An opera revolution

Librettist and composer Keith Burstein tells IAM about the political inspirations behind his new opera The Prometheus Revolution. 

The inspiration behind new opera, The Prometheus Revolution, emerged in the wake of the financial crash of 2008 and the Occupy 2012 movement with its 1% vs. the 99% ideology. I wanted to develop a plot that paralleled the drastically altered world we seemed to have entered; on the one hand, of outrageous corporate power and wealth and, on the other, a hyper-energised set of movements which had a view to achieve justice by means of protest and lobbying.

I also observed a number of individuals emerging through the cracks who were making a stand against the dominion of government and corporate power – among them Julian Assange, lEdward Snowden and, more recently, Jeremy Corbyn.

I already knew Corbyn from when he defended me in Parliament against charges issued by the Associated Newspapers (Daily Mail) group – namely, that through my previous opera Manifest Destiny (about suicide bombers who renounce violence and become peace makers) I had somehow glorified terrorism. This was back in 2008, when the British government were – in my view – pursuing an illegal war in Iraq.

At that time it had just been made a serious criminal offence to glorify terrorism, so I took out a libel case against the publisher. Although I won my case in the High Court, it was then overturned by a seemingly politically-biased Court of Appeal who claimed that my opera was “anti American”. I was subsequently bankrupted by Associated Newspapers for costs and they tried to take my intellectual property rights to my music.

I took some time away from my writing desk during the next four years in order to financially and mentally recover from the ordeal. But what would be my next opera subject?

Somehow the ancient Greek figure of Prometheus came into my mind, who seemed to me to embody the Occupy movement’s ideologies, which began gaining momentum in 2011. I then travelled to Lithuania to record my symphony Elixir and Songs of Love and Solitude for Naxos Records on the recommendation of Vladimir Ashkenazy, who remains a great friend and mentor to me. This trip to Lithuania was something of a homecoming, it being the first time any member of my family had returned there since fleeing the Pogroms in the late nineteenth century.

On my return to London, I laid down plot, libretto and music for this new opera (this was the summer of 2013). The Prometheus myth served my purpose perfectly – the mysterious, central character Peter embodies the anti-hero who steals fire from the gods and is then horribly punished by the Gods for his audacity.

I developed a contemporary world around this idea, creating the ‘Prometheus Peace Movement’ and populating it with a motley crew of characters from different walks of life. Together, they find themselves leading the movement. In an alternative (but not too removed from reality) City of London in which the opera is set, the country falls into an even deeper crash than 2008. The tyrannical prime minister and his wife have taken poison and the army are poised to take control, in order to prevent a mass uprising.

One of my aims for the opera is for it to act as a transformative event, and a way of preparing the audience for a vital shift of spiritual feeling and elevation prompted by real-world political events. This ideology arises from a personal belief of mine that it is only by overcoming our differences, namely our tribal conflicts of religion, race and class, that we as a species have any hope of survival.

Humanity is at a turning point. We can continue down this path towards violence, and armed with ever greater weapons, destroy ourselves. Or we can choose to understand that, in the words of the late Jo Cox MP, “we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”, and move through the wonderful and amazing transition to a new age for humanity, in which war is left behind and we finally take responsibility for ourselves and others.

My goal was to take the audience into the very heart of the revolution itself, experienced first-hand through the eyes of the very people who are enacting it. The opera therefore doesn’t so much portray a revolution in real-time; rather it aims to convey the euphoria, fear, hope and triumph experienced from characters right at the heart of the action.

Opera is the ideal medium for this. Other art forms cannot as successfully induce the audience intravenously into an experience. To this degree the transformative journey from a world based on war to one beyond violent conflict is actually undergone by the audience who, through the opera, I hope will partake in the transformation itself, and therefore undergo the changes of heart and feeling within themselves induced by such an experience.

In the fantasy world of opera anything is possible and this dream is realised. As in reality, such idealism and revolution is often met with bitter resistance and violence – the price that is paid by the Promethean audacity of hope.

The Prometheus Revolution will be performed at the Arcola Theatre on 7, 8 and 10 of August 2018, performed by Fulham Opera as part of the Grimeborn festival.