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Opera as Drivel

A friend wrote to me the other day in an e-mail exchange that started when we both saw “The Letter” in Santa Fe and were both underwhelmed. He wanted to know what importance I placed on the content of opera, mentioning that he’d complained about “The Letter” libretto to a friend on opening night, only to have the friend respond that, well, most opera librettos are drivel. (The friend cited “Aida” as an example.)

I don’t quote this to put anyone on the spot. But the whole issue highlights to me a problem we’ve been seeing more and more of in opera: even those who supposedly love the art form, and who are involved in putting it on, are increasingly laboring under the delusion that it is inherently over-the-top, overblown, ridiculous, and, well, drivel.

I don’t want to beat up on “The Letter,” either, since I already made my opinion clearly known. (I'm not alone in my criticisms, either.) But the opera's problems epitomized this way of thinking, to wit: opera has to have arias; opera has to have big emotions; therefore, we will have arias and ensembles, because they are the ingredients that make opera, even if it means stopping the action to tell the audience things that we already know.
(read more after the jump)

I am certainly a proponent of the idea that there are certain tried and true ingredients in opera: some things work, some things don't. (I frequently cite (scroll down) “Peter Grimes” and “Wozzeck” as two examples of operas written by composers who understand how to use operatic ingredients to make fabulous works.) But when you become too formulaic, you destroy the whole point, which is to create vital drama. I personally don’t think opera works at all unless you actually believe in the drama you’re bringing across. Anything that’s done in the name of creating an “operatic effect” probably isn’t going to cut it.

“Aida” is a perfect demonstration. “Aida” is cited because it’s become a stereotype of grand-opera-plus-elephants. But the whole reason “Aida” has endured is that, far from being drivel, it starts with huge grand-opera trappings and gradually throws them off to reach those two last acts which are a lean, mean quartet calling for four remarkable singers, with only cameo parts for the chorus. My husband pointed out tonight, as we discussed this topic, that there is only one actual aria in the last two acts of “Aida,” and it comes in a moment of stasis when the heroine is onstage waiting for the action to begin. The great scene for mezzo-soprano isn’t an aria at all; it’s dramatic action. And this in an opera that’s become a byword for operatic camp. I wish that many operas written today were as dramatically innovative (and I submit that there’s a reason that “Aida” has managed to hold the stage for all these years).

Of course, the reason that the drama works is that the music makes it dramatic. Even the greatest libretto can't survive undramatic music.

So what are your thoughts about the much-maligned opera libretto?

By Anne Midgette  |  August 13, 2009; 6:36 AM ET
Categories:  festivals , opera , random musings  
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"So what are your thoughts about the much-maligned opera libretto?"

Those who malign opera libretti which don't deserve such contempt mostly don't understand that in opera, spinning out the drama is NOT the proper function of the libretto but of the music almost exclusively. The libretti of all great operas function almost exclusively as armatures for the drama, the function of that armature being to render narrative and factual matters specific and concrete which music is incapable of expressing, and at the same time never compete with the music dramatically. Wagner's libretti are superb examples of this, his sometimes curious German notwithstanding, as are all the Da Ponte libretti written for Mozart, _Cosi_ perhaps excepted. I'm certain you could cite numerous similar examples in the Italian rep, but which rep is well outside my area of competence to comment on.


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | August 13, 2009 8:32 AM | Report abuse

Anne, you're mischaracterizing Aida by saying it starts with, then casts off the huge grand opera trappings. The opera opens with two intimate scenes (Radames/Ramfis; Aida/Radames/Amneris trio) and expands into the crowd scenes. And the last act has the judgment scene, which is another of the grand scenes even though the mass scene is offstage. The essential dramatic tension of private love versus public duty is related to the scale tensions, of course, but Aida is not primarily an opera of huge scenes. The fact is that we don't care that much about the Egypt/Ethiopia war. We care about the fates of the central trio.

I think the Aida libretto has plenty of dramatic problems: The padre-ex-machina of Amonasro's appearance during the Nile duet, his failure to flee when he has the chance, the failure of the couple to flee when they have a chance, Aida's decision to sneak into the tomb, Radames's driven-by-love bad decisions.

Why has Aida survived? Well, we care about the characters and the music is really, really great. Any singer who's able to handle the demands wants to sing it; conductors want to conduct it; audiences want to hear it.

I should put it: some people care about the characters. I don't, but I have a dozen or so recordings anyway.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | August 13, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Hello Anne,

You wrote:

"I personally don’t think opera works at all unless you actually believe in the drama you’re bringing across.."


