Since quarantine started I have easily watched 150 hours of opera, maybe 200. That’s basically all I do these days—get up at 4 in the morning, shower, eat, play with the cat, write until it’s Opera o’ clock, then eat again and go to bed. In the course of this exercise—which, thanks to the Met’s kind extension of its nightly free opera stream, could feasibly continue until I’ve exhausted their library of recordings—I’ve felt my brain change in a number of ways. The way I approach my own stories and experience the stories of others is certainly altered.
More than that, though, I can’t help but notice a distinct memetic lineage. This is the evolutionary chain I mean: opera > serialized pulp fiction > Looney Tunes and other short cartoons > modern Kindle pulp fiction. There may be more nuance than that and more steps in the chain, but the more I think about this particular artistic evolution, the more I can’t help but deny that it feels right.
If you don’t have much experience with opera, I’d recommend checking out the Met app on whatever device you can. The free trial mode allows you to access their nightly free opera and it’s a great way to have a piece of art you might not otherwise experience randomly forced upon you. One thing you quickly learn, aside from the fact that the librettos are handily represented in the form of subtitles (true even at the actual Met, where they appear along little digitized windows on the backs of all the chairs), is that opera plots are by and large terrible. Oh, man. They are awful. Looking objectively at the writing of opera can reveal the sometimes painful truth that just because something is in Italian or French doesn’t make it smart.
That’s not to say all opera plots are terrible. If I let myself get into Richard Wagner I’d be here all day with a pinboard covered in hysterical strings and headed by the mathematical formula “RING CYCLE + PARSIFAL = TANNHAUSER.” Even lighter comedic operas can be wonderful experiences. The Elixir of Love by Donizetti is a very alchemical work of art that teaches us how increasing our social value with others will permit us to win the hearts of those we really want. Don Pasquale teaches us, uh—old men shouldn’t want to fall in love? Well…like I said, they can’t all be winners.
The long and short of it, however, is that by far and away the prevailing trope of opera is the love triangle—in Verdi’s many operas the theme is almost constant, but it appears in just about every opera you could name in one way or another. From a mechanical standpoint, this is probably largely because you can’t have, say, a Mission Impossible-style conflict and sing at the same time. Conflict therefore has to emerge in manageable ways, and what better and more relatable conflict is there than that of love?
As a result of the focus on music above plot and reaction above action, we frequently see that the scenes in opera depict characters singing about their feelings: feelings for others; feelings about life or death or love; feelings about what’s going to happen, or what just happened between acts or off-stage or even long before the opera started. Character interaction occurs in fits and spurts, defying the age-old piece of writing wisdom that if your character is alone you need to get them with other people or a plot event ASAP. Romance is often a trite vehicle rather than a noble cause, a means to get people to betray each other with often homicidal or suicidal results.
And the characters themselves, in the tradition of commedia dell’arte, subscribe to a fairly predictable set of stock roles. Watching limitless operas back to back, day in and day out, I sometimes feel as though I’m watching the same characters re-emerge across different pieces, especially when they’re played by the same singer. In private, I wryly refer to the primary opera archetypes as “The Simp,” “The Cuck,” and “The Incel,” with one character sometimes playing two or three roles throughout a story. And don’t worry, ladies…female characters can fit these roles just as well as male characters can.
Cuckolding has a long, pre-Shakespeare tradition of being used for an easy gag and reliable plot device. Johns Ford and Webster were just about obsessed with it, and not long after their careers, these same issues of lust and romance were incorporated into opera. In Mozart’s (let’s just use a word I hate) “problematic” opera Cosi fan tutte, the main male characters even adopt disguises and essentially cuckold themselves in an attempt to win a bet with a friend that women are inherently unfaithful. Spoiler alert: they lose the bet and it turns out all women are unfaithful sluts. Thanks, Mozart. That’s just lovely.
But when you put aside the sometimes questionable history of opera tropes and the bad habits of certain composers who seemed to rely a little too heavily on the exoticism they found in other races (Puccini, I’m looking at you), you notice something very interesting. Something familiar. Easily recognizable stock characters, stories presented in almost episodic format, frequent elements of disguise, general trickery, romance of sometimes dubious consent, slapstick comedy…boy!
See why I can’t help but notice an almost straight-line correlation to Looney Tunes? It’s no wonder the Bugs Bunny episodes “What’s Opera, Doc?” and “The Rabbit of Seville” are surely two of the most well-remembered and influential cartoons in all of human history. The more I watch opera, in fact, the more I can’t help but see it as nothing but a kind of live action cartoon set to music.
