Qualities of leadership

Iain Scott looks back on opera’s long-time fascination with power and power-brokers.


“Only one man in a thousand is a leader of men,” Groucho Marx wryly observed. “The other 999 are followers of women.” But while leaders may be a rarity in many walks of life, they are abundant in opera.

For 400 years, the operatic literature has repeatedly explored the moral dilemmas of leaders and the multi-facetted aspects of their leadership. Since the time of Greek drama, art and literature have a tradition of attempting to instruct and warn the elite of society. This tradition was reinforced with the invention of opera, reflecting the fascination of its creators with the recently rediscovered myths and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. From its invention in 1600 until the emergence of sordid plebeian values in the verismo movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a core purpose of opera was to reinforce the importance of “duty and responsibility” for those in positions of power and influence. A secondary intent was to warn those same people of the dangers inherent in “self-indulgence.”

Perhaps early opera composers and librettists had a defensive motive: to subtly remind the noblesse of their obligations. In the 18th century, opera plots were often designed to show the potential dangers whenever a ruler exercised absolute authority or a predominant class enjoyed unrestrained influence. Opera seria plots frequently prompted courtly audiences–discreetly–to show judicial mercy or accept the necessity of caring for their inferiors. These concerns can be traced well into the 19th century. Even as opera gradually degenerated to become, for some, merely an entertainment, concerned with spectacular visual and vocal display, opera plots usually continued to have an implicit moral or social purpose.

Opera has always been associated with the plutocratic and governing classes (to the discomfort of modern-day marketers), at least to some degree because its inherent display of extravagance and exorbitant expense is closely aligned with their values. The sustained support of the elite is also explained because the topic of leadership itself is of genuine interest to them. They are readily able to identify with the call to duty and responsibility, and the lures of self-indulgence. Although Shakespeare suggested that the head that wears the crown lies uneasily, leaders have always been fascinated by the lessons and dynamics of the way others have handled the complexities of leadership.

Most opera librettists have followed the traditional “great man theory” of history, which holds that the destiny of nations can be shaped by a single individual. This was especially true in operas from the Baroque period (an age of enlightened despots), which often featured great leaders of earlier history. We can see examples in Baroque composers’ fascination with the boundless ambition of Alexander the Great, the personal courage of Julius Caesar or even in the exploration of exotic non-Europeans leaders such as Tamburlaine.

By the 19th century, attitudes to leadership had become more complex. Europe had been shaken by lengthy revolutionary wars and the heroic, or perhaps demonic, career of Napoleon. Unusual aspects of leadership became the norm. Albert Lortzing became fascinated by the insatiable curiosity and unconventional audacity of Peter the Great of Russia in his Tsar und Zimmerman. Later, in Les Troyens, Hector Berlioz found inspiration in the ambivalent career of Aeneas, the most important literary heroic leader stemming from Roman culture. By the end of the century, it was even possible to portray leaders as seeming political failures, such as Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor or Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa.

As the century progressed, there was an evolution towards the concept of an anti-hero. This was reinforced by celebrations of anti-establishment leaders and failed revolutionaries. Gaetano Donizetti focused on the Venetian Doge Marino Faliero’s failed attempt to rule in an alliance with the city’s plebeians. The young Richard Wagner found inspiration in the rule of Cola di Rienzi in medieval Rome, calling him “the Last of the Tribunes.” Giuseppe Verdi was equally taken by the disastrous careers of Spanish rebels Manrico (in Il trovatore) and Ernani.

These examples are part of a long tradition. Ever since Aristotle taught Alexander about the concept of hamartia in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the supposed tragic flaw in a leader has been a central issue in Western literature. We see it especially in operatic treatments of Shakespeare, in Otello’s jealousy, Macbeth’s ambition and Hamlet’s inability to make a decision.

From the 20th century, the finest study of leadership may well turn out to be an opera by composer John Adams, who was inspired by the century’s most tunning personal political leadership initiative: Richard Nixon’s visit to communist China in February 1972.

Leadership is different from management. The latter is the preserve of the diligent, necessarily concerned with such matters as efficiency and effectiveness. Managers talk of implementation and execution. Leaders have a totally different outlook and vocabulary. They speak in terms of vision, mission and values. The highest form of leadership is the ability to inspire other people with a sense of purpose.

