Hello friends and welcome to Friday! J’ai pensé qu’il ne serait jamais arrivée.
As you wrap-up another dreary wintertime work week and leave your cubicle, we go back to the green room. The American Opera Theater double-bill production of The Gonzales Cantata and Dido + Aeneas opens for its second and final weekend tonight!
Reveling in the music, drama, and comedy of it all, we trotted out the first of a two-part interview with composer Melissa Dunphy yesterday. Today, we begin with some thoughts about classical music in the American economy, the relation between art and politics, and even the role of government censorship of the fine arts. Whew!
Let’s get started, shall we?
Melissa, how did you react to the wide-spread public response to The Gonzales Cantata and were you able to turn that publicity into future projects?
My husband Matt and I worked so hard on publicity in the months before the Philly Fringe Festival  performances of The Gonzales Cantata. I did nothing but pitch and promote for eight hours a day for four or five months. Despite this, when the recognition finally and suddenly came, we were completely shocked! We’re both news junkies, but only as spectators – we’d never actually ridden the wave of a news cycle before. I still can’t get over some of the communications I received in the aftermath: Josh Groban tweeted about it (cluelessly, but still)! Rachel Maddow sent me a Christmas card! I had coffee with the Director of Concert Music at ASCAP! Jennifer Higdon knows who I am (squee!)!! When I received a thank-you e-mail from one of the federal attorneys who was fired by Alberto Gonzales – someone who was actually part of the real-life story – I was so overwhelmed I burst into tears. Aside from that, I was given such amazing encouragement from complete strangers from all over the world. It was a wonderful affirmation of my belief that music (more incredibly, my music!) can make a difference in people’s lives and maybe even the world.
I suppose I’m lucky that my best work is usually inspired by important public events that move me in some way; the commonality of being witness to compelling contemporary stories helps the general public to respond to what I write. I am extremely passionate about the struggle for gay rights, for example, so I composed a choir piece (What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?) that sets to music a speech by an 86-year-old WWII veteran in support of marriage equality. Most people have heard Omaha Beach through blogs and publications on GLBT issues – not classical music outlets. There’s nothing wrong with the contemporary music press – I simply believe that composers – some of us, at least – have to reach beyond that scene to a wider audience.
At the moment, like nearly everyone else, I’m dismayed by the state of the American economy and worried sick about what might be around the corner. I have an opera project in the works that seeks to address some of the recent history that landed us in this mess, so stay tuned!
How do you feel politics and the arts relate to each other?
Oh boy! To answer this question fully, I would need to give you a full-length thesis paper after about six months (or six years) of research. To grossly simplify: whether we acknowledge it or not, in the words of Thomas Mann, everything is politics. Anyone who thinks that art is somehow outside of political concerns is deluding themselves. Art cannot help but reflect political events, and it is also a powerful tool in influencing political change. For hundreds of years, art was mostly funded by wealthy and powerful patrons – those paintings, operas and works of literature about kings and queens were not originally created to feed Joe Peasant’s obsession with the aristocracy. When revolutions overthrew or weakened monarchies, art was produced for and about the middle and lower classes, which was not only a reflection of the status quo, but actually helped establish the middle class as the most powerful force in society. I can’t think of a political movement which hasn’t used music. We still sing songs propagated during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and we play the music of Sousa, written for a time when nationalism was particularly celebrated across the world. Gospel and blues music was immensely important in spreading the message of civil rights – even though I have no personal connection to that struggle, I can barely hear We Shall Overcome or A Change is Gonna Come without weeping. Politics needs music, with its ability to move us emotionally and bring us together. Why do we sing the national anthem before sporting events?
In the wake of the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery controversy regarding the Wojnarowicz piece, describe how you feel about government censorship of the arts. Particularly in a piece like Gonzales, the main characters are still alive and have political clout. How would you respond to someone who does not want to be portrayed the way they are in the work?
Politicians are very used to being treated harshly in the press and media, and I can’t imagine I would write anything so libelous that they felt action was necessary. And if they did? We live in very interesting times with regard to censorship. John Gilmore, a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (an organization of which I am a member) probably said it best, “The Net treats censorship as damage and routes around it.” I feel as though most high-profile people and organizations these days are aware of the Streisand Effect – the phenomenon in which attempts to censor information have the opposite effect of publicizing it. Those who aren’t aware of it pay the price, from unwise celebrities to the Church of Scientology to the enemies of Wikileaks. I probably would never have paid so much attention to ants crawling on a crucifix if not for the Smithsonian’s decision. There’s no doubt Mark Zuckerberg, with his almost inexhaustible financial resources, could have tried to sue the makers of The Social Network, but it’s very telling that he didn’t. You kill information on the web by ignoring it, not by attacking it. Frankly, if one of the real-life characters of a docu-opera tried to squelch my depiction of them onstage, it would probably do more good for the piece and my career than bad. Bring it on! (Not being 100% serious; I don’t really have time for a lawsuit at the moment.)
If you can’t tell, I am philosophically against most forms of censorship, government, corporate, or otherwise. I grew up in Australia, a country which is far more lenient than the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] on curse words and nudity on broadcast media, despite the fact the Australian Constitution does not explicitly guarantee the right to free speech. I can now add a practical objection to my philosophical one – currently, trying to actively censor information is a pointless if not counterproductive exercise.
My most sincere thanks to Melissa Dunphy for sharing her thoughts with us on The Sybaritic Singer. It has been a joy to chat with her as well as perform her work, The Gonzales Cantata. Melissa’s statement, “Politics needs music, with its ability to move us emotionally and bring us together” rings so true at this moment in our shared experience. I encourage you, Sybaritic Faithful, to continue to share your music. The world needs it. People need it.
So, tell us what you’re up to this weekend. Performing in another show? Send us the link.
Will you be going to the final weekend of The Gonzales Cantata?
Do you have any romantic, musical plans for Valentine’s Day?
Inquiring minds want to know.
[…] sure that you will remember our interview series with composer fantastique, Melissa Dunphy. Her seering take on the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings of former Attorney General Alberto […]