Opera is defined by music. You can strip away the visual element and still have an opera. Movies - now there's a medium that is first and foremost a dramatic/visual art form. Opera, not even close. The fact that so many directors take so many liberties with opera simply serves to underscore how relatively unimportant the visual element is. What conductor, at least today, would suggest fundamentally reworking the music of Debussy or Wagner or Verdi? Keep in mind that it is the composer - that is, the person who wrote the music - that is most important and discussed the most. Clearly, music is the most important element.

Opera is NOT 'a dramatic stage performance set to music'. Opera -- genuine opera -- is fundamentally dramma per musica, drama realized through the agency of music. The music contains, shapes, and defines the drama. The text and visual elements act merely as the "fact-and detail-concrete armature about which the drama is constructed. The music is always the paramount definer, shaper, and transmitter of the drama.

Even Wagner himself learned that to his dismay, and had eventually to disavow his own theoretical principle of Gesamtkunstwerk in the form he first adduced it.



Posted by: Operahaven | August 13, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Obviously, the music is key, but why not have brilliantly written, poetic language that serves the further expression of the story?

Perhaps this can be another evolutionary piece of the art form in the coming years.

As a side note, I'm sorry to hear The Letter didn't quite come off.

Do people think that new operas are generally maligned because of a sense of operatic snobbishness?

Posted by: ladivina | August 13, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

The opera plots folks make fun of are pretty much all mid-nineteenth century. The plays of that period, contemporary audiences would make fun of also - weren't several Puccini operas adapted from contemporary pot-boilers? Different dramatic values for different times. The great late Verdi Shakespeare adaptations are the exceptions that maybe prove the rule.
In today's era, we tolerate the older dramatic values because we love the music and the singing that goes with them. But for contemporary opera we wouldn't tolerate the old dramatic values, even as many won't tolerate contemporary musical styles.....

Opera can't win for losing....

Me, I say they should keep on trying, either some new genius will come along to figure it out, or younger audiences will lose the old expectations and embrace the new, or both.

Posted by: c-clef | August 13, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

I think that many of today's artists and directors are embarassed of their chosen field, opera. Yes, they love it and are good at it, but many of their friends and contemporaries don't understand it. These folks reflexively make fun of it rather than try to approach it on its own terms or do any work to figure out what others (admittedly a minority) see in it. A sort of conformity bends these creators to make fun of their vocation. "It is silly isn't it?" I think of Dessay and Zimmerman who mocked La Sonnambula because they were uncomfortable with presenting a sincere version. Updating can work, but not when you're constantly "winking" at the audience about how unworthy the opera is.

I have not seen The Letter, but I did see Previn's Brief Encounter in Houston. I enjoyed it. It wasn't perfect, but I would go see it again if I had the chance. I didn't see as much discussion about this new opera as The Letter is getting. I wonder why? Is Previn so old hat that he's beneath notice? Perhaps not as many people saw it since it premiered in unfashionable Houston...

Posted by: tripleneck | August 13, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse

There are two issues here. The first is that composers consider an opera's libretto with various levels of seriousness. Some consider the libretto to be merely a vehicle for the music they want to compose. Others take the libretto seriously and work to make the music and story enhance each other. Isn't it pretty obvious that the best composers do the latter? Shouldn't composers try to make every aspect of an opera good? If all you care about is the music, then compose a symphony and spare the cost of a stage and singers.

The second issue which so far has gone unmentioned is that people today have much different perceptions of what to expect in a drama than they used to 200 years ago or even 80 years ago. The idea that drama should be portrayed realistically is a relatively modern concept that came with plays and especially movies in the 20th century. But if you look at movies leading up to the 1940s, a whole lot of them made absolutely no attempt at realism either. Take a look at "The Scarlet Empress" for example.

The truth is we've gotten so used to seeing "realistic" drama in movies that when we see anything else it can come across as jarring or ridiculous. I think when many people complain that an opera's libretto is "drivel" or that the story is "over-the-top," they're really reacting to the fact that the opera isn't like the "realistic" movies they're used to seeing.

And I would go one step further and point out that, if you think about it, there are plenty of movies and musicals that are "over-the-top." Just about any movie by Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Peter Greenaway, or Tim Burton is over-the-top and unrealistic, but they do so to get at larger artistic ends. Also, musicals like Wicked, Cats, and Sweeney Todd are unrealistic and over-the-top, too, but people don't sit around complaining about it because it would obviously miss the whole point of what those works are trying to do in the first place.

