I was reading a Peter Brook speech on opera in which he makes the point that when looking at opera, we often find ourselves dealing with a transmitted tradition.
Yet there is no real way to anchor ourselves in what those symbols meant. While we presume that everything in a work was exciting and vital at some point, over time that original meaning is lost as the context of it, and the original tradition, fades away.
If lemons went extinct tomorrow, how long would we be able to accurately recall and understand the taste of lemons? How long before we transmuted the memory into that of other sharp fruits?
In some ways, it reminds me of Baudrillard’s simulacrum, where strawberry-flavoured gum is first based on actual strawberries, and then eventually becomes based on the taste of strawberry-flavoured gum itself, free of the original model.
An incomplete historical record affirms this truth, even if we did want to recreate that original form.
For example, there is only one repeated eyewitness to Mozart’s operas in Mozart’s time, and he is clearly more interested in the social aspects than musical and staging elements. Were we to rely on Zinzendorf alone, we would have a great many more charmingly-necked sopranos onstage.
That is to say, when we look at an old opera, we hold a single artefact from a past era. While reams might be filled with studies of its context, ultimately it is an incomplete fragment.
This is a problem that ancient historians are familiar with. They often stand with one text between them and the next 500 years of history.
They are much better than us opera people at understanding that gulf means one must limit what one says ‘must be true’. Especially after recent reevaluations of traditional interpretations that imposed anachronous values on the past (I paraphrase; it’s not my field and I may be wrong).
It’s a very different approach to my own, perhaps over-influenced by my time as a historian.
But by understanding each opera as an isolated message in a bottle from an un-understood alien time and place, one which we can never really understand, we might come to a really exciting understanding of opera.
One in which we cannot do anything but begin with what the piece is now, because we found it floating in the void.
Rather than trying to remember what a lemon tastes like, when it’s been 300 years since anyone did.