Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Homer and Kerman

I recently finished reading Homer’s Illiaid, one of the oldest works of literature. It’s long, and it’s at times amazingly bloody (perhaps casting doubt on the stereotype that the Romans were the violent ones), but it’s well worth reading. Part of this thrill comes from the experience of reading a masterwork of Western culture, and part because it is nice to be able to say that I’ve read it.

I had a translation by Richard Lattimore, which included over 50 introductory pages that made the reading experience far richer than it otherwise would have been. One of Lattimore’s points was that, in order to fully understand the Illiad, one must remember that the work originated as rhymed poetry meant to be consumed aurally. If a reader keeps that in mind, and even can romanticize the situation and put themselves in the mindset of listening to this long epic recited by a professional storyteller over the course of many nights, one gets a very different understanding of the dramatic function of the text. The text does not *really* function as written prose, no matter how capable the translation. In the same way that someone who reads a play must account for the change in dramatic function from stage to page, the reader of the Iliiad will struggle if they do not take into account the original function of the poem.

This manner of reading dovetailed nicely with ideas in Kerman’s Opera as Drama. Kerman’s main point is just that: that opera is inherently a dramatic art form; however, the drama comes from the musical content, and not from any combination of text, scenery, or stage action. Some of the implications of this are obvious, but  some warrant follow-up, given some current operatic practices. I have seen several operas that were, for various reasons (mostly logistical), presented in semi-staged or concert versions. If Kerman’s idea holds water (and I believe it does), these versions should be just as dramatic as fully staged versions, if not more so, as the audience can focus exclusively on the music (which bears most of the dramatic markers) without being distracted by on-stage shenanigans. A corollary to this would be that listening to an opera with a score is a more authentically musical experience, and hence, full of more drama than watching an opera. This obviously is not Kerman’s point; he’s not in any way advocating for concert versions to replace staged versions or anything of that sort, but the implications are latent in his idea. I personally don’t believe that the music of an opera functions effectively as an isolated concert piece; however, I’ve seen several productions like this, and I’ve found it helpful to study operas without viewing them. The main thing I try to remember is the dramatic context of the notes that I’m staring at, and the fact that these musical ideas are meant to be staged. Mentally returning the work to its theatrical context usually serves to ground me, and aid in a more nuanced understanding of the music.

To me, one of the values of Kerman’s idea comes in its potential for teaching and understanding opera. By getting students (or myself) to first look at the text, and to begin to understand latent dramatic potential, one can begin to think about the work in a manner akin to a composer of opera. Obviously the composition process is much more involved than this, but getting someone to think along these lines can not only be a rich intellectual and creative exercise, it can help make opera begin to come alive. It is this life that the characters in an opera or in the Illiad need, and which can only be provided by the reader.

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