- Linda Hutcheon (Author) and Michael Hutcheon (Author)
Bodily Charm: Living Opera. University of Nebraska Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by J. L. Wisenthal
The hero of Bodily Charm: Living Opera is not an operatic character or a singer or a composer, but rather a god: Dionysus, god of wine, ecstasy, dance, and for Linda and Michael Hutcheon the real god of opera. The authors of this book by no means deny the restraining role of Apollo, but their argument is that in some contemporary responses to opera the Apollonian tends to suppress the Dionysian, and they have set out to restore a proper balance. This means asserting the central value and importance of what they call "the Dionysian body" in opera, and making their readers see opera as well as hear it. If Dionysus is their hero, then their villains are twofold: audiophiles and musicologists. Audiophiles reduce the experience of opera to one of listening to disembodied recordings, while musicologists (or many of them) reduce the experience of opera to its music alone, at the expense of language and drama.
The Hutcheons demonstrate the extent to which "the production and reception of opera are intensely bodily acts," and what they advocate is full carnal knowledge of opera, an experience, in the opera house, of the medium’s Dionysian physicality. It is in actual, live performance that one becomes properly aware of the importance of bodies in opera, in three different ways. First, there is the body as represented in operas, and the book shows (in convincing detail) "how operatic plots persist in telling the story of the Dionysian body, however much Apollonian artistic convention may attempt its repression." Second, there are the bodies of the performers to be seen on the stage, and third, there are the bodies of audience members, reacting in powerfully physical ways to the performance.
For the study of a composite art like opera, it is highly appropriate to have a composite author-or at least authors from diverse disciplines. The academic diversity of this volume, as in the case of the Hutcheons’ earlier Opera: Desire, Disease, Death, is impressive. The encounter between Linda Hutcheon’s knowledge of literature and literary theory and Michael Hutcheon’s knowledge of medicine and medical history yields a rich approach to the nature of opera, an approach in which the body is solidly grounded in both critical theory and medical research. The generous endnotes, which occupy almost a third of the volume, range from Umberto Eco’s Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages to Wright’s The Nose and Throat in Medical History, and Troup and Luke’s "The Epiglottis as an Articulator in Singing," and we learn a great deal about such subjects as disability theory (in relation to the deformed bodies of operatic characters) and the physiology of listening (in relation to the experience of audiences). There is also an interesting discussion of Maria Callas’s celebrated weight loss in the 1950s, although no firm conclusion is reached as to whether this affected her voice adversely or whether in general a big body is a necessary condition for a powerful voice.
The Hutcheons are reacting against "the continuing valuing of music over drama by some musicologists writing about opera," and this leads to what some readers might see as a slight devaluing of the essential musical element of opera. The book does have some extremely valuable and percep tive accounts of musical effects in operatic passages, but there are no musical quotations from scores, and libretti are given considerable prominence, as is suggested by the Hutcheons’ practice of citing operas by both composer and librettist (as in "Gluck and Calzabigi’s Orfeo edEuridice"). In their discussion of Rigoletto, they note that "Perhaps in part because of Verdi’s music, Rigoletto is considerably more moving a character than [Hugo’s] Triboulet"-the cautious "perhaps in part" is a qualification that not every student of opera would want to retain in this sentence.
Bodily Charm engages with a wide range of operas, from the early seventeenth to the late twentieth century, and it includes some marvellous accounts of many individual works. The Hutcheons’ most memorable bravura performance, in my view, is their presentation of Salome, in which they place Strauss’s 1905 opera in such contexts as Dionysian dancing and medical discourses of the late nineteenth century. They offer fine insights into contradictions between Salome as young virgin and as femme fatale, and into contemporary medical views of female physiology and behaviour. Salome is an opera in which the body is obviously crucial, but the Hutcheons’ study makes us aware that physical human realities are present in all of opera, and that for a full, proper experience of the medium they are not to be ignored.
- Heroics on the Fringe by Cedric May
Books reviewed: A Thing of Beauty by Sheila Fischman and Michel Tremblay, News from Éduourd by Sheila Fischman and Michel Tremblay, and The Blue Circus by Sheila Fischman and Jacques Savoie
- Of Time and the River by Gordon Fisher
Books reviewed: Before the Flood by Alan R. Wilson
- Home and Away by Annette Kern-Stáhler
Books reviewed: Domesticity, Imperialism, and Emigration in the Victorian Noval by Diana C. Archibald, Passages: Welcome Home to Canada by Westwood Creative Artists, and Destination Canada: Immigration Debates and Issues by Peter S. Li
- The Edges of the Forbidden by Cedric May
Books reviewed: The Devil's Paintbrush by André Brochu and Alison Newall, The Body's Place by Sheila Fischman and Elise Turcotte, and Wild Cat by Sheila Fischman and Jacques Poulin
- Visit-Stay by Gili Bethlehem
Books reviewed: Sulha by Malka Marom
MLA: Wisenthal, J. L. Body Count. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #177 (Summer 2003), (Duncan, Wiebe, Jameson, Thérault, Martel). (pg. 151 - 152)
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