When a humanities scholar cries at the opera

Nicholas Till on what it means to be moved by a piece of art after 30 years of critical practice

September 1, 2016
Academic audience watching Halka/Haiti 18°48´05˝N 72°23´01˝W
Source: Alamy

At the end of a long day at the Venice Biennale last year, I stumbled upon the Polish pavilion in one of the furthest corners of the Giardini: the park where the art festival is presented. The brief statement posted at the entrance to the pavilion explained that it contained an artwork called Halka/Haiti 18°48´05˝N 72°23´01˝W, by C. T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska. This consisted of a video of a performance of the Polish national opera Halka in a village in Haiti where a significant number of people are descended from early 19th-century Polish settlers. (The figures in the title are the map coordinates for the village.)

Inside the darkened pavilion was a video projection on to a screen that curved around the space like a 19th-century diorama. The images showed the centre of a clearly very poor village. Plastic chairs had been placed under trees in a semicircle to mark a performance space that mirrored the semicircle of seats in the pavilion. Amid this setting, Polish opera singers in 19th-century costume were enacting Stanisław Moniuszko’s 1848 romantic village melodrama, accompanied by an electric keyboard.

Groups of villagers clustered to watch, some chatting with each other, many absorbed, or perhaps just politely pretending to be. Other people came and went. Children played in the dust, which they shared with pecking chickens and a tethered goat stoically ignoring the maelstrom of sound and action that was whirling around it. Every now and then a moped would roar noisily through the performance area and disappear down the road out of the village. Spurned by her aristocratic lover, the opera’s heroine, Halka, threw herself to her death. Something about the sheer incongruity of this juxtaposition of overblown European opera and everyday life on a Caribbean island, and the sense of immersion created by the installation, ambushed my normal defences and, no doubt facilitated by a bit too much of the hospitality prosecco, tears started rolling down my face.

Yes, it’s time to admit that I sometimes cry at the opera. But why should that be remarkable, let alone worthy of confession? After all, opera is recognised as the most emotional of art forms, and I’m a professor of opera. Surely I wouldn’t (shouldn’t?) still be studying and teaching opera if it didn’t do something for me. But the inexorable direction of humanities research over the past 30 or so years has been so critical, suspicious and deconstructive that it may sometimes be difficult for those of us in the academy to encounter works of art – even those we love – without critical filters.

No longer is it sufficient to wonder at the tonal architecture of Mozart’s comic operas as if they were symphonies by Bruckner, or to gush about Verdi’s great-hearted commitment to the cause of Italian nationhood. We have learned to reflect on the social contexts of opera as the preferred art form of the ruling classes; to challenge historiographical narratives constructed around a procession of great composers in this inherently institutional form; to ask questions about representations of gender or race; to ask questions about representation tout court. Unable to cast off my Nietszchean hermeneutics of suspicion, I am always tuned into the ideological subtext to the most apparently innocuous narrative or musical elements. And those appeals that solicit our feelings most pressingly are, perhaps, to be regarded with the greatest wariness. Whenever I’m cajoled by Verdi or Puccini to sob at the pathetic fates of Violetta or Mimi, I recall the devastating account by the French feminist critic Catherine Clément of “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies” in opera.

Yet despite all of my carefully maintained guards, I can still be bushwhacked. What is it that brings on these powerful responses? It’s not those tubercular death scenes, weepy though they be – Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor put paid to that. And it’s not the Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro bemoaning her lost happiness: when the countess concludes her list of the indignities she has suffered with the revelation that she (a woman of middle-class origin) has been “forced to seek the help of one my servants”, Mozart tells us, through his musical emphasis, that she is spoiled and self-pitying. No, it’s the following scene, in which the countess and the servant she is referring to, the staunch and resourceful Susanna, plot the comeuppance of the philandering count in a duet in which the countess, taking control of her life, dictates the letter that will lure her husband into their trap. The voices spin the seductive melody between them, passing phrases back and forth seamlessly, Susanna repeating and embroidering the phrases, until they finally conjoin. For a moment, sisterly solidarity overcomes class difference, as the pair conjure a nocturnal idyll of the pine-scented glades where the false assignation will take place.

In Schiller’s famous analysis of the distinction between the “naive” and the “sentimental” artist, the naive artist is the realist who is at home in the world as he or she finds it, whereas the sentimental artist is always aware of humankind’s fall from Eden and disjunction from the world. The sentimentalist either acknowledges the rift through a critical attitude to the world (that’ll be us modern academics, then), laments the loss through elegy or seeks to restore lost harmony with nature through idyllic art. In a bare three minutes, Mozart manages, miraculously, to spin all three positions simultaneously: the music transports us effortlessly to its idyllic moonlit scene; yet the letter’s exaggeratedly romantic literary tropes, upon which Susanna and the countess comment knowingly, are designed explicitly to deceive. In so far as it is framed critically in this way, the idyll that is summoned so matchlessly is inherently elegiac, conveying knowledge that states of grace must always pass. The duet is so affecting because it conveys a dramatic turning point that we have been longing for, but suffuses it with a more fundamental sense of loss, and of our desire and regret for a better and happier world.

Perhaps it is when art bypasses our intellectual defences that it best tells us something about our own feelings and values, and offers us grounds for examining these. When Baudelaire first encountered the music of Wagner at a Paris concert in 1860, he was overwhelmed. But he didn’t stop there. His immediate response was to try to work out why this music had had such an effect upon him, expressing his desire to understand better its “mysterious intentions and method, which were all unknown to me. I resolved to make myself master of the why and wherefore, and to transform my pleasure into knowledge.”

