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  • Henry James and Opera
  • Michael Halliwell

The current plethora of films based on the work of Henry James finds something of a parallel in the number and range of operatic adaptations of James’s fiction. The stylistic range of operas which have James as a source is wide and is as much a reflection of the development of post-war opera as it is a response to James himself. During the last forty years there have been at least ten full-scale operas based on his fiction, ranging from the early Benjamin Britten work, The Turn of the Screw (1954), to the more recent versions of “The Aspern Papers” by Philip Hageman and Dominick Argento (1988). (These versions created what must be one of the more bizarre coincidences in operatic history—a history renowned for the extraordinary—in that they both were premiered on the same day: November 19, 1988. Furthermore, this marked the centenary year of the publication of the novella in the Atlantic!) Prior to 1988 there had been several brave attempts to adapt James for the lyric stage, such as Douglas Moore’s 1961 version of The Wings of the Dove; Britten’s television version of “Owen Wingrave” (1971); Thea Musgrave’s fascinating radical reworking of “The Last of the Valerii,” which in her version became The Voice of Ariadne (1974); three more-or-less “faithful” adaptations of Washington Square byJ. H. Damase (1974), Thomas Pasatieri (1976), and Donald Hollier (1988) respectively; and a curious version of “The Aspern Papers” entitled Singspiel in due atti . . . da Henry James, con framenti di Lorenzo Da Ponte by Salvator Sciarrino (1978). Reflecting the fate of much contemporary opera, most of these works are, unfortunately, seldom performed, with Britten’s early opera the most notable exception.

Adeline Tintner investigates the influence that opera, particularly opera as a social institution, has on James’s work. She also demonstrates how operatic structures permeate some of the later work of James, most notably the operas of Richard Wagner (which, of course, had a profound effect on virtually all the arts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). The subtle and intricate psychological complexities of the world of James might seem antithetical to the full-blooded, if not crude, passions of the operatic stage. However, there are strong affinities between opera as an art form and James’s fiction. [End Page 307]

Despite its frequent use, the term “dramatisation” does not accurately describe film and opera adaptations; the process is more subtle and far-reaching. In operatic adaptation, the final work of musical drama not only differs in style and form from spoken drama but subverts dramatic elements to its own ends and simultaneously creates its own criteria for judgment. The process could be described as a dialogue between the composer/librettist and the literary text, in which the composer and librettist assert their independence from this text and during which, as Julia Kristeva observes, the “transposition of one or more systems of signs into another” occurs, a process one could term “metaphrasis” (15). Of course, metaphrasis calls into question the privilege or authority that is to be accorded to the original text and draws attention to the contentious question of so-called “fidelity” to this original (one of the most frequent complaints about film adaptations of well-known novels is the apparent lack of this “fidelity”).

During the almost four centuries of stylistic and structural development in opera, the fundamental elements of the art form have remained fairly constant. The music in opera always has an intensifying and heightening effect on the dramatic situation. Opera consists of moments of escalation which can be compared with the “epiphanies” in the work of Joyce. Composers and librettists will seek such potential moments of escalation in a literary work, while the choice of work and the artistic approach to adaptation will be influenced by theatrical and other pragmatic considerations rather than purely literary ones.

Although drama has been the most frequent source for librettos, many novels and stories have undergone operatic adaptation. W. H. Auden refuted the notion that only a limited selection of subjects or works was suitable for operatic treatment. He argued that opera...

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