Friday, February 15, 2019

A Translation of "Bürgerliche Oper" by Theodor W. Adorno

Bourgeois Opera

It is certainly impossible to justify centering one’s thoughts on opera on the grounds of its immediate contemporary relevance—this not only because the crisis in the form has been common and received knowledge in Germany for thirty years, in other words, since the great economic crisis; not only because the position and function of opera in present society has become questionable; but rather because additionally and irrespective of its reception opera has taken on an aspect of peripherality and ho-hum-ness that is being combatted only half-heartedly via attempts at innovation that most often and hardly accidentally stall at the halfway mark, particularly when they are attempts to change the musical medium itself.  A much more compelling reason for talking about opera is the fact that in many respects it constitutes a prototype of theatricality, and hence of something that is in an especially badly shaken state today.  In opera the most foundational moments of the stage come to the fore in a state of decay.  These moments perhaps lend themselves most drastically to experience in relation to costume.  Costume is essential to opera: in contrast to a play without costumes, an opera without them would be a paradox.  Even the singers’ gestures, which they employ just like props, are a form of costuming, as is the operatic voice, which ordinary human beings seem to don in a certain sense whenever they set foot on opera stages.  The American expression cloak and dagger, the idea of a scene in which two lovers address each other in song as murderers lurk behind pillars at stage left and right, eccentrically expresses something of the crux of the matter, that aura of make-believe, of play-acting, that draws children into the theater—not because they want to see a work of art, but because they want to find their appetite for dissimulation reaffirmed.  The closer opera is to self-parody, the closer it is to the heart of its native element.

This may explain why so many of the most authentic operas, like Der Freischütz, but also The Magic Flute and Il Trovatore, enjoy full rights of citizenship only in the imaginations of children and embarrass adults, who fancy that they are too clever for them simply because they no longer understand their pictorial language.  But traces of this element of opera still cling to every great form of theater, and when they are sacrificed like the last memory of the green wagon of ethereality, the very act of theatrical performance takes on a lopsided quality; not that the demand for ethereality could ever be forgone via a call for naivety.  There was already something of such a call inherent in the theater-manager’s prologue, and this is why Goethe undercuts the irony of such a prologue in his own work.  Faust balances itself on the tightrope between the naïve and the spiritual and frankly advertises its consciousness of the fact that it is performing a balancing act.  One can discern this operatic quality, a dash of Simone Boccanegra, so to speak, in the most powerful and spirit-imbued characters that have been bequeathed to the theater—in Hamlet, for example; and if one were to expunge this quality from them, the truth-content of their tragic interplaying of individuation and alienation would probably be rendered impotent.

The opera is dominated by the element of semblance in the sense posited in explicit opposition to that of play [Spiel] in Benjamin’s aesthetics.  The term “play opera” [Spieloper, a genre of German opera derived from the Opéra comique (DR)] as a genre-label attests to this very primacy of semblance in emphasizing as characteristic a feature that is otherwise relegated to the background.  Opera eventually finds itself in a crisis because it cannot relinquish its form of semblance without giving itself away completely, and yet it cannot help wishing to do this.  It runs headlong into the aesthetic limits of reification.  If an opera director made worldly-wise by innumerable stage tricks offers, for example, a Lohengrin in which the swan has been replaced by a beam of light, he is attacking the very raison d’être of all such devices and rendering all of them gratuitous.  When the mythical bird can no longer be tolerated, the spectator rebels against the imaginative horizon of the production, and the abstract swan only puts him more vividly in mind of the concrete one.  A child who goes to see a performance of Der Freischütz rightfully feels himself cheated out of the best part of the work when he finds the Wolf’s Glen reduced to a visual allegory of nature.  Reified opera is inevitably threatened by the decorative arts, by stylization as a substitute for the dilapidated style; modernity that does not genuinely intervene in the res turns into mere window-dressing, into modernism; but despite this, opera directors repeatedly feel pressured to make all sorts of desperate interventions.