Posted by: robertcostic | August 13, 2009 8:21 PM | Report abuse

OperaHaven, 'dramma per musica' means the opposite of what you think it does—a drama to be set to music, for example the libretti of Metastasio, and by extension a libretto-driven (as opposed to music-driven) opera.

Posted by: DanJohnson | August 13, 2009 9:45 PM | Report abuse

I think the above comment is pretty much spot on the money... that it's not so much the libretto that's crappy but that audiences expectations have changed to be more demanding of realism... an early opera without a deus ex machina or an aria for Amore would have been just as strange as a recent work WITH a deus ex machina or Amore dropping from the flies to muse on the fleeting time of love in a da capo aria. Even kids cartoons have the self-knowing wink in them now, so its difficult for a modern audience to accept the bizarre twists of Trovatore.

And yet super-realistic libretti also bomb out because its hard to set "I'm just popping out to the shops" or "Is that your phone or mine that is ringing?" to a full orchestra without it sounding like some kind of parody or joke.

The new book that came out fairly recently on the Mozart operas (I forget the author) mounts a stunning defence on the character of Don Ottavio, who is a big wuss and drain on the Giovanni libretto. The argument was that for an Enlightenment audience, Ottavio MUST be restrained and speak more than he acts because this is the very essence of the noble class, to which he belongs. It would have been inconceivable for Da Ponte to write him any other way.

All that said though, I don't think anyone could deny that Ariadne auf Naxos has a bit of a dud of a libretto but survives purely through its glorious music.

Aside, it would greatly amuse me if someone like, say John Adams, decided he was going to write an opera seria with its codified system of entrances and exits.

Posted by: ianw2 | August 13, 2009 10:02 PM | Report abuse

I'm apparently the only person writing in public about "The Letter" who liked it a lot; so be it.

ianw2, oh, boy, I disagree about "Ariadne." I think that's a great libretto because of its weird self-referentiality. The Prologue is pretty damn funny, and the notion of performing a commedia del'arte simultaneously with a tragedy...! Well, I love it, anyway.

I'm going to call out what AC Douglas says above: "...spinning out the drama is NOT the proper function of the libretto but of the music almost exclusively." (The Cosi libretto is better than you think, you know. ;-)

I like Italian opera a lot more than ACD does, to put it mildly, and that includes plenty of operas that have wretched libretto problems but work anyway. Do I need to wave around "Il Trovatore"? "La Gioconda"? "Ernani"? Yes, maybe I do.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | August 13, 2009 10:25 PM | Report abuse

LisaHirsch1 wrote: "I'm going to call out what AC Douglas says above: '...spinning out the drama is NOT the proper function of the libretto but of the music almost exclusively.' (The Cosi libretto is better than you think, you know. ;-)"

I think the _Cosi_ libretto is far too good for its own (or, rather, the opera's) good. That's its problem. It gave Mozart almost nowhere to go dramatically. But Mozart being Mozart -- which is to say, *ne plus ultra* -- he dealt with it by writing some of the most dramatically gorgeous music ever written for opera.


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | August 13, 2009 11:07 PM | Report abuse

DanJohnson wrote: "...'dramma per musica' means the opposite of what you [Operahaven] think it does — a drama to be set to music, for example the libretti of Metastasio, and by extension a libretto-driven (as opposed to music-driven) opera."

Yes, that was its original meaning. But subsequent to the Florentine Camerata of the late 16th century which marked the beginnings of opera as we now know it, *dramma per musica* came to mean exactly what Operahaven wrote it means; viz., drama through (or by) the agency of music.


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | August 13, 2009 11:22 PM | Report abuse

ACD, I'm sorry to be such a pedant, but I'm still quite sure that you and OperaHaven are mistaken. Metastasio was, after all, writing subsequent to the Florentine Camerata! See the Grove Dictionary:

"A phrase found on the title-page of many Italian librettos; it refers to a text expressly written to be set by a composer (e.g. L’Erismena, drama per musica di Aurelio Aureli, Favola Seconda dedicata all’illustriss. Signor Giacomo Cavalli M DC LV), and by extension also to the composition. The term was commonly used for serious Italian opera in the 18th century, and is in effect interchangeable with the primarily modern term opera seria. Variants such as dramma in musica (referring to the setting rather than to the verbal text) or dramma musicale are also found. Some later writers have misinterpreted the term in the sense ‘drama through music’ and applied it to musico-dramatic effects achieved by the composer."

What's your source? Thanks!

Posted by: DanJohnson | August 14, 2009 12:03 AM | Report abuse

DanJohnson wrote: "What's your source?"

