Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 October 2011
Through investigating the production and reception of Death in Venice (1973), this essay considers the ways Britten and his audiences responded to the fraught discourse surrounding opera in the twentieth century. If the genre as a whole often threatened to fall on the wrong side of contemporaneous aesthetic oppositions – between abstraction and immediacy, the intellectual and the visceral, the high and the low – early critics of this particular work tended to translate its visual spectacles and musical rhetoric into more rarefied terms. Taking my cue from elements of contradiction and ambivalence in this sublimating criticism, I will examine how Britten's opera resists the very suppressions it promotes. I will suggest that, in simultaneously staging and confounding oppositions at the heart of contemporary operatic discourse, Death in Venice offers a powerful case study of the way composers, directors, critics and audiences responded to and overcame the terminal illness with which opera had been diagnosed in the middle third of the twentieth century.
2 ‘Julian said, “Bradley, if I asked you, would you come to Covent Garden with me?” “Yes, of course”. I would go to hell with her, and even to Covent Garden’; Murdoch, 243.
3 Much like Death in Venice, The Black Prince is steeped in references to Greek mythology, especially as they were filtered through the writings of Plato and Nietzsche. In the original edition of the novel, moreover, Murdoch included a picture of Apollo on the front cover, an act which a number of critics have taken to mean that either the fictional editor of the novel or the protagonist himself are supposed to represent modern-day incarnations of the Greek god of the arts.
4 The concept of ‘sublimation’ has been theorised by Sigmund Freud as a way of describing the process through which the body's animalistic drives and desires are either redirected or translated into aesthetic creation and intellectual reflection. My use of the term, while not reducible to Freud's theory, focuses on the latter of his explanations. My invocation of ‘sublimation’, in other words, seeks to capture the process through which the ‘lowest’, most visceral pleasures afforded by art are defensively translated into abstract intellectual reflection. For a detailed discussion of Freud's concept of sublimation, see Gay, Volney Patrick, Freud on Sublimation: Reconsiderations (Albany, 1992)Google Scholar .
5 After the many implausible twists and coincidences, for example, our philosopher cum protagonist muses on the randomness of existence; after the melodramatic scenes of domestic violence and adultery, he reflects on the nature of marriage; and, finally, after each and every one of his sexual exploits, he offers abstract meditations on the relationship between love, life and art.
6 Some critics even championed the philosophical levels of Murdoch's novels with the explicit purpose of excusing or even erasing the more melodramatic details of her storylines: ‘There are dark aspects to the Murdochian universe: adultery, incest, erotic follies, betrayal, deception, religious anguish, guilt and even murder, are part of her stories, but these are tempered by a strain of metaphysical speculation and ethical concerns – she was a trained philosopher [my italics]’; Paul Levy, ‘Dame Iris Murdoch’, The Independent, 10 February 1999.
8 Robert-Blunn, ‘Death in Venice’.
9 ‘It is, rather, about creativity, inspiration and, in immediate terms, about the way in which social conventions can inspire alarming guilt in an individual who begins to realize something in himself that he perceives as anti-social’; Roger Baker, ‘Britten's Death in Venice his Masterpiece’, The Advocate, September 1973.
10 Cooper, Martin, ‘New Britten Opera has Sense of Atmosphere’, The Daily Telegraph, 18 June 1973Google Scholar .
11 ‘There are other levels of meaning to sustain interest in Mann's story. It is about fatalism, as well as about the unpredictability of the creative urge, about the dangers of fastidiousness, about Venice as a symbol of glorious delay, and the ambivalence of any inspiration, ultimately about the human control of emotion and reason, most superficially about the inborn bi-sexuality of all human creatures’; Mann, William, ‘Something Old, Something New from Britten: Death in Venice’, The Times, 18 June 1973Google Scholar .
12 Brett, Philip, ‘Musicality, Essentialism and the Closet’, in Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, ed. Brett, Philip, Wood, Elizabeth and Thomas, Gary C. (New York, 1994), 19–21Google Scholar .
