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Top Five Political Satires in Opera

Amanda Angel of WQXR Operavore

"Saturday Night Live" and Comedy Central don’t have a monopoly on political satire. Commentary on the state of government has been showing up in for centuries in operas by Monteverdi to John Adams. We’ve gathered our five favorite send-ups of government officials.

1. Shostakovich’s The Nose
Imagine you wake up one day not only to find you nose missing, but it’s grown several thousand times in size and now has a rank well above your own. This absurdity makes up the plot in Shostakovich’s The Nose, based on the Nikolai Gogol story of the same title. While originally a play on the absurd, the tale gets a darker reading in hindsight, perhaps foreshadowing some of the composer’s own struggles within the U.S.S.R. In fact, the opera was banned by authorities from 1930 until 1974.

2. The Gonzales Cantata
The congressional hearings of US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales were a low point for the George W. Bush administration. But the events inspired composer Melissa Dunphy to write The Gonzales Cantata, a choral piece that premiered at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in 2009. The story follows the investigation into Gonzales's role in the firings of nine federal prosecutors and, curiously, has an all-female cast. It was featured on both opera websites and "The Rachel Maddow Show."

3. Mulroney: the Opera
The life of Brian Mulroney, Canada’s prime minister from 1984 to 1993 may not be well known to Americans, but the Quebecois politician’s rise to fame and subsequent fall from infamy provided composer Alexina Louie and former Kids in the Hall writer Dan Redican to pen Mulroney: the Opera (its working title was apparently Politics is Cruel: the Opera). Baritone Daniel Okulitch sang the roll of beleaguered politician for the opera’s HD screenings, which were broadcast through the Metropolitan Opera’s network.

4. Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe
W. S. Gilbert, a master of the bon mot, and Sir Arthur Sullivan, a master of scoring the former’s barbs, skewered English society and mores through most of their 14 collaborations. And none took better aim at British government than Iolanthe. The work pits the fairy kingdom against Britain’s House of Lords, who are impossible to take seriously once they enter singing “We are the peers of highest station/paragons of legislation/pillars of the British Nation." You can be sure the fairies get the best of the political rivals.

5. Menotti's The Hero
The premiere of the Gian Carol Menotti opera The Hero was staged by the Philadelphia Opera Company the same year of the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. However, the farcical piece skewered American politicians. The plot centers on a Rip van Winkle-type character, who wakes up after a 10-year-long doze (just short of the world record for longest sleep) and the mayor who wants to capitalize on his town’s newest attraction.

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