Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Game of Thrones: Olde-Style Catharsis or Bloody Good Counsel?

"You have been too clever for your own good, O human nature (hominen natura)! and gifted beyond measure to your ruin. Of what avail to you to gird cities with turreted walls? Of what avail to arm hands in strife? What had you to do with the sea - you might have been satisfied with the land! Why do you not seek the sky as well - a third kingdom? In so far as you may, you do annex the sky also - Quirinus has his temple, and Liber and Alcides, and now Caesar. We draw from the earth solid gold instead of grains. The soldier possesses riches made from his blood. The curia is closed to the poor - a man's rating in the tax assessors' books procures him public office; from that come the grave judge and the stern knight!"
Ovid, Amores, III, viii, 35-56 [1]

"People often claim to hunger for truth, but seldom like the taste when it's served up." —  George R.R. Martin

*This article will contain spoilers for those who have not seen the series yet*


Game of Thrones is a television series based on the storylines of A Song of Ice and Fire, set in the fictional Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and the continent of Essos. The series chronicles the violent dynastic struggles among the realm's noble families for the Iron Throne, while other families fight for independence from it. The final season depicts the culmination of the series' two primary conflicts: the Great War against the Army of the Dead, and the Last War for control of the Iron Throne. Game of Thrones is not typical of contemporary fantasy, with more emphasis on battles and political intrigue and less emphasis on magic and sorcery.

Battle of the Goldroad from Game of Thrones - Season 7 Episode 4 on the official tapestry produced in Northern Ireland. 

As the series drew to a close many fans of the show complained bitterly about the final season and finale. As Ien Ang wrote in Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination, another show with a huge worldwide viewership in the 1970s:

"It is wrong, however, to pretend that the ideology of mass culture exercises dictatorial powers. The discourses of this ideology are very important, culturally legitimized organizers of the way in which the social meaning of Dallas is constructed, but alternative discourses do exist which offer alternative points of identification for lovers of Dallas." [2] 

People construct their own meanings that the show's producers have no control over. They may agree or disagree with the decisions of the producers but they will still find a meaning that is satisfactory for them. Even the violence and bleakness of the show can be interpreted in a positive way. I will take Game of Thrones at face value and look at what was actually produced and transmitted and examine possible meanings. I will argue that the series has subconscious elements which satisfy audiences frustrated with modern society, and even though good forces generally prevail, ultimately the moral of the tale is that one should not hand one's destiny over to 'great' leaders.

In this essay I will examine three questions: why do people watch Game of Thrones, is Game of Thrones an historical allegory? and, does Game of Thrones rise above being pure fantasy?

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen

Why do people watch Game of Thrones?

One friend with the Game of Thrones box set revealed to me that she cried after watching the first episode of Season one because of its unremitting bleakness and didn't watch any more episodes after that. She couldn't find anything positive in the show, yet millions of people all over the world watched the show apparently finding it a worthwhile experience. The interest in Game of Thrones is similar to the interest in Romanticism in the mid nineteenth century. Disillusionment with society, a desire for a simpler life and a closer relationship with nature became the basis of a new Romantic culture and philosophy that spread across Europe.

What could a modern audience find positive in Game of Thrones in an era of mass production and international trade, alienation, disillusionment, ennui, gender confusion, and general dissatisfaction with governments, politicians and legal systems? In other words, in a world which is depressing enough already.

While the dramatic and sometimes very violent narrative holds the audience's attention, there are subconscious elements that add to the fascination with the show. These are taken-for-granted elements which add to the background authenticity of the drama. And authenticity seems to have been high up in the objectives of the show runners. There is an earthiness in the production values that make one constantly aware of faeces, dung, dirt, urine, blood and mud. Indeed some scenes seem to try and incorporate all these aspects in to one scene (like when Jaime is tied to a pole in captivity). These elements I will look at under the headings of (1) small scale production, (2) gender roles, and (3) justice and politics.

Small scale production - ('yesterday’s bread and a “bowl o’ brown"')
We are slowly drawn in and made aware that nothing in Game of Thrones can be taken for granted. There are no supermarkets or hardware stores. Small scale production is everywhere. Everything is made, grown, baked, forged, sewn, cooked, brewed or built before our eyes. This produces joy when made well and disgust when done badly (wine, bread, clothes, swords etc.) in the characters in the drama. However, when the characters are used to something bad they appreciate when something is good. In modern society the skills necessary to make things is taken out of our hands as production becomes more complex, standardised and automated.

We are alienated from production and are becoming more and more distant from the harvesting, gathering and production of our food and manufacture of our goods. It is really only at Christmas time that some of that sense of medieval production operates with baking, setting the fire, decorating the tree, wrapping presents and family games. Even then, consumption still plays a much larger role than production. However, the Romantic desire for a closer relationship with Nature and indigenous production is still strong and reveals itself in the burgeoning interest in nationalist ideas and politics.

Gender roles - ("I'm no Lady" - Brienne)

While the World Health Organization (WHO) defines gender roles as "socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women", we live in a society where traditional roles have been breaking down and definitions of masculinity and femininity are constantly changing. In Game of Thrones we follow the actions of men training, fighting and dying for 'causes'. We see women training and fighting too (Brienne and Arya), as exceptions, but in the main women are there to be protected, or in particular, through oaths taken by knights.

