Joe Biden At Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings Past: Improvisational Jazz

Alberto Gonzales and music, who knew? The Gonzales Cantata website (irony alert siren). A flickr feed of their rehearsal.

Nicholas Gilewicz at the Live Arts and Fringe Festival Blog:

“In 2007, I had one of those NPR ‘driveway moments,’ listening to a grab of Arlen Specter ripping Alberto Gonzalez,” says Melissa Dunphy. “I was really stunned, read up on [the hearings] and thought, ‘This is a staged concert piece. There’s drama, the 19-character [Judiciary] Committee is the chorus, and Alberto Gonzales is the soloist.’ It reminded me of Orpheus facing the Furies in the Underworld, only in our version, Orpheus is corrupt, and the Furies consume him over the course of the show.”

As a student at West Chester University, where she just completed an undergraduate degree in composition, Melissa wrote The Gonzales Cantata, condensing the transcripts of the 2007 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings over the firing of U.S. attorneys into the libretto of this 40-minute piece. The Gonzales Cantata will be performed by a 30-person ensemble at the Rotunda during Philly Fringe in September; the cast of singers inverts the gender dynamic of the Judiciary Committee, with 16 women and five men.

“I’m highlighting the disparity in politics by making the words of old white men come out of the mouths of beautiful young women,” says Melissa. “If I did a true [inverse] representation, there would be only one man. But I needed a beefier tenor section, so a few senators like Joe Biden and Lindsey Graham get to keep their genders.”

But don’t mistake this piece for a simple attack on the gender balance of the United States Senate. Influenced by a number of composers including Peter Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach project, Melissa has infused The Gonzales Cantata with music-geek humor, rewarding the attentive listener.


Ashby Jones at WSJ:

So we called up the name on the Web site, and a woman named Melissa Dunphy answered. Not only, it turns out, does Dunphy, 29, handle press inquiries but she thought up and wrote the Gonzales Cantata while an undergraduate at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. We took it from there.

Hi Melissa, we hear a bit of an accent there. Are you British?

Hi. No, I’m actually Australian. I moved to the U.S. six years ago and got very interested in U.S. politics. Part of it was the culture shock of coming from a country that mostly sits left of the spectrum from where the U.S. sits.

And something about the Gonzales hearings drew you in?

In 2007, I heard the audio of the hearings and just thought they were electrifying. The part that initially grabbed me was when I heard Arlen Specter basically yells at Gonzales, asking him ‘Did you prepare for these press conferences?’ I heard that on the radio and thought it was so dramatic and unlike anything I’d ever heard. I came here in 2003, and until the Gonzales hearings, I really hadn’t heard a Republican attack another Republican. This was the first time I’d heard that, and my first instinct was to dramatize it.

Really? Why?

Part of my impetus was that as much as I disagreed with some of the well-publicized mistakes Gonzales made, I really started to feel sorry for the guy, listening to him struggle his way through the questioning. So I wrote the piece as an exploration of someone who’s having a hard time arguing his way out of a situation. I think had Dick Cheney or Don Rumsfeld been put in the same situation, they could have acquitted themselves much better. But Gonzales, it appeared to me, didn’t have wit or the foresight about him to wriggle his way out of it.

Now, you’ve played with gender in your casting of the show. The men are played by women and vice versa. How come?

Frankly, it sort of annoyed me that only one member of the Senate Judiciary Committee — Dianne Feinstein — is female, and thought that casting the men as women would draw attention to that.

But another big part of it, to be honest, is that there are more female opera singers than male opera singers. So Feinstein is played by a male tenor. Gonzales, Specter and [Patrick] Leahy are all sopranos. Orrin Hatch is an alto.

Huh. Why’s Hatch an alto?

Well, if you watch the hearings, you’ll see that Hatch is one of the only people to have almost comforted Gonzales throughout. It really sticks out, both in clips of the hearings and in the transcript. Everyone else was attacking Gonzales, but Hatch was very comforting, almost motherly. He’s the one who says to Gonzales “I don’t think there’s any proof that you lied.”

So I wrote him a very comforting aria. It’s called “I think We All Can Agree.”

Julian Sanchez at Sully’s place:

It sounds sort of like Henry Purcell filtered through late John Adams, if that’s your sort of thing. Honestly, I think more fertile material would’ve been the earlier NSA wiretap hearings, where Alberto Gonzales’ persistent and repetitive evasions already sounded a bit like some kind of looping Philip Glass chorus. Still, I’m almost shocked something like this hasn’t been done before: as composer Melissa Dunphy points out in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, congressional hearings provide a unique mix of mannered formalism and absurd grandstanding that are ideally suited to operatic adaptation.

Andrew Ramonas at Main Justice

The Baroque Project


1 Comment

Filed under Music, Political Figures

One response to “Joe Biden At Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings Past: Improvisational Jazz

  1. I’m so glad I found this site…Keep up the good work I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say GREAT blog. Thanks,

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