Many of the CBC's summer and fall Saturday broadcasts follow the exploits of leading figures from history and fiction. Iain Scott looks back on opera s long-time fascination with power and power-brokers
"Only one man in a thousand is a leader of men," Groucho Marx wryly observed. "The other 999 are followers of women." Hut while leaders may be a rarity in many walks of life, they are abundant in opera. For 400 years, the operatic literature has repeatedly explored the moral dilemmas ot leaders and the multi-facetted aspects of their leadership.
Since the time of Greek drama, art and literature have a tradition of attempting to instruct and warn the elite of society. This tradition was reinforced with the invention of opera, reflecting the fascination of its creators with the recently rediscovered myths and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. From its invention in 1600 until the emergence ot sordid plebeian values in the verismo movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a core purpose of opera was to reinforce the importance of "duty and responsibility" for those in positions ot power and influence. A secondary intent was to warn those same people of the dangers inherent in "self-indulgence."
Perhaps early opera composers and librettists had a defensive motive: to subtly remind the noblesse of their obligations. In the 18th century, opera plots were often designed to show the potential dangers whenever a ruler exercised absolute authority or a predominant class enjoyed unrestrained influence. Opera seria plots frequently prompted courtly audiences-discreetly-to show judicial mercy or accept the necessity of caring for their inferiors.
These concerns can be traced well into the 19th century. Even as opera gradually degenerated to become, for some, merely an entertainment, concerned with spectacular visual and vocal display, opera plots usually continued to have an implicit moral or social purpose.
Opera has always been associated with the plutocratic and governing classes (to the discomfort of modern-day marketers), at least to some degree because its inherent display of extravagance and exorbitant expense is closely aligned with their values. The sustained support of the elite is also explained because the topic of leadership itself is of genuine interest to them. They are readily able to identify with the call to duty and responsibility, and the lures of self-indulgence. Although Shakespeare suggested that the head that wears the crown lies uneasily, leaders have always been fascinated by the lessons and dynamics of the way others have handled the complexities of leadership.
Most opera librettists have followed the traditional "great man theory" of history, which holds that the destiny of nations can be shaped by a single individual. This was especially true in operas from the Baroque period (an age of enlightened despots), which often featured great leaders of earlier history. We can see examples in Baroque composers' fascination with the boundless ambition of Alexander the Great, the personal courage of Julius Caesar or even in the exploration of exotic non-Europeans leaders such as Tamburlaine.
By the 19th century, attitudes to leadership had become more complex. Europe had been shaken by lengthy revolutionary wars and the heroic, or perhaps demonic, career of Napoleon. Unusual aspects of leadership became the norm. Albert Lortzing became fascinated by the insatiable curiosity and unconventional audacity of Peter the Great of Russia in his Tsar und Zimmerman. Later, in Les Troyens, Hector Berlioz found inspiration in the ambivalent career of Aeneas, the most important literary heroic leader stemming from Roman culture. By the end of the century, it was even possible to portray leaders as seeming political failures, such as Alexander Borodin's Prince Igor or Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa.
As the century progressed, there was an evolution towards …