Two More Aphorisms for the Future of Opera


1) Opera is not ‘an 18th-century art form’


2) The potential of opera has yet to be fulfilled


1) Opera is not ‘an 18th-century art form’ : : : In his hugely positive review of Michel van der Aa’s Sunken Garden, the music writer Norman Lebrecht wrote the following:

Few new operas address the fundamental question of what an 18th century art form is supposed to do in the 21st.

His intentions are good, of course, but this suggestion that opera is ‘an 18th-century art form’ goes some way to explain how he could possibly consider Sunken Garden as addressing any ‘fundamental questions’ regarding the 21st century, not to mention constituting ‘the future of opera’ or ‘a projection of what opera ought to be’.

Opera is no more an 18th-century art form than novels are an 18th-century art form (or ‘music’ is an 11th-century art form, or ‘theatre’ is a 6th-century-BCE art form, etc.). This is not just a problem of Eurocentrism, it’s a total failure of imagination that betrays classical music’s obsession with canons and tradition, and its fundamental formal/semantic essentialism (i.e. ‘deep down, opera looks like/means this, and any deviation or mutation must be understood in relation to this essential form/meaning’). When a new novel comes out, how often do reviewers compare it to Proust, Dickens or Tolstoy, let alone Cervantes or Defoe? I’m going to say pretty rarely. Would literature reviews ever talk about ‘the fundamental question of what the novel, as an 18th-century art form, is supposed to do in the 21st’? Again, almost never. Because it is not a ‘fundamental question’.

‘Opera’ cannot perpetually be understood as the latest evolution of, or departure from, Monteverdi or Jacopo Peri, via Mozart, Verdi and Wagner. Thinking about opera in this way is severely limiting. It produces its own conundrum – no wonder Lebrecht thinks of it as a problematic ‘question to address’ – because it stops opera creators from being able to think about the art form on its own terms.

Opera is not equivalent to ‘symphony’ or ‘string quartet’ or ‘concerto’ as genre. It is not a structure, or a collection/distribution of forces, or a historical template. Sure, opera ‘as an 18th century art form’ could certainly be historicised as a bourgeois art form, similarly to the novel, but even this imaginary shouldn’t impact upon its continued potency, given our continuing entrenchment within bourgeois political economy (i.e. capitalism), nor should it preclude the transformation of the art form towards post-capitalist ends.

However, I think that the way we imagine opera as a set of aesthetic possibilities should be even less historically delimited than the novel, which is itself only one particular form within the field of representation which is literature. I would argue that opera is, or should be, its own field of representation. Opera is the possibility of (sung) music in (live) theatre. It is the intersection of the audible and visible in (bounded) time and space. New operas shouldn’t be required to ‘address’ the history of opera and constantly argue for its continued relevance. As long as music and live theatre and the interaction of the audible and visual are understood as productive of meaning (and the continued thriving of other art forms, film in particular, surely suggests that they are), then the viability of opera ‘in the 21st century’ should not be in question.

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2) The potential of opera has yet to be fulfilled : : : There are two aspects to this, one pertaining to opera itself, and one to the potential of art more generally:

Opera hasn’t had its ‘Golden Age’, neither has it peaked, nor been perfected, fully explored, exemplified or apotheosised. This isn’t so much a judgement on the so-called operatic repertoire as it exists, with its masterpieces and its geniuses, as it is a statement of rational necessity. If we believe a) that opera has a future as an art form, and is ‘just as relevant now as it was two hundred years ago’, and b) that humankind will survive on this planet for at least the next thousand years, then it should seem quite reasonable that there’s a lot more for the art form to say and to do.

