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Bodily Charm: Living Opera

Bodily Charm: Living Opera

by Linda Hutcheon

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Bodily Charm is a passionate defense of opera as a living as well as live art. Written for both the opera lover and the specialist by a physician and a literary critic, it is an accessible and engaging interdisciplinary exploration of the operatic body—both the actual physical bodies of the singers and audience members and the represented body on stage in


Bodily Charm is a passionate defense of opera as a living as well as live art. Written for both the opera lover and the specialist by a physician and a literary critic, it is an accessible and engaging interdisciplinary exploration of the operatic body—both the actual physical bodies of the singers and audience members and the represented body on stage in operas such as Death in Venice, Salome, Rigoletto, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Elektra.

Editorial Reviews

Linda Hutcheon (English and comparative literature, University of Toronto) and Michael Hutcheon (medicine, University of Toronto) offer a passionate defense of opera as a living art. Written for both the opera lover and the specialist, the book presents an interdisciplinary exploration of the operatic body. Consideration is given to the actual physical bodies of the singers and the audience members and the represented body on stage in operas such as and Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Bodily Charm

Living Opera

By Linda Hutcheon, Michael Hutcheon


Copyright © 2000 University of Nebraska Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9476-9


The Body Beautiful

In Jacques Offenbach's opera Les Contes d'Hoffmann (1881), the poet Hoffmann offers a song to the students gathered in Dionysiac celebration at Luther's tavern in NÃ1/4rnberg. He tells of the court of Eisenach, where a strange little man named Kleinzach attracts the comic attention of all for his stunted legs, his hump ("une bosse en guise d'estomac"), his odd feet. But when Hoffmann begins to describe the features of Kleinzach's face, his voice suddenly changes, and he dreamily sings:

Ah! sa figure était charmante! Je la vois,
belle comme le jour où, courant après elle,
je quittai comme un fou la maison paternelle.

[Ah! the face was charming! I see it,
beautiful as the day when, running after her,
I left like a madman my paternal home.]

The oddly shaped man of the song has suddenly metamorphosed into his opposite in terms of both sex and appearance: a beautiful woman, with long coils of dark hair, an elegant neck, blue eyes, and a voice "vibrante et douce" that wins Hoffmann's heart. Not surprisingly, his companions comment on this bizarre shift of topic, asking him if he is still painting a verbal picture of Kleinzach. Coming to his senses, Hoffmann never names this beautiful woman but simply asserts that ugly Kleinzach is worth more – deformed though he may be – than that monster of a beautiful woman.

Derived from the historical E. T. A. Hoffmann's story entitled "Klein Zaches, genannt Zinnober," the operatic Hoffmann's song presents in miniature two of the major themes of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European representations of the body on the opera stage: on the one hand, the mutual implication of beauty and ugliness, and on the other, the question of the consistency of the internal self with external appearance. Despite the fact that the appearance of most of humanity falls between the dichotomies of beauty and its absence, drama – including opera – seems to have been attracted to staging such extremes, perhaps because of the obvious effectiveness of the resulting tensions and conflicts. Like the mythic figures of Venus and Medusa, the very concepts of beauty and its opposite are testaments to the power of the visual in Western culture. But opera clearly involves the aural as well. Musical beauty as consonance came to be defined not only in its own positive terms but by its contrary, dissonance. That definitions of musical beauty are relative is obvious: every age's avant-garde composer, be it Monteverdi or Schoenberg, has created sounds ugly or dissonant to an ear accustomed to dominant musical conventions. Opera composers in particular have had additional problems, trying to reconcile aural beauty and the "smoothness of vocal production with the achievement of dramatic power."

As Herbert Lindenberger has argued, opera as drama openly deals in extremes – aesthetic, moral, political. Apollo and Dionysus are clearly its contrasting reigning deities. On the stage, characters are sometimes differentiated in relatively unsubtle ways: conventionally a soprano's voice is associated with moral goodness; a lower-pitched voice often signals an evil character. Think of Desdemona as opposed to Iago in Verdi's Otello. Another equally traditional association with goodness, however, is beauty: Desdemona's beauty adds to her vulnerability but also to her ethical stature. This linking of interior moral worth and exterior physical beauty has a long history, as we shall see shortly, and indeed it would appear to be an accepted truism in much opera. Its power can also be seen whenever, as in Hoffmann's song, a discrepancy is found to exist between inside and outside. As we shall see later, and as Mary Douglas has shown, such ambiguities are disturbing to us, since humans seem to require clear categorizations. Opera offers many examples of these kinds of ambiguity, in part because its music often has the power to reveal to the audience the internal reality that the staged body's appearance belies. Such disturbing and dramatic cases, however, only serve to underline the power of the convention even as they deconstruct it.

