Opera and the Amorous Initiation

Temenos: a Review Dedicated to the Arts of the Imagination, was Kathleen Raine’s response to the reductionist philosophy and the glorification of ugliness in the arts on the part of Britain’s chattering classes. Most contributors to Temenos, and probably most readers, were either poets or schooled in literature, comparative religion, or the visual arts. This essay on opera, written in 1990, tries to integrate it with their interests, without presuming any technical knowledge of music.

As the last-born child of the Italian Renaissance, opera has always been one of the brightest stars in the constellation of Western culture. Of all the performing arts, it demands the most extravagant and variegated productions, calling on the resources of stage-design and machinery, costume, lighting, poetry, declamation, dramatic incident, dancing, vocal and instrumental music. But to what end? The superficial reason is obviously to create an alternative reality, and to make it as convincing as possible to the audience. In this regard, opera is the forerunner of the cinema; but only as one might call painting the forerunner of colour photography. The real justification for it, and for the enthusiasm and controversy it caused for three centuries, is that opera has always been concerned with archetypes. Like painting and sculpture, it presents them to the eye; like drama, it works them out in dynamic form; and to these opera adds the tremendous subliminal influence of music, to entrance the mind and mould the emotions in sympathy with these creatures of the Imagination. Its sole rival was the ritual of the Catholic Church, which acknowledged the power of the secular form by shamelessly aping its musical styles. Certainly opera could on occasion draw the audience into a kind of mystic participation, not resembling the Mass, perhaps, so much as the sacred drama enacted at the Eleusinian Mysteries. After an immersal of three or four hours in an altered state of consciousness, some might find themselves indelibly marked by the experience, while none would easily forget it. Such a meeting with the archetypes is an initiation, a milestone on one’s journey through psychological integration to spiritual realization.

Among previous writers, the Rosicrucian Max Heindel has made some of these points in Mysteries of the Great Operas, but his book is now rather dated in its approach and its information. In a more sophisticated way, the musicologist Robert Donington has pursued the theme of Jungian individuation in his Wagner’s Ring and its Symbols, and traced the mythological themes of seventeenth-century opera in The Rise of Opera, a work that admirably combines scholarship with intuition. The mass of initiatic, esoteric, and occult interpretations that have been made of Wagner’s work beggars description; likewise, the Freemasonry in Mozart’s The Magic Flute has called forth half a dozen books. The following pages treat, of necessity, a very small number of operas, suggesting ideas that can be applied (or rejected) according to the reader’s knowledge and taste.

Opera did not evolve gradually, but was deliberately invented at the end of the sixteenth century by a club of Florentine gentlemen-scholars, the Camerata, in an attempt to revive the powers of music to which ancient legends attest. Being, after its fashion, a scientific academy, the Camerata needed an experimental forum in which to produce the works that embodied its theories, and this was provided by the conventions of royal and aristocratic ceremony. Already in 1589, during the Florentine nuptials of Ferdinando de’ Medici and Princess Christine de Lorraine, certain mythological stories had been represented in music, scenery, and dancing, in a way that closely anticipated the coming form. The future creators of opera, Peri, Caccini, and Striggio, were among the soloists in these Intermedii: scenes given before, after, and in between the acts of a spoken play (La Pellegrina), without having any thematic connection with it. They were presented with the maximum of illusionary skill in the courtyard of the Pitti Palace in Florence. No expense was spared to show the Descent of Harmony from the Empyrean; the battle of Apollo with Python; the rescue of Arion by the dolphin, and other myths, set to music for soloists, multiple choruses, and a large and varied orchestra.

