Commentary Magazine

Opera: Music for the Masses

When the curtain goes up on season’s opening at the Metropolitan Opera, the audience presents a picture of aristocratic splendor and ostentation. No matter that eleven million people listen to the Saturday matinee broadcasts; no matter that it was the one-dollar contributions of plain Americans that saved the Metropolitan from ruin a few years ago—in the minds of most Americans, opera still means wealth: the Golden Horseshoe, the Vanderbilts, and the Van Rensselaers.

Many for whom the Metropolitan is the embodiment of aristocratic “culture” might be surprised to learn that opera was originally created and developed as a musical spectacle for the masses. At the end of the 16th century, when an association of rich Florentine merchants sponsored the first operatic venture, it did so with the express purpose of creating a new art form that would speak to the middle classes by other means than the “pure” language of music. The medieval aristocrats, raised in a leisurely tradition of art appreciation, had required no dramatic plot to make music palatable to them. But the new bourgeoisie, now coming to power, needed a short cut to understanding.

Opera seemed to solve the problem. The dramatic plot offered a guide into the mysteries of art—or at least a substitute pleasure—and at the same time permitted the expression of the ideas by which the bourgeoisie justified and ennobled itself. The wider the new audience became, and the more it made its power felt in cultural affairs, the more necessary it became to emphasize the plot and subordinate the music. Little by little the music was simplified and stripped of its contrapuntal intricacies in order to clear the way for dramatic action.

While the middle class thus created its own art form, it also satisfied the vulgarized taste of the lavish courts of France and Austria. These courts, once decisive in all cultural endeavors, were losing their economic primacy to the bourgeoisie, and their aesthetic level had sunk below that of the culture-hungry middle class. By the time opera appeared on the cultural scene, they too needed an easily understood art form that would be suitable for their self-glorification. The courts made eager efforts to make opera their own. Opera in the hands of the burghers had become the vehicle of free and modem thought. When encouraged by the courts, it degenerated into a senseless mass spectacle of a primitive and crudely adulatory character.

The creators of opera were thus pulled in several directions at once. On the one hand, theirs was the task of mediating between the purity of the musical tradition and the demand for simplification and dramatic action. On the other hand, they had to choose between a decayed aristocracy and a vigorous middle class; if the latter insisted that music must be the servant of ideas, the former had lost its capacity to understand either music or ideas. In the long run, opera moved more and more towards the bourgeois audience, but the line of march was by no means simple: the uneven development of opera closely paralleled the uneven development of the merchant class itself, which despite several revolutionary upheavals only very gradually integrated itself into a new form of society.



The gradual emancipation of the Jews of western and central Europe took place simultaneously with the emergence of the bourgeoisie as an economic and political unit. But where the bourgeois grew up to power within the framework of Western society, the Jew came upon the scene like a stranger from a foreign land. Nor did he come by his own force: the ghetto doors were opened because the bourgeois revolution required liberal ideas, not because the Jews were strong enough to demand their freedom. Intimidated by centuries of persecution and never on a footing of complete equality and acceptance even at the height of emancipation, the Jews did not have the security and self-confidence that made it possible for the bourgeois to push and shoulder his way to the place he felt himself entitled to occupy. The Jews fought for their rights not with political and economic weapons, but with the weapons that were their heritage: the word and the idea.

Opera encouraged the expression of ideas and, in its lack of a developed tradition, it offered the newcomer a short cut to cultural assimilation; it is no wonder that many Jews turned to it eagerly. And, conversely, they were accepted willingly, for they brought with them what the opéra bourgeois needed: a fresh outlook to prevent the degeneration that threatened opera from the courts, a degree of cautiousness that kept them from turning opera into mere political propaganda, a dramatic sense developed in the ghetto, where the right mixture of sadness and amusement was the traditional reaction to a difficult life. The Jews did not create opera, but they caught on to it at once and produced some of its outstanding composers and librettists. (Nor should the importance of the librettist be minimized; he determines the opera’s ideas, its form, and the balance between realism and symbolism.)

