The death of opera: A funeral eulogy

The storytelling of the opera has been replaced by its more consumable cousin, the soap opera.

Ernani contains three magical ingredients: romantic love, the ethic of honour, and the so-called "Risorgimento" [AP]

Opera is dead, because nobody can listen to it any more. It has been killed by her stepsister, the soap opera, which has proved capable of responding to the same needs for much less money. What is opera? Opera is a union of music, words, and action that had its great momentum in early modern Europe. According to some, it (like many other things that we like) began during the Renaissance, when a group of Florentine musicians tried to revive the lost tradition of Greek tragedy. In contrast to the latter, opera used the very words of its composition to generate music so as to bring the union of action, words, and music to another level, that of a total work of art.

During its glorious life, situated between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries, opera accomplished a lot of good things, and this explains why most of the great musicians of the time courted her. First, opera entertained everybody: From the royal court to the lay people, everybody would go listen to it. This motley audience also meant that theatres were a total mess, a far cry from the neurotic atmosphere of today where you cannot even cough unless you want to be taken as a boor. During opera’s heyday, people would eat, chat, and socialise during the performances. Hence, the need for those very odd, intense sounds and virtuoso that appear (perhaps rightly) so excessive to the non-adepts of the genre: Back then, you needed to attract people’s attention somehow.

Second, opera was a place where society itself was put on the stage: the romantic love in a world where marriage was primarily an economic and political institution, the intrigues of the court system, or the exploits of the various Don Giovanni, phantom of a masculinity in need to reassure itself. Even when the old mythological repertoire was invoked, as in the case of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, it had to be re-adapted to the new circumstances – paying at times the price of an improbable “happy end”. As such, the opera was also the place for the reproduction as well as the potential subversion of the status quo. For instance, it was by crying “VIVA VERDI!” in the theatres of occupied Italy that the people claimed their support for the unification of Italy under Vittorio Emanuele in the second half of the nineteenth century (“VIVA VERDI” was an acronym for VIVA Vittorio Emanule Re D’Italia).

Why was this possible then – and why is it no longer possible now? Let’s take Ernani, the most successful of Verdi’s operas, recently on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera of New York, after 23 years of absence – admittedly, an absence that very few had noted. Ernani, first presented in 1844, was akin to a triumph, and it remained so for a very long time, at least until 1950s, more or less around the time when opera started to decline as a genre (remember that, a few years later, television was born).

The story of Ernani

Ernani is the story of the eponymous bandit who is planning to abduct the beautiful Elvira from the castle of Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, who, in turn, intends to force Elvira to marry him. However, Don Carlo, the king of Spain, is also in love with Elvira, who rejects his advances. The king decides to abduct Elvira but is then confronted by Ernani. Silva intends to seek revenge on both men but Don Carlo reveals his identity, thereby saving himself. With Elvira’s help, however, Ernani escapes. The second act begins with Elvira getting ready to marry Silva, when Ernani, disguised as a pilgrim, manages to enter the castle. Silva grants him hospitality, but then Don Carlo arrives asking for Ernani to be handed over to him. Denied, Don Carlo steals Elvira. Silva then agrees to have Ernani help him to avenge her kidnapping, but on the condition that Ernani must die when Silva orders it. Act III, the most political of all, features Don Carlo travelling to the ancestral vaults in Aix-la-Chapelle while he waits for news of the election of the new Holy Roman Emperor. The conspirators, guided by Ernani, are hiding in the village when three cannon shots are heard announcing Don Carlo as the elected emperor. Having overheard the conspirers, King Carlo orders their punishment, but Elvira’s pleas make him agree to be clement. When, under the protection of the new emperor, Elvira and Ernani are ready to marry, Silva dressed in a black mask arrives ordering Ernani to kill himself, which Ernani does, followed by Elvira.

“Opera is dead, because nobody can listen to it any more. It has been killed by her stepsister, the soap opera, which has proved capable of responding to the same needs for much less money.

