Culture Zohn: Requiem for an Era

10/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It seemed only fitting that tonight was the sober, majestic performance of Verdi's Requiem in honor of Luciano Pavarotti at the Metropolitan Opera.


At the end of a long day of continued substantial turmoil in the financial markets with a lot of finger pointing this way and that, it was a relief to escape into the cavernous hall and commune with the spirit of a man who was a singer who derived his strength from his connection to the people and a composer who challenged his audience to bring out the best.

Yet, everything seemed pregnant with the events of the day: like Verdi, we had the four principals on stage today (Paulson, Bernake, Cox and Pelosi, you can mix it up any number of ways) and a large chorus of yay and nay sayers, Republicans unusually accepting of the comforting embrace of the federal government, Democrats finding themselves exceptionally on the side of keeping the Fed out as taxpayers will eventually foot at least some of the bill. There were the usual suspects up on the Grand Tier, names you know from reading about hedge funds and derivatives.

But in a nod to the future, as well as to the memory of a populist opera hero, the Met had given all the tickets away for free in a lottery. So the audience was awash in true opera lovers who less often get the chance to mingle with their more endowed brethren. It was a lovely sight to see.

All day long I have been getting emails: people are worried about the markets, but they are also worried about the impact all of this will have on the arts, for in the absence of a strong federal presence in the arts in our country, it is the private philanthropists who make it all possible. Even Broadway depends on workshops and angels who are willing to risk.

As in all things this political season, it will be tempting to look backward in this fiscal mess and decry the gaping holes in the system that allowed so many imbalances to occur. But I say, we have no time for calling names: the country is already in precarious, difficult straits, divided against itself; we need everybody to sing in enough unison to dig out.

Verdi added a section to the traditional Mass in his Requiem, which asked for a certain fearlessness, "Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna, in die illa tremenda..." "Free me, oh Lord, from eternal death, on that terrifying day."

From George Martin's Verdi: His Music, Life and Times:

"He [Verdi] succeeded, not only by the excellence of his music, but also by stirring in the audience the ancient feelings and fears of primitive man peering nervously into the night...By the end of his Requiem, Verdi has his singers and audience praying for peace and light, not for the dead, but for themselves, the living. . . Libera Me, they sing, calling on the magic of music and words to save them from the terror of the unknown...[but]there is no sudden burst into a sunny amen, no vision of a kind God or promise of intersession; there is only dwindling power and continued uncertainty. Such, said Verdi, is man's lot in life."