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5 Operas About Politics

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Earlier this month, award-winning composer Derrik Wang wrote an operaScalia/Ginsburg, based on the friendship of Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. But it's not the first time politics have gotten the musical treatment. Here are five other political operas. 

1. Nixon in China

Mere months before the beginning of the scandal that would define his career, Richard Nixon broke ground in American foreign relations by arranging a visit to Mao Zedong in Communist China, marking the end of a 25 year period of separation between the two countries. While this doesn’t exactly seem like fodder for an opera, director Peter Sellars thought differently. In 1985—little more than a decade after Watergate—the young Harvard grad approached composer John Adams with the idea for an opera that, rather than satirizing the politicians, would show heroic intentions from both Nixon and Mao while to examining the potential for the mythical in contemporary history. Though Adams was skeptical at first, he was later sold by Sellars’s unconventional idea and set out to create an equally unique sound.

Using instruments relatively uncommon in opera, such as saxophone and electronic synthesizer, Adams joined forces with librettist Alice Goodman to paint the shiny, heroic scenes that had been broadcast back home—Pat and Richard Nixon waving as they descend from their plane—intermingled with quieter, decidedly less grand moments, like the final scene showing the main characters in their respective bedrooms, reflecting on the events of the journey. Though it opened to mixed reviews, Nixon in China is still being staged today, having made its debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2011. 

2. X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X

A full 20 years after the controversial civil rights icon Malcolm X was assassinated, his life was taken to the stage with X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. With a large cast and music that heavily featured jazz and hip-hop styles, X followed its eponymous lead from his Michigan boyhood onward, touching on his father’s death, his mother’s mental deterioration, and later, his involvement and friction with the Nation of Islam. Following through to his assassination, it ends with a rifle being pointed at him—the fateful shot is not actually heard.

After a fairly quiet 1986 premiere at the New York City Opera, the opera has been slowly gaining further recognition, having been most recently performed (as an abridged version) at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in May 2010.

3. Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov, a Russian opera composed by Modest Mussorgsky in the mid-1800s, is the semi-fictional account of the titular Tsar Boris Godunov and a civilian uprising that attempted to remove him from power. Godunov reigned from 1598 to 1605, with Russia devolving into the famine-ridden and largely anarchical Time of Troubles following the end of his rule.

Mussorgsky’s innovative style and subject matter were contentious for many, but none more so than the royal family. Allegedly, a Grand Duke approached the show’s prima donna, Yuliya Platonoava, exclaiming, “this is a shame to all Russia, and not an opera!” Cultural critic Vladimir Stasov later reported, “When the list of operas for the winter was presented to His Majesty the Emperor [Alexander III], he, with his own hand, was pleased to strike out Boris with a wavy line in blue pencil.”

The royal concerns with the opera were justified, as civilian unrest had already been proven dangerous to the crown. Alexander III’s father, Alexander II, was killed with a homemade bomb by a member of the Russian left-wing terrorist group The People’s Will. Alexander III’s son and successor, Nicholas II, would later be imprisoned and executed by Bolsheviks. At a time when the Russian opera scene was dominated by Italian imports, Mussorgsky created Boris in an attempt to carve out a distinctly Russian style of opera. However, the resulting work was met with skepticism and disapproval from the critics. Composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky even noted, “Mussorgsky’s music I send to the devil; it is the most vulgar and vile parody on music…” Today, however, a new appreciation has dawned for the opera, with many critics lauding its creators for the bravery and originality that went into a piece that was (quite literally) so revolutionary. 

4. Gloriana

Earlier this summer, the United Kingdom celebrated the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation with performances of this historical opera based on the life of her namesake, Queen Elizabeth I. Originally penned in the 1950s, Gloriana follows the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex, who was later tried for treason and executed.

The opera was commissioned for the crowning of Queen Elizabeth II, but it has rarely been performed since then. This is likely because of its unpopular portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I; rather than patriotic, grand, and noble, she is painted as a vain, disillusioned woman coming to terms with her own mortality. Following its debut, it was called “one of the great disasters of operatic history” and even given the nickname “Boriana.” However, the 2013 revival of the opera fared much better, most likely aided simply by the passage of time.

5. Mulroney: The Opera

Written by comedian and satirist Dan Redican, this 2011 on-screen opera focuses on the life of Brian Mulroney, Canada’s prime minister from 1984 to 1993. Spurred by the emergence of “CNN operas” like Nixon in China, the film lampoons the rise and fall of the Quebecois politician. Though it had a pretty large budget by Canadian standards— $3.8 million—and a cast chock full of Canada’s best opera singers, the film was largely a flop, or as one critic called it, “an epic failure.” Not without bright spots, the opera features an especially enormous prosthetic chin and, for fans of Whose Line is it Anyway?, Colin Mochrie as Jean Chretien, who later became Canada’s 20th prime minister.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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