Platonic Beauty

The correlation of the beautiful and the good has multiple cultural origins, but Plato stands historically as its most influential articulator in the West. When, in the Symposium, Socrates recounts Diotima's teaching that "ugliness is at odds with the divine, while beauty is in perfect harmony," he means beauty of soul as well as beauty of body and takes for granted the connection of both to moral superiority. In the Republic Socrates asks: "when there is a coincidence of a beautiful disposition in the soul and corresponding and harmonious beauties of the same type in the bodily form – is not this the fairest spectacle for one who is capable of its contemplation?" The physically beautiful is a means to true, ideal beauty and therefore virtue. When Riccardo Zandonai and Tito Ricordi (with the aid of D'Annunzio) created their opera Francesca da Rimini (1914), they were able to draw on this longstanding tradition in setting up the contrast between the rival male characters. Francesca is presented as being in love with the man known in the opera as "Paolo il Bello" (the handsome), who is described as tall and slim, with royal carriage and white teeth. But unfortunately, she is wed to his brother, whose full name is "Giovanni lo Sciancato" (the lame). This rough man, said to have the eyes of a furious demon, is provided by his creators with a harsh voice and even harsher words. He is matched in physical and moral terms by his younger brother, the cruel and violent Malatestino, who has lost an eye in battle. The entire household feels oppressed by "lo zoppo e l'orbo" [the lame man and the blind one]. After the enraged Giovanni, at Malatestino's urging, kills his wife and her lover, Paolo, the stage directions guide the audience's eyes to his disability: he leans over in silence, bends one knee with great difficulty, and breaks his bloody sword on it. The complicated moral position – given the adultery involved – is nonetheless that the good and the beautiful have here been destroyed by the evil and the ugly. Platonic consonance of inside and outside prevails against considerable odds, perhaps in part because this is a twentieth-century opera.

Yet the notion that beautiful people are somehow inherently good and that ugly people are evil is not one that is given any conscious credence today, for we now tend to accept that beauty is autonomous and distinct from morality or even intelligence. But this is a more modern notion of beauty and one more different than we might expect from that which dominated operatic representations in the nineteenth and even into the twentieth century, as we have just seen. It has been argued that what is considered beautiful has not in itself changed significantly over the centuries, but the value placed upon it has. If this is true, then it is important that we keep that (continuing) older tradition in mind if we are to understand the meaning of the representations of beautiful bodies – and their opposites – on the operatic stage. But it is also true that this modern notion of the autonomy of beauty from moral worth has not extended to the ugly or disabled body to quite the same degree. And this failure too needs to be kept in mind and, indeed, confronted in this chapter, as in our daily lives.

Clearly the Platonic tradition privileges the visual or the visible: unlike wisdom or justice, beauty as an ideal can be apprehended directly through physical phenomena. As Socrates explains in Plato's Phaedrus, beauty is manifest to sight, "the keenest mode of perception vouchsafed us through the body." For this reason, in a study such as ours that investigates representations of the staged body in opera, the sense of sight is also inevitably privileged over the others: in other words, while there are, for example, comic characters who stutter (and tragic ones too, like Billy Budd in Benjamin Britten and E. M. Forster's opera of that name) and others who are without sight (Tiresias in Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex or La Cieca in La Gioconda), we will concentrate in this chapter on those outward characteristics of the unbeautiful as well as the beautiful body that are described in the libretto and sometimes actually made visible on stage. It is these narratively significant corporeal clues that influence strongly the responses of the listening and watching audience members, for they too have come under the influence of that long Platonic tradition.

As an art form, opera itself came into being at a time when what has been called the "long arm of Neoplatonism" dominated Renaissance Italy. The Florentine Camerata was imbued with these philosophical ideas as articulated by Marsilio Ficino and rendered poetic by writers like Poliziano. One appeal of the Orpheus story to many of the early operatic composers (Peri, Caccini, Monteverdi) was that the protagonist seemed a kind of proto-Platonist by anticipation. It would not be until the nineteenth century that the continuing power of the Platonic concept of the beautiful would be challenged in opera by the Romantic notion of the grotesque. Until then (but even thereafter, as we shall see), Neoplatonic thought had an immense impact on the operatic imagination through its repeated correlation of the beautiful and the good.

This impact was in part made possible by the power of the Neoplatonic model of beauty, one specifically defined in terms of its formal – Apollonian – attributes. The relation of beauty to proportion is a commonplace of Greek philosophy. In the Timaeus, Plato explains how the world was created as order out of disorder: "all measures and harmonies" are granted to things in relation to themselves and to each other. The beauty of the human body (and thus the goodness of the soul) depends upon actual mathematical form (triangles, in fact). In Plato's terms, "Everything that is good is fair, and the fair is not without proportion, and the animal which is to be fair must have due proportion. ... [T]here is no proportion or disproportion more productive of health and disease, and virtue and vice, than that between soul and body themselves. ... [T]he due proportion of mind and body is the fairest and loveliest of all sights to him who has the seeing eye." The aesthetics of proportion also dominates medieval conceptions of beauty, beginning with musical theories, but this all comes to be overlaid with more explicitly Neoplatonic moral values in the Renaissance. The proportionately perfect human body takes on symbolic aesthetic and moral value at this time, beyond even Vitruvius's earlier architectural statement that the symmetry needed in designing temples was that of the proportions of a well-shaped human body. Albertus Magnus, in his De Pulchro et Bono, links the beautiful not only to the good but specifically to a "resplendence of form": "corporeal beauty requires a due proportion of its members."

