Opera and Religion : Oil and Water, or Waoil?

At Nick's request (this is Majel, not Nick speaking in the third person), I'm posting a recent email exchange that we exchanged -- certainly not in an effort to make either of us look smart because, frankly, I sound outright mental while Nick at least demonstrates that he went to school, but because if it elicits feedback (which I desperately need) the humiliation will not have been in vain.

ME (today, early in the morning):

It's starting to look like the focus of my dissertation is something that has never been addressed in musicology (unless I'm heinously mistaken). Not only do I find the topic fascinating, I find it fascinating that NO ONE seems to have ever thought to address it, or has had the slightest interest in addressing it. But I'm also having trouble putting it into focus.

A few months ago, I started to think about the way that SO many of the operas we perform today take biblical or otherwise religiously-themed subjects as their starting points. This in itself is pretty interesting, even though you could easily make the case that all art, literature and music stem from religious beginnings. But not only would that be way bigger than one dissertation, my field is music, and there the evidence is in abundance:

Many of Handel's operas from the 18th century (Jephtha, Saul, Judas Maccabaeus, Israel in Egypt, Solomon, Theodora, Die Schöpfung), and from the 19th Parsifal, Nabucco, Giovana d'Arco, I puritani, Samson et Dalila, Hérodiade, and oh, Lord, you could stretch this list to include stuff like Robert le Diable and all the many Faust operas, and in the 20th century there's Salome, Moses und Aron, Dialogue of the Carmelites, Wozzeck, and if you stretch it Four Saints in Three Acts, Rake's Progress and maybe Satyagraha and El Nino are vaguely spiritualized operas, speaking of which, you might have caught Dr Atomic's "Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God" (on poetry by Donne), and so on and on.

The point is, even though opera had a religious point of departure hundreds of years ago making religious themes an obvious point of fixation THEN, composers STILL love to enact scenes from the bible or create intensely religious moments in their operas. They love to quote huge sections of the bible (Schoenberg for Moses und Aron). And surely del Tredici imports old medieval plainchant into his operas, doesn't he? Everything about what these people do draws on religion. BUT: writing on religious subjects and using religious music does not and has never made it possible for opera to become *religious* music/drama. There's something that performatively (in the Austinian sense, if you know this guy) bars opera from taking on a significance that all music performed in church has automatically. In the same way that the piece of bread you receive during communion IS literally the body of Christ, the music in church IS literally religious music; but opera performed in church has no IS. In Austinian terminology it would I think be an "unhappy" or "infelicitous" performative. (Although, being the music director at an Episcopal church, maybe I should try that out. What do you think?) Opera can, it seems, TREAT religion, but it is limited to critique and commentary of the latter.

The reverse, it's worth noting, is also true: a lot of previously religious music is still performed in church, but has lost its significant IS by being available in the "classical" bin at Borders. [Does the religious/classical combo music serve today as a vaguely "spiritual" substitute for people who no longer have religion in their lives? Is there some weird, deep alienated post-individualistic feeling that makes us reach out for Bach in our hour of 21st-century need? YES! Of course it is. I guess Bob Fink already wrote this book.]

Maybe it's also worth turning to see how the line between sacred and secular works in the other arts. If Johnny Cash writes a song with God in it, does he thereby become a Christian rock artist, God forbid? Not really. But what about C.S. Lewis's allegorical novels? Well, we tend to pigeon-hole him as a religious writer. If Mel Gibson makes a film about Christ's death, does that make him less of an asshole (that last one was just a joke)? [On that last point, though, doesn't it seem possible today to be religious without being religious -- what in God's name is the Church of Scientology anyway if not a church with no God in it? This goes hand-in-hand with my comment on Borders, earlier.]

It also seems worth considering that a lot of composers who didn't do operas with religious themes did set a whole hell of a lot of music outside the theater to religious texts (Britten!!) which would seem to suggest that there's something about theatricality that alienates the religious impulse from itself. Add theater and you lose God. In the same vein, the truly religious composers of today (Taverner and the other two) don't write operas. (Cause operas are somehow the work of the devil?)

Are you worried I'm getting really interested in religion? Cause I am.