It is important to point out that the Jewish influence on modem opera is not one of melos or harmony. On the contrary, most Jewish composers refrained from using any Hebrew or ghetto material. Neither did the librettists dwell largely upon Jewish scenes or Jewish character. The influence is purely sociological; the Jews, as the group most in need of emancipatory measures and without the political means to enforce them, took upon themselves much of the liberal bourgeoisie’s task of creating a new art form for its own use.



At the beginning of modem opera stood music’s outstanding genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. When Mozart came on the scene, the struggle had passed the stage of “art versus representation.” The bourgeoisie had begun to fight with every weapon at its command for complete supremacy. Words extolling ideas in the abstract no longer sufficed; immediate action was wanted, in art as well as everywhere else. Opera had to embody the desires and ambitions of this new class in concrete form.

Mozart was not a revolutionary by nature or inclination. His Catholicism, his musical tradition, and the austere surroundings of Salzburg compelled him to adhere to a certain measure of abstraction and polyphony. But the new political wind blowing from the West, the principles of Rousseau and the French encyclopedists, brought ideas he wanted to make his audience understand. The result was a sort of compromise.

As spectacle, Mozart’s opera was still a feudal hangover. The stage characters were naturalistic enough, but the musical style and form were dependent partly upon the tradition of Catholic Church music, and partly upon the norms laid down in the arias and ensemble scenes of the baroque opera. Thus Mozart imitated the incidents of plot through musical expression—that is, by means proper to the medium of music exclusively. In The Marriage of Figaro, for example, the Countess dictates a letter to her maid in a vocal inflection and dramatic motion that is as naturalistic as an Ibsen drama, yet never departs from classical musical form. In the famous aria of Don Giovanni, the sparkling of champagne is imitated to the last bubble without the impairment of the traditional form of the aria.

Mozart thus found a formula for integrating the language of the medium with the exigencies of the plot. Writing for a theater that catered equally to the court, the burghers, and the broad masses, he needed a content that was both aggressive and inoffensive, yet offered the music that illustrated the dramatic action a chance to stand on its own feet. He was helped in this by his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte.

Da Ponte, born in northern Italy in 1749 of Jewish parents, grew up at a time when legal emancipation of the Jews had become a fact in central Europe. But there still remained for Jews the problem of integration in the cultural patterns of the countries in which they had lived for centuries as a tolerated but alien minority. Only on the rarest occasions in the past had they participated in the cultural activities of their “hosts”; now they felt it necessary to do so in order to validate what had been given them by word of law. Da Ponte, baptized and even accepting the minor orders of the clergy, was possessed by the idea of assimilation. His life, full of the most fascinating and often tragic vicissitudes that drove him all over the European continent and finally to America, where he died in his nineties, is one compact expression of this desire. Yet, so eager, he was also adaptable, ready to worm his way into society instead of demanding his place by right.

This combination of pliability and ideological insistence upon humanitarian rights is strongly exemplified in his opera libretti, to which he devoted himself with the zeal of one filled with a messianic message.

Although he wrote scores of opera books, the three libretti da Ponte did for Mozart and which made him famous are the ones that best fulfilled the requirements of the opéra bourgeois. None of these three was an original invention, but they all showed an interesting transformation in the treatment da Ponte gave them. The Marriage of Figaro was based upon a play by Beau-marchais that had so incensed French society by its revolutionary implications that it was banned from the stage. Da Ponte blunted its political content, but kept the theme of the equality of different social strata clearly in the foreground. Don Giovanni, previously used in a play of Goldoni and a ballet of Gluck, was directly derived from a stereotyped libretto by Bertati. Into this da Ponte injected the central theme of the individual’s freedom from the bondage of social norms. Most remarkable is his treatment of the entire seducer complex: as I have pointed out in another connection (“Don Giovanni—A Psychological Music Drama,” in Listen, August 1946), da Ponte anticipated the analysis of the human psyche that was to be made later by another Jew, Sigmund Freud. Così fan tutte was inspired by an actual incident of marital intrigue, but in da Ponte’s hands it became a biting, if polite, satire on the life of the Viennese court; any attack on the moral life of Viennese courtiers and their petty sexual intrigues was a political act of which the implications were much clearer to the contemporaries of da Ponte and Mozart than they are to us.

