Trump, Mozart and The Enlightenment

Yes, a pretty unlikely juxaposition, I will admit, recalling Johnson’s definition of metaphysical poetry, where “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together“. Yet there is a connection, that opera lovers will no doubt recall. The following three passages, from pieces by the journalists Mark Swed, Peter Culshaw and David Littlejohn, relate to the work of the director Peter Sellars, whose productions of Mozart’s operas in modern settings have caused much controversy with audiences, critics and academics over the years. In the first of these, Swed explains Sellars’ decision to set his production of The Marriage of Figaro in Trump Tower. Culshaw and Littlejohn explore further Sellars’ views on modern staging. I’ve added a note on The Enlightenment, square brackets bold, in Peter Culshaw’s piece.

Mark Swed: Sellars famously set Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in an apartment in the then-new Trump Tower, 52 floors above Fifth Avenue. This is the world, to quote Sellars’ plot synopsis of an old libretto again, of beautiful people for whom “perjury, loss of happiness and absence of consciousness can be compensated for by the feel of money, the sense of being on top and the sweet certainty that their own barren lives will be enriched by the amusement and consolation offered by the collapse of the hopes and plans of others.”

Peter Culshaw: Peter Sellars thinks we’ve got Mozart all wrong, especially the image of Mozart as the brilliant but barely housetrained lout portrayed in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. “Mozart was in fact one of Europe’s leading intellectuals and one of the most intensely political artists in history,” says the theatre and opera director. “Every single opera is a radical gesture of equality between the ruling class and the working class.” Sellars has a talent for controversy, and his latest production, an interpretation of Mozart’s unfinished Zaide, which premièred in Vienna last month, is no exception. When I suggest that there’s not much evidence for Mozart’s politics in his letters, for example, Sellars counters: “You have to remember that censorship was so intense, anyone who expressed revolutionary ideas or those that led to the French Revolution would be likely to be interrogated by the secret police.” Sellars’s view of Mozart as a politically driven figure is, it must be said, a minority one. Phil Grabsky, who directed the TV film In Search of Mozart, told me he talked to nearly 100 Mozart specialists in the course of making the documentary and the consensus was that “to view Mozart as a political animal is to misread him”. [RS: If you wanted to present a counter-argument, for Mozart being a fully paid-up and politicized child of the Enlightenment, you could say one might judge him not so much for what he wrote in his letters, or what he said, but rather for what he did. The 17th and 18th century European Enlightenment was an intellectual movement, shaped by philosophers, scientists and writers, advocating freedom, democracy and reason. Its aim was to free society from ignorance, superstition and state tyranny. It saw a decline in the influence of church and state, and a consequent strengthening of rights for ordinary people. The most dramatic events that took place were the French Revolution and the American War of Independence, but throughout Europe as a whole there was a less dramatic but no less significant rooting and flowering of new ideas. It should be said that Enlightenment is a term that emerged only later in the 19th century, as a convenient heading for the myriad complex events that took place over more than two centuries. For example, Mozart did not wake up one morning in a rebellious spirit and announce that he was “off to join the Enlightenment” – the events were rather more complicated. Briefly, he began his career as a servant to the Archbishop of Salzburg, following in his father’s footsteps, but his travels in Europe had made him aware of the scope for personal liberation and autonomy. To his father’s dismay he severed his ties with Salzburg and supported himself in Vienna by performing, composing and teaching. His major overtly political work is The Marriage of Figaro, based on a play by Beaumarchais, the inflammatory central premise of which is that ordinary people – servants of high or low degree – had a voice and were as worthy of attention as their aristocratic masters.] 

David Littlejohn: Sellars insists he has no patience with restagings. “I hate updatings as a gambit,” he says. “I
resent it actively—it’s cheap and vulgar and obnoxious and not to the point. My productions are never updated.” Instead, he declares, he is juxtaposing cultures, setting up a “visual counterpoint” to the music to stimulate the greatest possible intensity and range of response. To recreate the novelty and shock of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas at their première performances, without obliging either modern actors or modern audiences to imagine their
way into another century, he recasts them in the “image language” or “systems of reference” of the contemporary United States. In this way, he insists, he is trying not to update great works of the past, but to “test the present against them,” not to make some specific comment about U.S. society today, but to get at the heart and core of the work: the characters’ emotional plights as revealed in the score. Powdered wigs and satin breeches, sabers and candelabra and rococo garden sets are all, he believes, inessential trappings that get in the way of Mozart’s essential meanings and drama. “I believe very strongly,” he was quoted as saying while still at Harvard, “that the point of the theater is to make people notice the present. Most people go to the theater to escape the present.”

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