The seminal work on opera as drama titled, cleverly, _Opera as Drama_, by the brilliant musicologist Joseph Kerman, for one (he of that deathless description of _Tosca_ as a "shabby little shocker").


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | August 14, 2009 12:22 AM | Report abuse

In one of my comments above, I said that, for _Cosi_, Mozart wrote "some of the most dramatically gorgeous music ever written for opera." The phrase, "dramatically gorgeous music" should less ambiguously have been worded, "gorgeous dramatic music."

The above, just for the record.


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | August 14, 2009 1:06 AM | Report abuse

ACD, thanks again! I revise my earlier statement: I am now quite sure that you, OperaHaven, and Kerman are mistaken. I would not be surprised if Kerman, personally, was the "later writer" that the author of the Grove article had in mind.

Posted by: DanJohnson | August 14, 2009 1:07 AM | Report abuse

No, Dan, we are not mistaken, nor is Joseph Kerman. To today insist on using the term _dramma per musica_ only in its original sense except when discussing historical matters is sheer academic pedantry of the worst sort. In opera as it's developed and as we've come to know it today, _dramma per musica_ means precisely, drama through (or by) the agency of music.


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | August 14, 2009 1:43 AM | Report abuse

I'll take mild issue with my friend Anne (we usually agree), on The Letter. It was not meant to be an Aida or a Trovatore or even a Peter Grimes. It sets a rather ironic little short story of no great profundity. It is pure Maugham and Moravec and Terry T. had the good sense to keep it Maugham -- set to some high quality movie music. I liked it quite well; in fact I am going back to a third performance. Racette is a wonder, the production is good -- I can think of ways that the show can be improved, but they are relatively minor -- ten minutes shorter by dropping out anything verbal/vocal from the Chinese woman would be a good place to start. Also, we can use better motivation for Leslie's suicide (a non-Maugham part of the show). But it is a musical theatre piece, hardly an opera in any classical sense. It's the best contemporary show I've seen at SFeO in years, and I hope it will return in future.
jim van sant/santa fe

Posted by: mrmysteer | August 14, 2009 2:24 AM | Report abuse

Many of the failures of “The Letter” stemmed from the experiment of trying to combine characteristics of film noir with opera. The understatement of noir (ranging from the droll to the callous) is in almost direct contrast to the pathos (and bathos) that generally informs great opera. And noir usually focuses much more on action and storyline than character development which is the heart of opera. If they had succeeded in their misguided adventure it would have been an astounding feat.

It was painfully apparent that Teachout and Moravec had no experience writing opera, and even worse, very little contact with the opera world and its methods of creation and production. Opera composition is specialized work. Almost all of the great opera composers wrote only operas. (Mozart and Strauss are probably the two most notable exceptions.) And many, if not most opera composers spent much of their lives in the theater and knew its workings from the inside out.

To contact mid-career composers without a theatrical background and ask them to write an opera is nonsense. Failure is almost guaranteed. Would you ask an endocrinologist to do open heart surgery? Would you call a plumber to fix your car? Opera composers and librettists should be specially trained and experienced professionals in the specific art of writing opera. There have been so many new operas produced of late by big houses like Santa Fe, the Met, and numerous others, and they have almost all failed miserably because administrators think they can call up any good composer and have him or her write an opera even if they lack the training. That’s ridiculous, and millions of dollars have been pointlessly wasted in the process.

By contrast, Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” worked (even if it isn’t a really great opera) because he is a deeply immersed theater musician. He has worked as an accompanist for the San Francisco Opera for years, he has written a lot of vocal music for his colleagues, and he has very close relationships with some of the singers. He knows how opera works. And he did not just write generic vocal parts, he wrote for Frederica Von Stade and her colleagues, and thus his characters are imbued with a physical presence and identity. (Writing for specific artists is historically also an important part of the lives of many of the great opera composers.) His theatrical knowledge and instincts also guided him toward a story that worked excellently as a libretto, and his librettist was a highly experienced playwright.

By contrast, Teachout is a great journalist and anything but a poet. It is a sign of Moravec’s cluelessness (and that of the administrators involved) that they would approach someone as inexperienced as Teachout to write a libretto. His text was so colorless and undramatic it was one of the worst I have ever seen. (Maybe we should be thankful that nerdy, rightwing journalists are not especially gifted with operatic pathos. If they were, we’d be in real trouble.) Why didn’t they at least find an experienced playwright?

