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What opera shares with The Simpsons

Simpsons News — Posted 05 May, 2005 by Scott

The Simpsons, which recently aired its 350th episode, is also a stylized representation of reality. It does not look in any way like reality, and yet we accept that in some way it is a comment (in this case, a satirical comment) on a real world. If it didn't have any bearing at all on a world we know, we wouldn't watch it. Watching The Simpsons, one notices right away that every human character has three fingers and a thumb on each hand. And one immediately accepts that in this reality, people have four fingers -- just as in the reality of opera, people sing poetry instead of speaking. They are still people. Somehow, even cardboard cutouts in puppet shows can come to represent people, and we will follow their silly stories with interest.
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Last week I saw two baroque operas, put on by the remarkable Toronto opera/ballet company Opera Atelier, which specializes in court entertainments for aristocrats of another age. Its work is beautiful and meticulously unmodern, which makes it difficult to access for a modern mentality. The characters in baroque opera are usually gods or kings or queens, and so speak (or rather sing) entirely in poetry. Their movements are highly stylized and rhetorical, not natural, but idealized: They are poses which form tableaux representing their noble blood, their very difference from you and me. The point is not a representation of life, but a representation of a story that serves as an example or an inspiration.

These operas are an interesting illustration of the discussion I keep returning to (here and in my mental arguments with screenwriters) about the value of convention in art. These operas follow very strict formal rules: Like sonnets or newspaper cartoons, they have precise structures and strictures. Audiences watching opera accept that the world being presented is a very different one, with very different rules, and yet it is still in some way a reflection of our own world. All art follows rules of some kind, and it is extremely curious that we still accept it as representation of reality. The process by which it does come to represent reality is always almost unfathomably complicated, whether it be ancient or modern.

Let me use specific examples here. One of the operas I saw was Actéon, by the French composer Charpentier. It tells the story of a hunter who comes across the goddess Diana and her nymphs while they are bathing. Diana is furious, and turns him into a stag. He is then torn apart by his own hounds. (A sad story, and a symbolic one: Stags have long been symbols of cuckolded husbands, since rutting stags steal the mates of other stags, so poor Actéon has, over time, become a symbol of the husband whose wife cheats.) Anyway, the opera presents the story in a ritualized way: The actor/singers don't act, but present. They present by singing and dancing. Certain events are ritualistically presented: The nymphs don't take off their clothes, of course, but dab at their necks in unison with handkerchiefs. Actéon sees his reflection in a "pool," here represented by a skein of purple silk -- it's a lovely image. And Actéon's plaintive song, on realizing that he has lost his beautiful voice and turned into a hairy, mute brute, is haunting.

So far, so good: Even a modern mentality, brought up on naturalist cinema and photography, is still capable of understanding that which is stylized, or even mimed. (We still play charades after parties.) What is harder to understand is the physical stance and poses of the heroic Actéon (in this case played and sung beautifully by Colin Ainsworth), which seem histrionic and even effeminate by contemporary standards. They are historically accurate: It only takes a few glances at portraiture of the 17th and 18th centuries to know that the masculine ideal of the period was elegant and refined rather than macho. Actéon's angled hips and trailing toe can be seen in dozens of classical and neo-classical pastoral scenes, which show noblemen like him engaged in blood sports.

My rather laboured point here is simply that what we consider natural rarely is. That current cinema's tough-guy clichés of masculinity -- with their ritual stances, grimaces, cigarettes and guns -- are conventions, idealized and symbolic stances, and they are just as mannered as those of the 18th century.

Here's an even clearer example of what I mean: The Simpsons, which recently aired its 350th episode, is also a stylized representation of reality. It does not look in any way like reality, and yet we accept that in some way it is a comment (in this case, a satirical comment) on a real world. If it didn't have any bearing at all on a world we know, we wouldn't watch it. Watching The Simpsons, one notices right away that every human character has three fingers and a thumb on each hand. And one immediately accepts that in this reality, people have four fingers -- just as in the reality of opera, people sing poetry instead of speaking. They are still people. Somehow, even cardboard cutouts in puppet shows can come to represent people, and we will follow their silly stories with interest.

And counterterrorist agents in TV shows can spend 24 hours chasing and killing armed opponents without eating anything (not an apple, not a pack of sesame snacks, nothing!). We do not demand naturalism from our action thrillers any more than we demand it from baroque opera.

Why does this matter? For one thing, it applies to the debate about formula in art: We keep returning, as artists and as audiences, to formulas. We keep returning to formal structures that don't echo daily life (for daily life has little structure, little form). Conventions seem to give the fragmented miasma of daily life meaning, significance. At least that's what I'd argue if I were one of the screenwriters I've been berating.

And then I would reply (I mean I-real-me) to me (I-imaginary-screenwriting-interlocutor) that this may be true, but that once conventions become fixed they immediately begin to become stale, and that it is up to artists to constantly disrupt conventions so as to substitute new conventions. And that if we don't change our formulas from time to time, we will end up making art that looks as stilted, stiff and mannered as 17th-century opera does to modern eyes.

All this came to mind because I spent two delightful hours listening to some baroque music. Art makes me crazy.

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