Opera and Romanticism
Gillen D'Arcy Wood, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Short essay argues for the centrality of opera, and its controversies, to Georgian culture, and for its neglect by romanticist scholars to be redressed. Then follow brief synopses of the articles in the volume. This essay appears in _Opera and Romanticism_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (http://www.rc.umd.edu/), University of Maryland.
In his Preface to the first number of the Examiner (1808), Leigh Hunt singles out its "Operatical Review" as a signature of his editorial progressivism. The Examiner opera column, he boasts, "has been the first criticism of the kind worthy the attention of sound readers." Given that Hunt took Italian opera so seriously, and properly assumed the credit for recognizing its importance to London cultural life, he would surely be dismayed to find that, in the two centuries since, literary historians of the late Georgian period have paid it such scant regard.
There are, of course, reasons for this neglect. Taste for opera is like no other. A high-minded reader who frequents galleries and has season tickets for the symphony might despise it, while a pragmatical banker will shed tears with Lucia and Mimi at any opportunity. Something in opera’s appeal resists the processes of consensus formation that have, over the last two centuries, established canonical taste across the other arts. If the Romantic age invented seriousness and the bourgeois novel, then it is to that age we must also look, Hunt’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, for the casting of opera as literature’s anathema: as unacceptably unserious, a cultural embarrassment, almost a cult. As early as 1707, Addison identified the arrival of Italian opera in England with the decline of native literature: "Our Home-spun Authors must forsake the Field/And Shakespear to the soft Scarlatti yield." Steele called opera "nonsense" (45), the precise term used, at the other end of the eighteenth century, by the indignant Mr. Branghton in Burney’s Cecilia (1782).
Anti-operatic discourse since Addison pits operatic nonsense against literary "sense," namely its realist forms and moral goals. As Herbert Lindenberger puts it, "the term operatic . . . implies an opening outwards, a kind of escape from the boundaries of ordinary literary discourse" (70). The Italian opera, at least before Mozart, possessed few stable scores or texts. It was the quintessence of Baroque event-based art, "histrionic, extravagant, gestural, ceremonial, performative," and stood ideologically opposed to the emergent Romantic werk, to the "literary, restrained, referential, mimetic" world of books and reading, art and museum-going (76). This antipathy breaks neatly along class lines, as the stable cultural properties of books and painting in the nineteenth century became more and more identified with middle-class aspiration and identity, and the ephemeral opera with an atavistic, marginalized and disreputably "foreign" aristocratic taste.
But history is written by the winners, and this narrative of opera as a marginal social and aesthetic form is a characteristically nativist, middle-class history. It suppresses the importance of opera both as an essential ritual of Georgian court culture and aristocratic self-identification, and an innovative art form whose impact was inevitably felt by its more respectable sisters, literature not the least. The success of the anti-operatic narrative depends also on the lop-sided nature of the archive. Just as Italian opera of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has left few intact scores, it was the nature of aristocratic life in that period to leave few written records of one’s opinions, and to eschew all forms of commentary or debate in newspapers. Such discoursing was left to the middle-class professionals. The historical reception of Italian opera in England is thus distorted by an overabundance of critique from scribbling clergymen and indignant city-dwelling journalists, with little balancing testimony from the generations of English nobility for whom the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket served as an indispensable hub of their social lives.
This balance has by no means been redressed even now. While eighteenth-century critics railed against the corrosive social effects of an aristocratic opera house in their periodicals, we, their inheritors in the twenty-first century Anglo-American academy, continue to enforce their anti-operatic prejudice by a collective stopping of the ears. The interdiciplinary crossroads between literature, the spoken-word theater, and the visual arts are well worn, but it is as rare to find a college curriculum that offers courses in literature and opera as it is to open a literary-academic journal to find essays on Rossini or Donizetti (Wagner, with his unique place in German kultur, and the over-determined literary apparatus of his works, is perhaps the exception that proves the rule here). In short, some rapprochement between the academic histories of opera and literature is long overdue, and the very production of this special journal issue devoted to the subject implicitly acknowledges that fact.
