- Back by Request:Editors’ Introduction
This second instalment of 'Opera and Interdisciplinarity' grew out of a series of symposia we organized this past year called the Opera Exchange, in conjunction with the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto and the Canadian Opera Company (COC). At the request of conference audience members and journal readers, we have brought together expanded versions of some of these presentations on three seemingly very different operas performed by the COC in the 2003-4 season: Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes (1945), Richard Wagner's Die Walküre (first performed in 1870), and Giuseppe Verdi's Falstaff (1893). While Verdi and Wagner were (exact) contemporaries, their nineteenth-century Italian and German operatic worlds seem far removed from that of Britten's mid-twentieth-century English palette - especially memorable in the orchestral interludes evoking the sea. Yet the three operas discussed here bear more resemblances than their creators' collective probing or shared concerns about (grand) opera might suggest. Much to our surprise, we found that these presentations made us think twice about national and historical categories.
All three works are focused around a socially isolated, indeed excluded, figure: the misanthropistic fisher Grimes, the abandoned son turned outlaw Siegmund, and the foolish, greedy and roundly ridiculed Falstaff. But only for the latter is reintegration into society possible, for only Falstaff is (generically speaking) a comedy. As Northrop Frye observed in Anatomy of Criticism, 'The theme of the comic is the integration of society, which usually takes the form of incorporating a central character into it' (43) - often a character who has been rejected and ejected earlier on. In the opera version, the mocked and reviled fool is welcomed back into the fold, as everyone goes off to dinner together, in accepted Italian fashion. Verdi's only comedy - in a career as the composer of tragic operas in Italian - Falstaff 'Italianizes' Shakespeare's popular character, giving him new life within a potpourri of musical styles common to the church, opera house, and concert hall. Wagner, working from old German and Icelandic myths and legends, brings to the stage more than one tragic tale in Die Walküre, but Siegmund's life - and death - both start the opera and drive the actions of all the other characters. Grimes's isolation, his inability to relate even to those he cares for, make out of George Crabbe's nineteenth-century figure [End Page 633] a very modern tragic hero whose suicide is both inevitable and horrible, both necessary and lamentable.
Each of the outsiders is paired with at least one woman in the operas' narratives, and through them we witness the multiple roles of women and the multiple critical representations possible on the operatic stage - from the compassionate helpmate Ellen in Peter Grimes to the abused wife and liberated lover, Sieglinde, in Die Walküre; from the disobedient daughter (Brünnhilde) and angry wife (Fricka) of Wagner's music drama to the merry (and clever) wives of Windsor in Verdi's. Generational conflicts and alliances are both represented in all the operas - in all their complexities. Many of these emerge from the close textual readings that English literature scholars bring to Crabbe's poem The Borough and Shakespeare's many incarnations of the corpulent, rakish Falstaff in Henry iv, Parts 1 and 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor, exposing the fragility and complex inner workings of small towns and the strengths and failings of their inhabitants. Not even the characters in Wagner's gargantuan music drama can escape the small-mindedness that brews when characters are placed in close proximity to one another in an isolated locale. Similarly, close musical readings reveal the detailed acuity with which composers, who are conscious of both their craft and the trajectory of the drama, articulate aspects of characterization and atmosphere, while creating (leit)motivic or other internal musical relationships.
The gender and genre connections among these three disparate works were suggested to us by the articles that follow. The authors come from a wide variety of disciplinary backgrounds, and bring to each opera their disciplinary expertise and a willingness to share information in...