Zombie Opera

Another guest post by the austere and infernal H. Smiggy McStudge. Take with the usual quantity of salt; that is, if you have no salt mines in your neighbourhood that are willing to make bulk deliveries, strain half a gallon of seawater through your teeth for each sentence. —T. S.

I love Wagner, but the music I prefer is that of a cat hung up by its tail outside a window and trying to stick to the panes of glass with its claws.

—Charles Beaudelaire

Professional jealousy causes artists to say some terrible things; even, in extreme cases, the truth. For the purposes of the McStudge clan, Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen marked a crucial turning-point in our age-long struggle against Art. In one or two very important ways, it foreshadowed the ultimate fate of grand opera, which was once so dangerous to us and is now so useful to our cause.

If you mention ‘high culture’ to anybody in the English-speaking world, and ask them what is the first thing that comes to mind, there is an excellent chance that they will reply: ‘Opera.’ For generations past, the opera has been the playground of the wealthy elite and the social-climbing sub-elite. I do not, of course, mean that these classes of people write or perform operas: that would be absurd. Though the snobbery and self-importance of the people who do perform operas for their benefit, I am happy to say, is equally absurd and quite real.

No, I mean that rich people and senior bureaucrats gather at palatial opera houses, not to see the opera, but to be seen as opera-goers. They dress up, to this day, in passable imitations of the clothing worn by nineteenth-century aristocrats – the closest some of them ever come to being elegant. They then spend hours of agonizing tedium brought on by music that they do not like, by acting that nobody could praise, and by singing in an artificial and constipated style, all done in a language that they do not understand and for which no translation, as a matter of etiquette, is supplied. (Only a philistine, we teach them to say, would ask what an opera means.) But during the intervals, they have the ecstasy of chattering with their fellow elite in the lobby, eating awful finger sandwiches, swilling champagne, and generally carrying on as if they were the favoured guests of Le Grand Monarque for an unusually exclusive evening at Versailles. Like the Pharisee who prayed on the street corners to be seen praying by men, they have their reward.

Now, as that pestilent man Chesterton said, people do not make up rules of etiquette because they make sense. The point of an etiquette is to be such obvious nonsense that no sane person would ever do it accidentally. There used (it was Chesterton’s favourite example) to be a rule of high society that cooked asparagus was to be eaten with the fingers. This was a disgusting and often futile thing to do, especially if the asparagus was slathered in butter or Béchamel sauce. Sensible people ate asparagus with knives and forks; only cultured and fashionable people knew that they were supposed to use their paws. The ‘white tie’ mode of evening dress, and the ‘black tie’ version that is traditionally worn to the opera, are etiquettes of this kind. Men do, as a matter of fact, look uncommonly stupid when they are dressed like a flock of penguins (or snooty French waiters), and of course there is no folly to which women will not descend when trying to look fashionable and rich. The crowds that gather in the lobby of the opera house are, strictly speaking, ridiculous in themselves. But when they do it for opera—! From the sublime to the ridiculous is not always but a step; there are times when they actually coincide.

For in its origins, opera was a fairly ‘low’ form of popular entertainment, a pastime for the sort of Italians who were neither rich enough nor snobby enough to go in for the formal theatre. There is a reason why the gondoliers in Venice, in the old times, used to sing arias whilst poling their boats along; and it is not because gondoliers were the upper crust of Venetian society. The opera was the Top 40 radio of its time; the songs of the gondoliers were the latest popular hits.

But as opera travelled across Europe, it rose in the social scale; for imported art is always a luxury, and simple people, in most times and places, used to content themselves with the domestic article, which they understood and knew how to make for themselves. The Viennese took to opera fairly naturally, the north Germans unnaturally, the French with great and mostly wasted effort. German opera was more often seria than buffa, as befitted a country of foul clammy weather and foul clammy people. Italians make their petty lives bearable by singing happy songs; Germans, by singing sad songs. The frequent German habit of invading other countries can be explained as a way of escaping from German music. French opera was stilted and artificial, like French drama; it was in that country that the art form began to appeal to snobs and dressers-up.

