John Hodgkiss

A scene from the Handspring Puppet Company’s production of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses, directed by William Kentridge

Machiavelli’s The Prince was presented to the Medici family in 1513 with a dedication that turned out to be much more than a flattering formality since, for the next five centuries, it remained attached to the most influential treatise of modern political theory. Machiavelli began by observing that “those who strive to obtain the good graces of a prince are accustomed to come before him with such things as they hold most precious”—horses, arms, jewels—but he offered instead his thoughts on the conduct of princes. By the end of the sixteenth century poets and musicians would be offering the Medici something new, unprecedented, and precious: opera. Machiavelli, in dedicating The Prince, affected modesty: “I have not embellished with swelling or magnificent words, nor stuffed with rounded periods, nor with any extrinsic allurements or adornments.” He claimed to value truth over ornament—but opera would become the most magnificently embellished of cultural products, lavishly expensive to produce and sensually dazzling to the eye and ear, as it remains to this day.

Mitchell Cohen’s The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart has boldly placed Machiavelli and early modern political theory at the center of the early history of opera, reflecting creatively on the ways in which the reverberations of the great Florentine realist reached even into the musical realm. For just as The Prince was presented as a precious gift precisely because it described and prescribed the conduct of princes, so the operas of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries placed princes on the stage and let them sing their political circumstances.

Cohen focuses on Monteverdi’s Orfeo, one of the founding figures of the operatic form in 1607, singing his plea for Eurydice in the underworld kingdom of Pluto, and also on Monteverdi’s Nero, an emperor of extreme notoriety, working together with his scheming soulmate and eventual empress in The Coronation of Poppea (1642–1643). Monteverdi achieved an almost perfectly Machiavellian opera with The Coronation of Poppea, inasmuch as the two villains, Nero and Poppea, triumph without a moment of self-doubt and, after eliminating dissidents and rivals—including the philosopher Seneca—sing a rapturously beautiful love duet as they gaze upon one another in consummate mutual infatuation. Interestingly, the most important part of princely character, which Machiavelli called virtù—meaning not moral virtue but something closer to virile prowess (colloquially, perhaps, “balls”)—belongs not to the masculine basso register of Seneca but rather to the soprano register of a castrato, who sings the unscrupulous Nero.

Anyone familiar with the works of Verdi—which lie outside the scope of Cohen’s book—would immediately be able to point to his musical gallery of Machiavellian princes who use, abuse, and consolidate power, like the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto (set in the century of Machiavelli and the city of Orfeo’s premiere) or Philip II, the autocratic sovereign of Spain, in Verdi’s Don Carlo. There is perhaps nothing as chilling in opera as the scene that Verdi created for two basses, King Philip and the Grand Inquisitor, as they trade lines at the bottom of the bass clef: the king asks whether it would be acceptable for him to put his own son to death for reasons of state, and the inquisitor lowers the tessitura but raises the Machiavellian ante by demanding further that the king sacrifice Rodrigo, his closest confidant. The heartlessness of the sixteenth-century Habsburg king was a theme that was close to Verdi’s nationalist heart, since the nineteenth-century Habsburg emperor Franz Joseph I was an enemy of Italian unification.

Cohen proposes an immensely valuable extension to opera of the Cambridge School of political thought (associated with Quentin Skinner since the 1970s), by treating operatic compositions partly as political texts that are produced by and participate in contemporary political debates. The discussion of Machiavelli in relation to Monteverdi is particularly successful, though it could be further extended with reference to one of the most celebrated works of the Cambridge School, J.G.A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment (1975), which explores the broad European circulation of Machiavellian ideas, even as far as England.

