Undone by Elektra: Operatic Politics in the Age of Trump

Bust statue of the famous ancient Greek tragedian writer Sophocles (496 - 405 BC). His most famous tragedies feature Oedipus
Bust statue of the famous ancient Greek tragedian writer Sophocles (496 - 405 BC). His most famous tragedies feature Oedipus and Antigone, and his plays include also Ajax, Electra, Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus.

When today you strain your eyes to see the sea from the sloping ruins of Mycenae it is clear that King Agamemnon's palace was a place of blinding light. Sophocles told as much. Elektra -- a word for shining in Greek -- enters the drama named for her by greeting the day (ω θάος ἁγνὸν, she says). As ancient tragedy stems from this overwhelming luminosity, it is dark in an unexpected way. It displays in brittle detail the acts and forces to which its characters belong. Inexorability surrounds and crushes them. The glare of circumstance is what impressed the Greeks in drama, as in politics. Although no protagonist at the center of the action -- blinded -- could completely open her eyes, sometimes she talks things through with an impersonal group of persons known as the chorus. Spectators who failed in looking were dragged out of the shadows by the chorus -- a virtual community -- telling them what was what.

Tragic daylight. It confuses us moderns. We gag the chorus. Spoiler alerts sanction obscurity. We are invested in interiority. Secrets. Existential isolation. We expect everything to arise, should it arise, from murk. Darkness is our place and symbol. So when today we are drawn into a story of the murder of a king and his daughter's path to retribution, everything is turned outside in.

The opera Elektra by Richard Strauss follows this inversion. The words and drama painted in music by that composer in 1909 were written by Hugo Hoffmanstahl, a "young Narcissus," bourgeois aristocratic reactionary prodigy of the dying Austro-Hungarian empire. The protagonist emerges from this twilight world. As such, she can hardly avoid being cast in the way she comes to us in the opulent and fever-pitched production offered by New York's Metropolitan Opera.

And how is that? The very first line in the modern Elektra tells by asking where does she live? In a dozen ways, Hoffmanstahl and Strauss answer that she lives in the dark. Although in the course of the opera Elektra is repeatedly offered light by her sister Chrysothemis, she will have none of it. Gloom and subterfuge surround her until the bitter end. Assassin mother assassinated and the father avenged, Chrysothemis will still have a light to shine. Her final question -- "who has loved us?" -- is put brutally down by her sister. Elektra's line is that whatever light there can be comes from within ("Seht ihr denn mein Gesicht? Seht ihr das Licht, das von mir ausgeht?"). This is certainly not the evangel of Christ. It is individualism pure and simple. Under the thin patina of a few famous Greek names there are some quite modern women. The Viennese Chrysothemis insists against the background of a way of life headed for dissolution and war that "Love is everything! Who can live without love?" ("Liebe ist Alles! Wer kann leben ohne Liebe?"). Elektra's reply -- like so much in Strauss -- comes straight out of the Romantic pseudo-archaism of Wagner: "Love kills" (The line "Ai! Liebe tötet" is of course a play on the Liebestod of Tristan und Isolde).

In the United States, the generation coming out of World War II invested itself in the transformation of culture. Emerging scholars charted with new insight the significance of this changing context for the production and reception of opera. As sociologists like David Riesman, William H. Whyte, or C. Wright Mills "reconsidered individualism" modernity's epochal sublimation of tragedy came to be more generally recognized. That recognition itself became a powerful instrument of critical inquiry in works like The Death of Tragedy by George Steiner. Historian Carl Schorske showed that in fin-de-siècle Vienna "Hoffmanstahl applied the principles of art to politics by accepting psychological man" at the same time that that writer, like many others, paradoxically persisted with classical themes. The few examples of scholarship I give are drawn from a very long list. For a while, it seemed as though the stage of everyday life would be set by a heightened attention to meaning in culture and the obvious relevance of careful and studious learning.

That was the Sixties. Then came reaction against it and Ronald Reagan's revival of the Cold War and cultural politics (on the larger significance of this see my book Civic War). In the course of several more decades briefs that had been supported by powerful scholarly research were made over into trivial common sense. The result was not what anyone anticipated.

Critics today parrot and sample from great post-war scholars but rarely advance or even notice the profound questions they raised. Criticism tends to converge with therapy. While even that could elevate democratic audiences (Jonathan Lear's Love and its Place in Nature sketches that prospect) it more often than not provides instead reassurance for spectators who want to feel comforted rather than disturbed that Elektra can be "an intimate, psychologically penetrating, family drama" (Heidi Waleson in the Wall Street Journal).

