Fascism, the Musical: Ecology of the Santa Fe Opera

[EDITOR’S NOTE: We offer below, Fascism, the Musical: Ecology of the Santa Fe Opera (Part I), by Tesuque native Eric Shultz. Published here is the first installment of his multi-part review essay. In it Shultz digs deep into the Santa Fe Opera’s 2011 performance of the thirteenth opera by Gian Carlo Menotti, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Italian-American composer and librettist. Where the Santa Fe Opera offered The Last Savage, written in 1963, as an artistic statement and subversive screed against 60s-era establishment hypocrisy and send up of lingering imperial hubris, Shultz finds that the fascist themes that define the opera, and Menotti’s entire oeuvre, provide a surprising lens through which to understand environmental politics in northern New Mexico. As if his damning review of Menotti’s opera and what he calls the Santa Fe Opera’s right-wing leanings isn’t enough, he mines the material and unearths a buried political history of fascist cultural production among elites in New Mexico. As he demonstrates in part I of this essay, the fascism that lurks in Menotti’s Opera found fertile ground in New Mexico via artists like D.H. Lawrence and Mabel Dodge Lujan and flourished in institutions like the Santa Fe Opera. Shultz convinces us that The Last Savage, in both its original conception and its Santa Fe presentation, is Menotti’s sympathetic meditation on fascist politics and the Santa Fe Opera’s valorization of racialized bourgeois society. Indeed, no mere opera review is this. Keep watching for future installments in which Shultz explains how this fascist history explains the trajectory of contentious acequia and forest politics in northern New Mexico. Shultz is well known by long-time readers of La Jicarita for his frequent photographs and occasional articles. This is his first offering for the new La Jicarita in what we hope will be regular features of the kind of cultural criticism that makes the local establishment uncomfortable. –DC]

By Eric Shultz

Last August 18, a friend with an extra ticket invited me to see Menotti’s The Last Savage at the Santa Fe Opera. Lavish displays of racism and other fascistic themes – which the audience applauded enthusiastically – got me curious.1 It didn’t take long to discover the author’s roots in Italian fascism, or the Santa Fe Opera’s history as an institution of the cultural Right.

The Santa Fe Opera theater, top left; in front is the Tesuque Pueblo Flea Market; bare cottonwoods along the bottom indicate the Tesuque River. Photo by Eric Shultz.

As if to warn about the 2011 line-up, not least The Last Savage, Santa Fe Opera director Charles MacKay told the Santa Fe Reporter, “Our repertory has never shied away from unfamiliar or new works. It’s been in our DNA since the beginning.”2   A classical racialist, the kind Menotti evokes in The Last Savage, would have said “in our blood,” but “in our DNA” updates the vocabulary without injuring the essentialist concept. Do I think MacKay believes an opera company makes repertory choices according to genetic endowment? Possibly not. Perhaps he merely speaks in clichés. Though hardly less clichéd, he would at least have evinced a more rational outlook had he said that to mount non-standard productions has been “in our corporate culture” since the start.

I follow MacKay’s lead by going back to the Santa Fe Opera’s beginnings, and I’d spoil no surprise to say that it has always been a haven for ultras and a champion of their causes. But this begs the larger ecological question, why Santa Fe? Why is this place a nurturing environment for such an institution? It is this bigger question that leads us to grazing rights, acequias, the Forest Service and the Office of the State Engineer. So without further ado, my opera review.

A night at the races

Language and race seemed inextricably tied, and the “good” Orient was invariably a classical period somewhere in a long-gone India, whereas the “bad” Orient lingered in present-day Asia, parts of North Africa, and Islam everywhere.

—Edward Said3

Kitty, all-American heroine of The Last Savage, falls for and moves in with a cave-dwelling “savage” in India. Such a tale of interracial love sounds more like a case against racism than an example of it. But I would contend that such a liberal reading of the story provides a cover of plausible deniability for something much darker. And much whiter.

