While awaiting his execution by firing squad, the painter Cavaradossi sings, “I die in despair, and never before have I loved life so much!” It’s an aria of reverie, lament, and implicit protest against his captors. In this opera, Puccini’s “Tosca” (1900), power and evil aren’t abstractions: the chief of secret police has arrested and tortured Cavaradossi, both to punish him for aiding an escaped political prisoner and to terrorize Cavaradossi’s lover, Tosca.
Although opera plots may depend on the whims of God or goddesses, tyrants, clowns, or sea monsters, many operas combine fantasy with the all-too-plausible crimes of the powerful. Even such a delirious confection as Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” depicts acts of institutional violence: assassination, kidnapping, rape threats, and the overthrow of regimes. Yet sometimes a single voice rises up, sometimes a chorus, making a glorious noise for the sake of freedom and human rights. For opera listeners, the music affords opportunities to weep, to surrender to pleasure, to reflect—and to imagine better worlds, onstage and off.
This playlist, in chronological order by world premiere, honors nearly 375 years of operatic explorations of oppression, tyranny, freedom, and protest. The sample yields common threads (and plot spoilers!) but makes no attempt to reconcile the political convictions of ancient Romans, Russian Orthodox schismatics, Bonapartists—or the composers. Or their listeners! After all, in Sidney Lumet’s 1973 biopic “Serpico,” the opera-loving Cavaradossi stand-in isn’t a painter, but a cop, who’s fighting corruption in the NYPD. Frank Serpico relaxes in his garden, enjoying his record of Giuseppe Di Stefano singing “Tosca,” only a few cinematic minutes before his fellow officers betray and shoot him.
Let this serve as a warning: if you’re fighting The Man, think twice about cranking up the volume on “E lucevan le stelle”—and then, maybe, turn it up as high as it’ll go.
Claudio Monteverdi and Giovanni Francesco Busenello – “L’incoronazione di Poppea” (1643), Act III, Scene 8: “Pur ti miro”; Danielle Borst (Soprano), Guillemette Laurens (Mezzo-soprano), René Jacobs (Conductor), Concerto Vocale
Why should this list include an opera in which Nero and his mistress, Poppea, exile his wife and all their political opponents, trample the Senate and the people, order the philosopher Seneca to commit suicide, and, for the finale, sing a rapturously tender love duet—an aural embrace if there ever was one—without suffering a single setback? Because that’s how absolute power works.
George Frideric Handel and Nicola Francesco Haym – “Giulio Cesare in Egitto” HWV 17 (1724), No. 3: “Aria: Empio, Dirò, Tu Sei”; Pascal Bertin (Countertenor), Marc Minkowski (Conductor), Les Musiciens du Louvre
Handel’s interest in the romance of statecraft ranged from seventh-century Lombard political rivalries, to the Crusades, to the Timurid conquests (“Rodelinda,” “Rinaldo,” “Tamerlano”). In “Giulio Cesare,” empires and dynasties flourish or are undone by the force of seduction, revenge, and multiple armies. Perhaps there’s something disingenuous about Caesar’s final declaration of peace and liberty for Egypt…once the Egyptian king has been killed, and Cleopatra has pledged allegiance to the Roman Empire. Still, we can appreciate Caesar’s mounting vocal outrage in this aria, when an ally sends him the head of their mutual enemy: a musical protest against war crimes.
Christoph Willibald Gluck and Nicolas-François Guillard – “Iphigénie en Tauride” (1779): “Air et Choeur: Ô malheureuse Iphigénie!”; Carol Vaness (Soprano), Riccardo Muti (Conductor), Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala
Unhappy Iphigénie is meant to be the first casualty of the Trojan War, sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon—but then things go even worse for her. The goddess Diana rescues Iphigénie from the knife, but leaves her in exile in Tauride, where the king forces her into a terrible job: sacrificing other immigrants to Tauride’s shores. Both victim and executioner, Iphigénie sings music full of dignity, misery, and somewhat misplaced confidence in the value of royalty. Some listeners don’t like the steel in Vaness’ singing, but the woman is trying to work up the courage to commit official murder, after all.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Caterino Mazzolà – “La Clemenza di Tito” (1791) K. 621, Act II, No. 20: “Se All’impero, Amici Dei”; Mark Padmore (Tenor), René Jacobs (Conductor), Freiburger Barockorchester
Rulers shouldn’t marry other people against their will. People who want to be empress shouldn’t put hits on the emperor. People shouldn’t inveigle other people into plots that get them executed. Having established all these negative virtues, the opera suggests, with increasingly regal coloratura, that mercy, generosity, and forgiveness constitute the best kind of authority.
