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Slavoj Zizek
Opera
[space] © lacan.com 2004

 

• - Walhalla's Frigid Joys

• - La Clemenza di Tito, or the Ridiculously-Obscene Excess of Mercy

The Sex of Orpheus

 

Why was the story of Orpheus THE opera topic in the first century of its history, when there are recorded almost one hundred versions of it? The figure of Orpheus asking Gods to bring him back his Euridice stands for an intersubjecive constellation which provides as it were the elementary matrix of the opera, more precisely, of the operatic aria: the relationship of the subject (in both senses of the term: autonomous agent as well as the subject of legal power) to his Master (Divinity, King, or the Lady of the courtly love) is revealed through the hero's song (the counterpoint to the collectivity embodied in the chorus), which is basically a supplication addressed to the Master, a call to him to show mercy, to make an exception, or otherwise forgive the hero his trespass. The first, rudimentary, form of subjectivity is this voice of the subject beseeching the Master to suspend, for a brief moment, his own Law. A dramatic tension in subjectivity arises from the ambiguity between power and impotence that pertains to the gesture of grace by means of which the Master answers the subject's entreaty. As to the official ideology, grace expresses the Master's supreme power, the power to rise above one's own law: only a really powerful Master can afford to distribute mercy. What we have here is a kind of symbolic exchange between the human subject and his divine Master: when the subject, the human mortal, by way of his offer of self-sacrifice, surmounts his finitude and attains the divine heights, the Master responds with the sublime gesture of Grace, the ultimate proof of HIS humanity. Yet this act of grace is at the same time branded by the irreducible mark of a forced empty gesture: the Master ultimately makes a virtue out of necessity, in that he promotes as a free act what he is in any case compelled to do - if he refuses clemency, he takes the risk that the subject's respectful entreaty will turn into open rebellion.

For that reason, the temporal proximity of the emergence of opera to Descartes' formulation of cogito is more that a fortuitous coincidence: one is even tempted to say that the move from Monteverdi's Orfeo to Gluck's Orpheus and Euridice corresponds to the move from Descartes to Kant. What Gluck contributed was a new form of subjectivization. In Monteverdi we have sublimation in its purest: after Orpheus turns around to cast a glance at Euridice and thus loses her, the Divinity consoles him - true, he has lost her as a flesh-and-blood person, but from now on, he will be able to discern her beautiful features everywhere, in the stars in the sky, in the glistening of the morning dew... Orpheus is quick to accept the narcissistic profit of this reversal: he becomes enraptured with the poetic glorification of Euridice that lies ahead of him - to put it succinctly, he no longer loves HER, what he loves is the vision of HIMSELF displaying his love for her.

This, of course, throws another light on the eternal question of why Orpheus looked back and thus screwed things up. What we encounter here is simply the link between the death-drive and creative sublimation: Orpheus' backward gaze is a perverse act stricto sensu, he loses Euridice intentionally in order to regain her as the object of sublime poetic inspiration (this idea was developed by Klaus Theweleit1). But should one not go here even a step further? What if Euridice herself, aware of the impasse of her beloved Orpheus, intentionally provoked his turning around? What if her reasoning was something like: "I know he loves me; but he is potentially a great poet, this is his fate, and he cannot fulfill that promise by being happily married to me - so the only ethical thing for me to do is to sacrifice myself, to provoke him into turning around and losing me, so that he will be able to become the great poet he deserves to be - and then she starts gently coughing or something similar to attract his attention... Examples are here innumerable: like Euridice who, by sacrificing herself, i.e. by intentionally provoking Orpheus into turning his gaze towards her and thus sending her back to Hades, delivers his creativity and sets him free to pursue his poetic mission, Elsa in Wagner's Lohengrin also intentionally asks the fateful question and thereby delivers Lohengrin whose true desire, of course, is to remain the lone artist sublimating his suffering into his creativity. Wagner's Bruenhilde, this "suffering, self-sacrificing woman," is here the ultimate example: she wills her annihilation, but not as a desperate means to compensate for her guilt - she wills it as an act of love destined to redeem the beloved man, or, as Wagner himself put it in a famous letter to Franz Liszt: "The love of a tender woman has made me happy; she dared to throw herself into a sea of suffering and agony so that she should be able to say to me 'I love you!' No one who does not know all her tenderness can judge how much she had to suffer. We were spared nothing - but as a consequence I am redeemed and she is blessedly happy because she is aware of it." Once again, we should descend here from the mythic heights into the everyday bourgeois reality: woman is aware of the fact that, by means of her suffering which remains invisible to the public eye, of her renunciation for the beloved man and/or her renunciation to him (the two are always dialectically interconnected, since, in the fantasmatic logic of the Western ideology of love, it is for the sake of her man that the woman must renounce him), she rendered possible man's redemption, his public social triumph - like Traviata who abandons her lover and thus enables his reintegration into the social order.

