If Music Be The Food of Love

5.8.19 / Text
An Excerpt from Opera's Second Death (2001) by Mladen Dolar

James Gillray, A Bravura Air, caricature of Elizabeth Billington, 1801. TM Collection

Philosophers did not go to the opera very often. Opera’s glamor—the splendor of court spectacles, the pomp of national myths, the sentimental melodramas—seemed highly removed from their activities and from their vantage point, opera may have looked rather pitiable. Dr. Johnson’s famous dictum that opera was “an exotic and irrational entertainment” set the general tone, along with Schelling’s claim that the opera was the lowest caricature of the highest form of art, the Greek theater.1 For three centuries, opera strove to fascinate, to ensnare by means of the imaginary, to bewitch with fantasies. Philosophy’s task was rather the disenchantment—the deconstruction—of the fascination and glamor. How ironic that opera and modern philosophy coincide chronologically, spanning the period from the seventeenth to the twentieth century.

If opera is alien to philosophers, then Rousseau, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche are exceptions that prove the rule. Rousseau, a man with two souls in one breast, even wrote an opera himself: His Le Devin du Village is still performed occasionally today. Kierkegaard let himself be totally spellbound by the enchantment of the opera so that for him it became a paradigm of aesthetic sensual fascination—but only to overcome it all the better by rising to the ethical and the religious. And for some time, Nietzsche actually saw the realization of his philosophical project in Wagner’s operas only to reject this error all the more spectacularly (and relying on another kind of opera, Bizet’s Carmen).

The opera is, at any rate, a bizarre subject for philosophical scrutiny. Its glamor is perhaps connected to its strange temporality. Opera represents a corpus that is historically closed, finished. As a musical genre, it has its beginning, its rise, and its fall, so it can be delimited and discussed as a self-contained entity. The notion of opera’s having a distinct beginning and end may not be self-evident, for the idea of combining a narrative with music is, I suppose, as old as mankind. And its end does not seem to be in sight because opera has experienced something like a renaissance during the past few decades. Almost all the founding fathers of modern music have at some point succumbed to the irresistible appeal of crowning their careers with a work of opera. One can think of Stockhausen, Berio, Ligeti, Penderecki, and even Cage and Messiaen, not to mention the older attempts by Henze, Zimmermann, Kagel, Nono and many others. Sooner or later they could not resist the overwhelming temptation to test their hand at this ultimate musical genre.

Nevertheless, I share the view held by many that the opera is emphatically finished. Several candidates for the date of its death exist, and if the genre’s grand, melodramatic finale is to match the grandeur of its ascendancy, then the favorite of these is no doubt April 26, 1926, the first performance of Puccini’s Turandot, when Toscanini’s famous gesture—interrupting the performance at the point where Puccini’s work was terminated by his death, and leaving the podium in tears—also suspended the majestic tradition of opera and marked its demise. A more intimate burial had occurred a few years earlier: Schönberg’s Erwartung, written in 1909, was first performed in June 1924, by the strangest coincidence as a kind of requiem for Kafka.2 To be sure, there are other suitable candidates for “the last of the operas”: Strauss’s Daphne (1938) offers a nicely symmetrical exit, its subject repeating that of the first opera, Peri’s Dafne (1597-1598)—a satisfying conclusion for a genre so obsessed with the problem of a satisfying conclusion.3 Berg’s Lulu, fist produced posthumously in truncated form in 1937 and in a completed version not until 1979, is another major contender since it brings the diva, the true goddess of the opera, to a most spectacular death. In the course of opera’s long life, it may well have seemed that the spectacular death was a diva’s main business and that after undergoing it for so many times in so many works, she was immune to death. But Lulu’s demise was the death of the death itself; no more divas would draw their lasts breaths to the sobs of the audience after that. Lulu is the anti-Turandot. But perhaps it is best not to argue about the various candidate’s merits and to retain an ecumenical stance; it is important to place developments after that time in a different horizon, a context determined by the awareness that the great tradition of the opera—along with its presuppositions, the social and cultural conditions that formed the pillars of the genre for three centuries and made opera a coherent whole despite the myriad individual manifestations—is irretrievably gone.