Pocock did not consider the relevance of Handel to the Machiavellian moment, and neither does Cohen, but the great German composer, who relocated from Italy to England in 1712, intensely pursued Machiavellian political themes over the course of decades in both operas and oratorios that feature spectacular arias of unscrupulous conquest, brutality, and duplicity as well as virtuous political dedication, honor, and glory. If ever there was a Machiavellian operatic moment, it was in Handel’s London in the 1720s, with Caesar’s conquest of Egypt in Giulio Cesare, the usurpation of Bertarido’s Lombard throne by Grimoaldo in Rodelinda, and Tamerlane’s triumph over the Ottoman Sultan Bayezet in Tamerlano. Handel would later, in the oratorios, go on to dissect the virtues and vices of Old Testament leaders and kings such as Jephthah, who is supposed to sacrifice his daughter; Saul, who schemes to murder David; and Solomon, the model of princely wisdom. Saul orders Jonathan to destroy David in basso recitative, and Saul’s daughter Merab then evaluates the conduct of the prince in a brilliant soprano aria:


Capricious man, in humour lost,
By ev’ry wind of passion toss’d!
Now sets his vassal on the throne,
Then low as earth he casts him down!

In Solomon it is Zadok the priest, a tenor, who points the political moral: Solomon the king of peace can build the temple in Jerusalem that David the warrior could not achieve:

Our pious David wish’d in vain,
By this great act to bless his reign;
But Heav’n the monarch’s hopes withstood,
For ah! his hands were stain’d with blood.

Cohen’s Politics of Opera follows a selective path through the early modern history of opera, jumping from the Italian Renaissance of Monteverdi to the French tradition of Lully and Rameau, analyzed in relation to the absolute monarchy of the Bourbons and the emerging political criticism of the Enlightenment. The concluding section of the book considers Mozart and Habsburg political ideology in eighteenth-century Vienna.

Cohen’s approach to baroque opera will seem blunt to some: he interprets the emergence of musical monody—the dominance of a solo voice and single melody that displaced the multiple voices of Renaissance polyphony—as parallel to the development of the centralized princely state:

Consider this irony. The assertion of monody, that crucial ingredient in the first operatic experiments, paralleled, as we have seen, the development of centralizing authority in an age of rising or consolidating princedoms. Politics and music asserted a single rule (respectively).

Historians have often found it more fruitful to think of the politics of art and entertainment in relation to the rituals of the court rather than the mechanics of the state. Peter Burke’s classic study The Fabrication of Louis XIV (1992) was fundamental for thinking about the politics of the arts; while Georgia Cowart’s Triumph of Pleasure: Louis XIV and the Politics of Spectacle (2008) explored both opera and ballet; and Jennifer Homans’s Apollo’s Angels (2010) laid out the political dimensions of dance at the court of the Sun King. Cohen traces the politics of opera from Lully in the age of Louis XIV to Rameau in the age of Louis XV, and is particularly interested in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, probably the most important political theorist of the Enlightenment and, at the same time, a passionate music critic and a moderately talented composer with one successful short opera to his name, Le devin du Village (The Village Soothsayer).

First performed for the French court in 1752, Rousseau’s opera was a celebration of peasant life and love, and two years later the uncourtly Rousseau would inaugurate a new philosophical age with his stunningly influential Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. The essay is an anthropological thought experiment in which Rousseau imagines his way back into the “state of nature”—an earlier stage of human existence when men (not women, to be sure) were naturally equal and then, fatefully, succumbed to inequality. Cohen makes the connection to the anthropological tour of the “Indies” in Rameau’s Les Indes galantes, his opera-ballet about love in Turkey, Persia, and Peru, and offers an odd flow chart to diagram the parts of the opera.

Les Indes galantes was composed in 1735, but was such a success that it was still being staged when Rousseau wrote his essay on inequality in 1754, and both may be seen as belonging to the same anthropological impulse at the heart of the Enlightenment. Opera was capable of deploying remote cultures in order to pose questions of broad social and political significance, even when the circumstances of elite entertainment added an ironic accent to the presentation. For instance, in the Persian scenario of Les Indes galantes, two Persian men fall in love with two female slaves (the complication is that each falls in love with the other’s slave), and one couple ends up pursuing the romance in a disarmingly charming rococo duet on the circumstances of slavery. The soprano slave sings lightheartedly, almost flirtatiously:

Peut-on aimer dans l’esclavage?
C’est en augmenter la rigueur.
[Can one love in slavery?
It increases the harshness.]

