Operatic Presidents: The US Commanders-in-Chief That Have Been Portrayed in Opera

By David Salazar

Opera is laden with historical figures of the past, many often showcased in a mythological light.

The same goes for American Presidents, which have been given the operatic treatment on several occasions. As we celebrate Presidents Day in the United States, here is a look at which of our leaders have been showcased in operas.

Third US President Thomas Jefferson got showcased in Damon Ferrante’s “Jefferson & Poe: A Lyric Opera.” The work is fictional, focusing on two love stories, the first between Jefferson and Sally Hemings and the second between the famed writer Edgar Allan Poe and the daughter of Jefferson and Hemings.

Sixth President John Quincy Adams, sung by bass, appears as a lawyer for captives in Anthony Davis’ popular “Amistad.” He is asked to defend the captives in the work, which he initially refuses before contemplating on the nation’s vision of liberty. From this comes the aria “The Greatest Liberty.” He eventually wins the case at the climax of the opera.  Eight President Martin Van Buren also appears, as a tenor, in that same opera though his role is curtailed.

Quincy Adams also appears in Virgil Thomas’ “The Mother of Us All,” a work on the life of Susan B. Anthony. Adams appears as a tenor in the opera and is actually showcased in a more romantic light. Seventeenth President Andrew Johnson all appears in “The Mother of Us All” fighting with Thaddeus Stevens in a public square. Eighteenth president Ulysses S. Grant is also showcased in the work for a brief scene.

Sixteenth US President Abraham Lincoln plays a minor part in Philip Glass “Appomattox,” a work in which Ulysses S. Grant plays the lead role. That work narrates the final days of the American Civil War with Grant pitted against General Robert E Lee.

Lincoln also appears in the gargantuan “The Civil Wars: A Tress is Best Measured When It Is Down,” a five-part opera that is comprised of music by different composers. Lincoln’s section is set to Glass’ music as well, with the president featured in a prayer for peace.

The famous opera “The Ballad of Baby Doe” by Douglas Moore features 21st President Chester A. Arthur who appears at a climactic wedding at the end of Act 1.

Harry Truman, the 33rd President, gets an appearance in “Nightingale: The Last Days of James Forrestal” by Evan Hause, a work that also features the 36th President Lyndon B. Johnson.

President John F. Kennedy, the 35th in US history, appears in Michael Daugherty’s “Jackie O.” He appears as a spirit near the end of the work.

Perhaps the most famous depiction of an American President in opera is John Adams’ “Nixon in China.” Richard Nixon, number 37, is showcased during his famous visit to China, legacy and mythology at the core of his concerns throughout the work.

Ronald Reagan, the 40th Commander-in-Chief, gets two operas including Alexina Louie’s “Mulroney: The Opera” and “Wallenberg” by Erkki-Sven Tüür.

Finally Bill Clinton, the 42nd President of the US, plays the lead role in “Billy Blythe,” a work by Bonnie Montgomery that explores his youth.

Aside from the Presidents, former Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Aaron Burr have gotten represented in operas. Biden was included in “Say It Ain’t So, Joe” by Curtis K. Hughes” and Burr was part of Walter Damrosch’s “The Man Without a Century.”


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