The Autopsy of the Oper(rrr)a

Ivana Stamatović

A little bit more than 150 years ago Richard Wagner identified (operatic) music with a female body: Music is a woman… She is a siren, which without a soul floats on the waves of her see until man’s love gives her a soul. Today, when we set equivalences between femininity and opera, we don’t do that, it goes without saying, on the level of female/operatic body’s ‘biology’, but ‘beyond’ it. We talk about the relatedness between the ways in which a woman on opera stage and opera itself were conceptualized in surrounding dominant cultures. Because, opera – as well as a woman – does not exist! We know that opera hasn’t got a soul, but that she represents a construct and fiction which truly floats at sees of aesthetic-artistic unintentional or intentional historic encounters; that opera is an object of love and hate and a subject to multiple resurrections and funerals, fetishism and destruction, but, at the same time, an object which, conventionally speaking, is essential. What is, than, the mutual impossible female/operatic history?
In the first authentic opera Monteverdi’s Orpheus turned and, because of the one impatient and premature look, lost his adoring woman forever. In that moment he incautiously and, seems like, equally irretrievably emptied the site of an opera devotee’s desire. In that way, the impossible history of a woman in opera began: bodyless soul of the invisible and ungraspable Euridice – mediated by the female voice on opera stage – wandered the whirlpools of opera metaphysics and, inscribing and reinscribing the trace of the Other’s desire in them, evaded the embodyment of the listeners/viewers’ jouissance. For the reason that, if Adorno was right when he said that all opera is Orpheus, then – at least for about three centuries after the creation of this Monteverdi’s work – all women on stage have been, in a sense, Euridice: projection of the Other, at the same time an object of desire and object of fear, (pre)determined by the indisputable higher (heavenly) order.
A little bit less than three hundred years later, Bizet’s Hose reached the edge of patience with witch the mortal human being can wait on love to come about and, determined to destroy that unreachable female – more than the female herself – for which he strongly yearned for a long time, took the beloved Carmen’s life with the knife blade. However, as soon as the first drop of flaming blood from the Carmen’s ripped body – under the stage lights and in front of all penguins in uniforms – disappeared in the boards of Opéra-Comique (what an irony!), it was clear that Hose’s intention was frustrated from the very beginning: his target became even more dangerous. Carmen’s dead body – like a material evidence of the woman’s impossible presence on stage, from that time on forever literally nailed to the boards of the opera house – and her last piercing scream – like an undestroyable medium of her body, since than inerasably inscribed in operatic discourse – decisively announced the sunrise of a new postmetaphysical operatic (but not only operatic) age without God; age in which the interaction of souls brought about by voice is replaced by interaction… within a flux of forces that determine and dissolve bodies; age which is not founded on the invisible soul and its myths, but the subject’s embodiment of its most basic, forceful drives. In that way, on the music stage finally culminated love returned to nature, as Nietzsche shouted deliriously. That kind of love, after it had been liberated from the initial veil of sentimentality, transcendence and mythology, stirred up sweet juices of passion in the living empirical bodies both in opera and in the body of the opera itself.
Euridice, clearly, was not the first (empirical) woman on the boards of the opera theatre, same as Carmen was not the last, but these two heroines, nevertheless, in the best way symbolize two extreme ontological moments connected to the biography of the woman on opera stage: birth and death. That is to say, that Monteverdi’s heroin was the first (and only) women which was supposed to be given a gift of (new) life on the stage itself. Orpheus cheered up underground gods with his music, although – it will turn out – not that he would bring back his loving woman for real: Euridice was brought to life only to take the sacrifice of his weakness. Having done so, she was constituted as the missing element around which the ideal of the comforting order of the unified world was built.