If opera were simply over, however, it could be assigned a neat place in cultural archaeology and thus properly buried. The astounding thing is the enormous operatic institution’s stubborn, zombielike existence after its demise; it not only is kept alive but is also growing steadily. At present, opera is larger and more complex than it ever was during its lifetime. The more opera is dead, the more it flourishes: New opera houses are being built, and performances are becoming increasingly costly and sophisticated, accompanied by lavish TV broadcasts and by video, CD, and DVD industries, so that the scale and technological advancement of it all dwarf anything that went before. Opera enjoys a glamorous star system comparable to that of the movie world, pop music, or sports. The glamor of the opera maintains the ever-changing new elites. The crème de la crème meet at Scala or the Met, just as in the times of Louis XIV, but the mass media make that glamor accessible to everybody and transmit it directly into our living rooms. Yet the core repertory of the modern opera house is very limited, comprising about fifty operas from Gluck to Puccini. The works created before and afterwards, as well as the lesser-known works and composers of the classic era, still stand out as curiosities even if this attitude has changed considerably in the past years.4 Opera remains a huge relic, an enormous anachronism, a persistent revival of a lost past, a reflection of the lost aura, a true postmodern subject par excellence.

The secret of this posthumous success and increasing popularity may well lie in something one could call a redoubled or mediated fantasy. Throughout three centuries, the opera was the privileged place for enacting the fantasy of a mythical community, and by virtue of this presentation, the “imagined community” (to use Benedict Anderson’s term) spilled over into the “real” community, as it were: first as the supporting fantasy of the absolute monarchy and then as the foundational myth of the nation-state—the court opera evolved into the “state opera.”5 Mythical community was able to offer the grain of fantasy needed to constitute the real community—not merely as its substitute or its mythical reflex but as its mover. The operas were always set in distant, legendary times and distant mythical places (if, rather exceptionally, they dealt with the present, then it had to undergo a process of a subtle double mythification, where, for example, the operatic life of Spanish workers in the tobacco industry turns out to be more removed from everyday life than the intrigues of the Olympia gods). To be sure, today no one believes in this mythological foundation of community, but one does believe in the times when people still believed in it; one does believe in the heroic golden times of the rise of the bourgeois order, when myths still had their standing and their sway, presented at the peak of their splendor by the opera. It is not so much our own fascination that is now at stake as it is the fascination of our ancestors who, supposedly, took opera with the utmost seriousness it deserves, who were interpellated into subjects by it and formed a community relying on it. So we are caught precisely by this mediated and delegated—and, hence, all the more stubborn— fascination. Obviously, if opera were measured by realistic standards (whatever one chooses to mean by that), then it would look totally absurd, but the more absurd it appears, the more this proves its authenticity.6 Whereas anthropologists have to travel to the primeval forests of South America and to the islands of the Pacific to find relics of ancient social rituals, we merely need to go to the opera. It is there that our own weird rites, the mythical beginnings of our society, its lost but still persistent origins are presented and reenacted, in both their highest and their most trivial form. (For triviality, one only needs to think of the Three Tenors: However much one is inclined to loathe this distasteful phenomenon, it is nevertheless in tune with a certain part of operatic history, which thrived on kitschy pomp and show-off.) The more they are lost and purely mythical, the more they persist and the more lavish and extravagant their compulsory repetition. The moment we enter the opera, we start acting as our own aboriginal population.7 Opera thus retroactively recreates the mythical past that nobody believes in but yet is dearly needed and piously re-created.

So when we enter the opera, we have to deal with something too silly and ridiculous for philosophy to tackle but something that psychoanalysis has put on the agenda: the logic of a fantasy. And perhaps it is no coincidence that the fall of the opera coincides with the advent of psychoanalysis.

