An interview with Mitchell Cohen, author of The Politics of Opera A History from Monteverdi to Mozart
Politics is not usually the first thing most people think about when it comes to opera. Why did you write a book on politics and opera?
MC: It was natural. I have a passion for opera and I am a professor of political theory and co-edited Dissent, a political magazine. I began writing the book in order to explore the intersection of two apparently disparate domains. Moreover, if the relation between aesthetic ideas and political ideas interests you, opera provides a great terrain for exploration. Of course, not all operas are political, but more are—or have political implications—than many people realize. I should add: politics does not consume all there is to say about those operas that are political. The Politics of Opera is about how and when two domains come together, and I define politics broadly. In any event, there was also a selfish dimension to my project: I had to go to the opera for work. There are worse things to have to do.
Your book is unusual because of the time span you cover, roughly from the birth of opera through Mozart, some two hundred years. Why choose this period?
MC: Well, let’s start at the beginning. Modern politics—the modern state in Europe—was, broadly speaking, born at the time of the Renaissance. Opera emerged in the late Renaissance. In the last decades of the 16th century, humanist intellectuals in Florence debated about “ancient” and “modern” music—they meant Greek antiquity and their own day. Galileo’s father was one of them. Their conversations led to experiments that, in turn, became opera at the turn of the 17th century. In roughly this era, in Italy and France, important debates occurred and books were published about politics and the nature of politics because it was transforming. One might say that Machiavelli, decades earlier, began the discussion. Of course he didn’t write operas (he did write plays). The parallel between the development of a new form of politics and a new form of musical stage art intrigued me. But in Mozart’s day there was a massive political crack-up, the French revolution—there was, then, great upheaval and great genius at the same time. That’s why I took the late 18th century as a natural historical border. The Politics of Opera seeks to sink operas into the political times in which they were first imagined and not to imagine them as somehow standing outside their times. Another way of saying that is that if you want truly to grasp the politics of an opera you must look deeply both into history and into the ideas that were current when it was written and composed. You have to know what was being argued about then and not just impose your own contemporary preoccupations, although your own preoccupations may be enlightening too—so long as you keep an eye on the differences between your ideas and those found, say, in an opera by Monteverdi or Rameau or Mozart.
For whom are you writing?
MC: I try to write for a broad intelligent public and for scholars. I sought to make a contribution to our understanding of interesting, not-always-evident matters but in accessible ways. I hope that opera fans along with scholars and students of history, culture, music and politics will all be engaged by it. I hope they’ll learn something of what I learned in writing and researching it.
Your book’s prologue speaks of the itinerary of your explorations. What was the route?
MC: Italy, France, Vienna. Florence under the Medicis was the obvious place to begin because those humanists I mentioned were talking about relations between music, feelings, and ideas. The earliest opera for which we still have both the libretto and the music retold the story of Eurydice and Orpheus for a political event, the marriage in 1600 of Maria de’ Medici to France King Henri IV in Florence (He didn’t show up but sent a stand-in!). But then there was a leap of musical imagination when, in Mantua just a few years later, Claudio Monteverdi began composing operas, first of all his remarkable Orfeo. I am always tempted to call him “the great Monteverdi” and indeed he was the first great composer of opera, although he wrote many other wonderful compositions too. He would eventually be fired from Mantua’s ducal court but then he received a much more prestigious position in Venice, a republic. Towards the end of his life he composed some amazing operas in collaboration with librettists who were close to power in Venice. This included the first directly political and historical opera, The Coronation of Poppea. In it the philosopher Seneca and Roman emperor Nero quarrel over ‘reason’ versus ’emotion’ in ruling. From Italy I went to France, more precisely to the birth of French opera thanks to Jean-Baptiste Lully during the reign of Louis XIV. Then I turned to the quarrel in the 18th century between a great composer and theorist of harmony, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and a popular but not-so-great composer of opera, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Yes, the Rousseau, the famous political philosopher who advocated sovereignty of the people but who also aspired to be a composer. Poor Rameau! Poor Rousseau! Rameau was the great artist and my book devotes considerable space to his opera Les Indes galantes, a remarkable opera that in part reflects the Age of Exploration—what others would call the Age of Imperialism. But Rameau was not a spectacular writer and Rousseau’s music, well, let’s just say you wouldn’t want to go too often to his best-known opera, Le Devin du Village (the Village Soothsayer). However, you really wouldn’t want to get into polemics with him since he was a master of them.
From France I went on to Vienna, to Metastasio, the Imperial Poet of the Holy Roman Empire whose librettos were set by many composers, including Vivaldi. For my purposes the most interesting of them was Cato in Utica, which is about the last Roman republican resistance to the rise of the Roman Empire—Cato versus Julius Casesar. Of course, the book must finally come to Mozart’s operas.
As I looked at all these operas I tried to contextualize them and also to show parallels with key political ideas and problems of the times—ideas and problems that are embedded in them. So readers will come across a number of important thinkers and writers—some well-known, some less-known today—weaving throughout the book. These range from Machiavelli and Tacitus to Jean Bodin, Diderot, Edmund Burke, Rousseau and others.
Was Mozart political?
MC: Mozart was, of course, a man of music before anything else. We should be forever grateful for that. The more you study him, the more amazing he becomes. He didn’t write on politics but he certainly had problems with authority. His operas are filled with political themes and political issues of his time. He didn’t write his librettos but he helped to shape them. I try in The Politics of Opera to give a close reading (and hearing) to the results. The book actually stretches a little beyond Mozart and rounds off by discussing a little known work. The German poet Goethe wrote a sequel to The Magic Flute a few years after Mozart’s death. Goethe never finished it and nobody was brave enough to write music for it. In it there is a regrouping of the forces of darkness. Led by the infamous Queen of the Night they launch an assault against Sarastro’s enlightened realm—he is on a sabbatical—and Tamino and Pamina. Goethe wrote it in the mid 1790s. It is easy to think of it in light of wars and politics in Europe just then. There is, of course, much more to be found in it too.
You certainly cover a lot of territory. How do you approach it all?
MC: By using insights drawn from many thinkers and varied methods—political, philosophical, musicalogical, historical—in different combinations. I don’t impose one model on everything. I prefer what I call a methodological medley. It seems to me a particularly fruitful way to be inter-disciplinary.