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Chapter One— Introduction: The Difference Is They Sing
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It is easier to explain the attractions of ballet, bullfighting, pro football, religious revivals, stadium rock concerts, TV talk shows, or Woody Allen films than the persisting, in fact the growing, appeal of opera. Tens of millions of intelligent adults in Europe, the Americas, Australia, and a few other countries, year after year, spend considerable sums of money, or wait in line for hours, in order to attend reenactments of nineteenth-, eighteenth-, occasionally twentieth-, and once in a great while seventeenth-century dramatic spectacles, frequently performed in languages they don't understand, in which most of the words are sung by specially trained performers accompanied by (indeed, often in aural competition with) an orchestra of musicians.

In 1989, as part of its celebration of the bicentennial of the French Revolution, the city of Paris opened a new opera house on the site of the Bastille, at a cost of more than $400 million. During the incendiary 1960s, the French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez had proposed blowing up the world's opera houses, as French revolutionaries had once destroyed earlier symbols of superannuated power and prestige, like the Bastille.

Since he made that remark, Boulez has conducted performances of eight well-known operas at well-known opera houses. Perhaps he has changed his opinion. What he was apparently implying in 1967 was that this particular art form had become shamefully passé, absurdly costly to maintain, and socially indefensible. No longer, its detractors continue to insist, does opera as it is most often performed bear any relation to what matters or is worthy of public support in the last decade of the twentieth century.

But opponents of opera were making such charges in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, even more forcefully than they make them today. Early


detractors were impatient with what they saw as the unnatural conventions of the form and the unnatural behavior of its practitioners, compared with those of the spoken drama. "The whole piece is sung from beginning to end," complained the French critic and freethinker Charles de Saint-Évremond in 1677,

as if the characters on stage had conspired to present musically the most trivial as well as the most important aspects of their lives. . . . There is nothing more ridiculous than to make someone sing while he is acting, whether he is arguing in a council meeting, or giving orders in a battle. . . . Who can endure the boredom of a recitative, which possesses neither the charm of the song nor the forcefulness of the spoken word? . . . [Opera] is a bizarre mixture of poetry and music where the writer and the composer, equally embarrassed by each other, go to a lot of trouble to create an execrable work. . . . Nonsense filled with music, dancing, stage machines, and decorations may be magnificent nonsense; but it is nonsense all the same.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who wrote a successful comic opera of his own in 1752, and who was in part arguing a case against the excesses of French opera, and in favor of the Italian) put words in the mouth of one of his fictional characters, in order to describe with disgust the unhealthy strain and artifice of the court-sponsored tragic operas he had witnessed in Paris.

What you could not possibly imagine are the frightful cries, the long-drawn-out groans which fill the theatre throughout the performance. . . . One sees the actresses, almost in convulsions, violently extracting this screeching from their lungs, their fists clenched against their breasts, their heads held back, their faces inflamed, their blood vessels swollen, their stomachs quivering. . . . The most difficult thing to understand is that these screeches are almost the only things the spectators applaud.

Soon after Italian opera arrived in London in 1705, Joseph Addison, in The Spectator papers, mocked what he regarded as the absurdity of foreign-language productions, improbable scenic allusions, recitative, and bel canto vocalise. "I have known the word 'And' pursued through the whole Gamut, have been entertained with many a melodious 'The,' and have heard the most beautiful Graces, Quavers, and Divisions bestowed upon 'Then,' 'For,' and 'From,' to the eternal Honour of our English Particles." In 1779, Samuel Johnson characterized the Italian opera (quite correctly) as "an exotick and irrational entertainment, which has always been combated and always has prevailed." Lord Chesterfield, Johnson's legendary adversary, dismissed operas in a letter to his son as "essentially too absurd and extravagant to mention. I look upon them as a magic scene,


contrived to please the eyes and ears at the expense of the understanding. . . . Whenever I go to an opera, I leave my sense and reason at the door with my half-guinea, and deliver myself up to my eyes and my ears."

The most notorious antiopera statements by a writer of note are those of Leo Tolstoy, who attacked the genre first in his novel War and Peace , and later, even more resolutely and radically, in a tract called What Is Art? For the novel, Tolstoy invented a ludicrous Bellini-like opera attended by Natasha Rostova and her family in Moscow, in which the fatuousness of what takes place onstage is underlined by Natasha's girlish confusion and naïveté.

The floor of the stage consisted of smooth boards, at the sides was some painted cardboard representing trees, and at the back was a cloth stretched over boards. In the centre of the stage sat some girls in red bodices and white skirts. One very fat girl in a white silk dress sat apart on a low bench, to the back of which a piece of green cardboard was glued. They all sang something. When they had finished their song the girl in white went up to the prompter's box and a man with tight silk trousers over his stout legs, and holding a plume and a dagger, went up to her and began singing, waving his arms about.

