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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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8 Things We Know About Stranger Things Season 3
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[Warning: There are lots of Stranger Things season two spoilers ahead.]

Stranger Things season two is in the books, and like we all hoped, it turned out to be a worthy follow-up to an addictive debut season. Now, though, we’re left with plenty of questions, mysteries, and theories to chew on as the wait for a third season begins. But for everything we don’t know about what the next year of Stranger Things will bring us (such as an actual release date), there are more than enough things we do know to keep those fan theories coming well into 2018. While the show hasn't been officially greenlit for a third season by Netflix yet, new details have already begun to trickle out. Here’s everything we know about Stranger Things season three so far.

1. THERE WILL BE ANOTHER TIME JUMP.

The third season of Stranger Things won’t pick up right where the second one left off. Like the show experienced between the first two seasons, there will be a time jump between seasons two and three as well. The reason is simple: the child actors are all growing up, and instead of having the kids look noticeably older without explanation for year three, the Duffer Brothers told The Hollywood Reporter:

“Our kids are aging. We can only write and produce the show so fast. They're going to be almost a year older by the time we start shooting season three. It provides certain challenges. You can't start right after season two ended. It forces you to do a time jump. But what I like is that it makes you evolve the show. It forces the show to evolve and change, because the kids are changing.”

2. THE IDEA IS TO BE SMALLER IN SCALE.

If the series’s second season was about expanding the Stranger Things mythology, the third season won't go bigger just for the sake of it, with the brothers even going so far as to say that it will be a more intimate story.

“It’s not necessarily going to be bigger in scale,” Matt Duffer said in an interview with IndieWire. “What I am really excited about is giving these characters an interesting journey to go on.”

Ross Duffer did stress, though, that as of early November, season three is basically “… Matt and me working with some writers and figuring out where it’s going to go.”

3. THE MIND FLAYER WILL BE BACK.

The second season ended on a bit of a foreboding note when it was revealed that the Mind Flayer was still in the Upside Down and was seen looming over the Hawkins school as the winter dance was going on. Though we know there will be a time jump at the start of next season, it’s clear that the monster will still have a big presence on the show.

Executive producer Dan Cohen told TV Guide: "There were other ways we could have ended beyond that, but I think that was a very strong, lyrical ending, and it really lets us decide to focus where we ultimately are going to want to go as we dive into Season 3."

What does the Mind Flayer’s presence mean for the new crop of episodes? Well, there will be plenty of fan theories to ponder between now and the season three premiere (whenever that may be).

4. PLENTY OF LEFTOVER SEASON TWO STORYLINES WILL BE IN SEASON THREE.

The Duffer Brothers had a lot of material for the latest season of the show—probably a bit too much. Talking to Vulture, Matt Duffer detailed a few details and plot points that had to be pushed to season three:

"Billy was supposed to have a bigger role. We ended up having so many characters it ended up, in a way, more teed up for season three than anything. There was a whole teen supernatural story line that just got booted because it was just too cluttered, you know? A lot of that’s just getting kicked into season three."

The good news is that he also told the site that this wealth of cut material could make the writing process for the third season much quicker.

5. THERE WILL BE MORE ERICA.

Stranger Things already had a roster of fan-favorite characters heading into season two, but newcomer Erica, Lucas’s little sister, may have overshadowed them all. Played by 11-year-old Priah Ferguson, Erica is equal parts expressive, snarky, and charismatic. And the Duffer Brothers couldn’t agree more, saying that there will be much more Erica next season.

“There will definitely be more Erica in Season 3,” Ross Duffer told Yahoo!. “That is the fun thing about the show—you discover stuff as you’re filming. We were able to integrate more of her in, but not as much you want because the story [was] already going. ‘We got to use more Erica’—that was one of the first things we said in the writers’ room.”

“I thought she’s very GIF-able, if that’s a word,” Matt Duffer added. “She was great.”

6. EXPECT KALI TO RETURN.

The season two episode “The Lost Sister” was a bit of an outlier for the series. It’s a standalone episode that focuses solely on the character Eleven, leaving the central plot and main cast of Hawkins behind. As well-received as Stranger Things season two was, this episode was a near-unanimous miss among fans and critics.

The episode did, however, introduce us to the character of Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), who has the ability to manipulate people’s minds with illusions she creates. Despite the reaction, the Duffers felt the episode was vital to Eleven’s development, and that Kali won’t be forgotten moving forward.

“It feels weird to me that we wouldn’t solve [Kali’s] storyline. I would say chances are very high she comes back,” Matt Duffer said at the Vulture Festival.

7. OTHER "NUMBERS" MIGHT SHOW UP.

We're already well acquainted with Eleven, and season two introduced us to Eight (a.k.a. Kali), and executive producer Shawn Levy heavily hinted to E! that there are probably more Hawkins Laboratory experiments on the horizon.

"I think we've clearly implied there are other numbers, and I can't imagine that the world will only ever know Eleven and Eight," Levy said.

8. THERE MIGHT NOT BE MANY SEASONS LEFT.

Don’t be in too much of a rush to find out everything about the next season of Stranger Things; there might not be many more left. The Duffer Brothers have said in the past that the plan is to do four seasons and end it. However, Levy gave fans a glimmer of hope that things may go on a little while longer—just by a bit, though.

“Hearts were heard breaking in Netflix headquarters when the Brothers made four seasons sound like an official end, and I was suddenly getting phone calls from our actors’ agents,” Levy told Entertainment Weekly. “The truth is we’re definitely going four seasons and there’s very much the possibility of a fifth. Beyond that, it becomes I think very unlikely.”

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Big Questions
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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