A Night at the Opera

by Ray Smith,
240 pages,
ISBN: 0889841373

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by Michael Darling

IN A COMMENTARY on his short story "Colours," Ray Smith once wrote:

A story is many more things to a writer than to any one reader. Even a careful reader would not have seen all the things 1 have mentioned; but he might have seen things I haven't mentioned, even things I can't see or can't recall putting in.

This is likely to be even truer of A Night at the Opera, a novel in which Smith has put many "things," and in which many more than he intended are likely to be found. Like its cinematic predecessor, this Night at the Opera possesses the madcap comic anarchy of the Marx Brothers, but it also has its serious side. In the tradition of The Magic Mountain, which Thomas

Mann referred to as "a very serious jest," Smith's novel deals in metaphysics while poking fun at those who take ideas too seriously. Smith also does "the postmodern thing," framing one fragmented narrative inside another, playing off story against history, allowing a contemporary view of reality to undercut myth, and generally playing fast and loose with cultural icons. The novel takes place in Waltherrott, a German city small in size but puffed up by civic pride and the local beer ("the famous Renatenbrau lager"). Smith has fun pulling the rug out from under the Waltherrottners' provincialism by exposing it to the harsh light of an outsider's vision. For instance, after listening to an extended paean to the beauty of the local women ("the best of Italian glamour blended with buxom German good health"), a visiting dignitary ponders the evidence of his senses:

Herr Wetzenstein's impression had actually been of heavy ankles, broad behinds, and sour faces; now he had to admit (to himself) that sallow skin and moustaches were much in evidence.

Just as the standard tourist guides seem to conspire to belittle Waltherrott's charms, so the novel contrives to expose the seamy reality of its legendary origins and the less than noble life of its most famous artist, the composer Carl Maria von Stumpf (literally, "of the stump," but figuratively, "stupid"). A local burger, Herr Einzelturm, interests himself in von Stumpf's career, and after struggling through a modem poststructuralist analysis of his work (one of Smith's brilliant parodies) and a Romantic hagiography/demonography, he comes upon the great man's diary in the town library. Written in 1848, with revolution in the air, the journal records the composer's tribulations as he worked on his two most famous operas, Der Hosenkavalier and Waltherrotterdeiramerung. Alternately wallowing in Romantic self-loathing ("I shall blow my brains out") and cursing everyone whom he imagines to be against him, the character of von Stumpf is a wonderfully telling portrait of the Grub Street artist - part idealist, part charlatan. The following outline for one of his operas gives a fair idea of von Stumpf's approach to his work:

... got to have great melody, unified musical development all very well, but I have to have a few saleable excerpts if I'm to make something extra from this thing, provide for future - at any rate: the arrival of miraculous boar with glowing cross, etc., Walther amazed, falls to ground, vows to go on crusade after all, etc., etc., modulate to E Maj. or some other resolute key, triumphant end of Act 1, audience goes to bar in cheerful mood, buys gallons of drink, see if I can get cut of concessions (no hope, there!) and return drowsy from Oberdorf's finest, but I have Act 11 to wake them up.

The journal is replete with themes from von Stumpf's operas, and the musically inclined may have as much fun with these as with the translation of the often ludicrous German surnames that Smith has given his characters. In his interview with the local overlord, Graf Walther vom Fass, descendant of the legendary founder of Waltherrott, von Stumpf not only discovers the truth (or, at least, a sobering alternative to the legend) about Waltherrott's origins, but also comes to realize how unlike his image the contemporary Walther is. In fact, the aristocrat is more revolutionary than the artist. Smith is commenting here on the universal tendency to typecast the artist and his patron - to always see the one as a friend to revolution and the other as an obstacle to social change, an interpretation that goes against the evidence of history. It would be more accurate to state that what artists - egotists above all - have always regarded as their true mission is not the liberation of humanity in general but rather the liberation of self - their self.

"Being in the middle of history," von Stumpf concludes, "seems to be more confusing than looking back upon it." Taking this as one of Smith's serious themes in the novel, we can see parallels between the parochialism of Waltherrott and the selfcentred squabblings of Canadians as they seek to interpret their own history and rewrite their constitution. As von Stumpf himself puts it - writing, it must be recalled, in 1848 - "it might as well be a story of Canada without the snow." In fact, at one point the composer gives us a few bars of a projected theme for one of his operas, which he promptly dismisses as "too boring." The "unidentified theme" turns out to be "0 Canada." It would be a mistake, however, to insist too much upon the "Canadian content" of A Night at the Opera. There are no such limitations to this novel and too much fine writing in it to be overshadowed by political implications.


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