18 Feb 2005

KRAMER: Opera and Modern Culture — Wagner and Strauss

"New musicology" is the cultural study, analysis and criticism of music, which proffers the belief that music has societal, religious, political, personal, and sexual agendas. Consequently, new musicology, much like the discussion of such topics at social gatherings, can be polarizing.

Among the leading scholars of the "new musicology" is Lawrence Kramer. Opera and Modern Culture is another work in his quest to clarify the many roles of music in Western society through intellectual discourse. Kramer does not engage in a recitation of facts but rather invites the reader to an intellectual exercise of "thinking through Opera." By their very nature, philosophical discourses tend to indulge themselves in semantics. Kramer's use of guiding concepts (philosophical and symbolic investiture, the norm, Opera), often varies. As he states it, they do not act as "leitmotifs throughout this book," and are rarely "invoked by name." Kramer sees this as an effort not to "box [his] topic in . . . but to open it out in as many dimensions as possible." Others however, may find it to be a matter of "too many words," to paraphrase Peter Schafer.

This investigation of opera and modern culture may be summed up as follows: An exploration of the manner in which opera's legendary antithetical states of being, debasement and supremacy, as exemplified in select operas of Wagner and Strauss -- Lohengrin, The Ring, Parsifal, Salome, and Elektra -- creates a certain idea of opera, a "generic fiction," which is termed Opera (capital O), and, which in turn, influences modern culture's norms of desire, identity and social order. Do not be misled. Wagner and Strauss are not being indicted. They are seen as "symptoms of Opera" -- Wagner as a "symptom of modernity" and Strauss as the "very incarnation of modernity in music." To add to this mix, prominent topics of current opera scholarship intertwine with those of social and cultural history, thus further tightening the weave.

There are indeed risks involved in creating a "tight weave" between music and modern culture. As Kramer expects, "old questions of subjectivity and appropriation in interpretation . . . [for some readers] will rear their ugly heads." (16) Why would they not? New theories or speculations regarding the ethnomusicology of opera -- is this not fundamentally the discourse? -- have no litmus test other than that of time. The intention of such philosophical studies is to engage the reader to think in a new way about an established subject or topic, to question. Whether the questions are old or new, attractive or not, they help the "new thinker" to refine and hone the point, keeping the tumblers turning in the search for truth. In this regard, Kramer's "speculative foray" into opera and modern culture is quite effective. The concerns raised in this book regarding the phenomenon of Opera overlap with those of general world concerns via Opera. In terms of the latter, two of the best discourses in the book are chapter two, "Contesting Wagner: The Lohengrin Prelude and Anti-Anti-Semitism" and chapter five, "Modernity's Cutting Edge: The Salome Complex." The erotic/sexual/psychosexual philosophical discussions however, are becoming tiresome.

Running the continuum of debasement and supremacy, with humanity seeming to prefer debasement, Kramer arrives at a "norm" in Opera, in which the abnormal is actually the hidden truth of the normal; where Wagner is both the cause and the cure for "modernity" and Strauss is the "Wagnerian remainder." This "speculative foray" is not meant to be a walk in the park. It is an intense inquiry, but one that is masterfully crafted.

Geraldine M. Rohling