Bizet’s Carmen, on the other hand, was the first (but not the only) woman whose life was taken under the spotlights. Hose stabbed Carmen’s body with the knife, because his stake was to high: ruptured between many centuries burden of the idealistic promise and the defeating discovery of the inability of its fulfillment, Hose literally and brutally cut into the organism of his betrayed yearning. Carmen’s body was left to lie on the sqaure in Seville, on the mercy of the most diverse. Moral loudspeakers quickly immersed it in the formaldehyde solution and saved it as a relic of the great tradition. On the other hand, greedy lustful personas continued to cut it in pieces until it was reduced to fragments and traces of the former great female seducer. Post festum, it looks like Euridice was expelled from the ‘real’ opera world and pushed into its metaphysics so that later she could reincarnate in the sinful Carmen, then die again and be reborn in some other body or, even, a part of the body… And again, and again.
If we would, instead of the two female protagonists, for the lead role of this story name opera itself, than we would get one of the most provocative biographies of this genre. Because, between the fate of a woman on opera stage and the fate of opera there is an interesting parallel, we could say, even, equivalence. On one hand, in spite of the certainty of its historical beginning in the circle of the Florentin renaissance intellectuals, opera’s ‘birth’ was – similar to Euridice’s return from the underworld  – burdened by her uncertain and ungrateful service to metaphysics: a (new) life was given to opera with the hope that the most important classical dramatic form will be reincarnated in it. Consequently, the history of opera – or, more precisely, of its ‘first’ life – is an impossible history of the regeneration of the unreachable and completely unrepresentable ideal of Greek tragedy; ideal which has – always evading the embodyment (would it, in spite of the term’s unrefinedness, be more correct to say ‘theatralizing’) – been leaving its unsure and seductive traces in numerous musical and theatrical rethinkings of the relations between the operatic texts, with the view of reaching the one, unified and coherent artwork. On the other hand, that kind of opera has been ‘murdered’ under the stage lights more than once, but it is neither possible nor necessary to determine the moment of its ‘death’ precisely. Puccini’s Turandot, Schöenberg’s Erwartung, Berg’s Lulu, Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Cage’s Europeras… These and other works have been, in different occasions in the 20th century philosophy of opera, identified as the ones with which the death of the ‘traditional’ opera has been proclaimed. The blade of their knife penetrated several vital parts of the great operatic history: logic of operatic narration, mimetic relationship between music on one side, and words and scenic view on the other, synthesis of opera’s constitutive arts, the boundaries of its media and, finally, its performtive and perceptive potentials; in other words, the opera’s body itself, which was – like Carmen’s – tortured with many centuries long wish for the Other. Similarly to the (empirical) female body as its own conditio sine qua non, the operatic body has had two fates after each of its ‘deaths’. It has been either carefully conserved – in service to the constant human need for the art which can never be irrational enough – or cold-bloodedly, insensitively and perversely enjoyably dissected, dissolved, destroyed and deconstructed, so that after it would – fortunately for the music theatre – keep coming back even stronger, as the ghostly appearance, in new and different contexts.

One more theoretical and empirical vampire-like revival of female/operatic body is presented with the theatre work Operrrra (is feminine). However, Operrrra’s opera-like feature is not obvious and direct. It is established on a metalevel by means of fourway director-composers authorial dispute with all of the opera’s vital points mentioned above. In that way, through director’s decision alone, three mutually very diverse composers’ achievements have been extracted from the institutional boundaries of musical practice and placed in the theatrically conducted interrelation. It is based on the web of discontinuities: each act is written by a different author and each is differently scored and performed by distinct performers; each act has its own scenic realization and, in the most general way, theme. That web was functionalized as Operrrra’s theoretical and practical platform for mapping the discursive space and potential of the voice in the reincarnated heterogeneous opera-like/opera/female bodies and traces of those bodies.  For, people who have as little reason to sing [on the scene], as they have opportunity are operatic differentia specifica in the comparison to other drama and music-theatrical genres. If the voice on stage, on the top of everything, is female and high, then the opera-like feature of the opera is guaranteed: the coloratura is no mere form of outward exaggeration, but precisely in it the idea of opera emerges most purely as an extreme.
