Article by Hannah Betts
The American essayist H.L. Mencken observed that: “The opera is to music what a bawdy house is to a cathedral,” and this, of course, is why a good many of us rather like it. The novel long boasted a nuptial teleology whereby marriage was at once the goal and the end of all narrative – at least until Jane Eyre’s “Reader, I married him!” was supplanted by Ursula Brangwen’s “Marriage – not bovvered”. Opera, meanwhile, has regarded the state of wedlock with curled-lipped disdain as being way too bourgeois and/or breeder for its simultaneously elevated and gutter-loving appetites.
Accordingly, George Bernard Shaw’s definition of opera as being when “a tenor and a soprano want to make love and are prevented from doing so by a baritone” ain’t even the half of it. For, even where such innocents may ostensibly be the focus, events – and, indeed, the music – have a habit of putting rather more emphasis on deviance, perversion, sadomasochism and the like, such that our baritone may be rather more interested in joining in with (or watching) than preventing said intercourse.
With the exception of a few token stuffed shirts/blouses (invariably the object of mockery and derision) operatic motivations are entirely id-driven. The consequence is a rather more Carry On “oh!” and “ah!” than the soul-derived ejaculations Hegel fancied music should excite. In pornographic terminology – and opera is not always a million miles away from the genre in the sense of that it too may constitute a form of writing about prostitutes – one might use the word ‘clusterf*ck’; appropriate both in its orgiastic meaning as well as its usage as a synonym for ‘multiple disaster’.
This season at Opera Holland Park alone we are presented with the Neapolitan swingers’ session that is Così fan tutte (1790). We have Donizetti’s textbook virgin hysteric, the groom-butchering Lucia of 1835. In Yevgeny Onegin (1879) the hero’s casual cruelty exposes a situation in which all relationships appear soiled and contingent, while the priapic Jack-the-lad of Falstaff (1893) literally has the last laugh over the grim suburbanites who seek to frustrate him.
Mascagni’s ‘scena lirica’ Zanetto (1896) boasts as its heroine a courtesan who would rather remain single than be monogamously united in love. While, despite the strains of ‘Lauretta mia’, the lovers in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (1918) are doubtless destined to become Punch and Judy, commedia dell’arte stereotypes like those around them. Indeed, we must look to Picker’s Fantastic Mr Fox (1998) to find a model of marital harmony, despite the potentially wife-alienating issue of a castrated brush.
And ’twas ever thus. Opera’s 400-year history reveals one sustained obsessive compulsion: sex. It is a fixation that, despite stalwart efforts, marriage does nothing to palliate. This artform originated in a period in which what Lawrence Stone famously termed the ‘companionate marriage’ had yet to be invented. It presided over two centuries in which conjugal norms were strenuously renegotiated and tested. And it continues into an era in which many consider that the short-lived ideal of the monogamous, mutually-fulfilling heterosexual union has been exposed as a fiction, even if one merely has recourse to statistics.
The farcical sexual potential of marriage in the earliest opera to remain in the repertoire, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607), was such that Jacques Offenbach could brilliantly satirise it – and Gluck’s later Orphée et Eurydice (1762) – in his coruscating Orphée aux enfers (1858). Here the arrangement is one of convenience, Orpheus himself plants the fatal snake, and Jupiter has his way with Eurydice as a buzzing bluebottle. Such flagrant jiggery-pokery prompted critic Gustave Chouquet to rage: “This moral infection is a threat to our cultural existence!” Certainly, it took a pop at one of its more significant genres.
Monteverdi’s own L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642) represents the drooling beginnings of opera’s one-track mind. The work’s socially and sexually ambitious heroine dumps her husband, lobbies for her lover’s mentor to commit suicide and his wife to be executed, and is rewarded by being crowned empress. The audience may be familiar with her eventual fate (to be kicked to death by Nero while pregnant with his child), yet Poppea’s wanton inveiglings echo through the next three centuries of operatic sex, power, murder and psychiatric exhibitionism, whether from the fringes or centre stage.
From hereon, we have marriage as an imperial impossibility (Dido & Aeneas, 1684), or a scam (L’elisir d’amore, 1832; Don Pasquale, 1843) – while love is invariably a death-curse (Venus & Adonis, 1683; Dido & Aeneas, 1684; Semele, 1744; Norma, 1831; Der fliegender Holländer, 1843; Il trovatore, 1853; La forza del destino, 1862; Tristan und Isolde, 1865, Aida, 1871; Lakmé, 1883; Otello, 1887; The Queen of Spades, 1890; Werther, 1892; Manon Lescaut, 1893; Andrea Chénier, 1896; Tosca, 1900; Madama Butterfly, 1904; Turandot, 1926).
Wives are murdered, husbands dispatched, and anybody who is anybody engages in fatal bouts of adultery (Giulio Cesare, 1724; Un ballo in maschera, 1859; Cavalleria rusticana, 1890; Pagliacci, 1892; Adriana Lecouvreur, 1902; Pelléas & Mélisande, 1902; Katya Kabanova, 1921; Wozzeck, 1925; Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, 1934) – while in Fedora (1898), one incidence of marital infidelity results in five deaths.
