Musicking While Old - 2. Operatic Representations of Old Age - Joseph Straus
Episode 43rd February 2022 • SMT-Pod • Society for Music Theory
00:00:00 00:32:28

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In the second episode of Joe Straus's series on old age and music, he analyzes old characters in opera, the stereotypes often assigned to them, and the ramifications of those stereotypes on old people in real life.

This episode was produced by Katrina Roush.

SMT-Pod Theme music by Zhangcheng Lu; Closing music "hnna" by David Voss. "Night Thoughts" by Aaron Copland was performed by Han Chen. For supplementary materials on this episode and more information on our authors and composers, check out our website: https://smt-pod.org/episodes/season01/.

Transcripts

SMT:

SMT-Pod theme music playing

SMT:

Welcome to SMT-Pod, the premiere audio publication of the Society for Music Theory. In this episode, which is the second in a series of five on Old Age and Music, Joe Straus analyzes old characters in opera, the stereotypes often assigned to them, and the ramifications of those stereotypes on old people in real life.

SMT:

[Copland's Night Thoughts playing]

Joe:

Artistic representations of old age (in literature, visual art, music, advertising, and popular media) both reflect and shape cultural attitudes toward old age. The old operatic characters I will discuss in this episode are fictional, but the roles they play—the cultural scripts they enact—also constrain the lives of real old people. Real old people—including the old composers, performers, and listeners who we will be talking about in future episodes—find their lives channeled within the grooves created by these pervasive artistic representations. Operas are a particularly valuable source of representations of old age. They present the main themes in a heightened way: the drama is compressed, distilled, and intensified, almost in the manner of a fable or folk tale.

Joe:

When I talk about old characters, I am not much concerned with chronology. Rather, I focus on characters who occupy the cultural position of old age, characters who are understood by themselves and others to be old. So I don’t really care about chronology or demography; the operatic characters I will discuss are culturally old. Before I talk about the specific sorts of roles played by old characters, let’s talk about the dramatic narrative, the story arc, more generally. What sorts of actions do these old characters take? What do they do, or try to do?

Joe:

In the comic plot, the old character tries to block the young lovers. In a tragic or adventure plot, the old character tries to thwart the young hero. In both situations, old characters place the cold, dead hand of convention and tradition on the heat and passion and progress of youth. Old characters thus set the narrative in motion by creating a problem that requires solution: old characters are an obstacle to overcome. If the old character succeeds in blocking the young lovers or impeding the hero’s progress, the result is violent and tragic. But that rarely happens.

Joe:

Much more commonly, the old character either admits defeat and magnanimously withdraws or is forcibly pushed aside. Either way, the narrative concludes with the elimination and symbolic or actual death of the old character. Those two possibilities relate to the two strategic choices for the performance of old age in real life: an old person can either age gracefully, and accept irrelevance, or rage against the dying of the light, and suffer inevitable and ignominious defeat.

Joe:

Before discussing the limited cultural scripts available to old characters, let’s think for a moment about the roles they rarely if ever get to play. Old characters are generally not protagonists; rather, they are secondary characters who attempt to block the actions of the normative, young protagonists. An old character can never be a questing hero on a journey of discovery and self-discovery. An old character can never be a romantic lead, a principal love interest. Old people are too old for questing and too old for romance, and if they try it, it’s either laughable and embarrassing, or creates tragic consequences. Does it seem obvious and natural to you that old people cannot be questing heroes or romantic protagonists? If so, that’s ageism at work in your own attitudes. [bumper music]

Joe:

There are basically six kinds of old people in literature and opera, six cultural scripts for the performance of old age: Cultural script number 1 is the Old Fool, who persists in doing something after he’s too old to do it. He (it’s usually a man) tries to act young, to pretend that he’s still capable of romance, but it’s sad and laughable—he should have learned to age gracefully. An Old Fool is gullible and easily duped, especially by a conniving young person. Cultural script number 2, the Saintly Sage, almost always a man, is a wise and venerated elder, whose wisdom serves to enable the progress of the young hero or to facilitate the pairing of the young couple.

Joe:

Cultural script number 3, the Aged Avenger, usually a man, is angry and vindictive, raging against his loss of power, and trying to impede the young hero’s progress or the pairing of the young couple. Cultural script number 4, the Witch, is the female counterpart of the Aged Avenger. She uses her dark knowledge to block the progress of the hero or young couple. Cultural script number 5, LEAVE-TAKER, like the Old Fool, has stayed too long at the fair, but is willing to withdraw gracefully. Old Fools are comic figures; LEAVE-TAKERS are noble and admirable.

