Two Aphorisms for the Future of Opera

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1) New opera is not ‘risky’

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2) Opera is not ‘fundamentally an emotional art form’

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1) New opera is not ‘risky’ : : : The ‘risk’ in programming new opera – commissioning it, developing it, producing it – has become a standard, fairly unquestioned truism in the discourse of ‘practical’ classical music. As far as I’m concerned, any framing of new opera as inherently (or even potentially) ‘risky’ is fundamentally opposed to a serious conception of opera as art. It assumes a particular empirical judgement of ‘success’ based on audience reception – specifically on financial returns, popularity or critical consensus.

The ‘risk’ in question is never that the work will be ‘bad’, or ‘not groundbreaking’, or ‘not original’; even though these are also risks in a sense, it is not what is generally meant by ‘taking risks’ in producing new opera. The ‘risk’ of new opera is the one which finds its antithesis in a ‘classic revival’ of Jonathan Miller’s La Bohème or Anthony Minghella’s Madame Butterfly. There is no ‘risk’ in reviving Jonathan Miller’s La Bohème because its ‘success’ is a foregone conclusion: programmers already know that everyone loves it and everyone will go to see it, not least because everyone else (audiences, press, etc.) also already knows that they love it, even if they haven’t seen it yet. For this reason, if Jonathan Miller’s La Bohème was going to change the world, it would have done so already.

I’m not saying that these productions shouldn’t be revived as ‘classics’, as a cathartic opera experience or historical document, or as tasteful escapism (and revenue generation), but at the same time I really don’t think they can be included in the same category as new opera, let alone explicitly contrasted (via the reductive economic language of ‘risk’). ‘Taking risks’ is the whole point of art, and it is the ‘risk’ itself which makes it art: that new, unquantifiable factor. When an artwork stops being ‘risky’ (assuming that it hasn’t single-handedly catalysed a social or political revolution), what that means is that it has been absorbed fully into the consciousness of the status quo, it is ‘taken as read’ (or ‘as heard/seen’), and it thereby loses its ‘revolutionary’ potential.

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2) Opera is not ‘fundamentally an emotional art form’ : : : [This is formulated in response to a statement by John Fulljames, Associate Director of Opera at the ROH, at Sound and Music’s Stage Notes conference.] This is not to say that opera cannot be an ’emotional art form’, whatever that means. It is not even to say that it shouldn’t try to be. But, at the same time, it should be very contentious to suggest that this is what opera ‘fundamentally is‘. Such statements might not be a problem if they weren’t then taken as a parameter of quality, or value judgement. It’s this kind of statement which forces defenders of complicated, richly-layered modernist works or deconstructionist postmodern works to then bend over backwards in ‘proving’ how such-and-such a work actually has a straightforward emotional effect, that despite all its complexity it is also (even primarily) ’emotionally direct’ or ‘moving’. And this devalues all the other ideas and powers in these works, on the understanding that if you’re saying the work isn’t primarily emotional then it isn’t really an opera (or a good opera).

There is actually a political idea at the heart of all this, an anxiety that opera must be seen to serve a noble political purpose, which is that universalist, liberal-humanist purpose ascribed to all generically ‘great’ art (and for that reason, often perceived to be apolitical, or ‘above’ politics). It helps us to understand ‘humanity’ and ‘the human condition’, it teaches us to empathise, flex our tear ducts and feel. This is supposed to show that opera isn’t just entertainment but has some moral/ethical value to it. It’s an old idea, and a familiar one. But, over a hundred years of critical theory and deconstruction have argued, extensively, why such a political commitment might be problematic (and therefore why, despite all the great art in the world, there’s still violence and inequality and oppression wherever you look). I would argue that there is a sense amongst opera creators, especially those who leverage large amounts of cash, that they must continue to argue all these old causes (in addition to the new ones about the economy and aspiration and stuff) so as to avoid seeming superfluous, apolitical or even amoral.

What’s more, the connection of ’emotions’ to music is very loose and problematic to begin with (just as ’emotion’ or ’emotional’ can be used in a ridiculously broad sense). One of the achievements of Western music is to fix certain musical signifiers with emotional signification, and this process is rehearsed most explicitly in opera, in which music can be linked to specific events, experiences and statements. The way that the operatic canon has been formed, and the way that music is contextualised, has privileged an emotional semantics which is supposed to legitimate (Romantic) liberal-humanism in its very form. To say that opera is an ’emotional art form’ is to say that it is fundamentally a liberal-humanist art form. It is not to say that it is ’emotional’ in a histrionic or sulky way. It is ’emotional’ because it means via emotions, by which I mean the validated ’emotional’ vocabulary of the Western bourgeois individual. These emotions can only ever tell us what we already know, because that is how we recognise what they are (music isn’t really emotional in this way). Understanding the music of opera as some kind of emotional mediation of the content is also to pre-empt and hijack our own response to that same content, forcing us to feel a certain way and then telling us what those feelings mean. All of this, as well-intentioned as it might be, locks out criticism, judgement and emotional agency from the ‘meaning’ or ‘nature’ of opera, as well as the potential for revelation (and, of course, revolution). In other words, opera should aspire to exceed, confound and problematise these pre-assumed and codified ’emotional’ categories.

I should reiterate that I don’t actually think operas per se (old or new) are necessarily politically reactionary or emotionally limited or one-dimensional (although I do think that quite a lot are, to varying degrees). My problem is with the ideology which claims that ‘operas = fundamentally an emotional art form’, which privileges those operas that can be understood as fulfilling this claim most accurately, and which requires all other operas to prove their potential fulfilment of this claim in order to be validated as ‘real operas’ or ‘good operas’. It’s an ahistorical, anachronistic ideology which picks, chooses and bunches together all the ‘great’ historical operas as one single timeless statement of our current hegemonic political beliefs, eliding much of their individual, historically-situated radicalism.

The ’emotional’ factor becomes a weapon against critique, reform or radical difference. It is used as a kind of misty-eyed lowest common denominator, to which everyone involved in opera can retreat, in order to validate their own interpretations and value-systems, deflect any charges of elitism or amorality, and freeze out any overtly radical new works, or else reduce them to the same ’emotional’ formula on which everyone can agree, shed a smug tear and then move onto the next production without anything ever really changing.

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One Response to Two Aphorisms for the Future of Opera

  1. Pingback: (1) // The Ideology of Opera Creation // |

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