Tuesday, November 14, 2006

On Going to the Opera, Part 1: Fifth Business

There's a book I've wanted for twenty years to write and probably never will, a hypothetical book called Opera, Gender and Plot. It's (hypothetically) a cultural history of opera using gender theory, New Historicism, psychoanalysis, anatomy, narratology, and the history (and historiography) of classical voice training in western music. You see why I say I'll probably never write it, and besides, by now someone has probably written it already.

But I sang in a big Adelaide choir from 2001 till the end of last year, and I've been to the odd opera since I took up theatre reviewing for the local press a few years ago, and so one way and another have started to get very interested in these ideas again. What's fascinating is the way that certain voice ranges are keyed to particular character types and roles, and the way that these types interact both in the plot and in the music, particularly in duets, trios and quartets. So one might require, say, a bass not only in order to provide some villain or other figure of power, but also for technical reasons, to ground the chords and earth the music.

Brought up in a very tuneful but decidedly popular-musical household, I'd never given any of this stuff a single thought till some time in the late 1980s when I first read Canadian novelist Robertson Davies' Fifth Business (1970), the first novel in his Deptford Trilogy. This is what he, or rather one of his characters, says:

'... in opera in a permanent company of the kind that we keep up in Europe you must have a prima donna -- always a soprano, always the heroine, often a fool; and a tenor who always plays the lover to her; and then you must have a contralto, who is a rival to the soprano, or a sorceress, or something; and a basso, who is the villain or the rival or whatever threatens the tenor.

So far, so good. But you cannot make a plot work without another man, and he is usually a baritone, and he is called in the profession Fifth Business, because he is the odd man out, the person who has no opposite of the other sex. And you must have Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero's birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody's death if that is part of the plot. The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business.'

There seems to be a symbiotic relationship between voice part and plot: traditionally you've got to have roles for the various kinds of singers, and those roles are largely gender-determined. So either a story and libretto gets cobbled together to accomodate all four or five leads, or an existing story is used and adapted to fit them.

Nearly 20 years later when he published The Lyre of Orpheus, Davies showed this kind of thinking in action in a plot about a gifted music student whose PhD thesis topic is as follows: '... to flesh out and complete the manuscript notes ... of an opera left incomplete at his death in 1822 by Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffman, the work to be done in a manner congruous with the operatic conventions of Hoffman's day and for such an orchestra as he would have known; this to be done as a musicological exercise in partial fulfilment of the requirements for ... the degree of Doctor of Music.'

The opera in question is entitled Arthur of Britain, and it falls to a bunch of Davies' characters, all of whom we've met before in earlier novels, to mount a production of it when the music is completed, including the task of writing the libretto. This they then meet, forthwith, to discuss.

'" ... We must have the Operatic Four. Soprano -- Guenevere, of course ... Now -- who's your contralto? There has to be one, you know."
"Oh dear. Let's see? Hm. Morgan Le Fay, do you think?"
"Of course! Arthur's wicked sister. A contralto, obviously. All wicked women in opera must have those rich, enchanting low notes. Now -- who's my tenor?"
"Surely Arthur himself?"
"No. Arthur must have authority. A baritone, I think. A fine, velvety bass-baritone. Make him both a tenor and a cuckold and you lose all sympathy, and Arthur must compel sympathy. But we need an even deeper bass for quartets as well as the plot."
"That must be Mordred, who destroys Arthur."
"But no tenor? Can you have an opera without a tenor?"
"Of course. The public expects a tenor. Must be Lancelot, the seducer. Tenors are great seducers."
"All right. That gives you the four you want. Five, as a matter of fact."
""So -- there we are. We'll want another woman for Elaine, the Lily Maid. Better be a nice mezzo -- good for pathos but not deep enough for villainy."

They realise later that they have forgotten Merlin, and belatedly cast as the great magician an elderly and much-loved counter-tenor: 'One of those high, unearthly voices.'

I had all this in mind last Saturday night when I went to opening night, in my capacity as a critic, of Verdi's Nabucco. Which is what Part 2 will be about.


Laura said...

I'll look forward to that: Nabucco is one of the few fully-fledged operas I've seen performed. I think Barrie Kosky directed it.

A handful of people whose work I think is very interesting have written about opera, but I don't really get opera, so most of it's a bit lost upon me.

It's such an expensive art form to educate yourself about. I hope that doesn't sound like an excuse.

elsewhere said...

Oh, well, I no wonder I'm a contralto!

(you should write the book)

TimT said...

Laura, you can always get along to see a Melbourne Opera Company performance; their tickets are only about $20-$30. Unfortunately, the recent production I saw (Barber of Seville) was poor.

I'd read that book, PC. Have you seen many Britten operas? He may play some interesting tricks with male/female roles, considering his sexuality (and that of many of his closest workmates - Auden and E M Forster both wrote librettos for him ).

Berlioz has an interesting reflection on gender and opera in his Memoirs. He is talking about the habit opera composers have of writing the part of Romeo as a castrato. "Are we to suppose," he writes, in denunciatory mode, "That the person who slew Tybalt in white hot rage, rushed past the Prince to find Juliet in the cave, then drank of poison was an emotional and physical eunuch?"

Quite. That's a paraphase written from memory, but still - quite.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Expensive is right -- I would've started a lot earlier and gone to a lot more if it were cheaper. But when you think how many people have to be paid, and how much in the way of sets and so on has to be paid for, you can sort of understand it.

El, yes, I should write the book. A chance would be a fine thing. Besides, I'm too busy blogging ...

TimT, thanks for that link to the MOC -- it looks really impressive and I hope it's working well. The VSO folded either just before or just after I left Melbourne and it was a very sad sight.