Again a simple and Romantic notion but one that is obviously appealing on a subconscious level as it is a consistent theme throughout all eight seasons. The main characters also have a sense of destiny, objectives and direction in their lives. In our society unemployment, alienation and high suicide rates among men, show that at the very least something is broken and people do not have the same sense of control over their own lives.

Justice and politics - (serving up oats and oaths)

Oaths are a big thing in the Game of Thrones. The taking and breaking of oaths will get you lauded (Brienne of Tarth) or hated by everyone (Jaime the Kingslayer). The seriousness with which oaths are taken is a sign of the importance given to personal integrity in the show. In real life oaths are also taken, e.g. in the USA members of parliament 'solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States' and in the UK members 'swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty'. However, we live in a society where MPs, committees, and task forces, do not take oaths seriously and are constantly found to be diluting bills, lying, and abusing the political system for self gain. This breeds much cynicism with politics and politicians especially as the justice system also seems to be loaded in their favour.

Not so, however, in the Game of Thrones, were justice is often meted out deftly and swiftly at the pointy end of a sword. Instant justice here may seem refreshing and satisfying compared to the real world of procrastinating judicial systems which breed cynicism regarding the 'lack of a death penalty', sentences perceived to be 'too light', or never-ending court cases.

Thus, Game of Thrones has many pared down and simplified aspects that give a temporary relief from complex, modern society. In Game of Thrones everyone is an artisan because everything has to be done or learned directly (swordsmanship, horse riding, copying books) or got from somebody with the necessary skills (wine, bread, smith).

Is Game of Thrones an historical allegory?

While it is known that Martin takes examples from history such as "Hadrian's Wall (which becomes Martin's Wall), the Roman Empire, and the legend of Atlantis (ancient Valyria), Byzantine Greek fire ("wildfire"), Icelandic sagas of the Viking Age (the Ironborn), the Mongol hordes (the Dothraki), the Hundred Years' War, and the Italian Renaissance", Game of Thrones is not a mish-mash of historical dramatic incidents. A certain logic is imposed on the narrative which is similar to a broad overview of human history. At first we have primitive society, then a combination of feudalism and slavery, then Enlightenment and bourgeois concepts of freedom and democracy with the future being left open to speculation.

Martin at LoneStarCon 3 (the 71st World Science Fiction Convention), 2013

Primitive society - ("We don't kneel for anyone beyond the Wall."  - Mance Rayder)

The people who live north of the wall, called Wildlings, worship the Old Gods of the Forest which consist of nature spirits. Their sacred places were 'weirwood' trees, a deciduous tree similar in shape to the Oak tree. In Game of Thrones many of the weirwood trees were cut down during the violent invasion of the Andals who killed and replaced the First Men. These ideas are similar to the ancient traditions of the Celtic and Germanic people who worshipped sacred oaks, and also the modern concepts of the Kurgan peoples who are believed to have expanded throughout the Pontic–Caspian steppe and into Eastern Europe by the early 3rd millennium BC. These expansions are believed to have been violent military incursions that imposed a patriarchal warrior society on what were essentially peaceful matriarchal, egalitarian, nature-based communities. This resulted in slavery, extractivism and eventually the appearance of fortified settlements and hillforts and the graves of warrior-chieftains.
These early communities were destroyed but their culture survived down the centuries in remnants of nature-based traditions, stories and mythology. One story focuses on Saint Boniface, an Anglo-Saxon missionary, who cut down a sacred tree of the Germanic pagans, Donar's Oak. To add insult to injury the wood from the oak was then used to build a church at the site dedicated to Saint Peter.  In Game of Thrones, the awareness of the Old Gods survives as an active religion ("I swear it by the old gods and the new") whereas in real life the old gods are relegated to mythology, but their nature-based rites have survived until today as traditions (e.g. wassailing the apple trees, the Christmas tree, festivals of light, Easter eggs, bonfires etc.).

Feudalism and slavery - ("No man wants to be owned" - Daenerys Targaryen)

The Wildlings described themselves as free folk, not bound by the oaths and loyalties of the feudal hierarchical structure of society in the Seven Kingdoms. The 'turreted walls' described by Ovid above became associated with ideas of honourable monarchies and chivalry throughout feudal Europe. Yet they were essentially the descendants of the earlier hostile invaders. Bronn breaks this Romantic vision with more than a touch of historical realism when Jaime reacts to his request for Highgarden castle:

"Jaime Lannister: Highgarden will never belong to a cutthroat.
Bronn: No? Who were your ancestors, the ones who made your family rich? Fancy lads in silk? They were fucking cutthroats. That's how all the great houses started, isn't it? With a hard bastard who was good at killing people. Kill a few hundred people, they make you a lord. Kill a few thousand, they make you king. And then all your cocksucking grandsons can ruin the family with their cocksucking ways." [4]

Bronn's view of the rich echoes Jean Jacques Rousseau's Enlightenment analysis on the origins of inequality in society. In Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau writes:

