Cher Public

Not since John Dexter’s ‘Billy Budd’…

“Uh, I have,” Mr. McDermott said, laughing. [New York Times]

  • Elie Hampton

    Dear Todd Koenig,

    I saw this portion of an interview with critic Andrew Porter.

    Bruce Duffie: You mentioned recordings. Do you feel that opera works well on recordings, being such a theatrical experience?

    Andrew Porter: Yes, it does. I cannot quite tell you why, but obviously it does because I have enjoyed such an enormous amount of them. Look at all the records on my shelves. I do think it works very well, but it works in a different way from opera in the opera house, and one needs both.


    Three questions.

    1. Have you ever met anyone who derives enormous pleasure from listening (in private) to complete audio recordings of opera and creating “theater of the mind”?

    2. Do you believe this individual (who concentrates so heavily on compositional structure and internalization of the orchestral, instrumental and vocal aspects) comes closest to the essence of opera?

    3. Would it be correct to say that this individual has the most finely developed aesthetic sensibility when it comes to opera?

    • Batty Masetto

      All right, I’ll bite, even though this post has a powerful aroma of a certain Castle Room (and I’m not Todd Koenig, either):
      1. The young Me, for years, till I had the funds and opportunity to see more live opera.
      2. Not remotely. It would be like somebody who’d only read Shakespeare thinking they’ve understood his “essence.”
      3. It’s not only not correct, it’s nonsense.

      • Nybookfile


        The reason I bring up this topic is that there is today a growing number of mainstream classical music critics as well as ordinary operagoers who positively revel in the challenge of “unpacking” (to use their oft-used term) the meaning of Konzept Regietheater stagings of canonical operas as they might revel in the challenge of solving a clever rebus or acrostic; perverse stagings which today have become a pervasive practice worldwide. It never occurs to them that any staging of an opera — any opera — that requires unpacking in order to be understood upends the very foundation of opera which seeks first and foremost to address itself directly to one’s centers of feeling by virtue of its music rather than to one’s intellect and is a veritable definition of what it means to be perverse in this context as such a practice reduces the music to the level of a mere (mostly inappropriate) soundtrack to the drama.

        All of this makes me wonder how many opera lovers of when they sit down to study an unfamiliar opera really listen with patience in a ‘concatenationist way’.

        How many really listen in a concatenationist way at first?

        The connoisseur understands that one cannot truly know an opera unless one has devoted much time to thoroughly penetrate and internalize every note, texture and sonic detail to the best of one’s ability…. Apparently there are some in the opera world who need to be reminded of the fact that listening to music (at first) is a major cognitive task which requires very considerable processing resources. The simpler task of reading libretti or studying dramaturgy CANNOT be compared to the process of listening absorbedly or the real-time synthetic apprehension of the musical construction of the opera. I would also stress that this type of opera lover often experiences a thrill or sees aesthetic value or perceives emotive properties in sections that many others often dismiss as “inferior, dull or mediocre”.

        Do you disagree with any of this?

        • Batty Masetto

          Yep, I do. ‘Bye, GCR.

        • Olivero Fan

          Who are you? You’ve used 2 different names. I disagree with it all.

          • Nybookfile


            Opera is an unusual art form in many respects. It is a recently invented art, which is to say, we can date exactly when the first art object appeared that can reasonably bear the name “opera”; and we know in detail the circumstances and theorizing that gave it birth in Florence in the waning years of the sixteenth century and the first years of the seventeenth. It was a troubled child from birth and a troubled adult ever since.

            Opera probably has the highest failure rate of any of the major musical forms, among the great composers. No opera by Haydn, Schubert or Mendelssohn is in the modern opera repertory. And we are all familiar with the terrible birth-pangs of Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera which failed so often during his lifetime, both as Fidelio and as Leonore, that we possess 3 Leonore overtures as well as the Fidelio overture we now hear in the final version of the work. Brahms, of course, never attempted an opera at all, nor did Bach, whose first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, tells us, used to visit the Dresden opera regularly. “He generally took his eldest son with him”, writes Forkel. “He used to say in joke, some days before his departure: “‘Friedman, shan’t we go again to hear the lovely Dresden ditties?'”

