Opera: Desire, Disease, Death / Edition 1

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"A fascinating interdisciplinary study of the interconnected subtexts of erotic attraction, illness, and death in several 19th- and 20th-century operatic texts. . . . This is an extraordinary examination of how opera uses the singing body—gendered and sexual—to give voice to the suffering person. Highly recommended."—Library Journal

"The authors’ argument is rich and complex; it draws on source, text and music; it is also medically sound. Opera is quintessentially an art of love and desire, of loss and suffering, of disease and death. Hutcheon and Hutcheon enrich our understanding of both content and context."—Opera News

"Linda and Michael Hutcheon have done a fine job of pulling together medical and literary sources to make sense of the changing depiction of disease in opera. . . . For opera lovers and for anyone interested in seeing good, synthetic reasoning at work, this is a fine study."—Publishers Weekly

Linda Hutcheon is a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Toronto. She is the author of, 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. His many articles have appeared in American Review of Respiratory Disease and other journals.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
To paraphrase the old saying: "It isn't over until the consumptive lady dies." A professor of comparative literature and English and a doctor, respectively, Linda and Michael Hutcheon have done a fine job of pulling together medical and literary sources to make sense of the changing depiction of disease in opera. In their study of tuberculosis, they point to Robert Koch's 1882 lecture announcing the discovery of the infectious nature of tuberculosis as one key to understanding the difference between Alfredo's treatment of Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata (1853) and Rodolfo's rather more reluctant approach to the declining Mimi in Puccini's La Bohme (1897). Perhaps because there has been so much written about AIDS and the arts, that final chapter isn't particularly fresh; and the chapter on smoking in Carmen and Il segreto di Susanna, among others, is more tangential to the thesis, though it does reiterate certain points about transgressive women. But without a doubt the most important chapter is that on Amfortas's wound in Parsifal. It may have been a bit of prudery that caused Wagner to move Amfortas's never-healing injury from the groin, where it originally appeared in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, to the side. But the authors make a very convincing argument that this was not (or at least, not only) about Christian symbolism. The circumstances of the wounding and the symptoms make it very likely that Wagner meant, and a contemporary audience would have understood, the wound to be a sign of syphilis. For opera lovers and for anyone interested in seeing good, synthetic reasoning at work, this is a fine study. Illustrations. (May)
Library Journal
The Hutcheons, both on the faculty at the University of Toronto, have combined their respective academic training in comparative literature and medicine with extensive knowledge of opera to produce a fascinating interdisciplinary study of the interconnected subtexts of erotic attraction, illness, and death in several 19th- and 20th-century operatic texts. Their thesis, cogently argued, is that "for a disease to appear as a significant thematic element or plot device in opera, it...must have strong cultural associations beyond its medical meaning...specifically, sexual desire." They analyze at length the representation of tuberculosis, syphilis, cholera, and tobacco addiction in La Traviata, La Bohme, Parsifal, The Rake's Progress, Death in Venice, and Carmen, among others, and conclude with a moving epilog on stage representations of AIDS. This last section offers one of the most astute exegeses of Angels in America (admittedly not an opera) yet published. In short, this is an extraordinary examination of how opera uses the singing bodygendered and sexualto give voice to the suffering person. Highly recommended for collections supporting cultural and gender studies and the history of science as well as opera.Robert W. Melton, Univ. of Kansas Lib., Lawrence
Opera News
"The authors’ argument is rich and complex; it draws on source, text and music; it is also medically sound. Opera is quintessentially an art of love and desire, of loss and suffering, of disease and death. Hutcheon and Hutcheon enrich our understanding of both content and context."—Opera News
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780803273184
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/1999
  • Series: Texts and Contexts Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 316
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Linda Hutcheon is a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Toronto. She is the author of, 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. His many articles have appeared in American Review of Respiratory Disease and other journals.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Melodies and Maladies:
An Introduction

Music exalts each joy, allays each grief,
Expels diseases, softens every pain,
Subdues the rage of poison, and the plague.
—John Armstrong,
The Art of Preserving Health, 1744

La forme fatale.

—Aaron Copland on opera, 1975

It may be a truism that the stories we tell and the images we create to explainourselves to ourselves are always loaded: cultural "representations"are never innocent. This is a book about a particular set of stories andimages—those about illness and death as represented on the operaticstage of Europe and North America in the nineteenth and twentiethcenturies. It is about what some readers will consider, at least at first, anunlikely combination: medical history and musical history. If music hasbeen treasured for centuries as the purest of art forms, then music writtenfor opera would have to be some of the most impure, for opera owesits power—its considerable and well-documented power—to its combiningthe musical and the dramatic, the aural and the visual, the emotionaland the intellectual.

