereupon Woton, upon discovering his deception, wreaks vengeance on Ludwig in the third act again by living even better than the Duke."

You can seek political guidance from any number of potentially misleading sources, or look to literature and the arts to get a better understanding of human nature and the political animal. Many operas were composed under the threat of censorship, and so their creators had to be artful about crafting anti-state messages. With Niles Crane as an inspiration, you might well look to opera plots for guidance on how to live life. Here are a few lessons that I have learned about politicians and politics at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Start with Wagner’s magnificent Ring Cycle. Wagner composed the poem for the Ring shortly after being one of the leaders of the failed 1849 Dresden uprising to overthrow the King of Saxony; he earned himself a death sentence in Germany, and lived for years in exile as a result. As a "Young German," he was a socialist but not what Marx would later come to call a "Scientific Socialist"; Marx disparaged Proudhon and Wagner’s ideals as "utopian socialism." Wagner’s revenge is that his utopianism survives and thrives today, while serious intellectual thought has dispatched Marxism to the dustbin of history.

Wagner decided that the reason the revolution had failed was the lack of vision of the power elite to understand the world of love and freedom (and free love) that would free the elite as well. In Das Rheingold he created two characters who would vie for power and supremacy over the course of the tetralogy, Alberich and Wotan.

We first meet Alberich as a hideous dwarf lusting after three Rhinemaidens, swimming innocently in the Rhine. When he is unable to engage any, he grows frustrated. Later the Rhinemaidens tell him that the gleaming gold of the river bottom can be forged into a ring that grants power over the world; they do so lightly, as only one who forswears love can forge the Ring, and who would be so afflicted as to forswear love? His lust for female companionship thwarted, Alberich hungers for power: he curses love, seizes the gold, and forges the ring.

For George Bernard Shaw in The Perfect Wagnerite, Alberich represents capital, using the natural resources it has ripped from the earth to gain control and subjugate others. Indeed, Shaw cites the later example that the Ring grants the power to forge a helmet, the Tarnhelm, that allows its wearer to disappear while inflicting blows on a worker to spur him to more labors, and shows this as an allegory for the invisible ways that capital oppresses workers. Even so, Joachim Kohler (or was it Bryan Magee?) states the case more directly: Wagner’s point is not that forswearing love allows the achievement of power, but that the pursuit of power requires the pursuer to forswear love.

Deryck Cooke’s unfinished I Saw the World End captures this point in his discussion of the next male figure we meet in Rheingold, Wotan. Wotan, leader of the gods, has built a castle of lordly might and power, Valhalla. To pay for its construction he has offered Freia, the goddess of youth and youthful love, to the giants Fafner and Fasolt, the builders. Again, Cooke notes, the pursuit of power causes the pursuer to surrender the ability to love.

Wotan, however, offers to find a substitute for Freia, and he finds it in the Ring and the golden hoard that the Ring has allowed Alberich to amass. The giants agree, and Wotan steals the gold from he who stole it from the Rhinemaidens. Before he returns to his underworld home, Alberich places a curse on the Ring: whoever sees it will desire it, it will bring no joy to whoever possesses it, and in fact death is the end for anyone who wears it. Wotan reluctantly relinquishes the Ring at the end of Rheingold, but continues to scheme a method to obtain it once again.

Die Walküre, the next opera in the cycle, tells the tale of his continued search. While it ends in tragedy (indeed, should you want to understand tragedy as the Greeks meant it to be understood, a visit to the Metropolitan Opera this spring to attend a performance is essential), more important is Wotan’s monologue in Act II. Frustrated in his aims to recover the Ring, Wotan wills the end of the world and his own destruction; one imagines Hitler in his bunker likewise celebrating the destruction of the Germany that had failed him.