There was some really fine composing by Moravec, but I was very surprised by some of the weaknesses in the orchestration – especially the redundant doublings, which not only muddled the music and sometimes gave it the sound of a concert band, but even more because it risked obscuring the singers. The conductor was finally given a very free hand to repair some of the orchestration during the rehearsals – not something you want to spend time with when you only have about a tenth the rehearsal time that is actually needed. These endeavors were a bit unnerving for the musicians in the pit. (I’m surprised word of this didn’t get to any of the journalists covering the opera.)

Opera houses need studio theaters and very long apprentice programs to train people in the specialization of opera composition. The Europeans are the only ones with the funding systems and cultural infrastructures to institute such undertakings, but they too lack the long-term vision to solve these problems. If something like the Munich Biennale were to combine with an innovative house like the Stuttgart Opera to create a well-funded ten-year long apprentice program for opera composers and librettists, we might be able to prevent opera from becoming a dead art form.

Posted by: wasteland | August 14, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

I agree with the very thought provoking article and it's question as posed by Ms. Midgette.

Attending the "tepid" opening night of La Sonnambula, I was horrifed to READ EVERYWHERE in press reviewing the mess and sub par singing, that despite the "ludicrous"", "silly" and "absurd" libretto this would be the best they could give us, the best they could make of this one hundred year old masterpiece of Bellini.

At the dress rehearsal, Mr. Gelb, himself the leader of the Met Opera referred to this silly little story with "we did the best we could" obviously buying the tripe as presented by his actress diva, and Miss Dessay never wastes a chance to insult anything in favor of her supposed "restorative powers" on any silly little opera she does, self proclaimed actress as opposed to singer. On that debatable subject this soubrette is finally correct.

The trend today is to belittle the art. and most of those writing do not know enough to deflect it, so for ever after, La Sonnambula will have a further sub title saying..... Bellini's La Sonnambula, that "ludicrous" little tale abut sleepwalking.

Anntene 2, Radio 3, Globo tv, Rai uno, nbc and no less than Oprah have done stories on people who, guess what? Walk in their sleep...have sex whilst asleep, drive while a sleep....this is a legitimate disorder.

Miss Dessay and troupe should have watched what they said in every radio interview and paper release leading up to opening night about why they were updating this opera.

They furthered "enhanced" their position by saying, "it is stretching belief that the heroine would wake up having sleepwalked into the room of another person and that the whole town would shun her."

Stoning people for honor apparently hasn't reached the news in France? It is done all the time in varying degrees in diverse society.

My advice to them....Accept your limitations and
do your blasphemies to these masterpieces with courage and belief and keep the insults to the ART form to yourself.

Most of today's news would make you shake you head in disbelief. Couldn't be true, it's too silly to believe? Right? Wrong.

Opera is emotion, is about passion and bigger than life living.

Dying for your country, leaving loved ones to go serve, cheating on your wife, husband, your lover is too young, too old, your father needs a contact for business, religion....power and greed. So what's Opera out of step with it? The people who cover it are out of step and buying all the hype about how dumb opera is. Opera isnt the one who is dumb.

Brava to Miss Midgette.

Posted by: Tenestelapromessa | August 14, 2009 9:12 PM | Report abuse

To expand on Robert Costic's comment, our enjoyment of absurd conventions has not decreased any from centuries past. Alex Ross put it very well as when writing about Sonambula and Trovatore, comparing the outrageousness of their plots to any average action film. A major source of difficulty with writing opera today is what determining, what if anything, is a living convention you can play with. There is a way in which referencing 19th or 18th century opera in this day and age is every bit as abstract and specialized as some modernist excursion.

As Robert points out, our dramatic conventions have changed enormously. Part of this is a larger appetite for realism, though unrealistic dramatic forms have never gone out of style. The real difficulty is our addiction to speed, in plot, in action and so on. There are many things operas excel at, but speed is generally not one of them. Any good opera, old or new, always needs to justify how long it takes for stuff to happen. Excellent music is usually the best justification, but a really strong opera will justify it dramatically as well. If it succeeds, a modern general audience will still find it an unconventional dramatic approach.

Posted by: herxanthikles | August 14, 2009 9:52 PM | Report abuse

As to Anne Midgette's original question, the powerful former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, John Frohnmayer, wrote that the libretto was a "minor art form".

