Daniel Wolfert Snapshot #6: Melody and Metaphor

In which Daniel attends the opera and leaves dissatisfied, yet inspired. 

It was the first Friday of the second semester of my sophomore year, and after nearly two hours filled with soprano arias, baritone laments and the rhythm of early classical orchestrations, I sat alongside the other members of Dr. Geoffrey Block’s music history class, watching the final moments of Giuseppe Verdi’s renowned opera Rigoletto at an opera house in Seattle.  It is a famous tale of a deformed court jester – here set in Mussolini’s Italy – that, after insulting a father seeking to redeem his disgraced daughter, is placed under a curse that ultimately causes him to lose the only thing in life he truly loves – his own daughter.  There is something Shakespearean about the plot, what with the star-crossed lovers meeting once and pledging eternal devotion, the enraged fathers declaring vengeance, and the ironic twists of fate guiding the protagonist’s tragic life, but something cold and hard felt – to me, at the very least – to be hiding beneath the glimmering veil of warm, beautiful voices and lush orchestration.

It is not a tale of a deranged lunatic, but a man that has repeatedly been rebuffed by a world that finds him repulsive, and had his heart undoubtedly broken countless times – broken over his deformity, over his beloved late wife, over the cruel courtiers that he works for, and so many other things I’m sure.  After his daughter is kidnapped and raped, therefore, his anger is terrible to behold, and he swears bloody vengeance upon the Duke of Mantua, the man he incorrectly believes is responsible for his daughter’s rape, and incidentally the man with whom his daughter is in love.

Yet, if one were listening to the music alone, and not looking at the translation of the words the actors were singing, it would sound happy, almost chipper, despite the dark and appalling nature of the meaning, and this was to me something of a problem.  As the daughter flits around – but never quite touches – the subject of her rape, the music dances along in sweet bassline arpeggios, as if a waltz were about to begin, rather than a traumatized scream, and as the father declares vengeance, his cries are heralded by happy strings and woodwinds that float and soar most merrily, and to me, this is not what I wanted to hear.  The subject of rape is not a joke, or an interesting plot device or a character flaw.  It is a terrible atrocity committed upon another human being, and should be treated in art as such.  Had I written this, perhaps the daughter’s traumatized fragility would be shown through delicate minor chords, like tiny flowers, and the father’s anger through crashing dissonance, his melody cutting through the texture like a knife, but either way, I would not have portrayed the subject as Giussepe Verdi did.

I am not, of course, saying that he was wrong to musically handle the text the way he did.  His culture’s musical vocabulary was, of course, far different from ours, and what was considered worth dissonance then is not the same now, but all the same, the musical illustration of these dark themes – isolation, vengeance, rape – did not satisfy me personally.  I did not feel that moments of clarity came into focus through the story, nor that a truly honest moment arose between any two characters, and this absence did not compel me to feel for the characters in any moment.  My music history professor described the father’s character as evil due to his vengeful nature, and the daughter’s character as tragic due to her willingness to sacrifice her life for that of her love, but I did not see it as such.  The daughter was sad, yes, because of the injustice of the sexual abuse committed upon her, but not because of her ridiculous and completely illogical notion that she should sacrifice herself to save the irritating and sexist Duke of Mantua.  The father was vengeful, yes, but so too would I be if I had lived a life that was so full of bitter disappointment and cruel people that hurt me without me being able to hurt them.  If I had a daughter and she was raped, I would not say I was evil because I wanted to murder those responsible.  I would say that it was long overdue justice.

This is not, of course, to say that the opera was not beautiful and wondrous to behold – it truly was, with gorgeous costumes, masterful voices and wonderful melodies – but it was this sense of dissatisfaction that clung to me as my classmates and I left the opera house to return to the school.  I cannot help but wonder why so much great art feels this way to me – beautifully constructed, but with little sense of honesty and empathy toward unhappy people, and with too much idealization of them.  Women are not made of melody and metaphor; men are not made of vengeance and lament.  But I must give due thanks to Dr. Geoffrey Block, Professor of Music History, for giving my class the opportunity to see this opera, for without it, I would not have been given this reminder of how much I prize sincerity in art, how little I see it, and how much I need to put more of it in the world.