“Of all the noises known to man…”

August 22, 2014

My series of posts on “Great moments in opera” consistently garners widespread indifference. But I can’t resist drawing attention to an interesting article by Roger Scruton on the operatic art. I wouldn’t go so far as to agree with his claim that opera is “the supreme art form” and that “the inner life is essentially operatic”, but there is nonetheless much of interest in what he writes. Scruton is himself an opera composer, and he has good insight into the allure of opera:

Opera is a crown to be won, a sign that the composer has finally stuck his head above the clouds on Mount Olympus. Beethoven wrote his single opera twice, and parts of it more than twice, in the determination to reach the summit where Handel and Mozart stood in triumph. Schubert tried and failed, again and again. Mendelssohn and Brahms shied away, but Schumann laboured for eight years over Genoveva, his only opera, in which the strain of writing is clearly audible. Janáček achieved his first real success, after several attempts, at the age of 50, with Jenůfa. Chausson put his entire life into his one opera, Le roi Arthus, as did George Enescu into his laboured retelling of the Oedipus story. Debussy spent ten years over Pelléas et Mélisande, and Stravinsky’s one full-length opera, The Rake’s Progress, was accomplished only by means of a complete change of style, from neo-classical Stravinsky to inverted comma “Mozart”.

Those examples testify to the determination with which composers have approached the operatic task. Their work might gain only a few performances, before disappearing into the void like Genoveva and Le roi Arthus, like Enescu’s Oedipe, Busoni’s Doktor Faust and Pfitzner’s Palestrina — distinguished operas that are now all but forgotten. Not deterred by those corpses by the wayside, however, composers continue to tackle the lower slopes of Mount Olympus, knowing that, even if they reach the first plateau, holding a completed score in their hands, they may not get to the next one, with a live performance. And beyond that goal lies the distant summit of the operatic art, where stands the handful of composers with works in the permanent repertoire.

He also makes some probing remarks about the recent practice, all too common, of saturing opera stage productions in violence, sex, and a general ugliness (which Heather Mac Donald has also written about):

Sacred things are especially intolerable to those who no longer believe in them. An urge to desecrate is the inevitable successor to a lost habit of reverence. Hence Siegfried is dressed in schoolboy uniform, Mélisande is lying on a hospital bed in sheltered accommodation, Rusalka is taking a bath in a whorehouse, and — well you know how it goes. The best one can hope for in the state-subsidised opera houses of today is that the singers will all be dressed in Nazi uniform, but otherwise allowed to get on with the plot.

It’s a good article. Read the whole thing.

3 Responses to ““Of all the noises known to man…””


  1. I didn’t know Scruton was a composer. I recently read a review of a novel by him. At least I think it was Scruton…yes, and it’s called Notes from Underground. Rather bold to appropriate that title.

    I recognize the intellectual cogency of the argument that opera is the supreme art form, but I can’t agree with it. I’ll read the article, though. “Sacred things are especially intolerable to those who no longer believe in them.” That’s a good line, and explains a certain amount of modern culture.


  2. Earlier today I read a comment from a young filmmaker in which he made pretty much the same claim for film as Scruton does for opera. I think it’s a reasonable argument. Opera does contain all the arts, but it’s mainly about music. Take away the music, and you have mostly mediocre drama. Music isn’t central to film, although it’s often there. But film is frequently much more successful in its use of other elements.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Yes, I would be more inclined to grant the title to film rather than opera. As you say, however great the music of operas may be, the quality of the stage drama is often disappointing.

    Film is the most expensive art of all!


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