The Fiery Angel at the Bayerische Staatsope. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

Why Is Opera So Derided in America?

Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel offers everything movie goers seek: debauchery, religious obsession, exorcisms, devilish abuses, graphic sexual assault, and a variety of horrific effects both musical and visual.

Since its inception in the late 16th century as a court entertainment with neo-Hellenistic pretentions, opera has stood as a very slender tower of affected elitism. True, after the baroque era, the genre gradually cast off its insular royalism and adopted the bourgeois trappings of grand opera and then verismo, but it never really surrendered its aura of reckless decadence. Within a slim stage, artists believed that melody, harmony, decor, and their own voices could encapsulate a miniature music of the spheres.

The very existence of opera in 21st century America seems a defiant anachronism, a magnificent corpse that, inexplicably, still breathes.

Such a conceit defies secular reasoning, regardless of the ticket price. As the late 18th and 19th centuries witnessed the onward march of materialism, the spheroid faith drained away and the choruses and orchestras grew. The delicate mythologies of Monteverdi and Purcell were supplanted onstage by swollen human forces, political subjects, and a greater role for comedy. Grand opera’s greater dimensions enlarged rather than corrected the genre’s artifice: on a massive stage populated by hundreds enacting musical battles and revolutions, opera’s pretentions stumbled into overcrowded absurdity, bereft of courtly naiveté.

Against operatic artifice stands folk music, rooted largely (if not exclusively) in amateurism and the utilitarian rhythms of work songs, political anthems, religious hymns, and dancing tunes. Dance music, especially, has always been the predominant popular form, whether produced with a computer, countrified spoons, hurdy-gurdy, or Grecian lyre. One can explain the popularity of dance music through its urgent utilitarianism: though dancing per se is unnecessary, it provides an accepted social impetus for the sexual display and arousal that presages copulation. Opera, certainly, professes no such utilitarian purpose, especially as opera patrons today are usually well past the age of mating and fertility.

The very existence of opera in 21st century America seems a defiant anachronism, a magnificent corpse that, inexplicably, still breathes. Whatever cultural capital opera retains in Europe or Russia is nowhere to be found in America. What fills opera houses is an overgrown swamp of verismo, a “cinematic” mode that sweetly colonized the operatic imagination long ago. There are bold new opera productions, of course, but the wild machinations of avant-garde directors only expose an old repertoire needing far more than sexy revisionism.

A desiccated bel canto score will thwart attempted (post-)modernizations as a moribund body rejects a transplanted heart with too fast a beat. An all-nude production of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots relocated to a ’80s-era Caribbean cruise ship will still sound like Meyerbeer, even if appendages swing with abandon and the director splays the bodies of Huguenots slain in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre throughout the ship’s late-night comedy club. Likewise, a sanguine director can relocate Bellini’s Norma to an outer-space brothel and invest the action with robot sex and multi-breasted aliens, but you’ll still have to listen to Bellini for three hours.

Mediocre operas can live, albeit precariously, through virtuoso technical demands and one or two good melodies, much as Gone With the Wind survives, I suspect, mainly for its gorgeous colors, flaming visions of Atlanta, and an impassioned final scene. Stalwart opera buffs will sit through Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor just for the mad scene, but its superfluity of high syllables, as vapidly spectacular as any note-spinning excess of Paganini or Liszt, can’t make the whole opera good.

Nevertheless, when the soprano is finished going mad and takes her bows, the double-breasted, otherwise mannered audience ecstatically whistles and hollers, ostensibly to salute the grand dame’s virtuosity but in fact to salute its own ability to appreciate musical delicacies alien to the hoi polloi. This is rudimentary sociology: the crowd reveres itself, but ashamed of its narcissism, it misdirects its applause toward a cult icon readymade for reflexive worship.

The classical crowd’s self-worship is a fairly new phenomenon. It arises self-defensively from the ashes of two world wars that rendered irrelevant the ancien regime and its attendant romanticisms. At one time, audiences’ hollers and whistles were (I presume) more authentically directed at their onstage idols, who were still cultural elites and not merely the shrieking specters of elitisms past. It is well known that during piano concerts, Beethoven would literally spit upon his sycophantic crowds, who eagerly accepted their god’s salivary baptism.