[This is certainly how I feel when listening back to historic operas which, for all their pleasant music and iconic set pieces, seem very rarely to utilise any but the most clichéd of poetic language and subject matter, characterising types, genders and roles in a broad manner that evokes melodrama, soap opera and occasionally commedia dell’arte, but very rarely seems to have anything particularly penetrating to say. For me, the early experiments in Western opera (say 1700-1900) were characterised by an obsession with the potential to fix the abstract desires and drives producible through the Western tonal system (with its leading notes, modulations, resolutions and symmetries) within more concrete signification (i.e. this = grief, this = loneliness, this = jealousy). This obviously found its most extreme form in Wagner’s leitmotif system, but was certainly a central obsession in vocal music from Monteverdi onwards (and arguably stretches even further back to Josquin, but this is not an argument for this blog). Most of these early experiments had something of a forced redundancy about them, in which the ’emotions’ of the music repeated the emotions of the characters onstage, although more often than not the emotional impact of the libretto and staging were removed, through imposed conventionality or unsubtlety, so that the music could take the piece’s full emotional burden.  The staging and libretto were used as a kind of ‘key’ to ‘translate’ the abstract signifiers of the music, intense as they are, into signified emotions, impressions or recollections.

[At the time this was sometimes radical, sometimes controversial, for sure. It helped usher in a particularly bourgeois/Enlightenment kind of subjectivity, and would sometimes be used to cultivate a humanist emotional engagement with individuals who transgress the laws of religion and of society, which was important at the time, to shake off the feudal ideology. But this understanding of the relationship between music and emotion, and the new bourgeois subjectivity which it accompanied, have now become wholly hegemonic. Any radical potential in the rehearsing of this classic operatic semiotics of ‘music and emotions’ has been used up. For me, this preoccupation seems to constitute ‘talking for the sake of it’ – the joy of communication for its own sake. Hence the rehearsal of the same familiar and ancient tragedies and comedies as arbitrary vessels to express the ever-wondrous truth of music’s ‘expressivity’ when embodied onstage and combined with language. It reminds me of Thomas Edison reciting ‘Mary had a little lamb’ on his phonograph. The challenge then is to find something worthwhile to say: ideally something that hasn’t been said before. While it has been argued that quite a few of these operas did, to some extent, have ‘something to say’ that was more palpable in their own time – perhaps in the form of a particularly sexualised heroine or the expression of some barely-hidden Republican sentiment – such messages are barely audible in contemporary re-performances.]

We have to start thinking about opera the way we think about contemporary art and new music itself. After the avant gardes of the late 19th and early 20th century, it was impossible (and still is impossible) to write tonal music or make figurative art in the West without doing so self-consciously and decisively. Similarly, after the ’60s and ’70s, the ‘progression’ of art and music into abstraction – i.e. total sound, colour, form, even concept – was also problematised, so to go back and re-engage with this ‘progression’ would also necessarily become a knowing decision in itself. Contemporary artists cannot (I’d hope) think of their practice in the same way as 18th-century artists like Gainsborough or Hogarth; it’s not just a question of painting or sculpting style, it’s the whole idea of representation/ expression/meaning/everything. And the same is true when compared to 19th-century or early 20th-century artists. I should reiterate that saying ‘the potential of opera has yet to be fulfilled’ is different from saying ‘the potential of painting is yet to be fulfilled’ (which may or may not be true). Painting is one material medium within the whole field of visual (plastic) art, a field which is (or should be) equivalent to opera in its purview.

So suggesting that the potential of opera has been fulfilled would be tantamount to saying the potential of visual art or poetry or film or dance or music per se has been fulfilled. Now I’m sure plenty of people would say this as well, which brings me onto the other part of this extrapolation. There is certainly a feeling of crisis in all (Western/globalising) art forms at the moment, which may (or may not) be linked to the supposed death of meta-narratives, of grand movements and ideological struggles which had to do with both deconstructionist philosophy and with the so-called ‘End of History’ after the fall of the Berlin Wall. There’s a consensus that anything can be ‘art’ now, that there aren’t so much schools or movements as a plurality of individual styles, borrowing from the past and from other cultures, hybridising, etc., in a manner that links artistic production to the ‘cultural’ production of meaning/information/experience/affect which constitutes one of the fastest-growing industries in the developed world. The old, standardising ‘culture industry’ has adapted so that it is now basically unrecognisable from individualist artistic production, and meanwhile there is a general refusal amongst artists to take a stand against anything, partly because there is nowhere to stand which isn’t always already geared towards producing ‘cultural’ value for the current system of all-encompassing creative capitalism.

