1. The Civilizing Process: Music and the Aesthetics of Time-Space Relations in The Girl of the Golden West
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PART I MODERNITY AND OPERA; NATURE AND REDEMPTION 21 GETTING CIVILIZED/GOING NATURAL In 1907 Puccini made the first of two visits to New York, to supervise the first performances of Manon Lescaut and Madame Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera. He was also in search of a subject for his next project. Accordingly, while in the city, and despite his very limited English, he attended numerous plays, including three by David Belasco, whose Madame Butterfly he had seen staged in London in 1900. One of the Belasco productions caught his eye, The Girl of the Golden West, which is the general subject of this chapter.1 In particular, I am interested in exploring some of the ways that Belasco’s play and Puccini ’s opera invest in modernist ideologies governing what Norbert Elias called the civilizing process.2 To get at the issue, I take a concentrated look at how both Belasco and Puccini envisioned time-space relations, with specific regard to how each understood their characters ’ place in history (hence time), place (hence space), and, above all, nature, which I want to consider as both a problem for, and opportunity within, the civilizing process. Belasco’s play and Puccini’s opera are situated within California’s Sierra Nevada, perhaps the most dramatic landscape in the American West. The setting more or less constitutes a character in its own right, one of overwhelming power that shapes both action and people. Nature, that is, is the organizing metaphor of both the play and the opera— and as Michel de Certeau remind us, metaphors “are spatial trajectories.”3 Both works, literally and figuratively, are also travel stories: literally so, to the extent that the characters are very much on the move, having traveled across the seas and the continent to get 1 THE CIVILIZING PROCESS Music and the Aesthetics of Time-Space Relations in The Girl of the Golden West There are days which occur in this climate, at almost any season of the year, wherein the world reaches its perfection; when the air, the heavenly bodies and the earth, make a harmony, as if nature would indulge her offspring. RALPH WALDO EMERSON, “NATURE” (1836) 22 • M O D E R N I T Y A N D O P E R A ; N A T U R E A N D R E D E M P T I O N to California to participate in the gold rush; and figuratively in that the characters journey toward moral redemption—though redemption is more a fundamental trope in Puccini’s opera than in Belasco’s play. The Sierra Nevada for Belasco and Puccini alike is a material site, inhabitable. It is likewise a psychic site, existing within the realm of the imagination as an ethereal reality.4 In late-nineteenth-century America, no landscape received greater attention than the West, particularly the mountain West of the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. The California mountains especially claimed a central place in the American imaginary, not least because of the imposing challenge to cross them to get to the promised land. The fate of the Donner Party during the winter of 1846–47, whose history quickly passed into legend , drove home the point. The gold rush, which quickly followed the discovery of gold in January 1848 at Sutter’s Mill, fully established the Sierra Nevada in the forefront of national consciousness, creating new western mythologies fueled by the promise of fortunes literally waiting to be scooped up from the gravels of the American River. The actual mountains and their unimaginably gigantic trees produced particular awe (fig. 4), with Yosemite (early on known as Yo-Semite) serving as the focal point of the figure 4 “The Mammoth Trees (Sequoia gigantea), California (Calaveras County)” (c. 1860), chromolithograph published by A.J. Campbell, Cincinnati. Washington, D.C., Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. T h e C i v i l i z i n g P r o C e s s • 23 larger whole. Indeed, the mountain West’s visual splendors seemed to defy the human imagination, though hardly for want of trying to come to terms with them. In 1864, Lincoln designated Yosemite as a wilderness preserve, the nation’s first; it was made a national park in 1890. In the decades that followed, Yosemite was endlessly written about, painted, photographed, and of course visited as a major tourist attraction. Currier and Ives produced lithographs marking a sense of Yosemite’s spatial vastness...



Subject Headings

  • Music -- Philosophy and aesthetics.
  • Modernism (Music) -- History -- 20th century.
  • Opera -- Social aspects.
  • Motion pictures -- Social aspects.
  • Sound recordings -- Social aspects.
  • Nature in music.
  • Nature in motion pictures.
  • Puccini, Giacomo, 1858-1924. Fanciulla del West.
  • Fitzcarraldo (Motion picture).
  • Days of heaven (Motion picture).
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