Modernism and Opera

The following is an excerpt from Richard Begam and Matthew Wilson Smith’s new edited volume, Modernism and Opera.


In opera, one always dies of the thing one loves. To love less than the impossible, less than that for which one cannot live, is not to love at all: the eternal return of this Liebestod is opera’s Orphic mystery. Which is simply to say what every opera lover already knows—that opera is forever dying in hopes of being reborn, transformed.

The essayist Charles de Saint-Évremond was only one of the more eloquent in a long line of opera opponents when, around 1670, he dismissed the art as mere fancy and opined that “the fatigue” among opera spectators “is so universal, that everyone wishes himself out of the house.”1 Amid the Querelle des Bouffons—the “battle of the comic actors” that raged in 1750s Paris over the artistic merit of opera buffa—partisans cried murder on either side of the aisle, stirring resentments that had barely been extinguished before Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide kindled another and yet fiercer conflagration. Skipping ahead to the beginnings of modernism, we may take Tolstoy as representative of a new guild of opera assassins when, after suffering through two acts of Siegfried in 1889, he complained, “I could stand no more of it, and escaped from the theatre with a feeling of repulsion which, even now, I cannot forget”—an evisceration of the work that forms the center- piece of his aesthetics in What Is Art?2 Tolstoy’s sense of physical aversion is as integral to the operatic experience as is Nietzsche’s shudder of nervous ecstasy, felt two decades earlier when he first heard the overtures to Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde: “Every fiber, every nerve in me twitches, and I have not had such a lasting feeling of reverie in a long time.”3 Nietzsche would later submit to opera’s repetition compulsion and regurgitate his god “—he has made music sick—” while delivering an encomium to Bizet’s tale of a corporal who destroys himself by murdering the gypsy he adores.

Now if we agree that opera is, in Herbert Lindenberger’s words, the “extravagant art,” then its relation to modernism is vexed.5 The flamboyance of the prima donna, the extraterrestrial bodies both vile and wunderbar, the blessed rage for ornament—every juicy trait captured by that adjective “operatic”—would appear to be the very antithesis of the cool formalism and streamlined geometry we so often associate with modernism. The operatic stage is a realm where function follows form more often than the other way around, and where avant-garde practices—twelve-tone composition, minimalist costuming, sets constructed entirely of light and shadow or else made shockingly au courant—tend to reify into mere gestures with peculiar rapidity. As quintessence of the theatrical, opera is “a prototype of precisely that which today is deeply shaken,” according to Adorno in 1955, looking back on the previous eighty years or so of operatic innovation.6 Modernist opera’s bind, he concludes, is that “the genre cannot dispense with its appearance without surrendering itself, and yet it must want to do so.”7 In this sense, modernist opera shares a great deal with modernist fashion, another quasi-oxymoron in which modernism’s tension between time- less myth and commodified ephemerality vibrates with peculiar force.

Admittedly, the idea of modernism as detached and abstracted—presided over by a God indifferently paring his fingernails—has been justifiably challenged in recent years. But even if we substantially qualify this view of the modern, for many it will seem incongruous to place the cerebral experimentalism of James Joyce or T. S. Eliot alongside the baroque theatricality of the musical stage. Then again, it’s worth pointing out that both Ulysses and The Waste Land make repeated and revealing references to opera. Joyce’s novel fairly bristles with quotations from Bellini, Bizet, Donizetti, Flotow, Lehar, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Verdi, and Wagner, and Molly Bloom—the novel’s heroine and central focus—is herself a celebrated soprano. Critics have some- times ignored Joyce’s interest in opera, assuming it is nothing more than a foil to his modernism, a kind of musty Victorianism that serves to counter- point his avant-gardism, yet the operatic material in Ulysses is integral to its plot and technique. Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Flotow’s Martha provide Joyce with crucial subtexts—subtexts that are inextricably linked to the novel’s audaciously modernist “Sirens”—and Joyce’s stream-of-conscious- ness technique is itself indebted to Édouard Dujardin’s attempt (in Les lauriers sont coupés, 1887) to find a literary analogue to Wagner’s use of leitmotif. Similarly, references in The Waste Land to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde may be dismissed as an overly lush Romanticism, meant to contrast with the sterility and desolation that otherwise dominate Eliot’s modernist classic. But again, it should be remembered that the poem, with its vision of thwarted love, impotence, and wounds that unman, is a retelling not only of Tristan und Isolde but also—and perhaps more evocatively—of Wagner’s Parsifal. In other words, opera does more than haunt these modernist master- pieces: it significant and substantially determines their form and content.

