The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart

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Release Date: 
September 4, 2017
Princeton University Press
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“a fascinating dual study that rescues a large chunk of musical history and well as pulling the curtain back on the operatic political drama.”

Hard to imagine in our age of IMAX and mass electronic media that live opera was once the most advanced multimedia art form around. From the baroque era through the 18th century, audiences were dazzled by the spectacale of orchestral music, vocal artistry, and magical stagecraft that conjured ancient tales, religious oratory, and classic stories for the operatic stage.

From its beginnings opera was also a medium to be exploited by the royal dynasties, privileged aristocracy, and religious leaders. Political science scholar Mitchell Cohen dissects this the early history of this untenable alliance in The Politics of Opera: From Monteverdi to Mozart. It is a fascinating study of opera’s musicology, performance history, and the political operatives who were pulling the artistic strings.   

Cohen is a professor of political science at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City of University of New York. Once you get past his lengthy introduction, his style is more journalistic as he dissects the often dramatic, and sometimes comedic, ancient engagement of music and politics.

It many have been the time of Enlightenment where scholars, writers, scientists, doctors, theologians, philosophers, and even politicians wanted to foster the arts and humanities; they shared an interest in the artistic expression of humanity and nurtured culture and art. But operas were at the mercy of court commissions and composers and librettists considered servants. Among other restrictions, they could not choose their own stories and often had to be deferential and even exultant to the political, cultural, and religious status quo. 

Cohen chronicles the developments of opera Sera and Buffa of Italy, the distinct lyricism of French opera, and the dramatic structures of the German aesthetic. Cohen reveals the motives, influence, and interference of the de Medicis, the courts of Louis XIV and Hapsburgs dynasties, among others. Even with restrictive outside interference, opera continued to evolve in many directions. 

There were also cultural wars to contend with which called for desperate actions by some artists. The French officially hated Italian music, even as the audiences in Paris clamored to hear it so much so much so that the French composer Francois Couperin composed under an Italianate non de plume Pernucio. Meanwhile, in Italy, women were forbidden to appear onstage, so female characters were composed castrati and that criminally grotesque industry of mutilating choirboys who would sing the soprano roles.

The first officially recognized opera was Orfeo, based on the Greek myth of Eurydice. It was commissioned to be premiered at the political marriage of two royals from different countries. And it was so insincere that the groom had someone stand in for him at the altar. The librettist was also forced to change the story’s tragic “don’t look back, or else” ending Cohen reports, because this was after entertainment for a wedding. 

He writes detailed portraits of notable musicians, composers, and librettists who were the architects of a new art form, that include portraits of Claudio Monteverdi, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Arcangelo Corelli, among others who had to navigate the artistic whims of kings, clergy, and aristocratic class like the ruling class of the Medicis dynasty whose influence reached all the high courts of Europe and the church hierarchy. 

One of the most intriguing profiles is his chapter on French composer John-Baptiste Lully, whose ballet vocabulary became the foundation of the French school at the court of Louis XIV. Lully collaborated with, among other luminaries, Moliere, and he personally trained Louis so he could perform in public and make dance and opera a centerpiece of his court. But he was still very much considered a servant in the Sun King’s court. Louis knew Lully was homosexual, and when gossip turned scandal, he distanced himself and eventually cut him off. But his artistic legacy continued.

A large chunk of the book is Cohen’s deft analysis of the socio-political implications of The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, and Don Giovanni, three masterpieces by Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, whose collaboration defined opera for a new era. As Cohen reports Mozart wasn’t overtly political in his work, but his disdain for authority and draconian social mores was always in there narratively and musically.     

Some of the scene by scene dissection of key operas where Cohen investigates every suggestion of social, political and nationalist implications might have better placed in appendixes or reference notes. In text they can read as too tangential and overwhelm more important points. But Cohen should be applauded nonetheless, for his exhaustive and authoritative research. Ultimately, this is a fascinating dual study that rescues a large chunk of musical history and well as pulling the curtain back on the operatic political drama.