13 Huyssen, Andreas, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1986), viiiGoogle Scholar .
15 Lindenberger, Herbert, ‘Anti-Theatricality in Twentieth-Century Opera’, in Against Theatre: Creative Destructions on the Modernist Stage, ed. Ackerman, Alan and Puchner, Martin (New York, 2007)Google Scholar ; Albright, Daniel, ‘The New Music Theater’, in Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources (Chicago and London, 2004Google Scholar ); Salzman, Eric, ‘Some Notes on the Origins of New Music-Theater’, Theater, 30/2 (Summer 2000), 9–22Google Scholar .
16 ‘Grand Opera, of course, is the Deadly Theatre carried to absurdity … everything in opera must change, but in opera change is blocked’; Brook, Peter, The Empty Space (1968; rpt. London, 2008), 20Google Scholar ; Boulez, Pierre, ‘“Opera Houses? – Blow Them Up!”: Pierre Boulez versus Rolf Liebermann’, Opera, 19/5 (1968), 440–450Google Scholar .
18 Boulez, ‘Whither Opera?’, 922.
20 Jacobs, Arthur and Sadie, Stanley, Opera: A Modern Guide (1969; rpt. Newton Abbot, 1971), 487Google Scholar .
22 Jacobs, 1128.
23 T. W. Adorno, ‘Die Oper Ueberwintert auf der Langspielplatte’.
24 T. W. Adorno, ‘Opera and the Long-Playing Record’, 64.
26 Puchner, Martin, The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy (Oxford, 2010), 73Google Scholar . It is important to note that this genealogy is only the start of an investigation which goes on to examine how both anti-theatrical philosophy and philosophical theatre were decidedly more ambivalent with respect to the maligned aspects of theatrical immediacy and materiality than their idealistic rhetoric might suggest.
27 The most prominent artistic responses to anti-operatic discourse came from the so-called ‘Manchester School’, the music theatre of Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr and Peter Maxwell Davies; see Adlington, ‘Music Theatre since the 1960s’.
29 Britten, Benjamin, ‘An Interview with Benjamin Britten’ (1967), in Britten on Music, ed. Kildea, Paul (Oxford and New York, 2003), 308Google Scholar .
30 This wave of ritualistic works forms the subject of part two (‘The Mysteries of British Theater; or, Dressing up for Church’) of Sheppard, W. Anthony, Revealing Masks: Exotic Influences and Ritualized Performance in Modernist Music Theater (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2001)Google Scholar .
31 Graham, Colin, ‘Production Notes and Remarks on the Style of Performing Curlew River’ (London, 1965)Google Scholar .
32 Jacobs and Sadie, Opera, 483.
33 In reviewing Death in Venice for The Guardian, Edward Greenfield wrote: ‘With the central character encountering the same singer … at every turn, you could regard Death in Venice as the longest and greatest of the Church Parables, the story of a pilgrim and his tempter’; Edward Greenfield, ‘Death in Venice’, The Guardian, 18 June 1973. This perspective has been echoed by more recent scholars: while Eric Roseberry has concluded that ‘the ritualistic spareness of gesture in Death in Venice springs directly from the Noh play conventions’, Anthony Sheppard has argued that ‘many of the techniques of movement and characteristics of the musical structure of the Parables even influenced Britten's final two operas’; Roseberry, Eric, ‘Tonal Ambiguity in Death in Venice: A Symphonic View’, in Benjamin Britten: Death in Venice, ed. Mitchell, Donald (Cambridge, 1987), 97Google Scholar ; Sheppard, Revealing Masks, 138.
34 Myfanwy Piper, letter to Benjamin Britten (31 August 1971) © Courtesy of the Britten–Pears Foundation.
35 Colin Graham, ‘Music Weekly’ (Broadcast on BBC Radio 3, 12 June 1973) (BBC Sound Archive).
36 Mann, ‘Something Old, Something New’; Greenfield, ‘Death in Venice’.
37 Cooper, ‘New Britten Opera’; John Falding, ‘Death in Venice’, The Birmingham Post, 18 June 1973.
39 Edward Greenfield, ‘Ascent of Mann’, The Guardian Weekly, 7 July 1973.
40 Cooper, ‘New Britten Opera’.
41 This kind of symbolic separation through different expressive media was recently used in Harrison Birtwistle's Down by the Greenwood Side (1969), a remaking of a Christmas Mummers' play in which Mrs Green's singing provides stark contrast with the declamatory acting of the others.