Indeed, in the press of a world occupied by consumerism and the tightening noose of neoliberalism, it is a relief that Elektra could be The Sopranos or even Modern Family with a bit of orchestral background and a higher ticket price (Pierre Bourdieu's 1979 book Distinction tracks one vector of this). This may be what makes Patrice Chéreau's sporadically clever staging at the palatial Metropolitan Opera compelling for so many. The dark although never intimate stage fuels regression. It feels good to be hypnotized by the remarkable voice of Nina Stemme and other singers in this great cast. It is, in the age of Hillary Clinton, satisfying to be caught up in empathy by an impassioned portrayal of a larger-than-life woman struggling with powers in and out of her control.

But in our moment -- with the contortion of American civic culture at all levels and in so many ways, with the imminent victory of casual but relentless bigotry sustained by a Trump presidency -- no self-respecting citizen -- no audience ideal or real for the opera -- should be satisfied with this sort of distraction.

The problem with the production and reception of this opera is of an "emperor's new clothes" variety. The Met's Elektra fails to make clear the most elementary fact about it: we have before us a morass of musical incoherence in support of reactionary drama.

Recall that for Sophocles, everything was bound up in the making and breaking of opportunities (καιρος), the stream of which presented on stage forming a unity of action held together with several layers of dialogue. Even the murder of Agamemnon's murderer Aegisthus -- lines 1442-1510 -- unfolds as a conversation. This ensures that it is not misunderstood by anyone as an individual fact. The chorus -- the observers, the community -- gets the last word.

For Strauss and Hoffmanstahl, there is no action. There is barely movement. The set is almost unadorned, and what passes for innovation in staging -- several initial minutes without music after the curtain goes up -- reduces the scene yet further. (Chéreau, in what might be a Freudian joke against the bavard Greeks, clearly takes his cue from Elektra's penultimate word schweigen [be silent] like a dog chasing its tail; if this was a new trick for artists like George Maciunas it is not today.) The only dramatic moment -- which is to say, an event we did not know would come that arrives -- is the rapid departure of Orestes when the deed is done; the only real psychlogical complexity appears in Klytämnestra because enough is temporarily withheld from her to let her Narcissism get the better of her.

Apart from that, Strauss the composer wanders without pause for nearly two hours. The text brought to the stage is, as Hoffmanstahl himself noted of his later work, more proto-Modern Trauerspiel than tragedy (Walter Benjamin pointed to this in 1928). The result feels like it wants to be an oratorio. Under pressure of Strauss' inflated impressionism even this is reduced -- as the astute Lawrence Kramer observed decades ago -- to "a kind of enormous Lied expressing Elektra's subjectivity." A corollary of this confusion of genres appears in compositional technique and motivation: "To a degree extreme even for Strauss, the orchestra of Elektra is dependent on the narrative action, obsessed with illustrating every detail, emotional and physical, remembered or imagined."

This locates but does not identify the problem. For, again, effectively, there is no "narrative action." So what then is the orchestra dependent on? The answer is that the music itself is dependent on the expression of Elektra's subjectivity.

Yet the dramaturgy intends to make this subjectivity incoherent. Even Elektra's opening line -- "Alone! Pain, completely alone" (Alein! Weh, ganz Alein) -- individualizes what is happening to her. By contrast, Sophocles has already positioned Orestes as a companion for Elektra by the time we meet her and her suffering. Her problem is in this and many ways socially constructed. (Her suffering, by the way, is not "pain" but δυστηνος, the "wretchedness" that is linked to her lot in life, her μοιρα; these are joined for example by Aeschylus at Persians 909.)

Today one might say that Elektra suffers from PTSD. Or following the contemporary Viennese vocabulary of Hoffmanstahl or Strauss, she is "hysterical" in Freud's now discredited sense. (She does not have Jung's "Elektra complex.") In any case, reviewers of the current production extol the presentation of Elektra as an incisive case study in psychology and applaud the way the modern heroine appears cut off from larger circumstantial forces and relationships. For example, Geoffrey O'Brien in the New York Review of Books seems to believe that because Stemme's "singing is of a piece with her every stance and gesture" what "she gives us [is] not unleashed madness but white-knuckled restraint in the face of intolerable inner pressure." This is a mistaken and misleading view.

It is true that with its modernization, the Elektra story ceases to be about socially-inscribed deeds that come back to haunt us. What Hoffmanstahl and Strauss seek to represent is a mind that is lost, vengeful, and obsessive. It is not by chance that this mind is female. Or that an attempt is made to connect that disorder to the essential character of the woman in which it resides. Strauss conjures a person in the grip, not of the tragic, but of the irrational, and guilty of destroying tradition (represented in her failure to mourn correctly, whatever that could mean in the 19th century). In so doing, Elektra does not give us a woman. It advances a hostile image of women more generally. The precise disorder depicted, however, is the offspring of the authors' anti-feminist intention. So it is not, as O'Brien writes, "unleashed madness" but rather madness being led around by a particular leash.

