Though a life-long lover of classical music, I resisted opera for many years. Too elitist. Too stuffy. It asks too much. I mean, how can you watch the stage and read the supertitles and enjoy the already demanding suspension of belief of people belting their emotions? Besides the fact that operatic scenes and characters are so often the object of pop culture ridicule…down deep, I thought, those Simpson parodies (here, here, and here) and Looney Tunes sketches (here) must be based on some truth about the outlandishness of the genre. My conversion, however, came unexpectedly and rather suddenly. First, my wife and I attended Utah Opera’s production of Daniel Catan’s Florencia en el Amazonas in 2013. Her idea not mine, but as someone who studies both Brazil and the Amazon, I thought, let’s give it a try—it’ll be research! The combination of set, costume, and music was stunningly beautiful, and I thought about the performance for weeks afterwards. So we tried again, this time Utah Opera’s staging of Verdi’s La Traviata in 2014. I was enthralled. Afterwards, I obsessively watched other performances on YouTube (my favorite? the 2005 minimalist production in Salzburg with Netrebko, Villazón, and Hampson). At that point, I was hooked. Something about Verdi’s portrayal of Violetta’s precarity and the vulnerability of love touched me deeply.
As a novitiate and enthusiastic recent convert, I claim no special understanding or expert knowledge of opera, yet I think I’m beginning to understand opera’s enduring appeal. Opera travels well. The reasons are varied: its unique fusion of music, text, spectacle, and performance; its sweeping scope, grandiose sets, and large choruses juxtaposed with moments of poignant intimacy between two lovers or the solitude of a solitary soul standing alone on stage; its capacity for condensing human emotion and experience into a single aria, or even a single perfect note. Both its form and substance arrest our attention to provoke reflection upon the conditions and purposes of life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, opera travels well not only geographically to concert halls and theaters in far-flung corners of the world, but also artistically, that is, opera makes appearances through allusion, metaphor, and adaptation in other art forms like the novel, essay, visual arts, television, and film.
What follows are four vignettes that demonstrate, I think, opera’s continued relevance to the world today.
In the late-nineteenth century, Rio de Janeiro, like other fin-de-siécle cosmopolitan centers, was obsessed with opera, and few writers of the period were as infatuated with the genre as the Brazilian author Machado de Assis (1839–1906). A memorable operatic scene develops early in Machado’s wonderfully entertaining and mordant novel Dom Casmurro (1902). The story’s narrator, Bento Santiago, recounts a theory of life presented to him by an old Italian tenor who affirms: “Life is an opera and a grand opera.” Through an extended metaphor, the tenor continues:
God is the poet. The music is by Satan, a young maestro with a great future, who studied in the conservatory of heaven. Rival of Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel, he could not endure the priority of those classmates enjoyed in the distribution of the prizes. It may be, too, that their overly sweet and mystic music was boring to his genius, which was essentially tragic. He started a rebellion, which was discovered in time, and he was expelled from the conservatory. The whole thing would have ended there, if God had not written a libretto for an opera, and thrown it aside, because he considered that type of amusement unsuited to his eternity. Satan carried off the manuscript with him to hell. With the idea of showing that he was a better musician than the others—and perhaps to effect a reconciliation with heaven—he composed a score. As soon as he finished it, he took it to the Eternal Father.
“Lord,” he said to him, “I have not forgotten what I learned up here. Take this score, hear it, emend it, have it performed, and if thou find it worthy of the heavenly heights, admit me and it at thy feet.”
“No,” retorted the Lord, “I will hear nothing.”
“But, Lord …”
Satan went on supplicating with no better luck, until God, wearied and full of pity, consented to have the opera performed, but outside the precincts of heaven. He designed a special theater, this planet; and created a whole company with all the parts, first and second, choruses and ballet dancers. (Chapter 9: “An Opera”)
In Machado’s cosmic opera, the music and the libretto remain in constant tension just as the competing forces of the celestial and infernal realms remain eternally at odds. The tenor reflects: “In some places the words go to the right and the music to the left. And there are those who say that this is the beauty of the composition and keeps it from being monotonous, and in this way they explain the trio of Eden, the aria of Abel, the choruses of the guillotine and slavery. Not infrequently the same plot situation is used over again without sufficient reason.” This enormous opera will thus go on “as long as the theater lasts.”
Even those unfamiliar with Machado’s work will recognize in this passage the author’s penchant for metafiction. Machado turns to opera to explain reality just as his narrator later appeals to the opera form to explain the tragic contours of his life. As critic Earl Fitz writes, “The theory of life that Bento accepts is that human existence is an opera controlled, maddeningly, by both God and Satan, each of whom makes direct but contradictory appeals to Man.” Machado’s use of opera asks us to consider our role on the stage of life and the forces working upon and through us.