43 ‘This is an opera which musically and dramatically symbolises Britten's defiance of operatic convention – an extended monologue with no action worth talking about’; Greenfield, ‘Ascent of Mann’.
44 Loveland, Kenneth, ‘Ultimate Refinement of Britten's Powers’, The Luton Evening Post, 28 June 1973Google Scholar .
48 Robert-Blunn, ‘Death in Venice’.
49 Albright, Modernism and Music, 104.
51 ‘The subject of Britten's “Death in Venice” … is the artist's nature and, in a profounder sense than Strauss's “Capriccio” , the nature of art itself’; Cooper, ‘New Britten Opera’.
54 Carnegy, Patrick, ‘Decadent Intoxications’, The Times Educational Supplement, 29 June 1973Google Scholar .
56 Baker, ‘Britten's Death in Venice’; Heyworth, Peter, ‘Road to the Abyss: Peter Heyworth on Britten's “Death in Venice”’, The Observer, 24 June 1973Google Scholar .
57 Baker, ‘Britten's Death in Venice’; Cooper, ‘New Britten Opera’.
58 Blyth, ‘Death in Venice’, 689; Greenfield, ‘Death in Venice’.
59 Myfanwy Piper, notebook on Death in Venice © Courtesy of the Britten–Pears Foundation.
60 Benjamin Britten, letter to Myfanwy Piper (12 May 1971) © Courtesy of the Britten–Pears Foundation.
61 Rodney Milnes, ‘Mann and Boy’, The Spectator, 30 June 1973. Milnes's sentiments were echoed by Ned Rorem, in a review of the English Opera Group's production at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1974: ‘To make flesh of the ineffable is always a miscalculation. The success of parables like Parsifal or Suddenly Last Summer … lies in the invisible ideal. Tadzio inhabits our fantasy no less than Aschenbach's. To find him now in person, a dancer, is to find a perfectionist intent on selling his craft. Observed as a ballet sans text … Death in Venice becomes the saga of a flirty boy who lusts for an old man but whose mother interferes so he drowns himself’; Rorem, ‘Britten's Venice’.
62 Myfanwy Piper, letter to Benjamin Britten (28 February 1972) © Courtesy of the Britten–Pears Foundation.
63 Benjamin Britten, letter to Myfanwy Piper (6 February 1972) © Courtesy of the Britten–Pears Foundation.
64 Lepecki, André, ‘Presence and Body in Dance and Performance Theory’, in Of the Presence of the Body: Essays in Dance and Performance Theory, ed. Lepecki, André (Middletown, CT, 2004), 2Google Scholar .
65 Albright, Daniel, ‘Golden Calves: The Role of Dance in Opera’, The Opera Quarterly, 22/1 (2006), 27Google Scholar .
66 It was in the same letter, in which he set his frustrations in staging abstraction, that he offered the choral solution: ‘What would your reaction be to having the “interpretations” of the boy's dances sung by the chorus as a kind of madrigal (again, your word)? Thinking of it visually, the chorus comes on at the beginning of the scene, & group themselves round as a kind of frame – then A. comes on and does his introduction (ending in “live in Elysium”). Then lights dim on singers, leaving the boys brilliantly lit, with A. in the foreground. Ballet no. I followed by the chorus singing “And is that Phoebus … he lords in the air” either clearly visible, or in formalized groups, Aschenbach then singing “Ah, how the antique world possesses me, And everything I see prolongs the spell” … then Ballet no. II then chorus’; Benjamin Britten, letter to Myfanwy Piper (12 May 1971) © Courtesy of the Britten–Pears Foundation.
67 Northcott, ‘Death in Venice’.
68 Rayment, Malcolm, ‘Edinburgh Festival: Britten's New Opera Disappoints’, The Glasgow Herald, 6 September 1973Google Scholar ; Porter, ‘Death in Venice’.
