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Opera and Modern Culture: Wagner and Strauss

Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 258
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  • Book Info
    Opera and Modern Culture
    Book Description:

    In this enlightening and entertaining book, one of the most original and sophisticated musicologists writing today turns his attention to music's most dramatic genre. Extending his ongoing project of clarifying music's various roles in Western society, Kramer brings to opera his distinctive and pioneering blend of historical concreteness and theoretical awareness. Opera is legendary for going to extremes, a tendency that has earned it a reputation for unreality.Opera and Modern Cultureshows the reverse to be true. Kramer argues that for the past two centuries the preoccupation of a group of famous operas with the limits of supremacy and debasement helped to define a normality that seems the very opposite of the operatic. Exemplified in a series of beloved examples, a certain idea of opera-a fiction of opera-has contributed in key ways to the modern era's characterizations of desire, identity, and social order.Opera and Modern Cultureexposes this process at work in operas by Richard Wagner, who put modernity on the agenda in ways no one after him could ignore, and by the young Richard Strauss. The book continues the initiative of much recent writing in treating opera as a multimedia rather than a primarily musical form. FromLohengrinandThe Ring of the NiebelungtoSalomeandElektra,it traces the rich interplay of operatic visions and voices and their contexts in the birth pangs of modern life.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94084-0
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Prologue: Thinking through Opera with Wagner and Strauss
    (pp. 1-18)

    Opera is legendary for superlative states of being, both high and low: supremacy and debasement. Just reeling off pairs of names—Don Giovanni and the Commendatore, Florestan and Leonora, Rigoletto and Gilda, Siegfried and Brünnhilde, Tristan and Isolde, Otello and Desdemona, Mimi and Rodolfo, Salome and Jochanaan—seems to tell an archetypal story. But it is far from the whole story.

    The nucleus of this study was the impulse to delve into the very antithesis of both supremacy and debasement: simple normality. Looked at in historical perspective, normality had come to strike me as anything but simple and, well, other...

  4. 1 Opera: Two or Three Things I Know about Her
    (pp. 19-41)

    Two or Three Things I Know about Heris a movie released in 1966 by Jean-Luc Godard. It consists of a series of images, interviews, and vignettes that sketch the life of a bourgeois housewife who is also a part-time prostitute. The woman does not, of course, “just happen” to be a prostitute. Like many others, she is working to support a habit—in this case precisely the habit of being a bourgeois housewife. The desire she withdraws from her sexual performances is reinvested in the material pleasures of ownership and consumption.

    In form, Godard’s movie is innovative. Its discontinuous,...

  5. 2 Contesting Wagner: The Lohengrin Prelude and Anti–anti-Semitism
    (pp. 42-74)

    The pinnacle of fame for a piece of music is often marked by its composer’s attainment of anonymity: fame to a higher power, the social construction of the universal. How many couples who walk down the aisle to the wedding march from Wagner’sLohengrinhave any idea who its composer was, or suspect that the marriage originally celebrated by this music was, let’s say, less than successful? How many who follow tradition and finish the ceremony with the wedding march from Mendelssohn’s incidental music toA Midsummer Night’s Dreamhave any inkling that they’re pairing the arch anti-Semite of Western...

  6. 3 The Waters of Prometheus: Nationalism and Sexuality in Wagner’s Ring
    (pp. 75-106)

    None of which is to say that what’s broken in Wagner can be fixed. Wagner bedevils everyone, or he should. He’s certainly bedeviled opera, not only by his anti-Semitism, but also by the more comprehensive “delirium” of which anti-Semitism is the most toxic symptom and embodiment.

    Take nationalism and sexuality: these very topical concerns of the present and recent past are also the historical terms of the infamous “case of Wagner,”Der Fall Wagner,as Nietzsche called it: the instance, medical problem, and criminal investigation of that “neurosis” (Nietzsche’s term) whose “magnificently equivocal, suspect and compelling” work (Thomas Mann’s phrase)...

  7. 4 Enchantment and Modernity: Wagner the Symptom
    (pp. 107-127)

    During the heyday of Wagnerism,Wagnerian opera was for many music lovers the decisive event of European modernity. This was true in both a critical and a utopian sense. Wagner became both a symptom of what was wrong with modern life and a force for what might be made right with it. He both encapsulated the widespread diagnosis of modernity as a heartless juggernaut and represented the means of transforming it into the motor of an advancing civilization.

    Wagner’s rise to preeminence in the second half of the nineteenth century overlapped with the decisive arrival of modernity in the cities of...

  8. 5 Modernity’s Cutting Edge: The Salome Complex
    (pp. 128-166)

    From Flaubert to Richard Strauss, male artists in late-nineteenth-century Europe were fascinated by the figure of Salome. The fascination, indeed, amounted to a genuine craze. One representation sparked another: J.-K. Huysmans fantasized about paintings by Gustave Moreau, Oscar Wilde expanded on Huysmans, Aubrey Beardsley illustrated Wilde. Fine editions of Wilde’sSalomewith Beardsley’s illustrations remained cult objects well into the twentieth century. Like the science and medicine of its day, on which it drew, the Salome craze reflected a growing preoccupation with femininity as an object of fascination, study, and control. The processes of modernization threatened traditional forms of social...

  9. 6 Video as Jugendstil: Salome, Visuality, and Performance
    (pp. 167-189)

    The question with which the last chapter ended is real, not rhetorical, but its answer is still pretty clear. The answer is “No.” Regardless of latter-day critical ingenuity that has gone into imagining a Salome empowered by her singing or dancing, and regardless of the ambiguities offered by the opera itself, performances ofSalomestubbornly keep reverting to the fin-de-siècle norm. If a “feminist” Salome were going to appear, she might have been expected during the last decades of the twentieth century, when awareness of the changing social status of women was at its height and when the relation of...

  10. 7 Fin-de-Siècle Fantasies: Elektra and the Culture of Supremacism
    (pp. 190-220)

    In 1903 Otto Weininger, twenty-three, Viennese, Jewish, and an imminent suicide, published his misogynist manifestoSex and Characterand created an international sensation. “One began,” reported a contemporary, “to hear in the men’s clubs of England and in the cafés of France and Germany—one began to hear singular mutterings among men. Even in the United States where men never talk about women, certain whispers might be heard. The idea was that a new gospel had appeared.”¹ Weininger’s new gospel tied the spiritual progress of the human race to the repudiation of its female half. Women, said Weininger, are purely...

  11. Epilogue: Voice and Its Beyonds
    (pp. 221-228)

    This book has sought as often to embody the concept of Opera as to propound it. The writing has drawn no firm line between evocation and explanation, metaphor and theory. On the contrary: the lines have been crossed or effaced time and again. (Disgruntled parties take note: I know about this breakdown. I do it on purpose. I will do it again here.) The reason why is not simply that any such line is ultimately illusory, a law masquerading as a logic, but also that sustaining the illusion—often a useful thing to do—is directly contrary to the spirit...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 229-252)
  13. Index
    (pp. 253-257)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 258-258)