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ECON 4400 Lecture Notes - Richard Strauss, Aria, National Enquirer

Course Code
ECON 4400

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Lecture 7 Clements 1
School of Arts and Letters, Atkinson Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies
Summer 2009
AK/HUMA 1780 6.0A Stories in Diverse Media
Wilde Pictures and Sounds: More Representations of the Femme Fatale
Salome, the Opera by Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
So here it is, the moment you've been dreading … opera. Yes, you'll need to listen
to/watch the excerpt specified, but it should be relatively painless as it will only be 5-10
minutes of your life. So far, I've been focusing on the two larger concepts that are implied
by the title of this course: stories (narrative) and different media, using the term
adaptation. Just to clarify, by media, which is the plural form of medium (please
remember this come essay time), I'm referring to the material through which a story is
conveyed, not to the media, as in the national enquirer, the paparazzi, or the news. Opera
is not only one of the art forms through which we can discuss one of our designated
stories, but it is also one that combines various media. Like film, opera unites several of
the arts when it is performed. It is a significant precursor to a couple of art forms with
which you are very familiar: movies, of course, together with their music, as well as
multimedia forms of representation, such as computers. Opera combined media more
than most other art forms long before the concept of multimedia became popular in the
early 1990s with computers. In many ways, opera was the nineteenth century version of
today's hip media, such as film and video games.
Importantly, opera also involved technological innovation and was known for its
ability to produce a spectacle—two more elements that the film industry developed.
Opera viewers went to the theater to be awed, not only by the singing, but also by the

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Lecture 7 Clements 2
visual spectacle of elaborate costumes, lighting wizardry, and inventive and
technologically advanced set design. Opera goers went to the theatre to partake in the
illusion of being carried away to another place, to lose themselves in another moment in
time and space. Sounds like a night out at the movies, does it not?
One of the people who dominated opera in the nineteenth century was Richard
Wagner (1813-1883) (See Lecture Summary Slide 2). There are a few things you need
to know about Wagner to help make more sense out of what you will hear/see. Wagner
was responsible for transforming the art of opera in the nineteenth century into what he
called the total work of art, or in German, Gesamtkunstwerk. He theorized that opera
would be the perfect medium through which to combine many, if not all, of the art forms
within the framework of drama. Hearkening back to ancient Greek drama, Wagner
suggested this ancient stuff had it right because it combined the elements of dance, music,
and poetry. The separation of those elements, the theory goes, had diminished their
expressive force and only in the total work of art could they regain their initial dignity,
according to Wagner. The three arts of dancing, music, and poetry, then, would combine
in the actor of the future. We call that a "triple threat" in show biz—someone who can
dance, sing, and act … you know, like Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, and Britney. (Yes, I'm
joking.) You can see from these examples, however, that it's actually quite difficult to
possess such a variety of talents, giving us a bit of a clue as to the abilities needed to
portray Strauss's multi-talented character of Salome. Such a part necessitates an opera
singer who can sing for just under 2 hours over a huge, ear-splitting orchestra, as well as
dance and act. Typically, with such a difficult role, one of the arts seems to suffer (in this
case, it's often the dancing). Opera singers train their voices extensively and also work on

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Lecture 7 Clements 3
their acting, but they usually leave the dancing to the dancers as there are few roles that
require it.
Wagner is also responsible for changing the structure of the art form. With his
idea of the total work of art he theorized that the recitative (sung speech) and the arias
(think of them as songs, set pieces in which the singer emotes about life, death, or love,
etc.) should no longer be separate. In the past, these two types of singing were separate in
opera, particularly during W. A. Mozart's time. But Wagner wanted to change this. He
thought opera should be through-composed, meaning there should be no break or
difference between the sung speech (recitative) that tells you what is happening in terms
of the plot, and the songs (arias) that slow down the action but accentuate the music and
the virtuosity of the vocal performer. Again, this was to emulate Greek drama. So an
opera, according to Wagner, and, subsequently, Strauss, should not alternate back and
forth between the moments where you learn about the plot, the events or action, and the
moments when a heightened emotional state is communicated within an aria. You will
notice this when you listen to the example, whether or not you're aware of it, because it's
what makes it feel like the opera is so slow. They repeat things over and over, and you
are told about an upcoming event several times before it actually happens. Salome says,
oh, five, six, ten times that she is going to kiss John's mouth, gosh darn it, but only does
so after singing for another ten minutes. The effect of this slower event sequence is to
accentuate the music, of course.
So, this brings us to Richard Strauss, the composer of the opera based on Wilde's
play. Strauss was the leading figure in German opera for the first half of the twentieth
century and he was largely a follower of Wagner's compositional philosophies. At the
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