Communism at the opera

Communism has taken over the stage at the Los Angeles Opera, and soon will be occupying opera houses in Vienna and Paris!

What happened?

Back in 1994 the film “Il Postino” appeared, based on Chilean writer Antonio Skarmeta’s 1985 novel “Ardiente Paciencia,” which centered on a fictionalized episode in the life of Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet (and lifelong Communist) Pablo Neruda. The poet-diplomat had been forced into exile from his homeland in the early 1950s and took refuge for a time on a tiny island off the Italian coast.

Consumed with other projects for some years, and also because the literary rights were not yet available, Mexican composer Daniel Catán waited until now to complete his opera, also called “Il Postino.” It is currently receiving its world premiere production at the Los Angeles Opera, and stars veteran superstar of the operatic world Plácido Domingo as Neruda.

Neruda’s political identity as a Communist is established early on in the opera in the form of a radio announcement that the great poet will be coming to live on the southern Italian isle of Cala di Sotto. He soon establishes a mentorship with Mario, the barely literate postman who delivers Neruda’s fan mail. Known worldwide as the “poet of the people” as well as the “poet of love,” Neruda insists to his wife that no, writing his poems is not sufficient effort on behalf of his beliefs; rather, he feels obligated to continue with his political work. Enjoying his unexpected but refreshing role in educating “il postino” (the postman) in the art of metaphorical thinking, he watches the winsome and class-conscious Mario grow intellectually day by day. (For the serious operaphile, “Il Postino” inevitably recalls another opera featuring a radical poet, Umberto Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier,” which takes place at the time of the French Revolution.)

Mario starts off believing his career as a poet will make him a magnet for women (perhaps gently echoing the poet Rodolfo of “La Boheme”), but by the end he is composing revolutionary verses. Indeed, the emphatic restatement of the uses of poetic metaphor is one of the highlights of the opera. For once people begin to perceive their reality with more than an everyday descriptive vocabulary, they can start imagining something beyond the given, something maybe even utopian and wonderful, fair and just. In this way the connection between poetry and politics is shown to be both intimate and necessary. And as a composer, of course, Catán offers a third dimension in music, with soaring vocal lines and a rich, sun-dappled orchestral score containing lots of accessible folk and popular elements. What occurred to me was the powerful thought that many, many people in that opera house would go home that night and try out a freshly minted metaphor on their partner, and who knows what that could lead to!

As composer and librettist, Catán does not back away from the politics of this story in deference to a presumed conservatism among operagoers. The perfidy of self-interested machine politicians runs through the opera both as a reminder of the limits of the familiar capitalist scam, and as a prod to Mario’s emerging political understanding. In one of Neruda’s recurring poetic refrains, he speaks of a “blue like the Cuban night.” What would be the significance of mentioning Cuba in Italy in the early 1950s, except that the listener will automatically bring later, favorable associations to the mention of that land? Once again, Catán subtly but surely reinforces the positive and even the romantic aspects of Communism. Neruda is also portrayed in the news, non-judgmentally, as having gone to “Russia” to present a poetry award, although of course we know that at the time it was the socialist Soviet Union. In the opera Neruda gets news of a brutal massacre in Chile, and again, although the time frame is the early 1950s, most audiences will undoubtedly bring to this reference their memories of Pinochet’s coup against Salvador Allende in 1973. (The original novelist, Antonio Skarmeta, was also forced into exile from Chile from 1973-1988.)

The theme of exile is shot through “Il Postino.” Mario’s beloved Beatrice entertains her café customers with “Morenica,” a medieval Spanish ballad that in the Mediterranean diaspora became a well-known Sephardic Jewish tune. (Her family name of Russo is likewise a common Sephardic name). Thus the Jewish, Mexican-born, now U.S. citizen composer musically reinforces the theme of exile, suggesting that even native-born citizens are in a kind of internal exile from the full benefits of belonging to a nation – if they are poor. Mario’s brothers have already emigrated to the United States, and he himself dreams of fleeing poverty in Italy and accompanying Neruda back to Chile one day. Catán has Mario sing “America! America!” to virtually the same trope that Earl Robinson used in his famous “Ballad for Americans.” Coincidence? Maybe not.

Mario is not a mature poet – he has only begun to express himself – by the time he appears at a Communist demonstration to read his latest work dedicated to Neruda, “giving voice to the most unprotected people.” The protest against crooked politicians is complete with flowing red banners and Catán’s stirring, if somber, chorus singing “The Internationale.” When is the last time you heard that on the operatic stage?! The blood of martyrdom ultimately unites the Chileans and the Italians, and one might say all peoples. Little Pablito, Mario and Beatrice’s son, makes a touching last-act appearance, as a symbol of hope for the next generation.

The Los Angeles Opera is a world-class company now celebrating its 25th anniversary season. It is somewhat beyond the scope of this appreciation of “Il Postino” to cite and critique by name each of the lead performers. Several are native Spanish speakers: The title role of Mario was sensitively performed by Charles Castronovo, a young Los Angeles-born lyric tenor of Sicilian-Ecuadoran parentage. Suffice it to say, the production is thoroughly professional in every respect. The fact that it is written and performed in Spanish is significant in Los Angeles of 2010, the largest Spanish-speaking city in the United States. It was deeply gratifying to see large numbers of Latinos in attendance, drawn perhaps by the subject of Neruda, or the prior reputation of “Il Postino” as a film, or by the language. In any case, the audience reception at the end was thunderously approving, and deservedly so.

Performances of “Il Postino” at the Los Angeles Opera run through October 16.

Watch for Communism coming to your local operatic stage soon!

Photo: A set concept from the LA Opera’s “Il Postino, set designer Riccardo Hernandez. (LA Opera



Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.