The Arts Community Reacts to the Election
“I may not enjoy sitting through an opera,” wrote Donald Trump with assistance from ghostwriter Meredith McIver in his 2004 book How to Get Rich. “But I’ve always respected opera singers and enjoy the highlights of opera.” On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump used one of opera’s most iconic highlights, Luciano Pavarotti’s recording of “Nessun Dorma,” from “Turandot.” “The values of brotherhood and solidarity which Luciano Pavarotti expressed throughout the course of his artistic career are entirely incompatible with the worldview offered by candidate Donald Trump,” Nicoletta Mantovani Pavarotti wrote after learning the candidate was using her late husband’s iconic recording to entertain fans as they watched his private jet descending towards rally grounds. Three of the singer’s daughters co-signed the letter.
The American president elect has not demonstrated any particular affinity for concert music. The patience and introspection required to deeply listen to a full-length work does not easily fit into his mode of rhetoric: simple, straightforward, succinct, usually with a few exclamation points. However, “Nessun Dorma,” with its bombastic and triumphant conclusion, played perfectly into his imagined narrative that became reality on November 9, early in the morning: “Vanish, oh night! Set, stars! At dawn, I will win! I will win!”
“Turandot” is also one of opera’s most dated set-pieces: an Orientalist conqueror’s fantasy in brilliant bel canto, ending with a powerful woman won over by a forcible kiss. Reviewing a Metropolitan Opera production of the work in 2015, New York Times music critic David Allen wrote that the Zeffirelli staging represented a “retro, even reactionary, vision of opera.” “Is it right, today, to show ‘Turandot’ so unquestioningly, and so unashamedly?” he asked, and praised the nuanced portrayal of the titular character by American soprano Christine Goerke. He pointed out a “desperation” in her lower register, “one that developed into a reaction to Calàf’s forcible kiss in the third act that was so black, so hollow, that the opera’s final, triumphant resolution could only be seen as a charade.”
Caught on a hot mic in a 2005 tape, Trump showed a Calàf-like approach toward women: “You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.” When questioned afterwards, Trump and his camp immediately dismissed that, and the more vulgar boasts on the tape, as “locker room talk.” Despite that leak, and other instances of public disrespect of women—shaming a former Miss Universe contestant for weight gain, calling a breastfeeding lawyer “disgusting”—53 percent of white American women who voted in the election cast their vote for Trump.
Goerke was not one of them. “I’m so embarrassed to be an American woman right now,” she tweeted the day after the election. “Cassandre is going to be very difficult today. #ArtImitatingLife” At the time of the election, she was singing in Chicago Lyric Opera’s production of “Les Troyens,” in the role of the classical seer whose prophecies went unheeded, leading to her city’s destruction.
“I am completely heartbroken that I will be in Canada during the [Million Women] March. I so desperately wanted to take part.” the soprano tweeted on November 11. She will be singing her first “Götterdämmerung” in Toronto on January 21, 2017, when a mass demonstration is planned in response to Trump’s comments about women before and during his campaign. She also posted a photograph to Instagram of herself wearing a safety pin on her shirt, a subtle symbol of solidarity with marginalized people originating in the post-Brexit wave of hate crimes, that has been rapidly adopted in America following the election.
In the days following Trump’s surprise win, nothing seemed normal. The New York Times published an article revealing the president-elect’s desire to spend as many nights in his gilded Manhattan penthouse as possible, and his continued interest in holding rallies because he “likes the instant gratification and adulation that the cheering crowds provide.” Steve Bannon, former editor of hardline far-right site Breitbart (an encouraging haven for white supremacists, anti-Semites, antifeminists, and Islamophobes) was appointed White House chief strategist. White nationalists including former Ku Klux Klan chairman David Duke praised the decision, while the Southern Poverty Law Center called for Trump to reconsider.
“The world is a Joke. Promise me every time you say Trump you make a fart noise xxxxx,” composer Thomas Adès tweeted at 3 a.m. Eastern Time as the results were announced, a departure from his usual musical posts. (“Trump” is a politer way to say “fart” in British slang.) “Famous pianist and fancy a Republican? Grab them by Debussy,” he tweeted later the same day.
“We would be the world’s laughingstock, if it weren’t so terrifying,” American pianist and MacArthur Genius fellow Jeremy Denk tweeted, his first comment in over a year. “Oh, you are, you are…” replied his sometimes collaborator, British cellist Steven Isserlis. The usually reticent Denk then squared off in 140-character blows with the co-founder of the American Capitalist Party.
The American Federation of Musicians released a statement on Monday, signed by president Ray Hair. “No one should interpret the victory of Donald Trump as an endorsement of hate and division. And if Donald Trump is willing to work with us to achieve fairness for musicians, for the joy we bring to the world, we will work with him.” However, such a conciliatory stance was rare among musicians.
“It just seems completely outrageous to attempt to normalize the election results to working musicians, who are generally very progressive, and members of a union. Trump and Pence are so clearly anti-union,” said Boston-based cellist and gambist Shirley Hunt in response to the message. “It’s puzzling why the message was even sent in the first place; it wasn’t necessary. We don’t need the union to tell us how to interpret the election results.” One NYC-based, Oberlin and Juilliard-trained musician, who declined to be named due to outstanding employment opportunities in red states, said, “Trump ran a hateful and divisive campaign…Whether his supporters approved of these things is irrelevant; by voting for him, they are deeply complicit in the hate and division Trump represents. I want no part of any union whose national leader claims otherwise.”