As the epigraph reminds us, when European scholars such as Schlegel began to study Sanskrit and discovered its kinship with modern European languages, they concluded that such a graceful script, elegant grammar and magnificent literature could only belong to a highly advanced, i.e. white  race. Hence the myth of the Aryans was concocted. To the Europeans of the 19th century, the contemporary Orient was “bad” because the “good” Orientals the Aryans  had  migrated to Europe ages ago, bringing their Ur-opean language with them. Even among scientists, observed Said, “the Aryan myth dominated historical and cultural anthropology at the expense of the ‘lesser’ peoples.”4

Kitty is a doctoral student in anthropology who goes to India on a quest to find the last surviving “prehistoric” man. In Said’s terms, she is looking for a vestige of ancient “good” surviving in the Orient of today. Nowhere in his libretto – nor in a paraphrase he published in 19645 – does Menotti call the “wild man” an Aryan, but such an inference does not take much imagination. For a nudge in that direction, consider that when Menotti accepted his commission from the Paris Opéra in the late 1950s, his working title was not The Last Savage but The Last Superman.6

The opera begins with Kitty’s father – a Chicago tycoon named Scattergood – and the Maharajah of Rajaputana arranging the marriage of their children, Kitty and Kodanda. Any scruples about interracial marriage might be eased by Kodanda’s blond complexion, which leads the Maharajah to speculate, “Perhaps my father’s father/Or my father’s father’s father/Was pure Anglo-Saxon,”7 in recognition of India’s colonial legacy. But such is not the case – spoiler alert! – as it turns out that Scattergood is actually Kodanda’s father from his youthful encounter with an equally youthful Indian tourist in Egypt, the future Maharani.

Fascist themes wend their way through the story. The Maharajah had married the pregnant Maharani assuming the baby was his: “the only reason I can stand her is because she made me the father of my only son.”8 He concluded that his other 26 concubines are sterile, but of course it is he who is sterile and the potent Aryan Scattergood has inadvertently revitalized Rajaputana’s royal bloodline by siring blonde Kodanda. Such is the white man’s burden. Similarly fascist is the notion that Kitty’s union with her Übermensch could revitalize America, a need suggested by the degenerate state of the Americans at the cocktail party.

In the opera’s midsection, Kitty takes her catch to Chicago to civilize him. “Kitty’s plans are very precise,” Menotti explains:

To the assembled press she vows that within [six months] she will change this prehistoric savage into an accomplished modern gentleman – thus proving the excellence of her unique didactic method, which combines psychoanalysis with a few lashes of her whip (she wisely has not forgotten that the use of the whip is partly responsible for her country’s greatness).9

Kitty is not Menotti’s only female character to wield a whip. In his disturbingly misogynistic opera The Medium, Madame Flora keeps a bullwhip in the credenza and uses it savagely on pitiful Toby (produced by fellow right-winger Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., and promoted by erstwhile Fascist Arturo Toscanini, The Medium enjoyed an eight month run on Broadway in the late 1940s). But here, Menotti’s crediting “the use of the whip” with American exceptionalism is especially revealing. A reference to traditional childrearing? That would call for the hand or belt. Corporal punishment in schools? The switch or paddle. No, the American institution plainly associated with use of the whip is slavery. Thus Kitty’s violent domination of Abdul serves to dignify a particularly heinous aspect of America’s racist history as a source of greatness, in Menotti’s view, worthy of special mention.

Pleased with the results, Kitty decides to present her accomplishment to society by arranging a cocktail party that brings together representatives of American civilization. The scene recapitulates the Degenerate Art and Degenerate Music exhibitions the Nazis staged in the late 1930s to warn the German public of dangerous (i.e. Jewish and/or Bolshevik) avant-gardisms.10 Those exhibitions were displays of high-brow culture intended to gall audiences so they would reject the cosmopolitan and embrace the official culture. Confronted with action painting, dodecaphonic music and egoistic poetry, Abdul reacts like a good Nazi by reverting to barbarism. “If this is your civilization,” the libretto has him say, “I want no part of it.”11 In the Santa Fe production, he crashes through a picture window and moves across the Chicago skyline à la King Kong. Even more violent is Menotti’s paraphrase: exasperated, Abdul grabs onto the enormous mobile hanging from the ceiling and brings it crashing down onto the partying degenerates: “Only Abdul, who has not forgotten how to leap out of ditches or how to extricate himself from the tangle of tropical vines, is quick in reaching the door.”12

After this frantic departure, Scattergood reveals to Kitty that Abdul was never a prehistoric savage but a mere peasant the Maharaja and he had hired as an imposter for Kitty to find, to end her quest and hasten her marriage to Kodanda. Refusing to believe this until she hears it from Abdul himself, Kitty and her father return to India. Having figured out that Kodanda is Kitty’s half-brother, Scattergood and the Maharani secretly approve Kitty’s reunion with Abdul, to the Maharaja’s confusion but eventual acceptance, since Kodanda has declared his love for the Maharani’s servant Sardula, who is Abdul’s ex love interest and the one who put him up to playing the savage. Confronted, Abdul politely refuses the money he is owed and asks only to be left alone. “Listen! Listen!” exclaims Kitty,

 Abdul is no impostor nor

in any way inferior!

