Worn-out gestures of rebellion before an audience that long ago lost the capacity for outrage.
In the mid-nineteenth century the bourgeoisie were apparent everywhere. You met them in theatres and restaurants, in churches and clubs, on beaches and river boats, in woods and parks, often walking arm in arm, dressed in respectable outfits and crowned by ridiculous hats. They sent their children to reputable schools, took respectable vacations, and worked in clean but arduous jobs. They owned property, both fixed and portable, and looked aghast at the radicals and socialists who threatened to take it away. They believed in marriage and the family, in decency, domesticity, and deference to the law. They stare at us now from picture postcards with eyes that are both proud and shy, upholding the moral order even while paddling in the sea. We glimpse their world in the stuffy interiors of Vuillard, in the fêtes galantes of Renoir, in the picnic scenes of Seurat, and it is a safe and domesticated world, and also a world tinged by romantic sadness.
In the eyes of their intellectual observers, however, the bourgeoisie were symbolic and exotic creatures, the subject of elaborate theories and fairy tales. Marx invented a world-historical role for them, Flaubert set out to disconcert them, and Matthew Arnold denounced them as the “Philistine class.” They were the perfect foil for wit, exuberance, and iconoclasm, and for a hundred years following The Communist Manifesto of 1848 they filled an evident dramatic need. For the bohemian artist the bourgeoisie were visible, shockable, and obviously bad. They justified art as no class before had justified it, by being the defenseless target of abuse and satire.
For the last 50 years, however, the bourgeoisie have been slipping quietly away. Those who seem to fit the bill from the property-owning point of view don’t always dress as they should or uphold the right kind of domestic values. Church attendance has fallen off, along with visits to theatre and restaurant. Parks and beaches are populated by people who show no respect for bourgeois dress or bourgeois manners, and the idea that there are bourgeois values, connected to marriage, home, and family, has only a scant chance of survival in a world where more and more people see marriage as a burden, children a bore, and property not for sharing.
In such circumstances the intellectual iconoclast, brought up to épater le bourgeois, suffers from a lack of targets. Who can he offend in the post-bourgeois world, and how can he put on display the originality and freedom of his thinking, when there are no customs, no norms, no manners, and no dress codes to offend? Of course, he can do something cheeky, like displaying a urinal in an art gallery. But he will be haunted by the fear that someone got there before him, and in any case the galleries are frequented by people as unshockable as himself.
The disappearance of the bourgeoisie has therefore led to a crisis in the arts. How can we track down the defeated remnants of the philistine class, in order to disturb them with the proof of their irrelevance? Theatres, galleries, restaurants, and public resorts all offer impeccable post-modern fare, addressed to non-judgmental people. TV has been dumbed down below the horizon of bourgeois awareness, and even the churches are rejecting family values and the marital virtues. Yet, without the bourgeoisie, the world of art is deprived of a target, condemned to repeat worn-out gestures of rebellion to an audience that long ago lost the capacity for outrage.
ALL IS NOT LOST, however. There is one last redoubt where the bourgeoisie can be corralled into a corner and spat upon, and that is the opera. Believers in family values and old-fashioned marriage are romantics at heart who love to sit through those wonderful tales of intrigue, betrayal, and reconciliation, in which man-woman love is exalted to a height that it can never reach in real life, and the whole presented through heart-stopping music and magical scenes that take us, for an enchanted three hours, into the world of dreams. Siegfried’s love for Brünnhilde, shot through with unconscious treachery; Butterfly’s innocent passion built on self-deception like an angel on a tomb; Grimes’s death wish, rationalized as a longing for Ellen’s maternal love — these are dramatic ideas that could never be realized through words, but which are burned into our hearts by music.
Is it surprising that our surviving bourgeoisie, surrounded as they are by a culture of flippancy and desecration, should be so drawn to opera? After a performance of Katya, Pelléas, La Traviata, or Figaro, they stagger home amazed at those passions displayed on the stage, by creatures no more godlike than themselves! They will come from miles away to sit through their favorite fairy tales and drive home singing in the early hours. They will pay $200 for a mediocre seat, in order to hear their chosen prima donna, and will learn by heart the arias which they are never satisfied to hear unless in the flesh. Take any performance of an operatic classic anywhere in the world, and you will find, sitting in close confinement, motionless and devout for the space of three hours, the assembled remnant of the bourgeoisie, innocent, expectant, and available for shock.
