Dancers perform the Can-Can from Offenbach's 'Orpheus in the Underworld' (GREG WOOD/AFP/GettyImages)
On Opera

Do not go gently

Opera has treated the subject of cancelling the pleasures of others in some depth

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Who says opera has no socially useful purpose? Why, it is only a few years since a Miami judge decimated crime simply by promising to make felons sit through Rigoletto with him in his chambers. And piping Mozart into bus shelters here has proved massively successful in driving away roustabouts — as well as the homeless, who would rather take their chances with the bootboys and the sleet, to the delight of the public-spirited everywhere.

The wider population might be amazed to learn that something which makes as dreadful a noise as opera is in fact immoderately devoted to sensual pleasure. Following a banner bearing the example of Richard Wagner’s mink knickers, opera and its adepts have famously ever wallowed in gilt, swagging and velvet, drowned themselves in gustatory luxury (climaxing in Gioachino Rossini’s tournedos, a satirical pile of the most infarctual ingredients known to man), and in happier days enjoyed the guarantee that the comelier performers would be obliged to make themselves available for post-show gallivants.

The greatest pleasure known to humanity involves no foods, no wines, no electric nipple-clamps

But this mania for physical delight is merely the outward semblance of opera’s devotion to the sheer gorgeousness of its own materials, those aerial vibrations of timbre, harmony and voice: the seventeenth century’s endeavour to conjure to life the sounds of Prospero’s isle with soft twangling instruments, the Raphaelite perfection and balance of Mozart, the lubricious, swoon-inducing harmonies of Richard Strauss — the closest music could ever come to actual pornography.

And the personnel of opera don’t stint themselves any more than the audience: from the rubber-sheet, baby-oil and obliging-company teams captained by Carmen and Don Giovanni to the inspired boozers Falstaff and Hoffmann, Wagner’s shuddering aesthetes, opportunistic trough-feeders like Cinderella’s pa Don Magnifico, the drink-inflamed Wieners desperately seeking adultery in Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, the party pigs of nineteenth-century Italiana, weltering in champagne and bodily fluids.

Yet life has a way of suddenly reminding us that fleshly delights are contingent and essentially illusory. The greatest pleasure known to humanity involves no foods, no wines, no electric nipple-clamps even — in fact it barely involves the senses at all, being much more a spiritual matter. 

I refer of course to the ecstasy derived from cancelling or policing the pleasures of others, a joy that is both unimprovably democratic and which exists in a pleasing inverse proportion to one’s own access to (or taste for) indulgence.

The orgasmic possibilities of shop-your-neighbour have come roaring back to most favoured pastime status

Which is why periods or eras of enforced puritanism like the present are seized on with such glistening-eyed zealotry by substantial sectors of the populace. And the inhabitants of the British Isles have always been world champions: see Cromwell’s state-wide fun inspectorate, the joyless pseudo-Jansenism of the Irish Catholic Church, and need I really bother with examples from Scotland and Wales? 

In our exciting new world of house-arrest, when police drones trail us like faithful labradors as we go to queue for bog-roll at Tesco, and when greeting your lover with a kiss is an arrestable offence, the orgasmic possibilities of shop-your-neighbour have come roaring back to most favoured pastime status. Naturally, opera has treated this matter in some depth. Opera’s stoolies and killjoys tend to represent the usual baleful groups: wives, priests, cops, teachers (though, oddly enough, Vincenzo Bellini’s I Puritani of 1835, set in 1649 Plymouth, is pretty much full-on roistering with nary a whingeing Sabbatarian wet blanket) who generally receive Malvolio-style short shrift in an art that insists on excess in all things. 

Seneca, after giving Nero the old wagging finger in Monteverdi’s 1640 Coronation of Poppea, is, to general rejoicing, instantly ordered to kill himself; we applaud José as he dumps mumsy, naggy Micaëla for foxy Carmen, and tut as Alfredo’s dad beats poor good-time Violetta to death with Victorian values in La traviata. But the pleasure Plod, the anti-life league, lurks and awaits its moment — and remains grimly sober while everyone else is unbuttoned, drunk, erotically hypnotised.

And see! — its greatest victory comes at the moment of maximum historic hedonism, with Napoleon III’s Second Empire Paris in its most reality-denying, end-of-history mode. In Jacques Offenbach’s rapturous satire Orpheus in the Underworld, as Jupiter and the rest of the Olympus gang find a way to make life even more perfectly riotous with a day trip to go jiving in Hades, who should pop up but the incarnation of Public Opinion, empowered to restore petty bourgeois propriety, forcibly reunite the happily-parted spouses Orpheus and Eurydice, and ensure that nobody has more fun than the meanest-spirited SAGE snoop. This being wish-fulfilment operetta, Jupiter unbelts a thunderbolt to send Public Opinion packing and grant a longed-for decree absolute to the unhappy marrieds. 

In the real world/opera, things are trickier. Carmen and Don Giovanni are despatched to doom by the prissy forces of decorum (pointedly represented by a psycho killer and a preposterous talking statue), yelling defiance and refusing to recant: live free or die! 

Today’s lesson is: life is a death struggle; we all get dragged to hell in the end, or skewered in the gutter. The point is not to go quietly.

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