Yesterday afternoon I returned to the War Memorial Opera House to take in the second of the two Thanksgiving weekend performances of Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life presented by the San Francisco Opera. This time I could enjoy my subscription vantage point, which allows me to divide my time between the activity on stage and the activity in the orchestra pit. Nevertheless, this turned out to be an occasion when the narrative held the focus of my attention, whether it was being reinforced by Leonard Foglia’s staging or by Heggie’s setting of Gene Scheer’s libretto.
That focus was directed primarily on how the narrative served a socioeconomic precept I had cited at the end of my previous account of the opening-night performance. I considered the possibility that the narrative may be viewed almost like a “lesson play” (in the spirit of Bertolt Brecht) on the opposing views of the banker Mr. Potter (sung by baritone Rod Gilfry) and the protagonist George Bailey (sung by tenor William Burden). As I put it, the lesson goes back to “Max Weber’s contention that any society in which the only value is monetary value is a seriously flawed social institution.” Over the course of his writing, Weber took this principle in two directions, one involved with loss of freedom and the other with loss of meaning. (Jürgen Habermas would subsequently explore these two losses at greater length in his Theory of Communicative Action.)
As the narrative of It’s a Wonderful Life unfolds, there are any number of indicators of how freedom may be in jeopardy. Potter is revealed to be not only a banker but also a slumlord. The Bailey Building and Loan, founded by George’s father and then taken over by George after his father’s death, becomes a symbol of freedom those those less well-off. It manages as an organization in which the community provides money to help the community, using the underlying capital to build affordable houses. When “Angel Second Class” Clara (soprano Golda Schultz) gives George a vision of a world in which he had not yet been born, freedom has fallen victim to that jeopardy. Potter not only owns the town but also its citizens, whom he holds in a “virtual slavery.”
Loss of meaning, on the other hand, has less to do with the narrative itself and how different generations end up reading it. My own thoughts were triggered this morning when I saw a sign in my condominium complex that referred to “our neighbors.” It triggered a sinking feeling that the very meaning of the noun “neighbor” no longer had much currency when confronted with a mentality that is cripplingly limited to Facebook friends.
Those thoughts then turned to the two critical plot-turns in the opera narrative. The first takes place during the crash of 1929, when Bailey and his new wife Mary (soprano Andriana Chuchman) take the money intended for their honeymoon and distribute it among the depositors of the Building and Loan. That act is then reflected with those same townspeople give their money to Bailey upon learning that the Building and Loan had suffered an unexplained loss of $8000.
The Bailey family, Mary (Andriana Chuchman), George (William Burden), and Uncle Billy (Keith Jameson) with the money given my the neighbors to make up for the lost $8000 (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)
This triggered reflection on those currently prevailing mentalities. I realized that there was now a generation that would react to these episodes by asking “Why didn’t they just set up a GoFundMe page?” That struck me as the essence of a mentality of individuals whose focus on Facebook friends had essentially sapped the meaning out of the noun “neighbor.” In our present day loss of meaning is no longer a threat considered by Weber and Habermas; it is a stark reality.
Heggie’s opera, of course, is not a lecture in socioeconomic theory. It is not even a PBS “Socioeconomics for Dummies” television series! Nevertheless, it is a source of reflection on who we are and what we have become; and, through the imaginative uses of abstraction in Foglia’s staging, it is probably an even greater source of reflection than Frank Capra’s film of the same name had been. Sadly, while those of my generation still seem to appreciate and value such opportunities for reflection, there is a younger brave new world out there for which the concept of “reflection” has joined that of “neighbor” in having lost the essence of its meaning.
Opera cannot change the world, but my second viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life left me wishing that it could.