    For us opera's commanding ability to overcome realist objections toits artifice, to override purist concerns about its mixed artistic nature, tooverrule wary doubts about its financial or narrativeexcesses, and simplyto overwhelm the imagination cannot come only from the score butmust also involve the dramatic story for which the music was especiallywritten—a story it incarnates in living, breathing, singing bodies on thestage. It is in those intense and powerfully enacted tales that the medicaland the cultural meet. It would be an understatement of the first orderto say that disease and mortality were concerns of art, as of life, wellbefore the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We have chosen to focuson these years because they also witnessed the birth and developmentof what we know today as "modern" medicine. It has been said thatexplaining sickness is "too significant—socially and emotionally—for itto be a value-free enterprise." If this is true, then the way a society explainsand represents illness—especially in an emotionally powerful artform like opera—can tell us much about its values and about how valueis assigned in that particular culture.

    Diseases and those who suffer from them have always taken onmeanings well beyond their medical significance. Part of the reason isthe force of certain representations that are repeated so often that theyeventually create their own social reality. Think about the cultural associationsof a disease like leprosy: despite the unlikelihood of its casualtransmission, people suffering from it have been seen throughout theages as dangerous to society as a whole and so have been isolated, evenostracized. Although few illnesses have led to such extreme social responses,cultures continue to give meaning to illness all the time and tomake value judgments about it. These moral judgments establish a hierarchyof what we might call disease acceptability: it might well be moreacceptable to get cirrhosis of the liver from hepatitis B than from alcoholconsumption, or you might feel more comfortable being told you hadheart disease than, say, syphilis—a serious but socially acceptable illnessrather than a treatable but embarrassing one.

    Such an understanding of the meanings and values attached to diseasein the past is timely, even crucial, to us today: we are witnessing astruggle over the different meanings being given to a new disease—AIDS,or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. With its arrival have appearedall the social, psychological, and cultural dimensions that have always accompaniedbut have also been part of a biomedical understanding of disease.Although this has usually been the case—from the very first recordedplagues—our focus is on the particular period since science began to understandthat diseases might not be a matter of personal idiosyncrasyand predisposition. With the rise of pathologic anatomy, diseases cameto be seen as entities that could be studied scientifically and categorizedthrough observable, abnormal changes in body organs. This approachmeant that they were understood to result not from some personal lackof balance or harmony of the "humors" within the self (or between theself and the environment) but from biological abnormalities with clinicalsigns manifested (and experienced) by individual sufferers. Withthe advent of bacteriology in the mid-nineteenth century came knowledgeof the causes of some of these pathologic entities. These revelationsare all part of the legacy of "modern" medicine.

    It has been claimed that the way any society responds to diseasereveals "its deepest cultural, social and moral values"; that "these corevalues—patterns of judgment about what is good or bad—shape andguide human perception and action." Our particular interest in thisbook is precisely these patterns of judgment and what they reveal aboutthe interaction of cultural and medical knowledge. The time frame isfrom the mid-nineteenth century to the present. We have chosen tostudy those particular diseases that are portrayed (and the manner oftheir representation) in one art form: as public, staged musical drama,opera has the ability to offer to the human mind—and body—one of themost complex and powerful of intellectual, emotional, and visceral experiences.

Why Opera?

Though opera is often seen these days as an elitist, "highbrow" form ofart, its long and continuous history in Europe is not as class bound assome would like to make it. Opera in seventeenth-century Venice, for instance,took on its particular eclectic mix of the comic and the seriousbecause its audience included all classes—as did Shakespeare's. In ourown age of translated surtitles and with bold, irreverent directors busyupdating even the most sacred of canonical operas (and doing so for televisionand movie audiences), opera may have a chance of escaping thatelitist label. With major advances in audio and video technology, operacan now enter the home with an ease only dreamed of by the first listenersto the Metropolitan's Saturday Afternoon at the Opera radio broadcasts.The history of opera, however, helps explain why that elitist label exists.Because opera is, and was from the start, an expensive dramatic form,the economics of performance demanded the early patronage of nobilityand royalty. The well-documented French extravagances of LouisXIV's court operas might well have justified Dr. Johnson's remarks abouteighteenth-century opera in his dictionary: he called it "an exotic and irrationalentertainment." Tellingly, however, during the French Revolutionopera was not banned as aristocratic art: it was taken over and democratized.Indeed, more operas were produced in the years followingthe Revolution than before, as new subjects were freed from the controlof the royal censor.

