The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Is Beethoven still relevant and our political contemporary with his opera “Fidelio”? | August 10, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

You might recall that Ludwig van Beethoven (below) composed only one opera.

It is “Fidelio,” and it reflected his Enlightenment-era political ideas about equality and democracy –- despite the composer’s own financial reliance on patronage by aristocrats and royals.

Beethoven big

And you may recall that the Madison Opera has slated “Fidelio” for a production this coming season in Overture Hall on Friday night, Nov. 21, and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 23.

The production comes during a time of great political unrest and perhaps upheaval at home, with crucial national and state elections, and especially overseas and in foreign affairs with Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Africa’s Ebola strife and many other hot spots showing no sign of letting up.

So will the local production of “Fidelio” be more or less a traditional one? Or will the Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith and its artistic director, John DeMain, who is also the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, have other ideas about how to tweak the opera and recast it for modern or contemporary relevance?

It will be interesting to see, although The Ear understands that the production will be traditional.

Here is a link to the Madison Opera’s website:

Currently, the acclaimed Santa Fe Opera is staging a controversial new version of “Fidelio”(below), created by director Stephen Wadsworth, that takes place in the Nazi death camp Bergen-Belsen. Sounds very Peter Sellars-like. (You can hear the moving music from the Prisoners’ Chorus at the bottom in a YouTube video.)

FIDELIO in Bergen-Belsen at Santa Fe

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, of The New York Times, did not like it and, in fact, said it offended her because it belittled the Holocaust. She also complained that the roles in the actual text did not match the roles that the new staging created. She saw the production as too inconsistent.

Her larger complaint seems to reflect the notion that after the Holocaust, writing poetry and creating art is impossible, that beauty has been ruined.

It is an ambitious, lofty and tempting thought, but one that is clearly not true. In fact, it is downright wrong. Great suffering and art are old pals. Sometimes art takes you away from suffering; sometimes it takes you deeper into it. It depends on the work and on the performers. But we need both.

Anyway, here is the review from the Times as well as another one with a different take. Read them for yourself. Then decide and make up your own mind. It sure sounds like a concept worth pursuing, even if flawed, to The Ear.

Critic Heidi Waleson, of The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, praised the production:

Be sure to tell The Ear, and other readers, including members of the Madison Opera, if you have ever seen an updated version of “Fidelio” and what you thought of it.

Where do you think “Fidelio could be recast to best advantage The Holocaust? The Spanish Inquisition? The Soviet Gulag and Great Terror? The Killing Fields of Cambodia? The Rwandan genocide? Abu Graib prison in Iraq? A CIA black site torture prison in Egypt? The Chinese Cultural Revolution?

Or, given the fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, how about a Supermax prison in Wisconsin?

You get the idea.

Go wild with your imagination, and then write in.

The Ear wants to hear.



  1. Hello Jake,

    We would like to send you some information about an upcoming music opportunity—is this the email address we should use?

    Thank you,


    Kathy Paul

    Development Associate

    VSA Wisconsin

    1709 Aberg Avenue, Suite 1

    Madison, WI 53704-4207

    608-241-2131 (phone)

    608-241-1982 (fax)


    Comment by Kathy Paul — August 11, 2014 @ 9:04 am

  2. I read the Times review quite differently, Jake. I think Fonseca-Wollheim makes an excellent argument to why Fidelio is not served by a German concentration camp, the essence of which is expressed well when she writes, “In the opera’s vision, the state is essentially just and Pizarro an aberration.” This is totally at odds with the reality of the Holocaust, and does seem to make light of the injustice of the whole event by repainting it in the colors of the Enlightenment. I would have a similar problem with setting the piece in a Supermax prison – the violence of the prison system is not individual, the product of a single evil person, but institutional, the product of a complex system of unjust laws that make it easy to absolve any one person of responsibility. To paste Fidelio over that is to scapegoat one person while freeing the rest of culpability, which I think is essentially unjust.

    Fidelio is inextricably tied to its historical context. You cannot divorce the “rescue opera” from the French Revolution without ideological contortions that alter the basic meaning of either the opera or its new temporal and spatial home. Beethoven’s morality in Fidelio is pleasantly black-and-white: Leonore and Florestan are virtuous; Pizzaro is vile. This may strike us today as reductionist or naive, but it’s solidly grounded in Beethoven’s own worldview and his time.

    I think staging an opera outside of its original time and place should show us something new, either in the score or in the setting. Repurposing Fidelio as a Holocaust piece may shed some light on Rocco, but apart from that does not seem to bring to the fore anything that was not easily visible in the Holocaust through our general cultural memory, and in Fidelio that would not have been there anyway.

    (Calixto Beito’s shocking and graphic modern presentations of Don Giovanni, bits of which can be found on YouTube, seem more successful to me: while a few critical lines about nobility (the Don’s line “io cangerò tua sorte” in “Là ci darem la mano”) lose some significance in a society without an aristocracy, the wild abandon of the staging seems grounded in Mozart’s score and proves that it doesn’t have to look clean to be cleanly sung.)


    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — August 10, 2014 @ 10:12 am

    • Hi Mikko,
      All good points, and I agree with much of what you say.
      But works of art, once finished and put out into the public, live a independent life of their own. The creator’s inert counts for only so much.
      Even mistaken or imperfect metaphorical readings and resettings or repurposing can lead to important insights and engaging discussion.
      Witness your remarks!
      Art, especially older art, needs more controversy and provocation today.
      It needs to stay fresh, to make people think and talk — if only to disagree with it.
      So I say: Try it and see.
      Maybe it works and maybe not.
      But it is usually worth the risk.
      As always, thanks for reading an then replying so thoughtfully.
      The Madison music scene needs you.


      Comment by welltemperedear — August 10, 2014 @ 10:20 am

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