Is opera a valid medium for social critique? This was one of the questions posed at a panel discussion in Madrid in February with American composer John Adams as guest speaker. John Adams answered the questions in Spanish and these are the notes I made of his answer:
“This is a difficult question. I do not agree with Bertolt Brecht. Art should not be thought of as a means to social change … here I disagree with Peter Sellars. The instruments for social change are politics, the economy, education. Even so, subjects such as terrorism, the atomic bomb, the collapse of capital, are of interest because they form part of our lives. These subjects become “mitos de nuestros tiempos”, myths of our time, and opera is the art of myths. I do not consider my works as social acts, but rather as an expression of our inner lives.”
His answer surprised me because I recently read his autobiography, Hallelujah Junction, and the impression I had was that he is committed to social justice and that his admiration for Alice Goodman, his librettist on several of his opera and oratorio works, is largely based on her passion not just to tell a story but to make an impact on society.
This made me go back to the book when I got home and re-read the chapter Singing Terrorists, on the birth of the opera The death of Klinghoffer. Sure enough, there are several pages of deep thought about the related issues, but in the end, writing about himself and Alice Goodman, he concludes: Neither of us was trying to parse out judgment in equally measured doses, and neither was attempting to make of the drama a political forum.