Why opera matters

Why does opera matter?  Many dismiss it as an elitist past-time, an effete and snobbish pre-occupation - certainly of no relevance to the majority of ordinary people and their everyday concerns.  However, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.  Great opera is concerned with attempting to give artistic expression to what it means to be human, conveyed with the power and the passion that only this unique art-form is capable of achieving.  In its portrayal of  the struggle for psychological wholeness this is especially so.  

The search for integration of the “animus” (standing for rationality, consciousness, “reality” etc.) and the “anima” (representing unconscious awareness, perception, intuition etc.) in the human psyche has a long history of artistic representation, as witnessed by tales from the classical world such as those of Orpheus and Eurydice, Ulysses and Penelope, Ariadne and Bacchus, and so on.  Over subsequent ages, all the ‘traditional’ arts of poetry, drama, painting and music have played significant roles in portraying humanity’s tragic struggle for psychological wholeness. In more recent times, however, opera - because it is the most communicative of the art-forms, combining together musical, verbal, dramatic and visual means of expression - has provided a a more powerful means than any of the other arts of portraying the age-old quest for psychological redemption.

The Magic Flute

For example, in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) (1791), the plot culminates in the main male character, Tamino, being fearlessly and resolutely led by the main female character, Pamina, towards what appears to be their certain deaths.  As it turns out, however, their souls are redeemed and they are united in a profound bond.  In this way we are shown that when the animus “connects” properly with the anima, we achieve the integration of personality that enables fate to be faced with equanimity, whatever it holds;  the anima leads the animus on to the transformation in self-awareness and capability with is symbolised by “death” or “re-birth” - the enlargement of the self into the spiritual realm, the increase of the soul. 

But the most important point in all this is what unfortunately cannot be conveyed directly in writing, namely that, in this opera, like so many others, the action unfolds simultaneously at the dramatic, visual, verbal and musical levels, and so the concepts are portrayed with a power and profundity no other art-form can match.  This is particularly so in Die Zauberflöte, an opera which the critic Neville Cardus felt was so sublime it could be said without fear of blasphemy that it “might conceivably have been composed by God.”


In Beethoven’s Fidelio (1815), this process is illustrated all the more graphically because the entire opera is located within a prison.  This setting operates on the surface, real-world plane, but at the same time functions as a metaphor for the dungeon of the unredeemed mind.  Into this dark and foreboding house of horrors steps Leonora, female (anima) disguised (very significantly, in Jungian terms) as male (animus), Fidelio. Throughout the opera the action centres on the gradually increasing influence of Leonora/Fidelio in bringing freedom and liberty to all the inmates of this literal/mental prison. 

This culminates in one of the greatest moments in all opera and, thus, in all art - the freeing of Leonora’s husband, Florestan.  He is held in the darkest and deepest cell, in the most hellish conditions, i.e., he is truly trapped, comprehensively imprisoned within the confines of his psyche.  Into this mental underworld finally steps Leonora.  At first (of course) she is not recognised, but finally, when she throws off her disguise, there is no mistaking her.  New life immediately floods into Florestan, despite his debilitated state and the apparent imminence of his execution.  He is saved at the last moment by the arrival of the Duke (incipient equilibrium of the now-healing psyche?), who orders the prison governor to free Florestan from his chains, but then immediately countermands his order, and says that instead this honour must go to  Leonora, for it is she who has been the true liberator.  To heart-stopping chords,  Leonora sings “O Gott!  O welch ein Augenblick!” (Oh God!  Oh what a moment!), and Florestan sings “O unaussprechlich süsses Glück!” (Oh inexpressibly sweet happiness!), as well he might!  Then, to a tune which captures so well the characters newly-found wholeness, the soloists and choir together hymn the lines:

“Gerecht, o Gott! ist dein Gericht!

Du prüfest, du verlässt uns nicht”

(“Just, oh God, are your judgements -

You try us, but do not forsake us”)

Thus does the mantle of redemption descend upon Florestan, as it does on all who escape the dungeon of the unliberated psyche.  It is hard to think of the achievement of psychological wholeness being expressed more movingly. 

Finally - finally, that is, as far as the examples adduced here are concerned: many, many more could be provided - in Wagner’s Tannhäuser (1845), the artistic portrayal of the quest for redemption of the animus through integration with the anima reaches new heights of complexity and power, for in this opera the anima takes on not just one but three forms, namely the sensual (Venus), the saintly (the “Jungfrau”, i.e., the Virgin Mary) and the “everyday” (though in no sense just ordinary) expression of womanhood (Elisabeth), a potential receptacle for both of the other “tendencies”. 


Tannhäuser spends the opera oscillating wildly between each of these three representations of the anima - first the Venus, then the Jungfrau, then Elisabeth, - until he is forced to try to achieve redemption by making a pilgrimage to Rome to beg forgiveness from the Pope, because his over-weening interest in the sensual has offended Elisabeth’s protectors (i.e. he has not integrated with his anima at more than the physical level). 

The hoped-for pardon, of course, is not forthcoming, despite all the extra self-inflicted burdens he imposes on himself during the pilgrimage, as this outward and very physical quest for redemption does nothing for - indeed, retards - his understanding of the inward and spiritual pilgrimage he really needs to undertake. 

However, the opera finally culminates in the integration of Tannhäuser’s psyche when, confronted by the Venus, who tries to - him back to be her own, he is simultaneously brought to awareness of the presence of Elisabeth (by his friend/keeper of his conscience, Wolfram).  Elisabeth has by this point passed into the spirit realm, where she kneels before the Jungfrau in prayer for Tannhäuser’s soul.  What this means in psychological terms is that Elisabeth as the embodiment of the emotional and spiritual aspects of Tannhäuser’s anima is finally about to enter his psyche:  his arduous and so far fruitless pilgrimage of the soul is about to be successfully concluded.  Strengthened by the power of her prayers for him (i.e. his dawning psychological wholeness) he repulses the Venus (representing the overweening sensuality which has hitherto imprisoned him), and dies (is transfigured), having finally located in the soul of Elisabeth the resolution of the sacred and the profane - become psychologically whole, at home with his anima, at one with himself, redeemed.

Throughout this opera, as with the other two, the power of the dramatic construction is heightened and intensified to a quite extraordinary and overwhelming extent by the supremely moving music that accompanies it.

In all these wonderful works of art, thus, the age-old theme of the quest for psychological redemption that emerged in the West among the ancient Greeks, and is to be found in equivalent forms in all the world’s cultures, is explored with ever-deepening sophistication and profundity.  In all, the “leitmotif” is the same:  the key to the liberation of the animus from its unredeemed mental prison cell is turned by the hand of the anima, and the wholeness comes when the full light from the door thus opened floods into and fills out all the mental recesses therein, however benighted! 

But the difference is that, in opera, the combination of musical, verbal, dramatic and visual means of expression gives a far more powerful expression to these (and other) eternal truths than any other art form.  This, then, is why opera matters: it gives to all of us the potential to reach into our lives and understand our inner selves as no other means can.  Far from being elitist and irrelevant, it is in fact the most powerful language by which any of us can hold a mirror to the soul.

Alan Waters