In search of opera Carolyn Abbate Princeton UP (Princeton, NJ & Oxford, 2001); xvi, 282pp; 19.95. ISBN 0 691 09003 3.
IN HER ARTICLE 'Analysis' for the New Grove dictionary of opera (1992), Carolyn Abbate deplored the tendency of opera analysis to deal `monophonically with what in performance is a visual-textual-musical polyphony'. `While opera combines three basic systems, an analytical methodology has yet to be devised that is capable of discussing these as they exist in an ideal experiential reality, as aspects of a single and simultaneously perceived entity.' Concerned to expose the dangers of analytical `repression of the non-musical', Abbate nevertheless defined 'a larger hermeneutic agenda' in which the interpreter-- analyst could appear to be `driving music to extremes it would not otherwise attain', exploring a phenomenon which is `goaded to a higher, richer being in phenomenal reality by the sonorous inflections of musical allegory. Even within a Gesamtanalyse it is difficult not to regard music as the catalyst which makes the visual-verbal-musical polyphony genuinely operatic. But why should the analytic polyphony be confined to the visual, verbal and musical substance of any particular opera? What about the political, philosophical, psychological factors - the cultural history and practice - out of which, or within which, those substances manifest themselves? These increase in importance when it is opera in performance, not merely as a mute 'text', which is under analysis: when the 'work' is conceived more as a 'body' than a 'book'.
Abbate ended her Grove essay with the claim that `the dialogue-like nature of opera seems in the end to support a general rejection of totalizing approaches, and an adoption of plural strategies with the capacity to acknowledge its diversity and richness'. Ten years after that clarion-- call, and a little longer since Unsung voices: opera and musical narrative in the nineteenth century (Princeton, 1991) provided a supremely accomplished and provocative demonstration of the Abbate theory in action, we have another penetrating probe into the body of opera, and a new response to that abiding awareness, also enunciated in Grove, that the 'science' of musicology itself is a 'machine' which ought to make mere human beings as uneasy about its uncanny propensity to disrupt and disturb as operatic characters can be in face of the unknown or the inhuman. Whether or not In search of opera is a conscious attempt to promulgate an `analytical methodology' which in 1992 had `yet to be devised', it provides a virtuosic demonstration of how a 'polyphonic' analysis can work in practice.
THE title, In search of opera, seems almost neutral in tone - certainly when compared with Orpheus and the trumpet, announced in New Grove II (s.v. 'Abbate') as 'forthcoming', and probably cognate with the present text (see pp.53-54). Is a reference intended to Adorno's Versuch fiber Wagner, translated by Rodney Livingstone as In search of Wagner? Musicologists are supposed to emphasise their findings, and Carolyn Abbate's findings about opera are undoubtedly searching, and stimulating, not least because of her capacity for making the reader feel that opera is being lost even as it is found: and one of her central Leitmotive, that the music we don't, or can't hear, is invariably more resonant than real sounds in real time, is deployed here with untiring relish and flair.
It's an old complaint of mine that, of all American musicologists, Abbate is the one whose views on contemporary music are the most missed. This is really the music we don't hear in these pages, and its absence becomes increasingly frustrating when the topics on offer are explored in ways which seem to prepare the ground for some clinching consideration of where opera, and music - as well as culture - is now. Lawrence Kramer once laid down the law about Elliott Carter, and even Gary Tomlinson has found contentious things to say about one opera by Benjamin Britten. …