For me he is superior!

He’s good and brave and noble,

he is a superman!13

Though not, perhaps, the wild man of Kitty’s anthropological project, Abdul turns out to be her Übermensch after all.

Savage me!

 O! Start a revolution, somebody!

Not to install the working class,

But to abolish the working class forever

And have a world of men.

—D. H. Lawrence14

The Last Savage seems to inhabit the Aryan myth of classical race theory, and then it launches an attack on high-brow culture right out of the Nazi playbook. But what clinches the opera’s fascist identity may be its preoccupation with the figure of the savage itself.

A recent study by Raymond Watkins called The Modern Savage: Figures of the Fascist ‘Primitive’ in Interwar Europe15 explores in depth the relationship between primitivism in modernist culture and fascism in politics:

Modernism uses tropes of fascism to stress material vital processes that liberate the individual from history, tradition, and the stifling aspects of civilization. This primitivism thus paradoxically leads to a glorification of modernity’s innovations through tropes of machinery and the technology of war.16

To a remarkable degree, Watkins could be writing specifically about The Last Savage. Abdul’s rampage at the cocktail party serves precisely to “liberate” him from “the stifling aspects of civilization,” the role Watkins observes “tropes of fascism” performing in modernism by and large. Abdul’s flight also liberates him from his own history and traditions, since he does not return to his old life but chooses reclusion in a jungle cave. Now consider the comic business that ends the opera. Kitty’s decision to go native and move in with her man raises the question of how she can live happily in a cave without modern amenities. The final stage direction reads:

While Abdul tenderly embraces her, Kitty signals surreptitiously toward the depth of the forest. Out of the shadows servants silently emerge and are seen carrying into the cave a bath tub, a refrigerator and a television set.17

How curious that Menotti’s embrace of the fascist primitive “paradoxically leads to a glorification of modernity’s innovations through tropes of machinery. . . .” Although written a few decades after the works Watkins studies, clearly The Last Savage reanimates the same fascist tissues that The Modern Savage dissects. Watkins discusses numerous works and details of theory this is not the place to review, but one of three artists he focuses on has an important New Mexico connection: the novelist D. H. Lawrence.

Watkins begins his discussion with an observation that is neither strictly original nor uniquely relevant to Lawrence: though widely seen and criticized as proto-fascist – especially in the 1930s when fascism had become a hot topic – after World War II Lawrence’s fascism was played down if not denied altogether, and deemed irrelevant to a literary appreciation of his writings:

Political questions once seen as inseparable from a writer’s artistic vision and style become irrelevant within a reconfigured post-war landscape, famously characterized in the United States by the pervasive influence of New Critical approaches that discover Lawrence’s unacknowledged genius.18

My drawing attention to this post-war re-valuation of the writer relates to a similar critical disregard for fascist sympathies and militancy in composers, conductors and musicians, as will be examined in some detail later on.

Many of us who grew up in post-WWII America may think of Lawrence first as the victim of prudish censorship applied to Lady Chatterly’s Lover. If this is how our First Amendment treated him, perhaps that would explain his view of democracy: “It stinks. It is the will of the louse. . . . Let us have done with this foolish form of government.”19 Worth noting, this quote was collected by a respectable Ivy League graduate on the NYU faculty for an article praising Lawrence, Hitler and Fascism published at the late date of 1940 in The New Mexico Quarterly. In light of what this scholar says, we would be mistaken to attribute Lawrence’s contempt for democracy to any paltry resentment when his motivations were rather quite grand. “In a very real sense,” the scholar opined,

 . . . Lawrence was an unfulfilled Hitler – dark, brooding, inward-looking, both of them – with the same capacity for attracting loyalty and the same disdain for intellectuals and aesthetes, believing passionately in the impossible, both of them. Both are adventurers who point the way to a quality of experience other than any yet achieved, knowing full well that the destruction of what exists is necessary to that which is to supersede it. Just as Robespierre was Rousseau’s finest pupil, one might say that Adolf Hitler is bringing into Western consciousness something of the insight and idealism of D. H. Lawrence.20

Powerful words, those, and not the keening of a left-wing kook but considered praise from a kindred spirit.21 A useful reminder of the depth of fascist sympathy in America before the war, and helpful perhaps in explaining the post-war readiness to forgive it.