            Small wonder Bach never ventured an opera, holding that opinion of the genre, although it is hard to imagine Johann Sebastian failing at anything musical.

            In any event, to continue with this list of opera oddities, the failure rate of opera among the great composers of the Western canon is balanced, so to speak, by the abundance of successful opera composers who are known solely or almost solely for their operas alone: Gluck, Rossini, Donizetti, Bizet, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, to name those that most readily come to mind. One would be hard put to it to name any prominent composer, besides a composer of opera, who is represented in the modern concert repertory by only one genre of musical composition. Right from the get-go, opera was a problematical art. For right from the get-go, opera was a battlefield on which words and music engaged in total war. This might sound like a strange thing to say, given that before the invention of opera almost all music in the Western canon was texted music, and the setting of texts to music never a particularly problematic matter. Furthermore, almost all of the world’s music, both past and present, classical and popular, Western and non-Western, is sung music with text. And there is no all-out war of music with text anywhere else that I know of, in the past or the present, except on the battlefield of opera.

            What, then, is the “opera problem”?

            As anyone familiar with the vicissitudes of opera, and its history, will know, it is not text per se that is the problem: it is text that represents conversation, or, in other words, conversational speech. And this for two reasons. First, the pace of speech is far more rapid than the pace of music, such that when set to music it either achieves Wagnerian length, or else, if Wagnerian length is to be avoided, results in music so stripped down and accelerated that it ceases to be full-blown music at all, as in Italian secco recitative. Second, the closed musical forms require patterns of repetition that tend to make nonsense of conversation when the conversation is set in such forms, the da capo aria being a notorious case in point, in which the singer “says” one thing in the first section of the aria, another thing in the contrasting middle section, and then repeats verbatim what she has already “said” when the first section is repeated. It is, of course, as the critics of Italian opera seria argued over and over again, perfect musical form and perfect conversational nonsense.

            It is not my purpose here to go into the various ways by which composers, from Monteverdi to Wagner, have endeavored to solve the problem of setting dramatic dialogue to music. My point, briefly, is that the goal was always, as I put it in my book, “Osmin’s Rage”, to produce what I called “drama-made-music”. The first operas were generally referred to as ‘dramma per musica’: drama through music. But it seems to me that that description has things the wrong way round, suggesting that opera is a form of musical drama. Rather, it should be ‘musica per dramma’: not drama through music but music through drama; drama-made-music. Music comes first.

            Here are some plain facts of the matter. If you want to look at an opera score, go to the music library. No opera has ever survived in the repertory without great, or at least good, music; but many have survived with execrable texts. How often have you seen a play without a production? In short, as an 18th century French critic put the point: “When I go to the Opera, it is to hear music”

            Now, of course I am not denying that opera possess theatrical and dramatic elements in abundance — what Aristotle called the “spectacle” of tragic drama. Nor am I denying that they are important. But what I am pressing — what I am adamant about — is the overarching importance of music for opera in any of its surviving forms. The distinguished musicologist, Joseph Kerman, wrote a book on opera that I think is is fair to describe as the most important book on the subject since the beginning of the twentieth century. He called it “Opera as Drama”. Yet even he, in a book with THAT title, got the musical priorities exactly right, as I see those priorities: “in opera,” he wrote,

            …. What counts is not the narrative structure, symbol, metaphor, and so on, as set forth in the libretto, but the way all that is interpreted by a master mind. That mind writes the music… A work of art in which music fails to exert the central articulating function should be called by some other name than opera.

            I will rest my case on that. I cannot think of a more reliable witness than Joseph Kerman.

            So the basic premise of this paper is that opera is a form of music: drama-made music, as I like to call it. And the problem this poses is why the historically authentic performance of music has not developed more fully, if at all, as one of its sub-classes, the historically authentic performance of opera.

            I begin with a claim I cannot provide conclusive evidence for but which is based solely on my own experience as an opera-goer. It appears to me, then, that performing opera in modern dress and setting is far less frequent than in the legitimate theater. What might be the reason for this?

