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The Uses Of The Classical

On Jackie Evancho’s inauguration performance and the subtle theater of pop authoritarianism

For three seasons, America’s Got Talent apportioned one slot to a contestant voted in via YouTube, creating an impression of direct democracy on reality television. In 2010, the elected contestant was Jackie Evancho, a 10-year-old Pittsburgh vocalist who sang with such cyborgian finesse that some suggested her audition tape was doctored. She had failed earlier when she tried out for the producers, twice. Evancho, who would go on to place second overall, trembled almost imperceptibly during her first on-air live performance of an aria once sung by Maria Callas. Her blend of anxiety and innocence endeared her to the judges and to the public. Her air was ministerial, grave. Savant children can be adored while not fully understood. For weeks, America watched for her face: blonde and blue-eyed, alert and communicating devotion. It’s been seven years since then; later this month, Evancho will sing at the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

Evancho’s signature aria comes from Puccini’s 1918 comedy opera Gianni Schicchi. “O mio babbino caro” (“Oh My Beloved Papa”) is a petition from a daughter laid low by her father’s disdain for her true love. Evancho’s post-AGT career evolved into a negotiation between traditional opera, Andrew Lloyd Webber–directed Broadway overtures, and the accessible classical — a cross-pollinated movement termed “classical crossover” music. She’s duetted with the matrons of the genre, like Sarah Brightman and Susan Boyle, and has had albums produced by adult-contemporary maestro David Foster. The release of her debut Christmas EP, O Holy Night, made Evancho the youngest American solo artist to ever go platinum. She’s reliably successful, but her popularity is contained: Classical crossover artists are susceptible to different winds than most pop stars. Their fame is depersonalized, prolonging the sensation of sinlessness. Not everyone can live up to these exigencies — Charlotte Church, for example, bowed out in time to become a pop singer. But Evancho, now 16, thrives. Her projects seesaw from Latin to English, Handel to Kenny G, arias to saccharine original ballads. She often sings Puccini.

Maybe Trump sings Puccini, too. At his rallies last year, Luciano Pavarotti’s vintage performance of the “Nessun dorma” aria, from Puccini’s opera Turandot, often blared out. Pavarotti’s widow requested that Trump stop playing it, because of the dissonance between the messages the candidate was sending and the philosophies of the late tenor. Though it’s considered his signature aria, “Nessun dorma” isn’t Pavarotti’s. It belongs to popular culture, and it became a standard in the ’90s, when recordings of Pavarotti’s rendition were played at state sporting events, like the World Cup and the Olympics. The final line, sung from the sleep-deprived, narcotic perspective of a man convinced of impending romantic victory, repeats three times: “I will win!” It’s a fitting echo of the incoherent zeal in the president-elect’s late-night Twitter bulletins.

Academics have spent decades arguing over the political symbolism of Puccini’s work. With Trump, it’s not always obvious whether his moves are dictated by premeditated savvy or a rambling instinct for curation that occasionally lands on meaning. Can the man who speaks third-grade English discern the melodrama of Turandot’s crazed yearning in Italian? Does he know about The Puccini Problem?

In 2002, British scholar Alexandra Wilson carefully charted the cycling appropriations and reappropriations of the composer’s image and operas in the context of Italian history. In the twilight of Italian unification at the turn of the 20th century, Giacomo Puccini joined a young school of modernists who composed in the verismo, or realist, style. Out of the wide Romantic reach of Verdi’s mythical subjects, Puccini converged on sweet melody and rustic vulgarity. Madama Butterfly, La bohème, and, of course, Turandot, are still some of the world’s most-performed operas, and its most often referenced and recapitulated (see: Rent). At first, Italians embraced the success of the country’s new son. Over time, though, Puccini’s international success fueled a cultural pessimism from critics who argued that his dalliances into French, Turkish, and Chinese styles betrayed a sense of burgeoning “Italianness.” Mussolini felt differently.

The political crux of The Puccini Problem tops out during the last few years of the composer’s life. Puccini is exasperated, solely interested in protecting his legacy by seeking out an honorary senatorial seat. The composer met with then–Prime Minister Mussolini twice, agreeing to a performance that never came to fruition, before Puccini’s death in 1924. In 1925, Mussolini declared himself Il Duce and successfully choked Italy’s creative production for the next two decades. Yet opera was allowed a politically determined space: The diffident Pietro Mascagni, composer of Cavalleria rusticana, joined the Fascist Party and became the closest thing to an official composer for the regime. Puccini’s arias, meanwhile, provided a backdrop for the Fascists’ social reorganization. The Mussolini period blunted opera’s ambiguous political messages, turning the music into an instrument of control. “The operatic stage of Italy received a tremendous new stimulus, not indeed through the financing of costly seasons abroad, but by bringing opera at home within the reach of the slenderest purse at those open-air summer performances where, for a few lire, the people can enjoy first-rate opera to their heart’s content,” wrote historian Vincent Seligman.

