"Machen wir nie Vergnügen!—wir sind verloren, wenn man von der Kunst wieder hedonistisch denkt"—Friedrich Nietzsche, Der Fall Wagner1
"Die Langeweile ist der Traumvogel, der das Ei der Erfahrung ausbrütet"—Walter Benjamin, "Der Erzähler"2
"You're writing about Gertrude Stein's operas?" my operatic mentor (the person whose taste in opera I most strived to emulate) asked, gesturing towards me with his Nebbiolo. "But why? They're boring."
Such crushing remarks abound in any opera lover's apprenticeship—the process of learning how (and how not) to feel in response to operatic objects, an undeclared orthopedics of the passions. To like opera is to adopt a certain sophisticated (viz., wrong, suspect) attitude and willingly perform a bad, since excessive and incomprehensible, taste; paradoxically, the very badness of the operatic object forces us to police operatic enjoyment all the more strictly.3 Enjoying the wrong thing is acceptable, but enjoying the wrong thing in the wrong way—that's unthinkable. So the description of Stein's operas as "boring" works as granular discipline, demonstrating (negatively) what I should have liked or studied at the opera: not boring operas, but ones teeming with enjoyment. The very effectiveness of such affective discipline reveals the deep foundation of nervous displeasure underlying operatic enjoyment.
Even describing these works—Three Saints in Four Acts (1927–1928) and The Mother of Us All (1947), both written in collaboration with the composer Virgil Thomson—as "Stein's operas" makes me anxious, since according to operatic convention an opera belongs to the composer, not the librettist, no matter how celebrated the latter may be. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the turn to opera-writing appeared explicitly as a renunciation of authorial glory, exemplified by Hugo von Hofmannsthal's decision to abandon a promising literary career to become Richard Strauss's librettist. As his "The Lord Chandos Letter" suggests, bored by the bankrupt post-Romanticism of his time, von Hofmannsthal embraced the only avant-garde remaining: the anti-literary work of libretto-writing.4
Catherine Clément calls libretti "orphans," texts that are "necessary but duly abandoned" to produce the glory of opera as music, spectacle, sublimely affective experience.5 The name of the librettist gracefully backs out to allow for the self-evidence of the composer's music, which touches us immediately, without the too-artificial codedness of language, even of language's own "musicality." For Clément's typical opera-lover, "the words of language are an unacceptable interference in music that cannot be permitted. … They are parasites. Static. … a penetration, as if the music were violated, pricked right through its virgin hymen" (Opera, 13). When the libretto becomes adopted, given a name and a place in a literary genealogy, suddenly its poetic element explodes too forcefully, making it hard for us to enjoy the opera as opera, as wordless music. Perhaps Stein's opera bores us because the distracting literary interest of her name metonymically contaminates the opera's properly operatic interest.6
Now, operatic interest is itself highly interested. Those big, important, overwhelmingly musical feelings distract us from the true work of grand opera: the abstraction of aesthetic pleasure from the laboring, suffering bodies of the female performers of opera (divas and characters alike). The "plot" of opera—the discipline and exploitation of feminine bodies—"works quietly, plainly visible to all, but outside the code of the pleasures of opera" (Clément, Opera, 10). Clément defines song as the "horror of bodies": opera deploys song so as to phobically eliminate the boring, feminine work of singing underneath an endlessly interesting—since so much more available, so much more overwhelming—stream of pleasures (27). So perhaps Stein's opera bores us because her name brings a repressed feminine labor uncannily into view, blending anxiety and interest too uncomfortably together.
Opera studies has produced many suggestive challenges to Clément's thesis: that her observation only applies to the canonical repertory of "nineteenth-century grand opera," that the necessary suture between laboring body and sublimely emotional product offers a site for a queer recognition unconsidered in Clément's oppositional politics, and even that Clément...