Celebrating twenty-five years at the world’s greatest opera house, the New York Metropolitan Opera closed its season last year with a well deserved gala honoring conductor James Levine. During his tenure, Levine has raised the Met orchestra to a position where it is universally acclaimed as the finest opera ensemble in the world: The greatest performances of Wagner and Verdi are not now at Bayreuth or La Scala, but at the Met under Levine.
There is another legacy of Levine’s Met, however, that has not received the scrutiny it deserves. During the past twenty-five years, the Metropolitan Opera has premiered only two works: Philip Glass’s The Voyage and John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles . Both works were given lavish and heavily rehearsed productions ( The Voyage reportedly cost over $2.3 million, including Glass’s $325,000 fee). And while Levine merits high praise for bringing new works to a house infamous for its stodginess (in 108 years the Met has only presented twenty-seven premieres, including these two), the character of both of these works is troubling. No longer a dowager, the Met has now taken its place as a leader of the postmodern legions”legions almost ravenous in their assault upon the values of Western civilization.
Philip Glass’s The Voyage was first performed on October 12, 1992 (the Met repeated the production last spring). Although intended as a piece commemorating Columbus’ arrival in the New World, Glass and his librettist David Henry Hwang realized the difficulty of putting history on the operatic stage and opted instead, as Glass put it, for a “workshop where allegory and fiction and poetry are brought to a level of the investigation of the human condition.” Whatever that may mean (has poetry, or allegory, or fiction ever not had something to do with the “human condition”?), the opera is a New Age theodicy where space aliens, crystals, and copulation lead to self-actualization on a cosmic scale.
After a prologue in which a wheelchair-bound scientist prattles off the kind of philosophy usually dismissed in a sophomore philosophy class’s second week, we are introduced to four space travelers who are about to crash onto the earth, ca. 17,000 b.c. The ship crashes. The Commander (here a woman, dressed, madonna like, in white with a blue veil) divides the ship’s directional crystals between the crew members. All of the members pursue their own visions: an aesthete (who apparently finds paradise after climbing up a ladder to a Stubbs painting), a materialist (a nasty inventor of polluting industries), and a physician (who teaches children how to overcome difficulties through cooperation).
The Commander is left alone to meet “the natives.” They stare at her. She stares at them. They start to wiggle. She retreats, a little. The program states that “their meeting provokes violent and passionate reactions.” The music gets louder (not more intense, just louder), the male natives take off their shirts and about half have intercourse with the Commander. A post-coital epiphany transfigures them. Emerging energized, they begin to dominate their less experienced brothers. A master race is created, the carriers of culture. Sex with alien lady sparks human civilization.
Act Two is in three scenes. On a disjointed ecclesiastical plaza dominated by an off-center monumental cross, Columbus prepares to leave Spain, surrounded by the Spanish court (which, for some reason, includes four popes). The opera’s principal soprano appears as Queen Isabella. She pronounces her benediction upon the voyage and her court disperses, the set breaking apart to represent the deck of the Santa Maria (the cross, now serving as a mast, again dominates the scene). The first mate sings from the mast’s beam, and Columbus ruminates on his quest. He has visions.
As either Queen Isabella or the Blessed Virgin, the soprano reappears to Columbus (switching between a gilded crown and a blue veil for the different roles). First Isabella comes to him reminding him of his voyage’s purpose. He sees monsters in the sea. The Blessed Virgin appears, telling him that as she “felt in her belly a stirring, and held fast to the faith that this was God” so too ought Columbus cling similarly to his own vision. The monsters come back (more percussion in the orchestra for the boogie men). The queen comes back. Finally the Blessed Virgin returns. But now she commands the admiral to worship her as his true queen and his “one true god.” At the base of the mast/cross they have sex. (One wonders if the Reader’s Digest foundation, which supported the commission, knew what they were paying for.) The first mate cries out “Tierra!” The scene quickly changes and landfall is made. Two naked West Indians advance with peace offerings, and Columbus shoots them dead.
In Act Three we move to the year 2092. The directional crystals from the prologue have been rediscovered and an expedition is launched, returning the descendants of the original extraterrestrial visitors to their home planet. Humankind has begun a new voyage of discovery.
The Epilogue presents Columbus on his death bed. Queen Isabella appears to him in a vision and prepares to escort him to the “spiritual kingdom where she already resides.” She ridicules his voyage as being Satanic, born of his own pride, and invites Columbus to have sex with her. He declines (having already had sex with the Queen of Heaven, sex with the Queen of Spain holds no interest for him), and sings, “Exploration will make obsolete even the sins of the explorer.” He dies and is transported to the stars, apparently to continue his quest.
The Met’s second commission under Levine, John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles , premiered on December 14, 1991 to an ecstatic house. Like Glass, Corigliano and his librettist William Hoffman chose to people their opera with a mixture of historic and fictional characters. Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, the playwright Beaumarchais, and a gaggle of aristocrats inhabit a kind of Greek netherworld in which their principle condition is boredom. The former queen is melancholy, and Beaumarchais decides to win her love by amusing her with an opera. He conjures up the characters of his past works: Figaro, Susanna, Cherubino, the Count and Countess Almaviva, and others. With this opera within an opera performed by fictionalized ghosts and ghostly fictions, Corigliano and Hoffman spin what has to be one of the most convoluted plots in a genera known for byzantine complexity. (The Met managed to summarize the plot of Götterdämerung in one program page; it takes two to get through Ghosts .)
