And here, a brief endnote on the Death of Tragedy in the Spirit of Music. We’re losing the tragic experience, the tragic sensibility, and I have the awful feeling that we’re doing this on purpose. Too big a topic to try to “unpack” (coming to despise that word) here, but in general this tragicide seems to me related to a broad social reluctance to deal with “negative” emotion, to assent to mortality (think of the techno-immortalists, the Singularity flacks, the End-Times salvationists), to locate ourselves on the timeline that inevitably ends—sorry—in the same old place. I also feel it’s embedded in the condition of our new species, Wired Man, who is coerced from all sides to stay in the moment, with never a look ahead or behind. He floats adrift outside history, no anchor aboard.
In opera, where we have always been able to go for refreshments of Tragic Joy, we have contrived to dampen it through productions that drag all human experience into the constricted range of our own, or else reify it to distance it, or else deny narrative altogether; by “broadening” our active repertoire by replacing works of great tragic performance potential with others of less or none; and by cultivating vocal usages of progressively weaker constitution, vocalities that barely prick the skin, let alone pierce to the gut or the heart. And so far as I can tell, most of the members of our (diminishing) audiences are quite OK with all this, though I often sense an enthusiasm deficit, a merely formal kind of approval. Cicero once said of the effect of an opponent’s rhetoric on his listeners, “They assent, but in their hearts they are not convinced.” There’s a lot of that sort of assent around, I think.
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Postscript 1: Lest I mislead: Francis Fergusson’s book, The Idea of a Theater, is a splendid one, an erudite and insightful analysis of ten significant plays, from Oedipus Rex to Murder in the Cathedral, in relation to dramatic form. One of the ten is Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, tightly grouped with Oedipus and Racine’s Bérénice. Of course, while he examines Tristan as myth (de Rougemont figures in), as dramaturgical structure, and as expression of the German Volk, he does not examine it as music. But then, there’s no dearth of musical analysis, and Fergusson’s discussion offers plenty that should be of interest to Wagnerians.
Postscript 2: Parts of Trimble’s book follow in a line of advanced evolutionary educated guessing—paleoneuroaesthetics, I suppose—that I find stimulating and, operatically speaking, supportive. They include Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals/The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body; Philip Ball’s The Music Instinct; and, in a broader artistic context, Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct. There are many others, for which Trimble’s bibliography offers good guidance.
Corrections and additions, all related to my Forza del destino posts: One correspondent writes to say that Sondra Radvanovsky, not Krassimira Stoyanova, was the intended Leonora of this season’s canceled Met production, and that Dmitri Hvorostovsky was originally projected as the Don Carlo. Two more have expressed puzzlement at my nomination of a “Stephen Dawkins” for officiant at High Mass as analogue for Sam Wanamaker as director of Forza, and no wonder. I meant Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. My first thought was Bill Maher, but I felt I needed more global reach. Thanks, watchful readers.