But the limits of reification are even more drastically evident in the production than in the mise en scène.  When the reification of opera was begun more than sixty years ago in the name of verismo, the “cloak and dagger” principle was retained in all innocence; Cavalleria and Pagliacci offered a fair amount of it then.  But even the new music, in which opera became self-reflexive, did not cross that threshold.  Not only did Schoenberg as an opera composer remain stuck in the domain of the expressive opera, and hence in that of musica ficta, of semblance, both aesthetically and in his treatment of the libretto, but additionally Alban Berg, who is probably still the only first-rate opera composer of the new century, preserved the illusionary essence of opera as an essence explicitly distanced from empirical existence, and he did so both artfully and with the utmost subtlety of touch. In Wozzeck the monologic segregation of the half-insane hero prepares a medium of dreamlike displacement in which the spectacle of the sunset and the imaginary conspiracy of the freemasons play into each other; Lulu stylizes itself as a circus as conceived by Wedekind, a circus itself inhabited by a facet of the opera—namely, its consciousness of the muteness of the spoken word; and the coloratura soprano portraying Lulu must perform a vocal ballet that forestalls any attempt to identify the onstage proceedings with incidents from everyday life and thereby admittedly also renders the performance of the role eminently difficult. Moreover, Stravinsky, who long avoided opera with good reason and eventually attempted to master it through flagrant pastiche, got involved with the circus in his most productive scenic works, Renard and L’Histoire du soldat—probably under the influence of Cubist painting, to be sure—because it was a “corporeal” art, as Wedekind described it, and therefore exempt from the ban on expression; and yet at the same time an art entirely withdrawn from empirical reality.  It is precisely when opera preoccupies itself with that reality, with the rough-and-ready dramatization of, say, so-called social problems—as in Max Brand’s Hopkins the Machinist—that it falls prey to the most hopelessly kitschy symbolism.

But the limits of the reification of opera were perhaps demonstrated most drastically when a mortal enemy of Romanticism like Brecht, who even disparaged Hindemith’s concertante-style opera Cardillac at the time of its premiere by saying of it, “That is Tannhäuser,” took an interest in opera.  Back then he and Kurt Weill posed the question of whether music had to be “cold” or to “warm up” the action, and both of them decided in favor of the latter, and in compositions like Die Dreigroschenoper they left expression in its place, albeit in a tattered and parodic form—presumably this is the essential reason why such broad public success was lavished  and continues to be lavished on this work that least in terms of its dramaturgy is one of the last avant-garde works of the musical theater.
But one would be selling short the essence of opera as well as that of Romanticism if for the sake of that element one were to term it a romantic form plain and simple.  Indeed, its history participates in all those differentiations of style that are subsumed under categories like classical and romantic.  Even Wagnerian music drama, which is considered part of late Romanticism by music history, is chock-full of anti-Romantic features, among which its technological vein perhaps enjoys pride of place.  Accordingly, it would seem appropriate to construe opera as the specifically bourgeois art form, which paradoxically strives to preserve the magical element in art in the midst of the disenchanted world with the aid of that world’s disenchanted means.  The thesis that opera is essentially bourgeois in nature has a provocative ring for more than one reason.  For from the moment Prospero set aside his magic staff and Don Quixote tilted at imaginary supernatural beings in windmills, the overall tendency of the bourgeois age was obviously the opposite one, the tendency towards disillusionment.  But the positivistic tendency of bourgeois art, if “positivistic” is the right word here, has never enjoyed pure and undisputed predominance.  Because aesthetic enchantment itself contains a facet of enlightenment inasmuch as it forgoes all aspiration to immediate truth and sanctions semblance as a separate sphere, in order to be possible as art at all, bourgeois art transformatively generated magic from its own resources, and opera was especially suitable for this process inasmuch as music itself elevates the naked existence on which it impinges.  From ostentation, the archetype of all operatic semblance, in conjunction with the embourgeoisement of art, sprang all other genres of art, including the cathedral according to certain recent theories; in his work “Egoism and the Freedom Movement,” Horkheimer has described the significance of pageantry to all bourgeois ideology, in which pageantry one may perhaps discern a secularization of or substitute for ceremonial pomp.  Secular ostentation, the material presentation of the irrational power and greatness of the bourgeois class, a presentation that simultaneously conceals irrationality under its spell, was essential to opera from at least an early stage of its development to the time of Richard Strauss; the element of costume in opera is scarcely separable from its element of ostentation.

