Fascism, the Musical: Ecology of the Santa Fe Opera, Part 6

[Editor’s note: for the reader wishing to link to earlier installments in this series, Part 1 examines the fascist themes in Menotti’s opera The Last Savage, the Santa Fe Opera’s 2011 season hit, in light of recent critical approaches to fascistic artists such Taos transplant D. H. Lawrence. Part 2 delves into Menotti’s biography and shows parallels to his mentor, Arturo Toscanini; then it describes the cultural Cold War as the context for Menotti’s Spoleto arts festivals. In Part 3 we begin to examine Santa Fe’s illustrious fascist connections, beginning with N.M. Senator Bronson Cutting’s sponsorship of Ezra Pound as a columnist in his newspaper, the New Mexican, then in Part 4 we appraise poet Witter Bynner’s central role in the cultural life of Santa Fe, and his changing opinion of “genius” D. H. Lawrence. And we learn in Part 5 that the Opera was founded with money linked to the Batista dictatorship in Cuba and, by way of John Foster Dulles, to Nazi Germany. Now, on to Part 6….]

The Santa Fe Opera complex today in Tesuque, New Mexico. Photo by Eric Shultz

The godfather


“Do you want me to ask Stravinsky?” inquired Mirandi in her dauntless way.

–Paul Horgan[1]

Mortified to find his work included in the 1938 Düsseldorf exhibition of Entartete Musik or degenerate music, Igor Stravinsky took action. He lodged a complaint with the Third Reich’s Bureau of Foreign Affairs: “My adversaries even go so far as to make fallacious insinuations… implying that I am a Jew, [ignoring] that my ancestors were members of the Polish nobility.”[2] As early as 1933, Stravinsky had on file with his German publisher an affidavit affirming his racial purity, together with the following statement: “I loathe all communism, Marxism, the execrable Soviet monster, and also all liberalism, democratism, atheism, etc.”[3]

Around that same time, Stravinsky wrote to his publisher: “I am surprised to have received no proposals from Germany for next season, since my negative attitude toward communism and Judaism – not to put it in stronger terms – is a matter of common knowledge.”[4] To resolve the 1938 Düsseldorf kerfuffle, Stravinsky’s publisher:

had placed an item in the papers quoting Richard Strauss on Stravinsky’s enthusiasm for Hitler’s ideas, [and] Stravinsky received a declaration from the German government affirming its “benevolent neutrality” toward him.[5]

His affirmations of fascist sympathy abound, including the statement that famously begins, “I don’t believe anyone venerates Mussolini more than I.”[6] So deep were his convictions, notes music historian and leading Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin,

Had it not been for the providential invitation from Harvard to occupy the Norton chair of poetry for the academic year 1939-40 (which made an American of him in the nick of time), Stravinsky might very well have ended, like his pianist son Soulima (who spent the war years in Paris), under a collaborationist cloud.[7]

We catch up with Stravinsky as guest conductor at the 1949 Aspen music festival. There, Stravinsky and his wife Vera met the Santa Fe pianist couple Vitya Vronsky and Victor Babin. Conversation turned to an English novelist by the name of David H. Lawrence, and “it turned out that Stravinsky was a great Lawrencian fan” – go figure – “and he had every book written by him and about him.”[8] Finding themselves so close to Taos, the Babins encouraged the Stravinskys to visit Lawrence’s widow Frieda and Mabel Dodge Luhan. Victor would make a phone call. On the other end was Mirandi Masocco, who set things up and played tour guide for the Stravinskys.[9] They became friends for life.

Jumping ahead to the winter of 1956-57, “the young conductor John O. Crosby was dining with his friend Mirandi Masocco in her house at Santa Fe” and discussing the launch of his opera company that coming summer. Crosby wanted to make a strong opening statement by including in his first season what he considered the greatest modern opera, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. It was at this point that Mirandi blurted out what I quoted for an epigraph: “Do you want me to ask Stravinsky?”[10] At Mirandi’s urging, Stravinsky not only approved Crosby producing Rake, but agreed to come to Santa Fe to advise on the production. Thus it began. Stravinsky returned for the third season and every year through the seventh, an involved and watchful godfather to the young opera company.[11] Before continuing our story, a brief look back is in order.

