The Dictator’s Wife at WNO is a flawed, dramatically flat new opera

The Dictators Wife 1 - photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.jpg
This photo makes the opera look much more dramatic than it actually is.  (Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.)

The Dictator’s Wife
Washington National Opera
Music by Mohammed Fairouz, Libretto by Mohammed Hanif
Kennedy Center Family Theater

Mohammed Fairouz’s music for The Dictator’s Wife, the new hour-long work premiered by the Washington National Opera as part of its American Opera Initiative Festival, is unremarkable and mostly forgettable.  But the real problem with the opera is Mohammed Hanif’s flat and dramatically inept libretto.  Hanif is a respected British-Pakistani writer, who made his name first as a journalist and then as an award-winning novelist.  But his disappointing work for The Dictator’s Wife makes one suspect that Hanif is familiar with neither Aristotle’s Poetics nor the time-tested principles of a well-constructed Broadway musical.

The Dictator’s Wife is based on a dramatic monologue Hanif wrote in 2008 about an unnamed wife of a third-world dictator.  In advance press, the opera’s creative team (and/or the WNO press office) appeared to be playing up the parallels with Melania Trump, but the opera’s actual setting most closely resembles Hanif’s native Pakistan or another dictatorship in the developing world.  (Dexter Filkins has suggested that the titular character most closely resembles the wife of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Sebha, while Fairouz has also mentioned Pakistani General Zia.)

Hanif’s libretto for The Dictator’s Wife, though, betrays its origins in a monologue and suffers from some basic dramaturgical problems:

1.  The opera’s central character, the First Lady, remains almost completely undefined.  The audience is given no sense of her back story and no understanding of her motivations and objectives.  Despite being on stage for almost the entire hour-long opera, she is never given the equivalent of an “I Want” song, or anything else that could tell us who she is, where she is coming from, and what she wants out of life.  She is not so much a caricature of a dictator’s wife as a complete cipher.  The libretto does gesture toward some psychological turmoil–some kind of inner conflict between the First Lady’s embrace of her glamorous lifestyle and anguish over the plight of her country.  But that element is woefully underdeveloped.

2.  There is no real conflict in the opera.  The characters of the three protestors are meant to act as the vox populi and represent opposition to the dictator’s regime.  But because the dictator himself remains off-stage for the entire opera and because the First Lady isn’t the figure oppressing them (she invites them into her palace for tea and conversation), the story never erupts into direct, interpersonal conflict.  The “vox populi” characters themselves are also flattened and oddly defined through caricature as obnoxious “professional protestors,” robbing them of dramatic power.  The only moment of genuine dramatic frisson comes when the First Lady rushes to stop one of the invited protestors from going into the bathroom where the unseen dictator has holed himself up.  That is the only time in the opera when characters with opposing objectives come into direct conflict on stage.  Literally the only one.

3.  The opera is deeply unfunny.  The program notes call The Dictator’s Wife a “bitingly satirical work,” and Hanif aims his satirical pen at not only the rich and powerful but also the professional protest class, the clueless and self-serving international development community, and regime bootlickers and sycophants.  But Hanif really needs to hire someone to punch up his jokes.  His ongoing gag about the protestors smelling bad gets old real fast, and none of his jokes really land.  The audience sat in stony silence through most of the opera.

4.  The opera’s resolution comes out of nowhere.  At the end of the opera, the First Lady, after mutilating her face with a knife, is given an Evita-like “11 o’clock” number, where she addresses the nation and finally expresses sympathy for the plight of the people.  But this climactic moment feels almost completely unmotivated. Her psychological torment is only barely hinted at for most of the opera: there is no arc to follow, no gradual breakdown of her character to trace, no inciting event that triggers what feels like tacked-on, artificial drama.

This project is in dire need of a dramaturg and/or a script doctor, and the talk of producing the work more widely as a musical should be considered a pipe dream, as there is not much here for a popular audience to sink its teeth into, aside from self-importance.

As the Washington National Opera seems to be embracing topicality for its American Opera Initiative, the company may as well just go ahead and commission a Black Mirror opera from Charlie Brooker.  That way, the libretto would have a chance of actually being interesting, and Brooker would be able to find the most sympathetic audience imaginable for his hating on social media–the aging opera-going demographic.

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