"The rich, in particular, must have felt how much they suffered by a constant state of war, of which they bore all the expense; and in which, though all risked their lives, they alone risked their property. Besides, however speciously they might disguise their usurpations, they knew that they were founded on precarious and false titles; so that, if others took from them by force what they themselves had gained by force, they would have no reason to complain." [3]

Rousseau (1755), Discourse on Inequality, Holland, frontispiece and title page

The Game of Thrones essentially echoes the medieval battles of different families in Europe for power and supremacy: forming alliances and borrowing money, as well as risking the perils of getting the church involved, as the Inquisition-like 'sparrow' movement demonstrated, working its way up the hierarchy to the very top. Having the Iron Bank, 'the most powerful financial institution in the Known World', backing you is also extremely important for survival. As Tywin Lannister states:

"One stone crumbles and another takes its place and the temple holds its form for a thousand years or more. And that's what the Iron Bank is, a temple. We all live in its shadow and almost none of us know it. You can't run from them, you can't cheat them, you can't sway them with excuses. If you owe them money and you don't want to crumble yourself, you pay it back."

The Iron Bank always gets its due by switching sides to new kings who pay back the previous debt as well as the new loans given to them when claiming power. Similarly the central banks and the BIS (Bank for International Settlements) are looked after with bail-outs and bail-ins by generation after generation of politicians.

Like the rise of humanism through the Renaissance and groups like the Florentine Camerata, Samwell Tarly goes to the ancient libraries and books for knowledge to solve fundamental problems in the face of dogma and ignorance. While in Europe the Enlightenment came through the ancient Greek texts, in the Game of Thrones, Enlightenment comes literally from the warm light of the south in the form of Daenerys Targaryen (who is known as the Breaker of Chains) as she brings mercy and freedom from slavery northwards, one town at a time. Known also as the Mother of Dragons, she has in her control an awesome source of power which aided her rise to power but was also her undoing: her three fire-breathing dragons. Thus we see the almost socialist continuum of the primitive communal ('old free') free folk, slavery, serfdom, and then the newly liberated ('new free') freed slaves who scrawled 'Death to the Masters' on their city walls.

Enlightenment and democracy - ("Chaos is a ladder" - Petyr Baelish)

Victory comes to Daenerys in the battle for King's Landing as she uses the dragons to destroy the city and burn the inhabitants alive even though the city had surrendered to her. Her liberated slave army also killed many citizens under her orders. When the war is finished she rallies her troops "proclaiming that they will continue to 'liberate' the rest of the world as they did for King's Landing and "break the wheel" to free all the common folk from their rulers, whom she perceives as tyrants."

Daenerys Targaryen's black leather costume and blond hair are reminiscent of the Nazi leaders' uniforms and Aryan ideology (Targ-Aryan?). After her speech she is confronted by Jon (lover, nephew and competitor for the Iron Throne) about the genocide she has carried out. They disagree on what is good: to build a new world, Daenerys wants to destroy the old one, while Jon argues for mercy and forgiveness. Realising she was not going to change, Jon plunges a knife in her heart and kills her. The burning of the city using overwhelming firepower is reminiscent of Hitler's bombing campaign against the United Kingdom in 1940 and 1941. However, the 'democratic' countries were not immune to similar strategies as the British/American aerial bombing attack on the city of Dresden in 1945 - 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices were dropped on the city killing an estimated 22,700 to 25,000 people. Thus it is shown that even the 'good' can be guilty of extreme measures to achieve political aims.

John Bradley as Samwell Tarly

The surviving main leaders of the the Kingdoms gather and Tyrion proposes that all future monarchs be chosen by Westerosi leaders. They elect Bran the Broken to be leader as he cannot have children, thus finally breaking the wheel of hereditary titles and bringing in democracy of the nineteenth century type where only the elites can vote. Samwell Tarly suggests a much broader base for the voting:

""Maybe the decision about what's best for everyone should be left to … well, everyone."
 "Maybe we should give the dogs a vote as well," laughs Bronze Yohn Royce."

This disrespect for the masses echoes modern democracy whereby the gap between the people's desires and their elected representatives' promises always remains very wide.

The series ends with the new cabinet squabbling, while Jon heads north and the Danaerys' Unsullied army sails away.

So, this historical time track is truncated in the narrative of Game of Thrones, which allows them to work together and learn from each other (e.g. unity in the Great War against the Army of the Dead, the Wildlings slagging off the others as 'kneelers').

Does Game of Thrones transcend fantasy?

The constant push for shocking drama in each episode, especially as the series headed for its grand finale could lead one to believe that the overriding mantra of the show was that effect was more important than affect. Much science fiction and fantasy literature stays within the narrow worlds created, and encourages never-ending adolescence and nerd-like awareness of every detail, accompanied by board games and comic cons.

Storytelling - (Stark raven madness)

While effect is an important aspect to the excitement generated by Game of Thrones, Martin believes in the power of story telling. Within the narrative many of the characters tell stories to explain their ideas or situation. There is also a meta element to the narrative as Martin uses the idea of storytelling in three different ways. At first, there is the play-within-a-play, with the medieval retelling of the poisoning of Joffrey and Tyrion's patricide, called The Bloody Hand. The play is a farce and Arya, who happens upon the play, is disgusted at the humorous portrayal of the beheading of her father. The play allows Martin to have a little bit of fun with his own serious narrative, while at the same time showing how recent elite events can be satirised 'from below' by rebellious commoners, or become 'false news' propagated by elite competitors. It is also possible he is satirising the po-faced pretentiousness and egoism of many fantasy and science fiction narratives.