One of the great sopranos of the 20th century, Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, was a Nazi (her NSDAP member number was 7 548 960). After the war she was quickly denazified to resume a brilliant career, and in 1992 she was “created” Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.[12] But in Venice in 1951, Schwartzkopf created Anne Trulove in the première of The Rake’s Progress, Igor Stravinsky conducting. In a Schwartzkopf biography there is a photograph showing dinner plates in the foreground and a bottle uncorked without the foil being cut; the wine in a glass is red. On the wall close behind, headshots of women cover a corkboard. Elisabeth stoops, her arm pulled down by Stravinsky, seated, wearing a white dinner jacket, his thinning hair swept back in strands. With a two-handed grip on her limb, he appears to slurp the flesh from the back of her hand. The denazified diva grins broadly, showing the gap in her upper incisors. In front of the corkboard, also in a white dinner jacket and bow tie, his right arm cocked with his fist on his hip, looking down at the maestro with a slightly open-mouthed smirk, stands Nicolas Nabokov, the CIA’s cultural Cold War commandant: “All administrative arrangements for the Venice première were negotiated and effected by Stravinsky’s old friend, the Russian-American composer Nicolas Nabokov….”[13] Part 5 of this series saw John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State adopt “dogmatic” anti-Communism as “the easiest way to rehabilitate [Nazi] Germany, as a bulwark against the enemy in Eastern Europe.”[14] The 1951 Venice photograph gives graphic expression to postwar America’s convergence with warmed-over Nazis and reactionary Slavs. A year later, Nabokov would make Stravinsky his point man at the CIA’s Paris arts festival as discussed in Part 2. Now back to our story.

After its 1961 summer season, the Santa Fe Opera did something unprecedented and never repeated. It toured. And the tour had two stops. The first was West Berlin just weeks after the East has closed the border and was beginning to build the wall. Over a thousand artists from around the world took part in the 10th Annual Berliner Festwoken, an in-your-face cultural Cold War taunt to the East. The denazified maestro Herbert von Karajan, who had been a party member since 1933,[15] conducted Verdi’s Requiem. Wieland Wagner, the grandson of Richard Wagner and a devoted Nazi himself back in the day, staged an Aida with conductor Karl Böhm, also named on the Reich’s list of approved artists.[16] Stravinsky joined the Santa Fe Opera to conduct his Oedipus Rex, but to be among so many old Nazis must have cheered him. The Santa Fe Opera performances took place on a set built to replicate the look of the open-air theater back home, complete with a painted backdrop of the Jemez mountains. The company’s second stop was Belgrade, where Cold War “architect” George Kennan was U.S. Ambassador. No other Eastern Bloc country would grant them visas, so Yugoslavia’s acceptance could be said to represent La Clemenza di Tito, while the Opera performed Oedipus Rex and Persephone, with Moore’s Ballad of Baby Doe thrown in for a dose of Americana.[17]

A culmination of the cultural militancy the Dulles brothers had championed a decade earlier, the Berlin Festival of 1961 consecrated the pride of place in the arts given to Nazis and their admirers by the West. And it would be naïve to suggest that Stravinsky was there to support the Santa Fe Opera. He was widely deemed the world’s greatest living composer, so the unknown upstart opera company was clearly there to support him, the man whose known pro-fascist and anti-Semitic tendencies showed no signs of abating.

Most notable among Stravinsky’s late works was his 1952 Cantata, notable for two reasons: because in it he employed a serialist style of composition he had built a career rejecting; and because among the ancient verses he set to music are the following from a Jesus story:

The Jews on me they made great suit,

And with me made great variance;

Because they loved darkness rather than light.