The Intermedii of 1589 seem to have had motivations beyond the obvious requirements of the occasion. The representation of Platonic harmony in the first scene, where the celestial beings (Necessity, Fates, Sirens, the planets, Astraea) are brought to life, clustered around the cosmic spindle, was perhaps intended as a conjuration, bringing down heavenly order and harmony to Florence and its rulers. Dame Frances Yates (in The Valois Tapestries) has suggested how, in a similar vein, the Valois court of France may have enacted quasi-magical ceremonies in the outward guise of court festivals. The Intermedio showing the conquest of the Delphic Python by Apollo was just as fitting, invoking upon the Grand Duke Ferdinand the virtues of the Sun God: warrior, patron of music, lawgiver and oracle. Finally, the opening of the first Intermedio by the song of Harmony, and the episode of Arion’s charming the dolphin with a virtuoso aria, related to the Camerata’s investigation into the powers of music to reform character and control mind and body. It was music that made the whole magical process possible, infusing the incantatory words with the power of sound; which in the Pythagorean and Platonic tradition embodies the same numerical laws as soul and cosmos obey.

It was inevitable that the stories of several early operas had to do with this power. Jacopo Peri’s and Giulio Caccini’s twin operas Eurydice (1600), both composed to Ottavio Rinuccini’s libretto, set the theme by choosing the myth of Orpheus. So did Claudio Monteverdi’s more famous Orfeo (1607), on a libretto of Alessandro Striggio the Younger, in which the operatic genre was consolidated and defined, once and for all, by a musical genius. With these Orphic operas, attention turns from objective spectacle and civic magic into the realm of the individual. No longer the stunned witnesses to a gorgeously staged ceremony, the audience now identifies with the fortunes of Orpheus as he loses and regains his feminine soul. Since these operas were all written for weddings, the story had to have a happier ending than the various fates suffered by the bereaved hero in classical myth (and in Striggio’s drama as separately published). In Rinuccini’s libretto, he descends to Hades ‘armed only with his lyre’, and simply brings Eurydice back, to general rejoicing. Nevertheless, this is sufficient to symbolize the fall of the soul, its rescue by a saviour demigod, and its reinstatement in original bliss. On another level, but no less truthfully, it displays in a pre-psychological manner the establishment of an active relationship with the Anima that is essential to the integration of the male personality. Orpheus would have found this much more difficult if he had not already been a prophetic poet and musician.

Monteverdi’s Orfeo takes the plot further than those earliest operas, staging Orpheus’s failure and the second death of Eurydice, which from her standpoint is final. The hero alone remains for the happy ending, as he is taken up to Heaven by his father Apollo, who promises him that now he can enjoy Eurydice’s image in the stars. Robert Donington says cannily that this represents the transition to the direct perception of the feminine archetype, which Orpheus had formerly projected onto his wife. For the Neoplatonists of Monteverdi’s time, it would probably have been expressed as the passage from profane to sacred love, or from the contemplation of corporeal to that of intelligible beauty. Under any interpretation, the Orphic myth concerns the destiny of a single figure and does not grant Eurydice any separate identity.

The case is quite different in Monteverdi’s two late operas, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (1640) and L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1642). Here the principal woman is fully as active as the man, and important in her own right, not just as a fragment of his being. Whereas in Orfeo, the Muse of Song, Apollo, and even Pluto cooperated with the hero and furthered his fortunes, in the late operas, as in Homer, the gods are a quarrelsome lot who only make more trouble for humans. Plato and Ficino, godfathers of the early, mythological opera, would scarcely have approved of these paeans to profane love. But they were written for the public, not for the cognoscenti; they had to pay their way; and, as everyone knows, the way art appeals to the public is through sex.

The libretto of L’Incoronazione di Poppea was written by Giovanni Busanello, a member of the Accademia degli Incogniti, a group of Venetian freethinkers who cultivated a secular philosophy and held that pleasure was the only certain good. This least moral of great operas shows the adulterous passion of Poppea and the Emperor Nero riding roughshod over her husband, his wife, and Nero’s philosophic adviser Seneca, until in the last scene they celebrate their union in a duet of exquisite tenderness. It is a puzzle why so noble a composer as Monteverdi should have agreed to set a story about such wicked people, and should have made them so sympathetic through the beauty of his music. I see him in his old age (he was 74 when he wrote Poppea) as a wise humanist who, having seen much and suffered much in the course of his life, felt that the mutual love of man and woman was the one unassailable value in a corrupt and hypocritical world.