Appropriation is one way for novel authoritarian regimes to grasp at a culture, making what was old new again. In the 1960s, Haitian dictator François Duvalier reworded the Lord’s Prayer in adulation of himself, calling it “The Catechism of the Revolution.” Hitler and the Third Reich had Wagner in the 1940s. Going by this rule, Trump’s perceived love of Puccini has been taken as a fascistic inheritance. At some point, appropriation reconstitutes meaning, and the origins of art signify less than its applications. The argument last summer, sparked by Slate’s Brian Wise, suggested that the content of Puccini’s operas, specifically Turandot, amounted to allegorical fascism. This is different, say, than arguing that the victory cry in “Nessun dorma” could become a chorus for American authoritarianism. Mark Swed, reviewing a performance of Tosca that same summer, observed a strongly antifascist sentiment. Significance changes at the rate of the ruler’s capriciousness. There’s no constant frame of reference, besides the way those in charge establish an aesthetic of power through spectacle.

Behavioral “richness” has long been both lampooned and appreciated in America, and Trump’s taste for the spectacular is pure nouveau riche essentialism. He favors cheap things made to look expensive or expensive things made to look cheap, an alchemical approximation of both wealth and now ideology. He’s sensitive about this perception: His defense of the parties at Mar-a-Lago, the penthouse, his middling steakhouse, indicates that he finds any ridicule of his tastes to be an oppression. (When Vanity Fair reporter Tina Nguyen negatively reviewed Trump Grill, the steak house on the first floor of Trump Tower, he lashed out.) His purported love of Puccini, similarly, likely has less to do with political messaging than with the refinement it symbolizes.

“Italianness” and its relics — classical music, fashion, opera, gold — partly define the racialized, class-ascendant desires of this social group. Yet Trump’s use of this aesthetic, considering his upbringing, seems outmoded. If there really is a class of people who occupy the liminal identity of today’s nouveaux riches, it’s made up of celebrities, especially black musicians. Jay Z and Kanye West’s 2011 album Watch the Throne was a manifesto of popular majesty. During a listening party that summer at downtown New York’s Mercer Hotel, Jay Z previewed tracks from the Riccardo Tisci–designed album off his laptop. The journalists drank Armand de Brignac champagne. An unreleased Throne song heard at the event, known by the title “Living So Italian,” sampled “Con te partirò,” by the crossover tenor Andrea Bocelli.

Trump has been courting Bocelli, too, with no humor. So far, his search for an inauguration performer has been bungling, comic. Reports of his team offering ambassadorships and heavy amounts of money to pop artists like Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé have been denied. Elton John squished rumors that he’d accepted Trump’s invitation. Céline Dion said no. So did Bocelli. The team tried a secondary tier: The Rockettes, who petitioned their management against the demand, with mixed success. Rebecca Ferguson, a British black X Factor contestant, accepted on the condition that she sing “Strange Fruit,” presumably in place of the national anthem. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir agreed, though some of its members have publicly left the group.

This leaves him with Jackie Evancho — a singer who is famous, but not a “celebrity” in the Trumpian sense. There’s a process of contextual distortion necessary to understanding this business of image-making. It’s a matter of scavenging, and then gilding over the spoils. Evancho is still a child. Her meaning, as a pop-classical singer, is to be an essential clean slate. Evancho got to the elite and exclusionary places of Carnegie Hall and the White House, where she has already performed, through populist means. She has no discernible relationship to the tenuous liberal politics of the celebrities who won’t yet openly associate with Trump. At 16, she could not have voted in the election. On Inauguration Day, many will gasp at her pure tone and wonder who she is. The racialized contrast between Evancho and the last two famous singers to perform at presidential inaugurations — Aretha Franklin and Beyoncé, respectively — is implied in more than skin. Evancho, the blonde and slight and earnest teenage girl who will become the first person to sing in Trump’s America, could wash the first ceremony of the new regime in purity.

Watching the culture of Trump coalesce means observing an indiscriminate crawl. History will show that many artists dodged his initial shows of communion. Yet how quickly obstacles can become opportunities. The inauguration may not have any veritable pop artists performing there, but for a man who is continually experimenting with building an alternative, recombinant pop culture, this could be a boon. Trump’s transitional period is all about cultural alchemy. Soon enough, we’ll know if he can make gold.