And the tenor master replies with ingratiating reassurance:

On doit aimer dans l’esclavage,
C’est en adoucir la rigueur.
[One must love in slavery,
It softens the harshness.]

Then they harmonize their parts, reconciling musically these irreconcilable points of view. Serious political opposition to slavery would not emerge until later in the eighteenth century, but already in the 1730s opera, in the guise of romantic interplay and under the influence of the early Enlightenment, could pose questions about the deformation of the human sentiments under brutal social conditions. Rousseau, avid music lover that he was, would certainly have been familiar with this duet, which in all its loveliness echoes so disturbingly for us across the centuries.


We do not definitively know whether Mozart read Rousseau, but it is hard not to feel that, given Mozart’s all-consuming intellectual curiosity and Rousseau’s pervasive presence in eighteenth-century culture, the composer must have known the philosopher’s ideas, even if only by intellectual osmosis. Of course, Pierre Beaumarchais read Rousseau, and Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro was the inspiration for Mozart’s opera. Cohen notes the presence of François Fénelon’s The Adventures of Telemachus in Mozart’s life and library: Mozart at the age of fourteen recorded in a letter to his sister, “I am just now reading Telemachus.” The novel was already old by that time: first published in 1699 as an anonymous assault on the absolute government of Louis XIV, it gives an imaginary account of the education of the son of Ulysses. Fénelon, archbishop of Cambrai, offered instruction on politics, including the recommendation of a limited monarchy tempered by patrician republicanism and respect for some individual rights. Cohen is thus able to use Fénelon to pivot from the culture of royal absolutism at Versailles in the late seventeenth century to the Viennese culture of enlightened absolutism in the age of Mozart in the late eighteenth century.

Discussing the political implications of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Cohen emphasizes the theme of servants “calling the tune,” as in Figaro’s aria of defiance:

Se vuol ballare, signor contino,
Il chitarrino le suonerò.
[If you want to dance, little count,
I’ll play my little guitar.]

While for Beaumarchais, Figaro’s insubordination would have resonated with the writings of Rousseau on inequality, the background for Mozart’s opera was subtly different: the enlightened absolutism of Emperor Joseph II, who struck down the privileges of the nobles in order to affirm the absolute authority of the sovereign. Joseph’s revolutionary program of enlightenment, as enacted from above, included not only the partial emancipation of serfs but also religious toleration, state control of the church, the abolition of censorship, and even micromanaged burial reform—cloth sacks instead of wooden coffins, deposited outside the city center in collective graves. This was not only hugely controversial in its own time but leaves us today without a specific gravesite for revering Mozart.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; drawing by David Levine

While it is clear that Mozart relished Figaro’s taunting of Count Almaviva, and liked the idea of humbling the privileged nobility in Josephine Vienna—which he would have surely associated with his own struggle for independence from the patronage of the archbishop of Salzburg—any attempt to find a strong political point of view in Mozart’s operas is inevitably complicated by his marvelous affinity for multiple perspectives. Don Giovanni, for instance—a nobleman who recognizes no limitations on his doings and desires, and must be finally punished with fire and brimstone at the end of the opera, dragged down to hell by the statue of the man he has murdered—would seem to illustrate perfectly the perspective of Emperor Joseph on nobles who thought themselves above the law. According to Cohen, “Don Giovanni is the aristocracy’s unrepressed id siphoned through egotism.” Yet even as the opera seems to be clear on this political point about the aristocracy, Mozart’s music makes Don Giovanni so irresistibly attractive that we come back to it over and over again with life-affirming relish at his resistance to laws and limits—a spiritual response that runs entirely counter to the apparent political message.

In The Marriage of Figaro, though Count Almaviva appears as an oppressive figure, engaged in the bullying and sexual harassment of his servants—a Josephine examplar of bad aristocracy—the noble class itself is endowed with the most moving musical sympathy in the figure of Countess Almaviva, the count’s distressed and neglected wife. For Mozart she represents the aristocracy with a musical glamour that engaged his genius in its fullest glory.