This is a musical default. For in attempting to closely illustrate this fin-de-siècle fantasy of feminine irrationality and insubordination Strauss loses his way. Although he fills the score with technical contrivances of the Wagnerian trade and deploys some of the pastiche, citation, and "sampling" that would soon be found among the tools of modernists everywhere, the weight of his involuted artistic aspirations overwhelms him. Even superb playing by the Met's orchestra on the night of the final performance could not save him.

As a result of what might be considered an extra-musical consideration, Strauss appears as if led by an undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder. The music of Elektra fails to achieve the express or implied continuousness that is characteristic of great works of the period like Schönberg's Verklärte Nacht or Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. There is no more striking contrast than Lulu, an opera plagued with its own "woman problem." Nonetheless, the Met's production last Fall exhibited in high relief, especially in its second movement, Berg's astonishing achievement of musical continuum. Such specific gravity in music, its order or arc, the world it creates or allows to thrive, these are the truest measures of musical success and Strauss' failure.

But this failure is not only in the score. The attempt to represent a degraded mental state is also an artist's ploy to advance political content in music. "Reasonable" maternity, submission, and privacy are pitted against irrational and utterly public revenge. (If you mistakenly believe that Elektra's "triumph" over these other forces is somehow "good for women" you might want to read some misogynistic propaganda of the period like Otto Weininger's Sex and Character from 1903). Faced with how this semantic content is supported by contrived and ridiculous musical moments, praise for the "glowing string sound and delicacy [of] Straussian lyricism" (Tommasini in the New York Times) or "the composer's warmth and lyricism" (Waleson in the Wall Street Journal) it is not just anachronism. It is a political statement.

Keep in mind that the same strings praised by reviewers are the ones that follow you down the aisles of the supermarket. What you are hearing is amnesia, a forgetting of the specific history of lyricism and its increasing detachment from earlier cultural functions. It does not matter if Strauss came before Hollywood -- we chase after him even when his ship has sailed.

As the "conditions for a positive reception of lyric poetry became less favorable," Wagner's contemporary Charles Baudelaire "envisaged readers to whom the reading of lyric poetry would present difficulties." Even in attempting to revive the dying genre in a modern guise, that exemplary poet "went so far as to proclaim as his goal 'the creation of a cliché.'" Likewise in music. The inability to extract insight from the constitutive operation of cliché in modern lyricism -- as it occurs from Wagner to Duchamps to Frozen and television's The Voice -- is a clear sign of regression. As these lines written in 1939 by the critic Walter Benjamin suggest, such matters were brought to light long ago. Even before that, Alban Berg brilliantly addressed the question of lyricism in 20th century music in his second string quartet. (Theodor Adorno trenchantly referred to it as a "latent opera;" another great scholar, musicologist George Perle, later discovered it had a secret vocal program; Kate Soper, herself a brilliant path-breaking contemporary composer, performs this here). Both lyricism and its inflection towards ironic effect have been eviscerated. The damage has mainly accelerated with ever-widening dissemination of recorded music, the adulatory cult of nostalgic scoring for movies by composers like John Williams, and many other factors.

What I would like you to consider is this. For the musician or the audience or the critic to entertain lyricism in Elektra today, without irony, without anything that asks "why is this 'lushness' happening here and now?", is aesthetic absurdity. It is an appeal to the aural commonplaces of an audience defined by cinematic experience and desires (see my piece here on this). It obfuscates both musical and ethical facts. It further weakens our capacity to make associations between music, drama, and our own lives. And it privileges the anti-feminism at the core of Elektra.

The stakes are not insubstantial. Musical gestures may have topicality anywhere. For example, wherever you hear the first three notes of the Star Spangled Banner you know what to do. However, musical gestures have meaning because they are tied to particular time in space. Meaning is an intrinsic relation music creates to itself in a context. Without such meaning two main options for musical experience obtain. Listeners become wedded to something that has no meaning; or the love of music itself has no meaning. These are both forms of nihilism from which classical music cannot recover. This thought merits much more discussion but not in this essay.

My point here is somewhat different. In fact, as an opera Elektra is supercharged with extrinsic meaning. This meaning is obscured by the musical experience itself. Strauss succeeds in forming a fusional and obsessive bond between the audience and the degraded woman at the center of the piece. With this collapse of critical distance the audience for today's Elektra fails to see how music converges with reactionary politics of our own time (that is, not just in the familiar involvement of the composer with Nazism).