In 1903, only a year after the publication of Machado’s Dom Casmurro, W. E. B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, his landmark collection of essays on race and African American experience in the United States. Chapter 2, entitled “Of the Dawn of Freedom,” opens with perhaps the work’s most oft-quoted passage, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” Du Bois argues that in U.S. society, the color line has produced a double-consciousness within racial or ethnic minority subjects:
This sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (Du Bois 3)
Here Du Bois laments the psychological tensions resulting from privileged whiteness and marginalized otherness.
Throughout his work, Du Bois uses the essay form to examine the origins, meanings, and implications of the color line and the double-consciousness it has produced. Notably, however, the volume includes a late chapter that eschews the essay form in favor of a short story that includes a fictional opera scene. The chapter, “Of the Coming of John,” tells the story of John, a young black man from the south who travels to New York City for the first time. Standing in the city’s streets, John is overwhelmed by the vibrancy, the energy, the brilliance of the city: “This is the World,” he said. Almost unconsciously, he follows a crowd to the “high portal of a great building,” and without realizing where he is, John steps into a beautiful opera house where he sits “in dreamland” and experiences “infinite beauty”:
He closed his eyes and grasped the elbows of the chair, touching unwittingly the lady’s arm. And the lady drew away. A deep longing swelled in all his heart to rise with that clear music out of the dirt and dust of that low life that held him prisoned and befouled. If he could only live up in the free air where birds sang and setting suns had no touch of blood! Who had called him to be the slave and butt of all? And if he had called, what right had he to call when a world like this lay open before men?
Then the movement changed, and fuller, mightier harmony swelled away. He looked thoughtfully across the hall, and wondered why the beautiful gray-haired woman looked so listless, and what the little man could be whispering about. He would not like to be listless and idle, he thought, for he felt with the music the movement of power within him. If he but had some master-work, some life-service, hard,—aye, bitter hard, but without the cringing and sickening servility, without the cruel hurt that hardened his heart and soul. When at last a soft sorrow crept across the violins, there came to him the vision of a far-off home, the great eyes of his sister, and the dark drawn face of his mother. And his heart sank below the waters, even as the sea-sand sinks by the shores of Altamaha, only to be lifted aloft again with that last ethereal wail of the swan that quivered and faded away into the sky.
A sudden gesture interrupts this moment of transcendence as an usher taps John on his shoulder and politely pulls him away from the music into a side corridor, where he is informed that a mistake was made and he was sold a seat belonging to another gentleman. The manager is “sorry, very, very sorry,” but his money will be refunded.
John’s capacity to recognize, identify with, and feel the exquisite beauty of the opera, demonstrate his humanity and the depth of his soul. Yet, this fleeting experience with aesthetic beauty contrasts sharply with the ugliness of the racial prejudice manifest by those around him, who ironically fail to see the ugliness of their own racism and appear less human than he. It is notable that in a work devoted to revealing the forms of racism in U.S. society, Du Bois turns to a fictional operatic experience to communicate the acute injustices, incongruities, and harms of racist attitudes and behaviors.
In 1993, Jonathan Demmes’ film Philadelphia was released to critical and popular acclaim. Starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, the film was one of the first mainstream films to address the topic of AIDS, discrimination, and homophobia. The film recounts a legal case in which Andrew Beckett (Hanks), a gay man with AIDS, sues his high-powered law firm for wrongful termination and is represented by Joe Miller (Washington), a small-time lawyer who is the only attorney willing to take the case.
Although the film ostensibly focuses on a courtroom drama, the scene that has always moved me, and one that I believe evokes Du Bois, is the opera scene. Far from an opera hall, the scene takes place in Andy’s apartment, late in the evening, as Andy and Joe are working on the case. Andy is listening to Maria Callas sing “La Mamma Morta” from Andrea Chénier by Umberto Giordano. As the music plays, Andy walks Joe through the plot and emotions of the aria:
Fu in quel dolore It was then, in my grief,
che a me venne l’amor! that love came to me.
Voce piena d’armonia e dice: A voice full of harmony says,
“Vivi ancora! Io son la vita! “Keep on living, I am life itself!
Ne’ miei occhi e il tuo cielo! Your heaven is in my eyes!
Tu non sei sola! You are not alone.
Le lacrime tue io le raccolgo! I collect all your tears
Io sto sul tuo cammino e ti sorreggo! I walk with you and support you!