            My proposal is simple, straightforward, and liable to raise the hackles of some recent writers on opera in the academy. It is, in short, that operas in general are not about anything — that is, they do not usually have, as a major concern, telling us important things, conveying to us important thoughts, moral, philosophical, political, sociological, psychological, for our consideration. In this, opera is in sharp contrast with serious drama. And because operas are generally not about anything, in the senses described above, the major motive for performance in modern dress and setting — namely, calling attention to the work’s content, and focusing our attention on its contemporary relevance — is absent. Furthermore, because the major motive for performance in modern dress and setting is absent from opera, it naturally follows that there will be far fewer productions of opera in modern dress and setting than of serious drama.

            At this juncture I can well imagine the howls of indignation that might emanate from some recent writers on opera among the musicological set. And it would surely be a valuable intellectual exercise to engage these writers in serious discourse. But that must await a future occasion. It will have to suffice here to flesh out my own view as briefly as possible and press on to my own conclusion.

            Let me begin in what might seem to be a singularly unlikely place: Kierkegaard’s famous animadversions on “Don Giovanni” in “Either/Or”. It seems an unlikely place, because Kierkegaard made such heavy weather of the work and the Don Juan story that it would be just here that a howl of protest might be expected against the view that opera is not in the business of conveying serious thoughts — is not in the business of philosophy and the rest. But no: Kierkegaard writes (and I must quote him at some length to produce the full sense of what he is saying):

            “But just as the totality of the opera cannot be self-reflective as it is in the drama proper, this is also the case with the musical situation, which is indeed dramatic, but which still has its unity in the mood…. The more the drama is self-reflective, the more the mood is explained in the action. The less action, the more the lyrical element dominates. This is quite proper in opera. Opera does not so much have character delineation and action as its immanent goal; it is not reflective enough for that. On the other hand, passion, unreflective and substantial, finds its expression in opera”

            Kierkegaard has it exactly right here. Opera is not a drama of action and thought. It is a drama of passion, of emotion. It is, if you will — and this, of course, is not an exceptionless generalization — a succession of emotional states of character, with a connective tissue that makes a plausible transition from one such emotive state to the next.

            This picture of opera fits perfectly my characterization of opera as drama-made-music, and my insistence that opera is, first and foremost a musical form; that opera is music. Furthermore, you can describe many pure instrumental works from various periods in just such terms. One might, for example, describe a classical symphony as, among other things, a succession of expressive states: more precisely, a succession of musical passages expressive of contrasting emotions. What an opera has, of course, that a symphony does not, in spite of repeated attempts by philosophers and musicologists in recent years to put “personae”, as they are called, into absolute music, is characters who bear these emotional states. But it is the music that, of course, mirrors and makes manifest the emotional states operatic characters are in. And it is the music that we come to the opera for-- albeit the music as the emotive expression of dramatic characters.

            Let me put my point — and I think it is Kierkegaard’s point too — in another way. To learn about the usurpation of power, unbridled ambition, and their consequences, I might well send someone to see “The Scottish Play”, said to be Abraham Lincoln’s favorite of the Bard’s creations. I would not send her to Verdi’s version. To learn about jealousy, villainy, naïve credulity, and their consequences, I might well send someone to Shakespeare’s “Otello”. I would not send him to Verdi’s masterpiece. Why would I not?

            Perhaps someone might reply: “By all means send your friends to Verdi rather than to Shakespeare to learn about these things. For Verdi has added music to the words, and the music gives us insight into these human actions, motivations, and passions beyond what “mere words” can provide.” But that is the opposite of the truth, and is what Kierkegaard was getting at when he wrote that “the totality of opera cannot be self-reflective as it is in drama proper…” The wise opera librettist removes from the drama, as Verdi’s librettists did from Shakespeare, that which is self-reflective and discursive to “make room”, as it were, for the music to work its magic, which is the embodiment of the expressive in the text: the drama not of actions and ideas, but the drama of emotions. To this the skeptic might respond: “Look here, the publishers’ lists are full of books telling us what operas are about. What do you say to that?”