Secondly, Martin has Tyrion extol the importance of storytelling as the memory of society itself:

"Tyrion Lannister: What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There's nothing more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it. And who has a better story than Bran the Broken? The boy who fell from a high tower and lived. He knew he'd never walk again, so he learned to fly. He crossed beyond the Wall, a crippled boy, and became the Three-Eyed Raven. He is our memory, the keeper of all our stories. The wars, weddings, births, massacres, famines. Our triumphs, our defeats, our past. Who better to lead us into the future?"

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister

Thirdly, the power of storytelling is also demonstrated by the power of inclusion or exclusion in a funny scene where Tyrion is presented with a large book describing recent history (and an ad for the Martin's book, A Song of Ice and Fire):

"Tyrion Lannister: [sees a large book placed in front of him] What's this?
Samwell Tarly: A Song of Ice and Fire. Archmaester Ebrose's history of the wars following the death of King Robert. I helped him with the title.
Tyrion Lannister: [flips through pages] I suppose I come in for some heavy criticism.
Samwell Tarly: Oh, I wouldn't say that.
Tyrion Lannister: Oh, he's kind to me. Never would've guessed. [Sam doesn't reply] He's not kind?
Samwell Tarly: He...
Tyrion Lannister: He what? What does he say about me?
Samwell Tarly: ...I don't believe you're mentioned, ahem."

The tragic ending for Daenerys Targaryen, who audiences believed to be good, was an important moment for George R.R. Martin's views on good storytelling.

Genocide - ("the true horrors of human history")

Martin talked about fellow fantasy writer Tolkien's less than critical attitude towards his own characters:

"George RR Martin pointed out that Tolkien believed if there was a good ruler, like King Aragorn at the end of The Lord of the Rings, then things would be okay. However, Martin disagreed saying: “You can be a really decent human being … you can have the noblest of intentions, and your reign can still be horribly screwed up. He did what he wanted to do very brilliantly but … I look at the end and it says Aragorn is the king and he says, ‘And Aragorn ruled wisely and well for 100 years’. It’s easy to write that sentence…but I want to know what was his tax policy and what did he do when famine struck the land. And what did he do with all those Orcs? A lot of Orcs left over. They weren’t all killed, they ran away into the mountains. Did Aragorn carry out a policy of systematic Orc genocide?"

Martin believes that "the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves." He writes in a genre in which there is the constant, predictable battle between good and evil. However, in Game of Thrones we see, among others, the demonisation of (the good) Daenerys and the valorisation of (the bad) Jaime, demonstrating that questions of redemption and character change are an important part of Martin's stories. The changes we see in the main heroine of the show demonstrate Martin's reluctance to have only worn-out black and white, good and evil depictions of morality and instead he depicts the human psyche in all its dialectical processes.


This makes the series ending narrative perfectly logical, except for the fans who invested too much in the concept of a 'good' leader. Our leaders promise everything from employment and better social welfare to resolving the climate change crisis, yet when elected, continue with economic and political agendas which benefit only a tiny elite. George R.R. Martin's point is to get the legions of superhero fans to stop looking for a 'saviour' and start looking to themselves to solve society's problems. How much more plainly can it be put?

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. 

All images in this article are from Wikimedia Commons
[1] Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (John Hopkins: Baltimore, 1997) p.63
[2] Ien Ang, Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination (Routledge: London, 1991) p.111
[3] Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality (Oxford Uni Press: Oxford, 1994) p.67
[4] Game of Thrones – Season 8 Episode 4: ‘The Last Of The Starks’

Monday, October 14, 2019

Opera in Crisis: Can It be Made Relevant Again?


Opera productions depend on much state support, which is in decline, as states themselves go further and further into debt. To try and overcome these problems there have been many attempts at changes in form and content and even transmission in recent years. But these changes do not solve cost or accessibility issues especially in an era where it is difficult to get people to go out to the much cheaper cinema house, let alone a phenomenally expensive opera production. Although nowadays one is more likely to experience opera as cinema than theatre. Can such an expensive medium become popular again? What makes an opera popular? Can opera be relevant to people's struggles today?

Here I will look at the origins and history of opera from the late 1590s until today. Like other forms of culture, opera was initially influenced by Enlightenment ideas in its Baroque (1590-1750) and Classical periods (1750-1820), while the Romantic (1800-1914) reaction predominated in the early nineteenth century up to the early twentieth century. Enlightenment and Romantic influences could still be seen throughout the twentieth century with Verismo (c1890-1920) and Modernism respectively. The twenty-first century has brought interesting changes in form and content and a global appreciation of opera but it remains an essentially elite form of entertainment in terms of cost and audiences.

