The problem with opera
I have been enjoying David Moser’s classic rant about the difficulties of learning Chinese, to which Alan Mackay directed me, presumably after my recent piece for Nature on how reading ideograms and alphabetical words use essentially the same parts of the brain. A lot of what Moser says rings bells – my Chinese teachers too occasionally forget how to write (rare) characters, and more often make little slips with the pinyin system (so is that tan or tang?). And I too had tended to dismiss these as just universal lapses of memory, rather overlooking the fact that this was their language, not mine. I’m glad Moser agrees that abolishing characters isn’t a viable solution, not least because the Chinese orthographic system is so beautiful. But what chimes most is that this is a problem that simply doesn’t register with Chinese people.
And that, it strikes me – and to change the subject rather lurchingly – is just how it is too with fans of opera. Reading a nice review by Philip Hensher of a new history of opera by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, the penny dropped that this is how I struggle with opera. It has its moments, but in musical, theatrical and literary terms opera as we have received it has some very deep-seated problems that seem to remain utterly invisible to aficionados. That is why it was a huge relief to see Hensher, who is evidently an avid opera buff, bring these out into the open. Ask many fans what they love in opera, and they are likely to start talking about how it brings together the highest art forms – music, literature and theatre – in one glorious package. It astounds me that they remain oblivious to the profound difficulties that union presents – if not inevitably, then certainly in practice.
For a start: opera traditionally has crap plots and terrible acting. It’s not, I think, ignorant philistinism that prompts me to say this, since the view is shared by Jonathan Miller, who says that 90 percent of operas aren’t worth bothering with. Miller makes no bones about the efforts he has had to make, in directing operas, to suppress the ridiculous gestures that his performers would insist on making. His comments remind me of once watching a trained dancer in an acting class. The chap was asked to walk across the stage in a neutral way. He couldn’t do it. His body insisted on breaking into the most contrived and stylized preening, even though he’d walk down the corridor after the class just like anyone else. His training, like that of opera singers, was doubtless exquisite. It was, however, a training evidently bent on obliterating his ability to move like a normal human being. Now, opera lovers will insist that things have got better over the past several decades – opera singers actually learn something about acting now, not simply a catalogue of absurd symbolic gestures – and this is true. But it’s a slow process, and in some ways you could regard it as a ‘de-operafication’ of opera.
The same with voice. Even Hensher seems to regard opera singing as the highest pinnacle of refinement in the use of the human voice. It’s very, very hard, to be sure, but it is also utterly stylized. This is not how people sing, it is how opera is sung. That seems abundantly obvious, but opera buffs seem to have no notion of it, even though no one sings that way until they have been trained to. There are reasons for it (which I’m coming to) – but operatic singing is a highly contrived, artificial form of human vocal performance, and as such it is emotionally constrained as much as it is expressive – the emotions, like the physical gestures, are stylized conventions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is bizarre that this evident fact is not even noticed by most opera lovers. Hensher puts it, gnomically, like this: “Opera survives in a safe, hermetic, sealed condition of historic detachment, where emotion can be expressed directly because it is incomprehensible, remote and stylised.” I’m still working on that sentence – how can emotion can be especially ‘direct’ precisely because it is ‘remote’ and ‘stylised’?
Plot – oh, don’t get me started. It’s too easy a target. Even opera lovers admit that most of the plots suck. Now, it’s often said that this is one of the necessary sacrifices of the art: if all the lines are sung, the action must be pretty simple. If that is so, we must already then concede that there’s some erosion of the theatrical substance. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. People can sing complex dialogue quite audibly in principle. They do it in musicals all the time. If you want to hear complex, incredibly moving emotion sung, you need only listen to Billie Holliday (or Nina Simone) singing "Strange Fruit". The fact is, however, that these things can’t be done if sung operatically, in particular because the operatic voice reduces the audibility of the words. As Hensher asks, “why harness a drama to music of such elaboration that it will always get in the way of understanding?” (though actually it’s not the music but the vocalization). He doesn’t answer that question, but I’m mighty glad he raises it. Composers themselves have acknowledged this problem, even if indirectly: it has been shown, for example, that Wagner seems to have intentionally matched the pitch of vowels in his (self-penned) libretti to the frequencies at which the vocal tract resonates when they are spoken in normal speech, making them somewhat more intelligible. (At the very highest frequencies of a female soprano, all vowels tend to sound like ‘ah’.) In other words, Wagner was wrestling with the limitations on communication that opera had chosen to impose on itself.