Unloving spouses are too many to number – but witness how the erotic cooings of Il barbiere di Siviglia metastatise into the marital Mexican stand-off of Le nozze di Figaro; prostitution proves a success until one falls in love (La traviata, 1853; Manon Lescaut, 1893; La bohème, 1896), while celibacy does not appear to have much going for it either (Dialogues des Carmélites, 1956). Any offspring tend to be thankless, murderous, or doomed (Rigoletto, 1851; Il trovatore, 1853; Faust, 1859; Don Carlos, 1867; Der Ring, 1876; Jenu˚fa, 1904; Elektra, 1909; The Turn of the Screw, 1954).
Even opera’s Cinderella and Prince Charming look unlikely to enjoy the assumed happy ending: La Cenerentola’s doors-to-manual Cinders unveils a triumphalist vanity tipping into lunacy in her final crowing cabaletta ‘Non più mesta’. Indeed, one of opera’s few genuinely moving spousal statements – outside the earnest couples fantasised into existence by the (unmarried) Handel and Beethoven – comes not from some fecund young bride, but the lamenting widow at the close of John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer (1991), voiced not by a skittish soprano, but an inconsolable contralto pensioner.
All the while, the jouissant operatic ideal would appear to be a sexual free-for-all as celebrated in Alcina (1735), Don Giovanni (1787), Rigoletto (1851), Die Fledermaus (1874) and Carmen (1875). For even where opera’s libidinous witches, cads and strumpets are ultimately thwarted, they – like their preferred ally – would appear to have all the best tunes.
The Devil himself appears to prove this in Le grand macabre (1978; 1996), Ligeti’s “antianti-opera” – and, arguably, post-modern meta-opera – featuring loving pastiches of Monteverdi, Rossini, Wagner, Verdi et al. In it, the permanently copulating, archetypal lovers – originally Clitoria and Spermando – resolve to have intercourse while the apocalypse does its worst. At the work’s close, threat averted, they emerge bragging about the good they have achieved, screwing the world back together. And, in the carnivalesque operatic dystopia that is Breughelland, who can say they are not right, as everyone joins forces for the amoral Falstaffian moral?
Even opera’s most reactionary episodes can be redeemed for the non-nuptial cause by deploying the devil/best tunes axiom. Accordingly, while Catherine Clément’s seminal Opera, or the Undoing of Women (1979; trans. 1988), elaborates upon the strategy favoured by Victorien Sardou, playwright of La Tosca (1887), of “Torture the women!”, so later readers have preferred the notion that, musically, it is these sadomasochistically squashed sopranos who dominate.
In keeping with such logic, even Carmen – the free-wheeling, death-wishing Nicola Six of the opera world, referred to by Susan McClary as the “lowest common dominatrix” – resists the closure of any punitively misogynistic narrative frame by being the character whose numbers we come out humming. Via such strategies, opera can be seen to be engaging in both the policing and spectacular transgressing of the boundaries of bourgeois marital sexuality.
Moreover, the risqué nature of the opera as a venue for erotic dalliance, racy female singers, wives accompanied by their cicisbei, and the Butlerian performative frisson of both the “trouser roles” and all-mouth-and-no-trouser castrati, ensured that an atmosphere of licence prevailed. And still does: at a Covent Garden performance of Les contes d’Hoffmann (1880), my neighbours were so enamoured of each other that they rocked the entire row of seats during the first act and could not contain themselves beyond it.
It is in such licence that generations of happily unmarried audiences have found a liberational aspect – despite the legions of rapes, incarcerations, expirations, immolations, poisonings, stabbings, shootings, drownings, suicides, guillotinings, entombments, nasty coughs and death-plunges of the characters with whom they might be expected to identify.
Walt Whitman – about whom Oscar Wilde bragged in 1882: “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips” – thrilled to loopy Lucia’s plight in Proud Music of the Storm (1900). His words from the closing of passage 26 of the 1885 edition of Song of Myself are often quoted to express his erotic submission to the genre:
I hear the chorus . . . . it is a grand-opera . . . . this indeed is music!
A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.
The lines that follow that express an even more physically-consuming identification with the artform:
I hear the trained soprano . . . . she convulses me like the climax of my love-grip;
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches unnamable ardors from my breast,
It throbs me to gulps of the farthest down horror,
It sails me . . . . I dab with bare feet . . . . they are licked by the indolent waves,
I am exposed . . . . cut by bitter and poisoned hail,
Steeped amid honey’d morphine . . . . my windpipe squeezed in the fakes of death . . . .
The aphorist Mason Cooley remarked: “Staid middle age loves the hurricane passions of opera.” The less staid may experience yet more ardour: opera’s many dead inspiring Whitmanesque petites morts and legions of honey’d addicts.
Hannah Betts writes for The Times and the Daily Telegraph