American Political Opera in the Twentieth Century

by Joanna Miklaszewska (Author)
©2018 Monographs 206 Pages


The author analyses the substantial contribution made by American composers to the development of twentieth-century opera. The methodological approach employed in this book is influenced by Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski’s method of integral interpretation. The operas analyzed in this monograph, written from 1976 onwards, represent a watershed in twentieth-century American opera, characterised by three main aspects: firstly, creation of video-opera, represented by the works of Steve Reich, secondly, creation of a new kind of opera based on topics related to contemporary events that are manifested with documentary fidelity, represented by works of John Adams, and lastly, the introduction of a new genre: a portrait opera, characteristic for the works of Philip Glass.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 American political opera during the first half of the twentieth century
  • 1.1 The first American operas
  • 1.2 The feminist strand in American opera: Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All (1947)
  • 1.2.1 The linguistic qualities of the libretto. A new type of female character in an operatic work
  • 1.2.2 Polystylism in the musical fabric of the opera
  • 1.3 American music drama: Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul (1949)
  • 2 The ‘portrait opera’: Philip Glass’s operatic trilogy
  • 2.1 A new genre of opera: the ‘portrait opera’
  • 2.2 The poetical portrait of Albert Einstein in the opera Einstein on the Beach (1976)
  • 2.3 Between minimalist repetition and operatic cantilena: Satyagraha (1979)
  • 2.4 Dramatic and heroic aspects of the opera Akhnaten (1983)
  • 3 Current political events on the operatic stage. The works of John Adams
  • 3.1 Contemporary politicians as characters in heroic opera. Nixon in China (1987)
  • 3.2 Science, politics and history in opera: The Death of Kinghoffer (1991), I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995), Doctor Atomic (2005)
  • 3.3 Political and multicultural elements in stage oratorios
  • 4 Between speech and operatic song. Steve Reich and his new vocal style
  • 4.1 Speech as a new source of melody
  • 4.2 Religious aspects of the opera The Cave (1993)
  • 4.3 The civilisational and cultural context in Three Tales (2002)
  • 4.4 A new type of multimedia musical spectacle of a documentary character
  • 5 American political opera in the twentieth century. From historical opera to documentary stage work
  • 5.1 Opera as a tool of political satire. George Antheil’s Transatlantic (1929) and Laurie Anderson’s United States I–IV (1983)
  • 5.2 Inspirations from exotic cultures of East and West. Rogers Sessions’s Montezuma (1963), Charles Wuorinen’s The Politics of Harmony (1969) and Tan Dun’s The First Emperor (2006)
  • 5.3 Innovative operatic genres in the output of American composers of the second half of the twentieth century: Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams
  • Iconography
  • Selected discography
  • List of musical examples
  • List of tables
  • Bibliography


Political opera is a phenomenon represented by numerous operatic works written during different eras addressing subjects from political life. Today, it is one of the most important types of opera. In works of political opera, the political content is merged with social and historical issues, and occasionally with themes of a philosophical nature. Although political subjects were addressed increasingly often by opera composers during the twentieth century, it is no easy task to define the generic features of political opera, as Caroline Harvey indicates: ‘In recent years, the term “political” has shifted its meaning to include any work that is ideologically motivated, a definition that in its loosest interpretation might include all opera.’1 In this book, I will use a narrower concept of political opera, referring to a definition given by Harvey that confines the political subject matter ‘either to themes drawn from historical rebellion, revolution or unrest; or to works that have deliberate designs on the listener, aiming to influence his or her values or beliefs.’2

Around the turn of the twenty-first century, opera was flourishing. The revival of interest in this genre of stage music, highly appealing to audiences, was largely thanks to the work of American composers working during the second half of the twentieth century: Philip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich. A significant place is held in American operatic output by works addressing contemporary political subjects, the most popular of which is perhaps Adams’s Nixon in China. Another work that could be assigned to the category of political opera is Steve Reich’s video opera Three Tales, in which the themes (the Hindenburg airship disaster, American atom bomb tests, genetic engineering) concerned ideas important to society around the turn of the twenty-first century, moving audiences to reflect. Another important political opera is Philip Glass’s Satyagraha. These three operas form a paradigm of contemporary American political opera, with its variety of musical genres, representing new kinds of stage music (topical documentary stage work, video opera and portrait opera).