Watkins’ study of Lawrence focuses on his novella St. Mawr and other short pieces, but the theme of “the modern savage” is plain enough in Lady Chatterly, whose mismatched lover is not only a commoner (!) but a forest-dwelling game keeper. Yet he embodies a primal virility she imbibes; what her civilized but crippled and impotent husband lacks. Class differences dissolve; civilization unlearns itself when she learns to obey a savage master as woman yields to man.

New Mexico had its own real-life example of a similarly mismatched relationship, in East Coast socialite Mabel Dodge’s marriage to a Taos Pueblo man, Tony Luhan. As Dodge’s granddaughter recollected,

 . . . what Mabel wanted was the man who would go off and be the man, and come and go, and traffic as a man. . . . She was ready to play the role of “the woman” to this kind of man . . . none of the men she had had before were strong enough. . . . I think it’s endlessly interesting, and it certainly was to her contemporaries, who were astounded that a woman of Mabel’s background could do such a thing.22

This is the same Mabel Dodge who persuaded D. H. Lawrence to move to Taos in the early 1920s. And what should by now be obvious is that the nucleus of both Mabel’s and Lady Chatterly’s love stories is also the core of Menotti’s story of a Chicago socialite and her “modern savage” man.

The Santa Fe Opera’s official history includes a section on the theater’s northern New Mexico setting. How could such a book not speak of the great ones, the ones of old, those who gave us our culture and our identity?

“There is something savage, unbreakable in the spirit of the place out here,” D. H. Lawrence wrote in 1922, when he came to New Mexico at the urging of Mabel Dodge Luhan.23 [Emphasis mine.]

On the same page is a photo of the woman and the man – Mabel in a rococo armchair, Tony on the banco of an adobe fireplace, enrobed in a blanket, hair in twin braids – the illustrations of their story. So deeply entwined in the fiber of modern New Mexico’s cultural tapestry, Dodge and Luhan, whose story the mystical father of fascism retold as a modernist myth, disappear and reappear as something that is and isn’t; the faces our mirror erases. Fascism abides in our savage landscape like an isotope, and the Opera invokes it blindly.

End Notes

1. Fascistic content was not entirely lost on Santa Fe observers. Interviewing The Last Savage director Ned Canty (August 11, 2011), KSFR Radio Cafe host Mary-Charlotte asked, “has anyone reacted, like, oh my God, that’s so politically incorrect . . . ?” Canty replied, “Not yet.” Reviewing for the Santa Fe New Mexican (July 24, 2011), James M. Keller was more direct in calling out its fascism, albeit indirectly: “viewers may gasp with trepidation akin to that of the theatergoers in Mel Brooks’ film The Producers . . . .” Lest we forget, the play within that movie was the Nazi musical Springtime for Hitler. But like the audience portrayed in the movie, according to Keller, Santa Fe audiences ended up enjoying the opera in a “sit-com spirit.” Fascism, to the extent it is even recognized, is not to be taken seriously, or so we are advised.

2.  Stege, John. “Grand Ole/New Opera.” The Santa Fe Reporter. June 29, 2011, p. 33.

3. Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books 1979, p. 99.

4. Ibid.

5. Menotti, Gian Carlo. The Last Savage [paraphrase]. Drawings by Beni Montresor. Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphical Society 1964. Having seen the 1964 American premier of The Last Savage at the Met, Stravinsky savaged it in an interview in Show (reproduced as “In the Name of Jean-Jacques!” in Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft. Themes and Episodes. New York: Knopf 1966, pp. 97-101). Responding to John Gruen a decade later (Menotti: a biography. New York: Macmillan 1978), Menotti complained that Stravinsky had made fun of the libretto, which was an English translation and not the Italian original.

