By Ricky O’Bannon
It is probably a testament to the tradition of political and social satire in western arts and music that the reaction to the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks and North Korean rhetoric over Sony’s “The Interview” was confusion.
As Tim Kreider wrote about the Charlie Hebdo attacks for The New York Times put it, “wait, this was about cartoons?”
But Kreider — a political cartoonist who worked for the Baltimore City Paper for a decade — points out that our general confusion can be read in another way. The fact that most see artistic satire as only an annoyance even if it slaughters our political or social sacred calves suggests that satire has lost some of its sting.
“It speaks well of our own relatively flexible system that it can accommodate criticism and dissent without lopping anyone’s hands off,” Kreider writes. “But this is also a backhanded testament to our society’s successful denaturing of satire, and the impotence of art in our own culture.”
If satire’s power has been watered down when it became something protected by the state rather than something subversive to it, it can be difficult for modern audiences to fully appreciate the firestorms that satirical art has often caused. While political satire is more common in literature or theater than classical music, many great composers have dabbled in the waters where commentary, humor and music meet.
1. Marriage of Figaro
While Mozart’s comic opera is as standard and safe a programming choice as can be found in the operatic repertoire, it was a scandalous piece of satire at the time it was written. Pierre de Beaumarchais’ play by the same name was banned in France by Louis XVI because it might promote class conflict.
The problem was that the play contained an Enlightenment-era theme which was gaining traction in the lead up to the French Revolution — that inherited nobility made a man no better or worse than a counterpart born into a lower class. Adding to its political controversy, the play was banned in Vienna for its sexual content by Joseph II, who employed Mozart as a court composer.
Even after the playwright redacted and altered his work to get royal approval, Beaumarchais’ play made for contentious source material for Mozart to select for an opera. Mozart’s version softens the serious critiques of Beaumarchais by eliminating one particularly inflammatory speech and transforming the tone into a light comedy, but it still contains much of the ignoble portrayal of nobility and satirical sendup of the class system as the original.
2. The Mikado
Arthur Sullivan and G.S. Gilbert’s comic opera The Mikado has been the source of recent controversy in Seattle where critics questioned the choice of the production company performing the work to use an all-white cast to portray Japanese characters. Whether or not the opera makes use of dated caricatures that should cause a halt to modern performances is up for debate. However, the satire imbued in the work was targeted at Victorian England and not Japan.
The story in The Mikado took aim at self-important politicians, strange social codes and moral hypocrisy of Victorian Britain, but as is often the case with satire, changing the setting and names made it easier for audiences to absorb. As a critic in 1907 wrote of The Mikado, “Gilbert [persecuted] the evils of modern England until they had literally not a leg to stand on, exactly [what Jonathan] Swift did in Gulliver’s Travels.”
3. Anti-Formalist Rayok
Dmitri Shostakovich was no stranger to circumventing Soviet censorship with subtle parody. In his fifth symphony, Shostakovich offers a march theme in the finale that depending on the (much debated) tempo taken transforms from a triumphant giddy to a plodding dirge. Thus a melody that can seem at one moment celebratory might actually be subversive.
One of Shostakovich’s most overt satirical works was not performed outside the composer’s home until 1989. Anti-Formalist Rayok is an operetta that mocks a 1948 Congress of Soviet Composerswho gathered to decide the proper way to compose music, which resulted in Shostakovich and many of his peers being denounced as “formalists” and anti-Soviet. The characters in the opera are Stalin and his henchmen gathering to decide what is proper Soviet music, and Shostakovich makes it quite clear he doesn’t agree with their conclusions.
4. Of Thee I Sing
Of Thee I Sing is a Broadway musical that George and Ira Gershwin modeled after the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. The 1931 musical was the first to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama and also the first American musical to have a consistently satirical tone.
The musical follows presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen and his vice presidential candidate Alexander Throttlebottom (who no one can remember the name of). The story, which was written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, skewers all facets of American political corruption and incompetence. It was such a success with audiences that some of the cast feared reprisal from the government for their involvement.
5. Rodman in North Korea
There has been at least one strong response to the recent storyline out of Pyongyang. Rodman in North Korea is a satirical opera about former NBA star Dennis Rodman’s personal diplomatic mission in 2013 to meet with Kim Jong Un.
The opera is still in the works, but creators are pitching it in their crowd-funding campaign as a way to promote free speech through classical music as a response to threats believed to come from North Korea against Sony for its film “The Interview.” If there are two bizarre and larger-than-life characters alive today who are ripe for satire on the opera stage, it’s hard to argue with Rodman and Kim Jong Un.