Opera: Desire, Disease, Death

University of Nebraska Press, 1996
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Opera: Desire, Disease, Death

Working from the conviction that we can learn much about past and present societies by studying how they conceptualize and present diseases, this study looks at well-known operas in which love, sexual desire, illness, and death are inextricably linked. It does so in order to investigate not only the operas themselves but also the fears and anxieties of the societies in which they were produced and received. It focuses on operatic representations of diseases (and those who suffer from them) and the ways in which opera associates illness with sexuality, gender, and desire. The familiar operatic alliance of tuberculosis with female sexuality (the consumptive heroine) is countered with the more usually silenced relationships such as those between venereal disease and moral transgression or between cholera and homosexual desire. The conclusion turns speculative: studying the cultural and scientific representations of AIDS, it aims to predict the ideology and the form of the first AIDS opera.

Table of Contents

Prologue: "All Concord's Born of Contraries"
Collaborative Research, or Marital Methodologies
Interdisciplinary Work on the "Unnatural Beast"
A Note on the Notes

Chapter One: Melodies and Maladies: An Introduction
Why Opera?
Why Disease and Opera?
Why These Diseases and These Operas?

Chapter Two: Famous Last Breaths: The Tubercular Heroine
Diagnosis Despite Mystery: Antonia
The "Phthisic Beauty" and the Tubercle Bacillus
The Consumptive Model: The "Tipo Traviata"
Poverty and Contagion: Mimì

Chapter Three: Syphilis, Suffering, and the Social Order: Richard Wagner's Parsifal
Suffering and Sin

Syphilis: The Medical Signs of the "Scourge of God"
Soldiers and Prostitutes
Sexuality and Social Decline
Redemption and the Sanctified Heterosexual Ideal
The "Polyphony" of Wagner's Language

Chapter Four: The Pox Revisited: The "Pale Spirochete" in Twentieth-Century Opera
The Femme Fatale as Femme Malade: Lulu
The Terrors of Bedlam: "The Rake's Progress"
The Rake's Progress: Made in the U.S.A.
From the Top, This Time with Humor: "Candide"

Chapter Five: "Acoustic Contagion": Sexuality, Surveillance, and Epidemics
Cholera: Danger, Shame, Social Unrest
Lulu : Lesbian Love and Death
Bourgeois Un-ease and Homosexual Dis-ease: Death in      Venice
Mario and the Magician : Fascism and the “Paralysis of Will”

Chapter Six: Where There's Smoke, There's . . .
Tobacco: A History of Double(d) Talk
Male Bonding versus the Lone Rebel: Les Contes
      d'Hoffmann and La Fanciulla del West
Sensual Pleasures and Their Dangers: Il Segreto di
      Susanna and Il Tabarro
Sex, Smoking, and Violence: Carmen
"No Smoking": Medical Knowledge and Social Change

"Life-and-Death Passions": AIDS and the Stage
Giving AIDS Meaning(s)
The "Gay Plague": Angels in America
The Logic of Contagion: Cholera and AIDS
"Polluted Blood": Syphilis and AIDS
"Aesthetic" Epidemics: Tuberculosis and AIDS
Gay Countermythologies