- “Meanwhile, Let’s Go Back in Time”: Allegory, Actuality, and History in Robert Ashley’s Television Opera Trilogy
Why is it that the furthest reaching truths about ourselves and the world have to be stated in such a lopsided, referentially indirect mode?—Paul de Man, “Pascal’s Allegory of Persuasion”
When you hear people talk about metonymy, metaphor, allegory, and other such names in grammar, doesn’t it seem that they mean some rare and exotic form of language? They are the terms that apply to the babble of your chambermaid.—Montaigne, Essays
Throughout the twentieth century, composers of opera have had to contend with countless pronouncements that theirs was a dying or dead form, increasingly irrelevant to the contemporary historical moment. Perhaps the critics were right. It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that, by midcentury, opera had become a cipher for “the historical” itself in a period in which the theoretical and artistic vanguard was relentlessly critiquing historical thought on multiple fronts: in the legacy of New Critical literary theory, in structuralist semiotics and anthropology, and, notably, in late modernist and avant-garde aesthetics.1 Tellingly, in 1967 Pierre Boulez famously repudiated what he saw as the musical establishment’s pathological attachment to tradition by calling for all opera houses to be “blown up.”2 That the Frankfurt Opera House, where Europeras 1 & 2 by his onetime friend John Cage were to be premiered in 1987, was actually burned down by an arsonist two weeks before the performance, and that Cage expressed his qualified sympathy for the man’s act, are mere felicitous details in the story of opera’s death.3
Forged from bits and pieces of over 100 operas drawn from the standard repertory and arranged by chance procedures, carried out with the aid of a computer, the Europeras themselves might be taken as a sign of the transition from an anxiety-ridden modernism that would negate history to an irreverent postmodernism that [End Page 5] would playfully cannibalize historical forms in the confidence that they belonged to a world irrevocably past.4 Cage’s title, which can be read as “your operas,” indicates the pronounced national dimension in this narrative of the joint demise of opera and history.5 (Cage wrote, “For two hundred years the Europeans have been sending us their operas. Now I’m sending them back.”) Indeed, as a grandly ludic summation of the triumvirate Opera–Europe–History, the Europeras would appear to be ideal symbols of the alleged eclipse of historical consciousness in the “American century” that writers on both the neoliberal right and the theoretical left were proclaiming during the 1980s.6
Myopic or tendentious as some of the strong theses on the “end of history” may have been, the perception that recent decades have been marked by a kind of ongoing crisis in historical representation is hardly groundless.7 Manifestations of such a crisis, however, were surely more ambiguous or contradictory than the parable above would suggest. Was the end of opera, for example, so clear? In fact, at the time Cage was writing his Europeras, American opera was in the midst of what many critics had decided was a “rebirth,” beginning sometime in the 1970s and flowering in the 1980s and early 1990s.8 Although a wealth of numbers can be mustered in support of this conclusion, it would be hard to characterize the eclectic operatic activity of these years as the manifestation of a coherent impetus.9 While Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s minimalist monument Einstein on the Beach from 1976 has often been cited as the fount of the purported opera renaissance, the most prominent new American operas of the 1980s and early 1990s, including Glass’s own subsequent work, seem traditional by comparison. In retrospect, at least two overlapping phases of the operatic renewal might be discerned. A spate of innovative music-theatrical and operatic works from the 1970s through the mid-1980s by musicians including Meredith Monk, Carla Bley, Julius Hemphill, Laurie Anderson, Wadada Leo Smith, and Glass appears to have been the avant-garde prelude to a more conservative tide shift.10 Anthony Davis...