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  • A Note from the Guest Editor
  • Adrian Daub (bio)

Thinking about opera after Freud is a fundamentally uncanny undertaking. Not because there were no insights to be gleaned by applying Freudian vocabulary to opera, but because there are too many, and they come too easily. Like an “Open, Sesame!” Freud seems to unlock opera. But at the same time, it can often seem that what Freud appears to unlock has never been locked to begin with. What we find was always already on display. We knew it, though we didn’t know it in those terms.

In his famous essay on the uncanny, Freud relates the following anecdote:

Strolling one hot summer afternoon through the empty and to me unfamiliar streets of a small Italian town, I found myself in a district about whose character I could no longer remain in doubt. Only heavily made-up women were to be seen at the windows of the little houses, and I hastily left the narrow street at the next turning. However, after wandering about for some time without asking the way, I suddenly found myself back in the same street, where my presence began to attract attention. Once more I hurried away, only to return there again by a different route. I was now seized by a sense I can only describe as uncanny.1

Going to the opera with Freud in mind puts us in the same position as Freud in his small Italian town. We strike out from a certain narrow street, confident that we are entering into new, exciting, unfamiliar (or safer, better understood) territory, only to find ourselves back in the place where we started. What we said using Freud the opera appears to have said already. So we set out again, rattled but undaunted, only once again to return to the same louche place with the painted ladies on their stage and the spectacle about whose character we can no longer remain in doubt. We may have thought ourselves perverts interrogating opera by thinking about sex, but it seems opera has only been waiting with open arms and painted cheeks for perverts just like us.

The primary Freudian move of a special issue on “opera after Freud” is not to attempt escape from this uncanny compulsion to repeat, not to beat yet another path through the bewildering riot of Italian alleys that lead from our painted ladies to the more refined parts of town where deeper meaning and art religion have their cathedrals. Instead, we linger in the repetition and inquire about the conditions of its possibility. More importantly perhaps: did Freud sense this uncanny tremor of return whenever he went to the opera? Is that why he remained silent about the form? The contributions to this special issue generally agree with the notion that, as Lawrence Kramer puts it in his article, the relationship between opera and Freudian thought “is one that psychoanalysis, at least in the person of its founder, disavowed, or, if you will, repressed.” [End Page 1]

At the same time, if Freud and psychoanalysis repressed the uncanny kinship between its operations and those of opera, composers and librettists had a more difficult time doing the same – at least for a time. In an Anbruch article in the late 1910s the composer Franz Schreker describes how he arrived at the plot for his new libretto:

I was travelling . . . from Dresden to Nuremberg. I had just finished the score of Schatzgräber and my thoughts were dwelling dreamily upon new dramatic plans. The train stopped. It seemed to me as if the conductor called the name “Irrelohe.” Quite distinctly. And I looked out and made out the station name of the place. It was then clear to me that this name, about whose no doubt prosaic etymology I had no wish to inquire, carried the seeds of a drama within it. And so it was. The opera on which I am now working bears that name; the libretto was finished in three days. Irrelohe – flames of madness.2

The scene seems to be apocryphal, but it is nonetheless remarkable how Schreker stages the moment of operatic inspiration – one that significantly starts with words...


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