Where a plot was too meaningless socially, da Ponte gave it a social point; where the dramatic action was too pointedly political, he toned it down to a mere statement. Da Ponte’s Figaro is not a revolutionary, but a disgruntled character fitting perfectly into the operatic form, which has no place for any postured clamoring for barricades. Sainte-Beuve said of Beaumarchais’ Figaro, “c’était la révolution déjà en action” (it was the revolution already in action); da Ponte’s Figaro might well be called “le mécontentement déjà en permanence” (permanent discontent).

The servants Figaro and Leporello, poor creatures who vainly seek to ape their masters, may be taken to symbolize da Ponte himself and his fellow Jews, seeking admission to Western culture. With true insight, da Ponte saw his own people not as revolutionary fighters for equality, but as men who had to intrigue for the right to enter a life that looked much more glamorous to the outsider than it was in reality.



While Austria evolved the opéra bourgeois in its essential shape, it was in France that the first signs of its gradual degeneration became noticeable.1 The political situation of the country, and the French temperament—stimulated by the drama but not given to much lyricism on the stage—never permitted the complete integration of opera into French culture. The royal court took the form over at its inception and used it for its own purposes. When on a high level, opera was written mostly by foreigners like the Italian Lully and the German Gluck. When “typically French,” it was a spectacular monstrosity of inflated display serving mainly to glorify the monarchy. At Versailles, the king himself sometimes appeared on the stage to accept the adulation of actors and audience.

This atmosphere was alien to the Jews, and their artists felt no affinity to opera. Then came the sudden transition from absolutism to democracy, the furor of the revolution and the subsequent Bonapartist oppression, all at a breath-taking pace. The speed of this development did not give French opera the same opportunities as were possible in Austria, with its comparatively quiet and leisurely political development. And the Jews did not work at opera until long after the revolution, although their historical position should have made them the logical artistic executors rather of Bastille Day than of the Thermidor.

For the most part, French opera retained its function of glorification, only changing its object from the court to the state. A new opera developed in France, the grand opéra, which took over some stylistic features from Mozart, but avoided direct political references, and maintained colossal and exaggerated dimensions.

As in the past, it was two foreigners, this time Jews, who made essential contributions to the new French opera: Meyerbeer and Offenbach. Jacques Halévy, who was born in France, was of much less consequence and is mainly interesting for introducing a Jewish theme on the French stage.

Undoubtedly, Meyerbeer was attracted to opera for reasons similar to those which had attracted da Ponte—if politically less concrete. As a Jew in his native Germany, and then as a Jew and a foreigner in France, Meyerbeer was intent upon integrating himself into the new culture. On the other hand, Meyerbeer was in a much better position in France than da Ponte had been in the aloof court circles of Vienna. The Revolution had given the Jews a new standing in France, and France became a haven for rebels and the discontented. And those Jews especially who worked in opera—an art form alien to French culture and therefore quite naturally in the hands of foreigners were able to make themselves acceptable to French society not as tolerated aliens but as esteemed immigrants.

Thus it is not altogether strange that Jacob Liebman Beer became Giacomo Meyerbeer, the creator of French grand opéra.



Meyerbeer was born in Berlin in 1791, son of the banker Herz Beer. He began as a pianist, but turned to composition at an early age. His first opera, produced in Vienna, was a failure, and he then went to Italy, where, with his facility for assimilation, he wrote Italian operas that were performed with great though hardly enduring success in some of the northern cities. Anxious to integrate himself into an already existing stream of operatic culture instead of attempting to create a new national art, he turned his back on Germany when most composers there were busy creating a German romantic music drama. Carl Maria von Weber, who understood nothing of Meyerbeer’s problem, was grieved by what seemed to him the desertion of a good cause. He wrote: “[Meyerbeer] is to come back to Berlin, where he will perhaps write a German opera. Please God he may! I have made many appeals to his conscience.” But Meyerbeer was not interested in developing a nationalistic opera in a country where he would have been considered an alien interloper because of his birth.

In 1826 he went to Paris, and it was there that he found his style at last. Recognizing how well his predilection for the spectacular and splendid fitted the requirements of the monumental French opera, he did nothing up to 1831 but study that national genre. In 1831 he wrote Robert le diable, which, with its inflated structure and symbolic allusions to grandeur, became an immediate success. From then on, Meyerbeer was the darling of French society.

