Opera has always been a means for voicing political dissent. Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro criticized the aristocracy. Verdi's operas reflected on Italy's struggle for independence. John Adams wrote a whole opera about Nixon's 1972 visit to China.
Even a frilly Baroque opera-ballet like 18th century composer Jean-Philippe Rameau's The Temple of Glory (Le Temple de la Gloire) uses history to weigh in on current events.
Nicholas McGegan is conducting the Bay Area's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale in a rare production of the obscure French work in collaboration with Cal Performances at the end of the month. "It's really about what makes a good leader, which is topical," McGegan says of the allegorical work’s particular relevance to U.S. audiences today.
The satirical libretto, by Voltaire, follows what happens when a variety of different kings try to enter Apollo's "Temple of Glory" -- a bower for heroes guarded by the Muses. Two of the monarchs are barred for brutality and drunkenness. The third, Trajan, is allowed in for his generosity -- he lets five conquered kings go -- and insists on making the temple a bastion of inclusivity, "each rank, each sex, each age."
Supposedly, when Voltaire asked Louis XV "Is Trajan happy?" after the 1745 premiere, he was answered only with a chilling silence. "The opera was meant as a lesson in kingship," McGegan says. "It is not enough to win battles; real heroes act a certain way. Unsurprisingly, the king did not enjoy being lectured on how to rule."
The opera clearly cut too close for Louis XV. Though the monarch is known as "the well-loved," his reign was riddled with financial crises, lost wars, fights with judges, and clashes between religions. Described as weak and adolescent, Louis XV was not much of a leader, spending much of his time chasing women and hunting. The French Revolution came only 15 years after his death.
The opera was not a success and Rameau insisted on a rewrite of The Temple of Glory less critical of leadership styles and more focused on love. Voltaire was ejected from the court and went on to write Candide, perhaps his most politically incendiary work.
The Cal Performances production represents the first time modern audiences will get to experience the work in its original, unbowdlerized form. Those that attend the performances at Zellerbach Hall may see a parallel between the opera’s sly attempt to school the reigning monarch in the art of sensible leadership and John Oliver’s hilarious “Catheter Cowboy” ads aimed at educating President Donald Trump about everything from healthcare to sexual harassment.
The opera may also help put things into perspective when you consider the fact that Louis XV, with a temperament unsuited for leadership, reigned for more than 50 years. That certainly makes the next four to eight here feel a little more bearable, and belies the myth that everything was better in the past.
'The Temple of Glory' runs Friday, Apr. 28–Sunday, Apr. 30 at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. For tickets and information, click here.