Over the last couple of days, I was listening (for the fiftieth time or so) to Beethoven’s opera Fidelio while commuting. This time I was suddenly struck by its applicability to the modern world. Florestan had spoken out against the abuse of power by Don Pizarro, the governor of a prison in Seville. Pizarro then abducted Florestan and thrown him into a dungeon of the same prison, letting the world think he had died. Florestan was a whistleblower, an Edward Snowden, a Bradley/Chelsea Manning.

Pizarro is portrayed as a rogue under a basically just government. After his wife Leonore rescues him and Don Fernando comes to investigate reports about the prison, he is freed and Pizarro is hauled away. In modern America, it’s more likely that Florestan would have been denounced as a traitor and sent back to prison, and Leonore would have joined him for plotting a jailbreak and threatening a government official with a firearm.

Fidelio is an opera that could be as strongly symbolic for us today as Beethoven’s setting of “An die Freude” was for the fall of the Berlin Wall. The story is supported by some powerful music: Leonore’s aria “Abscheulicher!” raging against Pizarro and expressing her hope, the chorus of prisoners, the unforgettable trumpet call announcing Don Fernando’s arrival, and the beautiful ensemble “O Gott, welch ein Augenblick.” (What a moment, indeed!) I can’t draw any significant amount of attention to it, but I can hold on to it as a symbol of what’s still possible.

Here’s a YouTube video of the Prisoners’ Chorus, appropriately illustrated with prisoners behind barbed wire.

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