            I say that, in my experience, such books usually end up telling us not what operas are ABOUT but what their libretti are about. Their authors tend to forget that opera is not music transmuted into drama but drama transmuted into music. Opera is music. And it seems to me that a good motto for all writers on what opera are about to take to heart is this one: “What music cannot do, opera cannot do.” This may seem extreme. But as Aristotle long ago pointed out, sometimes one must aim at the extreme to regain the mean.

            Operas, then — and again this is what Kierkegaard so clearly recognized — are not vehicles for the communication of ideas any more than symphonies or string quartets. And that, I suggest, is why performing them in modern dress, and the rest, seldom makes much sense. Let me illustrate this last claim with an anecdote.

            Some years ago I attended a conference dinner and had the great good fortune to be seated next to Peter Sellars, the director. I asked him what his next operatic project was going to be. He replied that he wanted to produce and direct “The Magic Flute”, and that he intended the second act to be set in a drug rehabilitation center. I never got far enough into the conversation to discover what it was in “Die Zauberflote” that could possibly be relevant to the contemporary problem of drug addiction, and might possibly warrant transforming the temple of Isis and Osiris into a medical facility for substance abusers. The point simply is that there has to be a point in producing an opera in modern dress and the rest. And for there to be a point the opera must be making a point. It has never become clear to me what point or points “The Magic Flute” could have been making that would have made sense of the setting Peter Sellars envisioned for it. Of course, there is a long history of speculation about the Masonic symbolism in “The Magic Flute”. But if the work is about Masonry, few in the audience know, and it survives for the usual reasons great operas do. Generations of opera lovers have fully experienced and appreciated Mozart’s last operatic masterpiece without any knowledge at all of its supposed Masonic content. If “The Magic Flute” is about Masonry — or as Paul Nettl put it, “glorifies the Masonic ideal”-- it is a fact of some interest to scholars, but of little or no interest to those who really matter: audiences that have come to it for over two hundred years as those who to church repair, in Pope’s words, not for the doctrine but for the music there.

            To sum up my argument, then, as to why performance in modern dress has had, as I see it, but little appeal in the world of opera, I began with the suggestion that performing a play of the past in modern dress is usually to make a point. And the point is twofold: to highlight what the play is about, what ideas, beliefs, theses to contemporary life and its problems. But as opera, I have been insisting, is seldom about anything of this kind, more akin to absolute music than to spoken drama in this regard, the major motive for giving it a contemporary setting is absent.

            That is the argument in a nutshell.

            • fletcher

              If that’s the nutshell, must be quite a nut.

            • manou

              I was just writing exactly this when I pressed the wrong button.

              All this verbiage is plagiarized from the œuvre of one Jerrold Levinson, an academic you might want to avoid at all costs.

              Of course, that could be another of GCR’s names.

            • Nybookfile


              All this verbiage is plagiarized from the œuvre of one Jerrold Levinson, an academic you might want to avoid at all costs.

              FYI, Jerrold Levinson is one of the world’s leading philosophers of music and a musically sophisticated aesthetician.

            • manou

              …and a great inspiration to you I’m sure.

            • I thought an aesthetician was somebody who did manicures and the like. Perhaps I’ve lived in France too long.

            • Cicciabella

              I never knew Disqus could accept such a long comment, especially when it’s so choc full of drivel. “In my book Osmin’s Rage…” I know you’re Genevieve, but are you also Peter Kivy, who wrote the book? Or are you just quoting him? “For right from the get-go, opera was a battlefield on which words and music engaged in total war.” No, it wasn’t. Monteverdi did not try to solve some word-music war invented by some delusional academician. He wrote works, secular and religious, that in which text and music are perfectly complementary. And da capo arias are not supposed to be conversations, but expressions of emotional states. And what the heck is “absolute music”? Notes on a page that no-one has ever sung, played or heard?

              I don’t know why I’m even bothering…

            • Porgy Amor

              but are you also Peter Kivy, who wrote the book

              Mr. Kivy died a few weeks ago, so that would make this all more miraculous than it seems.

