How Operatic is Your Poet? by Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein

So, I was wandering the interwebs for mentions of Barthes and coenesthetics, and stumbled onto a few paragraphs from an essay by Peter Brooks: Body and Voice in Melodrama and Opera. This snippet in particular caught my eye:

'Her power to unnerve endures' ... Angela Denoke as Salome in the Royal Opera House's 2012 production. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

‘Her power to unnerve endures’ … Angela Denoke as Salome in the Royal Opera House’s 2012 production. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

“The operatic aria, like the melodramatic monologue, speaks the name of desire directly. It may be the most unrepressed speech of desire that art allows. And yet, it can have something of the weirdness of hysteria as well. The hystericization of voice in opera, especially in the aria, derives, I think, from the extremity I have alluded to. I mean both the extremity of the situation in which the character finds himself—more pertinently, usually, herself—and also that extremity that comes from the paradoxical conjunction of artifice and naturalism in the genre itself. The extremity of the character’s situation is obvious enough: operatic libretti exist to move characters from one moment of excruciating crisis to another with a minimum of necessary development in between, and the moment of crisis is the place for musical illustration, where a few words can be unpacked into a major piece of song. The extremity of the genre, I’ve tried to suggest, is inherent in the very risk of a sung drama, that impossible heightening of life where it takes on the form of dreams (and don’t we all from time to time dream of our lives as transmuted into opera?), in a world where one can sing, over and over again, with all the possible embellishments, “I love you” or “He betrayed me.”

I’ve studied both opera and poetry, written a libretto, am working on getting some of my poetry set, so I’m thinking, fuck, does the speech of desire in opera really get to be less repressed than in poetry? And in what ways do the poets my age express the paradox of artifice and naturalism, cause it’s super in there, and how does that relate to the level of repression or the way we repress? In poetry right now, some poets communicate that we have to filter the emotions we feel in extremity through what often feels to me like a guise of cynicism, or apathy, or self-deprecation, or glitter and lipstick (which is actually super operatic!), or the general messy hysteria of the 20-something’s world to be taken seriously as a poet or published in many lit journals. We often can’t be operatic in the ways traditional opera is, though our feelings are often that way. When did poetry move away from the operatic, or has it? In what new ways are we operatic?

Cause we can’t say poetry has lost all its operatic qualities. The poem too is that “moment of crisis” Brooks talks about illustrated though the acoustics of poetry. When singers are learning new arias, they ask themselves, “Where does this character start emotionally, and where do they end?” The motion of many poems can be looked at this way. Even if there are schools of poetry being defined right now that believe we have to filter our emotions, or feel that the honest expression of those emotions is through those filters, not everyone follows those schools or reads without some measure of operatic…ness. Go see Nick Demske or Joyelle Mcsweeny read their poetry. There’s a performance of an operatic level, if we define operatic as extreme and border-line hysterical (and these are not necessarily terms meant to diminish). The opera world still certainly deems operatic treatment of opera as necessary. The dynamic markings in scores 100-years-old and more are still observed – the heightened diction, the vocal gesture of melisma hasn’t been distilled to remove “unnecessary” passing tones of various kind, and even physical gesture (though not as huge is still large, and, yes, that’s also to do with just being seen on the medium of the stage, which is another aspect to consider). Surely, many people listening to Salome (that picture at the top, that’s Salome) or hearing Joyelle read her King Prion series from Necropastoral both say, “Why are they yelling at me!?”

As in opera, poetry has its reasons, and it’s not simply yelling any more than a baby’s nonsense sounds are simply nonsense. There’s the ever-present complaint of, “That’s distracting! I have no idea what the fuck happened in that poem!” And that’s the reason a lot of people give for some poets to change their performance style. Here, we have to remember that good performance (meaning evocative of its audience) is one that’s true to its text. Performance is dictated by medium. So, when we say a reading is bad or opera is bad because we can’t understand all the words or the words alone aren’t the single most important thing, we’re forgetting that opera and poetry are sound with words. We’re forgetting that words are an acoustic medium as much as a written one. We’re denying half the story, because, maybe, in grade-school or grad school some large human stared down into our face and said, “What’s that poem about?” and we didn’t have an answer, we just knew it made us feel something the way music just makes you feel something, and instead of feeling good about that we felt bad.