Heine, that perennial scoffer with his sensitive grasp of the essence of things, said of Meyerbeer’s operas that one ear sufficed to appreciate their “tonal colic.” And indeed, no more than casual listening is necessary to take in their tonal impact. Yet Meyerbeer made one advance over the Mozartian opera: he integrated the recitative in the drama by using imitative orchestral accompaniment instead of the harmonic clichés of the Mozartian cembalo recitative. He thus destroyed a stylistic element that tied opera to the past and took the first step toward the final operatic form, the music drama—a form that Weber had expected him to create on the basis of awakening German national consciousness. On the other hand, in his appetite for mass spectacle, he degraded the earlier and more intimate opéra bourgeois to the role of the state’s handmaiden.



Meyerbeer’s French pendant was the composer Halévy, eight years his junior. Jacques Francois Fromental Elias Levy, or Halévy as he called himself later, was born in Paris—thus France was for him not a refuge, but home, and his feelings towards French society were mixed: he, too, was grateful for the position that the state granted him, but he was also very deeply aware of the anti-Semitic currents that were to culminate decades later in the Dreyfus affair. When Halévy had reached the heights of fame, he was ready to write heroic operas in the manner of Meyerbeer, but before that time, still struggling for acceptance as composer and Jew, he wrote the one opera that was to make him famous—the first drama to raise the Jewish question, as a question, on the non-Jewish stage.

This opera, La Juive, displayed all of Halévy’s fears in a hostile society. The plot deals with a Jewish goldsmith, Eleazar, whose two sons were burned at the stake by order of Cardinal Brogny. Eleazar has raised the girl Rachel, who passes as his daughter, but is actually the Cardinal’s child whom the goldsmith rescued from a fire. When her love for Prince Leopold is discovered, Rachel is condemned to death, since Jews are not allowed to marry into the gentility. Eleazar has two ways out: either to accept the Cardinal’s offer to pardon Rachel if Eleazar becomes a Christian, or to reveal Rachel’s true identity. In self-destructive vengeance he rejects both solutions. Only after Rachel is killed does he tell the Cardinal that it is his own daughter who has perished. The opera is full of scenes of anti-Semitic mob violence in which Halvy and his librettist, the famous Scribe, apparently took a masochistic delight.

For all the confusion of its plot and the shallowness of its music, La Juive remains a remarkable and revealing document of the Jewish composer’s true feelings toward society. More remarkable is the success of the opera in French society, which had so far lost faith in itself that it could accept the bitter criticism with delight, especially since it came clothed in an attractive show.

La Juive led the way, and other Jewish composers soon followed Halévy in introducing Jewish themes into the opera, although none of them felt secure enough to be as outspoken as he had been. Outstanding among these new “Jewish” operas is Karl Goldmark’s Queen of Sheba, with a libretto by Salomon Hermann Mosenthal. Musically, Goldmark followed Meyerbeer, and his treatment of Biblical subjects owed more to a taste for oriental pomp and color than to any Jewish feeling.

It is significant that even in these “Jewish” operas no attempt was made to incorporate Jewish culture and tradition in the opera. Ancient Hebrew melodies were supposedly used by Halévy and Goldmark, but the music of the ghetto itself, the Yiddish element, never entered the picture: opera for the Jew offered a path out of the ghetto, and he had no wish to look back at the immediate Jewish past.



The attitude of detachment and sophistication that permitted French society to enjoy the indictment presented in La Juive also assured the success of Offenbach, whose witty, if mild, satires on the vaudeville absolutism of Napoleon III were the rage of the Second Empire. These satires, penetrating as only the observant outsider could be, were enjoyed equally by the courtiers and their adversaries. Although seemingly subversive, they acted as a valve by which malcontents could harmlessly let off steam. With Offenbach, the strong political content of the rebellious Mozart opera now degenerated into the pleasant and often hilarious wit of French operetta, and the form itself, modeled after the German Singspiel with its arias, duets, and ensemble scenes plus spoken dialogue, represented a further step toward the annihilation of the musical medium as such.