Sorridi e spera! Io son l’amore! Smile and hope! I am Love!
Tutto intorno e sangue e fango? Are you surrounded by blood and mire?
Io son divino!” I am Divine!”
As Andy translates the libretto from Italian into English for Joe, the music carries Andy away: the lighting of the scene changes and the camera angle swirls as Andy experiences the overwhelming emotional, spiritual, and psychological effects of the aria. Like John from Du Bois’s text, Andy’s reaction to the opera reveals the depth and complexity of his soul. Yet the scene proves to be pivotal in another way, because through it all, Joe sits silently, watching and observing, and for the first time he begins to see Andy with new eyes. As Joe listens to the opera and observes Andy listening to and experiencing the opera, Joe too is changed. The moment is transformational as Joe begins to see Andy not merely as the name at the center of a wrongful termination suit but as a human being, a man with passions, fears, complexity, and depth. It’s as though the humanity of the opera speaks through Andy, making his soul momentarily transparent to Joe, the same way Maria Callas herself becomes transparent in the singing.
Perhaps no country in the world has experienced as rapid and as radical a change in its political, economic, and social fortune as Venezuela during the last five years. The country’s political instability has resulted in increases in violence, unemployment, hyperinflation, power cuts, loss of basic services, and dire shortages of food and medicine. Experts believe that in response to the crisis, approximately six million of the country’s thirty million or so residents have fled to other countries in the region, including Colombia, Peru, Chile, Brazil, the United States, Canada, Argentina, and Panama. Yet, despite their country’s precarious circumstances, many Venezuelans have chosen to remain while seeking to retain some form of normalcy.
One group that has stayed are the dedicated musicians associated with the Teresa Carreño Opera Theater in Caracas, which in October 2019 opened a new production of the ever popular musical Les Miserábles, based on the eponymous novel by Victor Hugo. Though not properly an opera, this production drew heavily from local operatic talent. The musical’s chorus members came from the theater’s standing professional opera chorus, and some of the show’s leads likewise are trained opera singers.
The show’s message of hope in humanity amid revolution has not been lost on those fortunate enough to see a performance. In fact, the producer, Claudia Salazar, affirmed: “En una economía paralizada, llevar ‘Los Miserables’ a Caracas ha sido ‘un acto de rebeldía’” [In a paralyzed economy, bringing Les Miserábles to Caracas has been an act of rebellion.] Certainly, the musical’s themes of poverty, oppression, and revolution resonate with many Venezuelans even as protests and barricades have appeared on the streets in Caracas.
The tickets unfortunately cost far more than most Venezuelans can afford, and so, in a selfless act of dedication to their art and in solidarity with their fellow Venezuelans, the performers agreed to present several performances free to the public. Humberto Baralt, who plays Jean Valjean, stated in an interview with NPR: “It’s an opportunity for catharsis, for people to blow off steam, to cry, to feel things without fear of being judged. That’s why we do this.” Elisa Vegas, the musical director, added, “At the end, you hear people telling you thank you. Thank you for giving us light. Thank you for giving us hope.”
Surely, this is why opera remains essential today. As an aesthetic form that gives meaning to our lives in vulnerable times, opera educates the senses and lifts our spirit.
È strano! How strange!
Cessarono gli spasimi del dolore. The spasms of pain have ceased:
In me rinasce – m’agita insolito vigor! A strange vigor has brought me to life!
Ah! ma io ritorno a viver! Ah! I shall live –
Oh gioia! Oh, joy!
Violetta, La Traviata
This post was written by Rex Nielson, Humanities Center Faculty Fellow.
Thanks, Rex, for such a beautiful, informed, and wide-ranging discourse on opera. I really enjoyed reading this. I especially liked the part about the opera whose libretto is by God and music by Satan. Your whole post helped crystallize for me why I enjoy opera. There is not much of it in Spring City, but I can enjoy some on TV and radio. My best to you and Natalie and children. Come and visit sometime!
Love these connections, Rex. Opera often seems to answer some kind of cultural longing for the total aesthetic work–with every line made musical in addition to the set, costumes, lighting, etc. That’s what the Florentine Camerata was after, as well as Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk. But what struck me thinking through this and your post, is I wonder if rap on the theater stage (e.g., Hamilton) is our current iteration of that impulse. I’m not endorsing the connection, but it’s got me thinking. Thanks for the post.
Thanks, Rex. A lovely set of meditations. As illustrated in the scene from Philadelphia, opera still seems unique in its ability to completely transport us to not just another time or place, but another way of feeling. I too am glad to have discovered it. Looking forward to seeing you and Natalie next time at the Utah Opera!