I’ve gotten into arguments with people about this, but the truth is that opera was really forced to change after Richard Wagner. I would even go so far as to say it ended then, and that Strauss and Puccini were, despite their obvious talents and incredible bodies of work, stragglers emulating forebears rather than pushing their genre forward. By the time Wagner died, Verdi was retired and would only come out for a few more hits–most of which were adaptations of Shakespeare. And, while I acknowledge Puccini was a wonderful composer, his operas lack the grabbing power I feel from Donizetti or Mozart. Of “canonical” opera composers, Strauss was the latest—and it’s worth noting as a point of interest that he produced 6 of his 17 works after the premiere of Looney Tunes in 1930. There’s always going to be some overlap in the evolution of an artform or a genre, and I can’t help but feel it’s far from a coincidence that Strauss seemed to be winding down during the same decade that Tex Avery and Bob Clampett were barely winding up.
If you need more proof, look at the origin of Warner’s “Merrie Melodies” and cartoons as a whole. Merrie Melodies stole—I mean, uh, had their name inspired by—the Disney project, “Silly Symphonies.” Both projects were designed to showcase musical compositions owned by their respective companies. Most early cartoons were set to music or simply musicals—all of this is to say that early cartoons were, essentially, opera. They were used for the same purpose: as visual vehicles to get audience members in seats to listen to a composer’s music.
That’s why the plots of operas tend to be so weak; in most cases, composers and librettists were different people who sometimes didn’t even meet. In the case of operas like Strauss’s Rasulka there were gaps of many years between the writing of the music and the writing of the text. The libretto was a means to an end. Gilbert & Sullivan could hardly stand each other, if you believe the hype—and lest we forget, their comically absurd (some might say almost cartoonish) operas are an undeniable influence on even modern cartoons and signal clearly a shift of storytelling. What Simpsons fan can forget the hilarity of Sideshow Bob singing the entire score of H.M.S. Pinafore in a very Bugs Bunny-esque trick of Bart’s?
Yes, of course, people are still creating opera…but it’s just not the same. It’s all very conceptual now. Shostakovich’s The Nose is hilarious, but almost unlistenable. Glass’s Akhnaten felt like the same motif played over and over again until I had to get up and bake a batch of cookies or else fall asleep in my chair. I wish I could like John Adams, but I really just can’t get there. Frankly, the more modern opera I watch, the more I strongly admire Repo! The Genetic Opera’s willingness to dig into the tropes and character archetypes that once populated these glamorous stages while still making music you can enjoy listening to.
Modern opera is just off. The spirit is gone. It’s moved elsewhere. Composers now compose for films instead of the Church, and so when they compose for opera the tone is now different—the stories, too. Opera is just not the widespread medium for storytelling anymore…and as a result of over-production and executive meddling, neither is film or television. Soap operas seem like the natural descendant, and from a plot perspective they are, but their stories lack the transcendent power of their predecessors. After all, how can you tell a fulfilling story when you’re really just writing to fill the air time between soap commercials?
Disney has dropped all emphasis on creating really heartfelt stories in a gambit to instead fulfill plot beats in films designed to serve as advertisements for rides at Disneyland and Disneyworld. You think they spend all that money on their movies just to sell you merch? Piddly action figures and t-shirts and DVDs? Oh no, baby…that cash is nice, but it’s all about getting your kids to beg you for an in-person visit with Mickey Mouse and his new best friend, Darth Vader. No wonder they’re pissed about COVID—think of all the money they poured into the two-hour-plus trailer for whatever new Mulan ride they were ready to unveil. Or maybe did unveil. I don’t feel like Googling.
So that’s not where the spirit of commedia dell’arte and opera has gone. And it’s not in Looney Tunes anymore, either, because Warner is certainly subject to the same problem Disney-Marvel-Fox has. Where, then, is opera lurking?
In my erotica, my friend. In my erotica and your erotica and even, yes, the erotica of money-making genius E.L. James. We may not like it, but it’s successful for a reason.
Let’s revisit some of the qualities of opera. Opera’s emphasis is on reaction, rather than action. It frequently starts en media res or at least as close to the action as it possibly can. It deals with love triangles, romantic trickery, heartbreak and fulfillment. Cuckolding is a prominent trope, but I didn’t even mention the frequently employed character of the prostitute or the very standard use of the Madonna/Whore dynamic. And, perhaps most relevantly, most—if not all—plot action tends to occur off-stage in favor of long, relatively self-indulgent, angst-filled interactions between forlorn lovers.
