restricted access Excursus: Opera, Monumentality, and Looking at Looking
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PART II VOICING SUBJECTIVITY 77 By the seventeenth century, theaters for staging operas enjoyed considerable social status among a larger host of architectural statements of agency and prestige, whether on behalf of a court or, as time went by, a public (part actual, part imagined). By the nineteenth century major urban centers throughout Europe and the Americas had put up opera houses on grand scale befitting the cultural, ideological, political, economic, and institutional protocols dominant in their place and time. Indeed, “opera house” eventually served as a key component in civic narratives of civilizational status; in the American hinterlands, for example—perhaps known now principally from movie westerns—small towns commonly erected an “opera house,” though the term, by then entirely generic, meant something like “gathering place” for local public needs, as well as a site for occasional visiting entertainments. The opera house “proper,” however, was something else, far more like a secular temple for staging, at the farthest extreme, ambitious visual-musical fantasies (operatic in every sense of that multipurpose word) for which claims to aesthetic importance were vigorously asserted. KNOWLEDGEABLE SPACE The opera house belongs to the “effective knowledge” of lived experience. Inside and out, it articulates space. The theater auditorium, my concern, is what Lefebvre terms a “representational space,” understood as an intervention that “occurs by way of construction— in other words, by way of architecture, conceived of not [simply or merely] as the building EXCURSUS OPERA, MONUMENTALITY, AND LOOKING AT LOOKING 78 • V O I C I N G S U B J E C T I V I T Y of a particular structure, palace or monument, but rather as a project embedded in a spatial context and a texture which calls for ‘representations’ that will not vanish into the symbolic or imaginary realms.” As Lefebvre insists, “representational space is alive: it speaks. . . . It is essentially qualitative, fluid and dynamic.”1 The opera auditorium was as spectacular as the mis-en-scène of the staged productions. It was at once concrete and abstract, real and beyond real, a social-psychological fantasy projection on a scale that matched the ambitions of emerging modernity—and not least globalization—all of it put into the time-suspension of a world otherwise locked into the linear temporalities that define the concept and experience of being Now. The European opera theater was unlike any other sort of spatial enclosure either previously imagined or constructed. It was an enveloping space of appearance and appearances, its auditorium a spatial void framed in multiple elevations by decorative extravagance: baroque combinations of the real and the virtual, variously fashioned from stone, wood, stucco, bronze, marble, fabrics, glass, mirrors , paint, gilt, and crystal (fig. 42).2 By the nineteenth century, when the adjective grand was attached to opera, grandness extended itself in nearly every imaginable direction figure 42 Opera House of the Margraves (1744–48), Bayreuth, Germany, view toward the stage. Interior design by Giuseppe Galli-Bibiena (1696–1757) and Carlo Galli-Bibiena (1728–87). Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York. E X C U R S U S • 79 figure 43 Jean-Louis Charles Garnier (1825–98), Paris, Opéra Garnier (1862–75), Grand Staircase. Photo credit: BridgemanGiraudon /Art Resource, New York. of aesthetic comportment. Monumentality became the byword as a phenomenon gathering to itself, in Lefebvre’s words, “the perceived, the conceived, and the lived” (figs. 43 and 44).3 Paris’s Opéra Garnier, situated at the end of the Avenue de l’Opéra and sited to serve as a monument to an imagined France Now—distinct from the city’s assorted monuments to the various heroic dead—stops the eye abruptly like a visual exclamation point. It concludes the larger space surrounding and framing it, just as it serves as the hub of major streets and boulevards flanking its sides and back. The Opéra defines the city surrounding it as part of Baron Haussmann’s grand Second Empire restaging of Paris under the reign of Emperor Napoléon III (though site clearing began in 1862, the building was completed only in 1875, five years after the fall of the Second Empire and the emperor’s exile to England).4 Never mind that the hall was multiply purposed from the start; above all it was a temple to Grand Opera (and ballet) assertively marked as the past, present, 80 • V O I C I N G S U B J E C T I V I T...


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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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