In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Two Notes, One Ending (Three Operas) at the Boundary of the Great Divide; or, Aesthetic Meanderings of the Sonic Psyche
  • Richard Leppert (bio)

Opera . . . puts normality into question.

—Lawrence Kramer, “Opera: Two or Three Things I Know about Her”


It’s fair to say that subjectivity needed opera; it’s a good deal more certain that opera needed subjectivity—or, better, the anxieties associated with subjectivity—for opera to have taken on the cultural force it enjoyed, particularly by the time history puts Wagner into the equation. As a principal site where subjectivity could be staged, witnessed, and indeed celebrated both visually and aurally, opera was at the same time a discourse that, by the very nature of its social standing and interpellative agency, attracted serious philosophical attention—witness Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche: opera was serious cultural business. Wagner in particular regarded opera as a form of cultural pedagogy, such being the ultimate function of Bayreuth, after all, in the composer’s megalomaniacal urge for full and eternal control of his discourse and its social impact. The potential for entertainment as such had little purchase in Wagner’s imaginary (and even without bothering with any of his endless musings on such matters, one gets that notion firmly established by nearly every thought that entered Cosima’s head concerning her husband and duly confined to her diary). Bayreuth’s hard-luck bench seating, not for nothing church-like, somatically reinforced a form of listening deemed appropriate for the wished-for Bildung of the proper bourgeois,1 no matter Wagner’s ambivalence toward his social class; and, like church, the music was to be experienced, to borrow a phrase from Peter Gay, in “worshipful silence,”2 but certainly not without effect.

As regards subjectivity, and to express matters with some hyperbole, what audiences saw and heard enacted in opera (Wagnerian or otherwise) was the unruliness of desires whose realization was characteristically self-suppressed or else experienced [End Page 71] only at great cost. No cultural coincidence, in opera desires were made the more pleasurable, however perversely, precisely by not being fulfilled, and never more than when the death drive triumphed at the final cadence.

Opera, alike in sight and sound, played to the exotic, sensual, and dramatic fantasies of the audience, a musico-dramatic interpellation along the lines of what Jeremy Tambling, channeling and adapting Benjamin, has called the “aural unconscious,”3 or what Kaja Silverman, addressing the female voice in film, terms the “acoustic mirror.”4 Opera, in short, is a form of sonic psychology. Paul Robinson, commenting on what he terms operatic music’s “emotional eloquence,” notes its agency “to address the great subjects of psychological life—desire and fulfillment, anxiety and relief, despair and ecstasy—with unparalleled immediacy. “It thereby touches,” as he puts it, “the core of sentiment informing different ideals of selfhood and personal relations.”5 In this regard, the opera house as a sonic enclosure serves as a kind of acoustic womb, wherein is made audible what Adorno, citing Stendahl’s assessment of Rossini (no coincidence), called music’s promesse du bonheur.6

Wayne Koestenbaum, in The Queen’s Throat, has a related but distinctly more dystopian take. “Opera,” he says, “has the power to warn you that you have wasted your life,”7 a line presumably cribbed from Adorno writing on kitsch—itself a long suit in the long history of opera.8 This insight Koestenbaum parses by way of what he calls a “rushing intimation of vacuity and loss” that reads as follows: “You haven’t acted on your desires. You’ve suffered a stunted, vicarious existence. You’ve silenced your passions. The volume, height, depth, lushness, and excess of operatic utterance reveal, by contrast, how small your gestures have been until now, how impoverished your physicality; you have only used a fraction of your bodily endowment, and your throat is closed.”9

The contribution that I’d like to offer here concerns the problematics of articulating the social and personal actuality of wounded subjectivities and unfulfilled desires that interested Freud and found voice, an audible trace, onstage and for the delectation of the audience by way of sonically induced transference. The three...


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