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  • On Truth and Semblance in an Operatic and Extra-operatic Sense:Michael Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage
  • Robert Savage (bio)


This essay proceeds from the assumption that there is a reality specific to opera and that the most real operas, those that engage most intensively and productively with the possibilities of the genre, may be those that, from the viewpoint of extra-operatic reality, appear to be the least realistic. In this sense, I want to argue that Michael Tippett's first full-scale opera, The Midsummer Marriage (1955), is a fully realized opera, and this by virtue of the consequentiality with which, turning against the general tendency of the contemporary European avant-garde toward ever-increasing rationalization and disenchantment, it pits its own reality against the extra-operatic reality of opera. By "the extra-operatic reality of opera" I mean two things: first, the world outside the opera as it appears reflected or refracted within the opera; second, the ensemble of staging and framing devices—be they institutional, cultural-political, socioeconomic, logistical, musical, or dramaturgical—that make the reality of opera possible in the first place. My argument, then, will be that in The Midsummer Marriage the reality of opera is put to the test through its exposure to the other realities that limit and delimit, validate and invalidate, realize and derealize that reality.

Before turning to Tippett's opera, I want to touch on two interrelated objections that immediately suggest themselves. The first contends that art is real to the same extent that it mirrors a reality that is both external and anterior to it. Those who subscribe to this platonic doctrine are likely to have little patience with opera's flagrant improbabilities, sheer impossibilities, vocal and emotional extravagances, pageants and panoplies, follies, intrigues, and histrionics—in short, the serial violations of the reality principle that are part and parcel of the experience we call "operatic." There is a rich tradition of novelistic accounts of nights at the opera, from Flaubert and Tolstoy to Heinrich Mann, which inflate their own pretensions to realism by puncturing the artifice of this most artificial of artistic genres.1 Like [End Page 270] Die Zauberflöte, from which it draws much of its symbolism, The Midsummer Marriage seems positively to revel in its flouting of the conventions of verisimilitude. Coming after a long period in which opera's relationship to reality had been interrogated from every conceivable angle, it self-consciously—and polemically—declares its allegiance to an older tradition of pretense, fantasy, and excess. What is the hard-headed realist to make of an opera in which a young woman, having decided on her wedding day that she no longer wants to get married, suddenly climbs to paradise on a "magic staircase"?2 If one is not to dismiss it without further ado, one could join Ambrose Bierce in claiming that opera represents a nonsublunary reality, a lunatic world "whose inhabitants have no speech but song, no motions but gestures and no postures but attitudes."3 This definition at least has the merit of highlighting not so much the absurdity of opera as the absurdity of trying to make it conform to our everyday notions of how people may be expected to behave. Jean Baudrillard goes a step further when he makes opera paradigmatic for the first order of simulacra, in which the "dissociation from the real world is maximized" through the demarcation of a transcendent, utopian space.4 It is hardly coincidental that in German the word for the orchestral pit that inconspicuously separates this space from the quotidian space of the parterre, Graben, also designates the trench cut by King Utopus to create his island realm, nor that Tippett, who once described himself in thoroughly utopian terms as "a composer dreaming on things to come," should have found himself drawn repeatedly to "that empty space," composing five operas over a forty-year period.5

My second hypothetical objection maintains that opera cannot be considered a reality sui generis since it is a hybrid form, a B-grade theatrical monster at risk of falling apart at the seams as it totters across the stage. Perhaps the most concise expression...


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