Still to Come for the Kids: On Opera and Seriousness
by Max L. Feldman
Otis B. Driftwood [Groucho Marx] enters the box, applauding.
Driftwood: Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! Well, I’ve made it. What time does the curtain go up?
Gotlieb: The curtain, Mr. Driftwood, will go up next season.
Mrs. Claypool: You’ve missed the entire opera!
Driftwood: I only missed it by a few minutes.
—A Night at the Opera (1935)
The boys shove one another as they climb into the stalls. Ruffling each other’s hair, they grin with a glee that might embarrass them in a few years. But not yet. Their faces glow with the patina of privilege. It oozes from their tailored suits. Perhaps they’re the children of foreign dignitaries or millionaire financiers. They can’t be expected to think about that. Maybe it will never bother them. That doesn’t matter. It’s a Saturday night at the Royal Opera House. Tonight, it’s Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The curtain will go up soon.
The man next to me seems pleased. He comments on the mixed audience—young and old, first-timers and experienced operagoers, the casually dressed and the tuxedoed. He tells me he reviews opera for a French publication and groans when I say I’m writing about “seriousness” in contemporary art. “I wish there was more seriousness in opera these days,” he says.
The Magic Flute tells the story of the love between Prince Tamino and Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night. We open with Tamino lost in a strange land, pursued by an enormous snake. He is rescued by three mysterious women, who show him a picture of Pamina. He falls in love instantly. They tell him she has been imprisoned in the temple of the evil Sarastro, Priest of the Sun, and he must rescue her. The women give Tamino a magic flute to help him in his quest, aided by the humble bird catcher Papageno. It’s not so simple, though. When Tamino arrives at the temple, he finds out what is really going on. It turns out that the Queen of the Night, not Sarastro, is the evil one. She wants to bring darkness to the world, and Sarastro is only holding Pamina for her own safety.
Sarastro then gives Tamino a new quest: he must undergo a series of trials to prove himself worthy of Pamina’s love. Using the magic flute, the lovers overcome their trials and earn the right to be with each other. Just as they succeed, the Queen and her servants destroy the temple. All is not lost, though. Sarastro arrives, defeats them, and casts them out as the sun rises on a new era for the united lovers. All serious themes.
Aristotle said poetry is more philosophical and “serious” than history. That’s because it deals with “universals” (basic properties of a thing common to each worldly instantiation of it). The universal of apples, for example, is not a perfect Form that exists out there somewhere in a realm beyond the senses. That’s what Plato thought. For Aristotle, universal “appleness” would be something shared by each individual apple. Thinking like this is, for him, the highest activity of the human intellect.1 That’s true if we’re thinking about apples or human souls, God or rocks.
There’s something almost unnatural about this. Contemplating universals takes more than just using our innate rational faculties. All human beings have the capacity to reason, but we can’t think about universals in an everyday sense, like when we consider which apple we want to eat. Contemplation is a more solemn exercise than that.
Poetry deals with universals by showing us the sort of things real people might say or do if they had the chance.2 It makes us feel things about our deepest shared experiences: our most elevated and most monstrous hopes and passions—our loves, hates, desires, friends, enemies, conflicts, successes, and defeats.
Matthew Arnold, the great English poet and critic, thought this too. He called for “high seriousness” in poetry, which wouldn’t have its “special character” without it.3 Arnold is not talking just about individual poems but about the “tone of feeling and grandeur of spirit”4 of a whole culture.
Arnold gave poetry a moral function. It instructs us. It improves us. It makes us better people. How? Because culture is about reading or hearing “the best which has been said and thought in the world.”5 Doing that makes us question our customs and habits—all those little opinions that secretly guide our judgments about the world and other people. That’s hard to swallow these days. The torturers of the Spanish Inquisition probably knew some beautiful psalms and rousing folk songs. ISIS psychopaths recite the great words of the Prophet Muhammed, but probably aren’t good at textual scholarship. Concentration camp guards, lest we forget, spoke the same tongue as Schiller and Goethe and Nietzsche and Mann.