Mozart will be taken as a paradigmatic figure here: paradigmatic because he represents the pinnacle and the culmination of the two hundred years of opera, its first great epoch—an epoch to a large extent passed into oblivion in the present standard repertoires (despite some exceptions). A massive amnesia has set in where Verdi—alas!—won big against Monteverdi.8 Mozart sets up the terminal point of this tradition by bringing together its presuppositions and extending its consequences. By doing this, he, at the same time and within the same gesture, inaugurates the second great epoch of the operatic tradition, one crowned with fame and associated with its greatest glamor. He stands at the point of intersection between two worlds, two (social, historical, philosophical, and musical) epochs, and presents perhaps the most exalted playground of fantasies and their shifts.

The disparaging judgements about opera constituted a whole genre, particularly in the eighteenth century: “An opera may be allowed to be extravagantly lavish in its decoration, as its only design is to gratify the senses, and keep up an indolent attention of the public” (Joseph Addison); “Whenever I go to an opera, I leave my sense and reason at the door with my half-guinea” (Lord Chesterton); “One goes to see a tragedy to be moved, to the opera one goes either for want of any other interest or to facilitate digestion” (Voltaire). For all these quotes and many more, see Watson 1994: 319-324
Kafka died on June 3, 1924, in a sanatorium near Vienna. The opening night of Erwartung was a couple of days later, June 6, in Neue Deutsche Theater in Prague, Kafka’s city. This pure coincidence is highly charged with meaning.
Dafne was also the first German opera, composed by Heinrich Schütz in 1627. Capriccio (1942), the last opera by Strauss, is another but all-too-obvious candidate. With its discussion of the relative value of words and music in the opera and the possibility of a happy marriage between the two, it looks like a self-conscious and contrived last opera, resuming the discussion surrounding opera’s birth. Perhaps this is the problem with the entire Strauss opus—that with its attempt at synthesis, he tried all too hard to be the last opera composer.
In a survey of 252 opera companies and festivals worldwide conducted in 1988-1989, a list of the 100 most frequently produced operas was established. Only two operas before Gluck made it to the list: Monteverdi’s Poppea and Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Four of Mozart’s operas made it to the top ten, including Figaro as number one. See Lindenberger 1998: 43-44.
Part of the secret of Wagner’s and Verdi’s great success in the nineteenth century lies in the fact that they were able to provide the mythological support to precisely those two nations that had not been able to constitute themselves as national states. The opera assumed the place of the missing state, as it were, and proved extraordinarily helpful in constituting it. The signifier magnanimously offered a helping hand: The name Verdi could be read as an abbreviation of Vittorio Emmanuelle Re d’Italia.
The cult of authenticity gained gigantic confirmation some years ago in the megalomaniacal television broadcast of Puccinis’s Tosca, which was performed at the very places and the times mentioned in the story and was transmitted live to dozens of countries (the last act, with the early-morning execution on the top of the Angel Castle, took place at 5 A.M.). For this absurd undertaking, one concept of authenticity—the presumed authenticity of high culture—was directly connected to and translated onto another quite different one, television’s cult of authenticity as promoted by television as its own ideological basis—that of CNN’s slogan: “Watch the news as it happens.” The very recent lavish production of Turandot, performed on location at the Forbidden City in Beijing and again transmitted live, is another massive confirmation of my point for the skeptics.
“The opera house is an institution differing from other lunatic asylums only in the fact that its inmates have avoided official certification” (quoted from Watson 1994: 322). Ernest Newman, the author of this quote, wrote some of the best books on the grand operatic repertoire, so he knew very well what he was talking about.
However highly Monteverdi may be regarded by the experts, no opera of his has ever been produced at the Met.

Extract from: Mladen Dolar, “If Music Be the Food of Love,” in: Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar, Opera's Second Death (London: Routledge, 2002), 1-5

Transcribed from the original source by Lara Hollensteiner and Lara Wolf