Ludwig van Beethoven and Joseph Sonnleithner/Georg Friedrich Treitschke – “Fidelio” (1814): “Gott! Welch’ Dunkel hier!”; Jon Vickers (Tenor), Otto Klemperer (Conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra
In 18th-century Spain, Leonore disguises herself as a boy and gets a prison job in order to search for her husband, a disappeared political prisoner. Finding him dying in solitary—and just about to be killed and dumped into an unmarked grave—Leonore saves him, just long enough for the minister of state to stop the prison governor’s murderous plans. Perhaps the “bad apple” argument about institutional violence isn’t totally satisfactory, but what does satisfy is Florestan’s aria of disoriented, suffering captivity: Vickers’ interpretation realizes the total darkness of the cell, penetrated by a gleam of hope.
Gioachino Rossini and Andrea Leone Tottola – “La Donna del Lago” (1819), Act I, Scene 9: “Cavatina: Crudele Sospetto”; Gregory Kunde (Tenor), Carmen Giannattasio (Soprano), Patricia Bardon (Mezzo-soprano), Robert Gleadow (Bass-baritone), Maurizio Benini (Conductor), Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Civil war rages across 16th-century Scotland; the king dispatches troops against the clan of the woman he loves; a father forces his daughter into a politically advantageous engagement… and a soprano and a mezzo in a trouser role (kilt role!) fall in love on the moors. Something about the twining of their vocal lines makes everybody suspect that their love will prove stronger than the might of princes and fathers.
Gaetano Donizetti and Giuseppe Bardari – “Maria Stuarda” (1835), Act III: “Io vi rivedo alfin… Deh! Tu di un’umile preghiera”; Joyce DiDonato (Mezzo-soprano), Riccardo Minasi (Conductor), Orchestre et Choeur de L’Opéra National de Lyon
One theme recurs throughout Donizetti’s operas of the Tudor queens: the futility of trying to live happily, or for any extended time, in proximity to people who can sign your death warrant. Love such a one, or love someone else who’s loved by such a one, and your only possible satisfaction is that of singing like an angel on the way to the scaffold. Listen to that pianissimo, and weep like you’re one of Maria’s attendants. Then go listen to Sills and Sutherland: just play this over and over all day and reduce yourself to a quivering, sobbing mess.
Giacomo Meyerbeer and Eugène Scribe/Émile Deschamps – “Les Huguenots” (1836), XI. Act V: “Scène finale – Par le fer et par l’incendie”; Leon Botstein (Conductor), American Symphony Orchestra
In the chilling final chorus, soldiers sing, “God wishes it! Yes, God wants their blood!” during the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, when French Catholics slaughtered thousands of Huguenots. (Soviet Russia would rewrite the libretto to honor the Decembrists.) Meyerbeer was the most successful opera composer that most people today have never heard of, the German-Jewish superstar who gave Wagner early career boosts—such as getting “Rienzi” staged—only for Wagner to write an anti-Semitic tract about him and obliterate his musical reputation.
Richard Wagner, after Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel – “Rienzi” (1842), Act V: “Allmächt’ger Vater, blick herab”; Jonas Kaufmann (Tenor), Donald Runnicles (Conductor), Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin
Another “Rienzi” fact: in all likelihood, Hitler kept the autograph manuscript of the opera in his bunker, where it was destroyed. (Wagner is my favorite composer, and for me, his troubling political legacy isn’t something to separate from the music, but an ongoing, productive complication.) As for the opera…. Nobody likes to see a man for and of the people, who’s trying to unite a country ravaged by aristocratic gang warfare, prove unworthy of the ideals he’s professed. But after he’s staged a coup d’état, claimed absolute power, and purged his political enemies, his prayer that God might reinvest him with authority becomes no less hubristic than desperately beseeching. There are several great historic recordings of this aria; I chose this, for the stunning layers of arrogance and vulnerability.
