LIKE MANY AMERICANS, I watched the first presidential debate last week in numbed dismay. All the national horrors of the past four years — the mendacity, the moral degradation, the heedless, wanton destructiveness — seemed to have been compressed into 90 minutes of unwatchable and unavoidable television.
And I thought: What could an opera composer make of a scene like this?
The question kept recurring during the frenzied and implausible days that followed, as Trump announced a positive test for the coronavirus, checked into Walter Reed Medical Center for treatment, then checked himself out again. The debate, the ensuing medical drama, indeed the entire Trump presidency, might seem at first glance to be ripe for an operatic interpretation. There was something undeniably theatrical about the proceedings, so why not add vocal music to the soundtrack?
We’re accustomed, after all, to think of the opera house as a place where larger-than-life conflicts play out, amid crashing orchestral textures and powerful vocal exertions. And the standard operatic repertoire offers a broad array of deep-dyed villains, among whom Trump might seem to be well at home.
There is, most notably, Baron Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca” the corrupt Roman police chief who uses his political power not only to root out dissidents, but also to line his own pockets and commit sexual assault. There is the blind, but apparently all-seeing, Grand Inquisitor in Verdi’s “Don Carlos,” who sits in the shadows and creates Machiavellian schemes of chilling ruthlessness, or the malicious Iago in the same composer’s “Otello.” There’s Alberich, the malevolent dwarf in Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle, for whom love is expendable but the thirst for power is unquenchable.
Perhaps even closer to the mark is Nekrotzar, the self-styled emperor of death in György Ligeti’s surrealist comic masterpiece “Le Grand Macabre,” which had its US premiere in 2004 at the San Francisco Opera. Pompous, humorless and self-infatuated, Nekrotzar rises from the grave with an apocalyptic mission to spread death and destruction throughout the world, only to be thwarted by the life-enhancing forces of music, sex, alcohol and fearless resistance.
These are all bass and baritone roles, because the operatic tradition of the 19th and 20th centuries has taught us to associate villainy with the deep, rumbling sound of the low male voice. But there’s room to cast Trump in the guise of a reedy, high-flying countertenor as well (a few years ago, the Spanish countertenor Xavier Sabata assembled a recital disc devoted to music for the bad guys in Handel’s operas).
I don’t think the debate itself would lend itself to musical treatment — for one thing, opera singers need to be able to take a breath — but it isn’t hard to envision how a composer and librettist might press some of the more outlandish episodes of our day into a lyric scenario. “He was a war hero because he was captured; I prefer people who weren’t captured” is an aria waiting to happen. A news conference or rally monologue could become a mad scene shot through with menace.
For those who believe that an operatic Trump would confer unwarranted nobility on him, or somehow whitewash his misdeeds and those of his administration, there exists an interesting precedent. “Nixon in China,” John Adams’ 1987 depiction of the former president’s meeting with Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1972, has faced similar criticism.
In the years since its premiere, “Nixon” — which combines a tenacious and wondrously expressive score with Alice Goodman’s hauntingly poetic libretto — has claimed its rightful place as one of the landmarks of late 20th century opera (the San Francisco Opera’s belated premiere in 2012 only cemented the case).
Yet, at the time, the entire project, initiated in a spirit of contrarian brilliance by director Peter Sellars, seemed both absurd and politically tone-deaf. Nixon was — at least for the wing of the political spectrum best represented in the world of opera — an embodiment of everything that was most corrupt and reprehensible in American life, and to transmute him into an operatic character struck many observers as an unjustified rehabilitation.
That argument still carries some weight, but it’s made more intricate by the nuance and psychological heft of the work that resulted. “Nixon in China” is a far cry from the historical operas of the 18th century, in which faceless rulers from Roman imperial history were fitted out with whatever characteristics would suit the story (or would most effectively flatter the composers’ own patrons).
The title character in “Nixon” is recognizably the same person many of us watched on the evening news: sweaty, duplicitous, simultaneously power-mad and deeply insecure. Yet the opera teases out a rich and often affecting inner emotional life for him, created out of a combination of subtle insight and artistic invention.
Does anyone believe that something similar could be achieved in the case of Donald Trump? Because this is where the notion of a putative Trump opera, for all its possible theatrical vividness, comes crashing to the ground.
I would never want to rule out the possibility of an artistic rendering before an actual artist had taken a stab at it, but it’s difficult to imagine what moral or psychological material any operatic creators could find to work with here. Like Alberich and Iago before him, Nixon had a certain dramatic complexity that lent some potential human interest to his story. Trump has none.
Which means that the answer to my original question — what could an opera composer do with all this? — may well be a dispiriting “Nothing at all.” This could be one of those cases where the events of real life, in all their tawdry, Technicolor absurdity, will have to stand on their own.