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  • Opera as Experience
  • Scott L. Pratt (bio)

There is a long history of debate over what opera is. Since its more or less formal beginning in the sixteenth century as a reconstruction of ancient drama, opera as an art form has been controversial. The received understanding—emphasized by the genre's founders and in periodic efforts at reforming the standards of composition and production—is that opera is musical drama. In his book Opera as Drama, Joseph Kerman reasserted this view as an antidote to what he called "flabby relativism" and in order to be able to determine a set of values that could serve as a basis for opera criticism.1 He argues that while opera is "excellently its own art form," it is one where the story serves as the central framework in terms of which the particularities of the words and music are structured.2 Given a story, the librettist and the composer work to express the narrative dramatically, using words and music to convey not only the events of the story but the emotions bound up in the story. For Kerman, in a successful opera the words express the narrative and the music enriches it by providing the emotional aspect. One can then evaluate an opera in light of the drama expressed in the relation of the narrative to the words and music. Disconnection between the words and music undermine the value of the opera, even if the words adequately express the narrative and the music adequately expresses some emotion.

Philosopher Bernard Williams, in his collection On Opera, affirms Kerman's general conception of opera and adds to it two important factors. First, while the words and music are essential to the drama presented, operas are also distinct in that they are staged and not concert pieces. In this case, the details of the staging also contribute to the success of a particular opera (though the variation in staging usually falls out of discussions by [End Page 74] Kerman and Williams of particular operas). Second, Williams makes clear what is implicit in Kerman: "It is a fallacy to argue," Williams says, "that since, in a musical drama, music obviously provides the music, so the words must provide the drama."3 The drama is a product of both the words and the music in relation to the narrative whose meaning provides the frame on which these hang. Opera criticism, from this perspective, focuses on the specific ways in which the text of a given opera expresses or fails to express the drama of the story. Here, the words, since they present the story, are taken as primary. Williams quoted Calzabigi, a librettist and reformer associated with Gluck: "The music has no other function than to express what arises from the words, which are therefore neither smothered by notes nor used to lengthen the spectacle unduly, because it is ridiculous to prolong the sentence 'I love you' (for instance) with a hundred notes when nature has restricted it to three."4

In contrast to Kerman's view of opera as drama, philosopher Peter Kivy, in his book Osmin's Rage, proposes a view of opera as music. Despite Kivy's claim that this notion serves as a more or less equivalent alternative to Kerman's, in fact it radically reorganizes how one thinks about opera and how one evaluates particular operas. Kivy's alternative is in part the result of a reading of the history of opera as an art form that began, in effect, as the answer to a philosophical problem: the relation of emotions to dramatic texts. The founders of opera, the Florentine Camerata, asked how, given a particular story—Antigone, Oedipus, or Orpheus, for example—does telling the story express the emotions that are central to the meaning of the story? How does telling the story go from "just the facts" to the felt meaning of tragedy? The answer for the Florentine Camerata was found in their understanding of ancient Greek tragedies, where they concluded that the problem was solved by singing the words. By singing, they argued, the Greeks were able to make the emotional content of the words accessible to the audience.5...


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