Giuseppe Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave – “Rigoletto” (1851), Act II: “Povero Rigoletto!”; Tito Gobbi (Bass-baritone), Tullio Serafin (Conductor), Orchestra Del Teatro Alla Scala
In 2014, while writing about the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, I listened nonstop to several Verdi operas that treated politics and violence, including “Simon Boccanegra” (abduction, exile of opponents), “Don Carlo” (the Spanish Inquisition, oppression of the Flemish), and “Aida” (conquest, enslavement, capital punishment). In “Rigoletto,” Verdi tackled the grim theme of complicity: a henchman cheers on his leader’s violent abuse of his subjects, only to feel the sting of firsthand experience. After this track, keep playing to hear Gobbi’s sobbing, soul-blasted “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata.”
Modest Mussorgsky, with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Igor Stravinsky, and Dmitri Shostakovich – “Khovanschina” (1886), Act I: “Aj da! Veselo!”; Heinz Zednik (Tenor), Claudio Abbado (Conductor), Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Slovak Philharmonic Choir, Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
Here, the people get the latest news on atrocities committed by the guardsmen of the noble militias. The chorus mourns Mother Russia, which has fragmented among Westernizing reformists, conservative opponents of the political and ecclesiastical reforms, and rapacious, depraved fighters. These conflicts culminate with the horrifying spectacle of the Old Believers’ self-immolation, to escape execution by the state.
Alexander Borodin – “Prince Igor” (1890), Act II, Khan Konchak’s Aria, “How Goes It Prince?”; Boris Christoff (Bass), Issay Dobroven (Conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra
Borodin died in 1887, leaving Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov to put his opera in order, an ongoing process for productions today. Whether it’s the result of thematic intention or structural flexibility, the opera seems to explore the cyclicality of betrayal, battle, and murder. Here Prince Igor mourns his detainment as a prisoner of war. Khan Konchak offers to free him in return for a ceasefire, extolling the good times they could have together, but Prince Igor turns him down. Whether the opera will end with a renewal of hostilities, or a prayerful reconsideration, hangs on the choice of final chorus. Even then, we can’t know if Igor’s doomed to repeat history.
Giacomo Puccini and Giuseppe Giacosa/Luigi Illica – “Tosca” (1900), Act II: “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore”; Leontyne Price (Soprano), Herbert von Karajan (Conductor), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
(Apart from the divine Leontyne Price, this recording also features Di Stefano as Cavaradossi.) After being threatened with sexual violence and forced to hear her lover being tortured, Tosca tallies up her piety, generosity, innocence, and dedication to art, demanding of God why He’s forsaken her. Then, after this most gorgeous, harrowing, perfect aria, after the audience has stopped shouting, weeping, and throwing roses, Tosca doesn’t wait for God to answer: she stabs the chief of police to death.
Leoš Janáček, from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel – “From the House of the Dead” (1930): “Never Again Will My Eyes Behold My Birthplace”; Václav Neumann (Conductor), Prague Philharmonic Choir, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
The men of a Siberian prison camp work, lament, get interrogated and tortured—and gossip, mess with birds, teach each other to read, recognize old enemies, fight, and stage pantomimes. Above all, they sing music of celestial dissonance, telling stories to assert their humanity—even at their worst—in the face of grueling punishment.
Richard Strauss and Joseph Gregor – “Friedenstag” (1938): “Wagt es zu denken”; Joseph Keilberth (Conductor), Orchester der Bayerischen Staatsoper München
Strauss was president of the Reichsmusikkammer, a man who won adulation from the Nazis, who hoped, with some justification, that his collaboration might protect his Jewish family members. The conditions under which he composed “Friedenstag” were complicated, and the work, which celebrates German unity, is no less so. This “Day of Peace” offering, with its echoes of “Fidelio,” serves both to revive and to check our expectations of ideological, artistic, and ethical purity. “Friedenstag” should, perhaps, inspire responses that are no less highly pitched than those depicted by the opera—and with less triumphally harmonic conclusions.