There are also good historical grounds for siting opera within bourgeois civil society rather than within the feudal or courtly culture to which convention consigns it.  Its sonic amplitude and massed choral forces alone seem addressed to a much wider circle than that of the aristocracy, which maintained the prerogative of sitting in the proscenium but ceded the stalls, the space in which opera is actually best heard and viewed, to the bourgeoisie.  One might even ask if there has ever been any such thing as a feudal or aristocratic art form in a strict sense; whether the feudal nobility in their contempt for all artisanal labor has not always allowed art to be produced exclusively by the bourgeoisie, and if the Hegelian dialectic of mastery and slavery, which allots disposal over the object to its maker, is not constantly running its course in art, such that the bourgeois artists who worked on the most important commissions were not thinking more of their own kind than of the commissioners themselves.  The depiction of feudal relationships as it has been effected since Homeric times already presupposes that these relationships are no longer being immediately taken for granted, that they have already become problematic in a certain sense; and just as actual feudal aristocrats from Plato to de Maistre are actually little accustomed to thinking “restoratively” but are rather autonomous, rationally speculative subjects seeking motivations for an already bygone dispensation, the feudal aristocrats who as kings and heroes form the subject-matter of ancient art were incapable of shaping that subject-matter in a self-distancing manner; Volker von Alzey is Hagen’s friend, but he is not Hagen.

In any case, the origins of opera have a moment of rational settlement and construction, and indeed of abruptness, that was extremely difficult to square with the conceptions of feudal traditionalism.  Much after the manner of late technological forms like film, opera owes its establishment to a decision which, although it explicitly highlights historical correspondences and the notion of a revival of ancient tragedy, cannot (if one disregards the quite rudimentary genre of madrigal opera) be assimilated to any sort of continuous historical timeline.  As Hanns Gutmann pointed out in the title of an essay some thirty years ago, opera was invented by men of letters, a Florentine circle of connoisseurs, writers, and aesthetically reform-minded musicians towards the end of the sixteenth century.  It then enjoyed its first flowering in the republic of Venice, hence in the social conditions of a mature bourgeois world, and the first great opera composers—Monteverdi, Cavalli, and Cesti—were denizens of that world; it was hardly by chance that opera first came into vogue in Germany thanks to Reinhard Keiser in the Hanseatic city of Hamburg.  The actual courtly epoch of opera, that of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries—the world of maestros, prima donnas, and castratos, which developed out of the Neapolitan school—already signaled its absolutist late phase, in which the emancipation of the bourgeoisie had proceeded so far in all facets of society that opera could scarcely sequester itself from that class.  At about this time the bourgeoisie also forcibly secured its material admission to the musical stage in the intermezzo.

Opera shares with film not only the suddenness of its invention but also many of its functions.  Foremost among these is its exhibition of the cultural heritage to the masses, not to mention the massive scale of its means, which opera, like film, applied teleologically to its subject-matter, and which imparted to opera a similarity to the modern culture industry beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, if not earlier.  Meyerbeer already took liberties with history in dramatizing religious wars and political crises; he personalized them and thereby neutralized them, so that nothing of the substances of the conflicts remained, and in his version of St. Bartholomew’s Day, Catholics and Huguenots are marveled at cheek by jowl as in the Panopticon.  From this pattern the film, in particular the color film, subsequently developed its canon.  It is, incidentally, astonishing how early many of the most abhorrent bad habits for which today’s culture industry is reproached are heralded in the opera, in which the naïve visitor of times past expects something like pure autonomy; thus the libretto of Der Freischütz is already an “adaptation” of the kind fabricated in Hollywood, and the script writer Kind turned the tragic conclusion of the fatalistically romantic short story on which his libretto is based into a happy ending, presumably with an eye to the tastes of his Biedermeier audience, who were already anxiously looking forward to the hero and heroine’s wedding in the final scene.  Even the Wagnerian Humperdinck, having grown sick of the founder of the Beyreuth’s defamation of all commercial productions, made the Brothers Grimm consumer-friendly, so that in his version of “Hansel and Gretel” the children are no longer kicked out of the house by their parents as in the original fairy tale, because by the late nineteenth century it was utterly impermissible to undermine respect for the figure of the devoted father. Such cases make it starkly evident how thickly opera as a consumer good—in this respect also like film—is encrusted with speculations about the audience.  Admirers of aesthetic economy cannot simply dismiss this encrustation as a superficial excrescence.  The audience is immanent in the very spirit of the dramatic form.  It would be absurd to entertain the notion of a self-contained stage on par with the legitimate idea of self-contained poems and self-contained music.
Nevertheless, ever since the experiments of the Florentines, this spirit of opera has been closely bound up with myth even in the midst of its increasing secularization.  But this relationship to myth does not merely mean the mimesis of mythical nexuses via musical ones—although perhaps Wagner’s fate was construable in such terms; it means, rather that in opera music transformatively intervenes in the blind, hopeless natural nexus of destiny as depicted in western mythology, and that the audience is summonsed as a witness, if not as the court of highest appeal.  This intervention is even planned for in one of the great Greek myths, that of Orpheus, who via music mollifies the formidable dominance of the zyklos to which he was losing Eurydice only to fall victim to destiny himself once again when his manically spellbound gaze alights on the realm from which he was escaping with her.  The first authentic opera, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, willingly shoulders the blame accruing to Orpheus; Gluck in instituting his reforms went back to Orpheus as the archetype of opera, and it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that opera in its entirety is Orpheus, an assertion that only Wagnerian music drama tellingly denies.