Joe:

Cultural script number 6, the Benevolent Caregiver, is usually a woman, usually from a lower class, a servant or a nanny, possibly a caring grandmother. She encourages the quest and romance of the young protagonists. Sometimes an older man can act as a Benevolent Caregiver to a young woman in a December-May romance. Music 07:23 [bumper music]

Joe:

Let’s talk first about the Old Fool. The Old Fool is a comic figure of longstanding in the history of the theater. Almost exclusively a male role, the Old Fool is a comic bumbler, an erotic failure, a laughable and inept dirty old man. He thinks he’s still a ladies’ man, but he’s too old for that. The comedy is usually cruel and low: we laugh at his absurd pretensions. Speaking in more general terms, an Old Fool is someone who persists in doing something after he’s too old to do it. His doomed attempt to act young and do what the young folks do is both laughable and pitiable. He is gullible and easily duped. The narrative concludes with his humiliating elimination.

Joe:

I’ll give you two examples of Old Fools in opera. My first example is the title character of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Don Pasquale is a lecherous Old Fool, who seeks to block the young lovers. He identifies himself as around 70 years in age, and is described throughout the opera as old by other characters and by himself. Here’s a brief passage from near the end of the opera where Don Pasquale accepts defeat, blesses the young couple, and joins in singing the moral of the story: old men should not think about romance.

Music:

[CLIP DON PASQUALE]

Joe:

There are lots of other operatic Old Fools, including for example Bartolo in Rossini’s Barber of Seville or Falstaff, the title character in Verdi’s opera. But my second Old Fool is in the Germanic rather than Italian operatic tradition. I’m thinking of Beckmesser in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Beckmesser is an old and old-fashioned man. Despite his age and his evident Jewishness, both of which disqualify him from romantic success, he persists in his pursuit of the young woman. After a public humiliation and rejection, both artistic and romantic, he does not withdraw gracefully but is forced out. He is a comic bumbler, and his defeat is portrayed as both humorous and well deserved. Here’s a brief excerpt from Meistersinger, the moment when Beckmesser, the Old Fool, tries and fails to sing properly—he is unworthy as a musician, as a lover, and as a good German. He is humiliated and driven out amid comic merriment.

Music:

[CLIP FROM MEISTERSINGER]

Joe:

The second of my six types of old characters is a SAINTLY SAGE or WISE WIZARD. This character is a wise old man (it’s virtually always a man), venerated by the other characters. He is usually not the protagonist of the drama, but his wisdom serves to enable the progress of the young hero or to facilitate the pairing of the young couple. Recent cinematic prototypes include Gandalf, Dumbledore, and Yoda. Unlike OLD FOOLS, SAINTLY SAGES are uninterested in sex or romance—they are spiritually pure. Their old age desexualizes them.

Joe:

I’ll give you just one example of an operatic Saintly Sage: Sarastro in Mozart’s Magic Flute. Sarastro is the priest of the temple and embodies the virtue of wisdom. He supervises the initiation rites of the young hero and blesses the marriage of the young couple. In this passage, he reveals some of the sacred wisdom of his old age. In his sonorous bass (old men in opera are almost always basses), he welcomes the young woman to a sacred temple where all is sweetness and light.

Music:

[CLIP FROM THE MAGIC FLUTE]

Joe:

So far we’ve talked about Old Fools and Saintly Sages. My third type of old operatic character is the AGED AVENGER. Aged Avenger is the role for old men who are angry, vengeful, vindictive; capricious in the exercise of power, and angry at the world for their age-related loss of power. The Aged Avenger refuses to age gracefully. Narratively, the AGED AVENGER tries to impede the young lovers or block the hero’s quest and progress.

Joe:

My first example of an operatic Aged Avenger is the Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Toward the beginning of the opera, the Commendatore attempts to block the romantic progress of the drama’s young couple, Don Giovanni and his daughter, Donna Anna. In actuality, the romance he tries to block is an attempted rape, and Don Giovanni murders him for his effort. The opera ends with his ghost wreaking a fatal vengeance. In this brief excerpt, we hear the Commendatore begin to pronounce his sentence of doom on Don Giovanni—Don Giovanni has invited him to dinner, and now he is here.

