THE ART OF DYING
Linda and Michael Hutcheon
Harvard University Press, 239 pp
Love and death are arguably the two most ubiquitous themes in opera--as in Western culture generally. While aspects of love have been commentated upon in all their infinite variety, the notion of mortality in opera has been far less rigorously examined. It is to the function of operatic representations of death that the husband-and-wife team of Linda and Michael Hutcheon (respectively Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto) have turned their attention in their latest cross-disciplinary venture. Drawing on the research and discourses of both their specialties, the authors tackle the issue of the taboos surrounding death, especially in our own time, arguing that the enactment of death in opera helps us to cope with the reality of our eventual demise, and enhances our lives by giving them meaning.
Rejecting Catherine Clement's contention (in her seminal Opera, or the Undoing of Women) that women are singled out for an expiatory (and expiratory) role in opera, the Hutcheons examine a handful of representative cases. First come Blanche de la Force and her sister nuns in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites, a work which offers its audience "closure and catharsis" in the face of painful, premature death. Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, they argue, deny the traditional notion of death as something to be feared: rather they welcome it as the fulfilment of their yearning, giving it a positive, serene connotation.
Wotan in Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen learns not only to accept but also to welcome his death ("We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the word" is how Wagner famously formulated the god's dilemma in a letter to Rockel). …