The operas that most purely exemplify the genre almost continuously rectify myth through music, and this is why there is less justice in the notion that opera participates in myth than in the one that it participates in enlightenment as collective social movement.  This is nowhere more evident than in The Magic Flute in which magic is married to freemasonry in such a way that the natural forces of fire and water are rendered impotent by the sound of the flute, in which the spell of the ever-same is broken.  Sarastro’s sphere towers over the kingdom of the mother and its ambiguous interleaving of justice and injustice.  He is a stranger to revenge, from which that mythologist and enlightener Nietzsche declared he would do everything in his power to deliver us.  But even the fanfare in Fidelio almost ritualistically fulfils the moment of protest that forces open the eternal hell of the dungeon, and the dominion of force prepares that inferno’s end.  This interleaving of myth and enlightenment—the interleaving of imprisonment, in a blind and self-oblivious system, and the idea of freedom, which arises in the midst of this system—defines the bourgeois essence of opera.  Its metaphysics may be inextricable from this social essence.  Metaphysics is by no means a domain of invariance, a domain that one might get a permanent hold of if one were to gaze out through the barred window of the historical; it is the sunbeam of semblance that falls, however impotently, into the prison itself; the more powerfully, the more deeply, its ideas sink into history, the more ideologically, the more abstractly, is history confronted by it. Opera, being rarely infected with philosophy, has preserved itself better from its ravages than has the drama, which contaminated its metaphysical content with content supplied by ideas as subject-matter, and it was for this very reason that the drama forfeited this content, the philosophy objectively meant by the drama, to the philosopheme that the drama itself means in the barest sense.

The unity of truth content with historical content is palpably demonstrable in opera, whose texts—or, as they are probably more properly known, libretti—have come in for harsh criticism since Wagner’s polemic against them in the nineteenth century.  It is as impermissible to deny the conventional, unspectacular, and fatuous character of these libretti as it is to deny their affinity with the marketplace, their commodity character, which effectively renders them placeholders of the as-yet-unborn film industry.  It is no less unmistakable that it is precisely in virtue of their serf-like subordination to the whims of the self-glorifying and already imperialistically greedy bourgeoisie that the libretti—which are of course by no means freestanding literary works but rather stimuli to the composition of music—simultaneously contain the anti-mythological, enlightening moment—and contain it specifically in relation to that stratum of secularized myth—in the idea of a doom ordained by fate, an idea that they take to ridiculous extremes in Il trovatore or La forza del destino. But the shape of the anti-mythological in a libretto of the nineteenth century is exogamy, as well as its flipside, and so it was quite logical that Wagner, who delivered up opera to myth as the spoils of his pillage, quite logically thrust incest into the center of the operatic ritual.  Already in Mozart’s Entführung the voice of humanity—here admittedly as yet only a speaking voice—is that of the exotic tyrant, who holds the European couple in custody only so that he can quiescently set them free like Thoas.  Ever since then, opera has been interminably smitten with everything foreign-blooded or otherwise “beyond the pale.”  Halévy’s Juive, Meyerbeer’s Africain, the Dame aux Camélias in Verdi’s version, and the Egyptian [actually Ethiopian (DR)] princess Aida, Delibes’ Lakmé, not to mention the procession of gypsies, culminating in Il trovatore and Carmen: everything foreign or proscribed, by which passion is inflamed and driven into conflict with the established order.