Then there was English opera, which, by a happy chance, did not exist at all.

There was, of course, a fad for Italian opera in London at the turn of the eighteenth century. For centuries past, the English had had a peculiar habit of madly adoring, and ineptly imitating, absolutely everything that came out of Italy, except the Papacy. You can see the mania working in Shakespeare’s comedies, with their unspeakable Italian names and impossible Italian geography. But the ‘Englishman Italianate’ reached his limit with opera. For a year or two, Farinelli, the famous castrato, performed to packed houses in London, and sponged up nearly all the gold in the country for his troubles.

Then the bubble burst. For the English do not sing songs to make their petty lives bearable; the only thing bearable about an English song is the moment when it stops. What the English do instead is tell jokes. So at the very moment when Farinelli’s triumph seemed complete, a person named Gay, a notorious Englishman (to say nothing of his other crimes), published and performed a thing called The Beggar’s Opera, which was not an opera at all, but which his fellow Englishmen found uproariously funny. This charivari or shindy became the ancestor of the English operetta, and the music hall, and the Christmas pantomime, and the West End or Broadway musical, and despite our very best efforts, that whole tradition is not quite dead yet. But from the moment that London began singing John Gay’s songs in the streets, opera in England has been quite dead. It would not be too much to call it stillborn.

A stillborn art form, for our excellent purposes, is even better than one that has died of natural causes. For art forms are not like men; they sometimes come back to life. When the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, we compensated ourselves for part of that loss by killing the drama stone dead, and burying it at a crossroads with a stake through its heart; but a thousand years later, it rose from the grave, cast off its shrouds, and began to speak again in all the vernaculars of Europe. Opera in Italy, its native land, has that kind of zombie quality. No matter how often you kill it there, it will always come back, because it is a genuine part of Italian civilization, and has an honest place in the heart of the people. You would think the Italians could get by without it. Songs are superfluous to an Italian; you cannot speak Italian without breaking into music. But the natural zest and enthusiasm of the Italian, which we have tried to hard to expunge, keep playing with that damnable language and its damnable music, and opera, or something like it, springs up spontaneously every time we think we have damped it down.

In the English-speaking countries, however, opera was always alien. It was an acquired taste, and an expensive one to acquire; for most of its history, the only people who could afford it were the sort of people who could also afford to dress like penguins and peacocks. If the English had been able to understand Italian or even German, we might not have made opera the etiquette or fetish that it became. Fortunately, the English are the world’s most stubborn monoglots. They can with some difficulty be induced to learn French, and a few of them used to manage Latin; but English mouths are the laziest in Europe, and they never do learn to speak any language really well. The only thing more foul to the ear than an average Englishman trying to speak Italian is an average Englishman trying to speak English.

So when we reintroduced opera to England for its snob value, we had the enormous advantage of selling it to people who could not understand a solitary word of it. Most operas, Italian ones especially, are far too silly and insubstantial and populist ever to qualify as High Art. You might be bored at an opera, but never perplexed or mystified – if you can understand the words. So equipped, you can give a bad opera the hearty horse-laugh it deserves, and appreciate a good opera as the solid lowbrow entertainment it was intended to be. It is only those who don’t know the language that can be fooled into taking it seriously.

Wagner, as I mentioned earlier, marks an inflection point. For the Germans themselves, the Ring cycle is a loving expression of their ancestral Weltanschauung, a musical tribute to Germanic paganism and the Germanic ethos, with all the Sturm und Drang that the most hysterical or lachrymose Teuton could ask for. But to those who don’t know German, it becomes an Intellectual Achievement; and the self-important ‘cultured’ people of Europe and America worship it, without having any notion what their idol is made of. To the non-German ear, a typical passage from Wagner sounds like a voice from Valhalla, lamenting the downfall of mankind and the twilight of the gods. But what is actually going on is that a fat little dwarf is banging on an anvil and singing words to this approximate effect: ‘I am making a sword, look, I am making a sword, it will be very sharp, I am going to find someone to stick it in the dragon’s guts because I hate him. Dragons are bad, and swords are sharp, and I am making a sword.’ This is why it is a rule that only a philistine would ask for a translation of an opera. Only a philistine could appreciate it.

