I was thinking about this at the most recent Pittsburgh Opera performance, of Verdi's “Otello”. And what I realized was that writing good opera – or pretty much any opera – is a dying art, and the question was “Why?” You look at other musical forms and yes, they evolve over time... some grow more or less popular... technology has replaced live performance to a depressing degree... and so on, but the forms remain alive and retain a certain currency. And it's not as if no operas are being written; that's not the point. They simply don't have the emotional impact – the salience – of operas of the, let's call it, “classic” period. And why is this? Has human nature changed that much in a hundred years? Can plays, musicals, movies, television, the Internet, etc. possibly have replaced opera, or rendered it obsolete? I think to answer this we have to ask what gives opera its impact – it's dramatic force. (And I am, of course, referring to “serious” as opposed to comic, or light, opera – not that those forms don't have their rightful place.) Because the stories that operas convey are, by and large, quite simple and straightforward. There are plots, schemes, and intrigues, but it's all quite out in the open as far as the audience is concerned; there are surprises, setbacks, and plot twists from time to time, but few real mysteries... and it all gets tied up neatly in the end, unlike the modernist infatuation with ambiguity. Heroes are heroes (there are no “antiheroes”) and villains are villains, and... well, here's where we start to catch on to the essence. The point is that operas are, in additional to being great art forms, morality plays – and without the moral aspect they would seem vapid and pointless... beautiful, but with no soul. But to write, or compose, a morality play, you have to have a sense of morality. And, you have to be able to assume that your audience does as well.
As an experiment, take the basic plot of any opera and think about how it would play as a film or TV program. Betrayal, treason, adultery, fornication, murder? Strip it down to its essence, and the jaded contemporary audience would be bored to tears, simply because these things, and many other offenses against morality (not to mention decorum), are taken for granted these days. One hardly notices. (Well, maybe one does notice in the case of murder, but we've even become jaded about that, at least as a moral issue versus simply a case of particularly bad manners. Murderers in our time are not considered evil or immoral so much as badly brought up; all they really need is a hug.)
The almost universal reaction to the plot line of a typical classical opera would be “What's all the fuss about?” And if you take an opera, and remove the music, and the sets, and the costumes, that's precisely what most “modern” people would say. Why is adultery, for example, such a big deal – even though it is a major theme in many operas. And the idea of a “fallen woman”? Please. (Are there any women in our time who aren't “fallen”? And as to men, well... we've always been fallen, so that's not as big a deal. Yes, opera exemplifies the double standard when it comes to sexual morality! Stop the presses!)
“Now wait a minute,” you might say, “people are no more immoral now than they've ever been. It's just more out in the open.” Well, isn't that “being out in the open” also a moral issue? Doesn't it compound the offense when people don't care who knows, or even brag about it? It's certainly true that the human race has had its ups and downs in the morality department; I don't think that we live in either the best of times or the worst of times.
There is one difference, though, and that is the one between immorality and amorality. Immoral behavior is what happens when people know right from wrong, but do the wrong thing anyway – and this is what happens, nearly always, in opera. The villains know they are villains. They may brag about it, regret it, or be indifferent, but they know they are violating society's standards of decency. Amorality, on the other hand, is what happens when people literally don't know right from wrong, either from bad upbringing or some profound psychological flaw. Then you have what are called “moral imbeciles” or psychopaths. (The only true psychopath in classical opera may be Don Giovanni, but I would have to go back and have a closer look in order to be sure.) The problem with psychopaths is that they aren't conflicted; they never feel the pangs of conscience because they have no conscience – or, at least, no functioning one. They aren't rebelling because they have nothing (a Freudian would say a Superego) to rebel against. The result, paradoxically, is that they are boring. They may be fascinating for a while, like some predatory beast, but since they have no depth they are much harder to relate to (let alone sympathize with) than someone who does wrong even though he knows it's wrong – in other words, the common lot of humanity up until recently.
Eventually we tire of psychopaths and relegate them to some sort of societal freak show. People more like us are more interesting, except that there seem to be fewer “people like us” with each passing day. And this is not to say that psychopaths have taken over in all areas and at all levels of society (with the possible exception of politics and banking) – but that we have lost our grounding... our anchor. When people are set morally adrift they may nonetheless behave in a pseudo-moral or ethical way most of the time, out of sheer cultural inertia, or because they retain a faint glimmer of Natural Law. But when society in general – especially the public “face” of society, as represented by the news and entertainment media – has a ho-hum attitude about morality, then it will seem silly to most people (Ayn Rand would call them “social metaphysicians”) to protest or do things any differently. (If people can get away with all sorts of things that would have been condemned in earlier times, why be a chump and “cling” to outmoded standards?) And from this perspective, any attempt, through art, to uphold traditional morality seems “hokey” or naïve, even if the means of expressing it are still honored and respected.
And yet – the paradox is that we, or some of us, still attend opera performances... and some may even agree with the moral positions conveyed. Not only that, but there are morality plays being performed millions of times each day in movie theaters and on the Internet (by “gamers”). So there is a thirst for morality – for standards – and yet it has for the most part been relegated to fantasy worlds, where things can still be black and white without threatening some political agenda. Applying standards to the real world is too daunting, too messy – impossible, really.
And one might say, but isn't opera fantasy? Hasn't it always been? Perhaps this is true if we're talking about Wagner, but I find operas in general (I mean the classical sort) quite down to earth – quite realistic, actually, if somewhat simplified and boiled-down compared to the complexities and ambivalences of “real life”. Not only that, but the music, the sets, the costumes, the acting, and the staging all serve to amplify the moral issues – to bring them into sharp relief. (If a person is betrayed and sings about it, it has more impact than any amount of talking. A long, boring complaint using the spoken word becomes a memorable aria when sung.) It's no accident that those daytime TV dramas are called “soap operas” -- but they have suffered from the same moral erosion as the rest of TV, movies, etc. The bottom line is that morality is considered “unrealistic” in our time; to be, or feel, moral (in the vicarious sense) we have to escape reality.
So we have this fascinating phenomenon where we are, or can be, moral and upright in fantasy worlds but apathetic and relativistic in the real world. I see this as a kind of despair, as if to say that the world is off its axis and is beyond repair, so we may as well immerse ourselves in fantasy in order to satisfy that moral hunger, but resign ourselves to moral anarchy in the everyday world (which is rapidly shrinking as more people spend more of their time interfacing with fantasy).
If there's any good news in all this, it's that this moral hunger still exists for many people, no matter how limited its scope – which indicates, to me, that Natural Law is for real, and truly is “written on the heart”. But how depressing that it's considered irrelevant to modern life – even to the legal system, which has been taken over by moral relativism.
How we long to breathe the cold, clear air of truth, which includes a sense of right and wrong! (Because if truth is right, then untruth must be wrong. Right? Or is that just too logical?) And when we don't find it in society, or among our leadership, we satisfy that urge with fantasy – with pathetic “little liberties” that no government bureaucrat has yet caught us at. I would propose that the health of a society is correlated not only with moral behavior, but with the display of morality in entertainment and recreation. The more of our waking hours spent in morally neutral activities, the more danger we are in of further erosion, and of accepting even lower standards and worse “leaders” and exemplars in the future.