Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
In Search of Opera

In Search of Opera

Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 312
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    In Search of Opera
    Book Description:

    In her new book, Carolyn Abbate considers the nature of operatic performance and the acoustic images of performance present in operas from Monteverdi to Ravel. Paying tribute to music's realization by musicians and singers, she argues that operatic works are indelibly bound to the contingency of live singing, playing, and staging. She seeks a middle ground between operas as abstractions and performance as the phenomenon that brings opera into being.

    Weaving between opera's "facts of life" and a series of works includingThe Magic Flute, Parsifal, andPelléas, Abbate explores a spectrum of attitudes towards musical performance, which range from euphoric visions of singers as creators to uncanny images of musicians as lifeless objects that have been resuscitated by scripts. In doing so, she touches upon several critical issues: the Wagner problem; coloratura, virtuosity, and their critics; the implications of disembodied voice in opera and film; mechanical music; the mortality of musical sound; and opera's predilection for scenes positing mysterious unheard music. An intersection between transcendence and intense physical grounding, she asserts, is a quintessential element of the genre, one source of the rapture that operas and their singers can engender in listeners.

    In Search of Operamediates between an experience of opera that can be passionate and intuitive, and an intellectual engagement with opera as a complicated aesthetic phenomenon. Marrying philosophical speculation to historical detail, Abbate contemplates a central dilemma: the ineffability of music and the diverse means by which a fugitive art is best expressed in words. All serious devotees of opera will want to read this imaginative book by s music-critical virtuoso.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6673-1
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xviii)
    (pp. 1-54)

    Remember the death of Orpheus: attacked by crazy women, dismembered, he is finally decapitated, the worst indignity a singer could suffer. Crazy women throw his body parts in all directions. But his head, accompanied (in a new sense) by his lyre, floats down a river, its mouth still open in song. The journey by water ends at Lesbos, and as soon as the head washes up, a serpent approaches, wanting to bite the mouth and the eyes. Here Apollo steps in, freezes the snake into stone, and (in one source, Hygenius’sAstronomica) makes a celestial happy end, placing the lyre...

    (pp. 55-106)

    For those who love perversity, here are some unorthodox interpretations ofThe Magic Flute, followed by an appalling fairy tale. The first is Melanie and Rudolf Heinz’sSilberglöckchen, Zauberflöten(1992)—a collaborative book by a philosopher and a radical feminist theater artist who is also an opera singer.¹ Never mind that the two armored men in the act 2 finale are homosexuals in love with Tamino who decide to feminize their singing, desperately imitating the genuine female sounds that have just caught Tamino’s ear.² “Yes, yes,” they exclaim brightly, “that is Pamina’s voice!” Or that the Monostatos menacing Pamina in...

    (pp. 107-144)

    Theodor Adorno and Preston Sturges, philosopher and Hollywood director: they are not matched bookends, so one does not expect to find them paired. Yet in their separate ways they saw that Wagner’s operas are marked by an obsession with eternal returns expressed most vividly inTannhäuserandParsifal, and that the obsession is far from benign. Both operas toy with the idea of metempsychosis, the phenomenon in which an individual soul’s eternal essence is imagined to travel unchanged through its residence in this body or that, human or animal. For Adorno, metempsychosis is the narrative counterpoise to phantasmagoria, a sign...

    (pp. 145-184)

    In the middle of a life spent thinking about music, Vladimir Jankélévitch wrote that “music is the silence of words, just as poetry is the silence of prose.”¹ With this lapidary remark, he bottled up essences of French Symbolist doctrines, their elevation of music above language, an impulse to urge poetry toward the condition of musical sound, and the sense that music is ineffable. “And the ineffable,” for Jankélévitch “cannot be expressed because there are infinite and interminable things to be said of it.” Denying that music was inarticulate—denying that it conveys somethingindicible, unable to be said—he...

    (pp. 185-246)

    Having begun with a decapitation and a singing head, it seems appropriate to end with an amputated hand, an icon representing the nocturnal elements in musical performance: the threat of mechanism, that performers are lifeless animated objects. The literary and philosophical texts cited in chapter 1 dealt with the possibility as an abstraction or fantasy, but it also existed in reality, in the form of musical automata, music boxes and other mechanisms, player pianos and reproducing pianos, and finally gramophonic devices. Such machines are the most completely material forms of the performance network, in which musical execution has become entirely...

    (pp. 247-250)
  10. NOTES
    (pp. 251-280)
    (pp. 281-282)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 283-290)