March 31, 2012

Opera: the conscious and unconscious mirror

My blog has advanced to the Round of 16 in the Great Arts Blogger Challenge.  If I make it all the way to “tear down the nets” and win it all, I’ll have to overcome a weak bench, poor free-throw shooting and shoddy ball-handling from my point guard.  (Not sure how those three elements translate into blogging metaphors, but never mind, never mind…)

The assigned subject for this week:  which art form has the most to say about contemporary culture, and why?  Gentlemen: start your insights!  (That was a racing reference there; I’m versatile like that.)
Butter sculpture of Teddy Roosevelt
The question was actually preceded with the observation that our present age is “aggressively visual”, with popular culture “dominated by images”, which I interpret as a freebie insight to get the ol’ insight ball rolling.  This might appear to stack the deck towards some image-heavy art forms (such as film), and find others wanting.  The average live performance of a Haydn piano sonata is down a few quarts on the visual image-o-meter.  (Then again, pianist Lang Lang makes a lot of funny faces when he plays, which should count a little.)
But in the end, this is an opera blog, sponsored by the opera company which employs me.  So pardon me if I automatically choose the path of defending “my” art form’s chops when it comes to reflecting contemporary culture. (Digression: I briefly considered writing on the art of butter-sculpting, but abandoned the idea in the face of the reality that I know nothing about butter-sculpting.  Other than that you shouldn't do it outdoors during a heat wave.)

It’s a funny thing about reflecting the times in which one lives: one really can’t avoid doing it, whether or not it is one’s conscious aim.  Opera, from its earliest days, has provided wonderful examples of both the conscious and unconscious aspects of being the mirror of the culture of the times.
A great example is found in Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, based on a trio of grotesque stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann and first performed in 1881.  (Yes, I know I need to deal with today’s culture; keep your pants on, I’m getting there.)  I would venture to say that it was not the goal of the composer or his librettist Jules Barbier to offer a dissertation on the “Status of Women in Late Eighteenth-century European Society”; I’m betting they were simply after a crackerjack show with compelling drama, variety and a tuneful musical score.  Yet in the three principal female roles, a composite image of Woman is created that communicates women’s status during the period as clearly as any dissertation could.  Consider:
 Adèle Isaac as Antonia
·         Olympia, the beautiful mechanical wind-up doll:  Woman As Plaything, fragile and out of control;
·         Antonia, the doomed amateur singer: Woman As Weakling, forbidden to pursue a career and “punished” with death when she rebels; and finally
·         Giulietta, the courtesan: Woman as Temptress, seducing and ruining men, robbing them of their souls.
Our hero Monsieur Hoffmann might not have been able to see his reflection in Giulietta’s mirror, but thoughtful audience members might well have seen a disturbing reflection of their attitudes emerge from the antics on stage.
Let us now leap with gazelle-like grace to the twenty-first century.  There are two paths which should be explored to do this subject justice:  contemporary operas, and contemporary productions of operas of the past.
 A number of operas of recent vintage have taken an aggressive, even ham-handed approach to bombarding their audiences with images of contemporary themes:  Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole; Richard Thomas Book’s Jerry Springer: the Opera; John Adam’s The Death of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China.  I suppose the creative teams involved in these opuses imagined they were following in the footsteps of Verdi when, spurning opera’s tradition of historical tales, he opted to turn his attention to a drama set in the present with La Traviata. 
This approach, resembling the “ripped from the headlines” school of drama in the long-running Law and Order TV series, seems to assume that if an opera tells the story of notable and celebrated people familiar to its audience, it has succeeded in telling society something of value about itself.  Certainly, these subjects act as an obvious barometer of what aspects of modern culture were considered au courant at the time of their premieres.  That is exactly what I mean by a "conscious" reflection of culture.  But I find equal, if not greater, significance in the unintended messages: the "unconscious".
Illustration from early edition of Moby-Dick
Here’s another list of contemporary operas from this generation or the immediate past – see if you notice what I notice:
·         Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1995)
·         Jon Harbison’s The Great Gatsby (1999)
·         Mark Adamo’s Little Women (1998)
·         William Bolcolm’s A View From The Bridge (1999)
·         Bernard Rand’s Vincent (2011)
·         Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick (2010)
·         Heggie’s The End of the Affair (2004)
These works all select stories set in historical periods; the composers chose to look to the past for drama rather than the “ripped from the headlines” process.  Is there any significance to this?  Do the images they render (I feel I need to use that word as much as possible; shamlessly pandering to the committee…) tell us anything useful about contemporary society?
Oh, I think so.
We live in frightening times.  Terrorism; “pink slime” (Google it, I’m running long here); financial instability that may spread its Grecian poison through the rest of the Western world; political upheaval in Egypt, Syria, Libya and elsewhere; the list goes on, and it’s disturbing.
Shirley Temple
People like to escape from stuff like that.  Just as Depression-era audiences sought escape in little Shirley Temple’s films such as “Heidi”, Americans of the present day eagerly consume period dramas heavy on nostalgia, as the rage for TV’s Downton Abbey suggests.  Even the Harry Potter films illustrate the point; while set in the present, the characters really engaged us when they left modern civilization to be whisked away to the Gothic timelessness of Hogwart’s.
That the modern operas finding the most resonance allow us to be transported to a 19th-century whaling vessel or to Concord, Massachussetts in the Civil War era or to the Roaring Twenties provides an unconscious mirror of our modern mind-set:  “the present sucks”.
One final note: the rise of the Internet, with easy access to every type of media in one’s home, has famously produced a corresponding rise in attention deficit disorder; a decline in the ability to focus, and the need for constant stimulation.  How does this relate to opera?  Oh, in so many ways!  Modern stage directors seem afflicted with ADHD themselves.  When did it become passé to allow an opera overture to be played without pantomimed staging taking place?  Mozart, Rossini and Verdi might be astonished to learn that their instrumental preludes have become mere soundtracks for actors to criss-cross the stage in convoluted “back stories” telling us everything that happened to Don Giovanni, Count Almaviva and Rigoletto since their grade school years.  There is an inherent assumption, one gathers, that contemporary audiences are incapable of being subjected to five minutes of orchestral music without a story – any story – being ladled on top of it like hot fudge on a dull scoop of vanilla ice cream.  This, in its way, provides a societal mirror of a different type.

