Old Books on Front Street
249 N. Front St.
Sunday, 10/2 • 7 p.m. • FREE
Since the first playwright to ever take his ideas to paper, since the first actor to set costumed foot onstage, controversy has surrounded theater. As long as any wordsmith has dared to share his views through a script, there have been people who have supported and despised the art.
On October 2nd, as part of Old Books on Front Street’s celebration of Banned Books Week, operas that were bashed by kings and bureaucrats will be shared for the delight of the public. Bob Workmon, renowned tenor and host of WHQR’s “Morning Edition,” will guide the audience through a side of theater few have ever seen.
“Eighteenth-century playwrights were more bold in their criticisms of social norms and politics,” Workmon reveals. “But they wrote for people who could afford to pay them—aristocracy.”
Clearly, an outspoken composer could cause problems for the provider of his paycheck. As was the case for Mozart, a musician within a Viennese court. His famed opera “Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro)” is a story of servants pulling tricks on their employers—specifically, a count who considered it his right to commemorate the wedding of his domestics by spending the first night with the bride. Two workers, Figaro and Susanna, refused to subject to the will of the count. In the first act, Figaro sings a song reminding the count that if he wishes to dance, it is Figaro who calls the tune. The couple convinces the count that he does not want Susanna but that he is still in love with his own wife. “They turned the whole thing on its ear,” Workmon says.
The play was nearly banned, save for Mozart’s sly tongue. The emperor of the real court was aware of the unrest in Paris and the revolt in America; he figured it wouldn’t be too long before a revolution erupted in France as well.
“The emperor didn’t want the opera being seen,” Workmon explains. “Mozart had to persuade him to believe that it was only a harmless love story about two people willing to do anything for each other. It was almost banned—but not quite.”
Mozart’s luck was rare, and few playwrights were as successful in convincing the aristocracy to let their plays exist. Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” favored the musical stylings of 1920’s jazz. The show caught on very quickly, even becoming a favorite of Stalin.
“Then someone decided American jazz was decadent—music for the lowest of the low,” the tenor quips. “Stalin changed his mind. One day it’s his favorite, and the next he’s saying, ‘This is not playing in any Soviet theaters again.’”
Sadly, Shostakovich lacked the gusto of Mozart. He surrendered, and eventually went on to write only things he thought the Communist party would enjoy.
In the Nazi era, Workmon asserts, there were many Jewish and non-Jewish composers who were openly against the Nazi regime—it’s obvious where this is going. Paul Hindemith, whose wife was Jewish, wrote “Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter).” “It was a story of an artist speaking truth to power,” Workmon accounts. “The Nazis didn’t like that.”
The Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi drafted an opera that depicted the Swedish king’s assassination. “Un Ballo in Maschera (The Masked Ball),” so greatly offended the ruler of Sweden that he forced Verdi to change the setting to Boston. “It’s OK to kill a British viceroy,” Workmon jokes, “but not a Swedish king.”
Workmon, who has performed with various opera companies throughout the state, originally intended to sing these and the other pieces he will present on Sunday. But because of the bannings, a lot of the sheet music is difficult to find, and not all of the works are suited to his voice. “I thought it would be a much greater service to the composers to present recordings of how these pieces were meant to sound.”
Along with controversial classics, attendees can enjoy free snacks and wine, compliments of Old Books on Front Street. The real treat, however, comes from experiencing music that is bold enough to be quieted.
“Art is about holding a mirror to ourselves, reflecting both the best and the worst in us,” Workmon insists. “It takes a great deal of courage to look into the mirror and see what is worth embracing or discarding. Banned Books Week is all about that—remembering that we have an opportunity to see the truth about ourselves. Not all art is great, but all art deserves to be seen, heard and judged on its own merits. If it is great, then it is more powerful than could ever be imagined.”