The Politics of Opera takes readers on a fascinating journey into the entwined development of opera and politics, from the Renaissance through the turn of the nineteenth century. What political backdrops have shaped opera? How has opera conveyed the political ideas of its times? Delving into European history and thought and an array of music by such greats as Lully, Rameau, and Mozart, Mitchell Cohen reveals how politics—through story lines, symbols, harmonies, and musical motifs—has played an operatic role both robust and sotto voce.
Cohen begins with opera’s emergence under Medici absolutism in Florence during the late Renaissance—where debates by humanists, including Galileo’s father, led to the first operas in the late sixteenth century. Taking readers to Mantua and Venice, where composer Claudio Monteverdi flourished, Cohen examines how early operatic works like Orfeo used mythology to reflect on governance and policy issues of the day, such as state jurisdictions and immigration. Cohen explores France in the ages of Louis XIV and the Enlightenment and Vienna before and during the French Revolution, where the deceptive lightness of Mozart’s masterpieces touched on the havoc of misrule and hidden abuses of power. Cohen also looks at smaller works, including a one-act opera written and composed by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Essential characters, ancient and modern, make appearances throughout: Nero, Seneca, Machiavelli, Mazarin, Fenelon, Metastasio, Beaumarchais, Da Ponte, and many more.
An engrossing book that will interest all who love opera and are intrigued by politics, The Politics of Opera offers a compelling investigation into the intersections of music and the state.
Awards and Recognition
- Shortlisted for the Laura Shannon Prize in Contemporary European Studies, Nanovic Institute, University of Notre Dame
- Winner of the 2018 PROSE Award in Music & the Performing Arts, Association of American Publishers
- Winner of the 2018 Presidential Excellence Award for Distinguished Scholarship, Baruch College, City University of New York
- One of the Evening Standard Best Books of 2017 (chosen by Anne McElvoy)
"The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart has boldly placed Machiavelli and early modern political theory at the center of the early history of opera, reflecting creatively on the ways in which the reverberations of the great Florentine realist reached even into the musical realm. . . . Cohen has demonstrated that the history of opera is connected to the history of political theory, but operatic masterpieces also acquire new layers of political meaning as they encounter new generations and newly fraught political circumstances."—Larry Wolff, New York Review of Books
"This subtly insightful book helps readers experience these timeless masterpieces anew."—Foreign Affairs
"Surprises await even the well-informed operaphile."—Opera News
"A fascinating study of opera's musicology, performance history, and the political operatives who were pulling the artistic strings."—New York Journal of Books
"Delving into the world of composers such as Monteverdi, Lully, Rameau and Mozart, the author reveals how operas, through story lines, symbols, harmonies and musical motifs, have spoken of politics—sometimes loudly, sometimes sotto voce."—Opera America
"[A] first-rate scholarly work . . . that is both instructive in itself and methodologically and conceptually valuable for other periods and, indeed, media."—Jeremy Black, Foreign Policy Research Institute
"Mitchell Cohen has written a very erudite book that takes us down the highways and, especially, the byways of European political thought in the early modern period. . . . The persevering reader will find much instruction and new insight into some old favourites."—Tim Blanning, Literary Review
"Operas, the author argues, change their political meanings according to their setting, and the deep research and clear prose here hit a high C."—Anne McElvoy, The Evening Standard
"Suffice it to say, when Mitchell Cohen sees and hears an opera, he sees and hears a lot. To you, it may seem primarily a piece of music or a piece of lyric theater. For him, it reveals layer upon layer, politically, socially, and historically. . . . Cohen is very good at getting under the skin of a piece and gauging the environment in which it was created. At the same time, he realizes that a really good work of art transcends time and space. . . . A book such as Cohen’s may not be for everyone—whose is?—but it is certainly for some."—Jay Nordlinger, The Weekly Standard
"How should the history of political thought be written? . . . [A bold] step has been taken by Mitchell Cohen in his new book. Cohen, a political scientist who is also a music lover, is equally interested in the place of music in politics (metaphors of harmony, for instance) and the place of politics in music. . . . [His book] discusses not only the political context of operas and what is said openly in their librettos but, more unusually, the music as well—changing keys, recurrent motifs, and their emotional associations. . . . He often impresses."—Peter Burke, Common Knowledge
"A tour de force. This is a lively and engaging account of the history of politics in opera, written with precision and grace. Vividly rendered, sweeping in scope, and a pleasure to read, Cohen's book is an astonishing achievement."—Julie Otsuka, author of The Buddha in the Attic
"In The Politics of Opera, Cohen brings a music lover's avidity and scholar's lucidity to the ever-changing relationship between the operatic stage and the political world. His invigorating book gives art and ideology their due—a rare achievement. Cohen zeroes in on the political and social pressures that shape an artist's choices, but he never denies the transformative power of the creative imagination. His easy command of the crossroads where art and politics meet bears comparison with Irving Howe's classic Politics and the Novel."—Jed Perl, author of Magicians and Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture
"To say that The Politics of Opera is a remarkable achievement would be to give no sense of the magnitude of the undertaking, the challenge of writing a work that does justice not only to the political underpinnings of opera, but also to its music, drama, dramaturgy, and singers. This is an important cultural history and Cohen is a brilliant guide."—Richard Kramer, author of Cherubino's Leap and Unfinished Music
"In The Politics of Opera, Cohen offers a new reading of libretti and musical theory informed by his excellent knowledge of the history of political thought. To my knowledge there is no similar book covering these questions in such depth or wide geographical breadth. This was a pleasure to read."—Nicole Reinhardt, Durham University (UK)
"Extremely erudite, this book is beautifully crafted. Its powerful prose evokes wonderful images throughout and brings the early history of opera close to the reader. Almost every page shows the author's immense intellectual range."—Axel Körner, University College London