The strangest art

A superb new history of opera argues that revivals of classic works are keeping the genre from flourishing today. Not so
December 27, 2012

A caricature by Gustave Doré from the 1860s: "People who sing opera generate huge acoustic forces"

A History of Opera: The Last 400 Years by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker (Allen Lane, £30)

Opera must be one of the weirdest forms of entertainment on the planet. Its exaggerated characters bear little relation to living people, and its plots are often ludicrous. Yet it demands from its audiences real involvement, real sympathy, even real tears. Mothers constantly fail to recognise their sons, sisters their brothers, husbands their wives, but we, sitting at a distance of hundreds of metres, are expected to penetrate all the thin disguises. Women dress as men posing as women—mainly in order to make love to other women—and nobody turns a hair. And on top of all this, people sing all their lines: not in the way you or I might sing, in a lullaby-ish, folk song-ish mode, but inhumanly, extremely, with a visible awareness of their own remarkable achievement.

No rock musician miming sex with his instrument or destroying it on stage, no art installation that creepily mirrors its visitors or pummels them with senseless questions, is nearly as crazy as opera. And yet, because it has been around for so long, and because its devotees pay so much money for their seats and then sit passively in them for such inordinate lengths of time, nobody seems to notice. The formal rules disguise the strangeness. The unnatural is successfully passed off as routine.

It is to Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker’s credit that in their new book, A History of Opera: The Last 400 Years, they notice all this. Despite their evident love of their subject, they are willing to acknowledge up front that, “the whole business is in so many ways fundamentally unrealistic, and can’t be presented as a sensible model for leading one’s life or understanding human behaviour.”

After observing how physically extreme the act of opera-singing is—“people who sing opera generate… huge acoustic forces; if they turn their voices on you at close range, you have to retreat and cover your ears”—they genially ask us to perform a thought experiment. “Think for a moment about what it would be like to inhabit a world that is operatic,” they write. “A world in which everyday life takes place and ordinary time passes, but in which everything—every action, every thought, every utterance—is geared to never-ending music… Think of the metaphysical questions that this state-of-opera would raise. First, and most important: who is making the music?”

This may seem like a joke at first—a mordant joke comparable to the one that lies at the heart of the Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show, which Abbate and Parker explicitly invoke as a comparison—but their question turns out to lead somewhere extremely useful. It gives us a way to grasp those many moments at which opera seems to point to itself, those places where characters comment on the music, or allude to earlier productions by their own composer, or generally speak to the audience from outside the frame of their fictional situation. Opera’s unreality, it turns out, releases it to be something more real than most fictions, because it can acknowledge and still transcend that unreality.

Abbate and Parker have a keen grasp of these theoretical questions, but what they excel at is marshalling the telling details. They are especially good on Mozart. I don’t think I’ve ever read or heard a better analysis of how a duet works than their segments on the opening of The Marriage of Figaro and the second seduction in Cosi Fan Tutte. They are almost as good on Monteverdi, Gluck, Verdi and Wagner; and they have useful insights into moderns like Debussy, Janácek and Britten. They write clearly and gracefully, and they forgo the usual off-putting tools of the musicologist. They have forbidden themselves to quote passages from musical scores; they’ve forbidden themselves even to read musical scores in constructing this book’s arguments and descriptions, and have instead relied in every case on their own ears, their own memories.

In the few places where I found myself disagreeing with them, it was not because I felt they were outright wrong, but because they had failed to take the full measure of a composer—Rossini, say, or Handel, or Shostakovich. In such cases, their explanation for the composer’s success rests mainly on social or historical grounds, as if we couldn’t love Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers or Shostakovich’s The Nose simply for their own musical sake. When they set out to explain the recent resurgence of Handel’s operas, they seem blind to the deep psychological realism that certain late 20th and early 21st-century productions have mined in his work. Instead, they see only the practicalities—the way the historically aware “insistence on lighter, faster interpretations of 18th-century music allows the drama to move more quickly,” or the fact that “the virtual absence of new works joining our repertory has necessitated ever-deeper excavations of the past in search of novelty.” These things are true enough, but they are insufficient: they don’t explain why the 2008 Stuttgart/San Francisco production of Alcina was one of the most haunting and moving productions I’ve ever seen, nor why the New York City Opera, in the early years of this century, was able to wring so much joy out of its Journey to Rheims and its Semele.

