People sometimes seem to be prejudiced against opera for reasons that are arbitrarily unconvincing. These reasons turn out to be an antipathy based on class (opera is the province of the privileged), or antipathy resulting from sheer musical ignorance. (Trained voices don’t appeal to the contemporary ear.) These two specious reasons are important because the hostility to opera is deeply ingrained. Today, opera needs all the friends it can get, when it is thought to be too long, too obscure, too dressy, and too challenging. TV is easier, as are your pajamas. Deny it if you can.
The fallacies implied in the rejection of opera are revealing, and they are altogether too provincial and too contemporary. When I see lowlifes cruising in luxurious imports, I have to realize that class and money have new meanings today, which make old resentments doubly old. And today’s affected preference for grossly incompetent singing, plug-ugly music, and catatonic repetition is something less than a musical standard. Besides, I think that opera is not only inherently interesting in itself, but is also an American phenomenon.
Moreover, I claim that the cultural background of opera is both revealing and definitive—in a sustained sense, the birth of opera has always determined what opera is and even can be. Opera was imaginatively synthesized by humanist Florentines in the late 16th century in an attempt to recreate Greek drama, as the ancient theater was rediscovered in the Renaissance. The combination of arts exemplified by opera was an attempt to reify a dream combining poetry, drama, dance, music, costume (but not the Greek masks that acted as megaphones), and the concept of the chorus, as well as the word orchestra. The vision of Greek drama was first tragic, later comic, but primordially mythic. The tragic sense was developed from the epic vision, and so opera was a distant synthesis—at once physical, mental, and even spiritual.
As a combination of all the arts, opera has something in common with film. The terms horse opera and soap opera are there for a reason, and the Hollywood musical has a relation to light opera. Hollywood’s is perhaps not the art of which we are most proud, but it did promote a new vision and medium—and a realization of a commodious packaging of all the arts.
More boldly than the conventional theater, opera stylizes its characters as larger-than-life figures, as the Greeks had done in their own way. The heroic singing is not the only distancing effect. Except in comedies, we must always expect a sense of tragedy, even if only melodramatically expressed. The assumptions of the Greeks are always in the background. Opera is often overtly political, and the individual character is made known through the encounter with his fate. Hamlet, with a ghost and a mad scene and a graveyard, would have been a great libretto were it not so long and complicated—and it has been attempted. Even so, I suggest that Hamlet is an opera anyway, not only in itself and its explicit paraphrase of Virgil in the manner of Lucan, but even in its own music. In the first scene, Marcellus raptly declares of the ghost,
We do it wrong, being so majestical,
To offer it the show of violence;
For it is, as the air, invulnerable,
And our vain blows malicious mockery.
We must remark here that Marcellus does not sing, because no projected sounds could improve on the internal music already there; but his words are, as poetry, an aria in spite of themselves. In the same scene, Horatio, employing the figure called hendiadys, insists that the spooky, crazy melodrama is political all the way: “[I]n the gross and scope of my opinion / This bodes some strange eruption to our state.” And so it does; and with Horatio and his solicited and then promised oration, the ending rounds everything off. He will absent himself from felicity a while.
Racine’s version of the Phaedra legend is also a virtual opera, but already too perfect as it was and is. Some operas don’t need to be sung. And some do. After the opera seria of the 18th century, which were of traditional construction related to the conflicts of royalty, the operas we hold in familiar affection began to be written in Italian, in French, and in German. But the politics of these operas was mostly unsatisfactory because it was not an age of drama—Goethe, Schiller, and Hugo notwithstanding. It was an age of cornball rescue melodramas, the politics of which were vaguely revolutionary, and it has stayed that way for ages.
Imprisonment is a prime political and operatic image, but not a key to historical insight. The story of that dreadful, crowded, miserable Bastille has seldom been challenged as a fraud, though it is one. The political vision of opera was fixed more than 200 years ago after the French Revolution: Suffering and injustice are outrages that justify revolution—and whatever comes next! Beethoven wrote powerful music for less than justifiable ideas in his one opera and in overtures and symphonies. And we have only to recall the last act of Il trovatore, or the last act of Tosca, or the whole of Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero to recognize that something is starting to get stale.