As it happens, opera – I mean the writing of operas, not the performing of them, which continues more or less unabated – died as a creative form in the early twentieth century, through no fault of its own; and, I am sad to say, through no fault of ours. Not even Wagner could accomplish that. It was the movies that crippled it, and the talkies that killed it stone dead. Until about 1900, opera was the queen of the popular arts; it combined every kind of talent and entertainment in one – poetry, music, drama, visual art (in the set designs), costumery – a cunning impresario could even work sculpture into the act. But all these talents were required by the film business, and more richly rewarded; because a single performance of an opera cannot really be enjoyed by more than two or three thousand people at a sitting, but a performance on film can be enjoyed by millions. The opera house was not big enough for Cecil B. DeMille; but DeMille hired thousands of people to make his movies who might have done stellar work in the opera house instead. Now, of course, it is film that is the queen of the arts, though video games are trying their best to filch the crown. Opera has become a museum piece. And if there is one thing that a McStudge truly loves, it is a museum piece.

Do not be confused. I don’t mean that we McStudges approve when people visit museums. In fact, we have spent a lot of time putting out propaganda about how dull and boring museums are; and just to be on the safe side, we encourage the museums to take their best exhibits and ‘de-accession’ them, so that the public won’t get the benefit of them even if they wander in by accident. So far, we have kept the masses out of the museums, except for odd circus acts like the travelling King Tut exhibitions. Actually, we rather like King Tut. He is dead, hopelessly dead, so dead that he will never get up and walk again; which is just how we like our art. He is so dead that there is no chance of his ever influencing anybody, changing how people live their lives or how they see the world. It is wonderful that people go to see him instead of looking at any of the interesting and vivid stuff the museums have on display. For us, he has been an invaluable decoy.

In much the same way, we use the snob-value of the opera, the penguins and peacocks quaffing cocktails in the lobby, as a decoy to keep those people away who might actually enjoy opera and get spiritual nourishment from it. They can’t afford to go, and if they could, they would soon grow tired of being cut by the snobs. One day, the zombie that is opera could come back to actual life. If anybody opens up an opera house where the tickets are cheap and people are encouraged to come in their blue jeans, we shall be in real danger. But until then, the opera serves a multitude of socially useful purposes.

Most of the people who go to the opera to be seen are, as I have said, abjectly bored by the performance. They get no good out of the show, and encourage other people to believe that there is no good to be had. They think obsessively about themselves – no, not about themselves, about their personas: their reputation, their image, their pride of place among all the other reputations and images that infest the opera house. People outside of the charmed circle look at the fools within it and call them stuffed shirts. I am happy to say that they are often right: for there are few more desolating uses to which a human being can be put than stuffing a shirt. Partly this is an honest reaction to the stupidity of modern opera-going, but we have managed to contaminate it with the spirit of envy – the envy of the poor for the rich, of the obscure for the famous, and above all, the envy of outsiders for those in the Inner Ring. We have corrupted thousands of people by making them forget their natural tastes in drama and music and take up opera-going as a way of seeking status. We have damaged millions by making them forget their honest aesthetic dislike of the opera ‘scene’ and attribute their distaste to class hatred.

It is this last function, this political purpose of the stillborn or zombie opera, that gives us McStudges the greatest delight. The governments of Europe, even those that describe themselves as liberal or conservative, are all Socialist by training and instinct: not the robust and deadly Socialism of Lenin, but the Socialism-and-water of the modern Left, which kills by a thousand paper cuts instead of one swift bullet to the brain. Another of those pestilent honest men, Orwell, gave away the secret of this kind of Socialism; fortunately, nobody was listening. A Socialist politician, he said, is a man who is chosen to fight the bourgeoisie and ends by becoming bourgeois himself. Not only while fighting the bourgeoisie, but by fighting them: that is the touch we love to see.

