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Tenor Madness: Kavanaugh Hearings as Opera “Boof”

Grassley the baritone bombed. No bouquets were thrown at the feet of contralto Feinstein, the prima donna of mediocrity. Mezzo Murkowski chewed the scenario, bleated sparsely, then scuttled into the wings to a chorus of boos. Collins cracked in her coloratura.

It was the two tenors who stole the show.

Brett Kavanaugh relished his Wagnerian stretches as hero to half-his-audience-plus-one, anti-hero to the rest. Rather than the echo chamber of the Supreme Court, it is the limelight he craves. Throughout the epic simulcast role of a lifetime he stayed high in his register, throttling the skeins of stratospheric notes with terrifying tenacity. Sotto voceis not his forte.

Not to be outdone on the biggest stage (in terms of market share) east of La Scala and west of the Hollywood Bowl, Lindsey Graham hit his mark, commandeered the mike and made every high C sting. His rage aria powered by million-dollar vocal cords that, had he followed his true desires, would have landed him at the Met not in the U. S. Senate.

Throughout the spectacle one thought of Verdi’s Don Carlos. An auto-da-féon Capitol Hill seemed inevitable—and still does. The hearing and the stilted drama of the vote that followed have provided rich material for directors keen to update the classics to the shrill present: a softer, gentler Grand Inquisitor from Don Carlosdone as sex crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchel; a cryogenic Orrin Hatch as the Duke of Llerma; a bumbling Patrick Leahy as Rodrigo; bel canto Brett in the title role, hopelessly in love with his step-mother and ready to show it …

So overheated was the bizarre performance of the two tenors, Kavanaugh and Graham—and so byzantine that of the supporting cast—that one naturally thought of grand opera. Yet perhaps the greatest composer for the strident, sanctimonious, unhinged, and utterly thrilling tenor voice was Johann Sebastian Bach. To deliver his demanding lines with the requisite shape, accuracy and emphasis is one of the most arduous tasks in music. Kavanaugh accomplished the analogous feat with his string of aggrieved arias.

Listen to Bach’s bone-chilling aria “Schweig, schweig nur, taumelnde Vernunft!” from a cantata he composed in 1724 for a mid-summer church service in Leipzig and you can practically hear Kavanaugh ripping to the next page of his script, his scowl set, his lips quivering, his voice electric with outrage.

The jerks and heaves of the instrumental introduction of slashing strings anticipate the tenor entry with molten fury: the voice cannot restrain itself, entering even before the violins have finished and arrived at their cadence.  This is a male voice that can’t wait to testify, to shout down his accusers:

“Be silent, just silent, reeling reason!
Do not say: the righteous are lost;
The cross has only given them birth again.”

These words indignantly elaborate on the warnings issued by Jesus in the Sermon of the Mount, the Gospel reading for the Sunday on which the cantata was performed, the eighth after Trinity: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”

The tenor will not yield, repeating his call for “silence” in octave jabs and angular leaps punctuated by short, exasperated pauses. Defying his own gag order, it is his ardent singing that fills the void and quashes dissent. Reasoned inquiry is the enemy: faith not fact promises redemption. In depicting the image of lurching and staggering reason, Bach has the vocal line hesitate and doubt, circling back on itself in disorienting figures and feints. After these vexations, the music brightens with the prospect of redemption for believers.  Once reason has been bludgeoned into submission the door to salvation opens.

The door into the inner sanctum of American justice, too.

A frequent concept invoked across Bach’s oeuvre of some 200 church cantatas is that of “Gerechtigkeit”— Justice. As in, the God of. Many times in Bach’s sacred music the Almighty is often depicted as a Judge, harsh and unforgiving. Bach is stupendous at retribution; Kavanaugh will be, too.

For the first Sunday after New Year, 1724—a time of reappraisals and beginning again—Bach produced “Schau lieber Gott, wie meine Feinde” (BWV 153), a musical reflection on the Slaughter of the Innocents. Rather than a fully-fledged chorale fantasy to start the work, Bach went easy on his choristers and filled out the cantata with simpler, hymn-like harmonizations. Unusually, one of these begins the piece:

“See, dear God, how my enemies,
With whom I must constantly battle,
Are so deceitful and so powerful,
That they easily oppress me!
Lord, where Your grace does not sustain me,
The devil, flesh, and the world can
Easily plunge me into misfortune.”

Soon after this placidly expressed persecution complex is aired, the voice of God promises in a bass aria to remain with the oppressed and protect him with “the right hand of his justice.”

But the alleged victim is not calmed by these pronouncements, and instead whips himself up into a tenor frenzy in the aria “Stürmt nur, stürmt, ihr Trübsalwetter” that is pure Kavanaugh:

Rage, just rage, you storms of trouble,
Surge, you floods, over me!
Explode, you flames of affliction,
Over me at once,
Destroy, you enemies, my peace,
Yet God speaks comfortingly to me:
I am your refuge and rescuer.

The violins of the instrumental introduction curl upward in threatening vortices then break back on themselves. Against these whipping winds, the bass is obstinate at first, then seethes downward towards doom. The elements combine for a furious gust of octaves that is shattered by a bolt of lightning at the cadence. The music threatens to be pulled apart by its own force, even before the tenor starts his emergency alert announcement, bullying the tempest towards greater destruction, tossing and turning on the storm surge of his own victimhood.  Flames break out and these thrill him to apocalyptic, bravura bluster. Amidst these pyrotechnics a long note low in the register literally holds out “peace” and an eerie vision of the heavenly protector glows momentarily, then recedes beyond the horizon of the catastrophe as the storm renews its assault, the tenor shouting against its unjust wrath.

Kavanaugh donned his inky costume and gargled his voice back to readiness for select connoisseurs and complainants behind the closed doors of the Supreme Court just as God pounded Florida with the bipartisan fury of Hurricane Michael.  Ensconced in his stormproof marble fortress, the anti-heroic tenor would no longer be buffeted by the media frenzy.  He had landed high and dry and on the bench.  But that won’t stop him getting into character and hot under the judicial collar.  It won’t stop him from singing his heart out.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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