Don Juan: Opera as political, moral expressionby Rit Nosotro
Compare the religious and political message of Opera during the 16th century. Select opera samples as a style of political expression. Discuss what influence history had on the content of the story and if the opera itself served as propaganda to support a nationalistic cause.
Summary: Through "Don Carlo", Verdi explains the conditions of mid-16th century Spain. Though the opera is mostly about Prince Carlos of Spain, it mentions the Dutch fight for freedom from Spain that was occurring during the time period in the play. Verdi wrote "Don Carlo" during the 1860s. During this time, Italy was in the unification process and was trying to take back land from Austria and France. Therefore, Verdi used the Dutch fight for freedom within the opera to inspire Italian nationalism.
Opera has been a form of entertainment and expression for over 300 years. It was descended of Italian hymns from the Middle Ages. From there it descended through the Renaissance era to the Baroque (1600’s), where it finally gained the form it has today. A mixture of acting and singing, opera has been used by such Italian music legends as Puccini and Verdi to portray a story on stage. But the Italians weren’t the only ones who used opera: the French (Bizet’s “Carmen”), Germans (Strauss’s “Die Fladermaus”), and English people (Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance”) have all used it to convey humor, tragedy, and occasionally, politics. But how does God view Opera? Is using the arts as a way to portray a story of politics Godly? Just look at the opera Don Jose, written by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. A romantic tragedy, it effectively conveys politics in a smooth style, with religious overtones.
In 1560 France, the Infante Don Jose of Spain has come to see Elisabetta de Valois, his betrothed whom he has not yet met. They meet by accident and fall in love. However, a Spanish Ambassador arrives, and tells Don Jose that the state of affairs has changed, and his fiancé is now betrothed to his father instead. Heartbroken, he visits a convent to confide in his friend Rodrigo about his doomed romance, and is urged to devote his life to help the Flemish peoples gain Independence from Spain. He agrees, and the two promise their devotion towards the cause. Outside the convent walls, Princess Eboli entertains the court ladies with a song. Once the queen comes, Rodrigo and she arrange a meeting between herself and Carlo. Carlo proclaims his love, but she reminds him that she is already married. A flustered Carlo runs off, leaving her unattended. When her husband finds her thus alone, he banishes her lady-in-waiting. Rodrigo and the king speak of the future of the Flemish people. The suspicious king then asks Rodrigo to watch Carlo and the queen.
Carlo arrives at the queen’s garden to see his beloved, but is instead met by Eboli, who is in love with him. When he expresses unhappiness, Eboli threatens to harm his reputation. Rodrigo then takes troubling papers from Carlo so as to protect him. In the square before the Cathedral, a crowd comes to see an auto-da-fé. Carlo leads a group of Flemish lawmen to plead for clemency for some heretics. The king refuses, and Carlo threatens his father with his sword. To his amazement, Rodrigo takes it from him. As the heretics are lead to be burned at the stake, a voice from the heavens proclaims that they have been forgiven. Once alone, the king complains about his wife’s unresponsiveness. The Grand Inquisitor is called, and promptly urges death for Rodrigo and Carlo. Once he leaves, Elisabetta runs in saying that her jewel case was stolen. The king presents it, and once opened, reveals Carlo’s picture. The king accuses his wife, who promptly faints. He calls Eboli and Rodrigo for help. Once they are left alone, Eboli confesses to her mistress that not only was she responsible for stealing the case, but she had also once been the king’s mistress. Elisabetta banishes her. Cursing her attractiveness, she promises to help Carlo.
Rodrigo visits Carlo in prison and tells him that he was responsible allowing the troublesome papers to be found and thus assigning him the blame for the Flemish cause. As Rodrigo leaves, he is shot to death by a Flemish soldier. Carlo is freed by his father, and escapes undercover of a mob. In a nunnery, Elisabetta and Carlo say goodbye. The king and the Inquisitor arrive, but Carlo is saved by being pulled into a tomb by the ghost of his grandfather.
Verdi himself was not politically active when he wrote ‘Don Carlo,’ but he did write his opera about the fight for independence, which he greatly supported, and for which he was compassionate. True, he may have been pushing biased propaganda, but more than 2/3 of the crowd agreed with his views, because it was a great success among the freedom-loving Italians. Earlier he had attempted to write a similar opera involving passion and politics (Simon Boccanegra), but it was a magnificent failure, partly because of it’s message, but mostly because the fluid-tongued Italians hated the language, calling it “Germanic.”
But going back to the original question, ‘Is using the arts to portray a story Godly,’ the answer is yes it is, but it just depends on how you do it. In the Bible, we see many examples of people singing. (Eph 5:19, Ex 15:1, the Psalms) The whole Book of Psalms itself is full of songs from the joyful, the desperate, the sorrowful, and the happy to their Lord God. They tell stories and use music. They vary in themes. In their own way, they are a Biblical form of Opera, which stands as proof that the arts are pleasing to the Lord. However, the Lord does not want us to sin by lying or cheating people (Ex 20:15-16), which is what spewing propaganda does. Clearly, the Lord approves of the arts, just so long as they are coupled with Godliness.
As with almost anything, opera can be used for both good and bad. Though operas are made mostly for entertainment, many have a message the composer wants to propagate. In order to determine whether an opera is godly, one should see if the opera expresses ideas that are worthy of being meditated upon. This means the opera should be truthful and pure (as per Philippians 4:8). Of course, Christians should stay away from operas that express bad language, hate, immorality, or other unbiblical principles. (as per Ephesians 4:31).
1. King James Version. The Bible
2. Giuseppe Verdi. http://w3.rz-berlin.mpg.de/cmp/verdi.html (March 5, 2004) World History
3. Don Carlo: Synopsis. http://www.metopera.org/synopses/carlo.html (March 5, 2004) World History
4. San Diego Operapaedia. http://www.sdopera.org/pages/education/edusourcebook/sbCarSynopsis.htm (March 5, 2004) World History
5. The History of Opera. http://www.ao.net/~jmo/john/music/ophistory.html (March 5, 2004) World History
6. James Strong. Strong’s exhaustive concordance of the Bible. Peabody, MA. Hendrickson Press.
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