Rebirth of Reason


Exultation: The Romanticism of Opera
by Arthur Silber

It was only my discovery of the writings of Ayn Rand, and of her philosophy, Objectivism, that revealed to me many of the reasons for my great love of opera, which began in earnest in the mid-1960s, when I frequently attended the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. I knew that I passionately loved the music of many operas, and I also knew that great singing (especially when combined with great acting, which happened rarely, unfortunately) thrilled me in ways that no other art form did. But it was Rand's original identification of the sources and meaning of Romanticism in literature that made clear to me what I was responding to in many of the plays and novels that I loved -- and much of that same literature served as the source material for some of my favorite operas.

Rand views art as a domain belonging uniquely to man's sense of life, which functions as an automatically integrated sum of his values. Rand defines sense of life as "a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence. It sets the nature of a man's emotional responses and the essence of his character." (For a full explanation of Rand's views in this area, see The Romantic Manifesto -- and the essays "Philosophy and Sense of Life," and "Art and Sense of Life," in particular.) It is those ideas that a man views as important -- important in a metaphysical sense -- that form his sense of life, answers to questions such as: Is it important to understand, or to simply obey? Is it important to be independent, or to have other people like me? Rand states: "It is the artist's sense of life that controls and integrates his work, directing the innumerable choices he has to make, from the choice of subject to the subtlest details of style. It is the viewer's or reader's sense of life that responds to a work of art by a complex, yet automatic reaction of acceptance and approval, or rejection and condemnation."

Romanticism, for Rand, is that "category of art based on the recognition of the principle that man possesses the faculty of volition." It is volition that makes values possible, and values and value judgments are the source of emotions. Romanticism, as Rand defines it, thus displays the qualities of emotional intensity, color, imagination, originality and excitement. For Rand, Naturalism is the broad category of art which denies the fact that man has free will. In The Romantic Manifesto, Rand discusses some of the many ways in which the recognition or denial of volition affects the four fundamental attributes of literature: theme, plot, characterization and style.

Probably the element of plot offers the clearest contrast between the two schools. Rand defines plot as "a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax." In opposition to the proponents of most other literary theories, Rand contends that a plot structure is necessitated by realism, rather than being some sort of mechanical contrivance. Because man's actions are goal-oriented by virtue of man's nature, it is necessary to present him in goal-directed action in art. Naturalistic works, because they rest on the denial of free will, present stories which are usually comprised of inconclusive events, connected into a very loose "story," often with a corresponding lack of drama, intensity and excitement. Rand explains that, because of the extremely demanding standards of Romanticism, very few writers represent that school at its best. Among novelists, she identifies the best and most consistent as Victor Hugo and Fyodor Dostoeyevsky, and among playwrights, Friedrich Schiller and Edmond Rostand.

Just as the nineteenth century saw the rise and dominance of Romantic writers in the literary world, so, too, that century enjoyed the prolific output of a number of composers whose music also displayed great color, drama and excitement. In the world of opera, composers such as Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Meyerbeer excelled at presenting to an expectant and impatient public a great number of operas embodying these same characteristics. In opera, of course, these composers required dramatic works to serve as the basis for their librettos, and they naturally turned to the works of the Romantic dramatists of the period. Below is a partial list of some of the operas based on Romantic plays, and this will show you just how common this practice was -- and you will no doubt find some of your favorite operas here:


Ernani (from Hugo's Hernani)

Rigoletto (from Hugo's Le Roi s'Amuse)

Luisa Miller (from Schiller's Kabale und Liebe)

I Vespri Siciliani (by Eugene Scribe)

Un Ballo in Maschera (Scribe)

La Traviata (from Dumas fils' La Dame aux Camelias)

Giovanna d'Arco (from Schiller's The Maid of Orleans)

I Masnadieri (from Schiller's Die Rauber)

Don Carlos (from Schiller's Don Carlos)


Les Huguenots (Scribe)

Robert Le Diable (Scribe)

Le Prophete (Scribe)

L'Africaine (Scribe)


Tosca (from Sardou's La Tosca, originally written for Sarah Bernhardt)


Fedora (from Sardou's play)

The dramatic hallmark of all these operas is very tight plotting, highlighted by intense conflicts among the characters with regard to their desires and goals. Guided by Rand's identifications concerning the nature and power of Romantic literature, one of my personal crusades over the years has been to combat the idea, held by many, that opera librettos are ridiculous claptrap for the most part. This idea was first popularized by, among others, George Bernard Shaw, with his deprecating comments about "Sardoodledom," a term he used to refer to what he viewed as the creaky mechanics of the well-made play, as exemplified by Victorien Sardou. Interestingly in this connection, and in the context of her identifications regarding the source of art -- and our extraordinarily intense personal responses to art -- Rand discusses "the virulently intense antagonism of today's esthetic spokesmen to any manifestation of the Romantic premise in art. It is particularly the attribute of plot in literature that arouses an impassioned hostility among them--a hostility with deeply personal overtones, too violent for a mere issue of literary canons."