Posted by: snaketime1 | August 14, 2009 11:55 PM | Report abuse

After more than 50 years of opera-listening and opera-going I finally came to appreciate the power of opera, the power in which the music enhances the story by laying bare the emotions in a way in which words alone cannot do, when I saw "Owen Wingrave" (an opera originally written for TV) on the little screen. The words and the music fuse into an experience of the conflicts within the Wingrave family and despair of Owen Wingrave in an unique fashion. And this is indeed the way we experience all opera whether it be atonal ("Il Prigioniero"," Assassino nella Cattedrale", for example) or not ("Anna Bolena", "Pelléas et Melisande", for example). For me the texts are of equal importance as the music. I can only explain the many recent catastrophic opera productions to be the result of a willful neglect of the libretti. For example, consider a "Simon Boccanegra" in which a bunch of Genovese politicians in Berlusconi-like suits discuss a declaration of war against Venice (Opéra National de Paris, director Johan Simons) or another bunch of guys in similar suits, English this time, discuss the capture of Cadiz by Robert Devereux (1596) in "Roberto Devereux" (Bayerische Staatsoper, director Christoph Loy).
A libretto tells a story - historical; mythological; dramas of love, life, death; little tales; etc. But that story in the form of a libretto is often very poetic and certainly arranged in a form to accommodate the music, which gives us that which the poetry alone does not give us. So whether the music is wonderful sing-along or atonal, it is music plus libretto which counts. Don't underestimate the story. The censors of Bavaria did not underestimate the enlightenment power of "Die Zauberflöte" when they indexed it at the end of the 18th century and the church fathers of the Sicilian town of Caltagirone did not underestimate the power of "Cavalleria Rusticana" when they cancelled performances just a few days ago.

Posted by: RichardFranklin | August 15, 2009 9:01 AM | Report abuse

Bellini declared, "The good libretto does not make sense." He wasn't interested in plausibility but in situations that were catalysts for emotions. He avowed, "Dramma per musica must cause weeping, horror, death through singing."

Posted by: StefanZucker | August 16, 2009 10:49 PM | Report abuse

Tenestelapromessa has it right, that opera is about passion. (Except that the word of celebration is Bravo! and not Brava! agreeing in gender with "accomplishment" regardless of the gender of the person who has accomplished it. Italians say Bravo to both men and women.) Here's my take on the meaning of opera, not too different from Tenestelapromessa.

Opera is not literature or drama, even if it often appears to be. What all operas are is passion plays, where the passion is the secular love between men and women. Operas are about what keeps them apart and what brings them together. And, in its reflections on the possibility of trust, on what keeps them together – or not.

The plot is always the same. Eurydice is in Hades, Pamina is locked into the custody battle between the Queen of the Night and Zoroastro, Violeta is a prisoner of social conventions forcing a woman to choose between autonomy and respectability, Mimi is captured by the prevalence of tuberculosis, and Cio-Cio San cannot get out of Japan. Orpheus, Pamino, Alfredo, Rodolfo and Pinkerton must try to extricate them from their predicament. Orpheus gets a pass, Pamino succeeds, Rodolfo fails because poetry is not medicine, and Pinkerton embarrasses himself.

Eurydice cannot keep her trust in Orpheus long enough for the trip home, and is exiled back into Hades. Gluck’s opera traces back to Monteverdi in the 17th century, when Europe finally threw off medieval restraints. America had been discovered; books by Cervantes in Spain and Shakespeare in England could be printed (and read!); Venetian, Dutch, Spanish, French, and English merchant fleets roamed the globe in trade, and Rembrandt was painting rich merchants dressed in manufactured cloth and colored in new dyes. The pervasive optimism leads to Gluck’s conclusion that “love conquers all”.

The same is not true of Puccini. “Madame Butterly” is Orpheus and Eurydice told from Eurydice’s perspective. Her Orpheus is American. Presciently, Puccini makes a lapidary statement about American foreign policy when he presents Pinkerton as the man who abandons Cio-Cio San and breaks the promise on which her trust was based.

Don Giovanni’s problem is his inability to trust, the problem of incipient modernity that places before each individual the freedom to choose his identity and thus makes morality relative. Don Giovanni is not able to trust in the legitimacy of a stonefaced society, represented by the Commendatore; he is not able to trust the love of the women he has seduced because he was able to seduce them; and, most importantly, he is not able to trust because he cannot trust himself.

The words are not meant to be literature, even if they sometimes are, but they are invocations, incantations, ritual. In that sense, even the most frivolous and banal statements made in opera are no more conventional than the words of a prayer book. Even if the authors’ intent is not always ironic, Brecht has demonstrated to devastating effect how conventional sentiment and trite cliches can allow insight into the troubled depths beneath them.

Operas are about love between men and women. We go to the opera to feel in love, to suffer its pangs, to rejoice vicariously in its triumph and we overlook the fact that lovers everwhere sometimes behave in embarrassing ways. This is why audiences have loved opera since it was invented, for reasons similar to the ones why passion plays of any kind have been in demand.