First the man with tight trousers sang alone, then she sang, then they both paused while the orchestra played and the man fingered the hand of the girl in white, obviously awaiting the beat to start staging with her. They sang together and everyone in the theatre began clapping and shouting, while the man and woman on the stage—who represented lovers—began smiling, spreading out their arms and bowing.

After her life in the country, and in her present serious mood, all this seemed grotesque and amazing to Natasha. She could not follow the opera nor even listen to the music, she saw only the painted cardboard and the queerly dressed men and women who moved, spoke, and sang so strangely in that brilliant light. She knew what it was all meant to represent, but it was so pretentiously false and unnatural that she first felt ashamed for the actors and then amused at them. She looked at the faces of the audience, seeking in them the same sense of ridicule and perplexity she herself seemed to experience, but they all seemed attentive to what happened on the stage, and expressed delight which to Natasha seemed feigned. . . .

In the second act there was scenery representing tombstones, and there was a round hole in the canvas to represent the moon, shades were raised over the footlights, and from trumpets and contrabass came deep notes while many people arrived from right and left wearing black cloaks and holding something like daggers in their hands. They began waving their arms. Then some other people ran in and began dragging away the maiden who had been in white and was now in light blue. They did not drag her away all at once, but sang with her for a long time and only then did they drag her off, and behind the scenes something metallic was struck three times and everyone knelt down and began to sing a prayer. All these things were repeatedly interrupted by the enthusiastic shouts of the audience.


The imaginary third-act ballet and storm scene are described so as to appear even more foolish, from the disingenuous point of view of Tolstoy's ingenue. In the fourth act, "there was some sort of a devil who sang waving his hand, till the boards were withdrawn from under him and he disappeared down below."

When thirty years later he came to write What Is Art? Tolstoy had no need to invent an imaginary opera to deride. Instead he described, in much the same disdainful, amazed-rationalist, antitheatricalist tone, an actual performance he had attended of the Moscow première of Wagner's Siegfried in 1889 (or at least two acts of it): "I could stand no more of it and escaped from the theatre with a feeling of revulsion which even now I cannot forget."

He begins his case against Siegfried with a device the American comedian Anna Russell made famous, which is simply to relate the plot of an opera in a wide-eyed, Man-from-Mars way that makes everything about it seem absurd. (This was one of his standard literary tricks, called in Russian ostranenie , or "making it strange.") Tolstoy repeatedly describes the actors' physical and histrionic shortcomings and the odd way they open their mouths. He makes no reference to their voices or to what they are singing, except to call it "incomprehensible" and to complain of the excessive length of their "strange sounds," their nonmelodic chanting. He describes Wagner's leitmotivs in a mocking and elementary way, condemns the orchestral score for its expressive simplemindedness, and complains of the composer's frustrating practice of forever starting up musical ideas he doesn't finish. Tolstoy is severe on Wagner's practice of having one character recount to another (for the benefit of the audience) previous events both of them must already know. He dismisses the dragon scene as something out of a booth at a village fair. "It is surprising that people over seven years of age can witness it seriously; yet thousands of quasi-cultured people sit and attentively hear and see it, and are delighted." He adds:

Of music, that is, of art serving as a means to transmit a state of mind experienced by the author, there as not even a trace. . . . What as happening onstage meanwhile is so abominably false, that it is difficult even to perceive these musical snatches, let alone to be infected by them. . . . The author's purpose is so visible that one sees and hears neither Siegfried nor the birds, but only a narrow-minded, self-assured German of bad taste and bad style, who has a most false conception of poetry and in the crudest and most primitive manner wishes to transmit to one these false and mistaken conceptions.

What disgusted Tolstoy more than anything else was the witless complacency of the upper-crust Moscow audience—"a crowd of three thousand people who not only patiently witnessed all this absurd nonsense but even considered it their duty to be delighted with it. . . . The cream of the cultured upper classes sits out six


hours of this insane performance, and goes away imagining that by paying tribute to this nonsense it has acquired a fresh right to esteem itself advanced and enlightened."

Tolstoy can explain the effect Wagner's operas have on other people only by comparing it to the experience of a medium's séance or to the effects of getting drunk or smoking opium.

Sit in the dark for four days with people who are not quite sane, and through the auditory nerves subject your brain to the strongest action of the sounds best adapted to excite it, and you will no doubt be reduced to an abnormal condition and be enchanted by absurdities. . . . And this meaningless, coarse, spurious production finds acceptance all over the world, costs millions of rubles to produce, and assists more and more to pervert the taste of people of the upper classes and their conception of art.