Female voice on opera stage is the fascinating ambivalent element that arouses in the listener a potent experience of a metaphysics as well as of a physics, of an immaterial as well as of a material world. Truly, the voice has been a medium of (Euridice’s) soul and, at the same time, a medium of the (Carmen’s) body; the cause of one’s unquenchable yearning and also one’s fears; a centering of the vocal game of desire, jouissance and unconditional surrender to a phantasmagoric fascination that is always doomed to failure.  The voice is a mediator between the interior and the exterior of the body: from a complex interrelation between the anatomy and socialization of the female body and, consequently, the anatomy and socialization of the female voice, numerous myths of vocal (feminine) gender emerged. They include concepts such as nature, materiality, emotions and irrationality. Finally, as the phenomenon most directly associated with the body, the voice also connotes female sexuality: like the body, from which it emanates, the female voice is considered both a signifier of sexual otherness and a source of sexual power.
Therefore, woman’s singing on stage is not only – as Adorno said – the language of passion and an expression that nature prevails in man against all convention and mediation. It is the passion itself, genuine, pure, disarming and arming. While singing, the female body is more active than while speaking; it searches for and encourages the activity of other (scenic or listening/gazing) bodies in action. Consequently, the singing voice has a power to speak to the audience both through the opera’s musical and literary text and ‘beyond’ them. Among many different ways in which opera can do so, Operrrra directly and critically refers to three. Firstly, the voice of a woman on stage can autonomize itself from verbal meanings of the text sung and it can transform itself into vocal object radically purified from all signifying elements; it can – like Lacanian object /a/ – manipulate listeners’ desire while uncovering mechanisms of its work. Secondly, the female voice has an opportunity to redefine the problem of authorial subject of the music sung; identifying itself with a desire of the woman herself, it can renounce masculinistic mimesis of female speech and come closer to the musical (performing) écriture féminine. Thirdly, the female voice has a power of selfreflexion within an extension of or opening the parts of the operatic body towards popular culture.
Lively and resonant body is a ‘natural’ source of those powers of the female voice on opera stage. It is not any body, but a very distinctive one. For, in spite of exclusive status of the vocal operatic medium, in opera productions almost equal attention is payed to the spectacularization of the body; on the stage there is a woman: her ‘inner self’ is uncovered through her voice and her ‘external self’ is usually lighted and emphasized by means of scenographic and costimographic effects. In that way, actually, representation of a woman in opera unfolds within double layered, acoustic-visual field. It is constituted through intersection, mutual permeating and opposition of the relation ear-listening-female voice and ear-gaze-female body; in other words, by way of permanent and unpredictable oscillation between position subject-object both on the stage and off of it.
Disregarding the way the dynamics within individual listening and gazing contexts as well as between them is established, a woman – in the utmost case – appears on stage for the Other; he paid so that he could, hidden in darkness of the hall, secretly enjoy the outcomes of the empirical female and constructed operatic body. But, what happens if that relationship in opera is set vice versa? More concretely, what are the consequences on the ‘protocols of jouissance’ in the Operrrra’s opera-like features when the light form the stage spotlights the audience? When the guarantee of a visual unrepresentability is revoked from the opera devotees? When the desired female body on stage dissolves simultaneously with the operatic body? When the cold surface of the screen offers a fragment of a woman? Her shadow? Reflection? Trace? Could women be regarded as opera’s jewels then, as Catherine Clément wrote a long time ago? Do the powers of the female voice change in those conditions and in what way? Whose medium is that voice and whom does it speak to? Has it got a listener at all or do we submit to it with hope of reaching metaphysics on its wings, metaphysics from which we began the autopsy of the Oper(rrr)a? Or, in other words – to paraphrase Adorno at the end – the female operatic voice itself can never be irrational enough so that we could renounce it, and in spite of that renunciation, save our soul?

This text was written in a form of a latent dialog with writers whose texts have – in higher or lesser degree, affirmatively or negatively – influenced theoretical, aesthetic and philosophical grounds of the project Operrrra (is feminine): with Carolyn Abbate, Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes, Catherine Clément, Mladen Dolar, Jacques Lacan, Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Poizat, Kaja Silverman, Miško Šuvaković, Gary Tomlinson, Slavoj Žižek and Richard Wagner. Quotations form their works and key concepts of their theories, which were used in this text, are typed in italics.