By comparison with this ritual of attempted breakout, the anti-conventional Wagner remained far more conventional than the librettists he despised: with the primeval wisdom of Wotan’s “Everything goes its own way,” he affirmed the immanence of bourgeois society and obstructed that breakout and indeed propagated a stew in which his sinful incestuous married couple ostensibly appalls the stalls.  The transfiguration of whatever simply goes its own way, of whatever simply exists, as a transfiguration of a mystery, that metaphysics that he wrongly believes to be incomparably superior to the political conflicts of the great operas, is inextricable from the fact that with him for the first time bourgeois ingenuity renounces the impulse towards breaking out and resigns itself to a state of affairs that it itself surmises to be deserving of annihilation. In the nineteenth century, the bourgeois yearning for freedom takes refuge in the representative spectacle of the opera as it does in the great novel, of whose complexion the opera is multifariously reminiscent; it is Wagner, in whom myth triumphs over freedom, who first supplements freedom’s absence by proving to be utterly compliant to the demands of cold, resigned bourgeois realism in his unrealistic music dramas.  And it is in the era of full-throttled imperialism, in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, that the motif of exogamy is first downscaled to the dimensions of the figure of the forsaken young maiden without even compensatively inducing the purebred married naval officer to feel seriously attached to his Japanese mistress.  It was precisely because opera, being a bourgeois rest stop, got so little involved in the social conflicts of the nineteenth century that it was allowed to reflect the developmental tendency of bourgeois society itself so crassly.  It is the seal of authenticity of Alban Berg’s oeuvre that in his second opera, Lulu, he yielded unreservedly to his instinct for play and his operatic sense of costuming by electing to write yet another opera on the subjects of exogamy and breaking out; his motherless and fatherless young woman is irresistible; everyone who enters her sphere wants to get with her and away from her like Don José with his gypsy girl; all of them suffer the revenge of the existent and are ultimately devoured by the revenge of beauty itself, which is alien and which celebrates its supreme victory in the midst of its downfall.  In opera the bourgeois individual transcends into a human being.

The librettos merely provide pointers to all this.  What is decisive is the relationship of the music to the text, or rather—for the opera libretto had long since been what the Hollywood film script freely acknowledges itself to be, a “vehicle”—to the scenery and the singers playing the characters.  The contradiction between living, embodied characters, who speak discursively as in drama, and the medium of vocal music that they employ, is notoriously well-known.  Time and again, in Florentine monody, in Gluck’s reforms, in Wagner’s Sprechsgesang, there have been attempts to circumvent or palliate this contradiction, and in doing so to further the pure, uninterrupted, undialectical self-containedness of opera as a form.  But the contradiction runs too deep into the very seams of the form to have been resolvable by such half-measures as the recitative, which is certainly justifiable in terms of establishing zones of contrast within the form.  If opera possesses any meaning whatsoever, if it is more than a mere agglomeration—and this is what people seem to suggest when they subsume it under the umbrella-phenomenon of genre—this meaning must be sought in the aforementioned contradiction itself, rather than via any vain attempt to abolish this contradiction in the name of an all-too-hapless aesthetic unity coming into being under the turbid auspices of “symbolism.”   

In connection with this one will recall the definition of the complementary art form of the novel that Lukács gave forty years ago.  According to that definition, in the midst of a disenchanted world, the novel asks: how can life become intrinsically worthwhile? But the answer to this question is also being sought whenever a living person starts to sing onstage.  His voice would like to call forth from life something of the distant echo of meaning.  It is probably in this desire that the specifically ideological element of opera, its affirmative element, inheres.  The heroes of Attic tragedy, from which opera is separated by a chasm in the philosophy of history, had no need to sing: the omnipresent myth’s submission to the tragic process precipitated an immediate discharge of meaning, the emancipation of the subject from the bare nexus of nature, and it would never occur to anyone to confuse the heroes of the tragic stage with empirical human beings, inasmuch as what is being fulfilled by them and through them is nothing other than the representation of the birth of the human being himself.