69 Porter's point about symbolism was echoed by Kenneth Loveland, who wrote that: ‘some of the dancing goes on too long, and the symbolic points about Socratic Greece and the worship of Dionysus could be made in half the time’; Loveland, ‘Ultimate Refinement’.
70 ‘Whilst I found the entire second act completely absorbing I cannot say the same of the first. The weakness here comes in the final scene – the scene in which Aschenbach realizes his love for Tadzio. The scene is entitled “Feast of the Sun” and consists of all sorts of sporting competitions between the boys which establish Tadzio's supremacy. Frankly it was too static with the result that it became tedious’; Howard Burrell, ‘Britten Opera Premiere at Aldeburgh’, The Eastern Daily Press, 18 June 1973; ‘For much of the time, therefore, the work had a surprising degree of pace, but there were two sequences which dragged badly. The pentathlon event on the lido involving Tadzio and his friends became a tedious affair and the opening to the second act was equally slow’; Falding, ‘Death in Venice’.
71 Heyworth, ‘Road to the Abyss’.
73 These visual connections are reinforced by musical ones: both passages rely on heavy and abrasive percussion and brass, extreme use of sequence and repetition, and a dense collection of musical climaxes. Insofar as both are based on Tadzio's musical theme, they even feature significant motivic overlap.
74 Mann, Thomas, ‘Death in Venice’, in Stories of Three Decades, trans. Lowe-Porter, H. T. (1936; rpt. New York, 1951), 434–435Google Scholar .
75 Murdoch, The Black Prince, 257.
76 Reed, T. J., ‘Thomas Mann's Death in Venice’, in Programme Book of the Twenty-Sixth Aldeburgh Festival (Aldeburgh, 1973)Google Scholar .
81 After drawing parallels between Kerman's monograph and F. R. Leavis's The Great Tradition (1948), Herbert Lindenberger recently characterised Opera as Drama as the ‘most powerful and influential study of opera of its time’; Lindenberger, Herbert, Situating Opera: Period, Genre, Reception (Cambridge, 2010), 66Google Scholar .
82 His account of the cathartic moment from Salome, for example, combines culinary and sexual metaphors, two of the most common means of verbally evoking the more visceral dimensions of music: ‘John the Baptist's severed head might as well be made of marzipan. And it is for this sugary orgasm that all the fantastically involved aphrodisiac machinery has been required’; Kerman, 209.
83 Kerman, 14.
84 Salzman, ‘Some Notes’, 10.
85 Boulez, ‘Whither Opera?: Part I’, 925.
86 Kerman, Opera as Drama, 207.
87 Kerman, 14.
88 Adorno, , ‘Bourgeois Opera’ (1955), in Sound Figures, trans. Livingstone, Rodney (Stanford, 1999), 20Google Scholar .
89 Adorno, Theodor, ‘On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’, in Adorno on Music, ed. Leppert, Richard (Los Angeles and Berkeley, 2002), 298Google Scholar .
90 In a response to Boulez's criticisms, Rolf Liebermann describes the hidden subtext in Boulez's diatribe as: ‘“My unwritten opera is the best”. An unintentionally comic remark!’; Rolf Liebermann, ‘“Opera Houses?”’, 21.
91 Kerman, Opera as Drama, 16.
92 Kerman, 204.
93 This was precisely the comparison made by Britten himself. After admitting that, initially, his ‘feelings towards Verdi and Puccini were about the same – both of them efficient … but not very interesting musically’, he acknowledged the error of his ways: ‘After four or five performances I never wanted to hear Bohème again. In spite of its neatness, I became sickened by the cheapness and emptiness of the music… Verdi can, of course, write the obvious square tunes, which use many repetitions of the same little phrase and work to an effective climax. These abound in the earlier operas, and are immediately endearing … But he can also write the long, casual lines, a succession of apparently unrelated phrases, which repeated hearings discover to have an enormous tension deep below the surface’; Britten, ‘Verdi – A Symposium’ (1951), in Britten on Music, 102.
