A Machiavellian Opera

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lennygoran
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A Machiavellian Opera

Post by lennygoran » Sat Apr 15, 2017 7:39 pm

A Machiavellian Opera for Trump-Era Issues of Truth and Lies

By NINA SIEGAL APRIL 15, 2017

The year is 2032.

The 15th-century Italian diplomat and theorist Niccolò Machiavelli has been resurrected from the dead. President Wu Virtu, a Maoist Ronald Reagan figure who rules over the merged continent of Amerasiopia, has directed him to present a new version of “The Prince,” his 500-year-old treatise on political power.

In that Renaissance document, debated for centuries, Machiavelli argued that a politician should seek to be feared rather than loved, and that sometimes a leader must lie to achieve his ends. His new manifesto must address the problems of 21st-century politics, and to do so, he takes President Virtu on a virtual tour of recent world history.

This is the basic plotline of “The New Prince,” an opera that had its world premiere at the Dutch National Opera on March 24, composed by the American composer Mohammed Fairouz, with a libretto by the Washington Post political columnist David Ignatius and directed by the rising young German director Lotte de Beer.

Drawing from disparate political histories involving the Medicis, Hitler, Alexander Hamilton, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Osama bin Laden, the Machiavelli of the future, with Henry Kissinger as his sidekick, delivers a warning about abuses of power and lapses of political judgment.

There is one “new prince” that everyone in the audience was probably thinking of during the production, but he is conspicuously absent from this political soup.

“I finished the libretto a year ago, at a time when it still seemed unlikely that Donald Trump would be president,” Mr. Ignatius said in a telephone interview. “But we were already surrounded by Donald Trump-like figures in our world: Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China, Erdogan in Turkey. The big man who speaks in a way that people imagine Machiavelli’s princes would are all over, and Trump is just the latest.”

As the project came closer to fruition, their subject matter became more topical, somewhat to the surprise of those involved. “I felt that the story would be anchored in the world we’re living in,” Mr. Ignatius said. “I didn’t know at the time that there would be such a direct parallel to our times.”

Ms. de Beer, Mr. Fairouz and Mr. Ignatius began work on the opera in early 2014, after the Dutch National Opera’s director, Pierre Audi, offered Ms. de Beer carte blanche to develop a commission for its 2017 Opera Forward Festival, the second edition of an annual festival devoted to “new works, new talent and new initiatives.”

She chose to begin with Machiavelli and see if he could say something relevant about our times. Together, she and Mr. Audi selected Mr. Fairouz, who is only in his early 30s but is among the most frequently performed composers of his generation. Because Mr. Fairouz has both an Arab and American background, was born in New York to foreign diplomats and raised in New York, Dubai and London, and because he has written extensively about politics as a journalist, Ms. de Beer believed that he had an appropriately complex, global perspective.

“I think opera is a perfect genre for politics in the widest sense of the word,” Ms. de Beer said during a lunch break at a rehearsal at a studio here.

“Since opera works in three layers,” she continued — referring to music, performance and stage design — “it can tell the political story, but it should always be the bigger political story, not the political story that happened yesterday — spoken theater is much better at that because it’s much quicker. Producing an opera takes several years.”

Mr. Fairouz, who has written symphonies, vocal and choral settings, and chamber and solo works, embraced the notion of creating a politically charged opera.

“The reason we do opera for a narrative like this is that opera forces you to paint with the largest brush on the largest possible canvas,” he said, “and that’s not because of any tradition or repertoire or history. It’s because of the fact that you’re taking all the universal elements of human expression: the human voice, music, light, sound, movement, the written word and the spoken word, poetry. You’re combining everything, and using them to express things that are as diverse as the people creating them in architecture as grand and diverse as all the world’s opera houses.”

His music, he says, is not classical opera and it is not modern opera, either. “I’m not a classical composer,” he said. “I hate that word. I’m influenced by way too many things. If I can get off a plane and hear Punjabi music one minute and then go to a club and hear Beyoncé or Lady Gaga, and then I go listen to a band in Beirut and I still sound like Mozart, that would be kind of weird. The musical influences are everywhere, and you just have to listen.”

Ms. de Beer doesn’t describe the piece as an opera, either, but rather a “revue,” in which stage production includes spoken text along with many sung parts, and quite a lot of ensemble work on stage, in which the chorus and dancers act as a kind of roving paparazzi, observing and recording everything that the various “princes” say and do.

Dance is crucial to making the action flow, she said. She worked so closely with the American choreographer Zack Winokur on the stage action that she credited him as a co-director.

Mr. Fairouz had long been an admirer of Mr. Ignatius’s (although they had never met) and asked him to write the libretto. Mr. Ignatius used to be a war correspondent, but he has also written nine novels.

“I find myself drawn to people who are capturing something important about the spirit or zeitgeist of our time,” Mr. Fairouz said of Mr. Ignatius.

Mr. Ignatius had never tried to write a libretto before, but when Mr. Fairouz called, he said, “the challenge was just irresistible.”

Mr. Ignatius admitted that he did not take time off work to write the piece, but could often be found scribbling away on international flights to war zones, surrounded by old opera librettos and books on Machiavelli. He was the one who decided to set the opera in the future, he said, but to reflect on historical personages and events through a retrospective lens.

Through his research, Mr. Ignatius said he discovered that, contrary to what most people think, Machiavelli sought to be the “ultimate truth-teller.”

“The interesting thing about Machiavelli is that, although he was a great exponent of guile and deceit and the need for the ruler to sometimes tell lies to achieve his gains, he believed absolutely himself in telling the truth,” Mr. Ignatius said. “And that’s the hinge on which this opera turns. It’s a portrait of a man who was deeply cynical about politics, but in terms of his own ultimate ends, was passionately committed to telling the truth. That’s really the arc of the story of the opera.”

But the creative collaborators hoped that the experience of watching it, and hearing it, would feel nothing like a political treatise.

“I hope that it goes so fast that they probably can’t even think, and that when they get home, they’ll realize that they’ve just seen the whole history of the world,” Ms. de Beer said. “And that’ll make them think about cycles of history and about what basis we use to elect our leaders.

“If our politicians follow what Machiavelli says will make them successful, does that make them really cut out to rule? In a democracy, especially in the phase of democracy where we are now, that’s interesting material.”


https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/15/arts ... views&_r=0

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