- Modernism and Opera ed. by Richard Begam and Matthew Wilson Smith
Modernism and Opera should be required reading for every scholar of modernism. Finely edited and persuasively introduced by Richard Begam and Matthew Wilson Smith, this superb collection of twelve essays offers lucid, thought-provoking insights on modernism as an intermedial and interdisciplinary practice. Various aspects of modernism are taken up by the contributors, with the result that "modernism" emerges as a complex, plural, and adaptable concept. The essays, arranged chronologically, brim with pertinent historical information. National operatic traditions—Czech, German, French, British, Finnish—are handled with scholarly care. All the essays in Modernism and Opera elaborate the meaning of "modernism" as it takes up different operatic instantiations from the late nineteenth century through the early twenty-first century.
As Begam and Smith state in their Introduction, collaboration "across the arts—indeed across the media of language, music, and visual representation—played a decisive role in the definition and development of modernism" (3). The essays in Modernism and Opera work out the implications of this statement. In his essay on Wagner's last opera, Parsifal (1878), Smith argues that a gestural vocabulary, in which on-stage singing bodies are increasingly detached from abstract consciousness, inaugurates a discourse that "will become central to the development of theatrical modernism, taken up and transformed by [August] Strindberg and thereafter by [Frank] Wedekind and the artists of the expressionist stage" (33). In other words, Wagner cannot be ignored by theater historians or by modernists of whatever stripe: he makes a central contribution to concepts of modernist selfhood.
Wagner casts a long shadow over both opera and modernity. In his discussion of Arnold Schoenberg's Moses und Aaron, Begam speculates on the possibilities of reconciling Schoenberg's [End Page 414] musical modernism with his Jewishness in light of the Nazi stigmatization of so-called "degenerate" art and Wagner's infamous, anti-Semitic essay, "Judaism in Music" (1850; revised 1869). As Begam demonstrates with well-chosen musical examples, Schoenberg ironically cites Wagner's leitmotifs to reconfigure their meaning. Bryan Gilliam defines a post-Wagnerian, "third-way modernism" based on aesthetic content rather than musical innovation; as one example of this practice, Richard Strauss rejects nineteenth-century idealism for "the seemingly ordinary and everyday aspects of modern life" (131). In her revealing analysis of Béla Bartók's opera, Bluebeard's Castle (1911), Klára Móricz picks up on the gender implications of Wagner's histrionic female characters. Comparisons between the two composers "not only show Bartók's debt to nineteenth-century Romantic paradigms, but also reveal the modernist transformation of woman from Wagner's redeeming female into Bartók's paradigmatic fin-de-siècle femme fatale" (103).
Wagner also influenced ideas of temporality in music. Claude Debussy's enthusiasm for Wagner in Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) was tempered by French hostility to all things German after the Franco-Prussian War. Debussy, working from Maurice Maeterlinck's eventless play of the same name, creates static tableaux, in which the explicit subject of the opera is stillness. The atmosphere of this symbolist opera is dream-like, in the manner of a painting by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes or Odilon Redon. In Debussy's score, time almost stands still. In one passage from Pelléas et Mélisande, Daniel Albright hears an English horn that "quietly, insistently traces a four-note figure that becomes a kind of soft clock, a drift of sand through an hourglass, as if the castle's stones were making a faint sound of crumbling" (93). Other composers and librettists follow through on Debussy's slowing down of operatic temporality. Gertrude Stein conceived the libretto for Four Saints in Three Acts as a suite of motionless tableaux. As Cyrena N. Pondrom notes, "When [Stein] turned to a play (or libretto), she sought to generate a 'landscape,' which she believed should simply be 'there,' a performance without chronological progression, having existence in the present moment" (250). Pondrom, quite rightly, identifies Virgil Thomson's...