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Sex, death, booze, and mung bean sandwiches

Blog • Music • Dr Tomas McAuley

How do opera and philosophy intersect? At first glance, this might seem like a strange question, for opera and philosophy are unlikely bedfellows. To speak of philosophy conjures up images of dry abstraction and bookish head-scratching, whereas to talk of opera is to call to mind cacophonous spectacles of colours and voices, of multitudinous audiences enthralled by impassioned song.

Such a stereotype is certainly prevalent, as can be seen in a 2008 spat between two British newspapers. 0n 23 July, the tabloid newspaper The Sun launched an offer whereby all 2268 tickets for the opening night of the Royal Opera House’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (with a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte) were offered to Sun readers from as little as £7.50 (approximately $12). The offer was quickly criticised by The Sun’s broadsheet rival The Guardian, which claimed that the promotion “smacked of desperation” on the part of the Royal Opera House. On 30 July, the Sun fought back against The Guardian’s perceived high-mindedness with a piece headlined “Sex, death, booze… who said opera is boring?” The article (written before Amy Winehouse’s tragic passing) claimed that “most operas are dirtier than Amy Winehouse’s beehive… and more violent than a Tarantino bloodfest” and went on to refer explicitly to the Guardian’s critical editorial:

Not everyone’s happy we’ve secured the tickets for this much-in-demand first night of Don Giovanni. Elitist broadsheet The Guardian wrote an article last week sneering at the fact that lowly Sun readers should dare to grace the Royal Opera House. Blow them. They can have a night in with their mung bean sandwiches and discuss existentialist feminism. We’ll be down the opera having a knees-up [i.e., a “lively party or gathering”].

According to this picture, the abyss between opera (a boisterous knees-up) and philosophy (mung-bean sandwiches and pomposity) could not be deeper. Such a distinction, however, rests on a misguided conception of both opera and philosophy – or, at best, one that is scandalously incomplete.

Philosophy, for a start, has always been less elevated from sensual pleasure than some would like to pretend. Take, for example, Plato’s celebrated work The Symposium (c. 385-370 BC), a foundational text of Western philosophy if there ever was one. This is no monologue, but a series of speeches interspersed with dialogue – and rightly so, since a “symposium” was to the ancient Greeks a real-life social occasion combining philosophical debate not only with more general conversation, but also with eating and drinking, music and (sometimes) sex. And one only has to attend a twenty-first century philosophy conference to see that the bacchanalian spirit is still very much alive, albeit with somewhat subdued levels of amorousness, in some academic circles.

Philosophy, then, is nothing if not a knees-up – some of the time, at least.

What about opera? One might here follow The Sun’s own example and consider Don Giovanni, a staple of the operatic repertoire. The plot of the opera revolves around a young Count whose aim in life is to seduce as many women as possible.

The opera recounts the Count’s amatory adventures before a conclusion in which he is sent to hell for his sins, and the remaining characters sing joyfully (in Questo è il fin di chi fa mal) of his deserved punishment.

To have such a conventionally cheerful lieto fine ending hot on the heels of the lead character’s damnation raises unavoidable moral questions – not least whether it is ever right to celebrate the damnation of another, however deserved. Depending on one’s interpretation, this troubling scene could look back to the moral certitude of Dante’s Inferno, with a villain meeting his due come-uppance, or forward to the absurdism of Albert Camus’ novel L’Étranger with an anti-hero affirming the perceived meaninglessness of life (a trope famously embodied more recently by Vince Gilligan’s Walter White from the television show Breaking Bad). Either way, it encourages its audience to consider searching moral questions about desire, sin, empathy, mercy, and human and divine justice. Indeed, in the opera as a whole, the moral nihilism of the Count’s womanising raises urgent issues precisely of existentialist feminism – the very subject that The Sun attempted to contrast with a night at the opera… with a night at this opera!

The irony of The Sun’s contrasting “sex, death, and booze” with mung bean sandwiches and existential feminism, then, is not only that philosophy can – sometimes, at least – be a knees-up, but also that, in its exploration of sensual pleasures and existential terrors – sex, death, and booze included – opera engages with and can cast new light on key philosophical questions.

Much more might be said about the myriad ways that opera and philosophy intersect. I haven’t touched, for example, on the hotly debated question of what opera itself actually is, pursuit of which would take us into the labyrinthine philosophical realms of ontology and aesthetics. Nor have I considered operas, such as Mozart and Da Ponte’s Così fan tutte, whose plots revolve explicitly around the thoughts and actions of philosophers, or the Royal Opera House’s laudable decision to commission four new operas, due to premiere in 2020, based on critical questions chosen “in collaboration with” philosopher Slavoj Žižek. To conclude, however, I want only to make a simple point. To speak of “opera and philosophy” is not to endeavour to bring together two incommensurable entities. On the contrary, it may be an impossible attempt to separate two entities that are all too often inextricably entangled in a fertile embrace.

This blog was inspired  by a double special issue of The Opera Quarterly on “Opera and Philosophy”, edited by Tomas McAuley and Nanette Nielsen.

This post was first published on the OUP Blog at:

Tomas McAuley is British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Faculty of Music at the University of Cambridge, where he is also a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Queens’ College.  His current and recent research projects examine entanglements of musical and philosophical thought in the early English and Scottish Enlightenments and at the dawn of German Romanticism. He is Chair of the Royal Musical Association Music and Philosophy Study Group and, with Nanette Nielsen and Jerrold Levinson, a co-editor of the forthcoming (work in progress) Oxford Handbook of Western Music and Philosophy. Together with Nanette Nielsen, he co-edited a double special issue of The Opera Quarterly on “Opera and Philosophy.”