Music:

[CLIP FROM DON GIOVANNI]

Joe:

My second example of an operatic Aged Avenger is Wotan as he appears in Act III of Wagner’s Siegfried. At this moment in the drama, Siegfried (the young hero) ascends a mountain toward Brunnhilde (his future wife). Wotan (Siegfried’s grandfather) blocks the way. Siegfried calls Wotan “a foolish old man” and a “stubborn old fool.” In a battle of symbolic phalluses, Siegfried shatters Wotan’s spear with his sword, thus stripping Wotan of his power. Wotan’s failed attempt to cling to power ends in his symbolic death and we never see him again in the rest of this opera or in its successor, Gotterdämmerung. The old man is pushed aside, eliminated from the drama, powerless to block the forward movement of the hero’s quest or the union of the young lovers. In this brief excerpt, you’ll hear old Wotan, the bass, try to block Siegfried, the tenor, and you’ll hear Wotan’s spear shatter on the ground.

Music:

[CLIP FROM SIEGFRIED]

Joe:

OLD FOOLS, SAINTLY SAGES, and AGED AVENGERS are usually men. The fourth sort of old operatic character is an old woman depicted as a WITCH, CRONE, or HAG. She is the female counterpart of the AGED AVENGER, quick with anger and curses, avid in the pursuit of vengeance, violent and bloodthirsty. WITCHES may also have aspects of the SAINTLY SAGE—they have a special knowledge, rooted in their old age, but usually of a darker kind than the SAGE’s wisdom. Like male SAGES, WITCHES are not sexual beings and not possible romantic partners. In that aspect, WITCHES stand in for all old women as they are represented on stage—entirely desexed.

Joe:

AGED AVENGERS (who are old men) may be admirable in some ways; WITCHES (who are old women) are generally evil and despicable. WITCHES often appear to have usurped power, which is understood as rightfully a male domain. They do not have the option of abdicating power or withdrawing gracefully. Rather, the narrative requires that they be violently destroyed at the end. In performance, WITCH roles are often grotesquely exaggerated for comic effect. Old women in opera are very frequently represented as Witches, either comic or serious.

Joe:

I’ll give two serious examples. My first operatic witch is Azucena in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. An old Gypsy, Azucena embodies a representation that is simultaneously ageist, sexist, and racist. She exacts a horrible revenge for a past wrong by tricking a young man into killing his own brother, who is also her own (adoptive) son. Azucena is both a Witch and an Aged Avenger. Here are the final moments of Il Trovatore, as Azucena claims her vengeance.

Music:

[CLIP FROM TROVATORE]

Joe:

My second example of a serious, dangerous, vindictive operatic witch is the Queen of the Night from Mozart’s Magic Flute. Her male counterpart in the opera is Sarastro, who as we have seen, is a Saintly Sage. One common feature of the witch is an attempt to seize power, which is presumed to be rightfully male. Like Azucena, The Queen of the Night is both Witch and Aged Avenger—she seeks revenge for past wrongs and tries to block the progress of the young hero. She sings, “The vengeance of hell boils in my heart.”

Music:

[CLIP FROM MAGIC FLUTE]

Joe:

So far, we have surveyed four operatic roles for old characters: Old Fools, Saintly Sages, Aged Avengers, and Witches. Now we come to a fifth character type, the LEAVE-TAKER. Like OLD FOOLS, LEAVE-TAKERS have persisted too long in doing the things the young people do. Unlike OLD FOOLS, however, LEAVE-TAKERS are not humiliatingly forced out; rather, they gracefully withdraw, and their withdrawal is seen as either tragic or noble. They say good-bye to all that: men say good-bye to power; women say good-bye to love and romance. And they do so in an atmosphere of nostalgia and regret about all they leave behind.

Joe:

LEAVE-TAKERS go quietly and willingly—they age gracefully—and the larger drama typically concludes with their symbolic death. My first example of an operatic LEAVE-TAKER is the Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. It is not clear how old she is chronologically, but she is coded as old within the opera. Her overt sexuality is unbecoming her age—she’s become too old to be the protagonist in a love match. Here are her final moments on stage as she blesses the union of the young couple and leaves the stage to them.

Music:

[CLIP FROM ROSENKAVALIER]

Joe:

My second example of an operatic LEAVE-TAKER is Hans Sachs from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Like the Marschallin, Hans Sachs renounces love and withdraws from romance with the young heroine—he thinks he’s too old. Sachs’s renunciation is understood as a mark of his selflessness and nobility, and stands in stark contrast to the conduct of Beckmesser, who is an Old Fool, as we heard earlier. Here is the moment in the opera where Sachs renounces romance. Amid musical quotations from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Sachs says he doesn’t want to end up like King Mark, so he withdraws and blesses the young couple.

