Will Berger, raconteur and crusader, turns his attention to Puccini
As almost anyone who goes to the opera these days has observed, the age of the average attendee is now approximately—how shall I put it and delicately, since I’m now one of those we’re talking about––noticeably advanced. Young people, and young gay men—the lifeblood of opera in my youth—aren’t going the way we used to. AIDS is a big factor, observes “Ghosts of Versailles” co-creator William M. Hoffman. It wiped out the generation of gay men that might have been expected to pass on the traditions of gay people and opera, in much the same way that the Holocaust wiped out the majority of those who might have passed key elements of a vibrant Yiddish culture to a generation of younger Jews.
But AIDS can’t be the only explanation for the devolution of opera, which seems to be dying like a star, a red giant inflating and expanding as it cools.
My sense is that the saving of opera is the para-conscious motivation, the subtext and context, of Berger’s endeavor—a crusade, at once noble, heroic, and touching. So has he managed to reclaim the Holy Grail of our enthusiasm and commitment?
Perhaps, but first a word from our sponsor—in this case the gay community. Huh? What we need to talk about first is something less lofty than the saving of opera and Western civilization. It’s our old bugaboo of gay identity, in today’s post-gay culture almost as déclassé as in days of yore.
Berger represents a classic post-gay challenge to our old closeted-and-oppressed-minority ways of thinking, of reflexively identifying and exploring everyone and everything gay. Certainly, he can’t be faulted for relegating his own gayness in discussions of composers and operas where gayness figures little or, mostly, not at all. But Googling Berger with gayness, if only in our own minds, might be worth a shot.
The questions raised by Berger are not the specifics of this composer or librettist or that character or theme being demonstrably “gay” so much as the impact of gay people on opera as it has evolved altogether. In the shaping of mainstream opinions and tastes in our time, what roles have gay people played and how has gayness been pertinent?
One of the delicious things about gay liberation is observing how some of our concepts and fashions spread through society at large. A supreme example is the metaphor of the closet. “Drama queen” is another. Everyone from talk show hosts to leading politicians now uses the term so commonly that even we scarcely notice it any more. Will Berger’s endeavor in these books is not to bring opera out of the closet of homosexuality—the ultimate failure to do so being the unintended and unrecognized achievement of Wayne Koestenbaum’s “The Queen’s Throat”—but out of more generic closets, of the ignorance, fear, and prejudices that have accrued around composers and their works.
Wagner, for example, is cloaked in two great layers of fear. The first, the more important of those for Berger, is the formidability and inaccessibility of the composer. The operas are known to be gargantuan—endlessly long, endlessly difficult, endlessly demanding. The other layer of dread and shadow surrounding Wagner is that of historical, social, and political context. With contemporary scholarship, the indictment against Wagner as a key conceptualizer and instigator of National Socialism—with Adolph Hitler recognizing in Wagner his one and only true spiritual father—has strengthened. The first postwar generation did backward cartwheels trying to extricate Wagner’s politics from his art.
Berger’s bottom line in “Wagner Without Fear” is essentially a reconfiguration of the old separation of art and politics approach that has allowed Wagner worship to continue pretty much unimpeded—that you can appreciate Wagner without closeting the truth of Wagner’s anti-Semitism. Yes, but.
So acknowledgment of the anti-Semitism emerges, ultimately, as obligatory, even perfunctory, as when Berger participated in a special on WNYC/NPR coinciding with the Met’s “Ring” cycle last year. Will’s colleagues there did not include critics such as Gottfried Wagner––the great grandson of the composer who rattles the complacency of Wagnerites in urging a much greater coming to grips with the history, seriousness, and implications of Wagner’s anti-Semitism––but ardent Wagnerites Speight Jenkins and John Rockwell, and Tony Kushner, who lauds Wagner’s great contributions to art, theater, and socialism; oh, and whose Prayer for AIDS Day called for an end to every prejudice ever known to personkind, except one.
Berger does not deny the truth about Wagner but he does attempt to defuse and deprioritize it, to place it in perspective; that is, virulent anti-Semitism was the order of the day in Europe and many Jews are Wagnerites. With Puccini, the closet Berger opens is that of the snobbish prejudices against the composer for excess theatricality, sentimentality, and, worst of all, common popularity. With Verdi, the great humanitarian of Berger’s three composers, there is no comparable baggage of prejudice or cohort fear, so the Verdi book is really more guide than sentinel.
In the heyday of the ‘60s, a leading musicologist, Berkeley-based Joseph Kerman, had a lasting impact on public opinion, declaring both Richard Strauss and Puccini to be vulgar and superficial. Perhaps the best remembered of his declarations was of “Tosca” as a “shabby little shocker,” in his book “Opera As Drama.” Such an insult brings out Berger at his most endearing, and touching. “Shabby? In a sense. Shocker? Yes indeed. Little? Not on your life.” Berger’s defense is Puccini’s magisterial and timeless evocation of Rome. It’s a not untypical moment of triumph for Berger who helps us appreciate the datedness of some of the musicological trends, fashions, and biases that are his windmills, though let’s not go to the other extreme of doing to Kerman what Kerman did to Puccini and Strauss, lest it come back to bite us post-Berger in just the same way.
I’ve no doubt that Berger’s opera books, compendiums of biography, historical analysis, anecdotes, preferred recordings, and books and other commentary, intelligent, insightful and witty, will communicate and enhance knowledge and lore and love of opera for many—from the newcomer to the seasoned buff. As for myself, let me say this. In my memoir “Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite,” I describe an epiphany I had one evening that turned out to be a cornerstone of what I call the de-pedestalization of Wagner, the demise of my own Wagnerism, and the emergence of what I would call greater sobriety vis a vis opera.
I was at my umpteenth performance of “La Boheme,” this one at the Met. The cast was first rate. But after the second act, I found myself walking out, something that in my reverence for opera and respect for the performers I don’t think I had ever done before. I suddenly realized that I never wanted to see or hear “La Boheme” again, period. It didn’t matter who was in the cast or who was the director. I’d reached the end of my own interest in the work, and in fact in much of the genre as I’d come to know and love and relate to it.
I’m not against museums. They will always have their place. Nor am I saying that the operas of Wagner or Verdi or Puccini, any more than the plays of Shakespeare, should not remain beloved or studied. But while Berger has renewed the vows of his lifelong marriage to opera, I’ve moved along in my own inexorable trajectory of divorce. Of course, even divorce doesn’t necessarily mean the end of a relationship. There can still be love, even sex, sometimes even re-marriage. And our concern about the children can remain coequal and overriding. But it does mean we’re no longer bound by the old rules; we’re free to go our separate ways, to prioritize who and what and as we see fit.