With Gluck, however, the denouement is completely different: after looking back and thus losing Euridice, Orpheus sings his famous aria "Che faro senza Euridice," announcing his intention to kill himself. At this precise point of total self-abandonment, Love intervenes and gives him back his Euridice. This specific form of subjectivization - the intervention of Grace not as a simple answer to the subject's entreaty, but as an answer which occurs in the very moment when the subject decides to put his life at stake, to risk everything - is the twist added by Gluck. What is crucial here is the link between the assertion of subjective autonomy and the "answer of the Real," the mercy shown by the big Other: far from being opposed, they rely on each other, i.e., the modern subject can assert its radical autonomy only insofar as it can count on the support of the "big Other," only insofar as his autonomy is sustained by the social substance. No wonder this gesture of "autonomy and mercy," of mercy intervening at the very point of the subject's assertion of full autonomy, is discernible throughout the history of the opera, from Mozart to Wagner: in Idomeneo and Seraglio, the Other (Neptun, Basha Selim) displays mercy at the very moment when the hero is ready to sacrifice his/her life, and the same happens even twice in The Magic Flute (the magic intervention of the Other prevents both Pamina's and Papageno's suicide); in Fidelio, the trumpet anounces the Minister's arrival at the very point when Leonora puts her life at stake to save Florestan; up to Wagner's Parsifal in which Parsifal himself intervenes and redeems Amfortas precisely when Amfortas asks to be stabbed to death by his knights.

What occurs between Monteverdi and Gluck is thus the "failure of sublimation": the subject is no longer ready to accept the metaphoric substitution, to exchange "being for meaning," i.e., the flesh-and-blood presence of the beloved for the fact that he will be able to see her everywhere, in stars and the moon, etc. - rather than do this, he prefers to take his life, to lose it all, and it is at this point, to fill in the refusal of sublimation, of its metaphoric exchange, that mercy has to intervene to prevent a total catastrophy. This "failure of sublimation" is discernible also at another level. At the beginning of Monteverdi's Orfeo, the Goddess of Music introduces herself with the words "Io sono la musica..." - is this not something which soon afterwards, when "psychological" subjects invaded the stage, became unthinkable, or, rather, irrepresentable? One had to wait until the 1930s for such strange creatures to reappear on the stage. In Bertolt Brecht's "learning plays," an actor enters the stage and addresses the public: "I am a capitalist. I'll now approach a worker and try to deceive him with my talk of the equity of capitalism..." The charm of this procedure resides in the psychologically "impossible" combination, in one and the same actor, of two distinct roles, as if a person from the play's diegetic reality can also, from time to time, step outside himself and utter "objective" comments about his acts and attitudes. This second role is the descendant of Prologue, a unique figure which often appears in Shakespeare, but which later disappears with the advent of psychological-realist theatre: an actor who, at the beginning, between the scenes or at the end, addresses the public directly with explanatory comments, didactic or ironic points about the play, etc. Prologue thus effectively functions as the Freudian Vorstellungs-Repraesentanz: an element which, on stage, within its diegetic reality of representations, holds the place of the mechanism of representing as such, thereby introducing the moment of distance, interpretation, ironic comment - and, for that reason, it had to disappear with the victory of psychological realism. Things are here even more complex than in a naive version of Brecht: the uncanny effect of Prologue does not hinge on the fact that he "disturbs the stage illusion" but, on the contrary, on the fact that he does NOT disturb it. Notwithstanding his comments and their effect of "extraneation," we, the spectators, are still able to participate in the stage illusion. And, this is how one should also locate Jacques Lacan's c'est moi, la vérité, qui parle from his La Chose freudienne: as the same shocking emergence of a word where one would not expect it - it is the Thing itself which starts to speak.

And it is not only that, with Gluck, the object can no longer sing - this shift does not concern only content, but, even more radically, the musical texture itself. With Romanticism, music changes its role: it is no longer a mere accompaniment of the message delivered in speech, it contains/renders a message of its own, deeper than the one delivered in words. It was Rousseau who first clearly articulated this expressive potential of music as such, when he claimed that, instead of merely imitating the affective features of verbal speech, music should be given the right to speak for itself - in contrast to the deceiving verbal speech, in music, it is, to paraphrase Lacan, the truth itself which speaks. As Schopenhauer put it, music directly enacts/renders the noumenal Will, while speech remains limited to the level of phenomenal representations. Music is the substance which renders the true heart of the subject, which is what Hegel called the "Night of the World," the abyss of radical negativity: with the shift from the Enlightenment subject of rational logos to the Romantic subject of the "night of the world," i.e., with the shift of the metaphor for the kernel of the subject from Day to Night, music becomes the bearer of the true message beyond words. Here we encounter das Unheimliche: no longer the external transcendence, but, following Kant's transcendental turn, the excess of the Night in the very heart of the subject (the dimension of the Undead), what Tomlison called the "internal otherworldliness that marks the Kantian subject." What music renders is no longer the semantics of the soul, but the underlying noumenal flux of jouissance beyond the linguistic meaningfulness. This noumenal dimension is radically different from the pre-Kantian transcendent divine Truth: it is the inaccessible excess which forms the very core of the subject.