So, sound is the vehicle of the operatic and the poetic libretti. So are definition and connotation, in the structure of music theory for one, and the grammatical sense for the other. Just look at the most recent movie version of Les Miserables. What a fucking disaster. A great novel turned into a good piece of musical theater turned into a fucking terrible movie. I saw it with a former coloratura and a current videographer for Housewives of NJ, and their main complaint was that it was “so melodramatic – terrible acting”. Funny coming from them, but not wrong. I hadn’t noticed, so to speak, cause I’d expected melodrama. Then, naturally, we all went to post FB statuses, and were bombarded by those of our friends. All my opera friends panned it worse than probably any other group. “The singing was terrible!” they all said. And, yes, the singing was terrible. It was a terrible idea to have non-singers star in a story that’s expressed through singing. That should be a given. It’s like pitching an action movie where all the actors do their own stunts – everyone’s bound to crash and burn…for realz. (more on that here and here)

I’m gonna go on what I think is a necessary tangent here for a moment, and you can skip it if you want – I’m not watching. Anyway, maybe you’re saying (and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had this thrown in my face), “Oh, you’re just saying they suck at singing because you’re an opera singer so you don’t think anyone’s a good singer if they don’t sound like you.” But the truth is, I don’t feel that way. I love the singer for Beirut who does that distinctive slidie thing with his voice (a huge no-no in opera). Early Madonna who has, like, no vocal technique to speak of. The singer for Mount Eerie who has questionable pitch a lot of the time. Emma Kirkby (who, while classically trained and a fantastic solo choral/baroque singer, would never make it onto one of today’s high classical opera stages). I even really liked Anne Hathaway singing I Dreamed a Dream, even though by the measure of both classical and musical theater vocal technique she was a mess – uneven, bottoming out, cutting up musical phrases with breaths. Her performance was inspired because she committed to it, was conscious of the text/character/story AND had a little vocal training (she grew up singing in the children’s chorus at the met and probably trained elsewhere at some point I assume), and had enough of a viable range to hit all the notes without screeching (what the men in that film could NOT do). Let’s be clear – not being able to hit a note isn’t “technique” or “choice” – being able to and choosing not to is, alla that old story of Maria Callas at La Scala failing the high note in Traviata, getting called out for it by the conductor, and then explaining that it was right for the character at that moment – the crack was purposeful.

So, anyway, sound is the vehicle for both opera and poetry, and without it we fail just as Les Mis did. It’s a blending, totally, absolutely, but we can’t forget that the first form of expression is not words, but sounds. Words were born from sounds. Semiotics. Onomatopoeia. When my 10-month-old nephew looks at me and makes a clicking sound with his lips and I do it back he’s thrilled, because I’m legitimately communicating with him. We’re talking through sound, just as a piece of orchestral music does, but on a super simplified level. So, when we write, when we step onto a stage or behind a podium or on top of a velvet foot-stool in the middle of a bar, we’re singing whether we’re holding staff paper or a journal.

So, no, telling Joyelle or Demske or Callas to take the music out of their performance so “it can be heard” is an example of our own misunderstanding of what poetry is. Music and words are symbiotic. If you want to study words by themselves pick up the manual for your iPhone.

So, this has all been about operatic performance, but what about poetic content? How do you think poets are operatic or not in their content or treatment?


Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein is a poet (MFA, The New School) and classically trained soprano (BS, Mannes), the founding editor of SOUND, and a staff writer for Luna Luna Magazine where she writes on contemporary dance, literature, and society. Her chapbook, Quiet, was selected by Matthea Harvey as The New School’s 2012 Chapbook Contest winner for poetry. She is developing PSNY’s Children’s Poetry Festival. This October her libretto will be featured in the premier of composer Jonathan Dawe’s fractal operatic retelling of Tamburlaine – a story of hunger, remorse, and redemption.


One thought on “How Operatic is Your Poet? by Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein

  1. Pingback: The Horror of Movie-Musicals: A Well-Informed Rant (part 2/2) | luna luna

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