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The phrase "on behalf of a madman" is a quote from Caterino Tommaso Mazzolà’s libretto for Mozart’s opera La clemenza di Tito. Based on a story by Metastasio, Tito is a study in the idealized wisdom of the Emperor Tito, told as an allegory of the newly crowned Leopold II, for whose coronation the work was commissioned. While Mozart’s opera transposes the late eighteenth century Holy Roman Emperor to ancient Rome, framing him in a heroic light, the questions explored in contemporary political dramas are rarely so flattering. A fascination with the character of our rulers, sometimes eclipsing even their actions in office, is present in both eighteenth century western Europe and contemporary America.

While the eponymous ruler of La clemenza di Tito carefully explains his thoughts to the audience, the motivation and rationale for the president’s behavior in On Behalf of a Madman remains a mystery. Despite seemingly limitless access to the debates, speeches, interviews, or even personal tweets of our leaders, we can de facto never be sure what is really driving them. Obsessed with personality over policy, we try to fill in the blanks from an assortment of staged encounters and (potentially) carefully crafted soundbites, leaving plenty of room for confirmation bias to build on our emotional prejudices. When the character is an extreme one like our president (in this opera!), this can lead to an acute polarization between supporters and critics. Virtues familiar to Mozart like restraint or mercy can be read as passivity or cowardice; likewise a leader’s random viciousness may be interpreted as incisive moves in an elaborate strategic game.

Real world political stories are played out in headlines and newsreels of pivotal moments. But when most people think about the day-to-day behind-the-scenes business of government, they are left having to build a synthesis out of fictional sources: popular tv shows, comedies, and movies like West Wing, Veep, The Daily Show, and All the President’s Men. We built On Behalf of a Madman in homage to all of the above, around operatic material from the periods in which Grand Harmonie’s players specialize. Charles took a lot of inspiration from the classic British comedy Yes, Minister, where each episode loosely follows the same format: problem, confusion, twist. Indeed, if you think it through often the plots don’t really make much sense at all. But it doesn’t matter. You know the characters and their relationships: wise-ass civil servants and long-suffering ministers; and through their interactions, often sparsely written and seasoned with well timed physical humor, it creates the comedy which underpins the deeper satire at work.

The creation of On Behalf of a Madman began with Julia combing through the most prominent western operas from the 18th and 19th centuries, looking for anything in the texts that related to the themes we were exploring. She grouped the arias by their voice parts, defining a new set of composite characters, each of whom could be played by one singer; archetypes consistent across different operas by different composers. We fantasized about how these characters would interact, and Charles crafted a story line out of these dynamics. Julia and Charles continued their collaboration on Madmen, generously supported by a fellowship from the Bogliasco Foundation in Genoa where Charles wrote the dialogue around the key musical numbers. Julia then embellished with more musical excerpts, some complete, some in fragments, co-opting arias as underscore, re-voicing some for different vocal ensembles, and intertwining fragments from different operas. Yoni worked to rescore the music, adding musical collages that fit together with creative arrangements. We have tried to play with the expectations attached to the different pacing of stage, television and opera, moving between the three different genres, as between different time periods and styles of musical material. We wanted to find ways of playing off the formal qualities of all our material, for example, the comic timing of da Ponte opera vs contemporary political sitcom, or between the pathos of 1980s film drama vs bel canto opera. These conversations, each subordinated to the same end, point to the universality of the critique of power and of those who hold it.

Since the genesis of this project, politics in the real world have evolved quickly and sometimes we’ve asked ourselves if it’s still ok to laugh. In drawing our pastiche together across centuries, during which far greater minds have wrestled with such similar questions, our conclusion is a resounding yes. We hope you agree.

By Charles Ogilvie and Julia Mintzer