Issue: Fall 2007
You Won’t Meet the Buddha at the Opera
Written by Jan D. Judy
If you are looking for equanimity or the comforts of political correctness, then opera may not be for you. But if you can suspend your rational sensibilities for just a few minutes, then stick around.
“Opera is a subtly powerful art form because it functions in the realm of the subconscious–much like fairytales and myths,” says Arthur Post, conductor and music director of the San Juan Symphony. “The stories conveyed in opera rely on symbols and archetypes, and enable us to see deeper truths about ourselves, about the power struggles between men and women that conventional media often can’t express,” says Post.
Opera taps into the mysterious shadow world–a place that resonates deeply with listeners who often are unable to explain their emotional involvement with an aria or duet. “It’s irrational,” says Post. “Opera’s strength comes from its ability to convey simply and directly what is most universal and enduring in the human condition.”
Opera, which came of age during the 18th and 19th centuries, was written by composers who never read Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Yet they were able to articulate the undertow of energy and passion that animates male and female struggles.
An example of male and female archetypes can be seen in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. The male character, Don Juan, is the archetype of the male seducer–an evil, narcissistic character who spends his life seducing women and casting them aside. In a duet to be performed by the San Juan Symphony this fall, Don Juan tries to seduce a young village maiden. Both Don Juan and the maiden are archetypes that the audience easily recognizes (and intuitively knows). Mozart uses these characters to convey a morality play in which Don Juan finally pays for his transgressions. The audience is in on the plot as soon as they recognize the archetypes, and much like melodrama, knows how it will end.
Other opera pieces that will be performed in the fall season include selections from Puccini’s La Bohème and Madame Butterfly. These two operas, written during the Romantic era (1800s), typify the male imagination’s depiction of fragile, feminine beauty in the female archetypal characters of Mimi in La Bohème and Cio Cio San in Madame Butterfly. Both operas are fueled by jealousy and the irrational power of love.
Italian opera written during this period relied on dramatic conflicts between families, young lovers and people from different classes of society. Much like television soap operas today, these stories relied on archetypal male and female roles that audiences instantly recognize and understand.
Twentieth-century opera turned its attention away from relationships and family issues to stories that articulate political events and social concerns. But with gender equality of interest to modern day audiences, where are the politically correct composers? Is anyone writing operas that articulate gender balance?
“There are no Buddhists among opera composers,” says Post. Equanimity and equality have not made their way into modern opera. That may be left to the realm of spiritual and social gurus.
Some might argue it’s a moot point since all men and women carry the archetypal patterns within their psyches as part of the collective unconscious. Meanwhile, opera will continue down its dreamlike path, unconcerned with convention and social norms. But if given a chance, it will awaken in its listeners deeper–sometimes painful–truths that only art can express. *
Arthur Post is conductor and music director of San Juan Symphony in Durango, Colorado and Farmington, New Mexico. For information about the fall performance schedule, visit http://www.sanjuansymphony.com.
Jan D. Judy is a freelance writer living near Cortez.