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another day, another opera

January 13, 2007

I am listening to the Met broadcast of the world premier of The First Emperor. This opera is absolutely incredible, unlike anything I have ever heard before, Eastern or Western. Composer/librettist/conductor Tan Dun spent ten years researching, writing, and composing this opera, seeking to merge Eastern and Western motifs, vocal techniques, and orchestration. I am transfixed hearing it, and have to say it works brilliantly.

But his motives leave me on the cool side of tepid.

Tan Dun loves the classical tradition, but foresees its death without diversification. While I commend his fusion of traditional elements in this opera, I disagree that the classical tradition will perish unless it diversifies. If it diversifies to the point where it is no longer classical, it has already perished.

I attended a traditional Chinese opera in Beijing in 1987 and hated it. I had no idea what was going on, and my sensory input translated the music as nothing but caterwauling. I can see the advantage to Chinese opera of taking on some Western elements; I was skeptical whether the opposite could be true.

The First Emperor contains some very typical classical operatic motifs: a father has a daughter who is in love with someone other than the man for whom he intends her. In fact, the object of her love is her father’s enemy. The central figure is Emperor Qin, a household word in China, who built the Great Wall, whose tyranny and cruelty are legendary, and who unified the country spiritually, culturally, and politically. The Emperor’s quest is for the ultimate anthem, a single musical creation that will unify the soul and spirit of the diverse people he has conquered. Of course, the one man for the job of composing this anthem is the object of the Emperor’s daughter’s affections, and a bitter enemy of tyranny. A shaman and a yin-yang enchanter provide counsel to the Emperor.

I never think much about the stories in operas because they inevitably revolve around sin and magic. I do love the music. I’m a radio listener, not caring much about sets, elaborate costumes, and especially perfume from the gallery–I like breathlessness to be metaphorical. Magic infuses the classical tradition, largely, I suspect–and I am no scholar in this area–because German composers transported medieval mystical traditions into their music; Italians contributed their share of mysticism through Catholicism. The devil puts in cameo appearances in several notable operas, including Weber’s Der Freischutz and Mozart’s Don Juan. Ancient mystical religions are prominent in opera, notably in The Magic Flute. I admit this is problematic for my Calvinist sensibilities, but I displace these liabilities with gratitude that God gave us music: harmony and enthralling abilities given to certain individuals bless people across theological lines.

Opera at times confesses magic, and magic is wrong. Magic is a lie of the devil that man has the power to overcome the inevitability of God’s providence, to slip from his sovereign hand, which is, of course, at once impossible and a sin of powerlust.

Superb music vindicates opera in thoughtful doses, bathos and hyperbole notwithstanding; gratuitous magic and lust are released harmlessly into the air. Impossibly beautiful singing and glorious melodies defuse sin rather than extolling it, and God is glorified in their concord and beauty.

  1. McBrooke permalink
    January 13, 2007 2:39 pm

    A friend and I wanted to transcribe The Ring cycle for Soprano and Flute for our senior recitals. I don’t know why they wouldn’t let us. :)
    “God is glorified in their concord and beauty” – I like that observation………except for the Sprechstimme in Schoenberg’s “Moses and Aron” (of course with only one A), but that isn’t impossibly beautiful singing at all.

  2. imagmom permalink
    January 13, 2007 3:24 pm

    “…magic is wrong. Magic is a lie of the devil that man has the power to overcome the inevitability of God’s providence, to slip from his sovereign hand, which is, of course, at once impossible and a sin of powerlust.”

    This one rattled my cage and got me stirred up. I don’t understand how Christians, especially informed, Reformed Christians, can flirt with witchcraft and magic and be entertained by it. Even as an Arminian I knew it was wrong. Because the Bible told me so.

    And yet… I know Reformed Christians whose children (Pastors even) are huge Harry Potter fans. What business have we to do with filling our minds with that?

    A very excellent argument on the subject can be found here. [url][/url]

    And Disney was all about magic, of course. Get those little ones while they are young. But that leads to the discussion about freedom of imagination and creativity.

    I would like to be able to preview my comment before publishing, like before. I don’t see an option for that. I hope I don’t regret forever hitting that “submit” button.

  3. imagmom permalink
    January 13, 2007 5:18 pm

    yep. that website was wrong. here’s a better one.

  4. January 13, 2007 6:09 pm

    There is no comment preview available on WordPress; sorry.

    I can think of no entertainment medium, whether the news, the Lone Ranger, or Survivor, that doesn’t deal with sin on some level, because that is the human condition. Most opera is romantic or comic; magic is sometimes portrayed, but always in a fantasy setting. Schoenberg’s Moses and Aron, to which McBrooke referred, I would declare disgusting and would not see or listen to it. As with everything else, including theological leaders, discretion is advised.

  5. imagmom permalink
    January 13, 2007 9:34 pm

    I don’t like how I expressed myself above. Most entertainment medium does deal with sin on some level, true, and I do not abstain from entertainment totally, although I try to exercise discretion according to my convictions. What is discretion to me may not be seen as such by someone else however, so I think I came off sounding rather ‘self righteous.’ My point is that scripture speaks so clearly against witchcraft that I wonder at it being trivialized by Christians.

    Inconsistency is always more obvious in the other person I think.

  6. January 14, 2007 11:28 am

    I would not wish to underestimate the power of temptation. However, I do not think that listening to an opera on the radio is any more likely to incite anyone to the sin of witchcraft than owning a firearm is likely to incite anyone to the sin of murder.

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