Music to die for

The elegant narrative solution of suicide has had no greater cheerleader than opera

On Opera

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It might save everyone a bit of money and effort to display the following woo-alert before any film, play, TV show, opera etc older than about 20 years: The past happened! Get over it — or piss off. The thought was prompted by exciting news that Covent Garden has frotted away a year, and countless thousands of quid, making Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly more “authentic” — a pursuit as obviously vain and wretched as hiring a Mandarin accent-coach for Chu Chin Chow.

You’d hope they might at least have sorted out Puccini’s racist “they-all-look-the-same-to-me” pentatonics into proper Japanese modes and scales, and perform the blasted thing on bamboo flutes, but no. Anyway, this Italian caricature happily now features “correctly” coloured kimonos and the right kind of shuffling, if you care to see how these morons spend your tax dollars.

Opera has remained sweetly devoted to quaint old notions generally assumed to have slunk away to expire

No doubt the main reasons for Butterfly’s setting, in any case, were simply the picturesque and entertaining local suicide-techniques; let’s hope we’ve seen the last of those offensively wrong versions of Butterfly’s quietus, and that henceforth everyone adheres to the letter and spirit of jigaki, the much nicer lady version of messy seppuku.

The original Butterfly story was written by some forgotten American dude who’d never been nearer Asia than his local massage joint; it’s one of opera’s less heeded virtues that it preserves these freaky fever-dreams from back then that other neophiliac artforms have daintily moved on from: plays (and novels) that have died like dogs live gloriously on in the Elysium of opera.

Where else could you meet such one-time colossi as Eugène Scribe or Victorien Sardou — or indeed Walter Scott, read now only by earnest little Scots Tories? A lot of this old stuff is unbelievable rubbish, naturally, or of niche appeal (Sardou’s formula for success was “Torture the women”) — not that it could conceivably be any worse than the cutesy come-allye snivellings of Conor McPherson and Jez Butterworth the perennially deluded theatre flicks itself off on these days.

Opera has thus remained sweetly devoted to quaint old notions generally assumed to have slunk away to expire. And the king of these, beyond the trivia everyone gets their knickers in a twist about — all those dead chicks, the kooky fixations on sex and virginity, the fetishising of all the DSM-approved personality disorders — is the concept of honour, the idea that behaviour and reputation and worth are indivisible; Cassio’s “immortal part of myself”, without which there is no point in living, no life.

Before the very idea of honour went down the pan, humanity had devised a cool way to reverse the horror of its loss or blackening, to wit, of course, suicide. This elegant solution has had no greater cheerleader than opera: indeed an interesting article in Death Studies reveals that opera fans are 2.37 times more likely than others to approve of “honour suicide”. You could invent fun parlour games on the subject: Who chooses a volcanic crater for her final bow? for example, or Which resourceful chap does away with himself through “self-inflicted blunt trauma”?

Before the idea of honour went down the pan, humanity had devised a cool way to reverse the horror of its loss or blackening, to wit, of course, suicide

And there’s a surfeit of jolly details to be debated: do “assisted suicides” count, like Carmen’s taunting that nutter till he steps up to the plate? How many points for icing yourself in a pet following a non-ideal love outcome? Does Aida, entombing herself with her condemned boyf, beat Werther, with his drearily over-extended exit, or fretful Carmelite Blanche, barging into the queue for the guillotine?

Where do Jim Jones-style mass hecatombs fit in, like the Old Believers in Khovanschina (oh, those Russians!) nailing themselves up in pitch-covered huts and going for the world auto-barbecue record? Does Tosca’s high-dive get more points for artistic impression than Senta’s? And so forth.

Moving on wistfully from the purely comedic aspects of suicide, we reach the elevated plateau where it can rehabilitate the ruined, the dishonoured, the knaves and blaggards — yes, and perhaps even some beyond the royals and Houses of Parliament, for whom a special Khovanschina-themed mass-redemption would seem to be strongly indicated. Top-honour suicides range from brave little Butterfly herself, a gaggle of hotties threatened with a fate worse than death, to Handel’s Bajazeth, the captured emperor fed up with being used as a footstool by Tamburlaine.

The true pin-up for this whole merrygo-round is Verdi’s Ernani. The opera, based on a long-dead play by Victor Hugo, is set in 16th-century Spain — a themepark for this sort of lark, where you could barely ask for a cup of tea without sullying someone’s honour and being required to supply satisfaction. At the end, Ernani is just about to get it on with the girl he’s been chasing for years when an offstage horn-call jogs his memory about an old and technically expired suicide pact — the hidalgo equivalent of a drunken bet — and he slaughters himself on the spot. Noblesse oblige! indeed.

I suppose the trouble is that not everyone is as upstanding as your man there, tending more to the Falstaff view of honour as an extremely optional luxury. But what is puzzling is that despite the current hordes of the mortally offended there is no sign of increased duelling. Obviously that’s a whole ‘nother column, but should anyone feel offended by anything I have written, what can I say? — choose your weapons, mofos.

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