Aristotle and Arnold, nevertheless, share some common ground. They assume that “serious” art can touch us deep in some innermost place because it’s about what we are, what and who we value, and what we could be or should do. Many people feel like that. It’s comforting, unfashionably optimistic. We shouldn’t, however, get hung up on whether or not it’s justified. Nor should we worry about the precise relationships between poetry, opera, and other art forms, if there are any. Less still should we simply apply these insights to contemporary art. That’s a dead end. Susan Sontag shows one way out.
Sontag said opera is camp. This is, she thought, precisely because it’s “dead serious” and camp is “the sensibility of failed seriousness.”6 Part of this botched sincerity comes when an artist is so emotionally invested in their work that their serious intentions end up frivolous—when something is too dignified, anguished, joyful, cruel, or deranged for its own good. Many of Sontag’s examples haven’t stood the test of time. Those that have include Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings, Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933), old Flash Gordon comics, women’s clothing of the 1920s (feather boas and fringed and beaded dresses), Jean Cocteau (but not André Gide), the music of Tin Pan Alley (but not jazz), Art Nouveau, Gothic novels, the Palace of Versailles, and “much of Mozart.”7
That’s because Mozart means it. Opera means it. It wants to be good for us. This goes both ways—but only up to a point. We want a wholesome learning experience, and opera wants to give it to us. We want catharsis, to writhe and grieve and hope at a safe distance from the action, protected by the fourth wall, and opera promises to provide. But there’s more.
The “opera experience” is self-consciously grand. That goes for the whole thing, not just what happens onstage. It’s about quaffing sickly champagne in the foyer as you pretend to scout out who is who and wearing what; the politeness of the ushers, guardians of a department store for the senses; the softness of the carpet, the velvet, all the luxurious fringes. At the same time, opera hounds us into feeling like we should be having an emotionally transformative experience. The man sitting next to me didn’t seem to think that was possible anymore.
“It seems unlikely,” Sontag says, “that much of the traditional opera repertoire could be such satisfying camp if the melodramatic absurdities of most opera plots had not been taken seriously by their composers.”8 They think they’re showing us Aristotle’s and Arnold’s universal, shareable experiences: vaulting love affairs, dastardly injustices, the order of the world blissfully restored in the end. But more seriousness in opera would fall prey to Sontag’s logic. It might become even more frivolous. Here’s where contemporary art comes in. It too comes with vast emotional baggage. Many people—especially “outsiders”—expect something it can’t give.
That’s not to say contemporary art is serious or frivolous. Saying what art “is” isn’t interesting; saying what it should be is totalitarian. It’s too diverse to be so easily reduced to just one thing. It’s better to talk about how it seems to lack the moral function we generally expect from opera and “high culture” more generally, though it makes us feel like it’s there, and keeps the opulence.
That might even be one of the causes of public outrage—whose hysteria is certainly camp—about a century’s worth of examples, from Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) to Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista (Artist’s shit) (1961), Jeff Koons’s Made in Heaven series (1989), Tracy Emin’s My Bed (1998), Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God (2007), and most recently Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian (2019). People seem to want to be taught a serious lesson and then get angry when art fails to teach.
The Magic Flute tries to do this. It plans a lesson and goes on to teach it. This Singspiele (sing-play) has a comic, romantic plot with magic, fantastical creatures, and the perennial battle between good and evil. But Mozart’s music carries serious themes: true love, self-development, the passage from darkness into light, the rebirth of humanity itself as fear and tyranny are conquered. Mozart shows us a world that can still be redeemed if we just try hard enough. It’s there in Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto, which combines singing with spoken dialogue. And it’s deep in the music.
Take Mozart’s symbolic use of the number three. Tamino and Pamina meet three ladies, are watched over by three spirits, face three trials, and confront three doors in Sarastro’s temple. Much of the music is written in E-flat major. This has three flats in its key signature. Mozart was fascinated with Freemasonry. Their rituals begin with three knocks on the door. He references them in the opening: we hear three chords with dramatic pauses between them; they reoccur throughout the whole opera, capturing its narrative arc in miniature.