At any event, the marriage of Animus and Anima is the constant theme of Baroque opera, serious and comic alike. Here pagan mythology survived, with all its profound psychological insights; here the gods, heroes and heroines of classical legend came to life in defiance of their Christian conquerors—so much so, that in Italy, the libretto would carry a disclaimer to the effect that the author had no truck with these pagan beliefs in Fate, the gods, etc., but was a good Catholic. Then he was free to exploit the psychological truths embodied in polytheism, and to show his characters motivated by every good or evil impulse without having to conform to Christian ideas of virtue and vice; while as the mainspring of their activity he used sexuality, in all its noble and ignoble forms. For musical and mythological reasons, women play as important a part as men in these dramas, wielding an influence that they seldom enjoyed in society. Sexual ambivalence is rife in the multiple travesties, disguises, and in the regular casting of men (the Castrati) in female roles, and women in male ones. And above all, there was the spectacular element, which made the designer of scenery and machines often the highest-paid contributor to the enterprise. It was his illusionary skill that, like the conjuration of a magus, summoned the archetypal beings and their worlds into sensible existence.

Baroque opera went far to compensate for the psychological shortcomings of its time, notably for the imbalance between masculine and feminine, and for the Church’s equivocal attitude towards sexuality. The opera house, like the early cinema in puritanical America, was an escape-valve for repressed emotions, but also an education of the soul. The theme of love and woman’s worth needs constant reiteration in a culture suffering from hypertrophy of the masculine values of power and possession. Can one call this role of Baroque opera initiatic? Yes, if one can appreciate the importance of educating the public mind through symbolic images, and accept that loving and mutual sexual delight is likely to be the summum bonum of most mortals and their closest glimpse of the transcendent.

Of Mozart’s most successful operas, three of them have plots (and music) saturated with sexual feeling: Così fan’ tutte, The Marriage of Figaro, and Don Giovanni. The latter work, however, heralds a new philosophic seriousness. Its black humour apart, the Don’s career shows the negative side of the obsessive pursuit of transcendence though orgasm, sundering it from what most of us recognize as love. Figures like Don Giovanni or Aleister Crowley may become supermen, of a sort, but if they refuse the opportunity to ‘repent’, that is, to move to a further stage of development, their end is unenviable: they will continue in the grip of insatiable desire.

The Magic Flute goes further still, continuing where the operas of happy union leave off. It teaches that once the bond of love is secure, a further initiation is attainable by ‘Wife and man, striving for the divine’. I have written elsewhere on the multiple levels on which this Singspiel can be interpreted. Here I would link it to that stream of the Western esoteric tradition in which spiritual progress is made by a couple rather than by an individual. I would point to the practice in laboratory alchemy of working as a pair, the alchemist with his soror mystica like Nicholas and Pernelle Flamel, who achieved the Great Work in the fourteenth century; later, with the sexual alchemy that is hinted at in the works and life of Thomas Vaughan. Contemporary with Mozart, we have the figure of Alessandro Cagliostro, founder of the Egyptian Rite of Freemasonry, in whose life-story his wife Serafina plays so important a role; and, in contrast, the Comte de Saint-Germain as representative of the alternative path of solitary initiation and celibate life.

With The Magic Flute, opera transcends the psychological and attains the spiritual level for perhaps the first time since Orfeo. Mozart’s music, like Monteverdi’s, is not merely the representation of emotions or ‘affects’ (which is all that Baroque music ever pretended to be), but the authentic depiction of spiritual realities that lie beyond emotion. Because the mythology of The Magic Flute is drawn from Egyptian Freemasonry, not from Christianity or Neoplatonism, the protagonists are not obliged to choose between sacred and profane love. The initiation of Tamino and Pamina is as if Orpheus and Eurydice had been taken up to Olympus together. One flaw alone remains, in the too facile equation of the feminine with darkness and evil (the Queen of the Night). This would be redressed in the following century.

