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  • The Rake's Progress as Opera Museum
  • Heather Wiebe (bio)

In a room, gathering dust, strange objects lie: a Roman bust, stuffed birds, a mummy, some fossils. They are ossified remnants, testimonies to the fact of extinction. Thus begins act 3 of The Rake's Progress (1951). Such collections have more than a passing presence in the opera. These particular objects, about to be sold off, appear in the previous scene (minus dust and neglect) as well-loved souvenirs, enumerated in Baba the Turk's list aria. There, they commemorate exotic travels and aristocratic admirers, although they have begun to unmoor themselves from the experiences they ostensibly recall. (One might be the gift of "Sir John" or perhaps "Lord Gordon," a token of Venice or maybe Milan.) This removal of the collected object from its place of origin or even from its souvenir status is more marked toward the end of Baba's list, as she shifts from glittery gifts to a set of dead things, her favorites: the fossils and mummies, the waxwork dummies, and the culminating figure of extinction, the Great Auk.1 Collections, then, are especially associated with Baba, but she does not have a monopoly on them. While the opera obsesses over deadness in many forms, the setting of its climactic scene—a graveyard—serves not only as a reminder of this morbid concern and a reversal of the opera's pastoral opening, but as an ominous echo of Baba's collection, its more intimate relics hidden rather than displayed, and presumably more carefully labeled.

The Rake's Progress, like Baba's jumble, makes such a profusion of gestures to the past as to threaten to overflow its bounds. At issue are not just personal memories of travel and acquaintances, but entire literary and musical traditions, treated as souvenirs of European high culture. To begin with, there is the opera's plot: its source, chosen by Stravinsky, was a set of paintings by William Hogarth, depicting the misadventures of a young heir within grotesque scenes of eighteenth-century London.2 This basic scenario was heavily supplemented by the librettists, W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman. The fairy-tale trope of three wishes, the Faust story, the medieval morality, mythological references: all went into the mix, smoothed into a stylized eighteenth-century diction.

Stravinsky was just as promiscuous. His central model, as he was happy to admit, was Mozart's comic operas, especially Così fan tutte, a two-piano [End Page 6] performance of which he took Auden to see during the poet's brief visit to Los Angeles.3 It was "an omen," he suggested in one of Robert Craft's conversation books, "for the Rake is deeply involved in Così."4 The opera's distinctive secco recitative is the most salient trace of Mozart's musical world. But with its set-piece organization, its rage arias and cabalettas, folklike tunes and sober choruses, this music strays across the entire operatic tradition from Monteverdi and Handel to Rossini and Verdi, with forays into Bach cantatas and Handel oratorios as well as The Beggar's Opera. From the vantage point of Los Angeles in the late 1940s, Stravinsky and Auden, both recently displaced, cast their minds to a cultural home—a home, indeed, composed of "culture."5 This musical and literary world was removed by time to be sure, but also by emigration and a war that seemed to claim it among its casualties. The opera's prevailing concern with a lost pastoral and the impossibility of return or renewal—the pastoral imagery of fertility constantly turned to stasis and death—inflects its representation of a cultural past. In The Rake's Progress, operatic song belongs to the pastoral, to some extent, and partakes in its impossibility. Its sense of loss is reinforced by the site of the opera's premiere. Venice introduced a litany of resonances with the opera's concerns: as a site of melancholic reflection on a city literally sinking into the sea, a lost operatic culture, and a cycle of destruction and rebuilding at Le Fenice; as the occasion for Stravinsky's first return to Europe since his 1939 emigration; and the burial...


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