March Diary
Thoughts on China, and more

Detail of a portrait of Dr. Johnson by Joshua Reynolds (1775)


John Derbyshire

The dark thought comes: With all their other manifest talents and abilities, perhaps the Chinese just can’t do government. They seem to be hopelessly, irredeemably bad at it. Perhaps gangster-despotism is the best they can rise to.

I remember the hopes that I and many others nursed at the time of the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989 — hopes that China was emerging from the darkness at last. Here we are nearly a quarter-century on, and things are, if anything, worse.

Speaking of Tiananmen . . . 


A night at the opera     On March 29 I roused myself from chemo stupor to go to the Metropolitan Opera for Verdi’s Macbeth. It was a silly production, one of those modern-dress affairs, but the music made up for everything, and I was blessed with some very delightful company.

Macbeth was known in Verdi’s time as the opera senza amore: “the opera without love interest.” That tells you just how romantic the Romantic Age was. (Although, as Budden footnotes, the tag was a bit unfair: Plenty of operas had no amore — Budden names three of Donizetti’s. And, as my companion noted, there must have been some kind of emotional bond between Macbeth and his Mrs.)

What I want to know is why Verdi didn’t make a full-blown stand-and-deliver aria out of Macbeth’s great “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech. English poetry has an atheist’s prayer; why shouldn’t opera have a nihilist’s hymn?

Verdi in Tiananmen Square     Uh, what does Verdi’s Macbeth have to do with the Tiananmen Square protests? Readers of that tremendous China-Tibet-Wall Street-Showbiz-Opera novel Fire from the Sun know the answer.

Here is my heroine in Tiananmen Square, May 1989 (Chapter 62):

“Sing more!” called out Norbu. Wang Jun was nowhere in sight, and no-one seemed to want to take the microphone from her. Margaret struggled to think of suitable songs. “O patria mia” from Aida came to mind, but was wrong for the occasion, Aida having lost hope of ever seeing her country again. Isabella’s “Pensa alla patria” was fitting enough; but Margaret knew Isabella as a comic heroine even if her audience didn’t, and the knowledge would give her performance the wrong color, she felt sure. At last she decided to try the patriotic chorus from Macbeth.

The nation betrayed
Weeping, cries out.
Comrades! we march
To save the oppressed.
The wrath of the skies
Shall fall on the tyrant;
For Heaven is weary
Of his dreadful crimes.

She got through the song without vocal mishap, but the applause was less ardent than for “Coraggio.” This could hardly have been a musical judgment — of the tens of thousands in the Square, probably no more than a few dozen even knew the name Verdi. Perhaps she had lost their attention while trying to think of what song to give them. Or perhaps they had just had enough opera. Margaret stepped away, bowing. Well, she had given what she could give. That was enough.