Like Meyerbeer, Jacques Offenbach was not born in France. His father, whose name was Levy, was cantor of the Jewish synagogue at Cologne. In 1833, when he was fourteen, Offenbach left the Rhineland to take up his studies in Paris. A natural exhibitionist, and enamored of French culture, which he knew mainly from the Parisian boulevards, he was completely in tune with the superficiality of the Second Empire. At once grateful to the state for the opportunities it afforded to a Jew and a foreigner, and deploring the degeneration that had trampled under foot the liberal ideas so important for general Jewish emancipation, Offenbach gave France the operetta as a simultaneous glorification and condemnation of society.

In this he was most ably assisted by his librettist, Ludovic Halévy, son of the composer Jacques. Although a typical child of the boulevards of Paris, where he was born in 1834, and pursuing the career of leisurely government service usual for the French writer, Ludovic Halévy was sharply conscious of the Jewish situation. He was a shrewd observer, and under his playboy exterior was a warm feeling for ideals that had been forgotten in the shallow circles surrounding the dictatorial adventurer on France’s throne. He helped to put meaning and sting into the operas of Offenbach.



While opera afforded men like da Ponte and Meyerbeer the opportunity to express their need for assimilation, the half-Jew Richard Wagner came to it for reasons of a different sort.2 Brought up in a typical lower middle-class German household, he was no immigrant to German culture, but he was filled with the desire of the philistine of the Romantic era to see his concrete and provincial philosophy acted out upon the stage. A decided tendency toward the representational was evident in all the arts of his time, and it was strongest in opera. The increasing industrialization of Germany, creating a large, important middle class and a slowly maturing industrial proletariat, together with the official financing of opera houses, brought a new audience to opera. This audience in its lack of cultivation clung desperately to the plot of the drama, which was little more than highlighted by the music, almost as a movie score emphasizes the dramatic action.

In Wagner, this subservience of music to the plot, or in other words the almost complete reversion to representation in music, reached its acme. The harmonic expansion and vagaries of romantic music, having put an end to the simple tonal relationships of the classics, and thus to the symmetrical, self-sufficient form of the Mozart arias and ensembles, furnished Wagner with the material for imitating the actual sounds of reality. The wind in the storm scenes of The Flying Dutchman and the slapping of the apprentices in the “Pruegelszene” of the Meistersinger are two examples of Wagner’s constant practice as Tondichter—“tone poet,” as he significantly called himself.

But even where opportunities for actual sound-imitation did not present themselves, Wagner adhered to a strictly literary technique: the use of the motif. This technique consisted of allotting different musical motifs to individual characters and decisive events, and was designed to aid the listener in finding his way through the music. Actually it only complicated matters: in order to understand the motifs, it was necessary to be familiar with them, which, in view of their complicated structure and great number, was too much to ask of the uninitiated listener. For all its abstractness, the opera of Mozart, with its clear-cut scenes, its direct dramatic action, and the easily understandable dialogue of its recitative, was actually easier to grasp than the complicated music drama of Wagner, which originated in a desire to effect a closer rapport between audience and work, but succeeded only in dealing opera its musical death-blow.

Undoubtedly the music drama would have come into being even without Wagner. But that it came so suddenly and with such vehemence—this was mainly Wagner’s doing. In his eagerness to obscure his Jewish ancestry, he was over-zealous in integrating his work into the tendentious stream of the German national opera. Wagner’s anxiety to conceal his origin became even more noticeable in later years when he denounced Jewish musicians and Jewish music, attacked Meyerbeer for his “Jewishness,” and made vile anti-Semitic remarks.

But it is in his aesthetics that this attitude is most important. Recognizing with his uncanny and sensitive genius the trend of his times toward the representational, the nationalistic, and the obviously dramatic, he swam in the stream with the desperate energy of one who expects to go under at any moment. He wished to be like all other German artists, and, in his acute consciousness of this need, he set himself apart from them and thrust his ideals far beyond contemporary understanding into a sphere of exaggerated dimensions. Given Wagner’s indisputable genius, all this brought on the end of opera much faster than might have been necessary in a calmer evolution.