Rodney Earl Clarke and Philip Sheffield performing in Between Worlds
One from the heart: why might Halka/Haiti 18°48´05˝N 72°23´01˝W (top) move a critic to tears while Between Worlds (above) leaves him cold?

We study a work of art that has affected us because we want to understand how and why it has made such an impact. We want to know better the values that form our own subjectivity: to gain understanding of the basis of our own pleasures (or displeasures), as individuals and as members of particular groups and communities. Perhaps only then do we seek to understand the light the work of art casts upon the wider society and culture within which it exists (or existed).

But unless the work of art grabs us, for better or worse, in the first place, we probably won’t invest that effort. In the past, of course, academic critics would have assumed that there were universal aesthetic values that transcended personal taste or judgement. They would have believed that they could bracket their own subjectivity when discussing a work of art. Today we acknowledge that there are no universal subjects, and that our individual subject positions – as determined by factors such as class, race, gender and sexuality – cannot be put aside so easily. And nor can our emotional responses.

Indeed, some academic literary critics, such as Terry Castle and Wayne Koestenbaum, have turned critical writing into an almost confessional mode of self-examination (and both, incidentally, have written about gay sexual desire as a hitherto undeclared aspect of the enjoyment of opera). Moreover, the American philosopher of the emotions Robert Solomon argued that emotional responses are not, as conventionally assumed, irrational; “emotions are judgements”, he said, and together they constitute our personality. Contemporary “affect theory” examines the whole range of our physical, emotional and desiring relations to the world.

In this respect, negative emotional responses such as disgust or anger may be as revealing as pleasurable responses. A case in point was, for me, the 2015 opera Between Worlds by playwright Nick Dear and composer Tansy Davies, presented by the English National Opera at the Barbican. Set in the World Trade Center on the day of 9/11, the opera tells the story of a group of people trapped inside an office in one of the towers. Drawing on the clichés of the disaster movie and the made-for-TV drama-doc weepie, it tugs incessantly at our heartstrings as one after another of the characters sings his or her farewell to a loved one over the phone. It ends with the chorus lighting candles and intoning the Requiem Aeternam in a moment of stunning banality.

I, for one, was dry-eyed. By personalising what was an occurrence with global political implications, the opera simply trivialised a subject that demanded a far more complex response. And since the characters are inevitably undeveloped, the opera failed to move me at even the level it sought to.

It was my immediate indignation at this inadequacy, and at the general neoliberal-humanist approbation it received (according to The Guardian it possessed “a rare power to remind listeners of their own inner freedom”), that prompted me to analyse the failings of the work more closely.

So why did the Polish video at the Biennale affect me so much that the following day I went back to watch it all the way through? Partly, I think, it simply overwhelmed me, as the operatic experience can uniquely do. I think my tears were a kind of gratitude for being able to recover that experience again – to know that it was still possible. But further investigation peeled back some of the layers of meaning that underpinned that first impact.

The makers were inspired by two things. The first was Werner Herzog’s astonishing film Fitzcarraldo, in which a latter-day rubber-baron conquistador is determined to civilise the Brazilian natives by bringing opera to the Amazon. Fitzcarraldo’s dream is presented as a project of sublime megalomania, matched only by Herzog’s own obsessive determination to complete the film against all the odds – also an evident aspect of the logistically challenging Halka/Haiti project. The second source of inspiration was the little-known historical fact that during the 1791 slave revolution in Haiti, a regiment of Poles who joined Napoleon’s forces to put down the rebels deserted. Many subsequently stayed on the island, where there is still a distinct, fair-skinned, population with creolised Polish names living in the village of Cazale and worshipping the Black Madonna of Częstochowa as a voodoo saint.

Amid the dirt of their own village, the impoverished Haitian-Polish audience watches the performers restage a Polish village drama about a young peasant girl who is seduced and then betrayed by a powerful aristocratic lover. What exactly is this event? A generous gift? A vehicle for intercultural dialogue (local musicians and dancers participated in the performance)? Or another example of Fitzcarraldo-like, neocolonial cultural paternalism? All of these, of course, as its creators acknowledge. And it is these contradictions that make the work so affecting. There is something absurdly quixotic about the project: the singers throw themselves around in the dust, belting their lungs out, offering to the Haitan villagers and their animals a token of their supposedly shared national identity in a gesture that simultaneously exposes the delusions of foundational nationhood and affirms its continued dark potency.

The project also questions the naive liberal belief that art’s supposed universality allows it to speak across linguistic, cultural and political barriers, not to mention historical injustices – that, in the words of the American opera director Peter Sellars, art shows the world to be “one big family”. Yet for all the cultural incongruity of the project, the opera’s actual story clearly resonates much more meaningfully for the village audience in Haiti than it could ever do for an urban audience in a plushy European opera house. Here, the historical artwork serves not only as a vehicle of national myth; it also conveys an account of injustice and oppression that does indeed connect concrete experiences across time and space – a connection that is realised materially in this project.

These are the complex (and unresolved) layers of historical, political and cultural discourse and affect that give the project its depth and resonance. But, like Baudelaire’s encounter with Wagner, it was my first gut response that led me to want to know the “why and wherefore” of what I had experienced in that first moment. Emotion is something that no humanities academic should be ashamed of.

Nicholas Till is professor of opera and music theatre at the University of Sussex.

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