Some intellectuals were rightfully repelled by the concert hall’s religiosity, but even skeptical G.B. Shaw, who mocked Wagner’s mysticism and absurd cardboard dragons, couldn’t bring down Bayreuth. There, under all the pomp Bavaria could muster, less jaded crowds were dazzled by buoyant Valkyries and ghost galleons sailing on the wind. Obviously, this sort of ingenuous, pseudo-religious faith is no longer possible in a cinematic society in which CGI renders everything possible and nothing believable.

That opera is today something of a beautiful stillbirth — at least as far as American “culture” is concerned — cannot diminish its historical necessity. Without the history of opera, the melodramatic (literally, melos plus drama) foundation of conventional narrative cinema would not exist, and without the precedent of Wagnerism, the “totalized” art of film couldn’t have supplanted the novel as the predominant bourgeois pastime. So why, then, does the public mind so deride opera?

Clearly, some mock opera because it is the most unrealistic of all art forms: the psychological realism of the 20th century had rendered moot a genre in which everyone insists on bellowing their ideas. But this objection fails to explain the enduring popularity of Broadway, where tickets to the most horrid, derivative, quasi-operatic drivel (e.g., the Andrew Lloyd Webber school) sells out quickly. One might blame the ludicrousness of operatic plots (La Traviata), yet Hollywood is no less absurd in its insistence that car chases will elicit justice, that beautiful people will always fall in love, that 40-year-old men can be “authentic” by behaving like stoned 14-year-olds, or that besieged townspeople, in some quasi-fascistic manner, require a lone, willful hero to subdue evildoers.

Besides, popular audiences only pretend to require realism. With the exception of American Sniper, the eight highest-grossing Hollywood movies of 2015 — Star Wars, Episode VII, Jurassic World, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Inside Out, Furious 7, Minions, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — are all overproduced fantasies (and saddled with too much music, to boot — the gratuitous legacy of Korngold, an opera composer). Of course, these are also sledgehammering children’s films, which require none of the subtlety, education, or acculturation opera demands of its audiences. But on this point I cannot defend opera as a whole, for most works in the standard (i.e., boringly middlebrow) repertoire do not warrant serious study and deserve to be seen no more than typical Hollywood fodder.

The real problem, we know, is an outdated operatic repertoire, which strangers to opera falsely equate with the genre itself. Today, the timidly tonal sound-world of pre-Straussian opera, which informs more than 95 percent of current productions, is a saccharine delicacy incongruous with the modern condition. When asked why the compositions he wrote late in life were dissonant, Duke Ellington bluntly replied, “Life is dissonant” — an idea that redresses the limited harmonic palette of both contemporary dance-pop and old romanticism. And when newly commissioned, expensive operas — even tonal ones like Tan Dun’s The First Emperor (2006) — fall on deaf ears, the old standbys become further entrenched.

If opera suffers the problem of a grandfathered repertoire, the repertoire itself suffers intransigent nationalist and historical biases. According to operabase.com, during the worldwide 2013-2014 season, the 13 most-performed operas, with the exception of Bizet’s Carmen, were either Italian or Germanic (in 14th place was Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin). Surprisingly, the proto-cinematic Wagner first appears only in 24th place, with The Flying Dutchman, and Tristan and Isolde, in the 40th slot, trails much bel canto twaddle.

The first modern opera on the list, Strauss’s Salome, appears 37th, and one must wait until 70th place to discover another modern work, Britten’s Turn of the Screw (not Peter Grimes, interestingly). Perhaps it’s slightly reassuring that Berg’s Wozzeck comes in 76th, significantly ahead of a disposable trifle such as Bellini’s La sonnambula. In the list’s nether regions languish once-important works such as Franz Schreker’s Der ferne Klang (“The Distant Sound”), a luxuriantly scored opera that, like Schreker’s later, 1915 opera Die Gezeichneten (“The Branded”), exerted a tremendous influence on the Korngoldian school of operatic cinema that followed.

Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel, among the most extraordinarily atmospheric, enigmatic, and perverse of all operas, takes 436th place, stuck in between Pablo Sorozábal’s light opera La Del Manojo de Rosas and Eduard Künneke’s Glückliche Reise, a dance-hall operetta filled with galumphing German humor. Admittedly, The Fiery Angel, finished in 1927 after three revisions, is often stagy, verbose, and claustrophobic, reserving most of its spectacle for a final half hour of unbridled erotic hysteria. Yet its story of demonic possession offers everything a movie audience could desire: debauchery, religious obsession, exorcisms, devilish abuses, graphic sexual assault, and a variety of horrific effects both musical and visual.

If even contemporary productions of Handel and Purcell feature swinging phalluses to spice otherwise sterile proceedings, The Fiery Angel requires no crude revisionism or gratuitous interjections of sex; eroticism is embedded in the libretto and verily drips from Prokofiev’s chordal imagination. Though its subject matter is esoteric, the opera’s exuberant sensationalism makes it universally accessible — more accessible, I’d argue, than reductive, culturally particularistic operas such as Michael Daugherty’s Jackie O (2007) or Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 2011 Anna Nicole (a quasi-satirical travesty of Anna Nicole Smith), works which proudly hoist grating pop culture baggage.

Known mainly to Russophiles and Prokofiev scholars until the Kirov Opera, led by Valery Gergiev, resurrected it in the early ’90s, The Fiery Angel is a highly condensed version of Valery Bryusov’s 1908 novel (of the same name). As with his operatic setting of Dostoevsky’s The Gambler, Prokofiev so reduces and fragments his literary source that familiarity with the original is necessary to understand the characters’ motivations, even if their actions are superficially intelligible.

In the case of Bryusov, however, familiarity is a daunting trial. I’ve tried to read Bryusov’s novel twice and failed both times, hardly getting past the first 50 pages of inelegant, lumbersome prose. In fairness, the English translation by Ivor Montagu and Sergei Nalbandovis (published by Dedalus) might be the culprit, but as my remaining years shorten, I’ve learned to prefer two hours of Prokofiev to 450 pages of Bryusov’s Symbolist turgidity.

Prokofiev’s interest in Bryusov’s novel coincided with his own flirtation with Christian Science in the late 1910s and early ’20s, a period that also produced his semi-popular Scythian Suite and his “Akkadian incantation” Seven, They Are Seven, a modernist, tonally ambiguous cantata that was fairly radical by the standards of 1918. Set in the 16th century, the opera (with a libretto by Prokofiev) centers on Renata, a hysteric consumed by erotic visions of Madiel, a beautiful angel who haunted her as a girl and now returns in her sexual maturity. Through a physical consummation with Madiel, Renata believes she can achieve a gracious, transcendental ecstasy, uniting spiritually with an angelic beyond. Following the thrust of Christian Science, the opera foregrounds Renata’s willful (if crazed) imagination, not objective reality; indeed, productions often make visible Renata’s demons, which Prokofiev alternately (or paradoxically) suggests are both symptoms of hysteria and spirits that can be willed into existence.

In her quixotic search for Madiel, Renata enlists the aid of Ruprecht, an itinerant knight disillusioned with his colonial adventures in the New World and intrigued by Renata’s metaphysical visions. At Renata’s behest, Ruprecht plumbs the supernatural underground and consults with the occultist Agrippa von Nettesheim, who complains of being persecuted as a sorcerer but practices goety (the art of demon-summoning) nonetheless. (Here Prokofiev assumes a passing familiarity with the historical Agrippa who, under political pressure, retracted his blasphemous Three Books on Occult Philosophy of 1510.)

Ruprecht’s efforts to glean Agrippa’s arcana amount to naught, and Renata quickly becomes disenchanted with his impotent gallantry. After their relationship dissolves into bickering and sadomasochism, Renata confines herself to a convent, where her repressed demons finally burst forth, possessing the nuns in a debauched climax that partly inspired the orgies of Ken Russell’s The Devils.

