English 170

Literature and the Arts: Opera and Literary Form

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Fall 2020 Duncan, Ian
TTh 12:30-2


Opera and Literary Form

"An exotic and irrational entertainment" (Samuel Johnson). Invented in Renaissance Italy as a revival of classical Greek drama, opera became a major European art form, interacting dynamically with literary and philosophical genres. Attending to opera’s hybrid, multimedia status – as a dramatic as well as a musical form – the course will consider a series of major works produced between 1787 and 1935 in relation to the literary genres they invoke (lyric, epic, comedy, tragedy, novel, film); to philosophical debates they generated; and/or to major models, sources, and subsequent adaptations. We will attend to questions of translation not only across languages (especially vexed in the case of Eugene Onegin) but also across genres and media (Pushkin's Onegin is a “novel in verse,” Tchaikovsky's, “lyric scenes in three acts”).  If there's an overarching theme or topic across our readings, it is opera's staging of the relations between eros and empire – contending fantasies of desire, freedom, power and bondage – in an era of bourgeois ascendancy and imperial decline. Opera’s tutelary erotic demons, masculine and feminine, are Don Giovanni (at one end of our chronology) and Lulu (at the other); and if Verdi’s Falstaff stages a comic redemption of Mozart’s hell-bound libertine, our other works exalt the operatic heroine in her struggle with the bonds of family and marriage (Lucia, Tatiana, Sieglinde, Brünnhilde, Isolde…)

We’ll study Don Giovanni (Da Ponte/Mozart) in relation to its Romantic reception and literary and philosophical revisions (E.T.A. Hoffmann, Kierkegaard, T.W. Adorno); Donizett's Lucia di Lammermoor and its source, Walter Scott’s romantic historical novel The Bride of Lammermoor; Pushkin’s versus Tchaikovsky’s versions of Eugene Onegin; national myth, epic, tragedy and the "total artwork" in Wagner's The Valkyrie /OR/ Tristan and Isolde and "the music of the future" (readings from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche); Verdi’s Falstaff and other remediations of Shakespeare’s great comic character; Berg’s Lulu and the contemporaneous forms of cabaret-opera (Brecht/Weil, The Threepenny Opera) and silent film (G.W. Pabst, Pandora’s Box).  We will also attend and discuss at least one of the San Francisco Opera’s fall season productions (Mozart’s Così fan tutte; maybe also Beethoven’s Fidelio). Technical musical knowledge, or even prior acquaintance with opera, is not expected (let alone required); however one of our collective tasks will be figuring out how to talk seriously about the music in the absence of musicological expertise. You will be required to watch/listen to each of the operas (audio files and video streaming to be provided on b-Courses) as well as keep up with the literary, philosophical and critical readings.

Our operatic case studies: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Don Giovanni; Giuseppe Verdi, Falstaff; Gaetano Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor; Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, Yevgeni Onegin; Richard Wagner, Die Walküre OR Tristan und Isolde; Alban Berg, Lulu. Opera texts (libretti and musical scores) will be made available on b-Courses, along with most of our literary, critical and philosophical readings, except for Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor and an English version of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which will be available from University Press Books.

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