Catastrophe! – An Operetta

Tell me what you think, frankly. A satirical operetta about the mad world in which we’re living. Title: Catastrophe, exclamation mark.

– I’m intrigued by the incongruity of ‘catastrophe’ and ‘operetta’. Go on.

There is such a lack of good satire. Particularly in the world of classical music. Classical-contemporary. Classical music culture is conservative, on the whole.

– I cannot actually think of classical music as having much to do with satire.

When I say ‘operetta’, I’m thinking of Offenbach, not the Austrian variety. Anyhow, we shouldn’t leave political satire – or anything that truly matters – to pop music and video clips. If classical music is to survive as something of more than marginal significance, it has to engage with reality, and the worst of it.

– I agree. Absolutely. Like you did with Extinction.

But that was just pretty music… or so people thought. This should be more confrontational.

– And what exactly do you have in mind?

The absurdity. The frustration of any rational human being vis à vis the idiocy of dictatorship. It’s happened time and time again throughout history – and you’d think humans would have devised some sort of system to prevent it, but after thousands of years it’s the same thing happening again. On an unprecedented scale, with unprecedented consequences. People learn. But humanity, collectively, doesn’t learn. You see how weak democracy is, how inadequate when it has to control the catastrophe that is happening. In a global catastrophe that the whole world should be united in preventing, billions are wasted in idiotic wars.

– No rational person would disagree.

I’m sorry, I didn’t call you to deliver a lecture.

– That’s alright. Go on…

You cannot imagine the kind of mind responsible for so much destruction and misery. Saving face at all costs – even when it’s way past saving face. What you would want is that these thugs, I mean primarily, of course, Putin… that they were confronted directly with the destruction and misery they’re causing. What allows them to get away with it, I mean, in the light of their own conscience? – It must be that they are living in information bubbles, in echo chambers, in a little, closed, artificial reality… It’s some kind of character deformation. So, the operetta would show, among other things, Putin and Trump, locked up in their echo chambers.

Thomas’s nervous excitement aggravated his German accent, and Robert had to make an effort to follow his explanations.

So, I imagine Putin constantly accompanied by a small choir singing his praise, a quartet of male voices, a kind of barbershop quartet, led by the patriarch of Moscow, singing psalms in his praise, perhaps straight from the Old Testament.  Don’t you think the God of the Old Testament too is a typical toddler? Always has to hear his praises sung. Jealous. Explodes in anger if disobeyed.

– You want God to be a character in the operetta too? Tenor or bass?

No. But he would be polyphonic, of course. In fact, now that you mention it, in a sense the male choir is God – I didn’t think of this. Vox populi…

– Precisely. You’re thinking of another dictatorial toddler, Elon Musk.

I think most of these would-be geniuses are mama’s boys. Too much praise, inflated ego.

– That’s something those three might have in common.

But how is it that this kind of individuals are controlling the planet?

– I suppose it’s a matter of sociobiology.

In the case of Trump, I imagine a quartet of evangelicals, praying and holding a halo over his head. With Trump himself mumbling a kind of rap in his monotone voice – expressing his complete cynicism about religion or anything else. Accompanied by an out-of-tune harpsichord. All the instruments would be out of tune and playing in different keys. Because harmony is lost to the world.

Sic transit harmonia mundi. But what sort of storyline do you have in mind with these characters?

Difficult question, but I was hoping you might have some ideas.

– I don’t know… You might focus on defeat denial as a parallel between Putin and Trump. Maybe the context should be the upcoming US elections. Trump asking his friend for an army of bots. Something like that.

I can teach you a thing or two… about elections.

Thomas sang the words in a soft and sentimental Schlager voice, presumably impersonating Putin.

– It seems to me that what you have in mind is a kind of musical version of The Great Dictator.

Maybe, but it should be much sharper, how do you say? – more terse, less sentimental. But it’s striking how easily the Hitler-Mussolini slapstick in that Chaplin movie – how perfectly it applies to Putin and Trump. Think of the six metre conference table. Suppose… suppose Putin complains that it makes him look not only distant, but also small. He wants to appear both far away and tall. He orders a table with trick perspective. A sloping, perspectivic table that makes him look like a giant at the far end.

– Could be a movie scene. I don’t think it will work on the musical stage.

You may be right. What might be musically more interesting – the idiotic purification of language. The euphemisms. Replacing ‘war’ with ‘Special Military Operation’. Replace one syllable with ten, and do that with a few words… you get very long and troublesome sentences. Language breaks down.

– What kind of time frame do you have in mind for this production?

Now!… From this minute, say, three, four months.

– Four months, you say?

With satire you can’t loose the moment.

– Can’t be done. If only because all companies and theatres are booked at least a year in advance.

That’s one of the things I am so unhappy about in our culture. In the eighteenth, early nineteenth centuries operas where composed and performed in a few weeks time, one premiere after another, with just a few rehearsals.

– Yeah, but it was all routine hackwork.

Mostly, yes. But our contemporary musicians are more versatile. And factually, we’re at war. This is wartime. People do miraculous things in wartime.

– You being you, your music being what it is or will be, what kind of audience do you have in mind for your operetta? In terms of war effort, what would it achieve?

Very little, I’m afraid… So… you don’t think this is something we could work on?

– No. Sorry for being blunt.

Please be blunt. I asked you to.

Robert noted the disappointment in his voice.

– I understand your feeling… Of course, we all share such feelings. I mean, anyone who’s in the culture scene, and has a conscience, has doubts about the futility of what we’re doing, in these terrible times… But I don’t think there is a lack of satire, although perhaps a lack of great satire. It is true that this is the time for another, more serious Great Dictator. Ideally, people should be tickled at the right time to laugh about such a figure as Hitler or Trump or Putin, I mean, early on, before they have the means to destroy the world around them. But then, people did laugh, and the laughter didn’t prevent those monsters from coming to power even as caricatures of themselves. And I don’t think the kind of operetta you have in mind would make the kind of great, resounding satire that you rightly wish for. But don’t stop thinking about it. If it is dramatically and musically interesting enough, it will still be possible to stage it at a later date.

You’re right, no doubt. Even if this idea could be realised, the best it can do is provide some relief. But we don’t need relief. We need despair.

– You put that on your Christmas cards?

I would, if I would send any.