I will continue to insist, although without much explanation here, that one important cause of this regression is erasure of excellent scholarship from everyday discussion of culture. This also makes the assault on the university and the humanities by neoliberalism a relevant if tangential matter. Again, that's a discussion for another time.

As for the main topic here, you might want to read carefully work by Catherine Clément and René Girard. Lawrence Kramer brings their ideas together with his own as follows:

In civil society, sacrificial ritual migrates primarily to tragic drama, and nowhere more fully than to the series of tragic operas produced between Rigoletto and Lulu. Most of these operas participate, though more ambivalently than she recognizes, in the ideological project that Catherine Clément assigns to opera in general: the lamination of the Father's laws, of narratives bound to the 'undoing' of women, with so much musical beauty that critical resistance is lulled to sleep."

One bold-faced fact these sleepers ignore is Elektra's sister. Again Sophocles provides the contrast. For him, Chrysothemis is a "don't talk the talk if you can't walk the walk" kind of calculating political pragmatist. The sisters' relationship is a balancing operation between rash and considered action. It is mediated by the chorus. What Chrysothemis offers Elektra is not praise of love. It is counsel on how to pursue her self-interest. Keep in mind that Klytämnestra and Aegisthus are about to send her where she will never again "look upon the sun's brilliance." In the ancient tragedy, both sisters begin in a bad spot. That is not the hinge proposition that triggers events. Soon the drama threatens them with worse. They struggle against that.

Hoffmanstahl places the sisters at the very bottom of a pit. He gives Chrysothemis a carefully crafted fantasy of escape. To where should she escape? To what end? That is the key question not just for her but -- as the only articulated alternative -- for Elektra too.

Chrysothemis is a "cover girl" for a fin-de-siècle male supremacism exemplified in popular anti-feminist tracts of the time (again, see Weininger). For details you will really want to engage with Lawrence Kramer's superb article on all this from 1993. One point is simple enough. The representation of Elektra, as Clément told us, is bound up in "undoing" women -- making them stand out where incoherent and perish from their own integrity -- and Chrysothemis is placed next to Elektra to illustrate what women must do not to be undone. Strauss and Hoffmanstahl offer in this second character an absurd, cartoon-ish, and utterly typical presentation of a reactionary and maternalist vision from a century ago. This is supposed to provide an alternative to Elektra's degeneration. That degeneration is further warranted by Elektra's own mocking rejection of Chrysothemis.

Today, neither producers nor audience at the Met seem concerned in the slightest with this opera's blatant and condescending attack on feminism from this and many other angles. O'Brien (New York Review of Books) seems to approve when he writes "throughout there are to be no metaphorical intrusions, no signposted historical or political cross-references."

Does he really not see that where Sophocles' Elektra was a tragedy, the Elektra of Strauss and Hoffmanstahl is nothing but and inevitably one giant metaphor? The ridiculous pretense that this production has been shorn of its historical and political references contributes to the naturalization of its most odious and most pressing contemporary elements.

"Who is Elektra, if not the daughter who lives every day for vengeance? That's the question this remarkable production explores." As the review in the New York Times ends this way we can see more precisely the problem. There is no enduring reason for most people today to care about such a person. There is almost nothing we can learn from her. For us, today, vengeance should be the last thing brought to the foreground of this opera. Elektra continues nonetheless to be the fetish of a society that remains obsessed with the un-doing of women. And the opera in her name remains a sign of unrelenting pressure against the egalitarian values that male supremacists seek to extinguish, now as then. That audiences critical or otherwise do not notice this confirms its importance. Such blindness is one reason why Donald Trump has a good chance of becoming president in a country that is more than half women.

A generation ago the Professor Kramer I referred to a moment ago could look forward to a staging of Elektra that would take two steps forward. It would relinquish all pretensions of classical tragedy. And it would recognize that the opera's true protagonist is not Elektra at all "but the condition of being obsessed with her."

However, like the cultural critics of the Weimar Republic before him, Kramer failed to foresee the scene at the Met today. It is not just that critical resistance is lulled to sleep. Our self-consciousness is so overwhelmed by obscene wealth and the revival of everyday misogyny that audiences seem to no longer even notice the essential role played by anti-feminism in this ridiculous work.

As to whether I am right or not in asserting that Elektra and other familiar works in the European operatic tradition are anti-feminist, you will form your own opinion. The larger problem is that with our stunning lack of self-consciousness -- about scholarship, about history, about the musical experience itself, and about the person who you are as you sit in a theater and take it all in -- such urgent matters are so easily pushed aside.