In retrospect, it is Wagner who emerges as the first Jewish artist to have influenced opera just because of his origin. Da Ponte and Meyerbeer had been attracted to the form because they were Jews and because Jewish social demands found their easiest and most popular expression in opera. Wagner, on the other hand, was possessed by a force that stamped his personality on the development of the opera primarily and precisely because of his urge to overcome his alienation from general German culture and to forget and negate the fact that half of him was Jewish. Only because of this was he able to create what Weber had once expected of Meyerbeer—the German national opera.



After Wagner’s extremes, no resuscitation of the opera could be expected. Even the one genius to come after him in the field, Richard Strauss, who in his tone poems so successfully combined Wagner’s harmonic expansiveness with the classical form principles of Brahms, was at a loss when he first turned to opera. Only after several abortive attempts did he begin to find his way, with the help of a librettist who was torn by the same dilemma: how to fit representation into the new musical media. This was Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

Hofmannsthal was a writer of extraordinary abilities. A member of the wealthy upper class, which in the old Austro-Hungarian empire often intermarried with Jewish monied aristocracy, he felt himself completely integrated in Austrian culture. Son of a Jewish banker and an Italian Catholic mother, he was born in Vienna in 1874. He early displayed all the indifferent nonchalance of the fin de siècle. Precocious and precious, weary of life before he knew it, he dwelt in his poetry on the gulf between living and being.

After an early beginning as a symbolist poet under the influences of Maeterlinck, Baudelaire, Laforgue, and Mallarmé, he reverted to more conventional forms out of a desire to combine symbolism with representation. (Hofmannsthal’s gradual trend toward the programmatic prompted Stefan George to remark: “If he had died at twenty, what a genius we should have lost!”) Modeling himself on Sophocles, or what he thought was Sophocles, he transcribed many plays of Greek antiquity and the baroque for the modem stage, endowing them with lavish settings and lightings, and diminishing their original artistic simplicity. His desire seemed to be to revive the spectacle yet preserve the medium of the art by lyrically poetic language. His symbolism represented a deeper scientific agnosticism. His Elektra was pervaded by the latest ideas of psychology, and his Oedipus and the Sphinx followed Freud more than Sophocles.

Hofmannsthal proved to be the ideal librettist for Strauss, who had been groping instinctively along similar lines. The blind alley created by Wagner could be escaped only by a retreat in which the harmonic essence would be simplified, the story adapted to the more modern, less extravagant philosophies of the late 19th century, and the form revived on the model of older operatic form. In the Rosenkavalier, the two artists experimented with the rococo conception of Metastasio; in Elektra, with the formal structure of the ancient Greeks; and in Ariadne auf Naxos, with a combination of pseudo-Greek form and the technique of the comedia dell’arte.

The operas of Strauss represent the last historical attempt at an operatic renaissance. Actually, they brought nothing new to the form. Their partial resemblance to Mozart’s works was a source of satisfaction, but the Wagnerian shadow over them reminded the audience only too strongly that opera was at the end of its road. But Strauss was the last operatic composer of any, stature who even attempted something new. After him came a void, which has not yet been filled and—in the light of the general tendency—is not likely ever to be filled.

It may be a mere accident that the last hope of a genuine operatic revival was founded upon a Jewish librettist. If it is an accident, it is surely a very symbolic one. But it is much more probable that the Jewish artist, on the one hand seeking assimilation, and on the other hand driven by the pressure of a world that always stood slightly aloof from his endeavors, was able through this very fact to acquire a wider and more general horizon, even though he may have lacked a native orientation to Western art. Both the acquisition and the lack were essential to the creation of opera, which at its best required much more than mere single gifts and aptitudes. It required above all a certain vision.