This idea of the main character’s seeking his own end had appeared before in Wagner’s oeuvre. The Flying Dutchman wants nothing but the End of Days, to end his wandering across the planet; one sees much the same characteristic in the knight Tannhaüser, in the opera of the same name. He returns from a long exile to the court of Hermann, the Landgrave of Thuringia. Hermann, an enlightened ruler, is celebrated by his subjects for his support of art, culture, and singing:

CHOR DER RITTER UND EDLEN

Freudig begrüssen wir die edle Halle,
wo Kunst und Frieden immer nur verweil,
wo lange noch der Ruf erschalle,
Thüringens Fürsten, Landgraf Hermann, Heil!

KNIGHTS AND NOBLES

Joyfully we greet the noble hall,
where may art and peace alone linger ever,
and the joyous cry long ring out:
To the Prince of Thuringia, Count Hermann, hail!

The music of which this is a part is stirring, far more so than any ever written to praise a democratic state. One wonders, did (Hans) Hermann Hoppe first glimpse the superiority of monarchy over democracy by witnessing the adulation bestowed upon Hermann?

Of course monarchy is not perfect, only better than democracy. Hermann was one of a number of princes ruling in what had been the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Northern Italy was also blessed with dispersed political control that allowed it to develop economically far beyond Southern Italy; we next visit the court of the Duke of Mantua in the opera Rigoletto by Verdi.

Giuseppe Verdi was certainly well-versed in the ways of politicians and politics: he served as a Senator in the newly-consolidated Italian state formed from the Kingdom of Sardinia, his name was shouted as an acronym in support of the King becoming ruler of all Italy (Vittorio Emmanuele, Rei di Italia), and his Va Pensiero, nominally about captive Jews in Babylon. became the anthem for "captive" Italians. Even so, he was not unaware of the nature of the state, with independent Genoa celebrated in Simon Boccanegra, malicious murder displayed in Macbeth and Otello, and the scheming immorality of princes on display in Rigoletto.

Rigoletto is the court jester to the Duke of Mantua. As such, he serves to mock all who come to court, and to assist the Duke in his depredations. Count Monterone, whose daughter was seduced by the Duke, curses Rigoletto before being thrown into jail, and Rigoletto makes light of his plight. Rigoletto decides to try to assassinate the Duke after mocked noblemen threaten him; meanwhile, the Duke has caught sight of a new conquest, who turns out to be Rigoletto’s daughter. Rigoletto is tricked into kidnapping his own daughter for the Duke; when he later discovers that she is missing, he sings one of the great invectives against those fawning sycophants to power, Cortigiani, vil razza dannata (courtiers, vile damned race [simply utter the word Cortigiani next time you want to condemn one!]). His decision to kill the Duke sealed, he employs the assassin Sparafucile. Sparafucile decides to spare the charming young man but must still offer his employer a body in a sack, the body of the Duke’s latest conquest, Rigoletto’s daughter.

American audiences are often confused at Rigoletto: did not the conventional rules of drama and censorship under which Verdi operated require bad behavior to be punished? How then does the Duke escape the consequences? Here the political message resounds: the Duke is simply playing the role of the ruler in the state, and that role requires guile, charm, deceit, theft and murder. Rigoletto, however, does not have to succor that ruler, nor mock and oppress those denuded by the state. We all face expropriation by the state, but we must never pen excuses for it or celebrate the damage it inflicts on other people.

Displayed in these operas is two artists’ visions of the state: power will be desired by all, but ultimately incapable of achieving the ends that the power-seeker pursues, and it will lead to the seeker’s actual or metaphysical death; grasping for power, the political man will continue to seek the love he abandoned to obtain it; he will undermine all conventional morality in pursuit of affairs and material wealth; he might back the creation of art as a local hereditary monarch, but we above all have a duty to withhold our consent to his malicious acts from him, as tienne de la Botie among many others wrote. You can absorb these lessons directly and hear some wonderful music through May in New York, or at your local opera house.

Thomas M. Schmidt [send him mail], a native of Brooklyn, will be there that sad day, April 25th, when the curtain closes for the last matinee on Otto Schenk’s magnificent Ring Cycle set; he urges you to spend whatever it takes to attend.

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