The first chord (E-flat major) is in its most natural root position. Its plainness and simplicity remind us of Tamino’s naivete when, at first, he accepts everything the Queen of the Night and her ladies say without question. The second chord (C minor) mirrors his sadness and doubt in the middle of the opera, when his ideas of good and evil are upturned. It also balances some of the highest and lowest notes available, just as the opera itself balances the extremes of good and evil, light and darkness. The final chord (E-flat major) reflects this. It restores musical order, taking us back to where we were at the beginning in an inverted form. It retains its original harmony, but it’s higher, pointing toward enlightenment, just as Tamino not only restores balance to the kingdom but grows stronger, wiser, and more whole.
I’d seen this opera before. Not in a classic venue, like Venice, Munich, Moscow, or Sydney, but a school in the leafy suburbs in the west of Vienna. I was there to see my friends’ eleven-year-old daughter as the Queen of the Night in her end-of-semester production. This was a neoclassical facade-free zone. There were no elegant socialites floating through the lobby in sequined gowns, only dads in polo shirts and cargo shorts filming their little ones on battered smartphones. No fat ladies singing, only a small cast of preteens accompanied by a music teacher on an upright piano. No plush velvet seating circled by boxes, only plastic chairs arranged in wobbly rows on a recently cleaned laminate floor.
The kids were great. They must have been so nervous. Especially the boy playing Sarastro. I could see it in his eyes even from my position toward the back of the hall. But, like Tamino and Pamina, they all conquered their fears, and the insolence of ringing phones and crying babies. My friends’ daughter was magnificent. She stormed across the stage, swirling a cape crafted by the mother of another cast member, seething with elemental rage at her minions as she tries to get her own way.
The adult cast at the Royal Opera House will have had many serious experiences—all kinds of joys and griefs and disappointments. They can bring those feelings to whatever role they play. The adults in the audience can do something similar. They can make their own emotionally psychotropic experience, mixing the action onstage with their private memories of happiness or shame or ruin. That’s all still to come for the kids. Maybe. One thing is clear: a night at the opera is no more serious than a late summer afternoon in a school hall. Maybe the opposite.
Young or old, we still take bourgeois art seriously. We still want and expect it to improve our lives or contribute to human progress in general. That’s one side of ideology: the invisible system of values that tells us what counts as a “worthwhile” experience. We should take that seriously. And we should embrace it. But we should still want to take it down from the inside. That way, we can take stock of Sontag’s criticisms while still feeling a sense of awe. That way, we become more like A, the young aesthete and “author” of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. For A, Mozart is an immortal who astounds his soul, to whom he bows his head in admiration. At the same time, however, he thinks that The Magic Flute is not only not a classic opera but also “a failure at its deepest level.”9
You can’t apply normal categories of success and failure to the school play, of course. There’s even a joke about doing something like that in an episode of Frasier. Straightforward ex-cop father Martin reminds the titular character of a production in which he appeared which was warmly received but for one review. Frasier says anybody would have sulked at the hurtful line, which he still remembers, and quotes it. “That review was a mash note compared to my first draft,” says his brother, Niles.
The grownups watch for their own edification. The ordeals faced by Tamino and Pamina have, however, plenty to say about how to deal with difficult homework, bullies, and the rest of it. That could be even more meaningful, given the troubled world these kids will inherit. It’s not about escapism but about watching the young on the first stage of a quest. And there’s nothing more serious than that.
As the curtain rises, the man next to me rushes out to catch his train. The boys stand, smooth their jackets, and scuttle into the lobby with their chaperone to wait for the cloakroom. It’s a cold night. People take their time to do up their buttons and zippers. “I don’t get it,” one boy says, as they stand in line. “Why did she want to imprison her own daughter?” “I think she was just jealous,” says the other, as they glide through the doors onto Bow Street.
Max L. Feldman is a writer based in Vienna.
 Aristotle, De Anima, trans. Christopher Shields (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), III.5.
 Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Richard Janko (Cambridge: Hackett, 1987), 51b6–10.
 Matthew Arnold, “The Study of Poetry” (1880), originally published as the “General Introduction” to The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions by Various Writers, 5 vols., ed. T. H. Ward (London: Macmillan, 1880–1918).
 Matthew Arnold, “The Popular Education in France” (1861), in Democratic Education, ed. R. H. Super (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962), 22.
 Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy (1869) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 5.
 Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp” (1964), in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (London: Penguin, 2009), 287.
 Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” 280.
 Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” 282.
 Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, Part I (1843), ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), 79.