A 2015 performance of The Fiery Angel by Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper (broadcast in November 2015 on Germany’s Staatsoper TV) offers a new but hardly definitive staging that contrasts starkly with the Kirov’s faithful 1991 production. The Kirov’s staging was abstract and barbarous, eschewing trendy anachronism for barebones sets that merely suggested medieval inns and spare convents. The minimalist, nearly invisible scenography had the effect of intensifying Prokofiev’s score, which, though never atonal, stretches tonality to its dissonant outer limits. In its most chaotic moments, the score dispenses with harmonics, layering incongruous contrapuntal lines like the staggered, animalistic howls of a midnight forest.

Without the distractions of revisionist décor, the Kirov production highlighted the libretto’s central problem of medieval religiosity superseding the burgeoning, pre-Newtonian science of the mid-period Renaissance. The Kirov production envisioned this conflict by representing Renata’s demonic visions as ontologically ambiguous: the audience and Renata can see the demons (played by white-painted, mostly nude male acrobats) who circle the perimeters of the stage and parody the central action, but the other characters cannot. As a result, the audience questions whether it witnesses an objective realm to which only Renata has access or merely the world of Renata’s delusions. Yet the Kirov production also toys with this dramatic irony, for when the demons finally invade Renata’s convent retreat and possess the nuns in both body and spirit, they pass from the membrane of Renata’s consciousness into a fearful reality.

The recent Munich production, directed by Barrie Kosky and zealously conducted by Prokofiev specialist Vladimir Jurowski, abandons Prokofiev-Bryusov’s 16th century setting and its dynamics of reason and faith in favor of gaudy postmodernism and Eurotrash aesthetics. (The Staatskapelle Berlin’s 2008 production of Prokofiev’s The Gambler, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, also followed the Eurotrash vogue.) Ruprecht is no longer a weary medieval wanderer but a tattooed business traveler as alienated from the spiritual world as Renata is dissociated from the material world. The scene begins (without music) in the penthouse of garish modern hotel, where Ruprecht (Evgeny Nikitin) swills designer vodka and fiddles with a TV remote. Suddenly he hears rattling noises beneath his plush king-size bed, and Renata crawls out, already hysterical and believing that demons swarm around her.

In telling Ruprecht of her haunted childhood, Renata sings a transfixing, ten-minute monologue whose ostinato-laced theme — a sped-up caricature of the opening of Stravinsky’s Firebird, as some scholars have conjectured — becomes equated with her escalating madness and will be voiced fortissimo by the possessed nuns of the finalé. The notoriously exhausting role of Renata — one of the most difficult in all of opera, and at least demanding as Strauss’s Elektra — requires a singing actress, and Svetlana Sozdateleva grabs her part by the throat (even if she’s less alluring than the Kirov’s Galina Gorchakova). After Ruprecht bumbles through the chores Renata appoints him and is dumbfounded by Agrippa (here sporting clawlike nails and electrostatic hair), their relationship tailspins, and Renata dares the impotent Ruprecht to shoot her, presumably to quicken a posthumous conciliation with Madiel.

Their hellish relationship is interrupted by a deliberately strange interlude in which Ruprecht encounters Mephistopheles and Faust at a tavern. In the modernized Munich production, the encounter occurs within the couple’s hotel suite, and Renata, disguised in a Hawaiian shirt as a room service waiter, takes the place of a servant boy in Prokofiev’s original scenario. Here, Mephisto and Faust, portrayed as lovers, march into the penthouse trailed by a queer entourage of fiendish, cross-dressed dancers, who serve more or less the mimicking purpose of the Kirov’s parodic acrobats. Mephisto is not a prankster playing to a jaded Faust, as he is in Prokofiev’s libretto, but a Dionysian harlequin wearing a fur throw and women’s garters, his open legs revealing an exaggerated phallus in the manner of Aristophanic Old Comedy. Abundantly sexualized, Mephisto approaches the boyishly dressed Renata, magically produces a large German sausage from her trousers, places it on a ready chopping block, and fries it in a pan to the accompaniment of whooping horns and a guttural tuba.

