Opera and the Culture of Fascism

By Woodside, Mary S. | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Opera and the Culture of Fascism


Woodside, Mary S., Canadian University Music Review


Jeremy Tambling. Opera and the Culture of Fascism. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. x, 274 pp. ISBN 0-19816566-8 (hardcover).

The aim of this book is to show how opera was part of the culture which led to the fascist regimes of the twentieth century. Its author, a professor of comparative literature, wishes to "take opera out of the hermetically sealed state in which it is normally discussed." He warns his reader that:

Opera is a weave of voices, a dialogue between text, music, and performance, and a mixed genre ... but it also has its political unconscious because of the dominant and the marginal discourses that emerge through each opera, which do not reduce to the pairing of music and libretto ... But in wishing to go beyond treating everything extraneous to the opera as mere "background," this book will tax the patience of those who "only" like opera. . . . Musicians who prefer the formalist approach to opera analysis may reflect on the consequent marginalization of music and opera from the writing of cultural history (pp. 8-9).

The reader should also know that this is primarily a contribution to librettology and that although opera is a "dialogue between text, music and performance," the musical component of that combination is hardly mentioned. Thus, it can scarcely claim to be an antidote to the marginalization of that art from the writing of cultural history, even if it were still true that opera is generally discussed in an "hermetically sealed" state. Nonetheless, this book presents an interesting tour of the fascist and proto-fascist discourse that informs selected operas of Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, and Strauss. For it is the author's belief that

a starting point for the history of fascism entails reading much of the nineteenth century as the primeval landscape of fascism, or proto-fascism ... The phrase "the culture of fascism" has its pay-off in not isolating 1922-45 or 1933-45 as separate periods in Italian or German history (pp. 1-2).

After the introduction, the book is organized into three parts. Part I, "Opera beyond Good and Evil,"deals with Wagner; Part II, "The Modernization of Italian Opera," treats Verdi and Puccini; and Part III, "Opera, Gender, and Degeneracy," centres on the "degenerates" Richard Strauss and Franz Schreker, and, by way of conclusion, on the critique of opera contained in the works of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Very little of the discussion is concerned with the relationship of the opera composers or librettists with actual political figures, parties, actions, or regimes. Rather, it seeks to show how culture in general "may produce fascism, or be fascist itself, and also that fascism may produce culture: a culture which cannot simply be wished away because it contains fascist elements" (p. 3). In the process, the author taps into a vast literature on fascism itself, modernism, Wagnerism, nineteenth- and twentiethcentury political philosophy and psychoanalysis, as well as opera and literary criticism.

Central to Tambling's thought is his, and our, concept of fascism. This is a word that has acquired a host of meanings outside the narrowly political. In his book Interpretations of Fascism (one of many cited by Tambling), Renzo de Felice discusses definitions used by political observers, philosophers, and social scientists of various stripes, as well as those found in the propaganda of its opponents. He points out what we all know:

At the end of World War II, with the elimination of the German and Italian Fascist regimes, movements, and parties, as well as those that had emerged during the war in all parts of Europe occupied by Axis forces, the term "Fascist" came to be employed in an increasingly indiscriminate and generic manner. It was used to characterize [certain political regimes in other parts of Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa]. Finally, and on an even more general level, the extreme Left and certain radical groups have used the adjective in an increasingly broad, indiscriminate, and distorting sense.

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