PRINT December 1989



IN AN AGE WHEN the interrelatedness of things is increasingly the issue, opera becomes the medium of choice. Multilingual, multicultural, multimedia, diachronic, dialogic, dialectical, and somehow strangely delectable, opera is the one form that seems to have a chance of reproducing and invoking the simultaneities, confusions, juxtapositions, bitter tragedy, and just plain malarkey that constitute the texture of recent history.

This view was shared by Aristotle. It was d synthetic hybrid of music, dance, poetry, painting, and civic-mindedness that served as the basis of discussion in the Poetics. The famous formulation “art is an imitation of reality” (perhaps the word “totality” is a more useful approximation of the Greek) was in reference to the complex synesthetic possibilities of a mixed genre that was eventually reinvented in late-Renaissance Italy under the name of “opera.” There have been many reinventions since. In the last generation, the collaborations of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, and of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, proposed new sets of parameters, a fresh energy, and a further redefinition. But throughout the long history of this mixed genre, whether medieval Christian liturgy or the Noh plays of Zeami, the Javanese Wayang or Wagnerian epic, the philosophical high road has been maintained.

The abandoning of the visible world of appearances for the invisible world of substance is the yearning at the core of the form. The performance is not an object; on the contrary, tremendous effort, intelligence, stupidity, suffering, construction, and years of training and vast expense are gathered toward a huge event that disappears as you watch it. The confounding of the world is implicit in this giant folly that is again and again patently ludicrous and secretly profound, in which a massive buildup of extroversion and superstructure is necessary to reaffirm the primacy of an interior life of the mind and a rebirth of the soul.

In Aristotle’s terms, reversal precedes recognition. In opera, the musical grid structures and objectifies “behavior,” thereby supplying a perfect “alienation” that functions on a Platonic (or Brechtian) scale, which insists that we re-evaluate, re-think, re-cognize a series of actions. At the same time, music offers entry into a private world of emotion and response for which we have no words, and where there are no lies. Realistically speaking, people don’t walk down the street singing. In the realm of the real, they do.

For the last three hundred years or so, music has generally dominated what we now come to think of as the European operatic tradition. A series of the “great composers” have poured their lives into an increasingly complex and elaborated product. But at other times, and in other places, different elements have exerted their hegemony. Aristotle, for example, felt that the work of the poet—the story, or myth—was the most important factor in the mix. In the court traditions of central Java or 17th-century France, dance occupied a place of special favor. In the age of Hollywood movies, television, and Robert Wilson, the image is a source of singular fascination.

And I suspect that it is Hollywood movies, television, and Robert Wilson that have rendered theater temporarily obsolete and forced many of us who are interested in theater to take refuge in the realm of opera and redeem our tattered selves. Theater on its own terms, a certain nostalgic pull notwithstanding, is generally unbearable, and it is only when it is in the hands of a poet, a choreographer, a musician, a painter, or an architect that it returns to life. But in our period, film, video, and technical advances in sound have called into question what theater’s own terms are. It is time for a major overhaul. Right now that work is being carried out by the Wooster Group, for example, or by amateur theater ensembles like Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), which retain an honest capacity to present what has not been or cannot be assimilated.

But at this historic midpoint in American culture, amid the increasing marginalization of art as the special province of an “art world,” a further attraction of opera is its ironic centrality, its political clout. One is dealing in the arena of big money, the preferred (or at least obligatory) form of entertainment for heads of state and the diplomatic corps. One has an audience of “the best people,” the power elite, artists, hangers-on, and fanatics and students who are packing the cheap seats in the fifth balcony. You are performing in the big theater at the center of town, across from City Hall and itself easily mistaken for a government building. You are not pacing back and forth in a picket line on the sidewalk below, you are in the boardroom engaging in direct horizontal address with a strong vertical (art, God, and beauty) to back you up.

The form itself is a metaphor for government: a series of people of widely differing gifts and points of view come together to create a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts. Harmony, coordination, and logistical accomplishment are metaphors. Soloists and chorus are metaphors. The orchestra is a metaphor. And a large-scale societal experiment is carried out in which cities fall and races are extinguished as terrible mistakes are made. These mistakes are not reducible to the petty sloganeering that characterizes the thin, nasty diatribes that pass for political debate on our debased national landscape. These mistakes possess their full measure of wrongheadedness, grandeur, desperation, and hopefulness because we are dealing in an art form that values complexity, accounts for motives, and achieves a perilous temporary equipollence of the inner and outer worlds against the highest stakes. In the end, they all die. But there will be curtain calls.

It is no accident that in our recent Western tradition, the great operas by the great composers—Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner, Moussorgsky, Berg, Shostakovich, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Weill, Dallapiccola, Sessions, and so on—are all major political statements, visions of a national destiny, addressed to the big audience through the big megaphone. Their function was not primarily decorative. These pieces, whatever their individual strategies (against the inherent corruption of the megaphone itself, the suffocating bureaucratic and financial overlay of “made possible by,” and the possibility and near-certainty of censorship), tackled the big issues in the largest available frame. When these pieces are revived in our own time for pleasure and contemplation, they must be so honored.

The main task now is the creation of new pieces. The very prolixity (and possibly obsolescence) of the idea of “national destiny” in our time, and the many nations that must finally be permitted to take possession of both their histories and their destinies, call for further thinking and creation. The “big issues” are not getting simpler. Our time calls for an art that is at least as complex as a toxic-waste-site clean-up. And who is the “big audience”? Further generalities will not do. There are too many languages, and further vocabularies are required. The new technologies suggest new vocabularies; the new societies demand them. Is there an art form that is various and organic and subtle enough to comprehend the social imperatives and questions of identity that confront the next generation? Maybe it’s film. Probably it’s video. But if the issue finally arrives at the point of living people in a room together all at once, include film, press on with video, and let’s make opera.

Peter Sellars is the director of the Los Angeles Festival and is at work on several new operas.