Michel Schneider

Prima Donna Opera and the Unconscious Publication date : February 1, 2001

In 1657, Samuel Johnson defined opera in his dictionary as “an exotic and irrational entertainment”. In 1975, Aaron Copland dubbed it that “fatal form”. Michel Leyris called his book of notes on opera music Operratiques. Perhaps there is something in this art form which can be regarded as strange, unconventional, and against the rules — be they aesthetic, social, moral, natural or cultural.

Opera calls the unconscious into play in many ways. Encompassing sound and meaning, music and words, it resembles the unconscious itself, by being both signifier and material, sublime and physical. And like all texts and stories, the scenes imagined by the librettist and put to music by the composer are vehicles of fantasy and psychic acts. As for the spectators, they find themselves attending a performance that borrows from other types of pleasure, but they also enjoy themselves in a manner that is unlike any other. It can thus be said that for both audience and artists, an opera performance contains a sexual element.

This book explores the archetypes of the unconscious as they are expressed on the operatic stage through some of the most famous works of the repertoire, including La Traviata, Wozzeck, Faust, Nixon in China, The Flying Dutchman and Peter Grimes. In addition, the author examines Wagner’s concept of the wholeness of art, the part played by speech, and the special place held by opera in the male homosexual community.

Michel Schneider, a graduate of France’s Ecole Nationale de l’Administration, is a chief adviser at the Revenue Court. He was formerly a director of music and dance at the Ministry of Culture. He is the author of Glenn Gould, Piano Solo; Schumann, La Tombé du Jour; and La Comédie de la Culture.