With Gluck, we thus enter the Romantic universe of the abyssal inner Life, the universe in which the classic sublimation no longer works, in which things (and notions) can no longer sing. However, Gluck is not the end of the (hi)story: he stands for the very early gestation of Romanticism. In the middle of 19th century, the Romantic excesses themselves are domesticated, the standard bourgeois "psychological realism" establishes its reign, and in this new age, Gluck's version itself no longer works. To paraphrase Marx, what was a tragedy repeats itself as a comedy, i.e., it can only be staged as a comic operetta, and this comic operetta effectively exists - it is Orphée aux enfers, Jacques Offenbach's opéra bouffon in two acts (1858, libretto by Hector-Jonathan Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy). The "Music" from Monteverdi appears here as the Public Opinion, which makes herself known at the outset. Eurydice, unhappily married to Orpheus, whose violin-playing she cannot stand, has a lover, the farmer Aristaeus. Orpheus has laid a trap for him by putting snakes in a cornfield, but Aristaeus lets Eurydice walk there, where she is bitten and dies. Aristaeus turns out to be Pluto, God of the Underworld, so that she is not unhappy to go with him. Orpheus, well rid of her, would be happy enough, were it not for Public Opinion, who insists that he should bring her back from Hades. On Mount Olympus, Venus, Cupid and Mars have been out for the night. They are just home, when Diana's hunting-horn rouses them. Jupiter is displeased at their behaviour and summons Pluto, complaining of his abduction of a mortal. The gods now rebel against Jupiter's hypocrisy, and his own escapades are recalled. Public Opinion arrives, with Orpheus, and Jupiter tells Pluto to give him Eurydice back. Pluto returns to Hades with Jupiter and the latter, in the guise suggested by Cupid of a fly, makes his way through the key-hole into the room where Eurydice is kept under guard. He suggests that they should escape together to Olympus. There is a party in Hades and Jupiter hopes to take Eurydice away with him. Cupid reminds him that Orpheus is on his way, with strait-laced Public Opinion. Cupid suggests the answer. He must allow Orpheus to take Eurydice back with him, provided he does not look round as she follows him. Orpheus does not look round until Jupiter hurls a thunderbolt and shocks him into it. He happily loses Eurydice, who becomes a priestess of Bacchus, god of wine.

The ironic reference of Offenbach to Gluck is clear - say, the can-can of the spirits below is an obvious wicked parody of Gluck's sedate Dance of the Blessed Spirits. This, then, is how one should understand Hector Berlioz' reworking of Gluck's Orpheus which was performed in 1859, exactly a year after the premiere of Offenbach's parody: the problem is, again, how to prevent the opera to slide into ridicule, how to guarantee that it will still be experienced as serious and convincing. If Gluck is the answer to the failure of symbolization, to the new universe in which objects and ideas can no longer directly sing, Berlioz' version is the answer to the new times of "psychological realism" in which the pathetic spectacle of the courtly opera cannot but appear ridiculous. And the fact that, even today, the Berlioz version remains the standard, the most often performed one, is a clear indication of the extent to which the ideology of "psychological realism" continues to dominate.

Perhaps the best way to detect what is at stake in these shifts is to follow the changes in the voice which sings Orpheus in Gluck's opera. In the original version of 1762 (small and ceremonial, for a court occasion of crowning), it was a castrato; for a 1769 staging in Parma, Gluck himself rewrote the part for soprano; finally, in the thoroughly reworked version for the Paris staging in 1774 (Grand Opera style for the large public, with added preludes and ballet), Orpheus was sung by a high tenor. In 1859, when Berlioz shortened the opera again and made is less large, he rewrote Orpheus for contra-alto/mezzosoprano. In a first approach, this cannot but appear strange: why not stick to high tenor? If Berlioz' concern was to restore Orpheus to its "natural" state, what can be more "unnatural" than the return to the classic tradition of women singing male roles? Why did this sex discrepancy survive in the era of bourgeois naturalization? There is only one consistent answer: because, in the high era of the bourgeois ideology, the gesture of offering oneself to self-sacrifice performed by Orpheus at the opera's highpoint can be conceived only as feminine - it is no longer compatible with the dignity of a man to perform it. Irrespective of the "official" sex identity of the person who enacts it on the stage, the psychological truth of the gesture is feminine, which is why the voice (which should follow the "inner" truth, not the visible truth of what takes place on the stage) should be feminine - it is as if Berlioz followed the well-known joke from the 18th century comedy, when a wife caught by her husband in bed with a lover denies the obvious and adds: "Whom do you believe, your eyes or my words?" The implied answer is, of course: if you truly love me, you will believe my words - and Berlioz demands from us the same, not to believe our eyes, but what the voice tells us. This, then, is the key point: although Berlioz returned to the classic tradition of women singing male roles, he did it for the exactly opposite reason: not in order to follow a ritualized tradition, but on behalf of inner psychological truth - do we need a more striking proof of the material efficiency of ideology?

Does this mean that, in order to break out of the ideological mould, one should simply return to the "natural" constellation of a man singing a male role? But what if there is a more radical option - perhaps an idea for a new staging: to present Orpheus and Euridice as a "lesbian couple"? What if this is the ultimate reason why their love is doomed to fail? So why should we not take Berlioz more seriously (and literally) than he was ready to take himself, and openly stage the very psychological truth he was promoting?

 



to be continued...

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography



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