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  • “But Emotion Is the Problem . . . !”Response to James O. Young
  • Michael Spitzer (bio)

James Young’s argument proceeds in two moves. His first move is to deny that the “problem of opera” has any reality. His second move is to base the dissolution of this pseudoproblem on emotion, which he sees as a common denominator between music and text. Since the two arts of literature and music both arouse emotion, Young argues, they can come together in opera without tension or conflict. I will contend, however, that Young has the two planks of his argument the wrong way round: there is a problem with opera, and that problem is emotion.

Consider three familiar exhibits in the case of opera. Monteverdi adds a lieto fine to Orfeo, the emotional hankering for a happy ending overriding poetic integrity. The mismatched pairs of lovers in Così fan tutte are felt to belong together—despite Da Ponte’s denouement—because Mozart has wedded them with the sheer emotionalism of their music. The composer of Parsifal, as Nietzsche objected in Der Fall Wagner, uses musical emotion to anaesthetize listeners’ critical faculties, thereby smuggling unsavory politics or religiosity past their better judgment. Opera becomes a problem the moment one stops feeling and starts thinking. What I find puzzling in Young’s statement that “in opera, music and words can work together to arouse emotion” is the suggestion that aroused emotion is the point of opera, rather than any more considered aesthetic attitude. I shall return to emotion in a moment. But first I want to flag up the more familiar music-literature common denominator that Young seems to overlook, namely drama. Is drama the same as emotion?

If one is searching for interfaces between music and literature, emotion is not necessarily the first port of call, which is why I think it is strange that Young devotes so much of his article to emotion; moreover, so much of it to reporting psychological experiments on the perception of emotion. What about rhythmic periodicity? (The balance, contrast, and rhyming phrase endings in the Classical style mirror the poetry of opera buffa.) Or thematic syntax? (Wagner spins his leitmotifs essentially along lines of Beethovenian thematic development.) Drama, however, affords the deepest and most pervasive substratum beneath the constituent parameters of opera, as Wagner theorized and Joseph Kerman’s still unsuperseded Opera [End Page 302] as Drama popularized.1 Young seems to propose an additive, modular theory of operatic emotion. The text arouses some emotion; the music also arouses emotion—in fact, more than the text, according to the experiments Young cites. You put them together, and you get even more emotion. A theory of opera as drama, by contrast, is holistic. According to Wagner’s version of this theory—which reflected some very effective practice—a dramatic image or gesture is a kind of complex synthetic representation that is refracted into its constituent parameters—music, text, gestus, and so on, just as white light is refracted into a rainbow. Hence the give-and-take, reciprocal relationship, where music or text steps back as needs be in the service of the drama. The many musically arid “deserts” in the Ring (e.g., Die Walküre’s act 2) are dramatically gripping for that very reason: the music doesn’t hold the drama back. This is the case even when composers didn’t write their own libretti. The musical accompaniment to the death of the Commendatore in Don Giovanni is strategically thin and sketchy, as Tovey observed.2 In opera seria, according to the dramma per musica aesthetic of Metastasio, its greatest theorist and librettist, aria types are selected and positioned so as to bring out the dramatic arc of an act. Arias with “the most emotional drama and the least independent music [come] in the middle of a section,” in Raymond Monelle’s account.3

Drama isn’t emotion so much as a mode of deploying and representing emotions. Happiness and anger are two contrasting emotions, but I can imagine comic and tragic conflicts that operate through similar dramatic principles, based on conflict, tension, and resolution. Does it make any sense to say “I am feeling dramatic”? Opera as drama...


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pp. 302-306
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