Without turning this into a comprehensive list or (heaven forbid) prompting trivia questions to the Saturday Afternoon at the Opera quiz, there are many variants of leadership in opera. Some even come from “the other side,” the land of the fairies, such as Rusalka’s father or King Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There are many examples of senior religious leaders or High Priests, such as

John of Leyden in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète, Ramfis in Aïda, Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte, the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo or the High Priest of Dagon in Samson et Dalila. Some leadership roles can be comparatively lowly, even encompassing village elders such as Zurga in a fishing village in Ceylon (in Georges Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles), Lady Billows in Loxford, East Anglia (in Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring) or the Kostelnicka of a small Moravian village (in Leos Janácek’s Jenufa). Though it’s rare, leaders in opera can be elected officials, such as the baker Fritz Kothner, who heads Nuremburg’s guild of Meistersingers.

As these examples suggest, the vast majority of operatic leaders are male, but there are several prominent examples where a female is in charge. These include the legendary Queen of Sheba or Queen Semiramide of Babylon, the matriarchy of the Druid priestess, Norma, the power politics of the reign of Elizabeth I of England and even the dilemmas of both the old and new prioresses in Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites.

When portraying leaders, hardly any librettists have focused on their achievements. They are more likely to stress the loneliness of leadership, especially when seen through the eyes of ship’s captains such as Vasco da Gama in Giacomo Meyer-beer’s L’Africaine or Captain, the Honourable Edward Fairfax Vere in Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd.

Most librettists, however, focus on the relationship between the public faces of leaders and their private lives. Although some situations call for a display of the public, ceremonial dimensions of a leader’s life–such as a coronation, an auto-da-fè, a procession or a Council Chamber scene–most operas penetrate behind the mask to explore a leader’s domestic life, with family or with private loves. Among many examples are the soliloquies of King Philip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo, the pride and joy shown by Boris Godunov in his children, the ecstatic rediscovery of Simon Boccanegra’s long-lost daughter, and the anguish of the old Doge Foscari when forced to exile his own son. The heartache of King Marke when he is confronted with Tristan’s betrayal can be contrasted with the elation of Prince Gremin in his discovery that genuine love can still be found in old age.

If we switch from the varieties of leaders in opera to concepts of leadership, we can find many dimensions of the leadership agenda. Among these are the thorny problems of succession planning (for example, King Philip’s displeasure with his son’s capabilities in Don Carlo, Henry VIII’s desperate search for an heir in the many Tudor operas, or Tsar Boris Godunov’s plea to his boyars to anoint his son, Feodor, as the next Tsar). Although the imperative of ensuring a good dynastic marriage may be parodied in the various versions of the Cinderella myth, Verdi shows that the imperative of making good staff appointments is at the core of stories such as that of the mercenary Venetian admiral, Otello, or the Swedish king, Gustavus III, in Un ballo in maschera.

Throughout history, a central role of a leader has often been that of a judge. This brings many examples to mind, from the ability of some rulers to order capital punishments to their equal capacity to act with mercy and compassion. Two Mozart characters may serve as examples of the latter, Pasha Selim in Die Entführung aus dem Serail and the Emperor Titus in La clemenza di Tito.

Wagner provides us with the most extensive and profound case study of leadership in the first three segments of Der Ring des Nibelungen, in the depiction of the career of Wotan, the king of the Gods. He begins as a virile CEO, full of hopes, dreams and plans for the future. He soon encounters a crisis of values when he is unable to follow through on his promises to the builders of his dream castle. As these giants point out to him, the legitimacy of any ruler depends on his submission to the rules or laws. In Wotan’s case, these are runes constitutionally engraved on his divine spear. When he grudgingly accepts that his goals must not be achieved by force, Wotan becomes ever more trapped, more aware of his impotence than his power. He tries to achieve his goals through the agency of the next generation, but is forced to abandon hope. He becomes an increasingly passive observer, a far cry from the dynamic leader of the cycle’s prologue.

Perhaps the best final example of the importance of leadership in opera might well be the complex process of building an operatic performance on a stage. It needs all the elements of leadership, beginning with a clear sense of vision, a detailed plan of action and an uncanny ability to work with and through people. All opera-lovers in Canada will no doubt wish to acknowledge with gratitude the leadership role of general and artistic directors of companies across this country. Their leadership is essential to our continuing to enjoy all these operatic visions of leadership on the stage.

When not writing, lecturing or speaking about opera, Iain Scott devotes his working life to corporate leadership-development programs.