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JOHN MAYO Expectations and Compacts in the Beckwith-Reaney Operas: A Case Study In Art and Illusion, his celebrated investigation of aesthetic experience, E.H. Gombrich discusses the role that the viewer's expectations play in deciphering a work of art: All culture and all communication depend on the interplay between expectation and observation, the waves of fulfillment, disappointment, right guesses, and wrong moves that make up our daily life.... The experience of art is not exempt from this general rule. A style, like a culhtre or climate of opinion, sets up a horizon of expectation, a mental set, which registers deviations and modifications with exaggerated sensitivity.1 To think in terms of a 'horizon of expectation' is to focus critical attention not only upon the work of art but also upon the process of interaction that takes place between the work and its audience. Such an approach has a long history in literary circles and it is from a literary theorist, Hans Robert Jauss, that I have appropriated a scheme which seems to offer some insights into that irrational art we calI opera.2 My scheme attempts to simplify the great variety of ways in which audiences interact with operas by suggesting three different modes of behaviour: 1 1 CeremoniaIlRitual: In this the audience has a role to play and participates actively in the action; there is no clear distinction between actors and audience. The model is the ceremony or masque. 21 Realistic: In its Simplest form the audience tends to lose its identity as an audience, becoming absorbed in the drama and identifying with the characters and situations in the opera; at a more sophisticated level the audience, although identifying with the characters, also remains aware of, and receives a certain aesthetic pleasure from contemplating objectively , this process of identification. At its extreme this may shade over into the third category. 3 1 Ironic: The barrier between audience and actors is deliberately emphasized. This entails disappointing, breaking, or denying expectations and is closely related to Brecht's ideas of theatre.' In practice these categories are not rigid, and an audience's reactions, although centred in one mode, will vacillate between different ways of seeing a work. NormaIly one would not expect to find an opera firmly in UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 60, NUMBER 2, WINTER 199011 306 JOHN MAYO the ceremonial/ritual mode; my reasons for including it in this scheme will become apparent later. It will also be clear that my realistic mode embraces much more than just those works that we usually label realistic. I have introduced these theories of audience interaction because I wish to look at three Canadian operas from this standpoint - the three works that are the result of a forty-year-Iong collaboration between the librettist James Reaney and the composer John Beckwith: Night Blooming Cereus (1960), The Shivaree (1978), and Crazy to Kill (1989). For all their superficial simllarities these three works represent very different operatic types. Night Blooming Cereus with its overt symbolism and air ofritual is closest to baroque opera seria or perhaps even to some form of pre-operatic masque or ceremony; The Shivaree, the most conventionally operatic of the three, is comic opera; and the latest work, Crazy to Kill, is, in Joseph Kerman's terms, a sung play like Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande. In addition, each work generates its own complex of relationships with an audience: The Shivaree lies somewhere within the realistic mode; Crazy to Kill seems most closely identifiable with the ironic mode; while Night Blooming Cereus is, as we shall see, a somewhat uneasy hybrid. Ifwe attempt to look at an opera in Gombrich's terms, it is immediately apparent that, whatever else we include within our horizon of expectation , we have to accommodate the fact that we are watching a drama unfolding not in speech but in music. On the face of it this would seem to disqualify any opera from inclusion in the realistic category, for we know quite well that in everyday life people rarely carry on their business in song. Closer examination, however, shows this objection to be based on a misunderstanding of the relationship of any...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 305-318
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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