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The Opera Quarterly 20.1 (2004) 7-25

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Opera and the Law:

Dramma Giocosa

Some time ago, I sat on a colloquium platform of the Law and Humanities Institute between two scholars who delivered papers on the legal aspects of the ancient Japanese geisha tradition. One, Professor Susan Tiefenbrun of Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, drew hers from the text and subsequent travails of Arthur Golden's novel Memoirs of a Geisha (1994). The other, Professor Eric Friedman, based in France, looked at Illica and Giacosa's familiar libretto to Puccini's well-loved operaMadama Butterfly (1904), as well as the opera's original source, the popular short story by American lawyer-novelist John Luther Long. The discussions invited my further attention to a topic long festering in my thoughts, the role of the law in opera.

Law, the Ubiquitous Presence

What follows here is hardly encyclopedic in identifying the law as an operatic participant, but I suggest it as a ubiquitous presence. Cultural critics have never doubted that opera has often displayed a ravenous appetite; it purports to digest elements of music, literature, the visual arts, ballet, even a cosmic hors d'oeuvre of psychology and philosophy. It is hardly surprising, then, that the menu also includes elements of the law. In an attempt to digest such a banquet, operatic successes must be measured in microscopic portions. Yet for four centuries, creators of opera have baited their audiences with delicious morceaux that have kept them coming back for more.

When the founders of the Law and Humanities Institute first lent their attention to the interrelationships of those broadly drawn disciplines, nearly a quarter century ago, they based their concerns on the 1913 lists of Professor John Wigmore and thus confined their attention to his list of the very obvious literary excursions into the law by the easily recognized denizens of "The Canon" [End Page 7] as chronologically distant as the House of Atreus, with respectful nods through the centuries to the legal narratives by such epochal artists as Shakespeare, Balzac, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Melville, Shaw, and even our contemporaries John Barth, attorney Louis Auchincloss, and the prolific English barrister John Mortimer.

That the law is a pervasive presence in opera is evident, just as in its cousins in other art forms, such as fiction and drama, film and television. If opera's stories are not directly about the law, we can find it hovering nearby, whether in subtext or in a parallel universe. If the opera composers have leaned upon their librettists, the literature of the music too has made frequent comment on the proceedings.

In the process, some of the other branches of what we call the humanities seem to have been ignored. What can we say of painting, sculpture, architecture, yes, the dance and music too, and their symbiotic relations to the law? And what of opera, that most dangerous, most ambitious, most exasperating of the arts, that "exotick and irrational entertainment," as Dr. Johnson infamously described it. Opera has flirted with the law ever since it was first dragged from the fecund dreams of the Florentine Camerata four hundred years ago.

The Composer as Lawyer

In fact many opera composers had a legal background. Separated from the law at an early age, Stravinsky wrote for the theater from his beginnings, first ballets—L'oiseau de feu (1910), Petrouchka (1911),Le sacre du printemps (1913)—then operas—Le rossignol (1914), Renard (1922), Mavra (1922),and Persephone (1934). At the end of the 1920s, he was approached by the protean Jean Cocteau to rework the classic Oedipus rex (1927) into a dramatic oratorio. Cocteau gives us a spoken narration in the vernacular, while the principals and chorus sing a Latin text exploring the familiar Sophoclean world of classic Greek notions of law. Crimes abound: the murder of the king, Oedipus's father; incest with his mother, Jocasta; and self-mutilation, as the hero plucks out his own eyes in penance. Suicide is unlawful in most societies, and so, too, is assisting suicide, but...


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