So we teach the masses of Europe to hate ‘capitalists’, thinking of them as cartoon figures, wicked rich men in evening dress who gobble caviare and go to the opera; and then we train Socialist politicians and bureaucrats to gobble caviare at the opera in the name of ‘culture’! They become the living symbols of the ancien régime that they were elected to destroy; and we can keep the mass of the people in a vague state of sullen class-hatred without having to supply any actual capitalists at all. The real capitalists, in such a society, are too busy working and making money to go to the opera, and anyway they are stubborn people and only listen to music that they actually like. A bullet to the brain is too good for them. They deserve to die slowly, preferably by tax audits.

Furthermore, by packing the house with politicians and bureaucrats, we enlist exactly the section of society that is most philistine by instinct, the most conformist, the least creative, and we put them in charge of seeing that operas continue to be performed. For the price of admission, steep as it is, does not begin to cover the cost of producing an opera, let alone the cost of maintaining the crumbling mausoleum in which it is performed. Covent Garden, for instance, had to be rebuilt at crushing expense in the 1990s, and then all the money sunk into it had to be justified by continuing to put on operas there. ‘Funding for the arts’ is a major swindle in all Western governments today; and it consists largely of robbing the taxpayer of millions to support dead art forms that the bureaucrats themselves merely pretend to like. To quote Sir Humphrey Appleby, the quintessential bureaucrat from Yes, Minister: ‘Subsidy isn’t for what the people want. It’s for what they don’t want but ought to have!’ And this becomes at once a privilege for the elites to cling to, and a symbol of privilege for the masses to resent.

It goes without saying that these subsidized opera companies produce nothing that is not shoddy, conventional, and banal. The subsidy that keeps them functioning also robs them of any real creative power. ‘If you want a job done well, give it to a committee of politicians’ – said nobody, ever, in the whole of human history. This is why I am a lifelong and convinced Socialist. Lenin and Mao wrecked their countries in a few months, by shooting everyone who actually knew how to make anything or run anything. The modern method is slower, but just as sure in the long run, and a lot more fun to watch. Put the capable people under the management of politically appointed committees, and watch them die slowly as their masters tell them to do impossible things for a purpose that nobody actually wants accomplished. It is the purest form of delight that this world can offer to a McStudge.

It will be objected, no doubt, that the opera is after all a small thing; that there are not enough seats in all the opera houses for a tenth of the social climbers and shiny-bottomed civil servants who keep the ramshackle machinery of modern society running as badly as it does. This is true; and this is why, having perfected our method with the opera, we McStudges have been busy turning all the higher arts (and some of the popular ones) into faithful replicas of the original zombie. It was a simple matter to zombify the symphony. When all the talented composers began writing for the films, we taught the orchestras and their audiences to despise ‘film music’ and play only ‘real music’: by which we meant atonal finger exercises, wholly unlistenable, written by the third-rate talents who were left behind. What we did with painting and jazz, I have discussed earlier. We destroyed sculpture by teaching the arts councils that the word statue meant ‘five tons of scrap metal welded into no discernible shape’. Most artists don’t like welding scrap metal, and no members of the public like looking at it; but just try getting a grant to make anything else, and you will appreciate the soul-deep cosmic despair with which we have filled the heart of every honest sculptor.

Every one of these zombie arts has its own little legion of ‘patrons’ and ‘supporters’, meaning the bureaucrats who dole out the subsidy and the educated fools who signal their social status by pretending to like the result. We have a thousand flavours of asparagus now, a thousand silly shibboleths that people use to prove their membership in the Upper Crust and the Inner Ring. We have crowded real art and real invention out of the ‘high’ arts almost entirely, and spilled over into the popular arts with every prospect of eventual success. In the end we shall reduce all the arts to social noise. We shall eliminate the aesthetic response from the human brain, and replace it with an endless clamour of vanity and snobbery, competition for status, competition for funding, ego clashing against ego without rhythm or reason, for ever and ever. We shall make Art a living image of Hell. We have come so near it already—

But there is one particular art that requires special handling, because it can never quite be divorced from the terrible concept of meaning. A hideous sculpture or talentless painting ‘means’ whatever the artist chooses to scrawl on the ‘statement’ posted beside it, which is the same as meaning nothing at all. Nobody would buy a motorcar so badly built that the dealer had to put up a sign beside it saying, THIS IS A CAR. But people (and governments) will spend millions for art that fails completely at communicating anything, so that the Artist’s Statement is the only intelligible thing in sight. However, there is one art that carries its own Artist’s Statement – that consists of the statement. That art is literature; and the proper method of dealing with that, I am sad to say, is too complex and delicate to be dragged in at the tail end of an essay such as this. I shall therefore leave you as before, to stew in your own ignorance.