With Mozart, the torch of operatic development passed from Italy to the German-speaking domains. Nineteenth-century opera continued to offer its audience the vision of an alternative reality, and subtly to propose alternative values to those dominant in ordinary life, but with a keener awareness of the evolutionary (or devolutionary) movement that was gradually affecting the whole of the West. Some of the greatest works were concerned less with individuals than with making a symbolic statement about civilization and its ills, with the chosen symbol that of Woman as man’s redeemer. Beethoven’s Fidelio has Leonore heroically rescuing Florestan from his prison and certain death. In Weber’s Der Freischütz it is Agathe who rescues Max. In those French tributes to the German mind, Gounod’s Faust and Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, the roles of Orpheus and Eurydice are reversed: it is Marguerite who, having failed in the attempt to save her lover, is taken to heaven by angels. The culmination comes with Wagner, in the self-sacrificing heroines of The Flying Dutchman (Senta), Tannhäuser (Elizabeth), Tristan und Isolde (Isolde), Die Götterdämmerung (Brünnhilde), and even, in a way, Parsifal (Kundry).

It would be very naive to cling to a single interpretation of these or any other works, and my suggestions are not meant to be exclusive. In one respect, they all symbolize the grace offered to the Ego (the hero), by the higher Self (the heroine). The initiation, here represented as death, is to a state of existence where Ego and Self are united. On another level, the initiation in such works is no longer that of the individual, as in Orfeo, nor of the couple, as in The Magic Flute, but of a whole civilization in need of redemption. One is faced with the question of whether Nature (the woman) will have to be sacrificed, along with the human race (the man), in order for a fresh start to be made.

Only Wagner had sufficient staying-power both to ask this question and to answer it. In The Ring of the Nibelung, the ruler of the world, Wotan, is taken through a painful process of education as he discovers that his vaunted rule is based on duplicity and sustained by his refusal of feminine feeling and wisdom. He is the allegory of many a successful middle-aged man, as also of the Personal God of exoteric religion. When the initiative passes to Wotan’s grandson Siegfried—that is, when mankind stops believing that a personal god runs the world, and takes responsibility into its own hands—the gift is squandered through the youngster’s arrogance, his betrayal of love, and finally by his failure to grasp the seriousness of the situation. Siegfried dies, as our civilization may well deserve to die for identical errors. But the cosmic order is restored by Brünnhilde—now no longer a goddess, but a mortal woman—, leaving as a legacy her example of self-sacrificing love: the only hope, Wagner suggests, in a world where the gods are dead.

Wagner’s Ring is a prophetic work, showing what may be the end of our world if we do not heed its message. But Wagner was not entirely a pessimist, and he offers two alternative endings to the story of our epoch. In Die Meistersinger von Nüremberg, Hans Sachs acts with an integrity and selflessness that Wotan never attained, and thereby enables the little world of Nüremberg to be saved: not through religion, but through an art that unites (in the words of the Prize Song) ‘Parnassus and Paradise’. In Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, the hero is like Siegfried reincarnated: but this time he does make the right choices, does develop compassion, and is thereby enabled to restore the plan on earth.

Jacques Chailley has shown in his book Parsifal, Opéra initiatique how much of the symbolism of this drama and its music comes from high-grade Freemasonry, especially the Rose-Croix degree. Wagner built his house ‘Wahnfried’ next door to the headquarters of German Freemasonry (now the Masonic Museum) in Bayreuth, and it was his wish that Parsifal should never be performed outside his own opera-house there. He called the work not an opera but a Bühnenweihfestspiel (‘Festival play for the dedication of a theatre’). In view of Wagner’s expressed admiration for the drama of the Greeks, and for the social and spiritual order that he believed the Greek theatre to have brought to the populace, one might see the history of magical opera as having come full circle with his last work. Parsifal is an enactment of the possible and hoped-for destiny of the human race, intended to be celebrated in a quasi-religious atmosphere in the capital of German Freemasonry. Just as the Florentine Intermedii and the Valois festivals conjured celestial influences by the time-honored magical method of imitation, and just as the Rosicrucians, also active around 1600, worked subtly for the renewal of the world, so Parsifal is the legacy of a man who truly believed that his creative work might be the seed which would blossom into a new age.

An extraordinary number of people in occult circles thought that a new age was beginning between 1879 and 1882, the period of Parsifal. But in retrospect, it seems implausible. The message and the challenge of Parsifal have not yet been superseded, or even emulated. Most of Puccini’s operas, which are by far the most popular post-Wagnerian works, also end with the death of the heroine, but the intention is not philosophical or redemptive: just a sadistic squeezing of every last drop of emotion from the characters. There are exquisite beauties on the way, but at the end they leave a nasty taste in sensitive mouths.

The operas that now delve deepest are those that depict the human being, or the human race, in its abandonment. Much of the vileness of modern art and music is excused as being an authentic expression of this condition. Opera has escaped the worst excesses of the cult of ugliness, presumably because so expensive an art-form needs to keep its audience happy, and retain the loyalty of its singers. On the other hand, these very demands have stood in the way of its development and virtually excluded most modern works from entering the regular repertory—hence from affecting the collective psyche. It may be true that the cinema has now taken the place of opera (and other arts) as the vehicle for collective initiation and education. All but the sternest elitists will agree that film, television, and the video cassette recorder are among the best friends opera has ever had. But I will mention a handful of modern works, accepted masterpieces all, in which music of superlative craftsmanship and emotional strength supports a message of deepest pessimism.

Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1893-7), on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck, shows at its most obvious level the human soul (Mélisande) falling into incarnation and marriage with the body (Golaud), then meeting and falling in love with the higher Self or Spirit (Pelléas). But the ending is not a happy one, as the Spirit is withdrawn again and Soul is left to live out its bereavement. Even its immortality is in doubt. No work more accurately or poignantly reflects the temper of its time, and of two intensely sensitive creators whose esoteric awareness never quite overcame their natural agnosticism. Debussy and Maeterlinck stand for a host of French intellectuals who haunt the antechambers of initiation.

Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (1917-21) is still more pessimistic than Pelléas, for the suffering of its hero, or anti-hero, is almost unrelieved. Yet one does not have the feeling that Berg, like Puccini, has exploited his characters. Wozzeck arouses compassion, in one of the most soul-shaking experiences that the opera-house can provide. The climax of the work, and the only extended passage in which Berg abandons atonality for tonality, is the orchestral threnody that commemorates Marie’s murder and Wozzeck’s suicide. Berg’s message comes through with heart-rending clarity: that these trodden beetles of the human race are no less precious, their deaths no less tragic, than those of any emperor or martyr. Still more: Wozzeck is about the inexplicable evil that besets the human race, written as with clairvoyant vision at the very time when the ending of one world war was sowing the seeds of another.

By the 1990s it should be obvious that the lesson of compassion contributes far more to spiritual growth than astral journeys or the acquisition of psychic powers; and Wozzeck is only the greatest of the twentieth-century operas that have taken this as their theme. Several of the others are by Benjamin Britten, whose first opera Peter Grimes (1944–5) is still, with reason, the public’s favourite. Britten leaves us in no doubt that Grimes’s tormented life is precious; in place of Berg’s threnody, there is Grimes’s key aria (words by Montagu Slater):

Now the Great Bear and Pleiades, where earth moves,

Are drawing up the clouds of human grief,

Breathing solemnity in the deep night.

Who can decipher in storm or starlight

The written character of a friendly fate?

Peter Grimes shows himself more cosmically attuned and philosophically inclined than anyone in his community. The passionate question with which he ends this song, ‘Who, who, who shall turn skies back and begin again?’ is the question of modern mankind. But it is too late for the return to innocence, and too bad for those who, like Wozzeck or Grimes, Billy Budd or Owen Wingrave (to mention two other of Britten’s heroes), do not fit in with their cruelly virtuous fellows. Grimes shares with the philosophic initiate the tragedy of separation from the mass of humanity, whose aspirations no longer answer to his own.