In Latin antiquity, the word used by Virgil or Ovid for beautiful was as likely to be "formosa" (form-full) as the more common "pulcher." In the Vulgate Bible, the Bride in the Song of Songs tells us: "Nigra sum sed formosa" (I.4). While the Bridegroom calls her "pulchra," she describes herself as "form-full." When Neoplatonic thought dominated, as in the twelfth century, "formosa" was used often. Rooted in pre-Socratic notions of congruence and proportion, this almost mathematical concept of beauty and its absence can be traced from Cicero's idea that in the body "a certain symmetrical shape of the limbs" constituted beauty. It continues in Aquinas's later belief that beauty was what the senses delight in through "rightly proportioned things" and that ugliness is what is not structured in this way. We can see the same concept even in the scientific discourses of the eighteenth century. As Nicolas Andry writes in his Orthopaedia: Or, the Art of Correcting and Preventing Deformities in Children (1742): "There is such a nice Exactness in the Proportions of the human Body, that upon this the whole Science of Mechanicks is founded."

We have deliberately switched to a scientific discourse here for a reason. The question is: Can we attribute the persistence of the Platonic notion of beauty as form simply to the power of cultural tradition to assert universals? Or is something else going on here?

Current work on patterns of human mating suggests that biological forces may also be at work. Feminist theory has forcefully argued that beauty is a relative and culturally constructed concept, a "beauty myth," as Naomi Wolf put it, and not universal and changeless. There is little argument that the social meanings attached to certain aspects of beauty (such as weight) are culture-and time-specific: plumpness is valued in places where (and at times when) food is scarce, thinness where and when it is plentiful. But there is also considerable evidence that humans exhibit body-related, species-typical desires in mating that are "highly patterned and universal." These patterns exist, biologists argue, because they are strategic and advantageous in evolutionary terms. As Nancy Etcoff summarizes in her recent book, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, physical clues to a woman's health and youth are found attractive and thus valued in sexual selection as signs of her fertility and reproductive value. Among these clues is "low fluctuating asymmetry" or, more simply, regularity of facial features and other bodily parts; in this way, Platonic symmetry and proportion become visible indicators of hormone status as well as definers of sexual attractiveness and beauty.

Whatever the reason – biological, aesthetic, metaphysical – for the persistence of these form-full ideals, we are left with the (Apollonian) fact that beauty and form have been inseparable in the Western imagination for many centuries. Because of this inseparability for Plato and those who followed, the beauty of the body is a reflection of an ideal beauty and thus the expression of the good. And as Umberto Eco has pointed out, by the medieval period moral values had been firmly provided with this aesthetic foundation. The Christianizing of this linkage by Saint Augustine and others merely reinforced its conceptual and imaginative impact. However, the implicit heterosexualizing of the Platonic notion of beauty that took place in the Roman and then medieval worlds should not allow us to forget the fact that the beautiful body of which Socrates spoke was always the young male body, as it was in the Renaissance revival of those myths of Adonis, Hyacinth, Narcissus, and especially Ganymede. It is this homoerotic Neoplatonic context that was brought to the stage in an opera to which we now return: Death in Venice.

Love and Beauty in Death in Venice

As we have already seen in the last chapter, in both literary and operatic versions of the story, the aging Gustav von Aschenbach is presented as the austere artist of form who is overwhelmed by the sheer corporeal beauty of the boy Tadzio. The only language in which he can express his response is Platonic. While Mann's text offers, through its allusions to other literary and philosophical works, a sense of the ambiguities and confusions in Aschenbach's mind, the opera libretto necessarily simplifies and thereby ends up strengthening the Platonic elements, emphasizing the moral issues that are tangled up with the aesthetic ones. When Aschenbach – the artist who has built his work on "simplicity, beauty, form" – sees the "beautiful young creature" in a Venice hotel, he describes him as the "soul of Greece" and as a "[m]ortal child with more than mortal grace." (See figure 4.) Just as Socrates is totally taken with the physical beauty of Phaedrus but sees it as a manifestation of ideal and universal beauty (and, therefore, of the good), so Aschenbach marvels, in Platonic terms, about Tadzio: "How does such beauty come about? What mysterious harmony between the individual and the universal law produces such perfection of form? Would the child be less good, less valuable as a human being if he were less beautiful?" The addition of this last sentence, absent from the novella, suggests that the moral issues associated with beauty and love are never far from Piper's and Britten's minds. While the first act of the opera shows Aschenbach's devotion to the Platonic notion that physical beauty should merely be a bridge to the appreciation of an ideal beauty and that in this way it can inspire his Apollonian, form-driven art, the second act shows the result of his realization that his response to the boy is not only aesthetic but also psychological and physical. Dionysus makes his presence felt.


Excerpted from Bodily Charm by Linda Hutcheon, Michael Hutcheon. Copyright © 2000 University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Linda Hutcheon is a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Toronto. She is the author of a number of books, most recently Irony's Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony. Michael Hutcheon, M.D., is a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto. The Hutcheons are coauthors of Opera: Desire, Disease, Death (Nebraska 1996).

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