In general, Abbate and Parker decline to view opera production as an important aspect of the art form. It is difficult enough to cover many dozens of opera composers spanning hundreds of years of musical history. It would seem unreasonable to add to this the request that the chroniclers consider specific performances as well. But the quality of an opera cannot be completely separated from its production. Even Cosi Fan Tutte does not work every time: I’ve seen a terrible one in San Francisco, a pretty good one at the Metropolitan in New York, and an excellent one at a tiny theatre in Berlin, where the music was played eight-handed on two pianos and the parts were all taken by men. (You can see how this casting ploy would obviate, or at least complicate, the opera’s inherent misogyny.) A four-hour Handel production can be as unimaginably dull or as grippingly emotional as a Pedro Almodóvar movie, depending on the acting and the directing. Beautiful voices alone are not enough to bring Handel to life.

Yet for Abbate and Parker, the radical restaging of old operas is a sign of the art form’s decay. Defining German-inspired Regieoper (or director’s opera) as “the habit of aggressively updating the visual side of old works,” the two authors assert that this “technology-fuelled movement, linked to a taste for abstraction in the fine arts, started as an attempt… to make operas in forgotten idioms more relevant to audiences.” This blurs the issue by implicitly equating the visual novelties of a slick operator like Robert LePage (as displayed, for instance, in his video-riddled Damnation of Faust) with the deep, serious and all-encompassing rethinkings of the best modern productions.

As for a modern work like the Robert Wilson/Philip Glass/Lucinda Childs Einstein on the Beach, or the John Adams/Mark Morris/Peter Sellars Death of Klinghoffer—well, there’s simply no way to evaluate the opera without seeing it in the flesh, because the relations between singers and dancers, not to mention evocative lighting and inventively designed sets, are crucial to how the opera works. As long as the creators of those operas are alive, we can rely on them to recreate the magic; when they are no longer with us, their works will not survive without inventive directors who are capable of seeing “the visual” as something more than just window-dressing.

The authors have a considered reason for being unenthusiastic about directorial innovation. They feel that the constant restaging of the old wipes out the new, and as a consequence they find themselves generally opposed to vigorously modernised revivals. (“Burn everything” is the title of one of their later sections, echoing a line of Wagner’s.) They clearly wish that today’s opera could be as fresh and as fecund as it was in its Italian and Viennese heyday, with new works emerging every season to displace the old.

But does the existence of Shakespeare prevent good new plays from coming into being today, and would we be willing to ban all his works on the off chance that it would? No, and no. Theatre audiences can enjoy the staged reinventions of Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice and A Winter’s Tale—we can even gain pleasure from the smallest innovations in line-readings, just as opera-goers can appreciate the individual benefits that a singer brings to a part—and still hope for different kinds of pleasures from dramas created in our time. Nothing, perhaps, will ever be as good as Shakespeare, but that doesn’t prevent Tony Kushner or David Mamet from writing marvellous plays now. Shostakovich didn’t worry about whether he was living up to his idols Rossini, Mussorgsky and Berg when he gave us Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District; he just did it.

But A History of Opera remains a grand achievement. And if I find myself wondering, finally, who this book’s intended audience is, that is not to criticise, but to clarify. People who have never been to an opera in their lives need no scholarly preparation for the experience, and might be put off by Abbate’s and Parker’s thoroughness. (If you are not already familiar with the operas, reading through the authors’ plot summaries, for instance, might be a bit like hearing someone recite his dreams at the breakfast table.)

Yet the book is clearly aimed at non-scholarly readers: all opera titles and libretto quotations are given in both the original language and in English, and the musical description is such that any intelligent reader, even with no music background, could understand it. A History of Opera is probably not meant to be read as a consecutive story in the same way as, say, Alex Ross’s continuously gripping history of 20th-century classical music The Rest Is Noise. Abbate and Parker’s book feels more like a beautifully written reference work. It is perfect for someone like me, who loves going to the opera but has severe gaps in her historical knowledge; and if you’re looking for something to pull off the shelves and read before your next visit to the opera, I suspect it might be perfect for you, too.

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