Getting political: opera as activism1:51, 23rd October 2019
Composer and Labour party member Keith Burstein’s latest opera The Prometheus Revolution explores a country in meltdown as the forces of war and greed give way to new values of humanity and compassion. Is opera an effective vehicle for political campaigning? How can opera reflect periods of political turmoil? As the political climate in the UK grows more heated than ever, Burstein told Opera Now why he is inspired to compose politically motivated works
As a so-called high art form, opera has the ear of the great and the good. Crucially, though, it is also a popular art form which reaches across social barriers in the way that theatre can, rather like the original Globe Theatre with its microcosm of society from the groundlings to the lords and ladies. Opera provides, therefore, the possibility to reach a wide and inﬂuential group of people – and for an artist who is compelled to interact with the volatile and complex geo-politics of today, opera provides an almost irresistible allure.
Throughout history we find numerous examples of illustrious opera composers reﬂecting or even inﬂuencing political events and movements. Best known perhaps is Verdi’s interaction with the Risorgimento (Resurgence), the movement for the uniﬁcation of Italy. There is more than a whiff of the French revolution in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and he was an active member of the then radical Masons. Wagner was on the barricades of the 1848 revolutions and the Ring cycle lends itself very easily to a Marxist interpretation with the underworld slaves of the Nibelungen and the Twilight of the Gods.
That’s how and why in 2002, in the aftermath of 9/11, I began work on my previous opera Manifest Destiny. The title comes from the notorious principle announced in the 19th-century US Congress that white settlers should push on beyond the Rockies looking for land and gold because it was the ‘manifest destiny’ of the white man to take what was his by rights. The librettist Dic Edwards and I were inspired by this idea, substituting black gold for oil and the Rockies for Iraq. The radicalised would-be suicide bomber Leila renounces violence, overcome by the love of life implicit in Islam – but is interred in Guantanamo anyway.
The Evening Standard accused me of glorifying terrorism – a serious criminal offence – and I brought a libel case against them. At this point Jeremy Corbyn stepped in, organising a press conference for me at Parliament in 2008: a mere opera had caught the attention of the future leader of the Labour Party and prompted an event in Westminster. I won my case in the High Court but the Court of Appeal overturned the verdict, stating in their judgment that the opera was ‘anti-American’. I was made liable for all legal costs and bankrupted by Associated Newspapers Ltd. The intellectual property rights of my music were attempted to be taken from me.
In 2012 I was looking for a way to write a work relating to the Occupy Movement. The movement’s highlighting of the ‘one percent of the one percent’ revolved in my mind, and I realised the Prometheus myth made an apt metaphor: the hero Prometheus takes ﬁre from the Gods and gives it to the mortals, only to be horribly punished for his audacity. The myth also embodied many moral heroes of our time – Corbyn himself, Assange, Edward Snowden. I invented a modern myth in which a ﬁnancier with revolutionary tendencies becomes Prometheus and transfers vast amounts of money to a peace movement, triggering the end of war and a new era of humanity, compassion and peace.
John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, attended the premiere of The Prometheus Revolution in 2018 and afterwards tweeted: ‘Went to Keith Burstein’s opera The Prometheus Revolution tonight. Its terriﬁc in its music, singing and narrative about how humanity steps beyond war and tyranny’. I then presented a ﬁlm screening of the premiere at the 2019 Labour Party Conference, where it was attended by activists and opera fans. We became victims of our own topicality in so far as unfolding political events meant that everyone rushed back to London for the reconvening of Parliament on 25 September, but Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell both sent messages of support to me for the screening.
Opera really is an art form that can both reﬂect, and maybe even anticipate or inﬂuence, signiﬁcant events.