In contrast, the opera, being stamped in equal measure by Christianity and modern rationality, has from the outset dealt with empirical human beings, and specifically with empirical human beings of a sort who have been reduced to their bare natural essence.  This underpins its peculiar treatment of costume: mortals are attired as though they were heroes or gods, and this attire is pre-cut from the same cloth as their obligation to sing.  Via song they are elevated and transfigured.  The performance becomes specifically ideological inasmuch as such transfiguration is being bestowed specifically on quotidian existence; inasmuch as what simply is is being presented as though its mere existence were already something more than that, as though the rules of society as mirrored in operatic convention were identical with those of the absolute, of the world of ideas.  This ideological primeval essence of opera, this essence that is also its greatest and most ineradicable nuisance, encourages such extreme manifestations of decadence as the comically fussy and self-important behavior of certain singers who fetishize their own voice as though it really were the divine gift that the publicists proclaim it to be. The fact that this ideological vein became unbearable, that the presentation of the meaningless as meaningful inevitably becomes laughable in a world in which bare existence, the nexus of delusion, threatens to devour humanity in its entirety—this is the actual cause of that idiosyncratic phenomenon chattily deplored as the crisis in opera.

But opera is as little exhausted by this ideological vein as is aesthetic semblance in general. The latter is both the gilding of the existent and the reflected glory of what would be different; the surrogate of the happiness that is denied to human beings, and the promise of that happiness’s genuine form.  While the gestural repertoire of singing dramatic personages fraudulently glosses over the fact that as pre-stylized beings they do not even really enjoy the possibility of singing, let alone any reason for doing so, at the same time, there resounds within this repertoire something of the hope of reconciliation with nature: singing, a utopia of prosaic existence, is at the same time the memory of the pre-linguistic undivided state of nature, just as it resounds in the words of the woodbird in the most beautiful passage in all the librettos of Wagner’s Ring cycle.  Operatic song is the language of passion: not only the inflationary stylization of existence, but also the expression of the fact that in man nature asserts itself in defiance of all convention and mediation, an evocation of pure immediacy.  Since the invention of basso continuo and opera, there has been a theory of affects in music, and opera is always most like itself when it sighingly surrenders itself to passion.  In this act of self-surrender to nature inheres its elective affinity with myth and with the epic’s modern descendant, the novel.  But as the sung passion floods back just like an echo; as the sound of the immediate that hoists itself aloft of indurate life, is reflected, passion, which finds the sound, is propitiated along with the self-conscious existence of those who sing as if they were unselfconscious.  Opera is therefore no mere copy of myth but rather its reflection in the medium of music, which is both a natural element and its thoroughgoing mirroring by spirit.  Song in opera gives scope to that which as passion incorporates human beings into the nexus of nature.  In it human beings interrogate themselves at the same time as they interrogate it as nature, even as their predilection for nature calcifies, and the mythical element, passion, is placated by this selfsame interrogation. Their freedom does not inhere in spirit as it autocratically hoists itself aloft of creation.  Rather, spirit as music becomes similar to nature and in virtue of such similarity casts off its seigneurial essence.
The operatic form celebrates this process in the singing of human beings who as human beings are actually ashamed of singing and are indeed obliged to be ashamed of it.  The operatic form is perhaps fulfilled most completely when it voluntarily sacrifices all pretense to soul and expression and passes over into the artificial imitation of natural sound; coloratura is not simply a form of superficial exaggeration but rather precisely where the idea of opera shines forth in all its purity, and Wagner never came closer to it than in his part-music for the woodbird.  Berg was inspired by the ingenuity of opera as a genre when he made Lulu, the destructive manifestation of nature with which his opera makes its peace, a coloratura role without concurrently committing himself even ever so slightly to mimicking the irretrievably obsolete phases of the operatic essence. 