            • Cicciabella

              My apologies and condolences to Peter Kivy’s family and friends.

      • Cardillac Addict


        Since the meaning of opera is at bottom musical (its essential argument is posed in musical language), it follows that the truest lover of the art form will choose to spend his or her leisure time in contemplative study of complete audio recordings.

        Opera is in its essence not a textual but a musical phenomenon, and interpreters of opera should proceed with great delicacy when they come to discuss its textual component. The important point is that an operatic text really has no meaning worth talking about except as it is transformed into music.

        On a separate note: Micaela Baranello is one of the dumbest commentators on opera. Why is she so obsessed with the theatrical aspects of opera. Does she ever sit down and carefully listen to operas?

        When was the last time she listened to all 90 minutes of Cardillac on record and derived the most intense aesthetic pleasure from it?

        Sitting down and listening to a recording -- directing the performance in one’s head -- strikes me as a little too much like hard work for people like her, though perhaps I am being unfair…..

        • La Cieca

          “Since the meaning of opera is at bottom musical”

          Nice circular argument. You’re banned again.

          • Der Kavalier


            Opera is and always will be two things, and can be approached with equal validity from either end. It is music harnessed to dramatic purpose, music in which the composer becomes playwright — with the assistance, usually, of a librettist. The music is the means whereby the drama is realized, and, though listeners following opera in terms of just music and words are missing out on theatre, there is no denying that what they are enjoying is opera. They experience opera rather as one may read a play on the page, peopling the stage in their mind’s eye with more or less detail according to their own imaginative fire.


          • manou

            It’s a hydra! Cut off one head…..

          • Aricia’s Grove

            Truly manic fans of opera tend to be men…. Most of the true die hard fans of opera I’ve come across as well as those with the widest tastes in the genre have been men.

            • Armerjacquino

              For some reason, ‘people you’ve met’ isn’t a data category I place much faith in.

          • Cardillac arrest. What a relief.

            • manou

              Yes -- but we also need Nybook filed, and Elieminated Hampton. Not sure what to make of Aricin’s Grave though…

            • Cicciabella

              Aricin needs to get dead and buried and their grave filled with concrete.

            • Cicciabella

              OK. That was very uncharitable of me. I’ll try again. Please, Genevieve, find another opera discussion topic, one that doesn’t involve 50 kilos of musicophilosophical sources. For example: Who does the most erotic Salome dance on video: Ewing, Malfitano, neither? Discuss without quoting anyone besides Oscar Wilde.

            • manou

              Asking Genevieve to view videos could be even more uncharitable.

              What I do not understand is the urge to force a debate on one’s very definite and outlandish ideology onto a group who are simply disinclined to participate in the rhetoric. It’s like gatecrashing a party you are not invited at.

            • Luvtennis

              And then drinking all the booze, eating all the food, whilst telling endless boring jokes.

              I certainly appreciate the time GCR takes to craft his or her posts, but really, you have to communicate without condescension if you want to be a good party guest.


            • Cicciabella

              May I say…brilliant!

  • manou

    Dear Cieca -- can you rid us of this turbulent poster?

    • Even if slightly less drastically!

      • manou

        I am not advocating that four knights should ride to Canterbury -- but if that’s what it takes…

        • Batty Masetto

          It wouldn’t work. By the time they got there the candidate would have slipped out of town in the guise of a horse’s ass.

          • manou

            No disguise required.

    • Nybookfile


      You fail to understand that listening intelligently and attentively, with or without a libretto as the only visual distraction, and as it were ‘directing’ the action in one’s own mental theatre, is fulfilling and an entirely proper way to experience opera.

      Opera, after all, only exists because of the music and in a dramatic context opera is made by things music alone can do.

      • manou

        I have to concede that I signally fail to understand a myriad of things.

    • Batty Masetto

      It appears that squirrels have been nesting and hoarding in the attic of Genevieve’s Castle Room, making the whole place even squirrelier and nuttier than before.

      • manou

        Not to mention the bats in the belfry. Et les araignées dans le plafond.

        • Batty Masetto

          Inzwischen fehlen auch etliche Tassen im Schrank.