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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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Paw Enforcement: A History of McGruff the Crime Dog
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Jack Keil, executive creative director of the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample ad agency, was stuck in a Kansas City airport at three in the morning when he started thinking about Smokey Bear. Smokey was the furred face of forest fire prevention, an amiable creature who cautioned against the hazards of unattended campfires or errant cigarette butts. Everyone, it seemed, knew Smokey and heeded his words.

In 1979, Keil’s agency had been tasked with coming up with a campaign for the recently-instituted National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), a nonprofit organization looking to educate the public about crime prevention. If Keil could create a Smokey for their mission, he figured he would have a hit. He considered an elephant who could stamp out crime, or a rabbit who was hopping mad about illegal activity.

A dog seemed to fit. Dogs bit things, and the NCPC was looking to take a bite out of crime. Keil sketched a dog reminiscent of Snoopy with a Keystone Cop-style hat.

Back at the agency, people loved the idea but hated the dog. In a week’s time, the cartoon animal would morph into McGruff, the world-weary detective who has raised awareness about everything from kidnapping to drug abuse. While he no longer looked like Snoopy, he was about to become just as famous.

In 1979, the public service advertising nonprofit the Ad Council held a meeting to discuss American paranoia. Crime was a hot button issue, with sensational reports about drugs, home invasions, and murders taking up the covers of major media outlets like Newsweek and TIME. Surveys reported that citizens were concerned about crime rates and neighborhood safety. Respondents felt helpless to do anything, since more law enforcement meant increased taxes.

To combat public perception, the Ad Council wanted to commit to an advertising campaign that would act as a preventive measure. Crime could not be stopped, but the feeling was that it could be dented with more informed communities. Maybe a clean park would be less inviting to criminals; people might need to be reminded to lock their doors.

What people did not need was a lecture. So the council enlisted Dancer Fitzgerald Sample to organize a campaign that promoted awareness in the most gentle way possible. Keil's colleagues weighed in on his dog idea; someone suggested that the canine be modeled after J. Edgar Hoover, another saw a Superman-esque dog that would fly in to interrupt crime. Sherry Nemmers and Ray Krivascy offered an alternative take: a dog wearing a trench coat and smoking a cigar, modeled in part after Peter Falk’s performance as the rumpled TV detective Columbo.

Keil had designs on getting Falk to voice the animated character, but the actor’s methodical delivery wasn’t suited to 30-second commercials, so Keil did it himself. His scratchy voice lent an authoritarian tone, but wasn't over-the-top.

The agency ran a contest on the back of cereal boxes to name the dog. “Sherlock Bones” was the most common submission, but "McGruff"—which was suggested by a New Orleans police officer—won out.

Armed with a look, a voice, and a name, Nemmers arranged for a series of ads to run in the fall of 1980. In the spots, McGruff was superimposed over scenes of a burglary and children wary of being kidnapped by men in weather-beaten cars. He advised people to call the police if they spotted something suspicious—like strangers taking off with the neighbor’s television or sofa—and to keep their doors locked. He sat at a piano and sang “users are losers” in reference to drug-abusing adolescents. (The cigar had been scrapped.)

Most importantly, the NCPC—which had taken over responsibility for McGruff's message—wanted the ads to have what the industry dubbed “fulfillment.” At the end, McGruff would advise viewers to write to a post office box for a booklet on how to prevent crime in their neck of the woods.

A lot of people did just that. More than 30,000 booklets went out during the first few months the ads aired. McGruff’s laconic presence was beginning to take off.

By 1988, an estimated 99 percent of children ages six to 12 recognized McGruff, putting him in Ronald McDonald territory. He appeared on the ABC series Webster, in parades, and in thousands of personal appearances around the country, typically with a local police officer under the suit. (The appearances were not without danger: Some dogs apparently didn't like McGruff and could get aggressive at the sight of him.)

As McGruff aged into the 1990s, his appearances grew more sporadic. The NCPC began targeting guns and drugs and wasn’t sure the cartoon dog was a good fit, so his appearances were limited to the end of some ad spots. By the 2000s, law enforcement cutbacks meant fewer cops in costume, and a reduced awareness of the crime-fighting canine. When Keil retired, an Iowa cop named Steve Parker took over McGruff's voice duties.

McGruff is still in action today, aiding in the NCPC’s efforts to raise awareness of elder abuse, internet crimes, and identity theft. The organization estimates that more than 4000 McGruffs are in circulation, though at least one of them failed to live up to the mantle. In 2014, a McGruff performer named John Morales pled guilty to possession of more than 1000 marijuana plants and a grenade launcher. He’s serving 16 years in prison.

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Watch a Panda Caretaker Cuddle With Baby Pandas While Dressed Up Like a Panda
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Some people wear suits to work—but at one Chinese nature reserve, a handful of lucky employees get to wear panda suits.

As Travel + Leisure reports, the People's Daily released a video in July of animal caretakers cuddling with baby pandas at the Wolong National Nature Reserve in China's Sichuan Province. The keepers dress in fuzzy black-and-white costumes—a sartorial choice that's equal parts adorable and imperative to the pandas' future success in the wild.

Researchers raise the pandas in captivity with the goal of eventually releasing them into their natural habitat. But according to The Atlantic, human attachment can hamper the pandas' survival chances, plus it can be stressful for the bears to interact with people. To keep the animals calm while acclimating them to forest life, the caretakers disguise their humanness with costumes, and even mask their smell by smearing the suits with panda urine and feces. Meanwhile, other keepers sometimes conceal themselves by dressing up as trees.

Below, you can watch the camouflaged panda caretakers as they cuddle baby pandas:

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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