How Are We Moved and Why Do We Like it?–with notes on the death of tragedy.

We talk quite loosely, it seems to me, about “being moved.” Emotions are of many qualities and strengths. They arise from many causes, and their relationship with meaning is tenuous. Our attempts to categorize them are only partially successful, our efforts to legislate them less than that. I’m speaking here about a particular quality and strength of emotion. I wouldn’t say that it’s associated exclusively with opera (life, after all, and the whole range of artistic experience), but opera is where I’ll go first in search of it. And opera of a certain sort, because it’s connected to the tragic sensibility, to the immanence of mortality, and is reached only through a specific sort of sensory excitation.

Being moved is an entirely subjective occurrence. We can say that a work, or a passage in a work, has the property of “being moving” only when the community of those moved reaches a critical mass. Even then it’s impossible to attribute the property to the work in any objective, universal way, because only those on a particular wavelength will find the work’s energies translating into a shared emotional response. Still, for those who have been drawn onto that wavelength, there’s obviously a connection between what the work is sending and what’s going on inside them. The expectation of that connection is why they’re there on any given occasion—why I was there for that Traviata, and all the other events I’ve been writing about. There may be other reasons as well, but that is the determinative one.

I mentioned in my earlier piece that the thing that will lodge in my emotional memory from last year’s Traviata is an image. That’s unusual for me. It’s not that I am never moved by an image, but that for an image to be the thing that I have on emotional recall from an opera performance is practically unheard-of. In fact, it’s partly because directors and designers are expending so much élan vital on trying to draw my attention away from what I think is important and toward their damned images that I resent their efforts, especially when brilliant. In this case, I keenly resented The Clock, the eye-equivalent of Herr Decker hissing repeatedly in my ear, “Time is passing, you know! Tick-tock! She’s going to die! Tick-tock! We’re all going to die!” Willy: I know.  Besides, I’ve seen this show before.

Nevertheless, as I gazed down at Sonia Yoncheva in her red dress (and the Postmodernists call us literalists!), lying in a sort of modified fetal position on the clockface while the choral denunciation of Alfredo whirled around her, I struggled to hold back tears. And though of course I enjoyed the sensation, it also bothered me, because I like to think that there is some correspondence between the way things have been going and what I’m feeling. According to my own logic, I shouldn’t have been at this emotional brim. So much for logic. Whenever logic matches up against opera, logic loses.

The passage of time, as Willy clearly recognizes in his misguided, emblematic/abstractionist fashion, is very much involved here. But it’s my time, not his. It’s in my awareness of the passing time of my own life and of the lives of loved ones and friends. Although that awareness is undoubtedly  intensified at my stage of life, with all its loss, it is not strictly age-related. It’s something I’ve always been aware of having, and of only a minority of people I’ve known having with the same intensity. There is also for me a peculiarly operatic time-awareness, in the form of vivid living memory—the sights, sounds, and feelings associated with the myriad times I’ve traveled the Traviata route. They lie in wait at any performance or re-hearing, ready to be re-activated and augmented by new experience, and they crowd in at the moments that have stirred me in the past, which, by this time, extend with greater or lesser evocative force almost without interruption through the course of the work. How strongly they register will vary from time to time, and I contend that this depends mostly on the effectiveness of the performance—regardless of my own predisposition, superior performance will trigger them every time. Further, the accumulation of repetitions augments, not diminishes, the strength of my response to a good performance or the deflation brought on by a poor one.