Sympathy for the Attorney General

Student composer writes musical performance based on congressional testimony.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

By Peter Nichols

The first hint that music doctoral student Melissa Dunphy had that the upcoming performance of The Gonzales Cantata might be more than a moderate success came from a violinist’s mom, who had called her daughter’s cell the night of the dress rehearsal. “I just saw you on Fox News,” she reported.

Dunphy had composed the musical work and would be conducting a group of 30 musicians and singers whom she had recruited for performances at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in September. The wave of publicity had already been building with brief mentions in Harpers and The Atlantic, and longer stories in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune and other news outlets. Then Dunphy’s husband got an alert on his iPhone that MSNBC’s Rachael Maddow had tweeted her 1.2 million Twitter followers about The Gonzales Cantata.

“Twenty minutes later I get a phone call from a producer of The Rachel Maddow Show saying, ‘We’re about to feature your production on our program,’” Dunphy recounts. “She told me, ‘We’re going to crash your website.’”

Cast and crew rushed to a nearby bar to catch the show. The PR wave crested later that night when, for three hours, The Gonzales Cantata was the number-one search on Google. The wave broke over the website, but the next day was the first of three performances.

"Gonzales politicized the Justice Department, and the country just went to a really bad place. But I didn't want to demonize him. I want people to empathize with him and feel a sense of how tragic it is that a man with so much promise could end up putting himself in this horrible position." – Melissa Dunphy

Dunphy’s cantata is a choral rendering of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ 2007 hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The 19-member committee had investigated the “crisis of leadership” in the Justice Department and the attorney general’s role in illegal wiretaps and the political dismissals of U.S. attorneys, his legalistic justifications of torture and irregular interpretations of citizen’s rights under the U.S. Constitution, along with a number of other abuses and ethical lapses. The cantata’s libretto is lifted directly from the transcript of the hearing and Gonzales’ resignation speech, but the music has a baroque-like formality with parts that sound a lot like Handel.

Born and raised in Australia, Dunphy is a classically trained musician who plays violin, viola and cello. Fellow graduate student Thomas Patteson, who attended one of the performances, observes, “The Gonzales Cantata is effective both as a work of art—the music is exquisite—and as mordant political commentary.” Patteson is in his third year of doctoral studies in musicology and focuses on the history of music technology and electronic music. “The use of Congressional testimony in the libretto created numerous situations of humorous contrast between prosaic speech and music that poked fun at its pomposity.”

A news-and-politics junkie, Dunphy listened to the hearings on the radio and was “transfixed” by the savage and sardonic attacks of Republicans, particularly Senator Arlen Specter, on one of their own. “I almost felt sorry for Gonzales, even though I disagreed with everything he stood for,” she says. At the time, Dunphy noted how a Congressional hearing has something of a staged quality, like a cantata, and that the committee could serve as a chorus while the question-and-answer sessions worked as duets, with Gonzales as the soloist. “I kept obsessing over the hearings, and the more I thought about it, the more I said to myself, ‘I have to do something with this—it’s so dramatic!’”

In the cantata, the genders of Gonzales and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are switched, both to register the composer’s protest that there was only one woman—Senator Diane Feinstein—involved in the hearings and to deal with the more practical matter of there being many more female opera singers in the world to recruit from. The singers wore red or blue dresses (depending on party affiliation) with white sashes bearing the names of their characters, and each one wore a tiara. In one particularly moving aria, soloist Mary Thorne, who played Gonzales, sang variations on the refrain, “I don’t recall,” 72 times—the number of times the phrase is repeated in the hearing transcript. A ticker counted off the repetitions for the audience as they were sung.

Besides her Ph.D. coursework, Dunphy is currently working on an orchestral suite based on Jack and the Beanstalk, complete with narrator and a children’s choir. She hopes one day to write a “space opera” using the plot of a science-fiction story. “It would probably involve aliens and maybe take place on another planet,” she muses.

Back on earth, Dunphy wonders about Gonzales and the price he paid for his loyalty to President Bush. “The Gonzales Cantata is about a man who made some mistakes,” she explains, “and is facing the music.” In becoming what critics have called Bush’s yes-man, “Gonzales politicized the Justice Department, and the country just went to a really bad place. But I didn’t want to demonize him. I want people to empathize with him and feel a sense of how tragic it is that a man with so much promise could end up putting himself in this horrible position.”

In her appraisal of The Gonzales Cantata, Rachel Maddow noted, “This is not an anti-Gonzales thing. … In my opinion, it is both great and kind of moving.”