On Opera and Life

“Monday Musings” for Monday October 6, 2014

Volume 39.  No. 40/140

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A Few Thoughts on Opera

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Today, October 6, is the natal anniversary of the Western opera. It is 414 years old. Of course, we have had opera since Greek days 2400 years ago. It is the Western opera we are celebrating. A few reflections:

Why Opera?

There are five powerful instruments used for introspection and research on self. One can learn more about one’s self through psychoanalysis which is usually very expensive and time consuming. The other tools are studying history, theater and poetry. The last, but certainly not the least, is understanding and studying opera. Opera, a drama set to music and made up of vocal pieces with orchestral accompaniment and orchestral overtures and interludes offers us the most comprehensive and potent introspectoscope.

Operas give the participant an opportunity to become aware of one’s unconscious in dynamic gradation. Do we, as viewers possess at least some of the evil and sexual identity confusion that eclipse Iago and Othello (in opera “Otello”)? Are we endowed with passion that made Don Jose kill Carmen? Are we capable of transcendence that come with the Zoroastrian parables in Wagner’s “Ring Cycles”? In order to get to know ourselves better, I believe opera should be an integral  part of  every citizen’s cultural and intellectual diet  It is much less expensive than psychoanalysis, and while being intellectually stimulating, it is more enjoyable and entertaining.

History of Opera:

Opera is an Italian word. It means work. In the late 16th Century, a group of Florentine scholars decided to get together every week and study the music and writings of the ancient Greek. They called themselves the Florentine Camarata. It was very much like our modern day book clubs, except that these people were very serious about their work. The culmination of these studies and discussions was Jacobo Peri’s composition of “Orpheo” which was performed at 8:00 PM, October 6, 1600, at Pitti Palace in Florence. Of course, in 1607 Claudio Monteverdi gave us his version of “Orpheo”. It marks the beginning of Opera. We have enjoyed 400 years of opera as a result of the intense work of this group.

Types of Opera:

Italian opera dominated Europe throughout the 16th and early 17th centuries. Around 1670s, French opera with its founder and inventor, Jean Baptist Lully (1632-1687) emerged. Lully was an Italian orphan who immigrated to Paris at age 14. He rose to become the court composer for the Sun King, Louis 14th, who rained for 73 years. Lully gave us the “French Overture” and its dotted rhythm brings on the grandeur, pomposity and majesty meant for Louis 14th. Other French composers followed: Jean-Philip Rameau, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Christoph Willibald Von Gluck, Giacomo Myerbeer, Bizet etc. There are German, Russian, Chinese, and now many third world countries’ operas. Also, there are lyric opera, grand opera, opera buffa and opera seria, just to name a few. One of the most popular operas is “Carmen”, a brief analysis of which illustrates the delight of the opera.

“Carmen”:

“Carmen” is an opera comic in four acts. It was written by Georges Bizet, a genius. He died penniless at age 38, exactly three months after “Carmen” was staged.

Had he lived three more years, he would have reaped immense wealth because of Carmen’s success all over Europe. Perhaps Bizet and Van Goch were soul brothers. They lived in poverty, yet after death, their work’s value increased immensely. Bizet knew music and composition. His musical compositions at age 17 easily compare to the music of Mendelsohn and Mozart. His one act opera in 1857, “Le Docteur Miracle”, shows his mastery of operatic idiom at an early age.  In Act II of “Carmen”, the accelerating gypsy dance is an orchestral tour de force in which dissonance and sliding harmonies paint the scene of Lilla Pastia’s underworld tavern. Bizet knew human nature. He was as keen as Shakespeare when it came to assessing human nature. The famed German philosopher, Fredrick Nietzsche, in an essay on “Carmen”, wrote that he saw the opera 21 times. “Every time I see “Carmen”, I sit still for five hours; I become more patient which is the first step of true holiness…”

“Carmen” is a story about love, not of higher order, but as futility, cynical, cruelty, and at best, deadly hatred of two sexes. Love translated in the horror proclaimed in Don Jose’s last cry “yes, I have killed her…I have killed my adored…”

The character Carmen, the epitome of carnal desire, temptation and primal raw sexuality, is the Eve and the serpent rolled in one. In Act III she sees her mortality in the cards that she and her gypsy friends were reading. She gave into her fate and led a reckless life. Don Jose, a decent and simple soldier when he first met Carmen, turns into a love crazed killer. He is Adam. He is Cain. He would not have been transformed into a killer if the violence and killing were not in him to start. There is a bit of Adam, though deeply hidden, in all of us. Don Jose is Adam. Don Jose’s unrestrained male sexuality and machismo ultimately caused his destruction.

Perhaps unlike Nietzsche, who claimed to become a better philosopher every time he sat through a performance of “Carmen”, we can see this very deeply moving and instructive work as the beginning of our own in what 384 AD, St. Augustine of Hippo called “awareness and redemption”.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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