Love is a Battlefield

for Playbill, Houston Grand Opera, March 2005

The Nude Goddess is not your mother’s Lysistrata. It’s not even the one by Aristophanes.

That iconic comedy, unveiled in 411 B.C.E., eyes the women of Athens and Sparta, disgusted by an endless, pointless war, who barricade themselves in the Athenian treasury and swear a sanction on sex until their men make peace. It’s a delicious premise.  It is not a plot. Our heroine concocts this strategy: she bullies her team into agreeing; the plan works; end of play. Nor are these complex characters.  Lysistrata, Kleonike, Myrrhine: these are less persons than personae, masks of text through which their playwright declaims an impassioned political broadside. Twelve years into a failed imperialist incursion, Aristophanes felt no need to weigh a pro-war case, to squint at his women’s motives, to paint his men as anything but blowhards and buffoons. Historically understandable; but his certitudes flatten his play. I love Lysistrata’s strut and wit and nerve, its utopian yearnings, its magical locale—an Acropolis where, by dream-logic, a handful of couples can reconcile the love of the battlefield with the battlefield of love.  But there’s a reason Lysistrata most often materializes nowadays either as the carrot of sex with which we lure students to the classics, or as the megaphone of protest through which we assail the war du jour. The reason is that you cannot say anything sophisticated about war while ignoring the psychology of warriors.  In 1999 I was awarded my second commission from Houston Grand Opera, and I wanted to make Lysistrata sing.  But I couldn’t see my way into the play. I put it aside.

And then I came back to it.  I heard its music so strongly—hyperrhythmic, brilliantly colored, now sly and purring, now bursting with energy—that I knew I had to find, or create, the richer drama it demanded.  I wondered: could one compose a Lysistrata principally fascinated by the war between men and women—two radically different kinds of human beings damned by fate and desire to love without complete understanding?  Could you make an opera that used the civic conflict to illuminate the erotic discord, not vice versa?

Perhaps. But Lysistrata remains one of the West’s indispensable pacifist texts; and even in 1999 I knew I couldn’t write this piece without engaging, however obliquely, the problem of war. Is aggression ever justified, in love or by law?  What magnetizes eros and thanatos?  I wanted to scour this opera clean of sexual cliché—I believe that vice and virtue, surrender and assault, beckon as seductively to women as to men, and “who’s on top?” isn’t necessarily the same question as “who’s in control?” As with sex, so with war: I could no more recite a familiar rhetoric of the evils of war than I could blithely exult in bloodshed.

This was all too interesting to resist. Lysistrata it was.  I cut all but three scenes of the play, created new male characters, changed the war, omitted the choruses, and invented a wrangling romance between the Lysistrata figure (here, after the Latin, pronounced Ly-ZIS-tra-ta, but mostly called Lysia) and the Athenian leader Nico. The text of Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess now imagines a woman who fakes political convictions to wreak on her lover an erotic revenge: only later must she ask herself, to whom does she belong, herself or her people?  The opera’s score sends its melodies searching through a labyrinth of mirrors; no sooner is a theme sung by one character, given one meaning, than it is assumed by someone else and inflected with quite another.  A sinuous monologue of seduction speeds up, changes meter, reappears as a swaggering soldiers’ drill; a furious tantrum sheds its fioritura attitudinizing, melts into an aria of self-sacrifice. The libretto suggests, “Each of you will tell the truth; neither will agree.”  The score aims to make that suggestion an audible process.

Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess was originally scheduled for première at Houston Grand Opera in March 2002.  Things change: an opera begun in peacetime to humanize a then-remote pacifist critique finds itself, today, scaldingly topical.  (Aristophanes’s Lysistrata was read over 900 times worldwide one single day in March 2003.)  No artwork can presume to resolve any political argument.  But I would love to think The Nude Goddess could, in some small way, reframe our current argument—that hearing these passions and positions embodied by closely imagined personalities might help clarify our thinking and heighten our sympathy for those with whom we disagree.

We all want peace, just as we all want love.
The question is, love on whose terms?

The question is as urgent for lovers as for leaders; and it this a question—I hope— that brightens the language, drives the rhythms, sharpens the comedy, and deepens the compassion of this new singing Lysistrata.