94 Kerman, Opera as Drama, 10–11.
95 Kerman, 59.
96 ‘What the critic can usefully do, beyond simply trying to communicate his or her pleasure or its reverse in works of art, is to point out what it is in the works that causes those pleasures or painful sentiments. Patient and cogent observation of the details of a score, libretto, and a performance has to underpin any critical methodology worth the name’; Kerman, 227.
97 Subotnik, Rose Rosengard, ‘Toward the Next Paradigm of Musical Scholarship’, in Beyond Structural Listening? Postmodern Modes of Hearing, ed. Dell'Antonio, Andrew (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2004), 281Google Scholar ; Cusick, Suzanne, ‘Feminist Theory, Music Theory and the Mind/Body Problem’, in Music/Ideology: Resisting the Aesthetic, ed. Krims, Adam (Amsterdam, 1998), 45Google Scholar ; Abbate, Carolyn, ‘Music – Drastic or Gnostic?’, Critical Inquiry, 30 (2004), 505–536Google Scholar .
98 In Contemplating Music, Joseph Kerman points out that the lines between populist scholarship and didactic criticism were particularly thin in post-war Britain, then going on to champion the work of Donald Mitchell, Hans Keller and Erwin Stein as models for the musicology of the future – a musicology in which the link between criticism and scholarship should be revived; Kerman, Joseph, Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology (Cambridge, 1985), 27–28Google Scholar . The dilettantism of post-war British musicology is also discussed in David Fallows, Whittall, Arnold and Blacking, John, ‘Musicology in Great Britain since 1945’, Acta Musicologica, 52 (1980), 38–68Google Scholar .
100 Noble, ‘Britten's “Death in Venice”’.
102 Carnegy, ‘Decadent Intoxications’.
103 Porter, ‘Death in Venice’.
104 Greenfield, ‘Death in Venice’. In his later review for The Guardian Weekly, Greenfield was even more adamant that ‘the precise pointing of one passage against another helps to control the overall structure, to give what is fundamentally an emotional experience a tautness of form’; Greenfield, ‘Ascent of Mann’.
107 Evans, ‘Britten's Death in Venice’, 492.
108 Porter, ‘Death in Venice’.
109 John Evans, ‘Twelve-Note Structures and Tonal Polarity’, in Death in Venice, ed. Mitchell, 99.
110 Davies, Peter Maxwell, ‘The Young British Composer’, in The Score and I.M.A. Magazine, 15 (1956), 85Google Scholar ; Maxwell Davies's critique is discussed and contextualised in Rupprecht, Philip, ‘“Something Slightly Indecent”: British Composers, the European Avant-Garde and National Stereotypes in the 1950s’, Musical Quarterly, 91 (2009), 275–276Google Scholar .
111 David Patrick Stearns, ‘Met's ethereal “Death in Venice”’, Final Edition, 11 February 1974.
112 Daniel Albright, Musicking Shakespeare (Rochester, 2007), 296.
113 Wilson, ‘Britten's New Work’.
114 Evans, ‘Death in Venice’, 103.
115 Seymour, Claire, The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion (Woodbridge, 2004), 313Google Scholar .
116 Longobardi, Ruth Sara, ‘Models and Modes of Music Representation in Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice: Musical, Historical, and Ideological Contexts’, Ph.D. diss. (Columbia University, 2004), 191–192Google Scholar .
117 Rupprecht, Britten's Musical Language, 275–8.
118 Rupprecht, 277.
119 Adorno, ‘Bourgeois Opera’, 26.
120 Richard Taruskin, Music in the Late Twentieth Century, The Oxford History of Western Music 5 (2005; rpt. New York and Oxford, 2010), 221–59.
121 Taruskin, 221–2.
122 Lindenberger, Situating Opera, 68–9.
123 See, for example, Richard Taruskin, ‘The Musical Mystique: Defending Classical Music Against its Devotees’, The New Republic, 22 October 2007; Richard Taruskin, ‘Shall We Change the Subject: A Music Historian Reflects’ (Presidential Lecture, Stanford, 2008).