The enthusiasm British modernists showed for opera is also richly attested to by the number of major writers—including E. M. Forster, W. H. Auden, Arnold Bennett, Robert Graves, and Stephen Spender—who penned libretti. Within an English context, this intersection of music and text is memorably represented by the collaboration of Edith Sitwell and William Walton on the musical recitation, Façade, which premiered in 1922, the same year Ulysses and The Waste Land were published. If we shift our focus to the Continent, the interest in collaborative work becomes even more remarkable. Obviously, the best-known example is the scandalous 1913 ballet, Le sacre du printemps, which featured music by Igor Stravinsky, sets by Nicholas Roerich, and choreography by Vaslav Nijinksy. This kind of cooperative artistic work was also evident in the 1917 ballet Parade, which brought together some of the greatest modernists of the period, including Erik Satie (music), Jean Cocteau (scenario), Pablo Picasso (set design), and Léonide Massine (choreography). Among the collaborative efforts in opera that followed are Oskar Kokoschka and Paul Hindemith’s expressionist Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (1919), Jean Cocteau and Igor Stravinsky’s neoclassical Oedipus Rex (1927), Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s agitprop-influenced Threepenny Opera (1928) and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1931), and Guillaume Apollinaire and Francis Poulenc’s surrealist Les mamelles de Tirésias (1947). This interest in working across the arts—indeed across the media of language, music, and visual representation—played a decisive role in the definition and development of modernism.

One of the larger assumptions behind this volume is that the intermediality that characterized so much of modernist praxis is most memorably realized in the synthetic genius of opera—in its ability to bring together the literary, dramatic, visual, and musical in a single aesthetic expression. This impulse toward integrating—or at least coordinating—different artistic media, especially those that focus on words and music, is evident in the present collection in such pairings as Maurice Maeterlinck and Claude Debussy, Hugo Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss, Georg Büchner and Alban Berg, Karel Čapek and Leoš Janáček, Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson, and Igor Stravinsky and W. H. Auden. At the same time, many of the chapters in this volume examine how artists, engaged by the problem of mimesis, challenged or redefied the limits of representation, whether by emphasizing consonances or dissonances among various artistic media. By studying the ways in which operatic theater of the past 120 years foregrounded collaboration across the arts, problematized formal integrity, and sought to transcend traditional modes of expression, we hope to understand more fully the aesthetic program that shaped both opera and modernism.

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If opera is forever dying in the hope of being reborn, so too is modernism. As its etymology indicates (from the Latin modo, meaning “now”), modern- ism is committed to what is contemporary or happening in the moment, but the word’s suffix temporally extends its root, suggesting a state of ongoing or continuous innovation, a sort of perpetual novelty that, like Wagnerian melody, never ends. The problem, of course, is in sustaining the newness of the new. For once modernism achieves the kind of stability necessary to give it definitional shape, once it acquires the weight of tradition and authority of a canon, it risks becoming just one more version of the status quo. Like Janáček’s Emilia Marty or Wilde’s Dorian Gray, modernism begins to resemble an anxious diva or dandy, forever worrying lest the mask of youthful vitality slip away, revealing that what lies beneath is that most unmodern of all things—the passé.

In recent years, the most influential effort to renew and revitalize modernism as a scholarly field has centered on the New Modernist Studies and its commitment to a more comprehensive canon, one that incorporates those elements of avant-garde and popular culture that, in the 1980s and 1990s, were often viewed as post- or antimodern. The program of the New Modernist Studies was most succinctly articulated by Douglas Mao and Re- becca Walkowitz in their well-known 2008 article of that title. As Mao and Walkowitz put it, “Were one seeking a single word to sum up transformations in modernist literary scholarship over the past decade or two, one could do worse than light on expansion.” That expansion has moved along three axes. The temporal axis enlarged the historical scope of modernism beyond the “core period of about 1890–1945,” reaching back to the middle of the nineteenth century and forward to the beginning of the present century. The spatial axis extended the geographic reach of modernism to a genuinely international, indeed global, scale, no longer confining  itself within the boundaries of a few national literatures, especially the Anglo- American tradition. Expansion along the vertical axis meant breaking down divisions, largely defined by Clement Greenberg and Theodor W. Adorno, between a “high” art associated with an austere formalism and a “low” art characterized by a “kitschy” sensationalism. Finally, we argue that the New Modernist Studies also developed along a fourth, horizontal axis, which we would add to Mao and Walkowitz’s account. In terms of subject matter, this axis encourages scholars to move across the arts in ways that, as we have seen, are especially congenial to a mixed-media form like opera. In terms of approach, this axis involves precisely the kind of cross-disciplinary work that motivates this volume, work that not only brings together scholars from literature and music but that also utilizes research methods and proto- cols drawn from different disciplines.

