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From State to Stage: Politics of Opera

Since the first credited opera, Dafne, was performed as an experiment in private near the end of the 16th century, audiences have enjoyed the art form’s decadent splendor. But beyond the glamorous costumes, dazzling sets, and the continued interplay between music and narrative, how has opera engaged with the politics of its time? That’s the question Professor Mitchell Cohen sets out to answer in his recent book, The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart.

Across a 200-year period, Cohen, a professor at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, focuses on a vast geographical scope that includes Florence, Paris, and Vienna, among other cities. Tracing opera’s development across works like Monteverdi’s early baroque favola, L’Orfeo, to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s one-act Le Devin du Village, he examines the ways in which opera’s musical motifs — among other elements — engaged with the political ideas at play in the early modern era.

For example, monody — a single vocal line with accompaniment — suggested a singular rule (like a duke) rising above, to head a regime. Leaping across registers, on the other hand, signified “a lack of self-mastery,” as with The Magic Flute’s Queen of the Night. “Politics … appeared in opera in a variety of ways,” Cohen writes, “ideological claims, applause, subversive suggestions, embedded worldviews and categories, elucidating reflections, [and] revealing or combative probes.”

Beyond close readings, Cohen moves from the early Renaissance to just before the French Revolution, analyzing how opera touched upon the political ideals being circulated at each specific moment. “As I looked at all these operas I tried to contextualize them and also to show parallels with key political ideas and problems of the times — ideas and problems that are embedded in them,” he said in an interview. “So readers will come across a number of important thinkers and writers — some well-known, some less-known today — weaving throughout the book.”

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Book Cover: 'The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart' by Mitchell Cohen
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The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart
Princeton University Press, 2017

Work By
Mitchell Cohen (Professor, Political Science) | Profile 1

Colleges and Schools
Baruch College The Graduate Center

Bonus Content
“The Politics of Opera” (Opera News)

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