Basically, the ghost of Beaumarchais desires the ghost of Antoinette, and sets to win her by changing history, using his fictional characters to first liberate her from the Revolution and then transport them to the New World. The plan fails only because the queen decides to accept her fate. Yet, recognizing that the playwright risked his soul in attempting to change history, Antoinette bestows a passionate kiss upon him at her own point of self-transcendence, and she finds “herself with Beaumarchais in paradise””according to the program notes (it’s not quite so clear in the staging). No mention is made of what happens to husband Louis.
The two operas have very different sorts of music. Glass’s score is tiresome to the point of irritation. There is rarely any significant relation between the music played and text being sung, the character singing, or the dramatic situation (the music of different scenes could be switched without significantly changing the piece). Glass’s vocal lines are little more than parlando recitative, serviceable for getting across the text yet unworthy of being remembered. But like it or not, there is a face to Glass’s music. It has a character with its own logic and its own intelligence. And there is a conviction to his insistent rhythms and ritornelli. In hearing the score one recognizes the presence of an artist”perhaps not a very profound artist or an artist one even likes, but an artist nonetheless. Glass is a composer who honestly demands to be heard, and should be heard, at least once.
But in Corigliano’s score, it’s hard to tell which composer we’re hearing. Throughout the opera, Corigliano rummages through a grab bag of musical devices and, depending upon the situation, pulls out the appropriate gadget. For spooks, he gives us a little Penderecki or some Lukas Foss. The presence of Figaro requires the invention of some rather lead-footed Rossini. The ensembles are reminiscent of Mozart (or sometimes built directly upon Mozart’s works). Richard Strauss, Puccini, Ligeti, and even Benjamin Britten make their appearances. With so many faces, Corigliano’s score eventually becomes little more than a parade of skillfully contrived masks, leaving us to wonder which one represents the real face of the composer. Some of the masks are delightful; Cherubino and the Countess’s first act duet (which begins with Mozart’s “Voi, che sapete”) and the Straussian Miserere ensemble from Act II are entertaining and moving music. But they are still masks. All in all, Ghosts is ultimately less a composition than a facile pastiche where posturing replaces conviction.
Yet there is one area in which both works speak openly, directly, and forcefully, a similarity made all the more striking by the composers’ obvious differences. Both works are united by the importance of sex. For Glass, Corigliano, and their librettists, sex isn’t just fun, or interesting, or a way of preserving the race, or the seal of love between a husband and a wife, or even naughty. It is rather the ultimate means of self-revelation and transcendence. Luther knew he existed because he was redeemed. Descartes knew he existed because he thought. For Glass and Corigliano, we know we exist because we screw. This sex is not the sex between lovers that propagates the species and provides the life blood of culture. This is sex itself: orgasm as transfiguration.
Columbus’ moment of transcendence is when he has sex with the Blessed Virgin, an act from which he rises to begin the European domination of the Americas with murder. The Commander’s moment of transcendence is when she, like a queen bee, copulates with the natives and thus gives birth to the master race that will eventually return to her own planet (guided by throbbing directional crystals). Marie Antoinette achieves transcendence in a passionate kiss with Beaumarchais and enters into orgasmic eternity with her lover. This is not a world without sin: Columbus is an assassin, industrialists are polluters, Marie Antoinette is an adulteress. But in this postmodern world sins are neither forgiven nor punished, they are simply made “obsolete.” Of course, sex has always been a part of opera. The genera was born out of the extravagant entertainments staged for Renaissance nuptial celebrations. But when sex is exulted, it is usually exulted as an aspect of love. When it is not, tragedies unfold. (There are exceptions to this general rule, of course; both Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte come to mind.)
No one is better at plotting out the courses of these tragedies than Wagner. Tannhäuser finds himself divided, torn between his lust for Venus and his love for Elisabeth. Unable to integrate his personality, he is unable to win either, and is saved upon his death only by an act of divine grace. Unlike Tannhäuser, Siegfried’s personality is undivided; passion, love, and life purpose are united in his desire for Brünnhilde”his erotic lust for her fully meshed with his conjugal love. It is this complete integration of his personality that makes Siegfried a hero”not his killing of the dragon. And it is this that makes his betrayal and eventual murder by the psychological puppet Hagen all the more tragic. Tristan and Isolde’s adulterous love results in a tragedy for all at hand, yet Wagner is able to close the work with some of the most ecstatic music ever written, not because their adultery is forgotten or ignored, but rather because King Mark has generously forgiven them both. The Liebestod is a paean to forgiveness as well as conjugal ecstasy.
