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  • Amerikamüde/Europamüde: The Very Idea of American Opera
  • Lydia Goehr (bio)

What is impossible in Europe is possible in America: what is impossible in America is not possible at all!

—Ferdinand Kürnberger, Der Amerikamüde1

My subject is the concept of American opera. I situate a particular discourse about this concept within a more general one about actuality and possibility, weariness and hope, drawn from predominantly German-American philosophies of history and art. Most of this essay surveys the competing narratives regarding the concept of American opera around the time of the Second World War. Part 1 presents a philosophical narrative, which, though focused on the work of Theodor W. Adorno, is set against the background of writings of the early nineteenth century. This narrative also moves back to the “founding moment” of the New World when, so it once was said, “all the world was America.”2 Part 2 considers four concrete narratives: the Polyglotic, the Purist, the Democratic, and the Posthistoricist. Each is represented by a distinct theorist, only the last of whom is well known: Diane Kestin, William Saunders, Hans W. Heinsheimer, and John Cage. Each demonstrates something about teleological attitudes toward America that tend, I argue, to disenfranchise American opera even as they are meant to empower it.

For much of its history, especially after the 1820s, American opera served as an institutional concept referring to any opera sung in English and produced in the United States: Weber in English, Rossini in English. The only operas that tended to be excluded were those by American composers. Around 1930, “American opera” predominated as a classificatory concept designating operas produced “of the people, by the people, for the people,” which is to say, by Americans, for Americans, on American themes. Although this was a moment of liberation for the concept, it did little to bring opera by Americans into the institutional mainstream of operas performed in the United States. While the concept of American opera was won by Americans, the institution of opera in the United States was not. [End Page 398]

The tension in the history may be variously expressed. The more that European, and specifically German, opera was thought to be in decline or even to have come to an end, the more hope was pinned on what American opera might be—as opera’s only or last chance. Or just when American opera became a concept for America, it became a concept designed to capture the future of all opera. In both cases, what was supposed to be unique about American opera was drained of any substantial meaning. Alternatively, the more the concept was subsumed into a teleological narrative about the progress, decline, or end of Europe, the more it was severed from any real or actual empirical history of opera or music in the United States. This left the concept serving an ideal or ideological role far more than a constitutive one in an institution that continued to favor its European warhorses. Recall that just as America was once called “the land of the future” (Hegel), so a specific sort of German opera was once named “the music of the future” (Wagner). What sort of conceptual and political rearrangement, I ask, occurred to combine claims about America with claims about opera to make American opera the new opera of the future—and with what inexorable consequence?

The account to follow assumes a specific historical beginning and end. It is premised on the idea that much of the anxiety surrounding American opera originated in the need to transform what was clearly a European practice of opera production in the United States into something more suitably homespun (minus the derogatory connotation of this term). With the anxiety so stated, it is reasonable to go back to the early years of enlightenment (here, the late eighteenth century) and to produce something akin to what Horkheimer and Adorno later called (in their Dialectic of Enlightenment) “Aufklärung und Moral.” The idea is to offer a history of opera in the United States as a history of both freedom and constraint determined at different times by the particular content given to the concept of American...


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pp. 398-432
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