    In nineteenth-century Europe, where we begin this book, however,opera was the most popular form of bourgeois entertainment. Thesumptuous and conspicuously situated opera houses of nineteenth-centuryParis or Vienna "celebrated both the imperial power ... andthe participation of the urban middle-class in the imperial enterprise."There have been many theories about why opera held this attraction forthe bourgeoisie of Europe, theories that range from the social (a desire toape their social betters) to the symbolic (the "sonorous fullness andchoral masses" as both symbolic of and aimed at larger audiences, notsmall aristocratic courts). In a place like Paris there would have been achoice of operas for the middle classes to attend on a given evening, notunlike our present choice of films, perhaps. There was no fixed canonof repeated operas such as we are familiar with today; instead, operasoften were written, were performed, and closed, in some cases never tobe revived—much like films in the days before infinite television andvideo repeats became possible.

    In these same years opera played important roles in broader social domains,from the shaping of national identity to—we shall argue—theformation of concepts of illness and health, sexuality and morality. Inall such domains, opera both reflected social and cultural concerns andrepeated and reinforced them. As an art form, opera cannot but be embeddedin the social and intellectual contexts it comes out of. Literaryand intellectual historians like Herbert Lindenberger and Paul Robinsonhave argued for the important role opera plays in cultural change: weknow that it was crucial to the thinking of Kierkegaard and, of course,Nietzsche. But in more general terms it both mirrored and helped shapea range of European society's intellectual concerns, from psychologicalconcepts of love to abstract ideas of the relation between order andchaos. Such arguments are typical of the move in the past decade anda half to treat music in general (and opera in particular) in a broader contextof culture and its "social discourse." As an activity, a cultural practice,music is now being seen as available to cultural (as well as strictlyformal musical) analysis because of its dynamic relationship to what LawrenceKramer calls a "network of social, intellectual, and material conditionsthat strongly, though often implicitly, affect meaning." Collectionsof essays such as Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performanceand Reception, edited by Richard Leppart and Susan McClary, are typicalof this attempt to add to the discipline of musicology the study of theconnections between music and social-cultural values.

    This is one way to challenge the idea of music as "an autonomoussphere, separate and insulated from the outside world." Another is tobring to the study of music analytical methods and techniques of interpretationfrom other disciplines such as literary criticism. With operathis particular strategy seems especially attractive and has, in fact, provedvery productive in recent years—as shown by the work of HerbertLindenberger, Catherine Clément, Peter Conrad, Wayne Koestenbaum,and some of the contributors to collections such as Reading Opera andOpera through Other Eyes, to name only a few. As we mentioned in theprologue, we see this book too in the context of those interdisciplinarystudies that aim for more comprehensive criticism of culture as well asof opera.

    Opera is such a complex art form that it cries out for more than oneapproach: after all, it brings together dramatic narrative, staged performance,a literary text, a certain subject matter, and complex music in aparticularly forceful way. In artistic terms, the power of opera likelystems from what might be called this "overdetermination" of effect: thecombination of the dramatic + the narrative + the thematic + the verbal+ the visual + the auditory. There is no such thing as the single "text"of opera. Indeed, it is even reductive to talk, as many do, of its two texts,the libretto and the score. The history of opera criticism reveals a disagreementabout just what the libretto is: a split between the view thatit consists of words (poetic text) and the idea of it as drama. And the historyof opera itself has been marked from its earliest times by majordebates about the relation of both words and drama to the music, astheorists and composers fought over which had (or should have) precedence.Here is one succinct sketch of that history:

Although at its beginnings opera sought to emulate and restore the conditions of Greek tragedy and although its first great composer, Monteverdi, respected the primacy of drama in opera, Monteverdi's followers lost sight of the dramatic ideal and allowed the medium to become dominated by the needs of singers and the desire of audiences for spectacle; not until Gluck's "reform" of the 1760s was the dramatic mode restored—but only temporarily, for the performative and purely musical values once again dominated until the next great "reform," that of Wagner, returned the dramatic element to the foreground, where, despite many changes in operatic style, it has remained to this day.

The idea that opera consists of a libretto text and a musical score gave us,with different balancing of the two parts, works like Gary Schmidgall'sLiterature as Opera and Joseph Kerman's Opera as Drama. Without themusic, the libretto would be a (strangely written) stage-play script; withoutthe libretto, the score would be a long and oddly structured piece ofmusic. Both are clearly necessary to the identity of this very particularart form, though it would be hard to guess that from the history of operacriticism, which has consistently disparaged and even ignored thelibretto—literally reduced in name to the "little book." Yet composershave for centuries talked of the importance of the text—both as wordsand as drama—to the inspiration and also the form of the music; echoingMonteverdi, Gluck, and Wagner, contemporary composer John Eatonsays his operas always begin from "musical-dramatic" ideas. Recent collectionsof essays, such as Reading Opera, attempt to take the implications ofthe secondary and the diminutive out of the very word libretto.

