Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Looking through the Opera Glasses: Performance and Artifice in the Age of Innocence

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Looking through the Opera Glasses: Performance and Artifice in the Age of Innocence

Article excerpt

In the historical context of Newland Archer's New York, opera marks the opening of the winter season, delineates the inner circle of privilege, and exemplifies the wealth and leisure of this class. Serving as a structural frame for Wharton's novel, opera illustrates the duality of the artifice of performance: the one on the stage and the one in the opera box.

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On a January evening of the early seventies," Wharton's narrator relates, "Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York" (3). With these words, Edith Wharton thrusts the reader of The Age of Innocence into the socially exclusive world of New York society. In this carefully codified and elitist realm, opera marks the opening of the winter season, "defines those who were members of the inner circle" (Montgomery 22), and exemplifies the wealth and leisure of this class. Serving as a pivotal opening, punctuating the action throughout the novel, and appearing again at the conclusion, opera functions as a structural frame for the work. As Herbert Lindenberger argues in Opera: The Extravagant Art, the "operatic and real-life worlds" are both "thoroughly implicated in artifice" (174). By framing several key scenes at the opera, Wharton illustrates the duality of this artifice of performance. Opera, with its "penchant for ceremony and display" (38), provides the audience an opportunity to gaze upon the embodied exhibition of artistic imagination and passion. Within the opera boxes, where the conventions of "taste" and "form" prevail, members of New York's society participate in their own spectacle of behaviour. Both opera and the code of "manners and customs" (Wharton 136) exist within constrained and ordered systems. The artifice of opera allows its participants to express their imagination and passion; however, the artifice of the conventional behaviour of the elite stifles its conformists.

In the opening paragraph of the novel, Wharton artfully reveals several key details about the values of New York society. She situates her novel in the early 1870s. By the end of that decade, the upper class was bitterly divided by controversy over the building of a new opera house, the Metropolitan Opera. As the narrator explains, "though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances 'above the forties,' of a new Opera House, [...] the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy." While the narrator provides three potential reasons for preserving the tradition of the old Academy, the view attributed to the "conservatives" represents the predominant view of those in authoritative positions. "Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the 'new people' whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to" (3). John Dizikes explains in Opera in America: A Cultural History that, "musically, [New York] barely supported one opera house. Socially, it needed two." The old guard of New York's elite, however, did not agree that limited access to the Academy necessitated the building of a new opera house. The Academy of Music, "venerable by New York standards, [was] a symbol of cultural refinement and social standing. The Academy was the hub of the social season and opera boxes were the center of the hub." Because the Academy had only thirty of them, "the boxes rarely changed hands, and then only within a very limited social circle" (216). The limited availability of box seats, coupled with a great demand for them, allowed the possessors of opera boxes an enviable position of privilege and prestige. Eventually, the members of old New York society could no longer prevent the "powerful new group of corporate financiers and industrial entrepreneurs, including men such as J.P. Morgan" (Montgomery 23), from building the Metropolitan Opera House. According to Dizikes, the Met contained "four tiers of boxes" (providing 122 boxes), which would seat 750 persons. …

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