So Stravinsky scholar Taruskin asks:

Is it necessary to point out that this is a deplorable text, even if a venerable one, rehearsing as it does the old guilt-libel against the Jews as children of darkness and as deicides, a libel that has caused rivers of Jewish blood to be spilled? And does it surprise you that it should strike someone like me, your academic colleague, as incomprehensible that a great composer, whose prestige must inevitably lend it respectability, would choose such a text to set, seven years after Hitler?[18]

On August 19, 1962, nationally acclaimed writer and Bynner circle insider Paul Horgan (see my Part 4 on Bynner and his role in Santa Fe’s cultural life) accompanied Stravinsky to the Santa Fe cathedral where he was to conduct his Cantata as a Santa Fe Opera free public concert. Defenders of Stravinsky and the Santa Fe Opera could point out that their first free public concert the previous year had been dedicated to the memory of friend-of-the-Opera Dr. Eric Hausner,[19] a Jew, as if that would cancel out the outrage of the Cantata. Horgan’s impression on that August night?

The spare instrumentation wove amidst the voices a texture thin as air and as life giving. As in so many of his vocal works, Stravinsky here wedded his profound literary understanding with his music, without performing a mere “setting” of text.[20]

Horgan followed the evening’s events to the courtyard behind the cathedral, where Archbishop Byrne waited after the performance.

As they met, Byrne opened out his arms and received Stravinsky, and with both hands then slowly drew Stravinsky’s head to his breast in a silent embrace…. Once again two different but related powers exchanged their mana. The tableau held for a long instant.

Did Horgan entirely miss what had struck Taruskin as so appallingly obvious? “Is it necessary to point out…?

Horgan gives us a clue to his take on Stravinsky’s anti-Semitism when recalling his first conversation with the maestro at a dinner in La Cienega. He prefaces the story with an observation: Stravinsky loved a scandal, meaning “a matter… of mischievous outrage, often having to do with the inappropriate or the obtuse,” my emphasis. At dinner Horgan picked the topic of conversation, Moussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, opining that he preferred the rough original to the version finished by Rimsky-Korsakov. Let’s consider some relevant background: as a youth, Stravinsky was Rimsky-Korsakov’s private pupil, but one of Rimsky’s conservatory students – a boy from the Pale of Settlement named Maximilian Steinberg – commanded Rimsky’s attention and affection and eventually married his daughter. Taruskin finds evidence that Stravinky’s hard feelings never softened toward “this upstart Vilna Jew who had displaced him in Rimsky-Korsakov’s esteem and in his ménage.”[21] And I would conjecture that Stravinsky specifically resented Rimsky for allowing his attention to be alienated in a Jew-loving direction. Now back to Horgan. Upon stating his semi-erudite opinion, Stravinsky rejoined that Rimsky-Korsakov had “Meyerbeerized” the opera.[22]

Here is opportunity for evasion, a degree of deniability: Meyerbeer did have a style – one could even say a business model – for musical theater, and the comment could be defended as a purely esthetic judgment. At the same time, it would be disingenuous to ignore that Meyerbeer was the categorical Jewish composer pilloried by Wagner in his anti-Semitic manifesto Jewry in Music, a text Hitler and followers took as holy writ. In other words, Stravinsky was also saying that Rimsky-Korsakov took a good Russian opera and Jewed it up. Having just alerted us to Stravinsky’s conversational kink for the inappropriate and the obtuse, Horgan invites such an interpretation.

In continuation, Horgan observed a kind of gestural remark Stravinsky added to his comment:

After making persuasive assertions, he had a habit of smiling broadly with closed lips, giving a hint of a nod, and leaning forward a trifle.[23]

This pantomime reminds me of the scene in Munchhausen – the 1943 Goebbels project – where the Baron describes “the Copernican man” – his Übermensch – then dismisses the rest of humanity as “just mammals walking around on two legs.” At that point he lifts his cup and says prost. His listeners reflexively drink, metaphorically drinking in the dehumanizing poison he has just spoken. When Stravinsky has said something fascistic – scandalous is Horgan’s euphemism, or persuasive – his “leaning forward a trifle” suggests a conductor’s bow, so those in attendance reflexively – even if only mentally – applaud.[24] Horgan, I venture to suggest, knew exactly what Stravinsky was about and like the archbishop, he responded with a warm embrace.

It is a powerful stereotype, if asked what fascism looks like, to think of Hitler giving a speech. In reality fascism often doesn’t look like that at all. In Santa Fe and at the Opera, if Stravinsky did anything to propagate his fascist convictions, it was by subtle insinuations silently absorbed and admiring approval buffered by tepid denial.

