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Metaphysical Song

Metaphysical Song: An Essay on Opera

Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Metaphysical Song
    Book Description:

    In this bold recasting of operatic history, Gary Tomlinson connects opera to shifting visions of metaphysics and selfhood across the last four hundred years. The operatic voice, he maintains, has always acted to open invisible, supersensible realms to the perceptions of its listeners. In doing so, it has articulated changing relations between the self and metaphysics. Tomlinson examines these relations as they have been described by philosophers from Ficino through Descartes, Kant, and Nietzsche, to Adorno, all of whom worked to define the subject's place in both material and metaphysical realms. The author then shows how opera, in its own cultural arena, distinct from philosophy, has repeatedly brought to the stage these changing relations of the subject to the particular metaphysics it presumes.

    Covering composers from Jacopo Peri to Wagner, from Lully to Verdi, and from Mozart to Britten, Metaphysical Song details interactions of song, words, drama, and sounds used by creators of opera to fill in the outlines of the subjectivities they envisioned. The book offers deep-seated explanations for opera's enduring fascination in European elite culture and suggests some of the profound difficulties that have unsettled this fascination since the time of Wagner.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6670-0
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
    (pp. 3-8)

    JUST as the operatic voice has fascinated us, in the West, continuously for four hundred years, so we have felt the need again and again to formulate explanations of its force. Two recent scholarly developments suggest that the time may be ripe for a new such formulation. First, the notion ofvoicein opera has grown increasingly complex and rich in recent years. It has been scrutinized from enough perspectives—from narratology to post-Freudian and post-Lacanian psychoanalysis, from feminist theory to queer sensibility—that we must think twice before presuming to know just who expresses what as a singer portrays...

    (pp. 9-33)

    WHEN OPERA BEGAN, voice, psyche, and the subject as a whole were at one with the hidden regions of the world. By virtue of this conjunction there was no unconscious in early opera, no psyche at odds with itself. Instead there was only an extension of human powers into parts of the world hidden from the senses. Similarly, we see no symbolism in these works, but only a voicing of connections between perceived and supersensible realms in a unified cosmos. Symbolism, in its modern sense, at least, entails a metaphorical leap from one realm to another, unconnected realm. Renaissance significance...

    (pp. 34-72)

    ABOUT THE MIDDLE of the seventeenth century, an ostensibly demystified operatic voice led to a superficial scepticism and to doubts as to the propriety of sung drama. A librettist of that time complained that “musical recitation is improper altogether, since it does not imitate natural discourse,” and the allegation of unnaturalness was to be repeated often enough over the following century to come to seem self-evident.¹ But the complaint, viewed from the vantage point of earlier opera, was startlingly novel. The guiding principle of that earlier repertory, whether evinced in the words or music of Peri or by the author...

    (pp. 73-108)

    THE OPERATIC VOICE had always been powerful, but before the early nineteenth century it was not uncanny. Since that time, on the other hand, its uncanniness has seemed inescapable.

    This historical distinction is not usually noted in our narratives of opera history. Instead, handed the results of twentieth-century musicological efforts at exhumation and revival of premodern operas, we tend to apply the fascinations with voice peculiar to modern culture to the entire four-hundred-year history of the genre. This extension has encouraged a historical and performative uniformity that imputes to the operatic voice a force little changed throughout its history. And...

    (pp. 109-126)

    NIETZSCHE’S DIONYSUS sang, at first, with noumenal operatic voice; but this same Dionysus, hardly a moment later, ridiculed noumenalism as a farce of romantic culture. The opposition reflects two roles Dionysus plays in Nietzsche’s thought. He serves as agonistic counterpart to Apollo, as the personification of the deep-seated, ecstatic forces in Greek culture that were controlled, counterbalanced, and rationalized through Apollo. Meanwhile, in another role whose significance deepens across Nietzsche’s career, he stands in a complex relation to Christ, at once prefiguring Christ’s sacrificial religion and representing all that was stifled through two millennia of Christian moralizing.

    In the first...

    (pp. 127-146)

    CARMENHAS RARELY been heard as Nietzsche heard it. This fact says much about our persisting metaphysical needs, about the older kinds of solace we continue to seek in opera—we “solid citizens,” as Adorno once put it, “for whom art can never be irrational enough.”¹ But while we seem still to long for contact with supersensible realms, and while many of us still seem to find it in opera, we do so in altered circumstances that have reshaped the significance such contact carries, as Adorno recognized. The operatic voice labors, after Wagner and Nietzsche, in new, unanticipated surroundings. It...

    (pp. 147-156)

    PARSIFALwas a heavy burden for modernist opera composers to bear. Usually they were in some degree suspicious of it, sensing and resisting its falsity. Yet they also were lured to its consecrational solemnity, which came more and more to seem the gravity required of modernist “high art,” the quasi-liturgical seriousness by which it could distinguish itself from commodified kitsch. This ambivalence sums up the untenable position Wagner carved out for opera in the age of late capitalism: it evades the culture of the commodity by invoking an operatic legacy and presence that were produced by and productive of that...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 157-180)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 181-192)