Don Carlos and the Discernment of Spirits

Earlier this week, I went to the Kennedy Center to see Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Don Carlos.  It’s the story of eponymous crown prince of Spain and his family.  Based much more on Schiller’s play than on actual history, Don Carlos offers viewers a grand tangle of humanity.  Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition many contemporary critics see the play through a myopic lens.  “It’s all about liberty vs. oppression.”  “It’s about the cruel Church crushing the spirit of liberty!”  Wrong on both counts.

Don Carlos debuted in Paris, 1867.  At the time, Giuseppe Verdi was not only a world famous composer, he was also a patriot firmly dedicated to the unification of Italy.  The natural instrument of unification should have been the Pope, but history doesn’t always go the way we think it should.  Pope Pius IX was torn between his own love of country and his duty as a [then] national leader.  To unify Italy meant declaring war on multiple Catholic dynasties (Habsburg, Bourbon, and multiple smaller Italian clans).  As the ruler of the Papal States, the cause of unification put Pius IX in a terrible position.  Further, Pius IX had lived through the “year of revolutions” (1848) and seen the terrible toll they took on effected lands and people.  That he was hesitant to engulf Italy in further warfare should not necessarily be counted against him.

This historical issue actually leads me to the real theme of this opera… an issue much deeper and more satisfying than the shallow dialectic of “liberty good, Church bad.”  It’s about discernment.  Each character has his or her own “good,” to which he or she is totally committed.  The resulting clashes might easily leave you scratching your head.  “A royal family in discord… this is what I paid $100 to see on stage?  I could’ve stayed home and watched the news.”  That assessment would be fair were it not for Verdi’s music.

Music, much more humanely than mere argument, has the power to present competing “goods” like love, patriotism, faith etc. without the process feeling chaotic.  Just as competing themes in a symphony can be resolved at the piece’s end, so human conflict finds balance as the curtain falls and the audience rises to applaud.  For our part, the orchestra’s work carries singers’ voices, softening hearts not to judge each good, not to take sides, but rather to appreciate each in turn.  When the evening is over, we leave the argument on the theater’s stage, taking home the fruits of our meditation.

In life as in opera, the hardest choices are not between good and evil, but between competing goods.  There’s nothing wrong with patriotism, love, faith, or duty, but when they clash, how are we to proceed.  To make things harder, our lives don’t come with sound tracks.  What’s to carry our soul in discerning between these goods?  I suggest that there are certain musical accompaniments in our lives to help the discernment process.  Friendship is a sweet, patient, nurturing environment where we can work our the knots of our lives.  It’s a melody that carries us, lightening the load until a decision can be made.  Sacramental life (mass, confession, prayer) is the steady drumbeat that drives us ever forward over obstacles, constant in our commitment to the long haul.  Marriage is, perhaps, a beautiful combination of the two.

This Lent, consider a trip to the opera… if you can’t go, consider tuning into the Saturday afternoon live broadcasts from the Met on WETA 90.9 FM.  See what food for thought it may give you and what it can do to aide in your own discernment of spirits.