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8 - Anti-theatricality in twentieth-century opera

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2011

Herbert Lindenberger
Affiliation:
Stanford University, California
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Summary

An anti-theatrical opera would seem to be a contradiction in terms. Theatricality, after all, suggests an exaggerated perspective on what we take to be reality, a certain inauthenticity that, as Jonas Barish argued in The Antitheatrical Prejudice, has been an issue within Western thought since its beginnings. The term operatic implies the exaggeration of a theatrical stance already assumed to be exaggerated. Thus, an opera that questions the nature and value of theatricality would seem to put enormous constraints on composers and performers, not to speak of audiences eager to experience the enactment of those high emotions that they would not dare to reveal in their everyday lives.

Yet many of the operas that we now see as central to the twentieth-century canon display an anti-theatricality similar to what Barish, in his final chapter, describes in such major dramatists of the century as Chekhov, Pirandello, Brecht, and Beckett. Pirandello, as he puts it, poses “a challenge to the theater as an expressive medium, a rebuke to its age-old claim to be able to instruct us about our true natures,” while Beckett initiates “a new radicalism” in which “the tissue of plausible event is stripped away” and “character is scraped down to the bone of consciousness.” For Barish, the revolutionary innovations of twentieth-century theater have worked to “burn down the ornate, overloaded theater of the past in the hope that a purified theater will rise from its ashes.

Type
Chapter
Information
Situating Opera
Period, Genre, Reception
, pp. 196 - 218
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2010

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