Early opera - 'did not normally furnish half the expense'

Jacopo Peri is credited with developing the first operas. His earliest surviving opera Dafne exists mainly as a libretto and fragments of music. The earliest surviving full opera is Peri's Euridice which was first performed in 1600. Peri worked with Jacopo Corsi, also a composer of the time, both of whom were influenced by classical Greek and Roman works. They worked with the poet Ottavio Rinuccini, a member of the Florentine Camerata, who wrote the texts. The Camerata were a group of humanists, poets and musicians in late Renaissance Florence who sought to produce new works more in keeping with the spirit of humanism in the form and style of the ancient Greeks.

Renaissance humanism was a revival in the study of classical antiquity, at first in Italy and then spreading across Western Europe from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Their aim was educate people and create a participatory citizenry through the study of the studia humanitatis, today known as the humanities: grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy. The Renaissance contributed heavily to the spread of Enlightenment ideas which was a much broader movement.

In France, the Enlightenment is traditionally dated from 1715 to 1789, i.e., from the beginning of the reign of Louis XV until the French Revolution. Enlightenment ideas focused on reason as the main source of knowledge and propagated ideals of liberty, progress, toleration, constitutional government, and separation of church and state in opposition to absolute monarchy and the dogmas of the Catholic church.

The intellectuals of the Enlightenment believed that "humanity progressed through the rational acquisition and organization of knowledge, and that real knowledge resulted from observation and logic rather than tradition, speculation, or divine inspiration."

Elightenment ideas also had a profound affect on different forms of culture, particularly in the creation of opera.

The Florentine Camerata were influenced by the historian and humanist Girolamo Mei who believed that ancient Greek drama was mainly sung rather than spoken as the Greek Aristoxenus had written that speech should set the pattern for song. The Camerata were also critical of contemporary polyphony which was felt to be overused and obscured the words and their meanings. Therefore:

"Intrigued by ancient descriptions of the emotional and moral effect of ancient Greek tragedy and comedy, which they presumed to be sung as a single line to a simple instrumental accompaniment, the Camerata proposed creating a new kind of music. Instead of trying to make the clearest polyphony they could, the Camerata voiced an opinion recorded by a contemporary Florentine, 'means must be found in the attempt to bring music closer to that of classical times.'"

These musical experiments were called monody and Peri's operas had the entire drama sung in monodic style with gambas, lutes, and harpsichord or organ for continuo as the main instruments. Thus we see a radical development in musical form along with content coming from Greek mythology. This new 'music drama' was called 'opera' (work). Over time other composers took up these new ideas and eventually synthesised monody and polyphony.

Orpheus, the hero of the opera, with a violin, by Cesare Gennari

Peri's opera Euridice tells the story of Orpheus (Orfeo), a great musician, who journeyed to the underworld to plead with the gods to revive his wife Euridice after she had been fatally injured. Orpheus uses his legendary voice to convince Pluto the god of the underworld to return Euridice to life. He is successful and they return from the underworld and rejoice.

The use of this particular story from Greek mythology in 1600 showed the growing divide between the humanist intellectuals and the church. This was at a time when "the persecution of witches was the official policy of both the Catholic and Protestant Churches." According to Helen Ellerbe in The Dark Side of Christian History:

"Around 1600 a man wrote: Germany is almost entirely occupied with building fires for the witches... Switzerland has been compelled to wipe out many of her villages on their account. Travelers in Lorraine may see thousands and thousands of the stakes to which witches are bound." [1]

The fear of the devil and hell had reached terrible proportions and any reasonable call for mercy or reconsideration, like the theme of Euridice, most likely would have been dangerous at that time, except in allegorical forms.

Not long after, the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (with a libretto by Alessandro Striggio) brought out an opera based on the same story in 1607 entitled L'Orfeo, an opera which is still regularly performed.

Monteverdi constructed the opera score out of a daring use of many different existing forms - the aria, the strophic song, recitative, choruses, dances, dramatic musical interludes. While there was an actual written score, instrumentalists were allowed freedom to elaborate musically and singers to embellish their arias. While the work was admired up to the 1650s it was soon forgotten until the 19th century due to changing styles and tastes. When first performed it was in front of a a courtly audience of nobility and intellectual aristocrats. However, with the spread of interest in opera throughout Europe, public opera houses were built to hold larger and larger audiences by the end of the seventeenth century. Yet the expense of producing opera was becoming apparent as a French commentator noted in 1683:

"the nobility of Venice patronized the great opera theatres more for their divertissement particular that for any financial profit that might accrue, since income from opera did not normally furnish half of the expense'." [2]

Thus we can see that opera was born in a time of church hierarchy and power, determined to wipe out dissent resulting in widespread fear and danger while Renaissance humanists were focusing on ancient Greek ideas of democratic society, and values like mercy.

Classical - 'divesting the music entirely of abuses'

It was the German classical composer, Christoph Willibald Gluck who reformed opera in the 1700s as the freedom allowed to musicians and singers to extrapolate was seen to have gotten out of hand. His first reform opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, was premiered in Venice in 1762 and then in Paris, in a revised French-version, in 1774. In his own words, Gluck sets out his reasons:

"When I undertook to set this poem, it was my design to divest the music entirely of all those abuses with which the vanity of singers, or the too great complacency of composers, has so long disfigured the Italian opera, and rendered the most beautiful and magnificent of all public exhibitions, the most tiresome and ridiculous. It was my intention to confine music to its true dramatic province, of assisting poetical expression, and of augmenting the interest of the fable; without interrupting the action, or chilling it with useless and superfluous ornaments; for the office of music, when joined to poetry, seemed to me, to resemble that of colouring in a correct and well disposed design, where the lights and shades only seem to animate the figures, without altering the out-line."