The temptation is irresistible. Hardly a producer now, confronted with a masterpiece that might otherwise delight and console such an audience, can control the desire to desecrate. The more exalted the music, the more demeaning the production. I have come across all of the following: Siegfried in schoolboy shorts cooking a sword on a mobile canteen; Mélisande holed up in welfare accommodation, with Pelléas sadistically tying her to the wall by her hair; Don Giovanni standing happily at ease at the end of the eponymous opera while unexplained demons enter the stage, sing a meaningless chorus, and exit again; Rusalka in a wheelchair from which she stares at a football in a swimming pool, while addressing the moon; Tristan and Isolde on a ship divided by a brick wall, singing vaguely of a love that hardly concerns them since each is invisible to the other; Carmen trying in vain to be a center of erotic attention while a near naked chorus copulates on stage; Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail set in a Berlin brothel; Verdi’s masked ball with the assembled cast squatting on toilets so as to void their bowels — not to speak of the routine Hitlerization of any opera, from Fidelio to Tosca, that can be squeezed into Nazi uniform. Wagner is always mercilessly mutilated, lest those misguided bourgeois fall for his seductive political message; and as for Madame Butterfly, what an opportunity to get back at the Americans for that bomb dropped on Nagasaki!
Not all opera houses are guilty of the sacrilege that has effectively destroyed the publicly funded opera houses in Britain and Germany. Here and there in Italy things are done properly, so as to present the drama as the music requires. And one opera house above all others deserves praise for its fidelity to the original artistic inspiration, and that is the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which strives for perfection and often achieves it. Sarcastic postmodern productions invariably muffle the musical impact, by preventing the singers from identifying with their roles. But when, as frequently happens, a performance is broadcast from the Met around the world — including to us opera-starved bourgeois in Britain — the result is likely to be a musical experience of the highest order, with singers fully at one with the drama, and the orchestra moving in deepest sympathy. Of course, the Met tries to obtain the very best singers, and has, in James Levine, a world-class conductor who finds his way to the heart of the music. But these two factors could never guarantee an expressive performance when the drama is being overtly mocked on the stage. Opera-lovers everywhere should be grateful, therefore, that there is one place that respects their dreams, and does not see opera as a way of puncturing them.
Those thoughts came vividly to mind when listening to the truly great Met performance earlier this year of Berg’s Lulu, with Fabio Luisi conducting and Marlis Petersen wonderfully in command of the title role. If ever there were an operatic slap in the face for bourgeois values it is this work, which Berg left unfinished, and the libretto of which he put together from Wedekind’s horrible Lulu dramas. Those dramas were written to make the scales drop from the eyes of Wilhelmine Germany. But they also luxuriate in the author’s sex-obsessed view of women in general, and of the psychopath Lulu in particular. Thanks to the wonderful production, the visual brilliance of which was audible even to us in rural Wiltshire, the singers gave a performance of a kind that could never be reproduced in a studio, truly slapping us all in the face in a way that was, after all, not demeaning but genuinely troubling. For, having slapped it around for a while, Berg takes the bourgeois face by the ears and drags it down to the gutter, so as to stare at the lowest forms of human life. “There, but for the grace of family values, go you lot,” he tells us. And we shyly listen to him.
What should we make of this opera now? Is it just a period piece, another example of the tiresome nihilism that stifled central Europe between the wars, like the cabaret paintings of Georg Grosz, the dramas of Brecht, or the inhuman architecture of Walter Gropius? Or is it offering to Lulu and her kind the hope of some redemption, remaking her selfish life as somehow worthwhile, even in that final pointless murder at the hands of Jack the Ripper? Berg surely took the second view, since he composed for Lulu a leitmotif that is without doubt the greatest and most tender 12-note melody in existence. And, in the punctilious markings of the score, he tries to create an impression of absolute order, if only an artistic order, in the chaotic-seeming life that floods the stage. He was fully persuaded that he could redeem the most sordid life through music, just as Wagner had tried to redeem the old bourgeois decencies in Die Meistersinger. And who but a bourgeois would attempt such a task?