Aida and the Empire of Emotions (Theodor W. Adorno, Edward Said, and Alexander Kluge)

By Goehr, Lydia | Current Musicology, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview
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Aida and the Empire of Emotions (Theodor W. Adorno, Edward Said, and Alexander Kluge)

Goehr, Lydia, Current Musicology

For Alexander Kluge (1)

Let's start with the facts: two lovers are buried alive, their lungs are full of gas from the crypt; they are cramped with hunger and, as they perish, decay does its unspeakable work on their bodies. In the end, there are two skeletons, one now indifferent to the other. I am describing the end of an opera as Thomas Mann described it in a chapter from The Magic Mountain on the "Fullness of Harmony." (2) His point in 1924 was simple but critical. Surrounded by his desert-island disks, Castorp listens to a record of the last scene of Verdi's Aida over and over again, yet oblivious to the facts: he hears only the beauty and power of the music. Whatever the suffering of Aida and Radames, no trace of it reaches his ear. Or does it: is the fullness of harmony really enough for Castorp to forget the facts?


This essay investigates how Theodor W. Adorno, Edward Said, and Alexander Kluge read Verdi's opera Aida with respect to the theme of being buried alive, where being buried alive can occur not only to characters in an opera but, according to a discourse of fate, also to the opera itself. To write about being buried alive but living as it were to tell the tale, the three critics ask whether a residue of resistance in the opera remains that allows the opera to escape a totalizing discourse of fate or fatality that threatens to destroy it. I begin by presenting the more familiar views of Adorno and Said, although hopefully in a new light. After that, I present and develop the less familiar view (in an Anglo-American musicological context) of the Frankfurt filmmaker and critical theorist, Alexander Kluge.

To focus on the work of these three exemplary critics is to show what it means to offer a critical reading of an opera that takes Aida as its example. This is the focus of my essay. To offer a critical reading is to refuse to take the opera at face value, which means in part, as it appears on the stage. The point is, nothing should be taken at face value, and certainly not a work of art. The three critics refuse in interestingly different ways. Adorno and Kluge read the opera against its grain first, with the aim, second, to find buried in its tomb the fragile terms of its resistant meanings or gestures. How they differ from one another is more subtle than how they jointly differ from Said, who engages the first task but not, as far as I can tell, the second. In general, critical theorists seek in an opera its aesthetic-political contradiction, blind spot, or tragic knot in order to undo it. The rescue of the opera, if such is possible, depends on how the knot is undone.

The knot may be variously undone. One way is to show how the woman protagonist who, though almost completely undone by the opera, may still be heard as undoing that which undoes her. Another way is to refuse the opera's triumphant ending to subvert the inevitable closure to which the opera seems at first sight musically and dramatically to lead. A third way, which I develop here as the authorial thread of this essay, disrupts the explicit alliances that are set up between opera and nationhood, especially to the extent that these alliances suggest a history of fated nations. For critical theorists, the social significance of a great artwork--and Aida is exemplary--lies in its immanent potential to rescue itself from being experienced as merely "a thing of the past," which is to say, as a "museum piece" that no longer has meaning for us in the present.


In January 1929, the young Adorno positively reviewed a new Frankfurt production of Aida conducted by Clemens Krauss. (3) He commented particularly on the liveliness of the production by which he meant its non-dustiness. 1929 was a year in which opera was often proclaimed to be in a crisis, in fact to be in a moribund condition. Adorno wondered whether it was still possible to produce traditional operas in the grand old style.

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Aida and the Empire of Emotions (Theodor W. Adorno, Edward Said, and Alexander Kluge)


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