It is instead, however, the sacrament of orgasm that seals Glass’s Columbus in fidelity with the Blessed Virgin and that opens his eyes to the New World. And Beaumarchais and Marie Antoinette’s heaven is a sexual one where their adultery is made irrelevant by their physical passion (poor Louis simply disappears from the plot). Yet these adulterers lack the dedication of even Tristan and Isolde. Ultimately their passion is not for someone else, for some one other , but for themselves”and not themselves as a couple, as the lovers Beaumarchais and Antoinette (for that would require the ethic of commitment), but rather for themselves as single individuals, as lone empires of the self where the greatest orgasm is ultimately solitary. At the end of Voyage , Columbus ignores Isabella’s invitations to her bed, not out of a sense of ethical outrage, but simply because he only desires himself more.
Sex is the core of the postmodern homo erectus appetitus , a thing (not a creature, for he acknowledges no creator ) who walks and talks like a man but whose ethic is but appetite and whose language the syntax of brute feeling.
And so the postmodern homo erectus appetitus finds his paradise in his sacrament of sex. Sex is his liturgy and his philosophy. It is what he praises in his poetry, hallows in his architecture, and chronicles in his history. All the encumbrances of the Western tradition regulating sex”the discipline of contracts, the dance of courtship, the love of marriage, even the payment due the prostitute”are jettisoned. They have no place in this aesthetic culture. This is a world of feelings, of desires, of wants, and of the power to grasp satiation.
The Met’s two new operas clearly proclaim this postmodern creed. And it is a profoundly different creed than that upon which the Met’s other repertory is based (Baroque, Classic/Romantic, or Modern). It is by means of that other creed that we recognize the poignancy of the Countess Almaviva’s forgiveness of her adulterous husband (in Mozart’s Figaro ), or weep with Wotan when his own ethics force him to abandon his beloved daughter on an Alpine rock (in Wagner’s Die Walkre ), or cheer with Leonore when Florestan is rescued (in Beethoven’s Fidelio ), or agonize with Captain Vere as he struggles with the riddle of good and evil (in Britten’s Billy Budd ). In the creed of Glass and Corigliano, none of those works are sensible. If they cause him to suffer, why doesn’t Wotan simply ignore the runes carved on his spear and substitute new ones for the situation at hand? Why does Leonore risk her life for Florestan when divorce and remarriage would be so easy? And why is Florestan imprisoned at all?
The Voyage and Ghosts are artifacts of a different moral world than that of Fidelio , The Ring , and The Marriage of Figaro ”a world where forgiveness, sacrifice, justice, and discipline have little currency. Here discipline is only choosing between competing pleasures, justice whatever feels good at the moment, and religion the cult of sensuality. Corigliano’s phantoms are bored; they seek not redemption from their predicament, but entertainment in it. For Glass, Columbus’ voyage is not only an adventure, but also an intellectual quest, fueled by the lust for discovery as well as personal glory. These ghosts and that Columbus are citizens of an infantile world, where religion and ethics have been reduced to mere aestheticism, where the human personality has been collapsed into little more than a mouth and tentacles.
The Met’s two commissions mark a major addition to the culture of the postmodern aesthetic. I do not mean to suggest that either Maestro Levine or the Met administration consciously calculated this assault upon traditional Western values through their commissioning program (although the sacrilege of The Voyage was certainly a deliberate attack upon the sensibilities of Christians). The late Jacob Druckman had been asked by the Met to write an opera based on the Medea story, and had that project not miscarried, the Met’s record might look more balanced. Given the character of our times, however, it was probably inevitable that sooner or later the Met would make its contribution to the postmodern mix.
But this contribution is unlike others. The Met is not the Dayton Ballet or even the Chicago Symphony. Glistening across its plaza, with its glowing Chagalls and sparkling facade, the Metropolitan Opera reigns as the West’s premiere institution of the performing arts. And it is a uniquely American kind of reign, based not upon an ancient tradition (as in Dresden) or upon a federal subsidy (like Paris), but rather squarely upon the quality of its performances and the patronage of individual citizens. Singers’ careers begin with their Metropolitan debut, no matter if they have sung before in Milan or London or St. Petersburg. To have sung at the Met is to have entered fully into the mainstream of Western art music. Not to have sung there is to be relegated to the sidelines.
With these two commissions, the postmodern aesthetic has entered the mainstream of Western high culture. Of course the phenomenon is not new: C. S. Lewis warned us of it half a century ago when he wrote of the dangers of “men without chests.” And it can be argued that it has been an important part of rock culture since the birth of rock and roll. But in the arena of high culture, and certainly high musical culture, the phenomenon was until the past decade largely confined to our culture’s fringes, the stuff of some literary journals, a few seminars at the University of Minnesota, conferences of cognoscenti, and gatherings of whatever at the moment passed for the radical chic. It is at the fringes no longer.
It has made its Met debut. It has triumphed Up Town. The postmodern aesthete, that homo erectus appetitus , this featherless biped possessed of desires and wants, who makes contracts of convenience and who is vacant of love but vibrant with lust”this is very much the man of the hour. When social historians look for the time when this originally “antiestablishment” world was finally awarded the robes of cultural dominance, they might do well to look to the premieres of these works at the Met. From that perspective, they may prove to be the most enduring legacy of Maestro Levine’s first twenty-five years.
Michael R. Linton , who is currently head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University, studied at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and took his doctorate at New York University.