A Season of Opera:
From Orpheus to Ariadne

241 pages,
ISBN: 0802042961

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The Lively Art of Opera
by Linda Hutcheon

Many readers will already be familiar with Father Owen Lee. Some will have listened to him as an intermission commentator or quiz panelist on the Metropolitan Opera's "Saturday Afternoon at the Opera" radio broadcasts. His formidable knowledge, warmth, and lovely, wry sense of humour have won him a large following from the millions of listeners. Others will know him from the classroom: though retired now, he taught Classics at St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto for thirty-five years.

A specialist in Greek and Latin poetry, he has published ten books and dozens of articles. A Season of Opera: From Orpheus to Ariadne is the third in a series of books on opera that include Wagner's Ring: Turning the Sky Round (1991) and First Intermissions (1995). Learned, informed, and, frankly, just a great read, it promises to be as successful as the others have proven to be.

Some of the pieces are lectures that are now finally appearing in print. Others are expanded versions of his well-received Met broadcasts and Opera News pieces. By deliberately not using a scholarly apparatus of footnotes, he has made the book more general-reader-friendly. This is not to say that considerable scholarly research has not gone into its making; but, as in his recent Larkin-Stewart lectures on Wagner at Trinity College (University of Toronto), he carries his classical and Christian (as well as operatic) erudition with grace and elegance.

In fact, the most impressive sections are the ones in which this is most in evidence. The Orpheus chapters stand out for me, in particular, perhaps because he did his doctoral dissertation on the Orpheus myth and is clearly knowledgeable about the topic. The one dealing with the general history of Poulenc's difficult opera, Les Dialogues des Carmélites, opens with a moving account of his own first year in the novitiate and then goes on to show how his understanding of how Bernanos (in the source text used for the libretto) pushed the Christian doctrine of the Communion of Saints in a new and challenging direction. And his "professional Christian" (to use his term) perspective leads to particularly insightful interpretations of Pfitzer's Palestrina and Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande.

Many chapters, beginning anecdotally, are rooted in personal experience. This is not an analytic critique; rather, it is a book by someone who loves opera, respects the art form, and deeply admires those who produce it.

A Season of Opera ranges from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, and its pieces are united as much by Father Lee's delight in what he is writing about as by his deep knowledge of his subject. No real reason is given for the choice of operas or composers, though some explanation would be welcome. I suspect the pieces' occasional nature determined the choice more than anything else; however, the sheer personal pleasure in hearing/seeing certain works is clearly another possibility.

His affection for the music of Mozart animates the chapters on Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute, uniting their disparate themes of ambivalence and archetypes. One of the most interesting insights here is the idea that Wagner's Ring is the nineteenth-century completion and undoing of The Magic Flute's enlightening message. Father Lee is excellent at drawing comparisons that illuminate: between L'Elisir d'amore and both today's musical theatre and Plautus; between Aida and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. He often uses literary responses to operas as a way to focus discussion, as with Walt Whitman's response to bel canto.

Some chapters are quixotic but inspired. I am thinking here of Father Lee's attempts to come to the defense of Verdi's much-maligned libretto, Il Trovator, through an analysis of its cumulative power as a drama of both identity and horrid ironies. Or perhaps his reading of Forza del Destino as a great Romantic drama with a (pre-Tolstoy) Tolstoian vision of pessimism could also be considered quixotic, for Father Lee sees this opera as existentialist avant la lettre. He even bravely offers a sympathetic reading of Puccini's penchant for suffering heroines by arguing that Puccini saw himself as being as vulnerable as they were.

The long chapter on Wagner's Tristan und Isolde-in many ways the centrepiece-however, is a solid and insightful retelling of the tale, without losing the complexities or ambiguities, as a means of explaining its power, both as narrative and musical.

The lively chapter on Gershwin's Porgy and Bess is timely, given the 100th Anniversary of Gershwin's birth. Putting his work in the context of American popular song music is both important and enlightening. What is startling is how much this opera expert knows about popular music! In fact, the much-debated connection between musical theatre and opera is well argued for both Porgy and Bess and Show Boat. While the purpose of the discussion of Rodgers' Oklahoma and its escapist appeal in 1943 is ostensibly to suggest that musicals have something to teach American opera about voice and melody, it actually ends up as a description of what Father Lee himself calls the "charming subtleties" of individual numbers.

"Hurry Up Please Its Time", the conclusion, is wide-ranging and scholarly in its survey of twentieth-century art forms and the impact on them of such things as Wagner and World War I. It is full of insights into, for example, the link between music and psychoanalysis made possible by Tristan's use of music to contradict the text (thereby suggesting a subconscious dimension) or into the more general connections between opera and literature. Father Lee, sadly, dismisses rock opera, but I find myself imagining what he'd make of Rent with its clever rewriting and updating of La Bohème. And I do wonder if opera has really failed to deal with contemporary issues realistically, as he claims, especially when I think of new works like Harvey Milk or even Nixon in China and Malcolm X. The book ends with his argument for why Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos is "the most significant" and "best" opera of the twentieth century: its theme is transformation, especially as a requisite for survival. This is a very personal response and interpretation; nonetheless, it is one that follows logically from the strong humanist values and beliefs set out in the rest of the work.

There is absolutely no way to sum up the wealth of detailed exposition and interpretation in this well-wrought book. All that is left perhaps to say is that it is a wonderful read for anyone who, like its author, loves opera-that extravagant, excessive, and, as many would argue, still popular art. If opera is to continue as a living art form, it will be thanks in part to the energies of such wise and engaging commentators as Father Owen Lee. 

Linda Hutcheon is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto. She has published extensively on parody, postmodernism, and opera. Her recent book, co-authored with Michael Hutcheon, is Opera: Desire, Disease, Death.


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