There are three magical ingredients in the appeal of Ernani: romantic love, the ethic of honour, and the political values of the so-called “Risorgimento” (the nineteenth century popular movement for the liberation from foreign occupation and the unification of Italy). Alas, none of these elements could ever speak to the public assembled at the prestigious Metropolitan Opera House in a winter evening of 2012, notwithstanding the stellar vibrato of the soprano and the beautiful colour of the voice of the tenor (apparently the new rising star in the sky of opera singers).

The whole drama is centred around the virtue of virginity, on the fact that the moral code of the epoch did not allow for a woman to have more than one lover in her lifetime – a theme that clearly dominates the most beautiful aria of the entire opera, not by chance entitled “beautiful immaculate lily” (“Infelice!.. e tuo credevi sì bel giglio immacolato“). Without such immaculate virginity, then there is no drama. Elvira could simply go from one lover to the other. But perhaps this is a nuance that can be captured only by those who understand the difference between the pompous nineteenth-century Italian and that of the automatic announcements on an Alitalia flight. Nevertheless, even those who are simply following the story through the English subtitles cannot fail to capture the importance of the ethics of honour: The bandit Ernani kills himself at the end, despite having been granted the protection of the king along with his royal permission to marry his beloved, because he had promised Silva that he would do so. Again, without such a strict code of honour demanding that you keep your word even when doing so not only works against your interest, but actually serves the interest of the wicked, there would be no drama.

Finally, the success of Ernani, with its long (for us now, indeed, too long) Act III devoted to the opposition between the rebels and the new sovereign, is not alien to the political aspirations of the Italian Risorgimento: the rebellion against the Spanish emperor was a clear invitation to conspire against the Austrian rulers  that occupied the north of Italy at the time. Indeed, the scene when Ernani and his comrades meet under the monument of King Carlo looks like a literal description of the meetings of the so-called “società segrete“, that is, the “secret societies” that in those years had organised the first popular revolts meant to lead to the revolutions of 1848.

Missing ingredients

None of these three ingredients find a voice with us today. For those (perhaps few) who undertake the burden to understand the meaning of the opera, the appeal of Ernani is no longer that of a drama, but instead, in the best scenario, that of a satire: the satire of those who still believe in the virginity of the “immaculate lily”, of those who keep their word even if this will result in the worst of solutions for everybody, and of an invitation to rebellion handed to a series of elegant spectators who can afford to pay $400 for decent tickets and have therefore clearly no interest in subverting the status quo.

Whereas opera has turned into a satire of itself, soap opera is alive and affordable. Very few musicians write opera nowadays, but a lot of creative energy is put in soap operas. The union of music, word, and action has reached a different level – the portable format. It offers genuine love stories, but with no illusion of virginity; true moral dilemmas, but with no indulgence for an outdated courtly honour code and no promise of political liberation – the latter may arrive at some point, here and there, but it will be only a side effect. 

If opera has been killed, why is it still hanging around? Who is trying to keep it artificially alive? First and foremost are those who cannot allow themselves to watch soap operas. Be they sophisticated intellectuals with their notorious necrophilia for objects of the past or super-rich magnates who need to put the new red dress of their girlfriend in display, in both cases, they are people who want to distinguish themselves. Opera is an occasion for distinction. Rousseau once wrote that people think they come together in the spectacle, and it is here that they are isolated. Today, we can say that people come together in the spectacle because they want to be isolated. Opera is dead, but maybe this is not such a drama: Let’s Occupy Opera!

Chiara Bottici is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. She is the author of Imaginal Politics, forthcoming in the New Directions in Critical Theory Series at Columbia University Press; A Philosophy of Political Myth, published by Cambridge University Press, in 2007; and Uomini e stati. Percorsi di un’analogia (ETS, 2004), which was published in English as Men and States (Palgrave, 2009).