The gnostic liberal faith of the bourgeoisie is a strange basis for the privileges of wealth, yet there it is. Always necessarily subsidized by the establishment (monarchical, aristocratic, upper-middle class, socialist, communist, fascist, Nazi, casinos, lotteries, taxes, etc.), opera is ideologically committed to biting its own hand. The work of artists is devoted to a celebration of its own destruction. When the late Pierre Boulez once radically declared that the opera houses were museums to be destroyed, he could not have been more perversely wrong. The destruction of “oppression” has always been the operatic bugaboo: Without the musical boost, the statement of opera is a political snooze—a deeply false picture of human nature, political necessity, and social reality that we do not find in Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Seneca, Shakespeare, or Racine, but which we do find in the sensitive and resonant perorations of the late Leonard Bernstein and so many others who speak so repetitively of freedom and democracy, while being swept away by elite music played by accomplished musicians and conducted by the latest tyrant with a baton.
So opera became politically confused or even inert as the composers developed its possibilities. The story of Richard Wagner’s revolutionary politics and his revolutionary reconstitution of opera itself is as fascinating as it is well known, but it has the fatal flaw of being about Richard Wagner, just as Wagner himself was. He needed a mad king to finance his monument to himself, and just as on the stage, he got what he wanted. Nietzsche had the last word on all of this a long time ago, and was right not only about Wagner, but also about Bizet’s Carmen. But even the philosopher let a better narrative escape him. The career and achievement of Giuseppe Verdi is a better story about a much more respectable man—and a composer of a particular greatness of his own.
We cannot take the political implications of the mainstream operatic repertory seriously, but we can find music to relish. Individuals work that out for themselves, with difficulty. Perhaps the greatest of grand operas is Verdi’s Don Carlo—but in which version? The political tragedy that is presented is fancifully developed from the grotesque Black Legend, which gave us a prince who never was anyone like Schiller’s tormented hero. The clash between the Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain, Philip II, and his subjects in Flanders is indeed a crux of modern history; but the mischaracterization of the principals is a serious flaw. Then again, who remembers that the Armada of 1588 was technically a crusade? Ignoring some questionable history, we may yet acknowledge that in Don Carlo, the clash between the royal role and the person who must live it out is powerfully registered. If Verdi’s anticlericalism misled him to take Schiller at face value, then his own politics, or those of his time, were to blame.
I was more needful than I knew when, as a teenager, I lucked into an excellent performance of Rigoletto: I was not put off at all by my first operatic experience. The famous quartet is supremely effective, even to the uninformed eye and ear—a hook that would snag anyone. And I assumed that, where there was that much to savor, there was more. Later on I ran into people who were connoisseurs of opera, and one who enjoyed producing and directing effective performances of Gilbert and Sullivan. One lesson I absorbed was never to write off light works because of their attitude or lack of challenge. There is much to be taken from The Mikado and the rest of them, and much as well from a small-scale conventional comedy such as Donizetti’s Don Pasquale—a masterpiece of proportionate comic vision and musical balance. The classic Mediterranean wisdom is the antidote to bloated tragedy and bathos. In a similar vein, Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel is a better opera than many assume, and it has been called the best Wagnerian opera for good reason—as has Verdi’s Falstaff.
My own thoughts on opera are straightforward. I like Mozart, and I appreciate Donizetti and Bellini particularly. I take Verdi—early, middle, and late—with seriousness and with gusto. Sir Thomas Beecham left us a great La bohème, and Victor de Sabata a great Tosca, and otherwise I let Puccini alone. Modern operas don’t appeal to me much, and when I make exceptions, Busoni is one, and Janácek is another—the great operatic composer of the 20th century. I see opera as a vehicle for accomplished singers, and not as political scripture.
Americans have a tradition of supporting opera, and of generating remarkable singers. Some of this musical background comes from houses of worship, of course. And we remember that, after all, Columbia’s first professor of Italian was Mozart’s most distinguished librettist. Rosa Ponselle (who sang in vaudeville before she sang with Caruso), John Charles Thomas, Lawrence Tibbett, Richard Crooks, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, George London, Anna Moffo, Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, Sherrill Milnes, Samuel Ramey, Jerry Hadley, Thomas Hampson, and Renée Fleming are some of the names that will be remembered whenever we recall specific American distinction in the art of singing and in the operatic domain.