The letters of Strauss and Hofmannsthal demonstrate that it was the librettist who gave the operas their aesthetic direction. Strauss, dramatically shrewd but intellectually almost primitive, knew exactly where to place a scene, how to distribute the high-spots, and how to balance the tragic against the comic. But it was the sensitive Hofmannsthal who gave the operas their larger shape, a definite aesthetic tendency, and a definite solution in respect to the contradictory aspects of text and music. Thus, while Strauss’ musical genius made the operas world famous, it was Hofmannsthal’s perspective that brought the form momentarily out of its cul de sac.3



With Strauss, opera seems to have reached a definite impasse. Whatever the future may bring, we can hardly expect a renaissance of opera in traditional terms. Without its old social basis of publicly-subsidized opera houses, an educated upper crust, and a comparatively leisurely and socially stable middle class, opera seems doomed; and all the more because most serious composers, frightened by the 19th century trend toward literal representation, have returned to the absolute qualities of music. To be sure, the cultural democratization brought about largely by the radio and phonograph have revived mass interest in opera, and this may support performances of traditional opera for a long time to come. However, the lowering of standards that is the inevitable consequence of mass participation without mass education is hardly favorable to the encouragement of the new and original.

It seems most probable that opera will move to the plane of cabaret-like musical shows. The portents are already only too numerous and visible: the one-time higher experimental cabaret level of Darius Milhaud’s Opéras minutes and Aaron Copland’s high-school opera Hurricane is already buried under the light-weight but pretentious musicals of Leonard Bernstein and the Wagnerian operettas of Richard Rodgers.

The attempt to force democracy on the Metropolitan Opera by exerting pressure to have it accept Negroes as equal members of its ensemble, commendable as an act of decency and justice, can hardly deceive us into thinking that its success will give new incentives to operatic composers. And the Met’s constant refusal to perform foreign operas in English only demonstrates further that the broad American public has no other way but to turn to the pseudo-operatic musical monstrosities of Broadway.4

As for the Jewish composers, they have undergone a remarkable transmutation in the past forty years. Either they have, like Schoenberg and Mahler, approached Western culture to an extent that has enabled them to make decisive contributions to the absolute in music, or, under the pressure of anti-Semitism, they have separated themselves from Western culture, like Bloch and Achron, and now constitute a separate national group. But in whatever category they may be, opera will hardly permit them to express adequately their needs or the needs and plight of their people. Opera can no longer look for its revival to those who for more than a hundred and fifty years were a continuous source of its development and rejuvenation.


1 Italian opera to a large extent stood aside from this whole complex development. It never quite abandoned the structure of the late Renaissance oratorio. It displayed an orderly alternation of solo and ensemble numbers complete in their individual designs, and the characters of its drama were usually stereotyped. This holds true for Monteverdi’s pseudo-classical opera just as much as for Verdi’s Rigoletto, with all its passionate outbursts, and Puccini’s La Bohème, the personages of which are no less stylized and stilted than those in Gozzi’s commedia dell’arte. In this, Italian operatic music followed much the same path as Italian music in general, showing no influences stemming directly from its dramatic function, although, even in its watered-down form, opera played a certain role in the revolution. The reason for this may lie in the fact that Italy, unlike any other country, adhered completely to the Catholic conception of music. With larger sections of the public appreciating and understanding the Church’s ritual music, there seemed to be less need of literary interpretations of music in general.


2 In this writer’s opinion, the evidence is overwhelming that Wagner was the illegitimate son of the Jewish actor, Ludwig Geyer. But even if subsequent research should prove this assumption wrong, it suffices for our purposes to know that Wagner went to school under the name of Geyer until he was thirteen years old and consequently thought of himself as half-Jewish—a fact he was ashamed of and always tried to disguise—and reacted to his cultural environment on the basis of this belief.


3 The collaboration of Strauss and Hofmannsthal raises the debated question of Strauss’ Nazism. Anybody acquainted with the facts, however, knows that this Nazism was mere opportunism—friendship with Hitler was the only way to salvage Strauss’ royalties from the German opera houses. At any rate, Strauss had never been anti-Semitic and his association with Hofmannsthal took place on a footing of mutual respect. The extent of Strauss’ naiveté about anti-Semitism may be seen in his collaboration with the Jewish writer Stefan Zweig on the opera “Die Schweigsame Frau” in 1935, at a time when Strauss was already close to the Nazis.


4 Interestingly enough, it has been the refugee artists from the half-absolutist Austria and Germany of the past who have most strongly urged the translation of foreign texts into English; tradition and experience have taught them the meaning of opera as a mass art.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest