Opera on the Couch : Music, Emotional Life, and Unconscious Aspects of Mind : edited by Steven H. Goldberg and Lee Rather. Routledge (June, 2022). 238 pages.

For several years the San Francisco Centre for Psychoanalysis and the San Francisco Opera have held post performance psychoanalytically oriented talks which has led to this collection of essays. There are 14 chapters, each about a different opera and by a different author, 12 of whom are American, two from UK and mostly psychoanalysts. Several also hold music qualifications, and lecture and write about aspects of music and psychoanalysis. One contributor is a Music Professor at the Juliard School.

Goldberg identifies some different approaches to putting opera on the couch exemplified in the four chapters reviewed here. One is to view the opera as an expression of the composer’s inner life where traces of unconscious wishes, conflicts and traumas may be identified. Another is to regard characters as if they were real people leading to questions about why they behave as they do. Or they can be viewed as a myth that represents universal unconscious themes. These are often intertwined in the individual chapters reflecting the diverse backgrounds, different styles of doing therapy and interests of the contributors.

Madame Butterfly. A story of wilful refusal to face reality complicated by cultural and language misunderstandings. Premiered in 1904 this was Puccini’s own favourite among his operas. Goldberg labels his chapter ‘Sliding walls and glimpses of the Other’ where traditional Japanese sliding walls on stage are interpreted as internal defensive barriers and psychic blindness. Japan’s borders were forcibly opened by the West in 1853 and the opera opens with Pinkerton, a handsome young naval officer confident in himself and his culture, arriving in Nagasaki. He rents a house with a beautiful 15 year old Geisha, Cio Cio San known as Butterfly. They have a marriage which he considers is for convenience while planning to eventually marry a suitable American woman. Butterfly however believes this is love and marriage for life. She converts to his religion and her family disown her. So the scene is set for tragedy. The American consul Sharpless raises questions about how differently they may view this marriage, he warns Pinkerton of the harm he is causing and he tries to confront Butterfly with truths she doesn’t want to face. Pinkerton leaves Japan and Butterfly waits faithfully for his return. The humming chorus is a moment of calm while Butterfly waits for Pinkerton and when the audience sees her optimism for the last time before it is utterly shattered by the arrival of Pinkerton and his new wife. Finally facing reality she gives up her son for a better life in America and commits suicide. Now Pinkerton also sees reality and witnessing this

death he cries out her name repeatedly. This opera asks questions like how much do we want to know about ourselves and others when it risks shattering our illusions and projections? and is our understanding like the Japanese walls that we open and close to allow or prevent psychological growth? Goldberg suggests giving up her son at the end is a symbolic maturation of Butterfly in releasing her childish self. Pinkerton is set to live out his life sorrowful and wiser, his son a permanent reminder. There are no villains in this opera which as Goldberg says ‘holds up a mirror to our own capacities for misunderstanding, abuse of power, and self-serving constructions (and constrictions) of ourselves and others’ (pg109). In many ways it is an everyday tale of relationship misery writ large although it could also be understood as an allegory of (American) Imperialism.

Billy Budd – Based on a novella by Herman Melville, this opera was premiered in 1951. It was a collaboration between the composer Benjamin Britten with EM Forster and Eric Crozier. Milton Schaefer summarises it as study of envy and repression. The historical context is late 1790s when two real mutinies occurred while Britain was at war with France and ideas about freedom for all men were taking hold with Thomas Paine’s writing and the French revolution. Billy Budd who is both extraordinarily handsome and innocent was press-ganged to join the HMS Indomitable where he is hated at first sight by the master-at-arms. Claggart sings about how he cannot bear this beautiful young man and will destroy him. “O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness! Would that I never encountered you! Would that I lived in my own world always, in that depravity to which I was born… I’m doomed to annihilate you … with hate and envy I’m stronger than love…”, sung in a minor key that reinforces the dark destructive qualities of Claggart. He frames Billy for organising a mutiny but Captain Vere doesn’t believe it so Claggart is obliged to put his accusation to Billy. Unfortunately Billy has a stammer which gets worse under pressure, unable to articulate a defence he strikes Claggart inadvertently killing him. Vere orders an immediate trial and Billy is executed saying at the end ‘God Bless captain Vere’ thus forestalling a mutiny by the crew. In an epilogue we learn Vere has spent the rest of his life tormented for executing an innocent man in order to maintain order on the ship. His reflections were added to the original story to explore the depths of Vere’s conflict between law and fear vs justice and love. Schaefer says that what sparks Claggart’s hatred and envy is that Billy is the object of his repressed homosexual yearnings. Billy is also repressed and naively sees the world as only positive, denial that may have served him during an impoverished childhood. So as with Butterfly and Pinkerton we have two protagonists who have no means of understanding and seeing the other in his own selfhood. Claggart cannot

tolerate goodness and Billy cannot imagine badness. Britten and Forster were both homosexual at time when this was illegal. Schaefer suggests and I agree, this doesn’t particularly drive the opera. Britten wrote several operas depicting dark figures with homosexual overtones so I think it’s more that they could bring understanding to the original tale and flesh it out in words and wonderful music.

The Makropulos Case

Composed by Leoš Janáček and based on a play by Czech writer Karel Čapek, the main topic of the play and I think the opera too is immortality. The story goes that in 1565 Makropulos, the court physician to the Habsburg Emperor, claimed to have an elixir of life but the incredulous emperor made the physician’s daughter Elina drink it instead. The opera opens in a court room 300 years later when Emilia Marty as she is now known is fighting to regain possession of the recipe that will give her another 300 years. Her extended life has enabled her to continue developing her talent as a singer but led to apathy and a sense of cynical futility, she is uncaring about people but afraid of death. She tells the others they are happy because they could die at any moment. There is an episode in the opera in a tavern where she is recognised by a decrepit old man, a previous lover. In the production I saw they performed a kind of dance macabre, arrestingly poignant. Finally, after trying to avoid giving an explanation for her claim to the recipe she admits the truth to the lawyer who hands it over but it ends up thrown on a fire. The potion is wearing off and she lets death come, aging rapidly before the eyes of the astonished onlookers. At the end she sings ‘it is miraculous how softly death has touched me’ as her appearance softens while she dies. In contrast to my understanding of this opera Adele Tutter labels her chapter Janáček’s Eternal Feminine and views the opera as an expression of Janáček’s inner life and personal history. She identifies two sources of inspiration, first his patriotism amid the Czech National Revival which peaked in his lifetime and second his unrequited passion for Kamila Stösslová 40 years his junior whom he viewed as the love of his life and who was the model of many female roles in his later works. She also argues that “for Janáček, Stösslová embodied ‘the eternal feminine’, an archetypal cultural ideal of considerable fascination in 19th century Europe” (pg 166). My first surprised reaction to her different interpretation changed on reflection when I realised this is a perfect example of how all art is interpreted by the beholder, no one has control of its meaning often least of all the artist, and with performance art like opera, dance and theatre much depends on the interpretations of the production team too. So a good reminder for me of how widely different perceptions of the same phenomena can occur and in this case both can be true, it doesn’t have to be either/or.

The Magic Flute

Composed by Mozart with libretto by Schikaneder, Lee Rather approaches this opera as an example of “collective myth or psychodrama in which the characters symbolise aspects of ourselves” (pg 25). The plot is a surreal mix of serious, comic, romantic and magical. It has a dream quality with a rambling tale about a hero’s quest for true love and wisdom in a dangerous world. We first meet Tamino being chased by a (phallic) serpent (he also has a bow with no arrows) from which he is saved by three ladies who are in the service of the Queen of the Night whose daughter Pamina he immediately falls in love with on seeing her picture and vows to rescue her from imprisonment by a wicked sorcerer Sarastro. There is also a bird man Papageno who is given a set of magic bells by the Queen while Tamino is given a magic flute – both with protective qualities. They set off to find Sarastro only to be astonished to discover he is actually the high priest of wisdom while the Queen is a wicked woman! As in fairy stories the hero and heroine are seen overcoming trials and tribulations and the Queen is cast into darkness forever. All ends well? Rather is intrigued by this reversal half way through the opera, as I have always been, and he makes much of this in his analysis about individuation and the dramas we experience in the process. For him it is essentially a developmental story but he is dissatisfied with the ending “a tilted personality development in men and women … and the tendency toward the devaluation of women cross-culturally” (pg34) and he sees a contradiction in marginalisation of the Queen who is portrayed with greater emotional complexity than the other characters. Certainly the Queen has the best aria by miles … like the powerful Der Hölle Rache (Hellish revenge) available on youtube. Also as Rather points out, it is she who enlists other characters to guide Pamina and Tamino to Sarastro’s temple. He concludes “the Queen’s banishment … destines her to live on in the minds of the audience” where she may become integrated into what for him is a missing third act. Mozart and Schikaneder were involved in Freemasonry and the idea that music has the power to transcend human fear and hatred and lead to wisdom and enlightenment so that some claim it is best understood through this lens. Thus illustrating that “in psychoanalysis and art … the impossibility of arriving at singular or final meanings” (pg35).

This has been a fascinating and enlightening read. If you’re not already an opera lover I hope this may have piqued your interest. I look forward to the next edition!