Friday 1 October 2021

The immorality of opera (and many other arts)

One of the most powerful experiences of my life was at the end of a 1978 live performance (from Scottish Opera) of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss - the trio for three soprano voices (lyric, dramatic and mezzo) - 

followed directly (without break) by a duet for the lyric and mezzo-sopranos who are the young lovers (the mezzo plays a young man - a 'trouser role', common for lower ranged female voices) - which is immediately followed by the end of the opera.

This piece of music is almost unbearably beautiful to me; with its combination of interweaving voices singing long, supple melodic lines; scored for very large, shimmeringly lush forces, by probably the greatest orchestrator of all the great composers - here working at his peak. 

The effect (on someone susceptible) is overpowering in a good live performance (or, for that matter, in a recording - I could not watch more than a few seconds of the above movie version without tearing-up). 

By the time the two young lovers had inched to the climactic high notes of their duet, I was literally sobbing - and had to remain in my seat for a few minutes after the curtain in order to recover sufficiently to leave the theatre.

Human artistry at one of its peaks. And yet; Rosenkavalier is a thoroughly immoral story of selfish, dishonest, greedy and decadent courtiers engaged in sordid sexual intrigue among the (ig-)nobility. 

The opera is also flawed by excessive length - such that the several musical high peaks are surrounded by a couple of hours of tediousness. 

And even this final trio/ duet/ coda only offers the (shallow) redemption of the infinite hopes of untested adolescent love at first sight; this being enabled by the senior woman (a Countess), somewhat reluctantly, acknowledging that she is getting too old to retain the young man as her extra-martial 'toy boy'. 

As a young man I regarded the best operas as fundamental to my world view; and I felt the same about the best symphonies, sonatas, plays, novels and poetry. Art (selectively) was a kind of religion in my life - taken with the utmost seriousness. I believed there was an intrinsic (even though inexplicit) Goodness to art - and that this was the highest Goodness. 

This was, of course, a common idea from the end of the 19th century and up into the middle 20th century - the idea that the best art - deeply experienced - had an intrinsically educative, enlightening, and moral effect. it was Good For people - which is why the arts were widely subsidized and promoted. 

However, in retrospect I can now see that most of these (including many of the most beloved) were actually harmful to me in a spiritual sense. Works such as Der Rosenkavalier displayed a very complete dissociation of the transcendental values - supremely aesthetic, yet hedonic or even inverted in terms of virtue. 

In more general terms; artists are usually very flawed guides to values when accepted as primary. 

A great artists few were themselves Good and providers of wisdom and virtue (JS Bach, JRR Tolkien, or William Blake for instance); but most were even more flawed than the average Man; and therefore their power to move and influence people was hazardous at best. 

I would now assert that there may indeed be an intrinsic Goodness in art; but this is only the case when it is apprehended with discrimination and within a broader (Christian) perspective. Otherwise, (i.e. when taken as primary and fundamental) art will be more prone to corrupt than to improve a Man. 

This is, indeed, what is found among the specialist (including the best) authors and practitioners of the arts. When The Man is bad, or has an immoral ideology; then no amount of creativity or immersion in the arts has any improving, or even deepening, effect on them. 

It is a disillusioning experience to discover how trivial professional musicians usually are; how selfish and hedonic even the finest poets and novelists can be; and as for actors, dancers... 

A life spent in artistic activity very obviously does not enrich or ennoble. And even acts of genius artistic creativity (which is a participation in divine creation) does not usually rub-off onto the Whole Man - but instead mostly remains encapsulated. 

This is not to single-out the arts as especially defective; because the same applies in science, medicine, scholarship; or in the churches. Excellence, even brilliance, in the specialist activity, is apparently dissociated from broader, deeper and more important considerations. 

But in the arts, the personal deficiencies come-out in the work. The work cannot genuinely be greater than the author; and if the author is not a great Man, then the work will not be great in terms of ultimate values - and in that sense, it will not be a worthy basis for living. 

Note: By (non-)coincidence; William Wildblood has been inspired to write on a similar theme in today's post at his blog


Stephen Macdonald said...

For more than 40 years Four Last Songs has each time moved me to tears.

Joe said...

Opera is kind of like regular life, but more beautiful--people don't just talk to each other, they sing, and there's ever-present music that fits with what they're saying, and (in the best examples) even says more than the words. One of the features of great art is that it can invoke an experience that points beyond regular life to a deeper order and meaning that is commonly hidden. Regular life is like opera because there *is* something like ever-present music that we might be able to hear, and makes our lives more meaningful and beautiful if we do hear it.

When you say "the work cannot genuinely be greater than the author", I think of Tolkien's creation story, and how even the deliberately malevolent music of Melkor is incorporated by Eru into something greater and more beautiful.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Joe - Yes, I agree.

But the work of Melkor (and many operas) *needs* to be incorporated by Eru - or else it will (of course) do net-harm.

Same with opera - and any other art, or human endeavor. The common/official idea of art, science, scholarship, medicine etc being *intrinsically* Good - turns out to be a demonic deception.

Howard Ramsey Sutherland said...

You're hitting high-note after high-note in recent postings.
In addition to the arias you mention, their duet when Octavian and Sophie meet and he (she) delivers her the Rose never fails to move me.
I watched a Granada TV film of Le Nozze di Figaro, at Glyndebourne in 1973, again recently. With its libidinous themes and focus on philandering and adultery, it was quite racy at the time - and still is. But as I thought about that while watching, I was reminded that it is a condemnation of adultery. So there are good morals behind the plot-lines. Also some early class warfare, but can't have everything.
Perhaps a work cannot be better than its author, but in its effect on audiences it may transcend the artist's intent. For good or ill. With too much of today's so-called art, there is little potential for good transcendence. With a lot of it - e.g., anything remotely resembling rap - there is none whatever.
My mother was trained as an artist (painter) and involved in the arts all her life; always inclined to give modern art - especially abstract expressionism - the benefit of the doubt. About a lot of it, I had to disagree. I used to needle her at times by calling it Nart: Not-Art. Rolls off the tongue when one says Moder-Nart! While I regret needling my mother, I don't believe I was wrong about most of it.