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'Literature and the Long Modernity'

Tuesday, 15 November 2011 , ora 11.53
 
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...this was the theme of the international conference held between November 10th and November 12th, 2011 by the Centre of Excellence for the Study of Cultural Identity and by the Romanian Cultural Institute.

By attending the event, I had prepared myself to learn all I could learn about modernity and literature. I was not ready to listen to renowned professors from universities like Munich referring to Mendelssohn's problem in finding printed scores by Mozart, to 'Swan Lake' ballet by Tchaikovsky, to poems which talk of pianos and violins, to tempo and dodecaphony. During the ceremony of awarding the title Honoris Causa to the University of Bucharest, I did not think I would hear songs by Francis George Scott or that authorities in such fields as Alexander Pope or Postmodernism and Critical Theory would say that to them Romania amounts to Enescu's music, which they love, and the personalities of Dinu Lipatti, Constantin Silvestri, Sergiu Celibidache.

On top of this, during the conference on Literature and the Long Modernity a study about the 'Muzical Modernism of Oliver Messiaen' was presented: a short biography, musical examples, video projections proposed by Professor Michael Hutcheon from the University of Toronto. To begin with, I have asked him his reason for chosing to talk about a composer, during this type of conference and why Messiaen in particular.

Messiaen is a very renowned composer, a very important one; one might say the most important French composer born in the 20th century. I think he was greatly influenced in what he did and in the way he did it by literary models, especially by Symbolist ones. He liked Symbolism because of the possibility that an art could exist that had a connection with something beyond our senses, beyond the reality we normally experience. Moreover, Messiaen was also influenced by Claude Debussy's opera 'Pelléas and Mélisande' and by 'Ariane et Barbe-bleue' (Ariadne and Bluebeard) by Paul Dukas - both operas having been composed based on symbolic plays written by Maurice Maeterlinck. And when he accepted, after much reservation, to compose opera himself, he chose a way of bringing it on stage by using the symbolist methods, by trying to evoke a transcendent emotion in this very religious story, 'Saint François d'Assise', libretto and music, both composed by a very religious man.


Why do you think, professor Hutcheon, that Messiaen was reluctant in composing opera?

Messiaen had a rich musical background and since childhood he received scores as Christmas or birthday presents. Later on, as a professor, he taught opera, but for Messiaen this genre was something for the paper, rather than something that could be played on stage - even though he was himself a frequent goer to opera houses. But he said that he could not see how the form of opera could progress after the 'Wozzeck' moment. He was so impressed by that theatrical and musical play by Berg that he really did not know what else could be done from then on. Messiaen probably would have liked to write an oratorio - he did not really believe he had a talent for opera that is why he was so reserved. Messiaen was a very religious man, everything he wrote, regardless of the genre or the title, had something to do with religion one way or the other, and his conviction was that he was transposing the Romano-Catholic faith into music. I think the personality of Saint Fransis was a natural choice - he could not have performed Christ the Saviour on stage and so he chose Saint Francis, whom he thought was probably the closest to Christ in being willingly poor, in humility and in his love for nature - which Messiaen also felt.


Is it possible for Messiaen's choice, the life of the Saint Francis of Assisi, as a subject for his composition, to have finally restored the reputation of this genre - opera, which was prohibited because of the decadence it represented?

Indeed, opera was prohibited in the Papal States at the beginning of the 18th century; I do not know if 'Saint François d'Assise' could have done something to erase the equivalence between opera and decadence, but what is interesting about this opera is its magnitude and message. It requires enormous forces - a big orchestra of 119 musicians, a big choir and a lot of soloists; that is why it is very rarely performed. But when it is performed, it is truly an event! And, for Messiaen, this type of music was very significant as an expression of his wish to portray, once more, the truth behind the Catholic faith on stage in a way that people can feel it, that they can come in contact with. He had hoped, I believe, that the audience will experience some kind of religious feeling by listening to his music.


At the conference on
Literature and the Long Modernity, Linda Hutcheon was also invited, an authority in fields such as Postmodern Culture or Critical Theory and, together with her husband, the author of many books about opera. Where does the love and interest for opera come from?


I wish I could say that I love opera because of my Italian origin - even though my husband's name is Hutcheon, I was born a Bortolotti! But actually I did not grow up listening to opera; I have fallen in love with it while I was at the university in Bologna. I saw then for the first time an opera performance and I found myself facing an amazing form of art - there it was: wonderful music, a play being staged and even more, important human themes being presented. For a person like me, coming from a world of letters, this type of music with 'literature attached' to it or which literature was a part of, if you will, was a form of multi-art that I fell in love with.


One of your books, that you co-wrote with your husband, Professor
Michael Hutcheon, is 'Opera - The Art of Dying'. How did you choose this theme?

There is a paradox that has intrigued us, me and my husband who is a medic, so death is for him an important element. If it is as they say, that Western culture is a culture in which death is denied, it is a phenomenon we do not want to face, we found it strange that opera, which is obsessed with love and death, is so successful. 'There is something strange here' we thought, and we started studying how death is represented, what functions it has in the narrative discourse of the opera. We found that death is not something negative, but positive - for example Tristan and Isolde, the two lovers that cannot be together in life and are united in death, and there are many works based on the same principle.


