Nabucco, a Pipeline Opera in Four Acts

By Corey Johnson
Nabucco, a Pipeline Opera in Four Acts

Nabucco was the first opera I saw in Europe. My German host family took me in the summer of 1996 to a spectacular staging under the stars in the Roman-era amphitheater in the northern Italian city of Verona. Giuseppe Verdi’s classico retells the Psalm 137 story of the exile of the Jews to Babylon by the Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco in Italian). You would recognize the great unison chorus, Va, pensiero, in which the enslaved Jews sing:

Oh my country, so lovely and lost!
O memory, so precious and ill-fated!

Verdi’s version is widely believed to have been a thinly veiled metaphor for the plight of Italians under papal and Austro-Hungarian rule. A few years after the opera premiered in Milan in 1842, the Austrian foreign minister would famously write to his British counterpart that “Italy is only a geographical expression.”

So now we have a new Nabucco at the center of what Daniel Freifeld has called a “great pipeline opera.” He relates the story of a business meeting among gas industry leaders in Vienna that ended with a trip to the opera; you now know what they saw and how the proposed pipeline got its name. This third time around, it is not a Biblical tale of an exiled people seeking a return to its homeland, or imperial subjects wanting recognition and self-determination as in 19th century Risorgimento Italy, but rather the somewhat less romantic storyline of natural gas stranded under the Caspian and the attempts by Europeans to liberate it for their own consumption.

So, with many apologies to Verdi, here is my own attempt at a slightly fictionalized summary of the Nabucco pipeline, in four acts. Act IV is being written right now, and we may know the outcome very soon.

Synopsis Nabucco

Key Players: European Union; USA; Russia; producers such as BP and SOCAR; regional governments; choruses of consultants and engineers.

ACT I. Caspian, circa 1900

Thus saith mother nature: I give you an inland sea rich with treasures under its surface; these treasures shall burneth.

Milling around the old city of Baku in 1900, situated in what later became Azerbaijan (literally: “protected by fire”), the signs of an oil boom are everywhere. Against the iconic backdrop of tightly packed wooden oil derricks stretching as far as the eye can see, traditionally dressed Azeris are nearly outnumbered by Russian, Norwegian, and French businessmen and engineers in business attire of the times. The unmistakable stench of petroleum permeates the wind-swept city on the Absheron peninsula. The Nobels and Rothchilds have helped turn the region around Baku into the most prolific source of oil in the world, while local barons have become the turn of the last century’s version of the 1%. Natural gas, an undesired byproduct, is either flared or simply allowed to escape into the air, its future value unknown.

Time moves ahead, the Soviet Union arrives, and after peaking early in WWII, oil production wanes in the second half of the 20th century. The Soviet Union never suffered a lack of fossil fuels, and planners never saw the need to exploit more aggressively the Caspian’s reserves. This bodes well for the future newly independent states. The act ends with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

ACT II. Champions of industry

Behold the fast changing events that make some millionaires and others fools.

Scene 1: A bar in Washington, early 1990s

A think tank meeting about the US role in post-Soviet space has spilled over into dinner then into a hotel bar. Over whiskey, a pin-striped under-deputy secretary of state, a bespectacled tweedy academic, and a think tanker (unsure of appropriate clichéd attire) discuss the newly independent states of Central Asia and the South Caucasus. (Oil company representatives sit at the next table). As the night rolls on, they hatch a plan to ensure economic and political stability, and to ensure a role for the world’s lone superpower in the region: that new strategic pipelines should be laid to move hydrocarbons to market, maybe eventually all the way to Europe since Europeans are overly dependent on Russian gas.

Scene 2: Marble hall, Baku, mid 1990s

A grand chorus of foreign petroleum engineers sings as the “contract of the century” is signed by ministers and big oil executives. A feast of wild game and sturgeon is devoured. More than a decade later, the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and the Baku Tblisi-Erzurum (BTE) gas pipeline are dedicated, and serious amounts of oil and gas begin to flow, but none of the gas actually reaches Europe.

ACT III. The Prophecy

The seeds of European energy dependency, fuel substitution, and dwindling North Sea gas supplies grow from the ground; they shall be harvested when the season is right.

Scene 1: Opera house in a post-imperial capital city in Central Europe

Representatives from gas companies delight in a performance and beam at each other following the finalization of plans for a grand strategic pipeline to supply Europe with gas from Caspian countries. Conspicuously absent is anyone from the countries in question, none of which alone could possibly supply enough gas to fill the pipeline whose name will bear the name of the evening’s opera. The flag of the EU and a (smallish) US flag descend upon the stage as a Russian bass sings a story of loss and betrayal.

Scene 2: A socialist-era apartment in a non-descript eastern European country, 2006

A warmly clothed family huddles around the computer. Gas supplies from Russia have been interrupted in the depth of winter because of a price dispute between Ukraine and Russia. The mother sings an aria in which she laments her current state and dreams of a future in Europe.

ACT IV. The Broken Pipeline (?)

Oettinger is confounded; his pipeline is falling to pieces.

Scene 1: A fancy, modern conference facility in a country where a Turkic language is spoken, present day

Speeches by pipeline proponents and politicians extol the virtues of their respective projects. The Russian sings of a South Stream, an American and European diplomat duo retorts with “supply diversity.” No one appears to notice the side stage, where industry economists hash out a much more modest alternative proposal while an official from a Caspian gas-producing country nods approvingly. It appears that the grand strategic plan for a European pipeline filled with gas from a handful of gas rich countries, none of them Russia, is crumbling.

Scene 2: The hanging gardens, in the future

South Stream has taken poison. At the sacrificial altar, the high priestess of hydrocarbons prepares to make the final judgment on the competing projects. The biggest of the remaining proposals seems most vulnerable. To which does she show her mercy? To be continued…this final act is still not quite written.

For a synopsis of the real opera Nabucco, see