The fact that Berg was unable to finish orchestrating the work says something about its form.  Opera has been in a precarious state since the high-bourgeois society that sustained full-fledged opera ceased to exist.  The fundamental disruption of the form and its lack of resonance complement each other without allowing the question of cause and effect to be answered in simple terms. Opera has depended on so many conventions that it rings out into the void as soon as listeners cease to find these conventions vouched for by tradition; the newcomer who has not learned to marvel at opera and respect its impertinences in his childhood will despise it as a mixture of barbarity and precociousness, while the intellectually progressive audience can hardly any longer react immediately, spontaneously, to a limited group of works that has long since sunk to the level of petit-bourgeois living-room furniture like the Raphael paintings exploited in innumerable reproductions; but the cumulative immanent difficulties of the form, especially that suppression of inner tension that is observable in all of today’s artistic activity, have so far prevented opera from garnering fresh relevance from the production of new works.  To a large extent, it is effectively a kind of museum, and it even participates in the museum’s positive function—namely, helping that which is threatened with falling silent to survive; what happens on the operatic stage is more than anything like a museum of bygone images and gestures clung to out of a need for retrospection.

Such an institution is tailor-made for that type of opera audience that always wants to hear the same thing over and over again and is hostile towards anything unfamiliar, or worse still, passively and apathetically lets everything wash over it because its season subscription condemns it to do so.  The situation of opera is an unenviable one in the midst of administered mankind, which, under whatever political system, no longer cares about liberation, escape, or reconciliation, as these were brought into view by the opera of the early bourgeoisie, but instead frantically plugs its ears against the sound of humanity in order to be able endure being ground by the gears of administration complacently, cheerfully, resignedly.  Once upon a time the bourgeoisie were bearers of both the critique of mythology and the idea of the infinite restitution of nature; today the former critique has become as alien to them as the latter yearning, and they have come to terms with their own alienation as unreservedly as with the semblance of the inevitable that surrounds them, with the second mythology.  As long as this spiritual condition and the indurate relations that dictate it remain in force, opera will have little to look forward to.

Perhaps that would change if opera succeeded in divesting itself of its ideological, quotidian existence-transfiguring essence and emphasizing its other, conciliatorily anti-mythological essence.  But can we have the one, the so-called positive essence, without the other, the negative one? All theatrical reification by means of the principles of construction reaches its limits in the living human being to whom the mise en scène ultimately refers.  If it eschews the cheat of human immediacy, of private psychology, it is threatened by the banner, the intention arbitrarily and inflationarily interpolated into existence, an intention that would become bearable only if one were to leave behind every last vestige of empirical existence from which that existence derives its determination and force.  It is scarcely possible to disentangle the good from the bad threads of the knot expunged as romanticism in an act of ascesis that has often subsequently taken the path of least resistance.  That technique—borrowed from Stravinsky and residually present behind his sovereignty throughout his own oeuvre—of disenchanting opera by statically, stingily concatenating motivic patterns with stereotypical syncopations; the anti-dramatic music of today’s music drama, already exudes such a degree of monotony and tedium that one cannot but be astonished that the composers themselves, Stravinsky included, do not rebel against it.  At minimum any effort to come up with an unideological, semblance-free version of operatic composition must be expected to preserve all the sophistication and complexity of opera’s procedures while renouncing its superstitious attachment to its own origins.

One must compose with a hammer as Nietzsche wished to philosophize with a hammer; in other words, one must repeatedly tap the object while listening out for hollow spots with a critical ear, but avoid splitting it in two and confusing its jagged ruins with an advanced achievement on account of their resemblance to bombed-out cities.  The obtuse template of a musical economy of scarcity, a matter-of-factness that dispenses with the exertion of the imagination and credits its own complacency with overcoming that which one is not, has entrenched itself as deeply today as the conventions of court theater ever did without thereby indisputably allowing the enchantment of the theater to survive as a special sphere conserved in the flight from film.  But the richer, the more multiform, the more contrastive, the more multilayered the construction of theatrical works becomes, the more easily does such artistic and, if you will, windowless coherence of the work acquire a portion of meaning that it no longer wishes to compel to testify on its behalf, as the cliché requires.  Only if all the plenitude of musical means answers a humane accusation by arousing something of that tension between the musical and the scenic media that is utterly lacking in today’s theater could opera regain the strength of the historical image.


Source:  Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Werke, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. in collaboration with Gretel Adorno, Susan Buck-Morss, and Klaus Schultz (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 1986; Directmedia: Berlin, 2003), Vol. 16, pp. 24ff. “Bürgerliche Oper” originated as a lecture delivered at the 1955 Darmstadt Symposium; it was published in Theater, edited by Egon Vietta (Darmstadt, 1955), p. 119ff. and then in Der Monat, Vol. 84, Sept. 1955, pp. 532ff.