Alberto Gonzales, the Concert Opera (No, We’re Not Kidding)
Ashby Jones of The Wall Street Journal law blog
September 2, 2009
Anyone out there, by chance, looking for things to do in Philadelphia this weekend? The Phillies are out of town, but you could go see Alice in Chains at the Theater of Living Arts on Saturday, check out the Star Trek exhibit at the Franklin Museum, or get all gaga over Dada at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Duchamp exhibit.
But if law and politics is your bag (and we know that you know that it is), you might be intrigued enough to take a flyer on The Gonzales Cantata, a concert opera about Alberto Gonzales’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings.
Here’s the deal: The Gonzales Cantata, playing at this year’s Philadelphia Fringe Festival, is a 40-minute choral work based on the hearings that punctuated the U.S. attorney-dismissal scandal back in 2007. (Actually, every word sung is from the transcript of the hearings.) Click here for WSJ reporter Evan Perez’s story on the hearings, which links to a whole trove of other goodies. (Scroll to the bottom of the post to watch a video clip of the Cantata. Other clips can be found through the show’s very cleverly designed Web site.)
Even after looking over the Cantata’s Web site, we still had questions. Who did this? Why the Gonzales hearings? And for the love of Giuseppe Verdi, why an opera?
So we called up the name on the Web site, and a woman named Melissa Dunphy answered. Not only, it turns out, does Dunphy, 29, handle press inquiries but she thought up and wrote the Gonzales Cantata while an undergraduate at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. We took it from there.
Hi Melissa, we hear a bit of an accent there. Are you British?
Hi. No, I’m actually Australian. I moved to the U.S. six years ago and got very interested in U.S. politics. Part of it was the culture shock of coming from a country that mostly sits left of the spectrum from where the U.S. sits.
And something about the Gonzales hearings drew you in?
In 2007, I heard the audio of the hearings and just thought they were electrifying. The part that initially grabbed me was when I heard Arlen Specter basically yells at Gonzales, asking him ‘Did you prepare for these press conferences?’ I heard that on the radio and thought it was so dramatic and unlike anything I’d ever heard. I came here in 2003, and until the Gonzales hearings, I really hadn’t heard a Republican attack another Republican. This was the first time I’d heard that, and my first instinct was to dramatize it.
Part of my impetus was that as much as I disagreed with some of the well-publicized mistakes Gonzales made, I really started to feel sorry for the guy, listening to him struggle his way through the questioning. So I wrote the piece as an exploration of someone who’s having a hard time arguing his way out of a situation. I think had Dick Cheney or Don Rumsfeld been put in the same situation, they could have acquitted themselves much better. But Gonzales, it appeared to me, didn’t have wit or the foresight about him to wriggle his way out of it.
Now, you’ve played with gender in your casting of the show. The men are played by women and vice versa. How come?
Frankly, it sort of annoyed me that only one member of the Senate Judiciary Committee — Dianne Feinstein — is female, and thought that casting the men as women would draw attention to that.
But another big part of it, to be honest, is that there are more female opera singers than male opera singers. So Feinstein is played by a male tenor. Gonzales, Specter and [Patrick] Leahy are all sopranos. Orrin Hatch is an alto.
Huh. Why’s Hatch an alto?
Well, if you watch the hearings, you’ll see that Hatch is one of the only people to have almost comforted Gonzales throughout. It really sticks out, both in clips of the hearings and in the transcript. Everyone else was attacking Gonzales, but Hatch was very comforting, almost motherly. He’s the one who says to Gonzales “I don’t think there’s any proof that you lied.”
So I wrote him a very comforting aria. It’s called “I think We All Can Agree.”
Do you consider the show one big political statement?
No. Not at all. This is not a partisan piece. I’ve had both Republicans and Democrats come to the show and remark that it really wasn’t about party politics. It’s about a man who made some mistakes and is facing the music. It’s also an exploration of how a man could so brazenly politicize the Department of Justice without really standing up for the reasons he went into politics in the first place.
The show has lots of humor, but there are some reflective moments also. I see Gonzales as a tragic figure who’s also simultaneously irredeemable.
But I’d imagine the show is predominantly funny, right?
Right. I’m mostly just making fun of the political system generally. Senate Judiciary Committee hearings are just inherently funny. I watched the Sotomayor hearings and found them just as bizarre. They’re so mannered and there’s so much grandstanding, I just find something inherently funny about them. Add a bunch of beautiful young women singing the words of these senators, and it brings an extra absurdity to it.
So when did you write this?
I wrote it during my time at West Chester University, in Pennsylvania, when I was a bachelor’s student. I just finished my degree.
I’m starting a PhD program at Penn in music composition in a few weeks. I’m also an actor — theater is a big part of my life — but opera is my thing. I want my next opera to be set in space. I just love the idea of a bunch of people dressed as aliens singing opera.
And did you ever try to give word to Gonzales about this?
Well, I sent a copy of the recording to him at Texas Tech, but I haven’t heard anything. I did, however, have a conversation with John Ashcroft about it. I called to get permission to do an arrangement of his song, “Where the Eagles Soar,” as sort of a companion piece. But he denied permission. [Editor's note: A spokesman for Ashcroft told us, with a bit of a laugh, that the two had "artistic differences."]
Well, best of luck with it.