Mozart, who sought to earn his living independently by using his own talent, surely resented the aristocratic privilege of birth, and tried to evade the sort of patronage position held by Joseph Haydn, who put on a uniform in the morning to receive his musical orders for the day from his master, the Esterházy prince. Yet Mozart’s life was full of appreciative aristocrats, and while he did not want to wear livery like Haydn, he wrote almost flirtatiously to the Baroness von Waldstätten in Vienna in 1782 about “the beautiful jacket that is tickling my heart so mercilessly, please let me know where it can be bought…. I simply must have such a jacket.” One week later he was writing to thank her for the jacket. Countesses and baronesses all played their part in Mozart’s life, and it would be false to represent him as an enemy of the ancien régime in which he himself was so thoroughly embedded.

Cohen insightfully introduces the philosophy of Edmund Burke into his discussion of opera and political theory, and when thinking about Mozart’s countess, I have sometimes found myself rereading the passage in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France in which he remembered his visit to Versailles in the 1770s and his glimpse of the young Marie Antoinette:

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in—glittering like the morning-star, full of life and splendor and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what an heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall!

The passage builds to the famous lament of chivalry desecrated: “I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.” Burke was a generation older than Mozart and much more deeply embedded in the ancien régime that he evoked with such nostalgia. Yet Mozart, creating The Marriage of Figaro in 1786 in Josephine Vienna, three years before the fall of the Bastille and four years before Burke’s Reflections, already understood that his world was precarious, riven with tensions that he could barely resolve musically at the end of the opera as the characters step forward to sing together: “Ah, tutti contenti saremo così” (“We will all be content like this”).

Did Mozart really believe it? His musical attentions to Countess Almaviva suggest that he was already nostalgic for the world that she would soon lose, as Burke would be for the lost world of the young Marie Antoinette (who was almost exactly Mozart’s age). In one of Mozart’s longest and most stunning melodic lines, echoed by a plaintive oboe, the countess sings: “Dove sono i bei momenti di dolcezza e di piacer?” (“Where have they gone, the beautiful moments of sweetness and pleasure?”). She is remembering her once-happy marriage, but the lyric equally suggests a broader nostalgia for the ancien régime that was already passing in Josephine Vienna and Mozartean Europe, a nostalgia so exquisite that it gives the lie to any simple association between Mozart and revolutionary class politics. After losing her vocal thread in her emotional turmoil, the countess, without help from the orchestra, must pick out of the air the single note, a C-natural, that will allow her to rediscover her melody and regain her equilibrium—the righting of a disordered world that could be achieved only in the musical dimension.

Operas change their political meaning as they are performed in different political settings. In 1776, when Christoph Willibald Gluck revised his Italian opera Alceste with a French libretto for presentation in Paris, the virtuous Queen Alceste, who offers to sacrifice her own life to save her husband, would have been seen as a countermodel to Marie Antoinette, who was already being caricatured in public for her frivolousness and supposed depravity. In 1952, when the great Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad sang her farewell Metropolitan Opera performance as Alceste, the public would have remembered that she had sacrificed her international career to return to Nazi-occupied Norway in 1941 and join her husband, who was collaborating with the occupation. The very different circumstances of 1776 in Paris and 1952 in New York would have offered completely different political associations for Gluck’s virtuously noble opera.

When Alban Berg’s masterpiece Wozzeck was first performed in Berlin in 1925 it caused a sensation with its uncompromising modernism—the atonal musical setting of its fiercely alienating assault on provincial German military life. When Wozzeck was presented in September 2001 during the opening week of the Metropolitan Opera season, two weeks after the September 11 attacks, James Levine conducted the work with such stunning intensity that the audience could participate in Wozzeck’s psychic agony in a way that was entirely conditioned by the traumatic moment in New York City. And when the Metropolitan Opera performed Rossini’s Guillaume Tell on November 9, 2016, the evening after the American presidential election, the harmonies of Swiss republican fervor sounded unexpectedly relevant to our own sense of the fragility of democratic institutions in the face of tyrannical temperaments. Cohen has demonstrated that the history of opera is connected to the history of political theory, but operatic masterpieces also acquire new layers of political meaning as they encounter new generations and newly fraught political circumstances.