Notwithstanding its neglect at the hands of literary and cultural historians, important groundwork in opera history has been laid by the most recent generation of musicologists. Dr. Charles Burney’s long chapter on the Italian opera in London in his General History of Music (1789) remains the essential primary text, but little significant research independent of Burney was carried out until the 1970s, when Frederick Petty’s archive-rich Italian Opera in London, 1760-1800 (UMI Research Press, 1972) appeared, as well as Daniel Nalbach’s slim history of the King’s Theatre (The Society for Theatre Research, 1972). Two decades later, Theodore Fenner, author of a previous volume on opera and the Examiner (Kansas, 1972), published a thorough compendium of opera criticism in the romantic period, entitled Opera in London: Views of the Press, 1785-1830 (Southern Illinois, 1994). Petty and Fenner’s labors have been indispensable to the revival (or creation) of period interest in opera, and their efforts have now been joined by the enormous multi-volume research project ongoing from the Clarendon Press: Italian Opera in Late Eighteenth-Century London (1995-), edited by Curtis Price, Judith Milhous, and Robert Hume.
While the arcana of opera house management available in these volumes may not be of enduring interest to scholars of Georgian and Romantic literature, the broader reach of opera culture and aesthetics cannot fail to be. Byron and Shelley were aficionados, Byron, Scott and other romantic authors were routinely adapted to the operatic stage, and Hunt and Hazlitt are the two most significant opera critics of the early nineteenth century. From a larger cultural point of view, as the Clarendon editors state in their Preface, even after the withdrawal of Handel in 1741 "Italian opera remained a prominent and controversial part of London’s cultural life . . . [as] the most glamorous and exclusive of London’s theatres, a satellite of the English court and a magnet for the rich and powerful" (vii). Class was a confused issue in late Georgian Britain, and is confusing to us, but the King’s Theatre in the West End remains an almost unique and even reassuring source for specific accounts of class relations, from Frances Burney’s novels to the groundbreaking opera columns of the Examiner. We might know little of the music Georgian opera-lovers listened to, and care for it less, but the opera house itself, as a public sphere engineered for the performance of class status and cosmopolitan taste, and a forum for increasingly visible class warfare, represents a vital flashpoint of aesthetic and political interests in the long Romantic age.
Italian opera also intersects two established fields of Romanticism: Romantic theater and the gothic. One of the principal objections to the Italian opera was its defiance of the consolidating norms of theatrical realism in spoken drama. Women played men, male sopranos impersonated Roman heroes, and performances orbited entirely around the vocal demands of the castrato or diva, who performed their signature arias in glorious disregard of plot or character. And this is to say nothing of the automatic affront of players representing the natural passions by bursting into song in a foreign language. The King’s Theatre, as such, represents the persistence of Baroque stylization and self-conscious theatricality on the London stage in a period conventionally represented as marking the birth of a hegemonic naturalism. In other respects, however, late Georgian opera is entirely a creature of its time, as susceptible to the popular appeal of the gothic as melodrama and the novel. Where eighteenth-century opera was more likely to emphasize the civic virtues, Romantic opera, beginning, let us say, with Don Giovanni (1787; first produced in London, 1816), soon became synonomous with Gothic excess: with blood, passion, villainy and supernatural machinery.
If the foregoing suggests a form of scholarly moral obligation to study opera, then the essays of this volume make an altogether more attractive case: that with the aid of metaphorical opera glasses, the cross-dressing of operatic spectacle and literary seriousness can appear pleasingly magnified. Two of the contributors, Jennifer Jones and Jessica Quillin, speculate convincingly on the influence of Mozartian opera buffa on Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound and the notorious figure of the opera castrato on Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein respectively, while the remaining authors treat the issue of influence in the more material form of adaptation. Christina Fuhrmann, the solitary musicologist in the group, unravels the complex history of an 1825 Paris opera, La Dame Blanche (based on Scott’s 1815 novel, Guy Mannering), whose success on the Continent and failure in London represents a particularly illuminating instance of Scott’s double role as exotic native. Diane Hoeveler makes a more broad-ranging argument for the mutual resonances of operatic and literary sentimentality, comparing Paisiello’s Nina (1789) to the literary offspring of Richardson’s Pamela (1741). Lastly, Anne Williams takes us directly to the source: her translation of the libretto to Gounod’s La Nonne Sanglante (1854), adapted from the famous episode in Lewis’s The Monk (1796), marks its first appearance in English, and her introductory analysis shows the fascinating transference of gothic effects from the English page to the French operatic stage. That it required one hundred and sixty years for such a translation to appear bears out my essential point regarding the larger historical invisibility of operatic literature in the Anglo-American academy, a state of affairs that all five essays of this volume may be considered to challenge.
Addison, Joseph. "The Prologue." Edmund Smith, Phaedra and Hippolitus, a Tragedy. London, 1707.
Lindenberger, Herbert. Opera: The Extravagant Art. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984.
Steele, Richard. "On Nicolini’s Leaving the Stage." Poetical Miscellanies. London, 1714.