Benjamin Britten and E.M. Forster/Eric Crozier – “Billy Budd” (1951): “We committed his body to the deep”; Ian Bostridge (Tenor), Daniel Harding (Conductor), London Symphony Orchestra
In Britten’s opera, based on Herman Melville’s novella, a young merchant marine says goodbye to his old ship, the Rights o’ Man, as he’s press-ganged into the Royal Navy. With war, mutiny, floggings, and courts martial on the horizon, one can easily believe that a man might be summarily executed because of his beauty, handsomeness, goodness. While the obvious choice might be the aria of the nihilistic, obsessed man who swears to destroy Billy, I’ve chosen the aria of the upright man who decides that, with all his power, he can do nothing to intervene.
Francis Poulenc, libretto after Georges Bernanos – “Dialogues des Carmélites” (1957), Act III, Scene 4: “Place De La Revolution”; Denise Duval (Soprano), Pierre Dervaux (Conductor), Paris Opera Orchestra
Many operas use choruses to swell the sounds of protest, outrage, and grief. In Poulenc’s evocation of a convent of nuns sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution, we hear an ensemble singing “Salve Regina,” reduced, by the irregular punctuation of the blade, voice by voice down to a single soprano, then silence.
Philip Glass and Constance DeJong, from the Bhagavad Gita – “Satyagraha” (1980): “Evening Song”; Douglas Perry (Tenor), Christopher Keene (Conductor), New York City Opera Orchestra
Much of Glass’s work, from “In the Penal Colony” to “Appomattox,” is concerned with state violence and injustice; his masterpiece “Satyagraha” is a sonic representation of nonviolent resistance. The scenes evoke the work of Tolstoy, Tagore, and King, climaxing in Gandhi’s final aria, whose lyrics speak of hope restored to the earth: music that is patient, radiant, and heartbreaking. The whole opera moves slowly, inexorably toward the possibility of change; an excerpt can’t really do it justice.
Anthony Davis and Thulani Davis – “X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X” (1986), Act I, Scene 3: “You Want the Truth, But You Don’t Want to Know,” Malcolm’s Aria; Eugene Perry (Baritone); William Henry Curry (Conductor), Orchestra of St. Luke’s
You wouldn’t think there could any accord between these two background readings: one, a 1986 major newspaper review that was, if not entirely hostile, indifferent toward Malcolm’s legacy and contemporary opera and jazz; and Leon James Bynum’s article in the journal Souls, which lovingly engages Malcolm’s history with the music’s roots in bebop, swing, hip-hop, Western African music, and a few centuries of classical operatic practice. Yet both articles suggest, for entirely different reasons, that Malcolm’s life was eminently suitable for operatic treatment.
John Adams and Alice Goodman – “The Death of Klinghoffer” (1991), Act II, Scene 3: Marilyn Klinghoffer: “You embraced them!”; Sheila Nadler (Contralto), Kent Nagano (Conductor), The Orchestra of the Opera De Lyon
Perhaps Adams’ opera “Doctor Atomic,” about the Manhattan Project, better suits this rubric. But at The Metropolitan Opera’s 2014 production of “Klinghoffer,” dissenters occupied the sidewalks outside the opera house and heckled from the seats inside. Every production and performance—and protest—offers chances for new interpretations, regardless of what we think before the lights go down.
Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally – “Dead Man Walking” (2000), Act I, Scene 7: “The Pardon Board hearing: The defendant’s mother, Mrs Patrick De Rocher”; Frederica von Stade (Mezzo-soprano), Patrick Summers (Conductor), Orchestra of Houston Grand Opera
In Donizetti’s operas, executions belong to the distant past; in Puccini’s “Turandot” (1926), they exist in the realm of orientalist fantasy. This opera, based on Sister Helen Prejean’s nonfiction book, showcases capital punishment as an ongoing human rights issue in the United States. A strength of both book and opera was the choice to focus on the perpetrator of a horrific violent crime, fearlessly heightening the debate on the death penalty.
Nkeiru Okoye – “Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line To Freedom” (2014), Songs of Harriet Tubman: “I Am Moses, The Liberator”; Louise Toppin (Soprano), Julius P. Williams (Conductor), Dvorak Symphony Orchestra
With the U.S. government about to picture the abolitionist, military leader, and suffragist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, let’s honor what she did: repeatedly venturing, at dire risk to her own life and freedom, into regions of her country that did not recognize her as fully human, in order to save other people. She engaged in radical, subversive acts of humanitarianism, in defiance of unjust laws, to save lives and spread freedom. ¶