 “How would Stravinsky feel,” asked Menotti, “if I should quote Auden’s libretto of The Rake’s Progress in its Italian translation . . . ?” (Gruen, p. 145).

Perhaps as a corrective, Menotti himself wrote the English paraphrase of The Last Savage. It bears noting that the paraphrase is more politically explicit and mean-spirited than George Mead’s English version of the libretto. While the paraphrase is useful as yet another source of evidence of Menotti’s habits of mind, I contend the opera’s fascistic themes come through in the Mead libretto.

6. Jolly, Cynthia. “Spoleto.” Opera (England) vol. 9 (January 1958) p. 48:

“. . . with justifiable pride he is writing The Last Superman for the 1959 season of the Paris Opéra  – the last opera commissioned from an Italian was [Verdi’s] Don Carlos.”

7. Menotti, Gian Carlo. The Last Savage: an opera in three acts by Gian Carlo Menotti [libretto]. English version by George Mead. New York: Franco Colombo 1964, p. 7.

8. Ibid.

9. Menotti [paraphrase], p. 21.

10. For an overview of Nazi degeneracy theory, its origins and application to music, see Richard Taruskin’s “Degeneracy” in The Oxford History of Western Music, Vol. 4, pp. 753-56.

11.   Menotti [libretto], p. 37.

12. Menotti [paraphrase], p. 36.

13. Menotti [libretto], p. 43.

14. Quoted as “Poem to Charles Wilson” in Stebelton H. Nulle’s “D. H. Lawrence and the Fascist Movement.” The New Mexico Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 1 (February 1940), p. 10. While Lawrence had been widely and sternly criticized in the 1930s as a larval fascist, Nulle’s article is perhaps unique (as the Quarterly‘s editors point out) in identifying the fascistic content in his writings – both public and private – with emphatic sympathy.

15. Watkins, Raymond J. The Modern Savage: Figures of the Fascist ‘Primitive’ in Interwar Europe. U. of Iowa (PhD Dissertation) 2006.

16. Ibid., p. iv.

17. Menotti [libretto], p, 48.

18. Watkins, p. 90. Watkins illustrates this change of view within the work of literary critic William York Tindall, whose “opinion of Lawrence dramatically changed course within eight years, bookmarked by the shrill tone of D. H. Lawrence and Susan His Cow (1939) – criticizing Lawrence’s primitivism and reactionary politics – and Tindall’s ­Forces in Modern British Literature: 1885-1946 (1947), in which Lawrence is now lauded as a prophet and genius” (note 2, p. 90).

19. Ibid., p. 10.

20. Ibid., p. 12.

21. Lest anyone suppose that Lawrence’s fascistic tendencies were unknown in New Mexico, the celebrated writer of the Southwest, Frank Waters, opposed the cleansing currents and called Lawrence’s novel set in Mexico “a ghastly prophecy. . . The Plumed Serpent has no parallel. Indeed, on close reading, it might well seem more Hitler’s original blueprint than Mein Kampf” (quoted in Witter Bynner, Journey with Genius. New York: John Day Company 1951, p. 209).

22. Frank, Letitia Evans. “Remembering Mabel Dodge Luhan,” in John Pen La Farge, Turn Left at the Sleeping Dog: scripting the Santa Fe legend, 1920-1955. Albuquerque: UNM Press 2001, pp. 214-15. Italics original.

23. Huscher, Phillip. The Santa Fe Opera: an American pioneer. Santa Fe: The Santa Fe Opera 2006, p. 30.

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2 comments

  1. Seems kind of a stretch to me. Maybe Menotti just wanted to tell a story rooted in the popular drawing room fantasy of the natural state of man.

    • Thanks for reading my post. My response is that yes, his story does take part in the largely European fascination you point to, but why set his story in India? My sense is that thoughts of “natural man” were stimulated by European explorations of the New World, Africa and Polynesia. I think India was known more for the great antiquity of its civilizations, hence a less likely place to find humans in a “natural” state. Some commentary on Menotti’s opera mentions the abominable snowman legend, which was certainly in vogue in the early 1960’s, but Kitty confined her search to the jungles. And the libretto clearly says the object of her quest was not just man in a natural state, but “prehistoric” man. Unlike other drawing room fantasists, the racial theorists posit the Aryans as a prehistoric people of India specifically.

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