The operas of the past, too easily and too superciliously dismissed as “old battle horses”, achieve their success by making us fall in love for their duration. New operas incapable of achieving that magic will fail. And old operas, shown to a public increasingly incapable of understanding that love encompasses much more than consensual sex, and increasingly reluctant to make the civilizing assumption of good faith required for trust, will slowly become extinct.

Posted by: gauthier310 | August 17, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

I have been following this discussion with interest. As it happens, I am currently conducting neuropsychoanalytic research on the operatic voice and the nature of a listener’s enjoyment. I am interested in the affective response to the operatic voice, and not any emotion that may be conveyed by the music or perceived by the listener. A brief introduction may be warranted before getting to the point of my post.

The overlap between the neural processing of music and several features of language has been investigated by a number of studies. It would appear that such an overlap does in fact exist. Other empirical studies have shown that listening to music activates the brain’s ‘reward’ and ‘pleasure’ centres, in the same way as eating or having sex. The overlap between the fundamental importance of language in psychoanalysis and the central role of language in opera is evident.

Readers who are familiar with Lacanian theory may be aware that the voice is considered a lost or partial object by virtue of entering the order of language, that is when our first 'pure cry' is attributed meaning by a parent or guardian – usually the mother. From that point onwards every cry has a meaning and is no longer a ‘pure cry’. This theory is explained at length in Michel Poizat’s book “The Angel’s Cry”. In his book, Poizat also claims that “the [operatic] voice does not express the text – that is what theatre is for; the text expresses the voice” (p. 145). He also explains how a listener derives extreme pleasure from the ‘high points’ of the voice, typically the soprano, as the lost object is re-encountered in the form of the ‘cry’. At these times, everything else on stage, including the story, the scenery and even the singer herself becomes of secondary importance: all that matters is enjoyment of the voice. So extreme is this pleasure that the listener often feels overcome and inexplicably choked up and/or tearful. Interestingly, at these points language becomes unintelligible, it becomes ‘undone’. It could be argued that language (the libretto) in opera is only there so that it can mediate the voice, and so that it can be undone at certain points in order for the voice to express that which words cannot express. It can be claimed, then, that the voice makes (non)sense of opera, irrespectively of the storyline. As perceptively observed by W. H. Auden: “No good opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.”

Poizat explains that, although the dramatic logic of the libretto may lead to the death of a female character (the soprano), causing her to cry out before she dies, it is the logic of the developing vocal trajectory that creates the dramatic conditions for the cry to occur, demanding a death. This would explain how the vocal component of an opera can remain unaffected even when the narrative structure of the storyline may appear to be illogical, far-fetched or even absurd.

In his book “Opera in the Flesh: Sexuality in Operatic Performance” (1996), Sam Abel addresses the actual or perceived ‘weakness’ in operatic storylines by explaining that the position of opera in modern times is with the cultural elite and not potential revolutionaries. The political impact of storylines is largely lost on modern audiences, and parallels missed, leaving apparently disjointed plots in which the only readily appreciable elements that remain to impact us today are sexuality and the voice itself (p. 113). However, as Poizat claims, both of these elements are actually removed from the text, from the action and even from the singer, as a disembodied vocal object. Although the narrative of opera provides a raison d’être for particular qualities in the music and singing, it does not shape the singing as much as it is shaped by the singing. When salient elements of the plot surface to produce a climax in the narrative, the drama of theatre becomes subservient to the music and ultimately to the voice.

Posted by: Zuccarini | August 17, 2009 7:53 PM | Report abuse

Interesting comment by Zuccarini. However, you seem to regard the opera only as sound, which affects the limbic system and might account for some of the responses you quote. However, listening to opera without seeing it is not the same. Visual pageantry (either staged or evoked in the audience by abstraction) is an essential part of opera and vision is processed by the visual cortex, an altogether different part of the brain. Wagner had it right: an opera is (or should be) a Gesamtkunstwerk, a far more complex affair than the reductive deconstruction proposed here. As for W.H. Auden, maybe the English don't sing when they're feeling sensible, but as anyone who has been to Italy, or France, or Mexico, or Russia or any number of other countries can tell you, people sing all the time. But then again, maybe only the English are sensible, in a Monty Python kind of way.