This made us wonder if seeing an opera about death allows us to experience, to think of death as a safe thing. In other words, opera is very artificial - it is sung, it is played by actors who sing, the narrative flows in an artificial rhythm. But when you see a character facing the death of someone they love, as it happens in the history of Orpheus, this could allow you, as a spectator, to experience that death, but without the fear, it could allow you to understand it. We realised then that this concept of ours is very similar to the ideas found in early modernism - ars moriendi and contemplatio mortis. You were supposed to picture your own death in great dramatic detail, almost theatrical - all the anxiety, the suffering, your family's reaction, your own pain. Then, after having meditated for a while on death, you would come back to the real world, happy to be alive, but in a way you had prepared for your own death. So we were wondering if going to the opera in our culture has the same meaning.


So opera is a psychological way of trying to face the idea of death?

It can have this function, yes.


Why opera more than theatre - they both portray death on stage?

Because of its power, the power of music. The force of music adds to the force of impact that the dramatic text has. It operates at the emotional level, not rational - music has this force and because of it the experiences are more intense.


Why do we feel the need to go to opera in our day and age, when everything is postmodern, in plain sight - opera being such a conventional art?

It is conventional in its 18th and 19th century form; in contemporary form it is quite different. I think the ritual nature of the opera gives comfort and makes it very appealing. This complete form of art - musical, poetical, theatrical - is similar to films, but because it is live it has such an extremely powerful impact. Opera offers everything that films have to offer, but it has that extraordinary success, the same one that rock concerts have, because it addresses all senses.


Why does opera work so closely with the adaptation process - besides that fact that opera was originally an adaptation of Greek tragedies to music?

Maybe because of economic reasons - opera is a very expensive form of art; I believe that when the composer and the librettist will write an opera they will chose a subject that is popular, which has been successful - a novel, a play, today they can even chose a film - a subject that they know will attract an audience, a confirmed, previously tested audience. Performing an opera requires soloists, orchestra, choir and a whole team to bring the show to life - that is why they will choose a subject that will be appreciated by a large audience. I think this is also the reason we see the development of this new type of opera, the chamber opera, with, let's say, five musicians and three singers. This is the type in which we see radical changes, because here we are not forced by convention, we do not have to choose a story we know is safe.


One of your classes, in the
Opera Exchange Program, deals with the study of cultural history, the way it is transmitted through the means of opera. Should I understand that in opera what conveys the cultural information is the text and the libretto is the story?

And the music! It is a combination. Mozart composes a certain musical piece for the stories that da Ponte offers him, other composers - a different one. Wagner and Verdi are very interesting examples, they are among those who have discovered not only the power of narrative, but narrative set to music, in building not only a national language idiom, but also a national music idiom that have the weight and the force of the nationalist expression. This combination of the literary and musical art is what transformed Wagner and Verdi into the national symbols they still are to this day.

When I was saying earlier that opera is a conventional art I was thinking more about the fact that - and this statement comes from a person that loves opera - this form of art is strange, even amusingly absurd: we watch for three hours some people who sing a text that they could recite in a much, much shorter period of time!

Indeed, the convention is present here, and we forget that - the characters do not know they are singing! They think they are speaking! Are, as they say, deaf to the entire musical world they are swimming in. The orchestra, on the other hand, sings for us, for the audience; it tells us a different story - sometimes it can be the same story but only more powerful through music, other times it can be a completely different story, as it is with Wagner: the character sings a message, and what we hear from the orchestra is something different, there are two theme songs, other musical connections. There are two simultaneous musical discourses.

But we also forget that the characters are actually singing! That is why we have those charming, strange moments in the opera when someone says 'come on, sing us something' or 'let's sing a toast'. Well, wait a minute, what do you mean 'let's sing', you have been doing this for quite some time now! But we accept this convention, and I believe that a part of the pleasure we experience is because of this artifice.


Is there such a thing as postmodern opera?

I believe so; this is what I have tried to show in one of my books. One of the examples I have given is a postmodern opera by John Corigliano, 'The Ghosts of Versailles', which starts from the third piece by Beaumarchais about Figaro - the first two gave us 'Le Mariage de Figaro' and 'Le Barbier de Séville'. Corigliano composes an opera within an opera, very self-reflexive: the audience in the opera house is the audience from the Court of King Louis the XVI, where there is also Marie Antoinette and Beaumarchais - but, just as the rest of the spectators, they too are ghosts. Corigliano pictured a way to interfere with time, with history in an ironic but serious way - Beaumarchais wants to change history, to save Marie Antoinette from death, and Corigliano's story mixes together with the authentic piece by Beaumarchais. So, I do believe there is a postmodern opera.

Maria Monica Bojin
Translated by Florina Sãmulescu and Mihaela Melneciuc
MTTLC, Bucharest University