In 1998, the large terrace to the north of the Opera theater… was named for Stravinsky. A small sculpture of his head, set at the far north end and lit by simple spotlights throughout performances, watches over the continuing work of the company he helped to put on the map.[25]

As this passage suggests, Stravinsky has been absorbed and incorporated into the very architecture of the Santa Fe Opera. To the extent that his fascism and anti-Semitism are not commented on or even acknowledged, they remain part of the architecture, too: hidden perhaps by a scrim or facade, but permanently there.

To close this section, I note that if any composer has had an influence comparable to Stravinsky’s in defining the culture of the Santa Fe Opera, it is Richard Strauss. Santa Fe has undertaken the production of Strauss’s entire operatic oeuvre, including works other companies consider too obscure or inconsequential. “In fact, the company has produced more operas by Strauss than by any other composer. It has staged Salome as often as Madame Butterfly or La bohème, and it has produced Der Rosenkavalier five times….”[26] Perhaps the Santa Fe Opera’s devotion to Strauss is in gratitude for his having helped Stravinsky back in ’38. After all, who but Strauss had enough sway with the Nazis to get Stravinsky off their black list?

[1]  Horgan, Paul. Encounters with Stravinsky: a personal record. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux 1972, p. 82.

[2]  Taruskin, Richard in Richard Taruskin, reply by Robert Craft. “‘Jews and Geniuses’: An Exchange.” The New York Review of Books. June 15, 1989.

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  Taruskin, Richard. “The Dark Side of the Moon” in The Danger of Music. Berkeley: University of California Press 2009, p. 208.

[5]  Taruskin, Richard. The Oxford History of Western Music, Vol. 4, p. 755. Taruskin notes: “The 74-year-old Richard Strauss was not only Germany’s musical elder statesman, but also for a time the figurehead president of the official Nazi musical supervisory organization, the Reichsmusikkammer.”

[6]  Quoted in Richard Taruskin, “Stravinsky the Subhuman,” in Defining Russia Musically. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1997, p. 451: “I don’t believe anyone venerates Mussolini more than I. To me, he is the one man who counts nowadays in the whole world. I have traveled a great deal: I know many exalted personages, and my artist’s mind does not shrink from political and social issues. Well, after having seen so many events and so many more or less representative men, I have an overpowering urge to render homage to your Duce. He is the savior of Italy and – let us hope – of Europe.”

[7]  Ibid., p.209.

[8]  Masocco Levy, Mirandi in John Pen La Farge. Turn Left at the Sleeping Dog: scripting the Santa Fe legend, 1920-1955. Albuquerque: UNM Press 2001, p. 332.

[9]  Ibid.

[10]  Horgan, pp. 81-82.

[11]  Huscher, Phillip. The Santa Fe Opera: an American pioneer. Santa Fe: The Santa Fe Opera 2006, p. 60.

[12]  Jefferson, Alan. Elisabeth Schwartzkopf. Boston: Northeastern University Press 1995, p. 198.

[13]  Ibid., p. 120.

[14]  Lisagor, Nancy and Frank Lipsius. A Law unto Itself: the untold story of the law firm Sullivan and Cromwell. New York: Paragon House 1989, p. 208.

[15]  Saunders, Frances Stonor. The Cultural Cold War: the CIA and the world of arts and letters. New York: The New Press 1999, p. 15.

[16]  The list is included as Appendix C in Alan Jefferson’s Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, pp. 259-60.

[17]  Scott, Eleanor. The First Twenty Years of the Santa Fe Opera. The Opera Association of New Mexico 1976, p. 39.

[18]  Taruskin, Richard. “Stravinsky and Us” in The Danger of Music, p. 437.

[19] Horgan, p. 149.

[20]  Ibid., pp. 217-18.

[21]  Taruskin and Craft.

[22]  Horgan, p. 90

[23]  Ibid., p. 90.

[24]  Ibid., p. 90. Later (p. 255), Horgan observed: “The Maestro, at our laughter, gave his effect of taking a bow.”

[25]  Huscher, p. 66.

[26]  Ibid., p. 106.

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