With the election very nearly upon us, you might think the opera house would offer some respite from the dominant issues of the presidential campaign. Well, yes — and no. Composers from Monteverdi to Verdi used the operatic stage to further the debates of their days and to make political statements. In Monteverdi’s case, he attempted to present Venice as the great superpower of his time; Verdi broached all manner of political intrigue in his work, from his allusion to the assassination of Sweden’s King Gustav III in Ballo in maschera to Italian nationalism in Attila and Nabucco.
Following in this ageless tradition, today’s composers have also used opera as a frame in which to explore today’s most pressing concerns, from terrorism to the ups and downs of the U.S.-China relationship. What’s changed, though, is how modern artists approach these topics. Rather than issuing polemics, the best composers delve deep for intimately drawn character studies portraying the lives and stories behind the headlines and sound bites — a world away from the stereotype of the opportunistic “CNN opera.”