Dr. John Bokina, professor of political science at The University of Texas-Pan American, is the author of a new book that is garnering international attention.
Bokina's book, Opera and Politics: From Monteverdi to Henze, released Oct. 15 by Yale University Press, has already been featured on a BBC radio show in Britain and has attracted the attention of a German publisher interested in producing a German edition.
Closer to home, Bokina will hold a booksigning from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 11, at the UT Pan American University Bookstore.
Opera and Politics focuses on the political aspects and meanings of operas from the Baroque to the postmodern period.
"I tried to eliminate jargon as much as possible," Bokina said. "I hoped to make it accessible to that imaginary general reader with an interest in opera and an interest in political ideas, and that either background or either interest would allow that person to be able to understand and comprehend the book."
Drawing on the writings of Plato, Machiavelli, Rousseau and others, Bokina shows how operas have served as vehicles for the articulation of political ideas, citing specific examples from Monteverdi's Orfeo, Ulisse and Poppea, Mozart's Don Giovanni, Beethoven's Fidelio, Wagner's Parsifal, Strauss' Elektra, Schoenberg's Erwartung and Moses, Pfitzner's Palestrina, Hindemith's Mathis and Henze's Bassarids.
"The political content of opera is partly the product of the deliberate political intentions of their creators," he said. "But even the most distinctive personal vision has a connection to the spirit of its age. And each of these operas has political implications that transcend both the artist's intentions and the zeitgeists."
As he points out in the preface to his book, "I wanted to link the sensuousness of the operatic experience to the realm of ideas. What did these splendid works tell us about the meaning of political and social life? More important, what vision did they have about what that life could and should be like?"
Bokina began writing scholarly articles and conference papers on political aspects of opera about eight years ago. He combined his 25-year love of opera with his interest in political ideas in part because there had been so little written on the subject.
"There are very few books that take opera as a serious art form," Bokina said. "There's plot summaries, there's encyclopedias, there's dictionaries, there's biographies of singers - there's everything but (books that) talk about what the ideas are in these particular operas. For my purposes, I can probably count on one hand the books that I think are comparable in terms of taking opera as a serious art form.
"Even in movies, you have people getting profound meanings out of westerns or gangster dramas, but this so-called upper-class art form is just treated in a very trivial fashion, strangely enough," he said.
Bokina first noticed the dearth of serious political studies of opera when he first encountered the art form 25 years ago in his junior year as a political science major at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
"Because I was a political science student at the time, I guess I was fairly politically oriented, and this art form that was new to me seemed to be full of political content," he said. "I was looking for things to read, and beyond some literature on Wagner and some on Verdi, I didn't find much there. And so the idea that perhaps someday I might write something about political aspects of various operas occurred to me, and many, many years later, the book came out of that."
Bokina describes the development of his interest in opera as "fortuitious."
"I knew nothing about what I guess we should call 'art music,'" he said. "I took an introduction to music appreciation class, and there encountered what I guess most people hope to encounter, the great teacher in my life" - musicologist Richard Norton.
"He turned me on to classical music. Opera wasn't his particular favorite, but he certainly did help to guide me to where it turned out my interests lay," Bokina said.
"It just happened that my first couple of encounters (with opera) were a superb concert performance of Wagner's Das Rheingold and an indescribable performance of Wagner's Die Walküre with the Chicago Lyric Opera Company, and that was it. Ten years of listening to nothing but Wagner followed that, and then I branched out into other things.
"It's all fortuitous - had I not taken the class, had the class not been taught by this particular person, had the first performance I had gone to been some dopey opera or a bad performance, none of this would have happened, but everything kind of fell into place," he said.
Opera and Politics is now available at the University Bookstore at UT Pan American and at Barnes and Noble and Borders bookstores in other parts of the country.
With an official release date of Oct. 15, Bokina said it is still too early to gauge reaction to the book.
"We're anticipating that the reviews are about to start coming," he said. "Before it was even printed, the New York Times asked for a copy and said that they were going to review it, so I'm waiting to see what that is."
The book has attracted interest in Europe. The London office of the Yale University Press has had an inquiry from a German publisher about a possible German issuing of the book, and the Oct. 2 broadcast of Britain's BBC 3 radio show "Night Waves" was devoted to the book. Bokina was interviewed by phone by the show's host, Tony Palmer, an opera and opera film director, and Bokina's book was discussed by John Deathridge, professor of music at King's College-London, and Michael Billington, theater critic for The Guardian.
Bokina said UT Pan American was very supportive of his book in a number of ways.
"I received two faculty research grants, one at the beginning of the project and one at the very end, which were indispensable in getting this work done," he said.
He also credits fellow UT Pan American political science faculty member Dr. Gary Mounce for his help on the book.
"Gary Mounce has spent countless hours going through every chapter - and sometimes many versions of every chapter - giving me critical feedback," he said.
Bokina, who teaches a course in opera and politics every two to three years and is scheduled to teach it again this coming spring, also praised his students for helping him keep his perspective.
"My students were absolutely indispensable to this book," he said. "I get so caught up with my own interpretations of these works, the ones I'm writing on, and the literature about these works, that sometimes I think I'm not seeing them or hearing them anymore.
"The students come along with their 18-, 19- and 20-year-old eyes and ears and tell me what's there. They bring me back down out of scholarly abstraction to the sensuous experience of hearing and seeing these things for the first time. I pay tribute to them in the preface, and the tribute is duly deserved."
As he notes in his preface, "I hope that I provide them with a solid, albeit highly politicized, introduction to the unfamiliar world of the opera. I know what they give me. Every third year, I have the pleasure of observing what it is like to be 19 or 20 years old and encountering Poppea, Don Giovanni, and Parsifal for the first time, and of remembering what it was like for me."