- The Submerged Subject of Video-Opera:Fausto Romitelli's An Index of Metals
Opera in the present can be said to exhibit two tendencies: "radical" restagings and remediations propose new configurations of music, bodies, voices, and scenography, while the institution itself nonetheless relies largely on historically constituted subjects and inherited emotional frameworks for continued sustenance (consider, for example, Lyric Opera of Chicago's recent advertising campaign: "Long live passion").1 A contemporary intermedial work such as the 2003 "video-opera" An Index of Metals—created by the late Fausto Romitelli with music and video collaborators Paolo Pachini and Leonardo Romoli, and poet Kenka Lèkovich—might seem to reflect these tendencies: it emphatically foregrounds video and voice, and plays on the audience's expectations for an emotional profundity that never quite materializes or, rather, is strangely unmoored from a clearly defined subject. Indeed, there is no apparent plot in this "opera" and no dramatis personae. Furthermore, any sense of dramatic development detected in the three "songs" comprising the work is ultimately offset by the increasingly effaced subjecthood expressed therein. In this and many other ways, Romitelli, Pacchini, and Lèkovich play with surface and depth: for most of the fifty-minute work, a video screen slides over various metallic substances; the single vocalist at the center of the "opera" remains off-stage and off-screen, projecting her voice at times through an electric megaphone; and the work's opening moments contrast Spectralist-inspired sonorities with rock album samples.
Why, then, does this work hold onto not only the operatic female voice but also the traces of a subject? Why does it not do away with it completely and abandon any pretense of invoking operatic expectations? After all, in what has become a sort of aesthetic prescript in much contemporary cultural practice and discourse, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari suggested that "the aim of art is to wrest the percept from perceptions of objects and the states of a perceiving subject, to wrest the affect from affections as the transition from one state to another: to extract a bloc of sensations, a pure being of sensations."2 This is, of course, a rather extreme take on affect and the subject (not to mention the function of art), but one that has been influential and especially resonant in an age that, for numerous reasons, is no longer [End Page 161] convinced of the metaphysical integrity of the subject. The death of the subject has been proclaimed, observed, and mediated routinely for decades by this point, so why would a contemporary creative venture such as a self-consciously and self-described video-opera seek to conjure its faded traces? We might, I suggest, consider the obverse of Deleuze and Guattari's position: if the function of art is to wrest precept and affect from the subject, perhaps it also functions to reveal or explore what remains of the subject. So conceived, the distinction between indeterminate, pre-subjective affect and knowable, localized emotion—a key contribution of affect theory—becomes especially important in experiencing this work and for understanding its often hazy operatic allusions.3 With An Index of Metals, the promise of the operatic subject's presence relies on recognizing the distinction between affect and emotion, as well as the potential fluidity between the two. As I will discuss, affect in An Index of Metals arises through a simultaneous excess and lack: a surfeit of signs and physicality, but an absence of correlations and causes. It is precisely between these spaces of uncertainty that affect is activated, yet the presence of a potential subject also flickers. An Index of Metals therefore alerts us to the ambivalence between these conceptions of human feeling. These features also play a role in enabling the work to resonate with both the history of video art and the longer tradition of opera and its female protagonist-victims, thereby offering a particularly suitable operatic exploration of the subject of late modernity.
Immersion, Absorption, and Affect
Whether attending a live performance of the music or watching the commercial DVD, for fifty minutes the audience of An Index of Metals will try to follow...