NICK (later today):

I don't think I have a whole lot to say on this except that I think there's probably plenty of (non-musical) writing on the slow and steady secularization of western culture over the last 500 years, and by what means other things have come to occupy that spiritual hole that religion used to fill. And I'll bet that you could approach this body of writing from many angles -- you could find the religious studies people's thoughts, the sociology people's thoughts, the psychology people's thoughts, the pop-culture people's thoughts -- I'll bet you could even find some really great Russian-studies/Communist/Marxist studies on the same.

I also know that there's writing (although I forget by whom) on Mendelssohn's (and other composers of his day) creation of "religious kitsch" -- see, for example, Elijah. I think the argument was something to the effect of how Handel set religious stories, but Mendelssohn tried to BRING RELIGION into the concert hall. Just check out his choral writing in that piece -- it's totally Bach lines and voice-leading but with Mendelssohn harmony. But this is problematic, yes? Bach wrote FOR the church. Bach's music was utilitarian-sacred. Even the big ones -- the Passions, the B-minor mass. These were FUNCTIONAL in the church. Not so for Mendelssohn ... not so for any "mass" or "requiem" after Felix, except maybe for Bruckner, whose masses were, again, functional. (Poor provincial Bruckner.)

And wasn't Wagner's whole schtick to basically replace the Vatican with the theater at Bayreuth? Music for Wagner WAS religion. And can you honestly tell me that Mahler's music is not the same? And yes, this is different from Tavener or Pärt or whomever, whose music could stand as ceremonial sacred music, could be used in a service (although, interestingly, it never is, at least in this country -- so then, isn't this really just Mendelssohnian kitsch kicked up a notch? It's like the personal beliefs of the composer are irrelevant). I think this is still basically the case for opera as well -- there are composers who find compelling stories in the bible and set those stories to music (like ... even ... dare I say ... ME!) and there are composers who want their music to be a "religious experience."

And let us not even forget about the whole INDUSTRY of "sacred" composition in this country. Just find yourself a catalog of sacred choral music. It's out there -- academia just doesn't care because the music tends to be so trite. These composers probably make enough money to survive on composition alone, but not enough money that they come anywhere close to Hollywood or pop-music wealth. Therefore, it's mostly ignored except by those who care. Interesting that you're now in a position to care.

On your other point, about theater in the church, yes, I think you're right, that since medieval time, there has been a decided taboo around drama in church. And there's plenty of writing on the history of this if you dig around in the annals regarding the beginning of opera and the beginning of oratorio. Hildegaard certainly had her morality music-drama things done in church, and were, so I understand, expressly religious. But this is still different from the celebration of something sacred. Maybe that's the thing -- the mass itself is a reenactment of a thing that actually happened. It's the telling of a story. It is its own play -- it is THE ONLY play, THE ONLY story. There's no room in church for other plays to be sacred. That's the gig of mono-theism -- only ONE THING can be sacred. That's WHY the oratorio developed. The church wanted operatic drama, but couldn't possibly tolerate the staging and the acting of OTHER stories with the same bombasticity that had previously been reserved for the conveying of the supernatural. If the magic of the music (the choirs, the organ, the orchestras) could be used to convey something OTHER than the mass, then just what was the nature of this magic? It turns out that the choir of sakbuts was NOT the voice of god, but just a choir of sakbuts. So oratorio was the compromise. Bring in the music, tell Biblical stories, but NO ACTING. (And were you so inclined, I'd bet my firstborn child that you could trace this back to the origins of Christianity in all of those other pre-Christian belief systems wherein the job of the holy-man/leader/shaman thing was to take on a VOICE other than his own -- to become disembodied, to be embodied by dead relatives or high spirits or whatever ... and how, basically, acting is magic, and singing is magic, and together these things are at the very core of what we understand to be supernatural.)

Wagner came at it from the other side, right? He couldn't possibly be a church composer because it was passé and he thought he was god. So instead he brought the church into the concert hall. I mean, shit, Parsifal is basically an elaborate mass couched in the guise of an opera: Wagner's Mass in Parsifal Minor.

So in short, no, I don't know that there is any writing specifically on what you're getting at, but it would seem to me that there are plenty of seeds sewn in all of the related topics you would need to get into.

May god have mercy on your musicological soul.

[Please note that Nick has subconsciously taken to using MY capital letters for emphasis in his own writing. I'm taking over the WORLD!]


1 comment:

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