Brooklyn-based composer Timo Andres, whose piece “Everything Happens So Much” was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra on November 15, linked to the Tumblr blog ithasbegun2016, which documents hate crimes around the country linked to the election results. He also retweeted a link to Toni Morrison’s 2015 essay in The Nation, in which she calls artists to action in times of turmoil. “This is precisely the time when artists go to work,” Morrison writes. “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
Soprano Ariadne Greif took to the streets of Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood on Election Day to impersonate Melania Trump, whom she had played in Matti Kovler’s mini-opera “The Drumf and the Rhinegold.” At the performance of “Drumf” I saw at Cambridge’s Oberon a week before the election, Greif remained in character all night. She wore a tight white dress reminiscent of the gown worn by the ascendant First Lady at the Republican National Convention, and her Slovenian accent never slipped. “Tell my husband I’m tired,” she pouted at a camera on Election Day, carrying a cardboard “VOTE 4 HILLARY” sign.
“I have been approached by some people about more Melania,” Greif said. “I have been thinking about what she might say and do but I think it is very stunt-specific and I need some stronger concepts. I am looking for a baseline concept that will make it really effective, and not just funny or realistic.” She said she had attended some protests, but not in costume as Melania, and she was starting to plan more Melania events at press time.
Some musicians reached out through their art following the election. “We did our best to orchestrate the evening as a safe place for folks to feel what they needed to about the election and about the music, with time after each piece to reflect,” violinist and Zafa Collective founder Hannah Christiansen wrote of their concert the weekend after the election. The Chicago-based new music ensemble was founded with a mission to seek out works by female composers and composers of color. “Our larger goal is to do our part to help try and shift the unconscious moral perception of women and POC composers as ‘less good.’ We want to try and normalize performances by composers that are not white males as much as possible.” In Boston, musicians coordinated on the Facebook group Play for Justice to contribute music to post-election gatherings at churches in the area. “As an artist, I’m grateful that I have another ‘language’ for those moments when we have something strong to express, but can’t find the words,” said Rachel Panitch, a violinist who played at a post-election service. “We have something to offer in that way.”
Sugar Vendil, the director of the New York-based Nouveau Classical Project, is looking beyond music. “Right now I’m organizing an initial gathering with artists to discuss the issues (particularly hate and discrimination) and what we can do. At the moment, I’m interested in trying to find ways to reach people outside our cities to spark meaningful conversation, not just make beautiful or even good art,” she wrote. “Part of me feels like it’s naïve but really, what I feel is a moral responsibility.“
Gabriel Kahane (who was interviewed in this magazine a week before the election) took to Instagram before going off the grid for a multi-day Amtrak residency. “If we are truly progressive, and thus truly committed to diversity and inclusion, we must reach out to those who feel excluded from our increasingly global and cosmopolitan culture, and acknowledge that the irreducibly important progress that has been made on behalf of the voiceless or marginalized *cannot* happen at the expense of others. If progress is a zero sum game, friends, we are fucked.”
National Sawdust, the Williamsburg-based interdisciplinary performance space and arts presenting organization, hosted an open town hall two nights after the election, immediately following resident poet Roger Bonair-Agard’s release performance for his book Where Brooklyn At?!: The Trinidadian poet’s new work centers on migration, gentrification, and origins. Both events were made free to the public, “in light of recent events,” and the town hall was streamed on Facebook Live.
“I wanted to throw up,” composer and National Sawdust curator Daniel Felsenfeld wrote to me, describing his response to the election. “This was obviously not matters of political disagreement; it was clearly a blow to decency. We gave a cartoon villain actual power. I worried about my friends who are female, who are LGBT, Muslim, Mexican, immigrants, intellectuals, Jews, my own daughter. How could I explain it to her?”
Sugar Vendil is planning to gather artists to brainstorm how to reach outside the bubble of urban progressives. “I feel compelled to do something, and what I happen to do is make art,” she wrote. “But making some multidisciplinary piece ‘about’ this and the associated emotions will do absolutely nothing; it’ll be a piece that gets premiered on some stage for some people who already feel the same way.”
“I just registered for my first training session to become a volunteer for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline,” Shirley Hunt said. “This past week I experienced so much dark emotional territory, within myself, with my friends, on the faces of colleagues, on the faces of strangers on the subway. It was the shock of this profound darkness that made me want to combat isolation and despair in a more serious way. I’m no longer just thinking about what’s going to be a good fit for me or a good fit for an audience. Now I’m thinking about what humanity needs from artists…and that thing might be different this week or next week, or next month, or next year.”
National Sawdust will continue to hold town halls and meetings for the larger community to come together and plan actions in the weeks to come. The next is scheduled for November 20. “I have the unpopular opinion (which I share with a certain W.H. Auden) that the turning of the world would be exactly the same with or without art,” said Felsenfeld. “I value it supremely, but at moments like this—moments in which so many of us are terrified for so many excellent reasons—I feel more like a soldier, like my feet are more effective than my music. I will still write, but this week it has felt spectacularly ancillary to the work I feel I need to do.” ¶