Gluck, like other classical period composers sought to simplify music emphasizing "light elegance in place of the Baroque's dignified seriousness and impressive grandeur. [...] Composers from this period sought dramatic effects, striking melodies, and clearer textures. One of the big textural changes was a shift away from the complex, dense polyphonic style of the Baroque, in which multiple interweaving melodic lines were played simultaneously, and towards homophony, a lighter texture which uses a clear single melody line accompanied by chords."

Gluck, Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were all major composers of the classical style. These composers were on the cusp of a major change in society with burgeoning capitalism changing the balance of power in the feudal aristocratic societies of Europe.

In the past the role of music was to entertain the wealthy and powerful in their mansions and castles while praising the glory of God in the churches. Composers, if they were lucky, had the job of Kapellmeister, or church composer who worked as artisans producing mainly hymns and oratorios or in-house for a noble patron.

Mozart sought to move away from this life to compose for a more bourgeois audience and become an independent contributor to intellectual life. This was a developing attitude of the intellectuals of Enlightenment Europe who believed in the improvement of humanity and civil society through increased secular knowledge.

Portrait of Francisco D'Andrade in the title role of  Don Giovanni by Max Slevogt, 1912

Mozart's Don Giovanni was written in 1787, two years before the French Revolution, when there was an antipathy to the aristocracy and a growing perception of them as a parasitic class. Don Giovanni, as James Donelan notes, gives audiences an exaggerated version of 'an aristocrat who does nothing but consume, and does so almost joylessly'. He writes:

"As the curtain opens, we see Figaro and Susanna; Figaro is counting off the measurements necessary for fitting a bed in his new room, and Susanna is admiring how she looks in the new hat she made for herself. You can already notice several things that indicate that something different from standard opera buffa is going on: this scene of domestic tranquility emphasizes Figaro’s and Susanna’s capabilities as the makers and doers of this world. You can assume he will build his own bed; Susanna has made her own hat, and this opera, based, as you know, on a subversive play, appeared at precisely the time in history when a new bourgeois class of traders, bankers, craftsmen, and merchants were gaining power and significance in European society, and the necessity of having a noble class was being questioned very seriously for the first time. The workers of the world and the bourgeois created wealth, and got things done; the sovereign provided them with a stable government, but what did the aristocracy do any more except hoard valuable resources and put on airs?"

The world of the aristocracy was in decline and a new world led by the bourgeoisie was in the ascent with its emphasis on emotion and individualism. The Romantic reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the scientific rationalization of nature produced a new culture that opposed the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment.

Romanticism - 'mysticism and turbid emotionalism'

This change in attitude was noted by Arnold Hauser in The Social History of Art. He writes:

"since the advent of romanticism all cheerfulness seems to have a superficial, frivolous character. The combination of carefree light-heartedness with the most profound seriousness, of playful exuberance with the highest, puurest ethos transfiguring the whole of life, which was still present in Mozart, breaks up; from now on everything serious and sublime takes on a gloomy and careworn look. It is sufficient to compare the serene, clear and calm humanity of Mozart, its freedom from all mysticism and turbid emotionalism, with the violence of romantic music, to realize what had been lost with the eighteenth century." [3]

The Romantics' attitude to modernity was one of outright rejection. They were radical and individualistic enough to lead bourgeois revolutions but soon saw the abyss and the potential for their own loss of power and dissolution as a class. So, the Romantics looked backwards to medievalism instead of forward to proletarian revolution. Rather than questioning the organisation of society and who should own and control the new means of production in the 'dark, satanic mills' they chose to revere an ideal that society could return to peasant culture.

In Germany, Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz (1821) started the style which became know as Romantische Oper along with other composers like Albert Lortzing (e.g. Undine, described as a romantische Zauberoper 'romantic magic opera'), Heinrich Marschner (e.g. Der Vampyr and Hans Heiling) and Louis Spohr (e.g. Faust). These composers based their operas on typical Romantic themes such as nature, the supernatural, the Middle Ages and popular culture, specifically folklore, culminating in Wagner's 'romantic operas', Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman, 1843), followed by Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin (1850).

Wagner's operas grew in scale with more nationalist overtones but focused on myths, legends and nature, such as Der Ring des Nibelungen (the Ring or "Ring cycle"), a set of four operas based loosely on figures and elements from Germanic mythology. As his fame and influence spread throughout Europe other composers took on board some elements of his style and rejected others.

As nationalists moved away from universalist enlightenment ideas such as equality of all before the law, opera became a powerful tool to promote the idea of ethnic groups as the true basis of the nation state. Folk songs and folk dances as well as nationalist subjects formed the new content of the new operas. In Italy, Giuseppe Verdi's opera Nabucco contains the lyrics, "Oh mia Patria sì bella e perduta (Oh my Fatherland so beautiful and lost!)! In Russia Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka's A Life for the Tsar (1836) tells the story of the Russian peasant and patriotic hero Ivan Susanin who sacrifices his life for the Tsar by leading astray a group of marauding Poles who were hunting him. In Brazil, Carlos Gomes' (1836–1896) opera Il Guarany (1870) used references from the country's folk music and traditional themes while the Czech composer Antonín Leopold Dvorák used the Czech language for his librettos to convey the Czech national spirit.

