“Nessun dorma,” Donald Trump, and the best and worst of fans.
The hero of Turandot lurks behind the opera’s icy princess.
Ever since Jacopo Peri wrote Euridice (1600, the earliest extant European opera) to celebrate the marriage of Henri IV of France and Maria de’ Medici, opera has been ripe for political interpretation, partisanship, and misappropriation by its makers and its fans. Unfortunately, one of opera’s most fervent, prominent boosters used Richard Wagner’s music for anti-Semitic propaganda in Germany in the thirties and forties. Opera fans who aren’t Nazis—especially, perhaps, Jewish musicians—sometimes feel a little embattled about our fan community alliances and image; defensively, we latch onto more congenial fellows like hard-core Wagnerite W. E. B. Du Bois, who attended performances of Lohengrin and the Ring at Bayreuth. Or the ten-year-old fan who listened to Marian Anderson’s 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert on the radio, later wrote about it for a high school speech contest (“there was a hush on the sea of uplifted faces, black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality and fraternity”), and married a classical singer, Coretta Scott (who said of the New England Conservatory of Music, “This is where I knew I was supposed to be”). Or Juilliard-trained pianist Nina Simone, whose opera fandom would leave an indelible mark on Porgy and Bess and The Threepenny Opera.
Then Donald Trump joined our fan club. Last November, the fact that his rally sound track featured the late Luciano Pavarotti singing the aria “Nessun dorma” (“Let no one sleep,” from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot) was just a weird frisson troubling opera Twitter. By July, when the Pavarotti family argued that Pavarotti’s “values of brotherhood and solidarity” were “entirely incompatible” with Trump’s worldview, none of us could ignore the aria’s message anymore: “Vincerò!” I will win!
Some fans welcomed Trump: one commented on the Free Republic message board that the “Nessun dorma” campaign video “tap[ped] into the emotion of the Trump phenomenon. And beautifully.” Others disavowed any association with the man, marshaling our resources to distance him from opera, to distance ourselves from him—anything to keep him from gaining legitimacy through opera. We pooh-poohed opera’s political impact. Or we condemned Puccini, Turandot, and the whole art form as inherently fascist: “Nessun dorma,” we said, was an apt campaign choice, coming from a composer ensnarled with Mussolini (who admired Puccini), and exhorting strong, mindless (fascist!) emotions in listeners. And we dissed Trump: he wasn’t a “real” fan who’d understood opera’s menacing appeal all too well but a vulgar parvenu capitalizing on opera’s cachet.
I loved the vitality of these responses even as I winced at the classist gatekeeping, which does more to exclude new audiences than to discourage millionaires at the box office. I understand the rage that would drive us even to disown our passion for the music, because Trump represents everything we think art—and this country—shouldn’t be. But I’m troubled by the suggestion that we should relinquish opera entirely to the reactionaries, as though they had a monopoly on its power and import—as though art weren’t a continually renegotiated and renewed practice. I’m afraid, too, that in our despair, we might come to accept the dangerous proposition that art’s meanings can ever be fixed, absolute, or pure.
Puccini’s Turandot is, among other things, a misogynistic, Orientalist spectacle set in a fairy-tale China where women wield too much executive power. In “Nessun dorma,” the tenor vows to marry and conquer the icy princess, Turandot—who’s been rampaging against men in memory of an ancestor who was raped and murdered. Rejecting the hero’s claims on her, Turandot cries, “Would you have me in your arms by force, reluctant, seething?” and, over and over, harrowingly, “Don’t look at me like that!”
Opera, and the love of it, can have wild, excessive effects on both its creators and listeners, thwarting any predictable alignments of pleasure and conviction. As an Asian woman who was once raped by a man who’d accused me of emotional impenetrability, I find Turandot’s plot repulsive. Listening to it again in the context of the election, I’m disconcerted to find the music as sumptuous, lush, and thrilling as it is disturbing. Not everybody wants to perform the labor of loving art that doesn’t love you back, and there’s a great deal to be said for jettisoning the canon. But flawed art—and what art isn’t?—belongs not only to those who’d never question it but to those marginalized artists and fans whom Trump would exclude and crush, who’ve never enjoyed the luxury of believing in the canon’s unassailability, who’ve already made stupendous efforts of reassessment and reinvention with old works and been inspired by them to create new stories for new voices. Maybe, someday, they’ll produce a Turandot that burns down rape culture and Orientalism.
In the meantime, we’re all stuck together in the Family Circle, trying to get surprised out of what we presume art can offer, resisting the certainty of easy answers, and struggling through the messy, painful realities of aesthetic and political accountability. We walk past the name KOCH, emblazoned on Lincoln Center, to hear an opera about Gandhi. We get our minds blown by the fact that there’s an opera about Ginsburg and Scalia. We come to a full stop, horrified, before Dylann Roof, the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooter, comforting himself by playing an opera cassette in his car. And stop again, in grief, with Dr. Gregory Hopkins, the artistic director of Harlem Opera Theater, who told me that, in the wake of the Charleston massacre, his church choir sang in an AME church whose singers knew congregants at Mother Emanuel. “We didn’t know, at the time we set up this tour, the kind of pall that would be over that church and community. God put us in a place where people needed it.”
Opera has facilitated terror and violence, daring us to quit it. It’s also inspired the strong, visceral emotions of healing, hope, empathy, outrage, dissent, and justice. Its meanings are never inert. We’re meant to quarrel with them and be staggered by beauty we can sometimes hardly countenance, much less resolve. Shocked out of both good conscience and the illusion of mastery, we might repurpose “Nessun dorma” for our own vigils: continuing to quarrel with opera and with Trump, remaining vigilant against complacency, bigotry, violence, and walls. Let no one sleep.
This is Alison Kinney’s third piece for Songs to the Moon, an exploration of fandom and how the music, art, and artifacts of opera transform cultures and desires. Alison is the author of Hood and a correspondent for the Daily. Her writing has appeared online at Harper’s, Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, The Atlantic, Hyperallergic, and VAN Magazine.
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