Posted by: gauthier310 | August 18, 2009 8:14 AM | Report abuse

In response to Gauthier310's thought-provoking post, I would like to add a few points to clarify my previous comments. The focus of my interest lies in a listener's reception of the voice and their affective response to it. However, given the multiple 'layers' of opera, I am not completely excluding the visual element. My previous post did not include considerations about the visual element of opera for reasons of brevity. I was addressing the issue of opera libretti being 'absurd' and proposing a conceptual reason why this is not really of fundamental importance.

With regard to the visual element of opera, it may be useful to return for a moment to psychoanalytic theory. As it happens, the gaze is also considered to be a partial or lost object. Poizat claims that the lavishness and complexity of the operatic mise-en-scène is an integral element, in that it serves to create a perspective leading to a point of emptiness, by preventing a certain immediacy. As a result, those parts of the action which are most significant can take place around this point, the void around which art revolves, according to Lacan. Therefore, when an enraptured listener reaches the point of musical jouissance - or extreme pleasure - mediated by the voice as object, they close their eyes to the stage apparatus that has led their gaze to that point of infinity, that is the point at which the void begins. Everything else up to that point outside of or around the voice as object has contributed to the momentum, the crescendo required to achieve the ‘pure cry’. Even the singer, Poizat affirms, almost becomes annihilated as a subject in order to achieve pure voice.

If the grandiose (visual spectacle of opera were indeed as important as the voice, then one would expect 'minimalist' productions to fail outright. Personally, I derive similar pleasure from listening to a favourite recording without what can sometimes become distracting stage business. For me, the benefit in attending a live performance, among other things, lies in the different quality of sound. If the staging 'works', all the better. Ultimately, however, I attend the opera house for the pleasure of live music and singing.

Lastly, I am not sure I agree with you about people singing any more (or any less) in countries such as Italy, etc. Being Italian myself, and having spent extended periods of time in various European countries, I have not really noticed a marked difference compared to England or North America, for example. Perhaps this depends upon the musicality of the people with whom one associates?

Despite Italy's operatic history and tradition, it is unfortunate but true that opera is not the preferred genre of music that the vast majority of people sing spontaneously as they go about their daily business.

Posted by: Zuccarini | August 18, 2009 10:43 AM | Report abuse

And so this fascinating thread continues and I now take issue with Abel and Zuccarini concerning the inability of modern audiences to connect the storyline with contemporary political events. I never forget a conversation I had in 1965 with André Lwoff (Nobel Prize in Medicine 1965) a day after enjoying Beaumarchais' "Le mariage de Figaro". I was so excited as I described the play and the audience that were often on their feet cheering as Figaro denounced the aristocracy. Lwoff smiled as he so often did "But Franklin, that is the essence of the classics!"
Is it really so difficult for young or old opera goers to connect "Maria Stuarda" , "Moise et Pharoan", or "I Lombardi alla prima crociata" (see below) with our present world? The power struggles, the deceits, the tensions between social groups are all there for us to ponder. Well, you may say that there are cheaper ways to get to current affairs and I agree. But that is only one part of opera, the text, the story which combines with the music to produce that unique opera experience. It is not necessary to prepare for an opera evening as I often do. For example reading the libretto of Maria Stuarda and comparing it with Schiler's play and then with the historical facts concerning the Tudors and the Stuarts and maybe even visiting the National Portrait Gallery (London) to see what the actors in that sad drama actually looked like. It makes the opera more meaningful to me but, I repeat, it is not necessary to connect with our 21st century.
If you have ever read the correspondence Richard Strauss - Hugo von Hofmannsthal you will understand how the intimate exchanges between these two men created the great operas. A particular instance is "Der Rosenkavalier" where every nuance of the plot and the music was turned over and over by Hofmannsthal and Strauss. Surely one cannot deny the power of the libretto in this case. Or consider the Benjamin Britten operas, many with librettos by the considerable poet Myfawny Piper. When sung by talented singers, every word is understood and every word counts. A recent example of this is the brilliant Ian Bostridge singing and acting the role of Aschenbach in "Death in Venice". But even texts by lesser talents such as, for example, Temistocle Solera can produce powerful operas with a relevant message for us today. An example is "I Lombardi alla prima crociata" which just barely managed to escape the fury of the religious censors because a Muslim is baptized by a lay holy man, a man who had killed his father and had spent the remainder of his life as a hermit. Oh, I know what you anti-libretto crowd will say about that story, but try it out sometime.

Posted by: RichardFranklin | August 19, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

So, have we now come to the point in this gathered camarata that we will overthrow the anti-humanistic prejudice of the late 20th century and declare the libretto a major art form?

Posted by: snaketime | August 19, 2009 8:05 PM | Report abuse

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