Would you like that Kunstwerk gesamt? (Great Arts Blogger Challenge, Round 2)

supposedly explains Why Tannhäuser Matters

 I’m in the second round of the Spring for Music Great Arts Blogger Challenge. Here’s my second entry. You can vote for me here (Monday, April 2 to Thursday, April 5).

We live in an aggressively visual age; images dominate the popular culture. But which art form has the most to say about contemporary culture, and why?

I’m an unabashed specialist. I go to the movies sometimes and I watch Mad Men like any civilized person but basically I am a “classical” music person. So I don’t want to quantify how much other art forms have to say about contemporary culture. I’m going to talk about what I know, because I think as a blogger that’s the best I have to offer. (By the way, a very formidable woman is writing a book about the contest of the arts, so stay tuned.) It’s an interesting question, though, because the role of images in opera is a unique one.

Since its beginning, opera has posited itself as the union of multiple arts. When Wagner theorized the Gesamtkunstwerk centuries later, he was still at hand to shape his own music, words, and staging into a meaningful whole. But when we produce an old opera today, we no longer have this unity of time, place, and creator: the composer is dead, and enormous gulfs separate our culture from the one that produced it. For most new productions of old works, the music and words contained in the score are sacrosanct, while the visual elements are more flexible.* Sound comes to us largely dictated–yes, there are infinite ways to play a phrase, but the notes are still largely the same ones–while the visuals elements can vary wildly.

These new images can do things music alone cannot. Music expresses many things, but by itself it isn’t semantically specific. When tied to an image, character, or narrative (and to words as well), its expression is channeled into a more literal meaning. Certain kinds of operatic representation have become traditional and expected to different audiences in different times and places. La Cieca just wrote about this in terms of Anna Netrebko’s somewhat less than traditional take on Manon. (It’s exactly on point, particularly the question of why we want to see Manon as an innocent, and why we seem so reluctant to grant her autonomy.)

The operatic singing voice is not, unfortunately, something we often hear in daily contemporary life. This is not a sound that comes out of most of our throats, it’s too spectacular, too beautiful, too loud. This incongruity is used for comic purposes all the time. All sorts of cultural history has rendered the sound of opera, to many people today, fancy and old-fashioned. A traditional period setting gives us what we think we should see, domesticating the sound into one particular meaning. It presents it as something essentially decorative and anachronistic, an expensive curio (echoing the social meaning opera has traditionally held in American life, as a luxury social event).

Opera can only become contemporary when we stop this lazy tradition and fetishization, when we can see that Anna Netrebko’s Manon can be a figure of power rather than just an innocent, beautiful object. The superpowers of the operatic voice can be deployed in so many other, more creative ways–as Netrebko is doing here, bless her. I’ve written about the process of interpretive conceptualization before. The key is not how different everything looks from the usual but that no one takes the music’s meaning for granted–that is to say, before you looked, you listened.

Many of those who are resistant to so-called “updated” stagings fall into two broad groups:

  1. People who want their opera to stay abstract and find an unchallenging portrayal most conducive to their appreciation of the music as a socially disengaged object.
  2. People who are attached to their received meaning of a piece and don’t welcome the challenge of reassessment.

I’m not saying that every visualization has to be a gung-ho topical social critique (though personally I love that kind of thing, I’m on the record about this). Many modern directors emphasize the mystery and ambiguity of musical expression with images that do more to evoke than dictate. My favorite example of this is Achim Freyer’s cryptic, glorious Ring (a production I was saddened to see dismissed in another entry in this contest; I consider it one of the highs of my opera-going life). The audience had to come up with their own meaning, but the images made us think of possibilities that hadn’t been evident before.

People who dismiss Regietheater are very fond of describing isolated images without context–“isn’t that dumb? A giant cat!” But context is everything. An image where context doesn’t matter, without a meaning behind its placement at that moment in the score–the reflexive step downstage center, the kneeling at the end of the aria–isn’t worth seeing. And it’s that alchemy between music and narrative, between past and present, between gnostic printed score and drastic performance that makes an old opera relevant to contemporary life.

*A director I studied with said a very wise thing: an opera text has three parts: music, libretto, and stage directions. When you’re going to produce it, each needs to be examined for its validity. Music ages the least, words next, and stage directions age the most. (He does not consider music unalterable and, rather infamously, does change things when he thinks he needs to.)

You may also like


  1. This is awesome. I so admire your writing style, the way you keep it logical, interesting, filled with examples, and fun to read. Good luck in the competition, I know you'll do well!

  2. There seems to be no arena of modern life immune from the follies of modern "progressive" thought. I personally find the politicization of the arts a tragedy. We need to pay attention to the vocalists and the music and stop fawning over the productions.

    It's time someone stood up for those who originally conceived, wrote, composed, and staged operas. I want to see and hear what the librettist and composer had in mind when they worked to produce a piece. I do NOT want that vision occluded by the political and social vagaries of another period.

  3. Elena, thanks! I wish you the best in the contest as well.

    Anon, I'm not politicizing anything. It's all political already. Only privilege could prevent someone from seeing that. That's why I do my consciousness raising thing sometimes…

  4. Nicely stated- and I wholeheartedly agree with you on the Freyer Ring. The author of the post you refer to undermined an otherwise solid entry by needlessly maligning a production he probably didn't even see in person.

  5. You know, that derisive dig at Freyer's Ring put up by one of the other entrants in the contest has conveniently been edited out of the original post if my return skimming of it is correct.

    It appears that the answer to his rhetorical question about whether or not the reader had actually seen the production was that whether or not the reader had, he clearly had not when called on it.

    Such is life in Virginia I suppose. Too bad you don't have a whole opera company behind your campaign. Here's hoping you win the money and put it toward more of your own work, which unlike the piece in question, is actually worth reading.