Music:

[CLIP FROM MEISTERSINGER]

Joe:

My sixth and final category, BENEVOLENT CAREGIVERS support and encourage the hero or heroine on their quests and foster the union of the young romantic couple. There are two subcategories, largely coded by gender and class. First, there are LOYAL SERVANTS, often a lady’s maid or former governess. Their old age, and their class, ensure that they will be secondary, supporting characters—never in a leading role. A more interesting subcategory of Benevolent Caregivers involves PROTECTIVE FATHERS (or Father Figures).

Joe:

In this category, we find a small number of older men married to younger women. December-May romances are relatively rare in opera, but quite common in literature, where such couplings are often validated. The older man is not ridiculed as an OLD FOOL, but seen rather as a wise guide, gentle and protective. Although the man might feel he’s too old and somewhat old-fashioned, he’s nonetheless the source of desirable wisdom and experience, not to mention a substantial income. It is notable that the man in such couples is generally not seen as highly sexual; rather, the normal ageist presumption is that old age marks an end to the heat of youthful sexuality.

Joe:

In opera, the best example of a Protective Father-Figure is probably Prince Gremin in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. This is one of the few examples in opera of a successful December-May pairing of an old man with a young woman. By marrying the young woman, Gremin effectively blocks the young lovers. Old Gremin is deeply in love with young Tatiana and she is evidently fond of him although, on her side, this is not a passionately romantic relationship—his old age precludes that. Here is a bit of Prince Gremin’s aria, his love song to his young wife, sung here by Mark Reizen, the preeminent Russian bass of the generation after Chaliapin. Reizen was 90 years old at the time—the role of Gremin is designed for an old singer, but perhaps not this old!

Music:

[CLIP FROM EUGENE ONEGIN]

Joe:

These six sorts of roles for old characters—OLD FOOL, SAINTLY SAGE, AGED AVENGER, WITCH, LEAVE-TAKER, and BENEVOLENT CAREGIVER—constrain not only fictional characters on stage, but real old people in real life. These are the cultural scripts that old people enact; they are the frameworks within which old people are understood. In future episodes, we will see how the critical reception of old composers and performers slots them into these roles. But let me give a sneak preview now.

Joe:

In his old age, Stravinsky took a serial turn—he stopped writing neoclassical music and started writing serial and twelve-tone music. Observers related this stylistic shift to his old age, and understood him in relation to these stereotypical old roles. For some observers, Stravinsky was an OLD FOOL—he tried to do what the young folks were doing, and it was like botched plastic surgery—grotesque and embarrassing. Some portrayed Stravinsky as an AGED AVENGER, tearing down and destroying the neoclassical edifice.

Joe:

For some, Stravinsky became a SAINTLY SAGE, whose proximity to death seemed to confer on him a transcendent wisdom. Observers can’t seem to help themselves: they understand the music in relation to the old age of the composer, and they understand old age in relation to the prevalent cultural scripts. And what about old musical scholars like me? Do people view us in these ways?

Joe:

Well, it’s hard to know how people are judging you—they won’t necessarily tell you to your face—but old professors are often understood as OLD FOOLS, either because they are embarrassingly trying to act young and hip or because their abilities have declined in old age. Old professors are often seen as AGING AVENGERS or WITCHES, who try to block the progress of young scholars with new ideas. Sometimes we’re seen as SAINTLY SAGES, admired for our accumulated wisdom, however old-fashioned it might be, or BENEVOLENT CAREGIVERS, celebrated for the guidance we might offer to the deserving young. Sometimes we are seen as LEAVE-TAKERS who have checked out of our departments and our fields, either by retiring or by acting as though we have. But to be the protagonist of the drama, the questing hero, that’s the role we want, that’s the role we think we still inhabit, and that’s the role that our old age seems to others to preclude.

Joe:

In this second episode, I have continued to benefit from the guidance of a number of friends and colleagues including Joy Calico, Mike Kinney, Blake Howe, and Mark Spicer, all of whom will appear prominently in Episode 4. The wonderful peer reviewer for this episode is Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, my valued comrade on many intellectual adventures. The musical examples were prepared by Annie Beliveau, an outstanding graduate student at the CUNY Graduate Center. My theme music is the opening music of Aaron Copland's "Night Thoughts" played beautifully here by the rising young pianist Han Chen, also a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center.

SMT:

Visit our website smt-pod.org for supplemental materials related to this episode. And join in on the conversation by tweeting your questions and comments @SMT_Pod. SMT Pod's theme music was written by Zhangcheng Lu with closing music by David Voss. This episode features performances by Han Chen. Thanks for listening!

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