Coda

Listener of Note: Camille Paglia

by BRIAN KELLOW

Coda Paglia lg 1112
Cultural critic and author Paglia
© Michael Lionstar 2012

CAMILLE PAGLIA: I was born in Endicott, a factory town in upstate New York, which was really a Little Italy. My father had just come out of the army in the late '40s. My parents had boxes of 45s of opera highlights, and that's how I first heard Carmen and saw a picture of the first opera star I knew by name, Risë Stevens. She seemed so charismatic, like a movie star! I equated her with Ava Gardner, who played a singer in Show Boat. One of the most important books of my life was Helen Dike's Stories from the Great Metropolitan Operas, a 1943 book sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild. Each chapter was devoted to an opera, succinctly telling the story and showing melodic motifs printed in staffs. The gorgeous full-page color drawings were a knockout! I was enraptured by them. My Halloween costume in first grade was based on Escamillo in the frontispiece. And I also saw myself in Radamès and Tristan.

I listen to opera all the time. Margaret Juntwait has done a wonderful job on the Met radio broadcasts. I never thought Milton Cross could be replaced, and I certainly never thought any woman could take over that role. Margaret is so erudite, and yet she has an ability to convey urgency and excitement. I love the way she shades her syllables — the sheer dynamics of it. But I hate this intrusive business of talking to the stars in between acts [on the HD broadcasts]. It kills the magic! Never, ever should outsiders speak to a performer in the middle of the dream. It's so reductive! It's vandalism — dragging these virtuoso performers back to mundane reality. 

OPERA NEWS: What sort of opera music do you play most often? Do you listen while you're writing?

CP: I adore verismo — it's the music of my soul. While writing my first book, Sexual Personae, I was drenched in Puccini. Oddly enough, Madame Butterfly was really inspiring as I was writing my chapter on Emily Dickinson, which I called "Amherst's Madame de Sade." I've been trying to figure out the connection — can it be the terrible isolation of Butterfly? I particularly love the very thing about Puccini that highbrow music critics have scorned — he's Hollywood-like, right out of the over-the-top studio era. Like the end of the first act of Turandot, with its cast-of-thousands feeling — that slow escalation from one simple voice to a massive choir, with people shouting and gongs being struck. It's simultaneously hilarious and magnificent — and classically Italian!

Another thing I played a lot during the writing of Sexual Personae was the Ring. I love Wagner, but I'm ambivalent, because it's hard for me to separate what the Nazis found in it. It's not just a matter of Wagner's real-life anti-Semitism but his vaulting ambition and heroic self-conception — it worries me, because I identify with it. I was much more Wagnerian before I finally got published. My anthem as a writer (I've loved swords since childhood) is the Nothung motif — Siegfried calling his sword, and the hammering sound of the forging. To this day, my hair stands up on end when I hear it. That is so me

ON: In your classes at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, how much time do you spend on opera? 

CP: I often tell my students that if they need to stay up all night to study for exams or write a paper, never mind the coffee — just listen to Lulu! It's the ultimate insomniac music. It remains totally avant-garde! In my Art of Song Lyric course, which I created in the late '80s, I have a section on arias — I pass out bilingual lyrics sheets, and we listen to CDs. Only the voice majors have heard opera before. I have a soft spot for Jussi Björling in that class. As a subset, I talk about divas. I show YouTube clips — the ultimate diva being Callas. It's hard to get students to appreciate lieder — it seems too flat and contained to them. And they rarely respond to Mozart. I use Kiri Te Kanawa as an example of a non-diva style. She's very polite, lovely and reserved. There's not this turbulent, surging, living-through-art thing, the parasitic symbiosis with the audience.

ON: Do you get tired of the constant march of access and outreach in the arts?

CP: But they have to do that to survive! Everything is competing with an overwhelming, omnipresent mass media and in particular an addictive video-game culture. I'm in the classroom, on the front lines of cultural change. I see what the students know and don't know year by year. Let me tell you — we're in a major cultural crisis. What they know is very niche. They have a particular interest and are deep into that one area. But general cultural awareness has radically diminished. 

ON: Twenty years ago, Francesca Zambello's Met production of Lucia di Lammermoor seemed to portray Lucia's descent into insanity as a kind of ultimate liberation. How do you feel about this sort of reading? 

CP: In general, I'm opposed to all anachronism. It drives me crazy. Lucia seems to me such a classic Romantic work. I oppose the export of feminist or any other ideology into pre-modern works. But it's epidemic. It's the heritage of identity politics, which began in academe in the 1970s. It skews interpretation of all kinds of historical works. When you focus on the women's angle or the black angle or the gay angle, you're distorting the text. It's an extrapolation of contemporary assumptions backward so that one never escapes the present. Do you realize that the word "Renaissance" is slowly being dropped in English departments? There's been a steady process in high-level British and American academe to substitute "Early Modern" instead. But when the glorious Renaissance is seen as only the beginning of us, it's a dead end of solipsism. spacer 

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2