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SJWs At The Opera

A musicology grad student writes:

This is something you might want to discuss in your on-going coverage of SJW insanity in academia. Check out this article and the discussion in the comments: http://musicologynow.ams-net.org/. This has become a big deal within the discipline really quickly, even causing the president of the American Musicological Society to send out an email today about it to try to quell the controversy. To say the least, I think the critics are crazy in finding offense over the most trivial of matters. But this is unfortunately the reality of the humanities these days. How depressing to think that I’ll have to deal with absurdities such as this for many years to come.

The linked article is a short piece by Pierpaolo Polzonetti, an award-winning music instructor, who starts it like this:

When Bard College asked me to teach a three-hour class on Haydn’s Creation at Eastern Correctional Facility, I did not know what to expect. I accepted out of curiosity. Eastern Correctional Facility is a massive neo-gothic maximum-security prison built in 1900 in rural New York. Crossing into the prison’s mighty walls and passing through the security checkpoint can be intimidating. Encountering the incarcerated students has an even more powerful effect, but in a positive way. To me these men seemed to have dissolved the prison walls, thanks to their intellectual curiosity and their eagerness to learn. They opened their minds and ears to music that sounded exotic to many of them. Eighteenth-Century oratorios and operas can appear meaningless or dull to listeners mostly accustomed to the blatant lyrics and pounding beat of rap music. Classical music and opera, like rap, are acquired tastes and their value is both intrinsic and contextual. Fortunately they had already carefully read the texts I had assigned, including passages from Milton, Ovid, and the book of Genesis. This allowed us to engage with Haydn’s Creation on the basis of a shared intellectual background that made the oratorio somehow familiar and approachable.

The experience was so enlightening that I decided to teach an entire opera history class for inmates entitled “Opera and Ideas.” I taught it at the Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana during the Fall semester of 2014.

Thus far, most of the debate on education in prison has focused primarily on the issue of whether it is ethical to make educational opportunities available to criminals.


Polzonetti goes on to make a case that yes, we should do things like teach opera to prisoners. It’s simply not true, he argues, that these rough, violent men can’t appreciate the most complex music. He concludes by saying that in his experiences with inmates, opera taught them how to understand the misdirected human passions that determined their fate, and even gave them a sense of peace:

Mozart’s Don Giovanni gave these students a chance to better understand real-life emotions that, when repressed or out of control, can be destructive: fear and fearlessness, guilt and remorselessness, sexual passion leading to compulsion, sexual abuse, even to rape and murder. It became obvious to all of us, all the more so in prison, that our world is full of Don Giovannis. There is no other place than prison where, even when played through small portable speakers, his hymn “Viva la libertà!” resounds with more power than in an opera theater, amplified by emotions that can break the heart, but heal the mind.

Read the whole thing. Ponzonetti didn’t have to go to a prison to teach criminals about opera, but he did, and both he and his students learned something about music and human nature.

Well, the poor SOB had no idea what was coming next. From the comments section:

I’m disturbed the tone of this piece, as well as some of the specifics. We can begin with the assumption that all incarcerated males listen to rap. Do none of them listen to pop, rock, country, jazz, or other genres? Is the author making assumptions about his student population? And are those assumptions based on race?

Next the author dismisses rap as having “blatant lyrics” and a “pounding beat.” Does “blatant” mean sexual? violent? speaking a truth? Does opera not exhibit these same characteristics at times? Are there no examples of so-called classical music with a pounding beat?

Next, why does the author feel he has to point out the race of the student who shouts “never” three times, with a frightening crescendo no less, thus associating the race of this student with frightening.

The assumption that opera can “heal the mind” reduced inmates of the correctional system in a way that suggests that the author never bothered to understand the complexity of their stories and life experiences.

While there are so many other points I found racist and elitist and entitled, I’ll point out this last one–why, in the 21st century–do certain musicologists believe that an understanding of formal elements of musics trumps a visceral emotional response, that you cannot truly understand the music and your response until you know what a descending rapid staccato scale or loud ascending octave leap is? I thought we were so over that.

That the AMS [American Musicological Society] continues to support this kind of rhetoric is shameful.


Here’s another:

Prof. Polzonetti may not be aware of the deep institutionalized racism that underpins the US prison-industrial complex, which his essay perhaps unwittingly reinscribes through its metaphorical language and “salvation through high/European art” narrative. As a native of Italy, like Prof. Polzonetti, I am well aware of how substantially less sensitive many Italians are to institutional racism — not because we don’t have racism in Italy, but because we’ve long been able to ignore or deny it with the excuse of maintaining an imperative of high-cultural homogeneity. While I find Prof. Polzonetti’s apparent unawareness of the classist and racist undertones of his narrative troubling, I can understand it because he may not realize how problematic it is within contemporary American social politics (though I hope he considers such implications as he works to finalize the expanded version, since I believe readers of the important Italian online journal that is due to publish it deserve better). I am, however, extremely puzzled that the editors of Musicology Now did not perceive publishing this essay as a potential setback to the very public musicology they have been working to cultivate, with what I consider some success. Any individual — scholar or otherwise — who reads this paean to elite art soothing the savage beast might well think of musicologists as self-congratulatory champions of art-for-the-sake-of-art helping violent brutes finally understand what it means to have well-controlled emotions. I’m saddened that our professional society would choose that public face.

Oh no. Oh no.

Oh yes. Another one:

I am outraged by this article — disgusted even! No, not by the supposed casual racism of the prose — frankly, the outrage is a little over-the-top, IMHO. But this line here just boils my blood: “But musical forms do convey feelings with immediacy only when understood, structurally, historically, and contextually.” As an ethnomusicologist, I think this is an outrageous claim! Really? Have we learned nothing from the Meyer-Keil debate on participatory discrepancies, pleasure, and form? Who among us really believes that opera can only be immediate and feelingful through sustained study? As an opera-fan, this assertion is deeply offensive.

Read the whole thing. The happy news is that there are an equal number of sane voices speaking up, but good grief! A music professor goes to a prison to teach opera, his students find that they like it, everybody’s happy, everybody learns something — but the Social Justice Warriors can’t stand it!

SJWs ruin everything. They kill everything they touch. Why would anyone want to work in a field where these nuts run rampant?

UPDATE: Having just approved comments to this post, I don’t think many of you who have commented realize that the AMS website is not a general interest website, but is a news and information source for musicologists. The people who read it and comment there are professional music teachers and advanced students. It’s not like peering into the comments section at The New York Times.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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