Americans: anxious about the present; nostalgic for the past; and too fidgety to sit still without visual stimulation. This is what we learn from opera.  *SIGH*
Excuse me - gotta go; I really need to work on those free-throws...

My new book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online from or at or by phone from the Customer Service line at 1-800-344-9034 ext.3020.


  1. Although opera can certainly provide an escape from the current, depressing times, I actually find that operas (or productions) that do something to directly challenge our current state of affairs to be the most interesting. I'm not saying that all Regie has to be overtly, presently political - I loved the one opera of Freyer's Ring that I was able to see for example - but having productions stuck in the past is incredibly boring.

    The most powerful modern opera I've seen recently was Doctor Atomic - set in 1945 but in many ways painfully relevant today. And there are plenty of modern operas that don't look just to the past. Off the top of my head I can think of:

    Dead Man Walking
    Anna Nicole
    Two Boys
    Dark Sisters
    All John Adams except A Flowering Tree

    I don't believe that these operas are going for "ripped off the headlines" relevance (though Anna Nicole certainly garner more press than we're used to for an opera premier). If an opera production or the composition of an opera were to simply portray contemporary events without any evidence as to reflection or contextualization I'd say that such a description might be relevant. But Anna Nicole wasn't really about Anna Nicole, but instead about society's obsession with celebrity and how an individual woman (ala Lulu) deals with that. [I should say I am garnering this from reviews I've read, not being able to be in London last spring.] I imagine that there are plenty of unthought out productions of fare set in contemporary times just as there is of both new and old operas set in the past. I'd say that any such unengaged direction or composition, no matter the time of the setting, is a form of escapism, to be resisted as much as possible.

  2. This continues our discussion of the February New Moon and how we might collaborate with the spiritual energies now available to us. Please differentiate between the subconscious mind and the unconscious mind. The subconscious mind can be instructed by the conscious mind.

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