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  • Scott M Williamson

Susannah, Dalí and opera as ritual


The latest notes and musings on our premiere production of Susannah, just around the corner, April 28 & 30.

Susannah notebooks: Staging the pantomime for the “overture” opening music – ensemble becomes mob encircling, surrounding Susannah like a crowded ring of picadors in for the kill – reference to Hollis (Tracking the Gods: The Place of Myth in Modern Life) and Dalí’s operatic myth painting, “The Hallucinogenic Toreador” – the operatic drama of myth and ritual, the violence and stylization in each… This reinforces Hollis’ claim about the archetype of the “eternal return” as a “drama” that “lends depth to life.” Opera is the form ideally suited to conveying such archetypes today…

One of the things which makes opera so powerful in its impact (and which makes such passionate fanatics of its “fans”) is the convergence of these archetypal energies. Myth, ritual (the dramatic enacting of story for public benefit)… the experience of catharsis, whether directly or vicariously; whether the catharsis of emotion be from the laughter and tears of comedy or romance or those of heroic adventures, epic wit or tragic action… But I remember a colleague and friend who articulates it much more clearly… The poet and librettist, (and former NEA chair) Dana Gioia writes:

Opera demands immense narrative compression…What opera excels at is presenting peak moments of human emotion… Better perhaps than any other art form, it can represent the full emotional intensity of a specific moment, especially from the subjective perspective of a particular character. That special lyric intensity explains why people so often cry at the opera, even at the performances of works they have known for years…

What a succinct and apt description! He also illustrates why opera is the true heir to the ancient, and original (=”classical”) forms of public theatre...

Opera tends to explore the extremes of human experience, especially the limits of suffering. Tragic opera remains the only theatrical form still unabashedly committed to Aristotle’s notion of emotional catharsis of pity and terror. (p. 72-3; from “Sotto Voce: Notes on the Libretto as a Literary Form”, Graywolf ed., Nosferatu: an opera libretto, Dana Gioia.)

Let not the words "suffering" nor "tragic" confound any would-be opera-goers! As any opera fan knows, our genre does grand emotion and genuine passion with such style you don't realize the tragedy is upon you until you've had that cathartic cry you've needed for so long... Susannah is grand opera, a piece full of "true dramatic intensity". Coming in at under 2 hours of music, its a mite shorter than La Bohéme or Tosca; and like those two verismo uncles, it packs a powerful punch with its concentrated impact.


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