The aim of the monograph American Political Opera in the Twentieth Century is to analyse the substantial contribution made by American composers to the development of twentieth-century opera. I will highlight innovation in composition technique, the use of the prosody of speech and its concordance with ←7 | 8→the music, and the addressing of original themes not previously used in operas. Innovations can be noted particularly in the domain of political operas, which form the principal subject of the considerations expressed in this book, and also operas addressing social issues. Consequently, works by American composers that belong to the genre of social opera will also be discussed.

The operas analysed in this monograph, written from 1976 onwards, represent a watershed in twentieth-century American opera, characterised by three main aspects. The first aspect is the renewal of contemporary opera through the creation of the video opera – a new musical genre of a documentary character rooted in the tradition of musique concrète and in the phenomenon defined in contemporary art as the ‘ready-made object’. Video opera adheres to the poetics of the multimedia spectacle, with influences from the pop music video. Represented by the works of Steve Reich, it departs entirely from the tradition of operatic music and Italian bel canto. The second crucial aspect is the reform of opera effectuated in his work by John Adams. He created a new type of opera, the subject matter of which was linked to contemporary events, shown with documental accuracy, but as a musical work deeply rooted in the tradition of the Italian and French operas of Verdi and Gounod: melodious operas employing a large symphony orchestra and such components of the operatic form as aria, chorus and ballet scene. The third innovative feature is the introduction – in the works of Philip Glass – of a new musical genre: the ‘portrait’ opera, a variety of historical opera showing a great historical figure (e.g. Albert Einstein, M. K. Gandhi, the pharaoh Akhnaten, Johannes Kepler) with a powerful personality whose achievements exerted a particularly strong influence on society.

This book comprises five chapters. The first presents a profile of American political opera during the first half of the twentieth century, taking particular account of Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All, representing a model example of political opera. The ensuing three chapters deal in turn with three groundbreaking achievements by American composers, expressed in their creation of innovative musical genres (Philip Glass’s portrait opera in Chapter 2, topical opera as cultivated by John Adams in Chapter 3 and Steve Reich’s video opera in Chapter 4). Chapter 5, ‘American political operas in the twentieth century: from historical opera to documentary stage work’, sums up the themes addressed in the book and profiles several major operas on political subjects written during the second half of the twentieth century.

Particularly important for research into American political opera have been John Bokina’s Opera and Politics. From Monteverdi to Henze (Yale University Press, 1997), offering a broad historical survey of the development of political opera from its very beginnings, and also monographs of two political ←8 | 9→operas: John Adams’s Nixon in China. Musical Analysis, Historical and Political Perspectives by Timothy A. Johnson (Ashgate, 2011) and Singing Archaeology. Philip Glass’s Akhnaten by John Richardson (Wesleyan University Press, 1999). Johnson’s work is an exhaustive compendium of knowledge about Nixon in China, containing detailed analysis of the work that employs the methodology of neo-Riemannian harmonic analysis. One valuable aspect of Richardson’s study is a presentation of the origins and reception of Akhnaten, together with a musical analysis of the work. In Jelena Novak’s Postopera: Reinventing the Voice-Body (Ashgate, 2015) three American operas are analysed, among others Steve Reich’s Three Tales. Other important sources of information about American political opera are the reflections and comments of leading American opera composers on their own works, contained in Reich’s Writings on Music 1965–2000 (Oxford University Press, 2002), Glass’s Music by Philip Glass (Harper & Row, 1987) and Adams’s Hallelujah Junction. Composing an American Life (Faber & Faber, 2008). Among the Polish musicological literature, mention should be made of works in which authors have addressed issues relating to American social and political operas. Zbigniew Skowron’s Nowa muzyka amerykańska [New American music] (Musica Iagellonica, 1995) is a wide-ranging synthesising study of twentieth-century American music in historical and cultural context, in which the author presents the major American operatic works of the twentieth century, including works on political subjects. American operas are discussed from the perspective of national features in Anna G. Piotrowska’s Idea muzyki narodowej w ujęciu kompozytorów amerykańskich pierwszej połowy XX wieku [The idea of national music in the minds of American composers of the first half of the twentieth century] (Adam Marszałek, 2003). Tomasz Biernacki and Monika Pasiecznik’s Po zmierzchu. Eseje o operach współczesnych [After twilight: essays on contemporary operas] (Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2012) contains chapters devoted to operatic works by John Cage and Robert Ashley, as well as Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach. John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer is discussed by Dorota Szwarcman in the article ‘News opera’ (Polityka, 2014/32). In her book Muzyka i polityka [Music and politics] (PWM Edition, 1999), Danuta Gwizdalanka addresses music’s various connections with politics; one chapter (‘Opera – gatunek pod specjalnym nadzorem’ [Opera: a genre under special surveillance] is devoted to operatic music.