It is certainly true that the kind of drama represented in the list of operas above is not at all typical of today's theater. Moreover, many readers or viewers of these dramas often view them as hackneyed -- but that is only because certain of them have been copied so often. Rand points out that the "essential element of Romanticism, the plot, can be purloined and disguised by recutting....The original plots of Romantic literature have been borrowed in countless variations by countless imitators, losing color and meaning with each successive copy." Probably one of the most famous examples is Dumas fils' La Dame aux Camelias (which we more commonly know as Camille), which has been copied by everyone from Eugene O'Neill (Anna Christie) to, more recently, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Rand herself uses Camille as an example of this phenomenon, describing the original as "an unusually good play," which its imitators and borrowers have helped to run "into the ground, turning its examples of inventiveness into worn-out bromides. This, however, does not detract from the original author['s] achievements; if anything, it underscores them."

The original Camille tells the story of a beautiful nineteenth century courtesan, who is torn between her love for a man and her past. The play is constructed as a series of tightly woven events, where each event relies upon the previous choices made by the characters, and inevitably leads to the succeeding events, when the characters must make still further choices. Eventually, to save the man she loves and to allow him to have the kind of life she thinks he deserves, the heroine must betray him with another man. Verdi's opera based on Camille, La Traviata, captures all the drama, tension and color of the original, and communicates it by means of beautiful and exciting melodies, and a wide range of exceptionally expressive music (The high point of the opera, for me at least, is the confrontation between the heroine and her lover's father, who convinces her that she must leave the man she loves so passionately). And when Dumas wrote his play, it was new and original, and filled with wonderfully dramatic conflicts -- and even caused quite a scandal -- even though repeated copying has made it all too familiar to us today.

Because we have become so familiar with many of these operas and the dramas upon which they are based, we tend to forget how truly original and emotionally powerful they can be. I still remember going to see the Garbo film of Camille with a friend in the 1960s, and my friend becoming very distraught when the heroine died at the end. I cannot remember a time when I didn't know that she died, and that incident served to remind me of the power of these dramas. Yet another example would be the end of Tosca: if you have never seen it before (and assuming it is well-acted), it is, in fact, a surprise that the hero is actually shot and killed. I was extraordinarily privileged to see the last performance of Tosca that Maria Callas gave at the old Metropolitan Opera House in 1965, and watching Callas, you remembered that she believed it would be a fake execution -- and Callas made you experience with her the horror, shock and devastation she felt when she realized the man she loved was dead. Thus, it takes a bit of work to prepare one's mind to view these works in a fresh manner. But by reminding ourselves of the time and place in which these works were first written, we can appreciate their ingenuity and power -- and in this way allow ourselves to respond to them as if they were new.

For those who might still view opera libretti as "ridiculous" or "silly," consider Verdi's Don Carlos, based on Schiller's magnificent play. Here is a drama about love and duty -- and also about freedom and tyranny -- and filled with unusually colorful, passionate and exciting characters, in a tightly-woven drama. About the play itself, one of its most noted translators, Charles E. Passage, says: "Meanwhile Schiller's drama will remain a noble monument to the human mind in its own right, enduringly profound on its own merits and by no means lost in a bygone age."

And these qualities are translated into an equally magnificent opera. In one of the many memorable scenes in the opera, Posa (the young freedom fighter, who is also the dictatorial King Philip's only close friend) denounces Philip's policies (yes, there is peace in his dominions -- "the peace of a graveyard!"), and he pleads with Philip to show the way to a freer future for all of Europe, and "at a stroke of the pen, create a new world: allow freedom of thought." And an even more remarkable scene, between the King and the Grand Inquisitor alarmed Napoleon III's censors in France: "Such a scene, a kind of satire on ecclesiastical absolutism, may find favor in the classic country of reform. Will it be the same for us, who do not have the same reasons to applaud it?" Verdi himself attached special significance to this latter scene -- with its conflict between religious dogmatism and individual freedom -- and he recomposed it twice, and each time the text was brought closer to Schiller's play.

I have indicated here only the barest essentials of Ayn Rand's invaluable insights into the source and power of art -- and her identification of the special excitement and ingenuity of Romantic literature, and the ability that Romantic works have to inspire us, and to nurture our souls. In today's culture, I think it is probably safe to say that you are most likely to find the inspiration and power of Romanticism in opera, at least as far as the performing arts are concerned. And if, like me, you search for powerful drama and excitement in art, and often search in vain, perhaps you need look no further than your local opera company. It will undoubtedly be performing La Traviata, Tosca, Don Carlos or Rigoletto sometime soon. And before you go (and even if you don't), read the plays by Hugo, Schiller, and Dumas fils. They will provide you with an experience filled with unforgettable characters, dramatic conflicts, and many twists and turns in an exciting plot.

Finally, let me offer a more general observation about what I consider to be the unique power of opera at its best, and why opera connects so deeply to my own sense of life. Peter Conrad's A Song of Love and Death is an extraordinary book about opera. He covers the history of opera, the development of the various operatic musical styles and the periods in which they developed, the particular virtues and qualities of a number of singers, and many other esthetic and musical issues -- and he does all this in a beautifully disciplined literary style, employing unusually rich emotional language. I have yet to read a better description of opera's emotional source than the following, and I would apply this description not only to many of the operas listed above, but to a number of operas which do not have what Rand would consider Romantic literary origins, such as Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. At the very end of his book, Conrad says:

"Opera is a sport, a display of physical and technical prowess. At the same time it is a form of almost religious aspiration, reaching for the sky from which music first poured down like Apollo's sunlight. Dancers leap into that lost altitude; singers send out their top notes on exploratory forays, and use their scales as Jacob's ladders. One word defines its visceral effect and its lofty ambition, and that is the first word uttered by Verdi's Otello as he whirls out of the storm. Opera's business is exultation."

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