David Ignatius on Machiavelli, Trump and a world premiere
Librettist David Ignatius discusses truth, timelessness and The New Prince.
‘One must be a fox in order to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten off wolves.’ – Niccolò Machiavelli
On March 24th The New Prince premieres at the Opera Forward Festival. The opera could not be more topical. It stages Machiavelli’s life and his mysterious resurrection in contemporary New York. The New Prince breaches the boundaries of time and space simultaneously: ‘Machiavelli is one of the philosophers who endures because his comments and cynicism remain relevant throughout history.’
DAVID IGNATIUS, renowned novelist and political journalist with the Washington Post, in a twist of fate, suddenly found himself doing ‘the most exhilarating creative work’ of his career. During our interview he says that he received an unexpected message from the young New York-based composer Mohammed Fairouz in the summer of 2014. This started off an adventurous collaboration – with Ignatius taking a deep dive into the three-dimensional world of opera.
‘Opera allows you – indeed, it almost requires you – to engage with the largest themes in life. What is the nature of politics? What is truth about? What do we seek as political actors, or as people, like Machiavelli?’ Compared to ‘the great canvas’ that opera is, journalism and writing novels can be constraining, depending on time, space and reader expectations. ‘Opera’, on the other hand, ‘is still a place where people come to engage those biggest questions. And leave happy because they’ve experienced the nature of love and life.’
MOHAMMED FAIROUZ, in the summer of 2014, had recently started working on The New Prince, commissioned by The Dutch National Opera, and he told Ignatius that he had been following his work for years.
As a journalist, Ignatius has covered the Middle East, the CIA and American politics, while in the sphere of fiction, he is best known for his espionage novels. In 2008, the bestselling book Body of Lies was adapted into a film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russel Crowe as CIA agents on the trail of a terrorist.
Ignatius seemed to be the ideal person to envision a contemporary version of the 16th century political philosopher Machiavelli, who is notoriously famous for propagating deception and ruthlessness to gain and maintain a position of power. So, Fairouz and Ignatius dove in together, along with the resourceful young director Lotte de Beer, in order to realize the time-transcending yet highly topical opera, especially in the light of recent political events.
‘Life is short, art is eternal’.
DONALD TRUMP’S recent inauguration as president of the United States underpins the opera’s performance. However, Ignatius insists on stating, that the opera has relevance beyond current political affairs, because it corresponds with shared points of consciousness and experience on a broader scale. ‘Ars longa, vita brevis’, he says, ‘Life is short, art is eternal’. The opera aims to live up to this adage: ‘I think that viewers will take political lessons from The New Prince. Nevertheless, I think that they won’t see it as a piece of politics, but as an artwork that you can hopefully appreciate a hundred years from now.’
Machiavelli’s strategy of deceit and strong-arming not only applies to the rise of Trump. It is the fundamental groundwork that ignited the upsurge of similar historical events. Elaborating further on the opera’s universality, Ignatius says: ‘When people will see the opera they will recognize fragments of American history from 200 years ago. But they will also recognize the series of revolutions in Egypt, which eventually led the people away from freedom, into a new kind of authoritarian rule.’
THE NEW PRINCE is unbound to a fixed point in time and space, enhanced by its composition; it comprises multiple time zones. This configuration echos the distinguished opéra fantastique called Les contes d’Hoffmann, created by Jacques Offenbach at the end of the 19th century. Ignatius sets out to elaborate on the resemblance: ‘In this opera you have three related, but somewhat discontinuous stories that are enclosed in the story of Hoffman and his muse.’
Machiavelli’s muse is Fortuna, elsewhere known as ‘lady luck’. ‘She embodies one of the two virtues which Machiavelli, in his philosophy, thought were the two essential determinants of life’, Ignatius says. On the one hand, virtue lies in ruthless strength and power, and on the other, ‘in this capricious process of fate that makes one man a success and another a failure.’ Referring to Machiavelli’s beloved but fickle-hearted Fortuna.
‘Machiavelli is compared to contemporary public figures such as political consultants, or journalists, who aspire to live an acknowledged and prosperous life’.
NICCOLÒ MACHIAVELLI was a hustler, according to Ignatius. Unfortunately, living on the edge doesn’t always have to go hand in hand with prosperity. It could also cause you to fall from the steep cliff on which you are balancing. ‘The opera opens in 16th century Florence, in the time that Machiavelli lived. We begin, as audiences will see, with the horror of his torture by de’ Medicis. They were suspicious of him, because he was allegedly allied with the republic, which followed the overthrow of their reign.’
He was trying to get back into favor with de’ Medicis by sending them his philosophical treatise on achieving and maintaining a powerful position, regardless of the means. ‘He’s hustling, but he’s unsuccessful’, Ignatius says. He addressed the treatise to Lorenzo II de’ Medici, but he paid little attention to Machiavelli’s work. The treatise only got published five years after his death.
IGNATIUS COMPARES Machiavelli to contemporary public figures such as political consultants, or journalists, who aspire to live an acknowledged and prosperous life. ‘This familiar figure, that we recognize in our contemporary world, arrives, mysteriously, in the New York of the year 2032. Fortuna commissions him to write an update on The Prince for the reigning ruler of the time, who looks over his global kingdom.’ This means that Machiavelli has to keep in mind the modern-day vices and virtues, fitting the reissue into the contemporary context.
Asking Ignatius what he personally considers to be the most dismal tendencies of our time, he unambiguously responds: ‘The most dangerous vice of our current moment is how sources of information are fragmented, as everyone narrowcasts into their particular segment of the information space. We lose the ability to discern the fundamental truths, and facts, that provide a foundation for politics. If we can’t agree on the basic factual evidence, than it’s almost impossible to agree on what to do about it.’
He continues his plea, with a clear throat and sharp reasoning, apparently fired up by the subject in question: ‘I think that is the biggest contemporary danger. And I think Donald Trump in particular exhibits it. And, I think, more generally, from everything we know, it is Russia which is seeking to infect the information space with the virus of skepticism and cynicism.
‘Machiavelli, while promoting deception, was only telling his own truth about the methods by which power could be gained’.
IGNATIUS CONCLUDES by pointing out a paradoxical tendency in Machiavelli’s work. This paradox teaches us an important lesson: To stay grounded in this post-truth society, and wipe off the poisonous dust of disinformation. Machiavelli, while promoting deception, was only telling his own truth about the methods by which power could be gained. ‘It’s a paradox of Machiavelli that he advises the ruler it’s necessary to lie, to deceive, but really, in doing so, he was insisting on the truth. He wouldn’t lie to the ruler and say, serve God, be generous and you will reign forever. He was being more honest.’
‘In the last epilogue … Machiavelli really finds that redemption. That when he takes up his pen, he tells the truth, resists any effort to alter it, to politicize it, to undermine it. And I think holding on tight to fact and truth is important. This insistence that Machiavelli makes, that he will only and always tell the truth, is what is relevant for the current political moment. The opera wasn’t written for a moment in which Donald Trump would be president. But I think it speaks to that moment, and that pleases me.’