December 15, 2002
More On Opera And The Constitution

1. My post on Guns And Opera three weeks ago half-facetiously suggested an anti-gun-control message in Fidelio, where the political prisoner Florestan is about to be knifed to death by the evil governor Pizarro when his wife (Leonore, disguised as the boy Fidelio) pulls a gun and saves him. My post attracted an intemperate and semiliterate comment from someone too cowardly to provide a genuine e-mail address or a name more distinctive than 'Mike':

Your first supposition was the correct one, opera has nothing to do with the second amendment that American fascist now interpret to give them the right to carry guns and shoot anything that moves.

Since so many Europeans agree with 'Mike', and so many directors and producers of operas like to come up bizarre new stagings, perhaps some European opera company can redo Fidelio with a new and happier ending, in which Leonore throws away her evil gun, allows her husband to die a martyr to strict gun control, and is then conveniently available to marry the jailer's daughter Marzelline, who is already in love with 'Fidelio' in Act I. If tastefully handled, a new recognition scene at the end could do great things for the fight for Lesbian and transvestite equality. It might be hard to do all this without rewriting most of the words and some of the music, but surely it would be worth the effort to bring this sadly outdated opera into the 21st century.

2. I do wonder about the freeing of all the prisoners at the end. Florestan is hidden away in a particularly deep dungeon. Is this because he is the most influential of a bunch of political prisoners? Or are the rest common criminals? If the latter, the 'happy' ending is more than a little suspect: just what this town needs is to have all the murderers, rapists, muggers, and burglars back on the street. Was Beethoven a Dukakis-style liberal before his time? Or did I miss something in the libretto that explains this?

3. Judging from Fidelio and Aida, which I saw a few days later, the Met scenery people are particularly good at dungeons.

4. As for Aida: what's with the blackface, or at least beigeface? Several of the male characters wore light-brown makeup to portray Egyptians or in one case the king of Ethiopia. (Aida herself is an Ethiopian princess, but the woman who sang the part that night was black to start with.) I understand that this is necessary when a white man is playing Shakespeare's Othello in the theater or Verdi's Otello in the opera house. Racial difference is fundamental to the plot of Ot(h)ello, and it would be awfully confusing if the jealous Moor were a blue-eyed blond, particularly if the other characters were not all white -- likely enough in today's cosmopolitan operatic world. At the same time, it would be unfair, perhaps even prosecutable, to tell blond and pink-cheeked singers that they cannot sing Otello if they are vocally qualified to do so.

I can certainly see giving all the blonds dark wigs in Aida so they can play Egyptians and Ethiopians without confusing the audience. In fact, the extras who played the Ethiopian prisoners in the production I saw were mostly black, and it looked like all the others were wearing dark curly wigs. (The men were bare-chested, too, and the Met seems to have a no-tattoo rule for extras.) Fair enough, but why was it necessary to make the Chinese singer who sang the role of king of Ethiopia wear dark makeup? I haven't examined the libretto closely, but it didn't look like the racial difference between Egyptians and Ethiopians is crucial to the plot. The national difference is crucial, of course -- Egypt is at war with Ethiopia -- but race is another story.

Finally, I wonder if white fraternities caught in blackface scandals could use operatic precedent as a legal excuse.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at December 15, 2002 08:03 PM

It sounds like no more than permissible experimentation with the production, but I agree that it seems a bit odd. Could it be a kind of P.C. obesience to the myth that the ancient Egyptians were Negroes? A silly myth, in light of the conventions of Egyptian art, but one often repeated in ethnically oriented literature.

Posted by: Lou Gots on December 16, 2002 02:02 PM

You're unnecessarily complicating the problem of what to do with the prisoners in "Fidelio." The simplest course is what's called for. Just do with Pizarro's prisoners what the left and many liberals do with the thousands of prisoners in the prisons of Cuba--ignore them.

They're being persecuted by a people's republic, so they don't exist.

Posted by: Alex Bensky on December 19, 2002 09:19 PM