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Mary Ann Smart: Mimomania: Music and Gesture in Nineteenth-Century Opera
05 Feb 2005

SMART: Mimomania: Music and Gesture in Nineteenth-Century Opera

Here's a serious niche book, a relatively slender volume dealing with a topic at once both arcane and surprisingly central to some of the major controversies in opera production today. I think it has major problems but it has become for me the pebble dropped into the pond that sends ripples to unexpected places, raising interesting questions in the process.

Mary Ann Smart: Mimomania: Music and Gesture in Nineteenth-Century Opera

Berkeley: University of California Press, 247 pp., 2004

ISBN 0-520-23995-4


Mary Ann Smart is an Associate Professor of Music at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also a scholar investigating her topics through the lens of feminist gender study. There is no indication in the book that she is or has ever been a performing artist or director, a situation I will return to later. The time line she lays out as her area of interest stretches from the development of Auber and Scribe's La Muette de Portici, commonly held to be the very first French Grand Opera, to the later works of Wagner and Verdi — several of which, not so coincidentally perhaps, were influenced by the concerns of Grand Opera — in other words, the bulk of the nineteenth century. Although Smart does not articulate this in so many words, this century saw the union in stage performance of the gesture- and pose-based system of acting in general use since at least the eighteenth century (if not several centuries earlier when indoor theater developed in Europe) with the Romantic compositional style wherein music described in detail the emotions of the character and suggested the gait, posture, gesture and physical relationship of the character to other characters on stage. By the end of Verdi and Wagner's careers (and largely because of Wagner), she sees music as having abandoned mimetic description in favor of psychological character exploration, although I think a good case can be made for Strauss's "big three," Salome (1905), Elektra (1909), and Rosenkavalier (1911) as being filled with quite specific musical depiction of movement and gesture.

Smart begins with Auber's Muette for two happily coincidental reasons: that it is the first Grand Opera and therefore not involved with stylized mythological or heroic characters, and that its voiceless heroine Fenella has no means of expression other than mime to musical accompaniment. Her description of the creative process, and particularly of the drastic cuts taken in Fenella's lengthy mime sequences before the premiere (when the language of mime as it existed in 1828 proved inadequate to express abstract concepts) is fascinating. But it is here that the first red flag goes up concerning Ms Smart's scholarship: in two separate places she states definitively that Fenella is the ONLY such character in opera, having obviously never heard of the title character in Rimsky-Korsakov's Mlada (a spectral mute portrayed by a dancer); of Toby in Menotti's The Medium, the mute assistant to Mme Flora whose entire role is mimed; or of the many, many mute characters in the one act Intermezzi of the 18th century like Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona, where the convention was to have one male singer, one female singer and one mime as the entire cast; or of the magnificent episode in Les Troyens when the widowed Andromache and her young son come before the Trojan populace in a wholly mimed scene whose music clearly describes their demeanor and movement.

One problem seems to me that Smart isn't an experienced theatrical practitioner. In her chapter on Bellini,, et al., she backs off the topic of expression by physical gesture to a discussion of expression through non-verbal but still vocal means: sighs, moans, groans and sobs as supported by onomatopoeic orchestral writing. Such blatant imitation was disparaged as simplistic and inartistic by contemporary commentators and Smart the theorist has difficulty acknowledging that the overwhelmingly effective nature of Bellini's or Verdi's sighs and tears is precisely because of the orchestra's faithful imitation of non-verbal human emotional utterance. No experienced singer, conductor or director would have any problem here and one begins to question the value of Smart's interlude in the orchestra pit and away from the stage.

Smart gets back on track when discussing the fully mature Verdi's use of musical/gestural climaxes for closed numbers so as to end them in a definitive way that precludes the formulaic cabalettas he had come to dread. She is most involved with Violetta (a woman of ambiguous social status fighting a body failing due to disease), Amelia (Ballo in Maschera, a woman fighting to control her body's adulterous erotic urges), Elizabeth and Carlos (Don Carlos, same situation as Amelia complicated by Carlos's neurotic physicality), and Aida (a woman of high rank captive in an alien world and forced into the pose of a slave).

It is in the climactic chapter on Wagner that Ms Smart scores most effectively, linking the composer's turn from "outer drama" to "inner drama" with the transformation of operatic music from describing action and movement, to a rhapsodic evocation of mood and erotic longing. Yet even here, she neglects the one great mimed episode in Tannhauser that that would not only nail her thesis conclusively but would also involve her gender study in perfect combination. It occurs just after Elisabeth has finished her prayer by the roadside shrine in act 3:

bq. She remains for some time in devout rapture. As she slowly rises, she sees Wolfram who approaches to speak to her. She entreats him by a gesture not to do so. [Wolfram: "Elizabeth, may I not walk beside you?"] Elizabeth again expresses to him by gesture that she thanks him for his faithful love, but that her way leads to heaven where she has a high purpose to fulfill; he must therefore let her depart alone and not follow her. She ascends halfway up the height and disappears gradually on the footpath toward the Wartburg.

[translation by Rodney Bloomer, copyright 1988 for the English National Opera]

It is one of the most demanding moments for an actress in Wagner, the music expressing the "rapture" of the moment while the soprano has exactly the kind of abstract concepts to convey that were the cause of such difficulty to Auber and Scribe. And as she is on her way, in effect, to give her life in exchange for the salvation of Tannhauser's soul, the purpose of Woman in Romantic opera, a major issue in gender study in opera, was there just waiting for Smart to dig in.

The book is well illustrated with musical examples integrated into the text rather than relegated to an appendix (and the notes, stretching to almost fifty pages, are both interesting and well composed), but is surprisingly short on visual examples of the very poses and gestures that are supposed to be the heart of the study. In particular, Smart has never heard of — or has chosen to ignore — Francois Delsarte (1811-1871), whose acting system dominated the stage in the nineteenth century. An externally applied repertory of what we would now consider melodramatic claptrap, the Delsarte System generated charts of hand movements and gestures, as well as sets of photographs employing contemporary actors demonstrating each pose that could have been a valuable resource here. When I mentioned this omission to a director and acting teacher whose career spans the U.S. and The Royal; Shakespeare Company (where they know a thing or three about externally applied acting technique) she was amazed that anyone writing on the subject would not include Delsarte.

"Mimomania" (a term used by Nietzsche in connection with Wagner) is an interesting but flawed, occasionally unfocused look at the emotional power of Romantic music in conjunction with a vanished acting style that worked with it hand in glove. It is a fascinating topic if only because Romantic opera remains the core repertory of most opera houses. This subject still awaits a satisfying major study.

William Fregosi
Technical Coordinator for Theater Arts
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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