Why did it do that? Because of a misconceived idea, in the early development of opera in the sixteenth century, that the cadences of speech can be rendered in music. They can’t: the irregular rhythms, indefinite contours and lack of melody make it unlike musical melody, even if there are other intriguing parallels. Opera has kind of accepted this, which is why, as Hensher points out, the form became one “in which lyric utterances of a single significance alternate with brisk, less melodic passages”. Or to put it another way, we get some fabulous arias in which nothing much is said beyond “I’m heartbroken” or “I love you”, interrupted by unmusical recitative which audiences have so much learned to put up with that they barely seem to register that they are at such times not having a ‘musical’ experience at all, but rather, an operatic one. The nineteenth century music critic Eduard Hanslick puts it delicately: “in the recitative music degenerates into a mere shadow and relinquishes its individual sphere of action altogether.” To put it another way, as “music” those parts are gibberish.
Again, this is a choice. It is one that has historical reasons, of course – but for many opera fans it seems again simply to have become invisible, which strikes me as at least a little odd. Hensher says it nicely: “If you were going to design an art form from scratch, you'd be able to improve in a good few ways on opera as we have inherited it.” And I accept that we don’t have the option of starting again from scratch – but we do have the luxury of acknowledging the room for improvement.
In her review of the same book in Prospect, Wendy Lesser seems initially to be demonstrating the same refreshing sensibility: “Opera must be one of the weirdest forms of entertainment on the planet. Its exaggerated characters bear little relation to living people, and its plots are often ludicrous.” But it soon becomes clear that Lesser doesn’t really get the point at all. She quotes Abbate and Parker as saying “the whole business is in so many ways fundamentally unrealistic, and can’t be presented as a sensible model for leading one’s life or understanding human behaviour.” Hang on – you are going to the opera for that? Is that why we go to the theatre either, for goodness’ sake? Lesser soon shows that her talent for ducking the issue is remarkable; she becomes just like the Chinese people who frustrate Moser with their pride at the sheer difficulty of the language – “Yes, it’s the hardest in the world!” But, he longs to say, doesn’t that strike you as a problem? Ludicrous plots, exaggerated characters – hey, aren’t we strange to like this stuff? Well no, it’s just that there seems no particular reason to celebrate those flaws, even if you like opera in spite of them. Lesser presents the “huge acoustic force” of the opera voice as another lovable oddity, but doesn’t seem to recognize that the historical necessity of attaining such volume creates a distance from regular human experience and compromises intelligibility.
I know people who have large collections of opera recordings. Perhaps they use them to compile collections of their favourite arias – why not? But my impression is that they hardly ever put on an opera and listen to it all the way through, as we might a symphony. Now, call me old-fashioned, but I still have this notion that music is something you want to listen to because it works as a coherent whole. Opera is something else: a thing to be experienced in the flesh, as stylized and refined as Noh or Peking opera (but a fair bit more expensive). Opera is indeed an experience, and Hensher encapsulates the intensity and romance of that experience brilliantly. I only ask that, especially since opera dominates the classical music reviews to such a degree, we remember to ask: what sort of experience is it, exactly? Neither primarily musical, nor lyrical, nor theatrical – but operatic.
Maybe I’m just frustrated that in the end I know it is my loss that I sit entranced through the Prelude of Tristan and Isolde and then roll my eyes when the singing starts. I know from enough people whose judgement I trust what delights await in the operatic repertoire (you’re pushing at an open door as far as Peter Grimes is concerned). It’s just the failure of opera lovers to notice the high cost of entry (in all respects) that confounds me.