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Camus’s La Peste … our Covid-19 … the sterility of opera … and …

By , 21/07/2020

Camus’s novel La Peste: the production in Oran, Algeria, of Gluck’s Orphée. A metaphor for the static, morbid condition of opera … and of our civilisation?

I subscribe to Opera News, the magazine published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, New York. It is the United States’ principal opera magazine.

The August 2020 issue is, unsurprisingly, short on articles on forthcoming operas and reviews of new productions across the States and elsewhere. But there is a number of articles on people and issues connected with opera which make the current issue a very good read.

One of the unusually interesting articles, inspired in various ways by the pandemic, is by David J Baker.

Here is the article:

‘It may surprise people to learn that Albert Camus once wrote about opera – in his definitive novel about a twentieth century epidemic. La Peste (The Plague) includes a bizarre, disturbing scene in an opera house. Seventy-five years after its publication, the novel can still speak to us about such a plague, and even more about opera.

‘Yet Camus describes a very different epidemic from ours. Social distancing, let alone the use of masks or a shut-down of stores and other public places, is never mentioned or practised in the novel; instead, the Algerian city of Oran, where the novel takes place, is ‘distanced’ – cut off entirely from the outside world for almost a year.

‘A touring opera troupe, trapped in Oran by the quarantine, has decided to continue to perform Gluck’s Orphée, which makes up its entire touring repertoire. They have presented it every Friday evening for the duration of the plague. The opera is always the same; yet the house is sold out each time. Like the overcrowded restaurants, bars and cinemas described in the novel – such a contrast to our recently vacant cities – the plague city’s municipal opera house has helped to satisfy the citizens craze for distraction from the mortal threat they face.

‘An anomaly in Camus’s plague is that people are satisfied with watching, over and over again, the same film or play or opera, because no new material is coming into the city. In Camus’s hands, this restricted repertoire, and audiences’ acceptance of it, becomes an especially apt way to typify one effect of the epidemic – limited choices, repetitive behaviour, numbing distractions, the sense, familiar today as well, of living on a treadmill, in a closed circle.

‘But why select Gluck’s Orphée as the one opera played weekly throughout the long months of the Oran plague? Orpheus is one of the most symbolic of all mythological figures: in Western aesthetics and consciousness; he epitomises the power of art (specifically music), a power stronger than death. In operas by Monteverdi, Gluck and others, his lyre and his voice work the miracle of rescuing his wife from Hades – from death itself.

‘Attending one of Oran’s weekly performances, Jean Tarrou (one of the narrators) is intrigued by the posh audience as couples begin to file in ostentatiously, well-dressed, mingling and clearly regaining some of their habitual (pre-plague) assurance. During the performance, Tarrou begins to notice something unusual on stage. The Act I ‘ariettes’, we are told, are sing by principals and chorus with “facility” and “grace”. Then, almost imperceptibly, the Orphée (a male singer, as was traditionally more common with French performances) “inserted tremolos” that were not part of his Act II aria and, “with a slight excess of pathos, beseeched the master of Hell to heed his pleas. Certain jerky gestures escaping him seemed, to the more savvy spectators, a stylistic effect that added appreciably to the singer’s interpretation”.

‘Only during the duet in Act III, “the point where Eurydice escaped Orphée” does the audience begin to react. And, “as if these noises from the audience confirmed the singer in what he was feeling, at the moment he advanced to the footlights, Grotesquely, stretching his arms and legs in his antiquarian costume, and collapsed,” overturning scenery in his fall. The orchestra falls silent, and the audience begins to leave the theatre “at first discreetly (as they would leave a church, or a funeral) and then in a desperate, disorderly rush”.

‘The narrator and his companion are left alone, confronted with an image “of what their life had become: the plague onstage in the form of a contorted tragedian and, in the hall, signs of luxury now useless … forgotten opera glasses, and lace garments discarded against the crimson upholstered seats”. Art – like its more frivolous accessories among the elite audience – falls prey to the ravages of the epidemic.

‘Opera audiences in 2020 are being spared such dreadful scenes, thanks to the precautions taken during “our” pandemic. We are also deprived of live opera altogether. How significant is this aesthetic and social loss in the greater scheme of the pandemic? Should we complain about the plight of the opera world when we appreciate the mortal risk of the coronavirus – which, in a small distortion of a word used by Sartre and Camus, we can call an “existential threat”?

‘At the end, when normal life returns, one minor character says: “What does the plague really matter? It’s life, that’s all”. Afflicted for years with tuberculosis, and starting this novel during the war, Camus saw life as struggle and resistance, a response to our “absurd” condition. In a less momentous sense, this philosopher, novelist and playwright may have seen opera, too, as not without absurdity. Perhaps, in presenting a company and a theatre with a repertoire of just one opera, he was presciently suggesting one of the weaknesses of this art form as it is practised  and marketed today; the opera scene in La peste could be taken as parody, as a metaphor for opera’s basically fixed, unchanging repertoire. Few new works keep the repertoire alive and growing; what we see on stage, as in Camus’s scene, is a form of death.

‘When the curtain goes up again – on our cities, and in our opera houses – we can hope that it’s not just a return to business as usual. Our pandemic has brought painful reminders of social disparities, prompting calls for reform. What remains to be seen is how our plague will affect arts institutions. Will we return to the opera marketplace as Camus depicted it so starkly, in his exaggerated dramatization – as a shrinking repertoire, a moribund institution, a privilege for the few?’

The author is identified thus: David J Baker, whose translations of the Camus excerpts appear here, taught La Peste and other novels to undergraduates while preparing his PhD in French.

Opera News is a relatively low-priced opera magazine. New Zealanders can subscribe for US$69.99 per annum, for 12 issues. It was the price that first attracted me about 30 years ago and I have been a subscriber ever since.
Opera News has for many years been much more than simply a newsletter for well-healed ‘Friends’; it offers a fair view of the surprising extent of opera in the United States and Canada (there are about 150 professional opera companies, members of Opera America), as well as some news and reviews from elsewhere.

Apart from the injury currently being inflicted on the performing arts world-wide, opera is flourishing in terms of the numbers of opera companies. The wretched condition of opera in New Zealand is not typical of its extent elsewhere. 

Lindis Taylor

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