124 Taruskin, Music in the Late Twentieth Century, 224.
125 Peter Franklin, The Idea of Music: Schoenberg and Others (London, 1985); Taruskin, ‘Shall We Change the Subject’.
126 Taruskin, Music in the Late Twentieth Century, 259. At the end of the quotation, Taruskin cites Britten's 1964 Aspen Speech; see: Britten, Benjamin, On Receiving the First Aspen Award (London, 1964), 12Google Scholar .
127 For a recent example of this tendency, which stretches back to the earliest scholarly accounts of Britten and his operas, see Kildea, Paul, ‘Britten, Auden and “Otherness”’, in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, ed. Cooke, Mervyn (Cambridge, 1999), 36–53Google Scholar .
128 Britten, On Receiving the First Aspen Award, 20.
129 The fact that the operas have triggered discussions of all manner of social injustices and prejudices is considered by Taruskin to confirm the composer's role as ‘a faithful and acceptable gadfly who could, by pleasing his audiences with satisfying art experiences, lobby for points of view that challenged, and sought to undermine, the complacency of the majority’; Taruskin, Music in the Late Twentieth Century, 257. However, the unconsummated symbols which Taruskin describes as conferring ‘classic’ status on works like Peter Grimes and Death in Venice sound remarkably like those ‘unanswerable questions’ which the literary critic John Carey has placed at the centre of highbrow/ modernist attempts to ‘elud[e] the fact-hungry masses’; Carey, John, Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880–1939 (New York, 1992), 33Google Scholar .
130 Elsewhere, Taruskin has launched a number of damning critiques of those he regards as perpetuating Adornian prejudices against mass culture in recent scholarship and criticism: Taruskin, ‘The Musical Mystique’; Taruskin, ‘Shall We Change the Subject’; Taruskin, Richard, ‘Speed Bumps’, in 19th-Century Music, 29/2 (2005), 185–207Google Scholar .
131 ‘The social conditions, and thus the style and content, of traditional opera are so far removed from theatregoers’ consciousness that there is every reason to doubt the continued existence of operatic experience. The esthetic conventions it rests upon, perhaps even the measure of sublimation it presupposes, can hardly be expected of broad listening strata. But the charms which opera had for the masses in the nineteenth century and earlier … the decorous pomp, the imposing spectacle, the intoxicating color and sensuous allure – all this has long since wandered off into motion pictures. The film has materially outbid the opera, while underbidding it so far that nothing from its fund could keep it competitive'; Adorno, Theodor, Introduction to the Sociology of Music (New York, 1976), 80Google Scholar .
132 Adorno, 82–3.
133 ‘Indeed, it is hardly a coincidence that these attempts at innovation usually get stuck halfway, especially as far as music itself is concerned. If we are to speak of opera at all we should rather do so because in more respects than one it marks the prototype of the theatrical – indeed, a prototype of precisely those elements that have been profoundly undermined today … Demystified opera inevitably threatens to degenerate into an arts and crafts affair, where stylization threatens to substitute for the disintegrating style. Modernity, which does not really intervene in the matter, becomes mere packaging, becomes modernism’; Adorno, ‘Bourgeois Opera’, 15–16.
134 Nietzsche's hammer metaphor is borrowed by Adorno himself in ‘Bourgeois Opera’, 27.
135 Boulez, ‘Whither Opera?’, 926.
136 ‘At the moment I see three strata in our society. The first likes to think itself cultured and goes to the museum and to the music-museum. When they have got bored in the museum they want to buy themselves a bit of adventure so they go to the Liebermanns. Bourgeois society needs its court jesters … [The second stratum] lives in the present. It listens to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and heaven knows what else. A Beatles’ record is certainly cleverer than a Henze opera, and shorter as well. But the third stratum is the one you can bet on. It is fairly independent of bourgeois society and above all the taste of bourgeois society'; Boulez, ‘Opera Houses’, 20.
137 Adorno, ‘Bourgeois Opera’, 28.
138 Adorno, 15–16.
139 Adorno, 27.
140 The idea that modernist opposition to rhetoric and the market had, already by the 1960s, become a rhetorical strategy for entering the market is discussed in greater detail in Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (1977; rpt. Durham, NC, 1987), 120–1.