The puzzling Faustian interlude, preceding the opera’s climax, has long given musicologists pause. Suggested in Bryusov’s novel, the episode allows Prokofiev to indulge his pre-Soviet penchant for grotesquerie and visualize characters that had fascinated him since he saw Gounod’s Faust as a boy. Within the limited context of the plot, the episode estranges Ruprecht, who is whisked off by Faust and Mephisto, and Renata, who retreats to the convent. The Munich production’s exaggerated, phallus-whacking grotesquerie actually helps the logic of Prokofiev’s jumpy scenario, which originally excludes Renata from the Mephisto-Faust sequence. Here, Renata’s retreat stems not only from her disillusionment with Ruprecht but also from the trauma she suffers at the hands of Mephisto, whose magic reveals lurid, incomprehensible horror in lieu of beatific transcendence.

Unfortunately, the Munich production disappoints in the finalé, in which the nuns are not gradually demonized and stripped bare (as in the Kirov) but are clad in rags and dressed as identical, factory-issued Christs, replete with masculine masks and crowns of thorns. This is a questionable directorial choice, for at least three reasons. First, it makes the victimized nuns visually indistinguishable from the similarly costumed Grand Inquisitor (a fearsome bass role), who condemns Renata to the stake after his attempts at exorcism fail. Second, the masking obscures how Prokofiev divides the possessed nuns — whose initial prayers escalate into rapturous shrieks — into a contrapuntal six-part choir (the part-writing becomes muddled when you can’t see the singers’ lips move). Most importantly, the heavy costuming and masking more or less immobilizes the nuns, preventing them from embodying the orgiastic energies of their possessing demons. The Kirov’s nuns roll and prance in the nude, personifying a subversive eroticism; the Munich nuns, helmeted with Christs, stand in a phalanx, aligned with Inquisitor rather than with Renata.

The nuns’ Christ-masking nevertheless makes theological sense, if we accept that they attempt to unify with (or “marry”) their savior, much as Renata seeks bodily unification with Madiel, who is never actually seen. Condemned to the stake, Renata’s transmuting body reduces the subject-object binary to a delusionary unity, as she becomes the incendiary angel of her own narcissistic vision.

The Fiery Angel is not a proper tragedy, for its plot never offers Renata the slim if ultimately denied hope of freedom that the tragic hero imagines. Gripped with madness from the first scene, Renata has delusions not of freedom but of holy bondage, yet she is denied even that. However, if tragedy is hope thwarted, and if comedy is viciousness carried to its logical conclusion, The Fiery Angel could approximate tragedy and comedy in the same breath, for Renata achieves her catharsis only ironically, through a material flame that doubles for a transcendence denied.

In one of his revisions, Prokofiev considered adding a redemptive coda in which Ruprecht, aided by Mephistopheles, rescues Renata from prison, before she is to march to the stake. He ultimately scrapped the idea, firstly because it was too redolent of Gounod’s Faust, but more importantly because he wanted the opera to finish with its dramatic and musical pinnacles, with a mass of bright, cacophonous brass announcing Renata’s impending immolation. As a result, Renata remains unredeemed in the political world; as for her afterlife, we must imagine whether her demons whisk her off to hell or release her into the elusive embrace of Madiel. Mainstream American audiences weaned on the 19th century Italian school will happen upon a more mundane chance for transcendence, as they embark upon a musical trial by fire poised to elevate them above the verismo school’s pretty harmonies and alleged “realism”.

I suspect The Fiery Angel will languish in its ignominious 436th place (or thereabouts) for some time. With each new performance and production, however, it may slowly snail up the ladder, pushing past the flea-ridden operas of Mascagni, Lehár, and other third-rate composers whose stale romanticisms wilt the form. Of all under-performed 20th century operas, The Fiery Angel is perhaps best positioned to usher much-needed dissonance into the opera house. Whereas brutally atonal operas such as Schoenberg’s Moses and Aron and Zimmermann’s The Soldiers haven’t the slightest glimmer of crossover appeal, The Fiery Angel is sensational enough to coax popular audiences into moderately dissonant terrain and erotic enough to satisfy sordid desires unquenched by the repertoire’s treacly romances and tepid histories. Indeed, Prokofiev’s characteristic handling of dissonance, at once incendiary and eerily melodious, brilliantly dispels the old religion of consonance, delivering audiences from their icy operatic purgatory.