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Introduction: Opera and Nineteenth-century Literature

  • Nicholas Halmi

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  • Nicholas Halmi
    University of Washington

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It is customary to speak of opera as an extravagant art, combining as it does three distinct art forms—words, music, and theater—the mastery of any one of which is a sufficiently arduous and worthy task. Certainly opera is a demanding art: demanding of its performers, of its producers, and not least of its audiences—indeed what makes the Marx brothers’ spoof of grand opera, A Night at the Opera, so funny is its presentation of operagoers’ anxious awareness of their own assigned role in the complete spectacle. As a demanding art, opera encourages its participants to be demanding of each other: singers want their whims satisfied; impresarios want their costs reduced; directors want their interpretive idiosyncrasies indulged; and audiences want the most familiar works in the repertoire performed by the most famous singers every year. By its nature opera is immoderate: unabashedly artificial, unrestrainedly emotional, unavoidably expensive. Small wonder Adorno declared opera to be truest to itself in self-parody, and most in danger of falling victim to “helpless and kitschy symbolizing” when it tries to present empirical reality.[1]

More than one commentator has described opera as being inherently outmoded, a vestige of grander times in which we seek refuge from the sordidness and dreariness of our own times. “It is very clearly not the function of opera to reproduce the grim realities of the world outside,” we are informed at the outset of the chapter on opera in an authoritative history of nineteenth-century European music, “and anyone who comes to opera with such an expectation is in for disappointment and disillusion” (Donington 211). This is a positive judgment of the very characteristic of opera that, throughout its history, has been held against it: its irrelevance to the serious concerns of life. Even the exceptional operas set in what their original audiences would have recognized as the present or recent past, such as Bizet’s Carmen, mythicize and hence defamiliarize their subject, observes Mladen Dolar: “the operatic life of Spanish workers in the tobacco industry turns out to be more removed from everyday life than the intrigues of the Olympian gods” (Zizek and Dolar 4).

Yet if opera has been disparaged for being too unworldly, it has also, since the early nineteenth century, been disparaged for being insufficiently so, at least in comparison with non-vocal music. Herbert Lindenberger has noted the comparatively low status accorded in music criticism to opera and to composers known primarily for their operatic works (202–3)—with the notable exception of Wagner, a severe (if hardly consistent) critic of both eighteenth-century opera seria (dominated by arias) and nineteenth-century grand opera (dominated by ensemble scenes and showy effects). This aesthetic canon reflects a preference, rooted in German Romanticism, for “absolute music,” instrumental music without an extramusical component or referent (Dahlhaus). Although the exaltation of absolute music in central Europe may have been no less characteristic an expression of a specifically bourgeois taste than the predominance of vocal music in France and Italy, the aesthetic autonomy of instrumental music allowed it, and continues to allow it, to be more easily dissociated from the historical contingencies of its production and reception. The conditions of operatic production, however, call attention to its implication in bourgeois society. For despite the prominence of individuals in its history—Verdi the composer, Toscanini the conductor, Caruso the tenor, Callas the soprano, Bing the impresario—opera is the most collaborative of the performing arts. From conception to realization it is the product of a collective, if not necessarily fully co-operative, effort requiring on the one hand the labor of the composer, librettist, conductor, orchestra, chorus, soloists, impresario, director, stagehands, carpenters, costumiers, hairdressers, and others, and on the other hand the financial support of the public. A filmmaker may simultaneously produce, direct, and act in a film that very few people will ever see; but no one can simultaneously direct, conduct, and sing in an opera, and no opera will be performed more than once to a half-empty theater. “Opera by its very nature,” as the musicologist Winton Dean has said, “is a gigantic series of compromises” (qtd. by Lindenberger 209).

Is this to say that opera, even (or exactly) in its purported escapism, is necessarily a medium of bourgeois values (however those are defined)? Adorno’s answer (quoted in part in the essay by Emily Allen and Dino Felluga) is that “precisely because opera, as a bourgeois vacation spot [bürgerliche Erhohlungsstätte], was so little concerned with the social conflicts of the nineteenth century, it was allowed to mirror the development of bourgeois society itself so blatantly” (33). No such univocal answer emerges from the present collection of essays, although all the contributors address opera’s engagement with empirical reality from the perspective of its relation to literature, whether in operatic adaptations of literary works (the essays by Laura Fasick and me), literary representations of operatic works and figures (the essays by Daniel O’Quinn, Edward Copeland, and Grace Kehler), or within the parameters of a broader artistic genre such as the gothic (the essays by Diane Long Hoeveler and Sarah Davies Cordova and by Emily Allen and Dino Felluga). If there is one point of agreement among the contributors, it is that opera serves as a focus of social anxieties. The anxieties discussed here, various but overlapping, concern subjective identity (Halmi, O’Quinn); national identity (Hoeveler and Cordova, O’Quinn); class relations, particularly between the aristocracy and an aspirant bourgeoisie (Hoeveler and Cordova, Copeland); gender relations (Hoeveler and Cordova, Copeland, Fasick), sexuality (O’Quinn, Kehler); and the aesthetic pleasure afforded by opera itself (Kehler, Allen and Felluga).

Although the order in which the essays are placed in this electronic medium will be even less compelling to the reader than it would be in a printed journal or book, I have nonetheless arranged them, for the benefit of those who wish to read them consecutively, in a roughly chronological progression according to the historical contexts with which they are principally concerned, from the French Revolution (Hoeveler and Cordova) through the Napoleonic period (O’Quinn), the Great Reform Act (Copeland), the Victorian years (Fasick and Kehler), to the age of the Broadway musical (Allen and Felluga). My own essay, however, stands outside this order because it is concerned not with a particular historical reality but more abstractly with the kind of reality that an opera, by virtue of its formal properties, is compelled to present. The closing essay returns to issues mentioned in this introduction—the extravagant and specifically bourgeois nature of opera—and addressed in several essays of the collection—the relation of opera to the gothic—relating them both, by means of Adorno, to a ubiquitous cultural product of our own times, kitsch. Those who bemoan the conservatism of operagoing audiences, which severely restricts the repertoire of companies that must subsist without substantial government subsidies, may take comfort in the fact that Verdi and Puccini are nowhere discussed in the present collection, indeed that almost none of the operas mentioned are part of today’s standard repertoire. Others, I hope, especially those who would like nothing better than to hear Pavarotti sing Cavaradossi year after year, will discover in these essays not only something of opera’s engagement with history, but something of its own history.

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