With this last point in mind, we think it is also useful to contextualize the present work in terms of what has come to be known as the New Musicology. Interestingly, much of the New Musicology took its inspiration from changes that were already underway in literary studies. In what is often referred to as the article that launched the movement, “How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get Out,” Joseph Kerman polemically draws a comparison between the formalism dominating musicology in 1980s and the earlier influence of New Criticism in literary studies: “One is reminded of the state of literary studies in the 1930s. Musical analysis has also reminded many observers of the New Criticism which arose at that time.” In “Adorno and the New Musicology,” Rose Rosengard Subotnik similarly suggests that musicology look to literary studies as a guide, especially to developments in Marxism and poststructuralism: “At the fall 1990 Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society, in Oakland, California, scholars of all leanings were hit by an unprecedent[ed]ly strong blast of the critical theory that had been altering the study of literature at American universities for two decades.” The New Musicologists (aside from Kerman and Subotnik, its best-known representatives include Carolyn Abbate, Lawrence Kramer, Susan McClary, and Gary Tomlinson) wanted not merely to reintroduce sociology to musical analysis but to introduce musical analysis to Continental theory. Figures such as Bakhtin, Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan—none of whom had been much of a presence in musicology before, say, 1990—became increasingly unavoidable.

As Subotnik suggests, New Musicology was to a certain degree simply catching up with movements that had already profoundly shaped literary studies. If there is a sense of belatedness to the movement, that sense is underscored by comparison with the New Modernist Studies, which takes the importance of critical theory more or less for granted while at times expressing impatience with the antiformalism of some recent sociologists of literature. One senses, with the decline of the shock of New Musicology and the advent of New Modernism, an abatement in the so-called theory wars. By the turn of the new century, after all, critical theory had become standard operating procedure in many departments across the humanities, shaping everything from scholarship to undergraduate teaching and even reaching into the sciences. In literary studies as in musicology, old battle lines between formalism and critical theory (to choose just one pair of names for the shifting and often ill-defined opposition) were coming to be seen not just as entrenched but as increasingly irrelevant, as the crucial fights were now being waged elsewhere, notably in deans’ offices, where axes were falling on departmental budgets across the humanities. If there is a certain posttheoretical tenor to many of the chapters in this collection, the “post” should indicate not an exhaustion with theory—and some return to the good old business of just dealing with the (musical, linguistic) texts before us—but rather a sense that many of the insights of fin-de-XXe-siècle theory have been incorporated into our scholarly vocabulary.

Recalling Mao and Walkowitz’s “axial” account of New Modernist Stud- ies, we can trace a number of ways the chapters in this volume rechart the field. The interest in traversing the arts—the horizontal axis—is immediately evident in those chapters that examine the relation between score and libretto, which is to say between music and literature. Daniel Albright, for instance, argues that the impressionist Debussy finds his perfect vehicle in the symbolist Maeterlinck, revealing the kinds of transformations that occur when modernist opera straddles different movements as well as different arts. In using Adorno to examine Berg’s musical adaptation of Büchner’s drama, Bernadette Meyler explores how moving across artistic media also involves moving through time, producing a modernism that unfolds dialectically in relation to an antecedent tradition. Approaching modernism as a historical phenomenon is also crucial to Derek Katz’s analysis of The Makropulos Case as both drama and opera. In 1922 Čapek’s play seemed radically new, but its novelty had substantially faded by 1926 when Janáček adapted it to the operatic stage, resulting in two distinct conceptions of contemporaneity in Czech modernism. The movement of modernism from literature to music is further complicated in Cyrena N. Pondrom’s account of Four Saints in Three Acts. Although Thomson worked closely with Stein on the opera, the minimalist and iterative structures that later characterized the contemporary opera of Philip Glass and John Adams are most evident in Stein’s libretto, suggesting intriguing confluences between literature and music. The sense of the temporality of modernism is also evident in Herbert Lindenberger’s account of Stravinsky’s collaboration with W. H. Auden on The Rake’s Progress. The neoclassicism that represents a point of arrival for Stravinsky—an evolution beyond an earlier phase of modernism—represents for Auden a point of departure.

