Imagine if Niccolò Machiavelli was fast-forwarded from Renaissance Florence, into the near-future of the 21st century. Imagine, now, that the proto-political scientist rewrote his still-dominant tract The Prince, 500 years after its initial publication, in 2032. Then imagine who he might call on to bring the book’s meditations on power and duplicity up to date.
The scene is now set for The New Prince, the dizzyingly ambitious and bitingly topical new opera from Emirati composer Mohammed Fairouz, which celebrated its world premiere with a standing ovation at Amsterdam’s Stadsschouwburg on Friday, March 24, in a big budget production by the Dutch National Opera.
We meet Machiavelli in 1513 — disgraced, exiled, in bloodstained rags — and are quickly reminded of his key teachings. “And worst of all,” bellows baritone Joshua Hopkins in the lead role. “I said that if we must choose / Between being feared and loved / We should choose to be feared.”
After this brief period prologue, Fairouz’s scholarly score teleports us a half-millennium into the future, accelerating through the ages — a military march recalling the Napoleonic wars morphs into an ordered baroque counterpoint, before cantering through the 20th century via Glassian ostinatos into the internet age.
Librettist David Ignatius awakes the overwhelmed Machiavelli in 2032, where he is swiftly suited, booted, and sat down to meet his cut-throat 21st century publisher, Fortuna, skilfully voiced by soprano Karin Strobos. This classic muse demands an anniversary rewrite of The Prince — a 3D hologram edition, naturally — but with, she bites, “bankable names”. With all that history to catch up on, a ghost writer is required, and in a puff United States adviser Henry Kissinger appears as “scribe and jester” — cheekily rendered by Marc Kudisch — the first in a role-call of historical real-life names to succeed each other surreally onstage. In little time at all, a tongue-in-cheek dance sequence will see Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump fighting over a blow-up globe of the world.
But while there are frequent audience titters, The New Prince is the blackest of comedies. As Machiavelli soon learns, the stakes have raised considerably in the passing centuries — his previous employers, the princes of warring Renaissance-era city-states, are small fry compared to his patron of 2032.
President Wu Virtu is leader of the playfully dubbed “Amerasiopia”, an enormous “meta-kingdom” stretching across North America, Europe and Asia, ruled from the “tri-capitals” of Miami, Dubai and Shanghai, now dubbed New Columbia and the scene of our play. This mythical land is invoked by a symmetrical set of two six-note melody lines — representing, Fairouz has previously stated, the ordered two-way traffic of Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road — while the UAE national anthem can be fleetingly detected, in a brass line under Wu’s introduction.
Simon Lim hams it up as the playboy politician Wu, a fictional but imaginable composite whose precious rule faces the fallout of a post-globalised age of competing ideologies, limited resources and crippling climate change.
Machiavelli and Kissinger, however, are here to help — conjuring onstage historical revolutions, scandals and tragedies to teach old Wu a worthy lesson, each impressively rendered by Lotte de Beer’s sharp stage direction.
Having fled the Nazis in his teens and pioneered American relations with China in the 1970s, Kissinger is perfectly placed to introduce cameos of Hitler and Mao, whose world-cleansing desire chimes worryingly with Trump-era isolationism rhetoric. “History does not always progress, it recurs,” Kissinger warns.
Next we stop in Tahrir Square to witness the full-circle series of political upheavals which have rocked Egypt in recent years before things shift, outrageously, to the White House bedroom of Bill Clinton. Surely conceived, if not tweaked, long before last year’s electrons, Hillary Clinton is represented as both a subject of hope and hopelessness. Machiavelli is a fan — dismissing her husband, he declares the wife’s cold heart, “more precious than a diamond”.
Throughout Wu sits offstage in a VIP opera box, munching crisps irreverently and playing on his phone, not buying a word he’s sold.
The boldest moment of this decidedly bold work might be the sight of deceased Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and former US vice president Dick Cheney — introduced as “two men alike in rage and fear” — singing the same interwoven words, following a solemn invocation of the September 11 terror attacks which bring out some of Fairouz’s most effecting work.
The message here is Wu’s final lesson — “the end of war is war” — aggression met with aggression is a zero-sum game, and a clash of civilisations is the greatest possible threat to the future of mankind.
The New Prince is surely one of the most ambitious, high-profile artistic statements to emerge from an Emirati artist, yet it remains a shame that so few of the people who call the UAE home will experience the opera in Amsterdam. Hopes will rightly be ignited for a run at Dubai Opera.