Verismo - 'focusing on the hard-knock lives'

In Italy, the growth of Realism in art and literature was making itself felt among opera composers such as Pietro Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticana, 1890), Ruggero Leoncavallo (Pagliacci, 1892), Umberto Giordano (Mala vita, 1892), Francesco Cilea (L'arlesiana, 1897) and Giacomo Puccini (La bohème, 1896) and they developed their own style called verismo (Italian for "realism", from vero, meaning "true"). Realism opposed Romantic idealisation or dramatisation and focused more on working class people instead. The popularity of Wagner's work with its social and political mythologising had had its effects. As Adam Parker notes:

"The Italians took notice and, coping with their own political, economic and social upheavals, began to embrace a more realistic operatic style that strived to show aspects of everyday life and convey basic truths about human struggles. The music, too, changed. Standard arias — pauses in the action that showcased the talents of singers — gave way to a more unified structure and constant musical flow. Italian composers cast aside romantic fairy tales and stopped short of embracing Wagner’s mythical realms, preferring to focus on the hard-knock lives of characters who often were simple village-dwellers, impoverished, lovelorn and prone to make mistakes."

Giacomo Puccini, one of the composers most closely associated with verismo.

The Italian Verismo composers were highly influenced by the realistic literary works of Émile Zola, Honoré de Balzac and Henrik Ibsen and sought to bring opera down to earth by examining the lives of ordinary people, the lives of the poor, with themes such as infidelity, revenge, and violence.

The Verismo singing style brought in big changes from the elegant bel canto style of the 19th century. Verismo singers adopted a more declamatory singing style with a vociferous, passionate element to increase the emotional content of the opera.

20th Century - 'losing much of its narrative power'

The twentieth century led to many changes as Modernism and Postmodernism, descendants of Romanticism, settled in to Western culture while Realism and Social Realism, descendants of the universalist ideas of the Enlightenment, became state styles in the East. The Modernist composers rejected traditions such as classical ideas of form in art (harmony, symmetry, and order). As in literature and art, Modernist emphasis on new forms had their effect on opera as atonal, and then twelve-tone techniques were developed by Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, while later in the century Philip Glass and John Adams became known for a pared-down style of composing called Minimalism.

Atonality, which describes music that lacks a key, became became used from the early twentieth-century onwards and began a breakdown of the forms of classical European music which had existed from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries.

The knock-on effects were profound, as Andrew Clements writes:

"With the collapse of tonality, music had lost much of its narrative power, they reasoned, and so storytelling need no longer be a prerequisite of opera either. The music would still contain, support and reinforce the onstage drama, but that drama didn't need to be linear: scenes could proceed simultaneously (as in Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten, 1965), present different versions of the same story (Harrison Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus), tell no story at all (Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach) or dispense with a text altogether (Wolfgang Rihm's Séraphin, 1995)."

Meanwhile, in Russia there were many successful composers. Mikhail Glinka's (1804–1857) A Life for the Tsar was followed by Alexander Dargomyzhsky (1813–1869) and his opera Rusalka (1856) and revolutionary The Stone Guest (1872), Modest Mussorgsky's (1839–1881) Boris Godunov, Pyotr Tchaikovsky's (1840–1893) Eugene Onegin (Yevgeny Onegin), (1877–1878) and The Queen of Spades (Pikovaya dama) (1890) and the prolific Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908) who completed fifteen operas.

The Soviet state encouraged opera and many new operas were produced by a new generation of composers. While the early operas were influenced by Modernism, things started to change as the 1934 Soviet Writers Congress instigated a policy of Socialist Realism and by 1946 the Zhdanov Doctrine was proposed which opposed  "cosmopolitanism" (which meant native Russian accomplishments were to be emphasised more than foreign models) and the "anti-formalism campaign" (which saw "formalism" as art for art's sake and did not serve a larger social purpose).

Most famously Dmitri Shostakovich's (1906–1975) Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (performed in 1934) was criticised by Pravda in an article entitled Chaos Instead of Music in 1936. The story centres around a lonely woman in 19th-century Russia who falls in love with one of her husband's workers and is driven to murder. While there doesn't seem to have been any problem with the content, however, one can see the reaction to Western Modernism playing out in the description of the opera:

"From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this “music” is most difficult; to remember it, impossible. Thus it goes, practically throughout the entire opera. The singing on the stage is replaced by shrieks. If the composer chances to come upon the path of a clear and simple melody, he throws himself back into a wilderness of musical chaos – in places becoming cacophony. The expression which the listener expects is supplanted by wild rhythm. Passion is here supposed to be expressed by noise. All this is not due to lack of talent, or lack of ability to depict strong and simple emotions in music. Here is music turned deliberately inside out in order that nothing will be reminiscent of classical opera, or have anything in common with symphonic music or with simple and popular musical language accessible to all."

