Enchantment: The Seductress in Opera

Jerry Fodor writes:

Opera plays a different and more risky game; in effect, the audience and the characters on stage are in it together. We respond to the song the seducer sings, not just to the singing of it. It doesn’t always work, of course; often enough the seducer ignores the soprano and sings to the house, and we’re painfully aware of it when he does. But when opera does work, it can work wonders. It plays with the space between the audience and the action in a way no other genre can, and the audience is rapt, swept away, transfused with emotion; in two words, enchanted and seduced. Other art forms occasionally try for this effect, films more often than most. In Hitchcock, a door slams and the audience is startled by what startles the hero. Likewise, Hitchcock and legions of less distinguished directors regularly conjure up an orchestra ex nihilo, and we are intended to be moved by the music it plays. But it’s a cheat, an artifice, calculated to amplify the effect of the action on the audience. Film music comes from nowhere and the characters can’t hear it. Even when it works, there’s the sense it hasn’t earned its success: the impression one’s arm has been twisted is very strong. What 19th-century composers called ‘melodrama’ attempted the same trick, but it wasn’t any good and eventually they gave it up.

(LRB 11 September 2008)