Conclusion: Acoustic Invocations of Crisis and Hope
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241 ADORNO’S DREAM For many years Theodor Adorno kept notes of his dreams, writing down his recollections in each case shortly after waking. There was method to this labor to the extent that, as he put it, “our dreams are linked with each other not just because they are ‘ours,’ but because they form a continuum, they belong to a unified world.”1 A dream from August 10, 1944, while he was living in Los Angeles, involved his attending with actress Luise Rainer (they were friends) a press ball in a damaged, roofless opera house, either Frankfurt or Vienna. Taking notice only of each other, the couple entered a room where music was playing, thereafter slipping out and involving themselves in a “completely shameless” love scene. It was, he writes, “like a victory over those present, a frank act of disappearance, an unconscious challenge to the world. Woke up with a feeling of happiness that was still there when I phoned her up.”2 I mention Adorno’s dream for several connections it traces, wherein the opera house serves as a stand-in for opera tout court. First off, Adorno surmises its ruination is “probably as the consequence of an air raid” (fig. 138). Fair enough. But it’s more likely, given the degree to which he regarded opera, as both a medium and an institution, to be “obsolete ,” that the destruction points to it existing in a state of “petrifaction.”3 In his aphoristic essay “Bourgeois Opera,” principally a bitter critique of the well-commodified, socially regressive utility of opera in late modernity, Adorno incorporates a sharp dialectical turn by attempting to salvage what he regards as opera’s echo of utopian promise—its CONCLUSION Acoustic Invocations of Crisis and Hope Brünnhilde then appeared in the background in the shape of the Statue of Liberty in New York. Sounding like a nagging wife, she screamed, “I want a ring, I want a beautiful ring, don’t forget to take her ring from her.” This was how Siegfried obtained the ring of the Nibelung. ADORNO, DESCRIBING A DREAM IN 1937 WHEN HE WAS WORKING ON IN SEARCH OF WAGNER 242 • C O N C L U S I O N romanticism, explicitly a-rational (or even anti-rational)—as an aesthetic stop-gap against a modernity defined by instrumental rationality. What opera clings to, and in the best sense why its obsolescence falls short of delivering its own coup de grâce, is what Adorno names its “magic,” for him a key element of aesthetic comportment and a defining principle of art’s critique of reality. He sees in magic the inexplicable, the thrill of what exceeds our ability to control and explain; magic in this sense is coterminous with what he elsewhere terms the “non-identical” in a world dominated by the identicalness of identity: “It would be appropriate to think of opera as the specifically bourgeois genre that, in the midst of, and with the methods appropriate to, a world bereft of magic, paradoxically endeavors to preserve the magical element of art” (he has in mind Die Zauberfl öte, Der Freischütz, and Fidelio).4 In magic he sees, and in music hears, the semblance of innocence, which is why this section of his essay engages issues surrounding certain operas’ appeal to children even while they embarrass adults, given the silliness of opera’s world of incantations.5 Whereas figure 138 Achille Beltrame (1871–1945), La Scala Opera House in Ruins (bombed August 16, 1943), engraving in newspaper La Domenica del Corriere (August 1943). Photo credit: Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York. C o n C l u s i o n • 243 for Adorno disillusionment is a byproduct of central planning, regulation, and the goal of predictability, magic preserves at least a hint of the price paid in the form of the general loss of spontaneity and all that figures for emancipation. Adorno acknowledges magic and myth as socially progressive elements ascribable to opera—a kind of wishedfor remembrance of things past, and a protest against the hyperrationalized and wholly instrumentalized antireason of the here and now. Adorno’s insight derives from a particular—and strictly musical—event near the end of Beethoven’s Fidelio: the fateful horn call, the small sonic detail of offstage brass, distant but approaching, an acoustic advance notice of historical change. He hears the fanfare as a micrological, historically sedimented moment that magically imposes itself...



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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