All of this as a vehicle for music, much as erotica, which also bears all these qualities, is a vehicle for sex. Replace the dramatic arias and duets with the scenes of lovemaking they represent, and you couldn’t tell if La Traviata’s libretto had been written by Francesco Maria Piave or Regina Watts.
That’s the most important thing to remember about opera—all these songs are symbolic of something deeper. They’re not taking place, as musicals seem to, in worlds where characters suddenly burst into song. Rather, like a soliloquy in Shakespeare, when Violetta paces back and forth in her room exclaiming to herself that she must be free to frolic from joy to joy while Alfredo, far off, cries to her that love is the heartbeat of the universe, we are being trusted with a glimpse into the courtesan’s soul. It is a symbolic song, as so many lovers’ songs in opera are a symbolic replacement for the act of sexual union. Siegfried’s taming of Brunhilde at the end of Siegfried is perhaps among the most audacious works from that regard, because it is just so forthright in its depiction of what is happening between them and Brunhilde’s extremely complicated feelings about it.
So it’s very easy to see the close connections between erotica and opera. Furthermore, erotic fiction used to be primarily verse—from Catullus to Shakespeare and even among characters within the generally prose format of Lady Murasaki’s sensual Genji-Monogatari, poetry was the vehicle of erotic expression. What is libretto but poetry intended for music? It’s almost as if, with the mainstreaming and gradual acceptance of opera, (which like most forms of theater was considered a degenerate waste of time by puritans for quite a long time), erotica split itself in two. The lurid, saucy, graphic stuff that the Victorians left us and that we now pump out for Amazon’s pleasure; and the subtle, spiritual, high-consciousness erotica of the soul as represented by the symbols of opera. With opera in that form no longer being readily produced and this spirit unable to emerge organically when you’ve got groups of producers carefully designing the story that will give them the highest possible financial return, it’s only natural that the creative spark of sensual storytelling has returned to prose.
Poor authors without networks will always be there to write from their hearts. This is sufficient to engender the lively and theatrical storytelling of the sort that opera once produced—but with well-written erotica, the connections are obvious. I am of the strong opinion that erotica is largely derided as a genre because it doesn’t achieve its own expectations—that is to say, the very experience of reading erotica should be, in and of itself, erotic. The aesthetics of the prose should be erotic just as the aesthetics of the opera score should be romantic, sensual, powerful.
Every time I read a bad turn of phrase in a work of an erotic fiction it’s like I’m chewing on aluminum foil: it’s like a wrong note in an opera. In erotica more than any other, the language should flow, the text should have rhythm, the very sentence structure should pulse with sensual intrigue. A good erotica is one through which the reader flows almost as if they’re listening to music or making love. It builds momentum from the start and pushes you through its text in the same way that a Wagner score rises from the orchestra, interweaves with its characters, and draws its audience members deep into the heart of the story until they themselves can hardly be said to exist.
My serialized cannibal horror erotica DOTTIE FOR YOU began as a sort of dual homage to the Marquis de Sade and Vladimir Nabokov, but it was unavoidable that as I absorbed more and more opera the tone of the story would shift. Maybe I expected that, but I didn’t expect opera to have such an impact on the way I tell all my stories—and I certainly didn’t expect it to have such an impact on the way I think about my prose. It has taught me how to make work fast-paced but still emotionally deep. By DOTTIE’s novel-length season finale, out today, the tone of the series had shifted away from violent erotica for the sake of violent erotica and into violent erotica for the sake of spiritual enlightenment.
I have come to view it, especially Episode 8, as a form of prose opera—and DOTTIE fans who’ve already read the season’s finale, especially the last six or so chapters, will surely agree with me. The definition comes not from its referential relationship with many operas from Pagliacci to Die Walkure to Carmen but from the dedicated effort, by way of aesthetic prose, to elevate the violent, sometimes horrific lovemaking of its characters out of sordid pulp and into its own form of esoteric spiritual experience—just as the music of opera frequently elevates the clumsy plots and silly characters of commedia dell’arte out of cartoonish nonsense and into revelation.
It’s only a matter of time before more and more authors see erotica not just as a place to make a quick buck but as a source of artistic and even spiritual expression. Maybe, with everybody stuck in their houses and the Met running one opera a day until at least September of 2021, we can expect this change to come sooner rather than later.