In the present work, I have adopted a methodological approach referring to the method presented in Mieczysław Tomaszewski’s Interpretacja integralna dzieła muzycznego. Rekonesans [The integral interpretation of the musical work: A reconnaissance]. The author describes his method of integral interpretation as presenting a musical work from several complementary perspectives, ←9 | 10→which should be carried out in four stages, termed ‘principles’: 1) the principle of complementarity (complementing technical-formal analysis of the work with interpretation of its musical poetics, including its dramatic structure, expression and style), 2) the principle of ontological completeness (studying the work in the four phases of its development: conception, artistic realisation, aesthetic perception and cultural reception), 3) the principle of contextuality (presenting the work in biographical, historical and cultural contexts), 4) the principle of hierarchisation (showing the value and meaning of the work, placing it within the canon of a given culture).3 That method is encapsulated by Maciej Gołąb: ‘This is a postulate not so much of syncretism but of a holistic analysis, proving the necessity, if musicology is to enter the canon of the humanities, of transcending a purely music-theoretical enquiry of the work.’4 In the present work, I have employed historical-comparative analysis that enables me to show the changes in political opera in the United States in historical and cultural context. The analysis of major works extends from their conception, through form, composition technique, expression and style, to the works’ resonance in twentieth-century culture. Besides twentieth-century operas, also described are important works written at the beginning of the twenty-first century: Steve Reich’s Three Tales, Tan Dun’s The First Emperor and John Adams’s Doctor Atomic.

The methodological approach employed in this book refers also to the analytical method used by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, who postulate expanding the existing sphere of study in contemporary analysis of the operatic work and introducing, alongside musical analysis, also analysis of the poetry and the dramatic action – elements that determine the special character of the operatic work and distinguish it from instrumental music.5 I explore the changes that occurred in American operatic music before and after the Second World War, as well as the watershed period of the last three decades of the twentieth century, which brought innovative compositional procedures, new generic concepts and original themes, taking account of the broader cultural context.

I wish to express my sincere gratitude to Professor Przemysław Wiszewski, Dean of the Department of Historical and Pedagogic Studies of the University of Wrocław, for making it possible for me to pursue this research project. I am grateful to Musica Iagellonica and Dr Andrzej Sitarz for consenting to the translation of my postdoctoral dissertation and to the translator, John Comber, for ←10 | 11→his excellent work. I also wish to thank Lucie Jansch for making available the photographs from a performance of Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach used in this book and Iwona Marchewka, head of the Literary Department of the Teatr Wielki in Łódź, for agreeing to use the photos from the performance of Glass’s opera Akhnaten. My thanks also go to Professor Maciej Gołąb, Director of the Institute of Musicology at the University of Wrocław, Professors Marcin Gmys and Krzysztof Szwajgier for their valuable and insightful remarks, and Professor Zbigniew Przerembski, head of the Systematic Musicology Unit of the Institute of Musicology at the University of Wrocław, for his kind support of the project. This book also owes a great deal to the expert remarks and methodological guidance of Professor Jadwiga Paja-Stach, whom I consulted at an early stage in the writing of this work and to whose memory I wish to dedicate it.

←11 | 12→←12 | 13→

1 Caroline Harvey, ‘Words and actions’, in Cooke (ed.), The Cambridge Companion, 53.

2 Ibid., 54.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (February)
political opera video-opera portrait opera documentary stage work opera with libretto of linguistic quality American music drama
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 206 p., 7 b/w tab.

Biographical notes

Joanna Miklaszewska (Author)

Joanna Miklaszewska, is Adjunct Professor at the University of Wrocław, in the Institute of Musicology. Her main fields of interest are: minimalism in Polish music, political opera, American music of the twentieth century and music lexicography. She is the author of several scientific publications on these topics and many entries in musical encyclopaedias.


Title: American Political Opera in the Twentieth Century
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207 pages