David Lang on Blending Politics & Opera in His 'Prisoner of the State'

David Lang
Peter Serling

David Lang

In the hands of a different composer, the libretto of David Lang’s new opera, prisoner of the state, would read like a hype-seeking missile directed at the current presidential administration to maximize publicity: It’s a somber piece that indicts the prison-industrial complex and the descent of democracy into totalitarianism. But Lang has actually been thinking about writing it for 40 years, and he is not looking to provoke any inflammatory tweets by a certain member of the executive branch. 

prisoner of the state, which the New York Philharmonic plays through June 8, is Lang’s modern adaptation of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio (1805). In both works, a woman dresses up as a man to rescue her husband, who has been detained as a political prisoner. Beethoven was working through certain Enlightenment ideals in his piece -- man’s intrinsic yearning for freedom and the heroism born of righteousness -- but it’s the vague backdrop of political corruption and the abuse of power that drove Lang to write the libretto and compose the music for his own version. Billboard caught up with the composer, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his moving oratorio, The Little Match Girl Passion,  to find out why the plot of a 200-year-old opera still sounds so eerily familiar.

Why did you decide to adapt Fidelio for prisoner of the state?

I saw a production of Fidelio in an opera house in the late ’70s, and of course, being a classical music nerd, it had all of this incredible music that I knew and loved. I thought it was really strange to have this weird mix of situations -- this piece about politics and freedom, but ultimately it’s all hidden in this story about marriage. At the end, when you want everyone to stand up and scream “Down with tyranny!” they instead all sing about how great it is that the man has a loving wife. It walks up to the place where you can have a political opinion, then it backs away. I just remember thinking, I wonder what it would be like to have this piece go all the way? 

How did you go about exploring its potential for a political statement?

I was trying to figure out what the unanswered questions were to me. I was really curious about the emotional life of the wife. I was curious about the prisoners. The most famous part of Fidelio is when the prisoners at the end of the first act are let out into the sunshine and they sing about how much it means to them. It’s this incredibly beautiful statement about what freedom means to all of us, and that’s the last time you see the prisoners in the entire opera. Which seems like a very modern thing: They’re shut away specifically so we can forget about them. I wondered what it would be like to have an opera that didn’t forget about them, so there’s a huge amount of extra choral music in this piece. 

Based on the libretto, I think that the Governor, the villain, gets the most elaboration compared to the original.

Yeah, he definitely does. He’s the person I am most curious about. Where does he get his power? What’s our responsibility for him having that power? What can we do about it?

You've mentioned that your opera doesn’t explicitly respond to the contemporary political moment, but the Governor is very thin-skinned, he complains about being mocked, he uses fear to motivate people. At one point I was expecting him to say, “Make America great again.”

Well, it’s very tempting to try to put it in a contemporary context, and all those things that you just mentioned are actually from the original text. I think probably the reason why that feels so current is because there’s a way in which all tyrants are alike. The way of controlling people, the way of taking power, the way of regulating people and imprisoning them -- that’s been with us since the beginning of human history and will be with us long past this administration, unfortunately. 

It is definitely true that I have politics on the brain now, so this piece comes out of my trying to think more about what I feel about where we are in our current world, but I'm not trying to send a message about our current world or what to do with it.

The Governor’s big aria, “What Is One Man,” is almost like an ominous lullaby crossed with a political treatise. Why did you write it that way? Is the lyricism a metaphor for the incredible persuasiveness of a politician?

Well, that is the power of politicians. Theoretically, we have the power to change the world that we live in. Why don’t we? And I think [the Governor] is telling you something that is very true to him, that he really believes. He’s telling you a real truth -- that he’s in power because we have created the position that he can occupy.

We’ve created not only the political position but also the conditions that have allowed him to rise to power.

That’s exactly right. When he sings “It’s better to be feared than to be loved,” I didn’t want him to be cynical. I want him to be more aware than we are. My relationship to art, political or not, is that I really like to think that I will gain something by being more attentive to my world -- that if I could really see and really pay attention, and really care about the things that are around me, that it would make me a better person. 

I read the text for that aria and got one impression -- it sounds cynical and manipulative -- and then the music layers on a different meaning. 

I think it’s very easy to make a piece like the original Fidelio where one character is 100% good and one character is 100% bad. I don’t know who your friends are but I don’t live in that world. Human relationships are really complicated and that translates into why our political relationships are complicated. 

The New York Philharmonic is doing prisoner as a fully staged piece in a concert hall but I imagine it could live on in opera houses.

It could, but at this moment I’m not letting anybody do that. In my piece, the orchestra is essentially imprisoned just like the prisoners. They have their own prison uniform. The prison is very crowded -- 40 prisoners [in the chorus], 60 orchestra players, all on one stage. You’re in this very claustrophobic environment. 

Chris Lee

Is part of you also recoiling at the idea of an opera director getting his hands on the piece and creating the character of Governor Donald Trump in a red tie and a snazzy suit?

Well, I would be nervous about that because I think it’s more complicated than that. I think it’s different to update an old opera, to say, “Here’s the Ring cycle and all the gods are business people.” We’re able to build on what we already know [about an old opera]. But for a new piece, I think if you have a one-line way of reading it, people will be very happy to accept that’s the one line in the piece. I really hope we’re not going to get picketed by people with MAGA hats or something.