If time is the test of a true classic, then Henry Adams 19th century novel Democracy has passed it. Published anonymously in 1879, the book was adapted a hundred years later into a successful play by Romulus Linney. In January of this year, it re-appeared on the stage as an opera by Scott Wheeler.
The world premiere of Democracy, an American Comedy as Wheeler’s opus titled, was received enthusiastically in the nation’s capital. Music critic Tim Page wrote in The Washington Post that the house was full of politicians, justices, lobbyists and plain old Washingtonians, who "may have had cause to reflect that the rules of engagement have not changed an awful lot in 125 years."
Vote-buying, fixed elections, slanderous competition and lying under oath are all part of Washington political scene of the 1870’s that Henry Adams reveals in his novel. But composer Scott Wheeler says he chose it as the basis for his opera because it deals with universal themes. "In a sense, it’s about love and power. I thought that it was funny in a way that is based on characters and on real dilemmas. These are things that people actually face," says Mr. Wheeler.
The opera is set in the time of President Ulysses Grant, a victorious Civil War general, who proved to be a less efficient leader in peace time. The plot revolves around two romantic couples. Senator Raitcliffe of Illinois, a most powerful politician, is interested in Madeleine Lee, a rich widow and socialite from New York City. Episcopal preacher Reverend Hazard falls in love with White House photographer Lydia Dudley, a daughter of a Supreme Court justice and a feminist.
Although initially attracted to the charismatic men, both women eventually decide against marrying them. Mrs. Lee is disappointed that the senator would betray his ideals for the sake of power and independent-minded Lydia Dudley does not believe in reverend’s sermons and she refuses to pretend otherwise. "Yet the men are not bad guys. What they are doing is important. So the opera looks at it in a fair way and we have issues that are so, so contemporary," notes the composer.
One issue is the dilemma every politician has to face at one time or another: whether to uphold
moral principles or sacrifice them for a cause. When confronted by Mrs. Lee, Senator Raitcliff responds: "However we may act, do what we may, we must violate some moral obligation. All that can be asked of us is that we should guide ourselves by what we think the highest." To Raitcliff, the preservation of the Union is more important than upholding strict moral principles. Many a politician worldwide would agree. Adds Raitcliff: "I might say: Perish the government, perish the Union, perish this people, rather than that I should soil my hands! Or I might say, as I did, and as I would say again: Be my fate what it may, this glorious Union, the last hope of suffering humanity, shall be preserved."
Neither Henry Adams nor composer Scott Wheeler and his librettist Romulus Linney offer any solutions to the dilemma, but they give an amusing take on it. For example, says Scott Wheeler: "When Senator Reitcliff gets up before the crowd, they say: what are you going to speak on in the Senate? He says: reform – the issue of the day. The president is sinking in the swamp of scandals. Idiots scream reform. I must scream at the idiots."
At the end of the opera, Mrs. Lee and Lydia Dudley claim a happy end and leave for a prolonged trip overseas, making some in the audience wonder if the opera mocks those who make the necessary deals or those who, by staying morally "pure," sacrifice the opportunity to influence affairs of state.