Seen from another angle, several of Britten’s operas are about the difficulties of homosexual love, posed both by society and, in the case of boy-love, by revulsion against corrupting the young. Britten’s lovers—the ghostly manservant Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw, the sadistic Claggart and the tender-hearted Captain Vere in Billy Budd, Peter Grimes, blind to his own condition—each represent a different aspect of the problem. (Others may be found in Britten’s non-operatic works.) Only Gustav von Aschenbach, in Britten’s last opera Death in Venice, reaches a sort of resolution, passing through a Dionysian agony then dying peacefully while worshipping at the spectacle of unattainable beauty. Britten’s music is so admirable that it allowed him to be publicly adulated during his lifetime, while his choice of texts and subjects was tactfully sidestepped. Now he can be seen in his fullness as man and artist, and called as a witness to the question of whether homosexuality disqualifies one from psychological integration and from spiritual growth. Neither Freud, Jung, nor those who pretend to speak for Christ can bring themselves to approve of it. Plato, apparently, was of a different opinion; and if that were not enough, I would find Britten’s operas alone sufficient evidence that this very proclivity can be the basis for deep self-understanding, inspired creativity, and the gaining of compassionate wisdom.

Since the 1960s, esoteric or ‘spiritual’ themes have been in fashion in all the arts, which means that they can be grafted on to otherwise negligible works in order to make them seem important or meaningful. (No doubt we can expect a spate of ecological pieces to reflect current concern for the environment.) Recent opera, therefore, arouses a healthy scepticism towards its initiatic pretensions. One wonders, for example, how posterity will deal with the operas of Michael Tippett (The Midsummer Marriage, The Knot Garden, The Ice Break, New Year), Philip Glass (Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, Akhnaten), or Karlheinz Stockhausen (the projected seven-opera cycle Licht). All of them are quite overt about their spiritual convictions, Tippett verging more to the Jungian and post-Jungian side, Glass to Buddhist and humanistic thought, and Stockhausen to cosmic history and messianism.

Not for me to pass judgment on works I may have heard, but never seen; yet I suspect that in the end it will be through their music that these men will either succeed, or be forgotten. Take away the music of any of the works I have discussed, and what is left? At best a poem, at worst a tract. The heart of opera lies in the music, and while one is listening to it, one does well to forget even the loftiest interpretations of the plot. If it were otherwise, one might as well spend the evening reading articles! The story is told of Maurice Ravel, who, when he finally attended a live performance of Tristan und Isolde, wept at the sound of that very first note, the open A of the cellos. I have had the same experience when the curtain rose on the first scene of Die Meistersinger, and have been suspended between tears and ecstasy for the next four hours. Only after the event can one understand why one was so deeply moved, and glimpse the transformative truth that underlay the experience. And even then, words and concepts are often redundant: it is enough that one has been an epoptes, a beholder of the Mysteries.

Jacques Chailley. Parsifal, Opéra initiatique. 2nd ed. Paris: Buchet/Chastel, 1986.

Robert Donington. The Rise of Opera. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1981.

      . Wagner’s Ring and Its Symbols. London: Faber & Fabrer, 1963.

Joscelyn Godwin. ‘Layers of Meaning in the Magic Flute.’ The Musical Quarterly 65 (1979): 471-92.

Max Heindel. Mysteries of the Great Operas. London: L. N. Fowler, 1921.

Ellen Rosand. ‘Seneca and the Interpretation of L’Incoronazione di Poppea.’ Journal of the American Musicological Society 38 (1985): 34-71.

D. P. Walker, ed. Musique des intermèdes de La Pellegrina. Paris: CNRS, 1963.

Frances A. Yates. The Valois Tapestries. 2nd ed. London: Warburg Institute, 1975.