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A Season of Opera: From Orpheus to Ariadne.

M. Owen Lee, A Season of Opera: From Orpheus to Ariadne Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1998. 241 pp., $30.00

This is a brilliant book; reading it is a liberal education. Father Lee, a Basilian priest who taught classics at St. Michael's College, University of Toronto, for many years, possesses a knowledge of opera which few others who are not professional musicians can rival. He has seen some operas as many as twenty-five or more times, and in his frequent appearances on the New York Metropolitan Opera quiz programme has shown an astonishing ability to remember the details of all of them.

His knowledge of Greek and Latin literature provides him with a context for many of the operas he discusses. He explains, for example, how opera began with Politian in the high Italian Renaissance. The myth of Orpheus, as Politian found it in Ovid's Metamorphoses, provided him with the story of his Orfeo, "so far as we know, Europe's first secular drama sung in a modern language."

In his preface, Father Lee writes, "It is my hope that these varied chapters, written for diverse occasions and gathered together as we look forward to a third millenium, may be read as a journey through the four hundred years of opera's existence. They reflect only one man's sensibility. Perhaps it should be said at the start that that sensibility is a religious one. The book is not, however, intended to make converts, except possibly to opera."

He entered the Congregation of St. Basil, Basilians for short, at the age of 17, and the decision to do so was obviously the right one for him: "My year in the novitiate was perhaps the happiest year of my life. My novice master, who had seen Caruso sing and could detect the outlines of operatic arias in bird songs, seemed to me the oldest, gentlest, and wisest man in the world. I lived and prayed with twelve other novices who were close to me in age and shared my hopes and dreams. We read Shakespeare and studied Greek and Latin to keep our young minds busy, for we were going to be teachers one day. But it wasn't primarily a year of study. It was a life of close community."

They planted crops behind the novitiate, they played a lot of baseball, they sang, they also observed long periods of silence, "and when we spoke we often spoke about God."


By temperament and training, he is bound to look beyond the obvious in the operas he discusses, and even to find a religious dimension. On Il Trovatore, he writes that of course it is full of wonderful music, but the source of its strength lies elsewhere: "That indefinable source has been best described by Francis Toye: 'Something emerges and hits you, as it were, between the eyes, something elemental, furious, wholly true.'" A n - other Verdi opera, La Traviata, he calls the first opera to explore the depth of self-sacrificing love, and adds, "It is indeed some kind of miracle." It may not be the kind of miracle for canonical sainthood, he observes, "but it is miracle enough for this priest to say--with, I expect, many others--'Violetta? E una santa.'"


When he turns to the man who is perhaps his favourite composer, he writes, "The lovers in all of Wagner's operas point to something beyond themselves." Tristan and Isolde is much more than the glorification of romantic love which it is widely thought to be: "in this opera, the lovers reject the sensuality and abandon of physical love for something we may quite rightly call meta-physical." The chapter dealing with this opera is entitled. "Long Day's Journey into Night," and in Father Lee's interpretation Tristan comes to see his passion for Isolde as the very essence of the hated world of light, and he renounces it. The work is deliberately divested of its medieval religious aspects, and as Father Lee shows it is closer to Buddhism and its release from desire than it is to any Western tradition.


Elsewhere, however, Western traditions are strongly evoked. Lee has a marvellous comparison of Berlioz and Virgil, to whom Berlioz was strongly indebted, especially in Les Troyens; in fact when he had finished the work he dedicated it to "the divine Virgil." But there was a great difference between the Romantic composer and the classical poet: "Berlioz's Troyens is a thing of surfaces, contrast, and diffusions. It is spacious, noble, and deeply felt, and it keeps the main outlines of Virgil's incidents, but without Virgil's compression and levels of meaning."

Lee sees in Virgil's Aeneid not the propaganda work the Emperor Augustus presumably wanted him to write but "a massive metaphor. It said, between the lines, that there was goodness and guilt on both sides in the civil wars just ended and in all of Rome's wars before that. It said many things, too, about the nature of God, the existence of evil, the tragic choices involved in doing one's duty."

One explicitly Christian work Father Lee discusses is Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites. The dialogues in it, he writes, are exchanges of more than words: "They are--to use a term rarely if ever associated with the operatic stage but very familiar to Catholic intellectuals in Poulenc's day--exchanges of grace." Georges Bernanos, who wrote the text on which the opera is based, ended his most famous novel with the phrase, "Everthing is grace." The opera dramatizes the idea that all members of the Church are bound together in a community, in a personal relationship with each other effected by grace. Bernanos saw in this doctrine, Lee writes, an answer to the greatest questions man has asked: What is God? Why is there evil in the world? Why do the innocent suffer? Have our lives any meaning?

Modern American

Not all the chapters in this book discover a religious or metaphysical significance in the works they discuss. Father Lee is eclectic in his tastes, and in two of his chapters he points out the merits of the hit songs he himself loves to sing, accompanying himself on the piano with great skill. "I've often thought, "he writes, "that the reason why George Gershwin's Porgyand Bess is still unappreciated in some critical circles is that some critical circles have too little appreciaton of the golden age of American popular song." Analysing the still popular songs in a 55-year-old musical, Oklahoma!, he notes that these pieces "might teach fledgling American composers to make singing once again the primary means of dramatic expression.

This book provides a very effective demonstration of the importance which opera has had, and continues to have, in our Western culure. Father Lee makes high claims for it. In an interview he said, "Great operas are like testaments. They are ways through which God speaks to us. The work of art is the medium through which Beethoven, Mozart or Wagner speaks to me. My poor soul is somehow spoken to by these artists."

But our poor intellects, and impoverished aesthetic sensibilities, do not let many of us grasp what the great artist is trying to say. We feel the need of an interpreter; and in this book we find one. Father Lee performs a great service for the composers he discusses, and for us as well.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:DOOLEY, D.J.
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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