   H. Smiggy McStudge


  1. “For the purposes of the McStudge clan, Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen marked a crucial turning-point in our age-long struggle against Art. In one or two very important ways, it foreshadowed the ultimate fate of grand opera”

    Excuse me, but why did that particular opera mark a turning-point, and in what way(s) did it foreshadow the fate of opera? I apologize if you already answered, but I didn’t see the answer in the essay.

    • The trouble is simply that Smiggy wrote that bit, but gassed on so pointlessly (and in the wrong place) that I marked it for cutting and never did get a short version to put in the proper place.

      The answer to your question is that Der Ring was an opera officially admired even by people who entirely disliked it; and it marked the point at which opera ceased being music to listen to (or sing while poling gondolas) and started being music to show off one’s superior knowledge of. I shall roust the McStudge from beneath his rock and get him to fix.

  2. On the subject of English-language musica theatre, what does Mr. McStudge think of the works of William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan?

    • I have brought your question to the attention of the McStudge, and he has replied:

      Gilbert and Sullivan are vile, unspeakably vile, incorrigibly vile. They fulfil all the essential functions of opera, but do it in an English idiom accessible to the people, whom we particularly wanted to be left in the dark. What is worse, they laugh at their betters; they are witty and satirical at the expense of the solemn goofs and titled incompetents that were (and are) set over the suffering race of Englishmen. It is hard enough at the best of times to get anyone to take an English aristocrat seriously, but Gilbert and Sullivan have made it flatly impossible. The only saving grace is that they are dead, dead and enshrined, and the Arts Councils have made them into a shibboleth. With every year that goes by, their works inch closer to the zombie condition to which we have so incessantly laboured to reduce all of the arts. Meanwhile, a pox on them, and on all who actually understand them and enjoy them!

  3. I was hoping to hear about Gilbert & Sullivan myself. Otherwise, this post is a thing of beauty and I would not mar it with further comments.

    • Patrick says

      “and I would not mar it with further comments.”

      See? I told you, this really is the natural response of mortals to your essays.

  4. Joe Katzman says

    These McStudge essays are great. They touch on a topic – art and beauty – which is greatly under-appreciated, and where rebellion is not just welcome, but necessary.

    I’m glad Gerard sent me here, and look forward to more from our Q-list pseudonym. It will be interesting to see if his “why” matches mine.

  5. Opera can be pretty ridiculous if you actually know what’s going on, though the music is quite beautiful if there’s a decent orchestra and a trained singer to perform it. And quite often the costumes and sets are amazing.
    The really funny thing is that I happen to know a town that would strike fear into any proper McStudge, where people really are invited to come to the opera in their jeans, and the cheap seats are indeed cheap; even a poor student like me can afford a ticket or two. Even worse, this town has a program of free concerts in the summer, and each week one day is set aside for the opera company; they perform selections from whatever they please, be it Gilbert and Sullivan or Wagner or the latest movie music. Though perhaps I shouldn’t advertise this, since some McStudge or other might get wind of all the merry music-making going on here and try to shut it down.
    Thanks for this essay; it made me laugh and also has the virtue of being all too true.

    • You’re welcome, and thanks for the comment!

      If you don’t mind my asking, what town is that? I promise not to tell Smiggy.

      • It’s in Cache Valley in northern Utah, where the Utah Festival Opera operates. There is a local county tax that helps support the arts, but for the most part the opera does well enough on its own; I suppose that it helps that we have a thriving music program at the local university, so plenty of local talent.

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