There doesn’t seem to be anything for art to do or to say, perhaps because there doesn’t seem to be anything that can be said (or heard). The consensus is almost total: there can only now be the expansion of liberal, secular, multinational, totalitarian ‘cultural capitalism’, and its own-brand version of ‘democracy’ and multiculturalism as identity marketing. The only official enemy, radical Islam, is doomed as an (artistic) ideological  alternative by its homophobia and misogyny. And at the same time, we all always already know that this situation is woefully imperfect, that it will lead to climate disaster and greater global inequality and geopolitical struggles between new emerging superpowers and all such ‘distant’, inevitable worries. And we all already know that there’s nothing we can do but acknowledge it and laugh knowingly and roll our eyes. Because everyone already knows all of this, so to suggest that they don’t would be ignorant and patronising, and it makes more sense to do an installation about pop culture or virtual reality, because at least that won’t make people feel patronised or guilty. But you already know this…

And the effect of all this is that we’re ideologically blinded to how necessarily exceptional and short-lived this present period of apparent stability will be, while at the same time (paradoxically) we find it hard to imagine society in a hundred years time, let alone five hundred years time. To imagine that all these fundamental forms of expressive art have all already said what they’re able to say is to acknowledge their huge limitations. If artistic changes through the ages have had a role in developing new subjectivities, if – as we’re told over and over again – culture (and art) isn’t only determined by the relations of production but is part of a two-way dialogue, then we have to imagine that there is still a lot that art has left to do (or at least assist with). And, if we believe that culture can condition subjectivities, resist hegemonies and function as critique, then surely it is the most vital place to start if we want to kick our collective imagination out of its present apathy and shortsightedness, and into a more material struggle with concentrations of power and ideological apparatuses that normalise inequality and violence.

This is an imperative for all art, but opera would certainly be an interesting place to start, in part because it hasn’t exhausted itself through deconstruction, or become disillusioned with its founding mythology. As an art form, it has barely ‘said’ anything; it seems like this would be a perfect time for it to start. But first it needs to thoroughly purge itself of the idea that new productions are somehow an extension of the old operatic repertoire, keeping that old canon ‘alive’ through token newness. The word ‘still’ should come nowhere near it. It will ‘still’ do, and ‘still’ mean, and ‘still’ say nothing. Opera is not ‘still’. Opera is nothing but the intersection of the audible and visible in (bounded) time and space. All music is at its disposal, as is all theatre, all language and – indeed – all visual art, dance and film. As a simultaneous collage of heterosensory media, it has the power to take anything ‘already said’ and juxtapose it with a statement from a completely distinct sensory tradition, projecting – through that unique interstice – a near-infinite series of possible meanings to be derived from their association.

As far as I’m concerned, it seems obvious that no opera creators have yet come anywhere near to fully harnessing the ridiculously immense potential of this concept. The money needed to put on opera, as well as the guarantees needed for its likely success and the ideological imperative to remain within a tradition and to aspire to previously ratified ‘masterpieces’, has meant that the whole art form has (of course) been almost defined by its conservatism. The most radical developments in opera have largely followed radical developments in concert music, with the musical element representing the only real departure from the operatic norm. But opera’s pragmatic conservatism has become a self-determining quality of its own system of judgement, even of its essential ‘definition’ in the imagination of its creators and audiences alike. Hence: opera the ’18th-century art form’.

In other words, under these conditions, opera composers, librettists and dramatists don’t start each new project with ‘a blank page’. They start with a page that says OPERA in massive letters. It’s these letters that we need to erase before opera can finally really start saying something other than ‘OPERA’.

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One Response to Two More Aphorisms for the Future of Opera

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

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