When an editor of Pravda was asked why Shostakovich was targeted, he replied: "We had to begin with somebody. Shostakovich was the most famous, and a blow against him would create immediate repercussions and would make his imitators in music and elsewhere sit up and take notice. Furthermore, Shostakovich is a real artist, there is a touch of genius in him. A man like that is worth fighting for, is worth saving ... We had faith in his essential wholesomeness. We knew that he could stand the shock ... Shostakovich knows and everyone else knows that there is no malice in our attack. He knows and everyone else knows that there is no desire to destroy him." [4]

Indeed, Shostakovich was awarded the USSR State Prize in 1941 (Piano Quintet), 1942 (Symphony No. 7), 1950 (Song of the Forests – The Fall of Berlin for chorus) and 1952 (Ten Poems for Chorus opus 88).

The first time the USSR State Prize was awarded for opera was to Uzeyir Hajibeyov for the opera Keroghlu in 1941. It was the first opera in the Muslim East. Koroghlu was based on a regional legend about a young man who organized a rebellion against the khan (king), who had blinded his father out of spite. Hajibayov uses the rhythms of Azerbaijan’s Yalli dance in the choir’s singing to reflect the strength of the people and their yearning for freedom. The large choir conveys the unity of the people and glorifies their rebellion.

Koroglu is a "classical opera complete with arias, choruses and ballet, but like so much of Hajibayov’s work it also includes traditional rhythms and melodies. [...] Hajibayov included folk instruments such as the tar, zurna (pipe) and nagara (drum) in the orchestra to heighten the sense of place. [...] The opera quickly gained popular acclaim and was performed widely."

Thus we can see the huge gap that opened up between modernist opera in the West, its influence in the East, and the kind of opera that was promoted in the Soviet Union.

Twenty-First Century - 'no use pretending something’s not broken'

A couple of years ago Classical-Music.com asked leading opera singers to list their top operas. Five were composed in this century: Jake Heggie, Dead Man Walking (2000), Mark-Anthony Turnage, The Silver Tassie (2002), George Benjamin, Written on Skin (2012), Thomas Adès, The Exterminating Angel (2016). Despite the variety of themes and historical periods - showing that opera composition and production is alive and well, in the words of Graham Vick (thestage.co.uk): "we need to bend – there’s no use pretending something’s not broken."

Recent writers on opera are well aware of the issues involved and have come at the problem from differing perspectives. For Vick, issues of form were uppermost in his thoughts. In an article entitled Opera needs radical overhaul to survive, he writes:

"We must stop believing that, if we work really hard, we might be almost as good as the legitimate theatre. Our agonising nostalgia for class (Downton Abbey only the most recent example) perpetuates philistine values. Crippled with self-doubt and privilege, the art form can hardly be heard in the wider society. A charge often levelled against it is that it is ‘owned by the few’. It is this sense of possession and superiority that is its greatest enemy."

He suggests different ways that opera companies can overcome these problems such as having touring versions and lowering seat prices by lowering performance costs.

For writers like Richard Morrison (chief music critic of the Times) content is a determining factor for future survival. In a recent article he discusses Anthony Bolton's The Life and Death of Alexander Litivinenko (spy killed by polonium), John Adams's Death of Klinghoffer (hijacking of a cruise ship), and Tansy Davies's Between Worlds (about five people trapped in the World Trade Centre on 9/11). He questions the subject matter of recent operas which seems to be almost a strategy of using shock tactics to get punters back into the opera house:

"Can anything and everything be turned into art? Is the entire human condition fair game for a writer, painter or composer? Or are some real-life subjects so horrific or still so fresh that they should be off limits, at least until those caught up in them are no longer around to be offended?"

Both of these are valid and important perspectives on the ongoing problems of the opera business. However, like cinema, the more expensive a cultural medium is, the more its ideology is tightly controlled by those who hold the purse strings. The mass media corporations control how everything is seen and understood, saturating the media with ideologies that favour the world outlook of the neoliberal elites. This allows them to promote conflicts that suit their agenda (e.g. the bombing of Libya) and neutralise the ones that are not going their way (e.g. the attacks on Syria).


For culture in general to inspire future interest and support it must move away from the narratives and objectives of the elites. Working class struggles have shaped the world and any improvements in living conditions have been won after years of often violent conflict and sacrifice. These stories, histories and even allegories of these stories have formed the basis of culture in the past. Ordinary people do not own their own mass communications media or opera houses but know art made in solidarity with their plight (whether it be local or abroad) when they see it. Therefore, yes, anything and everything be turned into art, that is, if it is made in such a way that empathy, solidarity and progress is the result of the work and not just a distant spectacle as a vehicle for shock-horror or laughs. For opera to have distinctive, compelling, and meaningful engagements with people in the future it must first invest in its most important component: its audiences.

[1] Helen Ellerbe, The Dark Side of Christian History (Morningstar and Lark, 1995), p.136/7
[2] Daniel Snowman, The Gilded Stage:A Social History of Opera (Atlantic Books,: London, 2010), p.36
[3] Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, Vol. 3 (Vintage Books: New York, 1958), p.225
[4] Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Harper Perennial: London, 2009), p.249

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here.

All images in this article are from Wikimedia Commons