What all of these cases illustrate is the extent to which modernism functions as a series of uneven temporalities in which movements as diverse as symbolism, impressionism, nationalism, minimalism, and neoclassicism crisscross each other, converging and diverging at various points, entering into conflict here and finding accommodation there. Such an approach— one that assumes a dynamic and ever-evolving modernism—is especially well suited to the broadened timeline of the New Modernist Studies (its temporal axis), and our historical purview therefore extends from the last third of the nineteenth century up to the twenty-first century. The volume’s chronological organization into three sections (an emergent prewar modernism, a middle interwar modernism, and a late contemporary modernism) is meant to provide our study with conceptual structure and developmental coherence. Insofar as the operas we treat are in conversation with each other—and with parallel developments in theater, literature, and philosophy— we consider the historical approach we have taken both useful and justified. If Wagner “breaks the back of tonality” and provides a pushing-off point for much of modernist opera, it is important to situate him at the beginning of the volume. Debussy, Strauss, and Schoenberg all respond directly to Wagner; Berg’s and Janáček’s operas are inseparable from their historical situations; Thomson and Stein anticipated minimalist techniques that emerged after World War II; and the entire last section of the volume engages with issues related to aesthetic and institutional changes that took place in the second half of the twentieth century. At the same time, we recognize that there are chronological asymmetries and temporal disjunctions in our tri- partite organization. Thus, although we have grouped together Parsifal, Pelléas et Mélisande, and Bluebeard’s Castle as examples of opera from World War I and before, one could argue that Strauss stylistically shares more with Wagner than with Debussy or Bartók. Wozzeck (1925), The Makropulos Case (1926), Moses und Aron (1932), and Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) form a tidy interwar modernist grouping, yet the last act of Schoenberg’s opera, in a gesture worthy of John Cage, abandons music altogether, while Stein and Thomson’s minimalism arguably has more in common with Glass and Adams than with the operas of the 1920s and 1930s. Even the last section, devoted to late modernism, includes operas that are stylistically quite distinct. Stravinsky’s pared-down neoclassicism stands in contrast to Britten’s gal- liards and lavoltas, as does Messiaen’s abstracted modernism in relation to Saariaho’s textured lyricism. It is precisely this interplay of formal similitude and difference—evident within and across our three groupings—that enables these operas to achieve a set of loosely defined family resemblances within the matrix of a historically extended modernism.

Coverage is always a problem in any synoptic account of a large field, and inevitably omissions occur—as they have here—of both worthy composers and influential traditions. Within the limitations of Euromodernism, we have, however, sought to show that modernism produces points of inter- section not only in time but also in space (the Mao-Walkowitz spatial axis). The German Wagner, who arguably stands as the father of modern opera, makes his presence felt almost everywhere, from France (Debussy and Messiaen), Hungary (Bartók) and Austria (Strauss, Schoenberg, and Berg) to Czechoslovakia (Janáček) and Finland (Saariaho). Belgian literature is translated into French music in Pelléas et Mélisande, the impact of Berg is registered in Prague in The Makropulos Case, Russia comes to England in The Rake’s Progress, and Darmstadt modernism shapes French and Finnish music in Saint François d’Assise and Lamour de loin.

Where an earlier view of international modernism argued for its universalism by often overlooking or ignoring historical contexts, many of the chapters in this volume demonstrate how fully modernist opera engages with the topical and the political. The changing view of women in early modernism is the subject of two of the first three chapters. Matthew Wilson Smith examines Kundry, the principal female character of Wagner’s Parsifal, in terms of an emerging psychoanalytic discourse on hysteria, while Klára Móricz investigates the transformation of women from symbols of redemptive power in the nineteenth century to demonic temptresses in the twentieth century. In a more explicitly political vein, Bryan Gilliam reads Strauss’s

The Egyptian Helen and Arabella in terms of the collapse of the Austro- Hungarian Empire, Richard Begam examines Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron as a response to the National Socialist attack on “degenerate art,” and Irene Morra scrutinizes the difficulties that Britten encountered in Gloriana negotiating nationalist commitments and modernist aesthetics. Finally, if politics is of importance to Gilliam, Begam, and Morra, religion is the focus of Linda and Michael Hutcheon’s engagement with Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise, which reveals how Catholic devotion finds expression in modernist form and technique.

We have contextualized some of the ways the New Modernist Studies and New Musicology have influenced our approach to opera, but of equal significance is recent scholarship, much of it revisionary, on modernism and theatricality. It is an overriding argument of this volume that taking opera seriously as a central aspect of modernism not only expands but also destabilizes our understanding of this elusive term. To better grasp how this destabilization functions and what it means, we must revisit the old question of modernism and theatricality.


Richard Begam is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is the author of Samuel Beckett and the End of Modernity and the coeditor of Modernism and Colonialism: British and Irish Literature, 1899–1939. Matthew Wilson Smith is an associate professor of German studies and theater and performance studies at Stanford University. He is the author of The Total Work of Art: From Bayreuth to Cyberspace and the editor of Georg Büchner: The Major Works. Begam and Smith are the co-editors of the new book, Modernism and Opera.