One could simply class this notable harangue as one of the many nineteenth-century attacks against Wagner (and more specifically against Wagner's Ring ) rather than as an attack against opera in general.[1] But elsewhere in this notorious booklet, and elsewhere in his writings, Tolstoy extends his condemnation to opera of every kind. Of an opera rehearsal he once attended, he writes, "It would be difficult to find a more repulsive sight. . . . The opera . . . was one of the most gigantic absurdities that could possibly be devised. . . . People do not converse in such a way as recitative, and do not place themselves at fixed distances, in a quartet, waving their arms to express their emotions."

Instructively the question presents itself: for whom is this being done? If there are occasionally good melodies in opera, to which it is pleasant to listen, they could have been sung simply without these stupid costumes and all the processions and recitatives and hand wavings.

The ballet, in which half-naked women make voluptuous movements, twisting themselves into various sensual wreathings, is simply a lewd performance.

So one is quite at a loss as to whom these things are done for. The man of culture is heartily sick of them, while to a real working man they are utterly incomprehensible.

To be fair, I should point out that Tolstoy had enjoyed operas—in particular Rossini's—as a young man; but by the time he wrote What Is Art? at the age of


sixty-nine he had converted to a kind of radical-puritan hatred of all art that did not directly appeal to the suffering masses, inspire elevated religious sentiments, or "unite people in a community of feeling." If Wagner's neurotic depravity felt the sting of Tolstoy's lash, so did virtually all of the music, art, and literature of his century, including most of his own earlier work. "I saw plainly that all this music and fiction and poetry is not art," he wrote in his diary at the time, "that men do not have the slightest need for it, that it is nothing but a distraction for profiteers and idlers, that it has nothing to do with life." In "The Kreutzer Sonata," he turns a Beethoven violin and piano sonata into something lewd and diabolical.

But if he censures Beethoven and Berlioz, Ibsen and Zola, Rodin and Monet as decadent, godless, and inaccessible to good common folk—if in the end he feels obliged to dismiss as well Shakespeare and Dante, Michelangelo and Raphael, even the "rude, savage, meaningless" Greek tragedians—it is for opera, this exclusive, Insincere, dramatically absurd, outrageously extravagant, and socially useless (indeed, socially harmful) form, that Tolstoy reserved his harshest scorn.

The attacks on opera—opera as an art form, opera as it is currently produced, opera as a social institution, opera as a drain on the public purse—continue today, and will no doubt go on until the institution dies. In 1962, the German sociologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno declared that conscientious people (like him) had been expecting the death of opera for at least thirty years. As early as the late 1920s and early 1930s, according to Adorno,

People began to realize that opera, by reason of its style, its substance, and its attitude, no longer had anything in common with the people on whom it depended; its pretentious forms could not possibly justify the extravagant resources they required. Already, at that time, it was Impossible to believe that any public was capable of making the antirationalist, antirealist efforts that the stylization of opera demanded. . . . The reduction of the entire current repertoire in America to at most fifteen titles—including Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor! —only confirmed the petrifaction of the institution.

In September 1987, a typically rabble-rousing piece entitled "Do We Need Opera?" appeared in a London paper:

There are some fine tunes in them, decent orchestral stuff, some good choruses, and some tolerable dancing. There can be dreadful dross between the arias—recitative is surely the most tiresome form of communication devised by man—but the pleasure of hearing a tenor or soprano busting a gut belting out "Celeste Aida" or "Casta diva" at Covent Garden can be most affecting, and is not to be sniffed at. As popular entertainment, grand opera is no more to be faulted than melodrama or music hall—Victorian art forms to which it is closely related.


But the writer, George Gale, asks, Is it art?[2] "Watching and hearing Aida [on TV] from La Scala, I thought no one could possibly claim that the characterization was other than perfunctory and the action other than merely melodramatic; we are involved in no tragedy, but were simply spectators at a spectacle. It was noisy and moving and empty, like a beaten drum."

Why, then, he asks, does it continue to demand and attract millions of pounds in public subsidies, in cities all over the world? "The answer," he answers,

can only be that grand opera, meaning and saying nothing much, does not and cannot threaten any regime, however obnoxious; that little or no understanding of what is going on is necessary to enjoy it; that it provides an undemanding but flashy way of showing off; that grandiose spectacle is especially attractive to the vainglorious; that opera-goers are so unsure of their own taste, discrimination, and position in society that they support these 19th-century continental equivalents of Cecil B. De Mille's epics, fondly hoping thereby to establish their own true cultural ancestry and social worth; and that we would be culturally better off not bothering to subsidize so vain, inferior, and foreign an expression of art. . . . It is its failure to attract the mass audience, for which it was originally devised and remains intellectually suited, that finally characterizes grand opera as rumor and meretricious art, rather than rubbish.

Two and a half years later, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, a columnist for the London Sunday Telegraph , "sated and exhausted" by a year of operagoing, raised much the same question: "Why so much expenditure of time and money and effort on what, when looked at from one angle, is surely a marginal artistic activity?"

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Chapter One— Introduction: The Difference Is They Sing
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