Reading Opera

Literature as Opera

by Gary Schmidgall
Oxford University Press, 431 pp., $15.95

Romantic Opera and Literary Form is the most provocative (and provoking) book on opera to appear in a long time. One is first struck by its brilliance and then astonished that such a sophisticated critical structure can rest on such simplistic foundations. The polemical thesis which runs through the chapters is that opera is not a form of drama, as Wagner and others have maintained, but a form of the novel.

Drama is limited to the exterior life of action, and romanticism increasingly deprecates both the tedious willfulness of action and the limits of the form which transcribes it. The novel, in contrast, can explore the interior life of motive and desire and is naturally musical because mental. It traces the motions of thought, of which music is an image. Opera is more musical novel than musical drama

because “music can probe states of mind but not advance action.” Peter Conrad traces this view of the novel to unimpeachable romantic sources, Schopenhauer and Hofmannsthal, and his view of music also stems if not from Schopenhauer at least from the pervasive nineteenth-century philosophy of music for which Schopenhauer was a principal spokesman.

In fact music can do a good deal more in opera than probe states of mind. This became clear particularly in the nineteenth century, when the expansion of music’s power went hand in hand with the development of romantic opera. Music, with its special unifying capacities, can, first of all, assert a unique mood over an entire train of action, can as it were define a field in which a certain range of action and cognate feeling, and only that range, is possible. Verdi strove to achieve a special tinta or colorito in every one of his works. Each of the Mozart operas—even each of the Italian comedies done with da Ponte—has its own quite distinct atmosphere determined by the music; the psychology and agency of Susanna or Zerlina are not possibilities in the world of Così fan tutte. Works like Tristan und Isolde, Carmen, Pelléas et Mélisande, and Die Dreigroschenoper exist in private worlds created by their music as a whole, apart from anyone’s state of mind at any particular moment.

Second, music can indeed “advance an action” in the sense of interpreting action or conveying the characters’ apprehension of it. Otello’s fit and Iago’s ascendancy at the end of Act III of Otello, Wotan’s renunciation in the scene with Erda in Siegfried, Wozzeck stabbing Marie, the Abramo Lincoln steaming into Nagasaki harbor—the quality of these actions is unforgettably portrayed by music. As romantic composers became more and more skillful in probing states of mind, defining unique settings for action, thought, and feeling in general, and portraying the quality of actions in particular, music grew into a more and more effective medium for drama.

But drama, too, is conceived by Conrad in a very narrow sense. Disingenuously, perhaps, he does not formulate as sharp a concept of drama as of music or the novel, and…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.