Tuesday, January 8, 2013

This is Opera. No Thinking Allowed.

Yes, I mean no thinking allowed. Although thinking aloud is not a good thing to do at the opera, either—at least not in live performances. But this is about whether or not we are supposed to think when we view/listen to opera. Should we just turn off our brains and let the music wash over us? I don’t think so. And  here is why I bring it up today.

An argument was made the other day in comments on another blog that opera, as an art form, is intended to make people feel, not think. This writer also contends that all composers prior to "our modern age" would agree with him. This writer opined that any attempt to make opera more accessible (particularly singing it in translation) is patronizing (to whom, I am not sure...I guess patronizing to the patrons.) This writer also is either a plagiarizer, directly quoting another blogger verbatim without proper attribution, or actually is that blogger hiding under the ubiquitous moniker: Anonymous. (I am not sure which annoys me more!)

Not surprisingly, this prompted a lengthy response from yours truly. The following is a revised, edited, calmer version of the comment I posted on that blog.

Opera is Drama—it’s words, music, scenery, acting, dancing, lights, etc. (I think you'll find that some dude named Wagner felt this way, too) and if you don’t treat it as drama, you might as well put everyone in tuxes and do a concert performance. (Actually I've seen some pretty dramatic concert performances, as well as some pretty non-dramatic stagings, (KoffChristophLoyKoffKoff) too.)

I believe that the great opera composers want us to do more than just wallow in the pretty sounds. Verdi and Mozart worried their librettists continually to get the words right for their operas. Mozart occasionally lamented that he had to write flashy music for his singers to show off their voices, rather than supplying music to best fit the text. He must have wanted us to think, especially when he would undercut a cheerful-ish text with some anxious-sounding music. Le Nozze di Figaro was a social satire, even though the censors made da Ponte and Mozart clean it up. While Verdi also wrote to accommodate his singers, he was always striving to find the best way to make a dramatic effect, and he advised his singers on how he wanted the music and text presented.

When Verdi, Wagner, or Puccini (to name a few) bring back little themes and motives from Act 1 to underscore action in Acts 2 or 3, they probably would like us to notice and think about why they did that—well, think and feel. Opera works if you turn off your brain, but how much more there is to enjoy and appreciate, if you do decide to think. (Like many opera lovers, my introduction was through audio only, and it is a wonderful way to absorb opera. I still listen to audio recordings and enjoy them very much as "pure" music, as well as aural drama. But the visual element that, in fact, most opera composers expected us to have, can add so much to our overall experience.)

You may have noticed I've reached the bottom of the page without really talking about opera in translation, which is how the the "Opera: to think or not to think" discussion got started. Well, I think the discussion going on at the first two posts listed below is a good one. Plus I have already said most of what I wanted to say in the comments sections over there.  So, please check out these other posts that actually do discuss (or present) translated opera:


  1. I probably shouldn't have let that comment bug me as much as it did/does. I think there are two things that just get right under my skin.

    The first is that composers before "our modern age" (and I note that that term is not defined) were all about emotion. It's so wrong. Monteverdi and his contemporaies were consciously trying to reinvent the drama of classical Athens for their contemporaries. There's no way Sophocles or Euripides or even Aristophanes were just about emotion. It's the ability to make us think AND feel about the most important aspeects of being human that keeps their work fresh after 2500 years. Great opera does the same I think.

    The second thingg that's bugging me is that there is some kind of caesura between some idealised past and "our modern age". Sure, there are shifts in taste and even in the Zeitgeist at certain pivotal points in western history and if Anon is referring to the run up to and aftermath of The Great War that's one of them. (Ecksteins' "Rites of Spring" is a good treatment of the topic). But, that said, there's as much continuity as discontinuity. Strauss and Puccini overlap by two decades for example. Also I don't see a shift from "emotion" to "reason". Wozzeck, example, is in its way as much a "shabby little shocker" as Tosca and anyone who doesn't "feel" the final scene of Peter Grimes is emotionally retarded.

    I really must stop worryiong at this.

    1. Well, we probably are beating a subject to death in a way, since I know WE (and many others) agree that Anon's opinion is rather unfounded. I think it's also interesting that the comment which has gotten so under our skin (or up our noses) was made by (or stolen from) a profoundly traditionalist Wagnerite.

      I don't think Wagner invented the term Gesamkunstwerk, but it certainly was his byword. It seems he was very concerned about the texts, so much so that he wrote most (all?) of them himself. I am sure he wanted all these combined to make an impression on his audience.

      But I think he would have been disappointed if after a performance of Lohengrin or Parsifal, someone said, "Well done, Herr Wagner. Your opera really felt good."

    2. Plus the source material for Wozzeck predates the source material for Tosca by fifty years, so in terms of fine-lining a temporal shift between emo and intellectualism in artistic expression, all bets are off.

    3. Wedekind was way ahead of his time, no?
      Oops, I mean Büchner.(I was thinking Lulu)
      Well, both of them were, I guess.

  2. And it seems to me that the thinking/feeling distinction as set up by that commenter is nearly meaningless - feeling requires thinking, in that on average, you're going to be more deeply affected by things that you understand. Or to say the same thing a different way, part of the beauty of music is in its structure and the way it fits together, and I guess emotionally appreciating that involves 'thinking' in some sense. (Not to mention that I have no urge to think deeply about things that do not evoke an emotional reaction in me.)

    The distinction between "the past" and "our modern age" bugged the hell out of me too, both because there is no fine line as stray points out, and also because - what, the history of music, and human artistic endeavor in general is divided into . . .two sections: "the modern" and "everything else"? I think not.

    1. Besides, I thought it was "Bach" and "everything else."


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