- Operatic Afterlives by Michal Grover-Friedlander
In her Vocal Apparitions (2005), Michal Grover-Friedlander considered the ways in which the operatic voice takes up a haunting residence in the history of film. Operatic Afterlives, its title a spectral echo of the earlier volume, continues and revises the project of Vocal Apparitions, investigating “the singing voice . . . as what is essential to opera” (16) precisely because it haunts opera, because it never is fully at home within opera. To suggest that the singing voice is what most necessarily characterizes opera is not, Grover-Friedlander argues, to conclude that there is a unified phenomenon (the singing voice) that defines a closed field (opera) in a conclusively definable way: “what accounts, in the deepest sense, for the specificity of opera is singing that is unlike any other” (14)—even, she goes on to argue, unlike itself. For Grover-Friedlander this quintessentially operatic entity, the singing voice, undoes and escapes the limits of the fields it defines, including opera and opera studies. Operatic Afterlives takes this indeterminacy seriously in its analyses and methods, and its unabashedly quixotic aim—to characterize the uncharacterizable—may alienate or frustrate the reader seeking stably defined and definite theses and results. The reader who is willing to enter into the interdisciplinary or even indisciplinary space of Grover-Friedlander’s text, however, will find it a productive, suggestive, and rewarding experience.
Two epigraphs introduce the book. The second, from Stanley Cavell, defines the voice as “signature,” a trace left by the body in a field not entirely its own. That this trace can function in the absence of its signer demonstrates both the limitedness of human existence and its capacity to transcend that limitedness—what Cavell calls “your mortal immortality.”1 The moving, affective power of the voice (as call to others and mark of our dividedness) highlights our human finitude, yet it also offers us the chance to transcend our limits by resonating in the voices of others. Cavell argues that we are sometimes most truly ourselves in discovering something entirely new, unexpected, and different about our identity or desires. Grover-Friedlander extends this thesis: opera, for her, is most truly opera when it is becoming something other than opera. The first epigraph, from Roland Barthes, [End Page 175] restates his often neglected assertion that the “truth” of the core of individuality and specificity that he calls the “grain of the voice” is “to be hallucinated.” To catch upon the core of the voice as that which defines individuality by opening it up to difference, change, and play, one needs to develop a critical voice that is open to fantasy and not fully in possession of itself The skeptical reader might object that Grover-Friedlander’s project is antiscientific in its rejection of a unified or concrete operatic “object” and its willing adoption of an improvisatory and partial “methodology,” or that it is “merely” impressionistic. But I would argue that Grover-Friedlander’s work is important precisely because it refuses such an impasse, and I would in turn concede that this claim is my own critical “hallucination.”
Grover-Friedlander’s book demonstrates its methodological commitments even in its structure and style. Small chapters of only a few pages in length serve as entr’actes between larger chapters devoted to individual works across a broad spectrum of genres and media. This stylistic exuberance doesn’t merely provide the reader with multiple ways of enjoying the text but also invites the reader’s participation. Her various critical gestures refuse defined endpoints, encouraging the reader to complete the work’s analyses, multiplying the possible modes of receiving, understanding, and redeploying its arguments. The textually “open” nature of Operatic Afterlives asks its reader to engage closely with the texture of its arguments in the same way it engages with its own objects of analysis, producing or “hallucinating” new meaning through a careful and attentive collaboration with the work’s precise texture.
Previous images of opera both mythological (Arturo Toscanini ending the premiere of Turandot with orchestral silence and the spoken words “a questo punto il...