Opera: the Art of Dying

Harvard University Press, 2004
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Opera: the Art of Dying

In Opera: The Art of Dying , a literary theorist and a physician bring together humanistic and scientific perspectives on the lessons on living and dying that the extravagant and artificial art of opera imparts. Our modern narratives of science and technology can only go so far in teaching us about the death that we must all finally face. Opera, an art steeped in death, might help take us (or at least help us conceive of) the rest of the way.

Contrasting the experience of mortality in opera to that of dramatic tragedy, this study finds a more apt analogy in the medieval custom of the contemplatio mortis —a dramatized exercise in imagining one's own death that prepared one for the inevitable end and helped one enjoy more fully the life that remained. From the perspective of a contemporary opera audience, the authors explore, through recent studies of death emanating from medicine and the social sciences, concepts of mortality embodied in the operatic repertoire, ranging from the terror of death (in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites ) to the longing for death (in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde ), from preparation for the good death (in Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen ) to the meaning of suicide in different cultures (in Puccini's Madama Butterfly or Berg's Wozzeck ). In works by Janácek, Ullmann, Britten, and many others, this study examines how death is made to feel logical and even right—morally, psychologically, and aesthetically—as, in the art of opera, we are shown how to rehearse death in order to give life meaning.

Table of Contents

Music and "Murky Death"

Chapter One:
The Contemplation of Death

Chapter Two:
Eros and Thanatos: Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde

Chapter Three:
"All That Is, Ends": Living while Dying in Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen

Chapter Four:
Orphic Rituals of Bereavement

Chapter Five:
"'Tis a Consummation Devoutly to be Wish'd": Staging Suicide

Chapter Six:
The Undead

"Be Acquainted with Death Betimes . . ."