    For a long time it has been common for commentators of all kinds toconflate the separate dimensions of the words and the drama in discussionsof librettos or to ignore the fact that the "text" sung is not simplywords (often in a foreign language) but particular words that construct adramatic plot. What is usually forgotten is that the opera libretto is ascript, and as such it is words, but words that make possible the dramatizationon stage of a place, a time, a set of characters and dramatic action—allcrucial to the experience of opera as a performed art form andtherefore to the meanings given to it. Our discussion of opera will treat thelibretto as a theatrical script designed to be set to music (just as the scorewas written specifically to a libretto text), and at least three separatecomponents of that script will be considered: its verbal text, its dramaticnarrative, and its directions for staged action. If opera librettos do"read badly," the problem is with the reader, not the text: the assumptionsthat guide the reading of a novel or even a play are simply inadequate forreading librettos, where the musical setting plus the conventions of thedramatic script are part of what must be "read" and understood.

    The first component, the verbal text, is usually bypassed by plot-outliningoperatic commentary, of course. Yet as Patrick J. Smith writesin The Tenth Muse: A Historical Study of the Opera Libretto, the historyof the librettist is as a poet "to be judged by the musicality of his lines andthe aptness of his rhythms, rhymes and similes." In chapter 3 of our bookthe verbal texture of Wagner's Parsifal is the focus of part of thediscussion, for it is through wordplay that Wagner (as his own librettist)embedded in language the major themes of his work. As such this chapterillustrates David Levin's argument that the ambiguities and complexitiesof the libretto's linguistic text cannot be ignored. But Levin seems to feelhe must advocate a concern for the instabilities of language at the expenseof the second component of the operatic text, its dramatic plot,for he refers to "the bald juxtaposition of situation, theManichaean terms of character, and the strained willfulness ofplot construction and resolution." It is not that we necessarily disagree withthe description; but one must understand the specific demands of opera narrativein order to contest the judgment it implies.

    In The Tenth Muse Smith notes that, early on, the librettist had tobecome not only a poet but a dramatist capable of creating "the dramaticnode around which the final work was constructed." Composer VirgilThomson calls opera "drama at its most serious and most complete."Opera, in other words, is theater. And theater has never been able to dowhat, say, the novel could in terms of characterization: some of the subtlershadings get jettisoned, but we gain the intensity and immediacy ofa character's physical presence on stage. Not having five or ten hours ofreading time to develop a character or a situation, staged drama relieson different techniques to different ends; so too does opera. Yet manycritics consider opera's dramatic narrative only in reductive terms such asthe "lurid overstatement of understated narrative material" or "theconventionality, the freakishness, and the manifold silliness" of the stories.What they often ignore is that the operas were frequently made fromplays or novels that were very popular in their time, that were not consideredparticularly silly or freakish or lurid. Although librettists often hadto move plot details around to suit opera's conventions (an aria should befollowed by a trio, and so on), the basic narrative materials of the sourcetexts persist in operas like La Traviata or Carmen, as we shallshow in detail in later chapters. What makes operatic drama seem more extreme islikely a combination of two factors. The first is the music, though thecritics often turn to it in relief when they have disposed of the libretto.But it is the music that is responsible for so much of the emotional powerof opera, that allows passion to be "celebrated uncompromisingly" in away it cannot be, without irony, in fiction. The second reason for theapparent extravagant excess of operatic narrative is the necessary compressionof the plot. There is no doubt that, if a story is to be told on theoperatic stage, it has to be shortened and compressed: it simply takeslonger to sing than to deliver a line of text. The result isthat, on the level of plot, opera's bold strokes condense and, in a very complexway, unrefine. But what might get lost in narrative complication and detail ismade up for in the "concentrated and striking expressivity" achieved byexcision and by reduction of narrative to its potent basics.


Excerpted from Opera by Linda Hutcheon & Michael Hutcheon. Copyright © 1996 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Prologue: "All Concord's Born of Contraries"
1 Melodies and Maladies: An Introduction 1
2 Famous Last Breaths: The Tubercular Heroine 29
3 Syphilis, Suffering, and the Social Order: Richard Wagner's Parsifal 61
4 The Pox Revisited: The "Pale Spirochete" in Twentieth Century Opera 95
5 "Acoustic Contagion": Sexuality, Surveillance, and Epidemics 123
6 Where There's Smoke, There's... 161
Epilogue. "Life-and-Death Passions": AIDS and the Stage 195
Notes 229
Photo Credits 287
Index 289
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