God, Girls and Depravity: Some Reflections on Lawrence Kramer’s Opera and Modern Culture



Alfred Fisher



On Notes


                      A constituency for opera is created, but only occasionally by opera itself. Renewed interest in opera scholarship over the past fifteen years, and, in particular, work focused on context - opera as cultural phenomenon, opera as source for critical and social theory - suggests that this growing body of work represents not only renewed interest in the field, but that it is both serving and growing a new constituency of interest.

                Opera has a healthy primary constituency - “fans” able to afford a ticket to the Met or wait seven years, as Kramer observes, for a ticket to Bayreuth. But there remain two satellite constituencies for opera, both locating primary interest in context rather than opera itself. (1), A social constituency, as old as opera itself, for whom context is centered in the opera house but valued as opportunity for social networking and (2), a nontraditional constituency of readers who are not primarily involved with music, and for whom context is the secondary product of experience and reflection of others. While the first requires only means and an opera theatre, the second requires the energies of musical scholars able to mine the score, extract the information, translate, interpret and publish the words that will serve the interests of readers. Seemingly opposed, parallels between satellite constituencies are not without fascination. Satellite constituencies share more than what might be imagined.

                      Abstracted from the source, the social constituency values opera primarily as a socially galvanizing event. For all its éclat, it is of no value if it does not lead to significant yield. If anything, the readership constituency recognizes this separation as “add-on value”, encountering opera after conversion to primal cultural/textual/visual bit. Both functionalize the gap between opera as investment and opera as experience. Kramer, the consummate multidisciplinarian, whose own strength of experience vibrates through thickets of language and abstraction, is fully competent to mine scores and provide the readership thoughtful, well refined bits all delivered in the preferred readership dialect.

                Reduced to “primal stuff,” opera is transformed into an open vault of symbol and story, provocation and proof for the analytical regimes of cultural theory and criticism. For many without advanced musical training, the treasure would remain buried in the overburden of the score were it not for polyglot scholars such as Kramer. He does the field work; analyzing musical and dramatic structure, reception history, aesthetic issues, and biography, mapping the links between the score and a galaxy of knowledge that slices across the disciplines from analytic philosophy to queer studies, literature from Aeschylus to Joyce, and critical voices from Nietzsche, Marx and Freud to Derrida, Bourdieu and Zizek. Ideas are extended through long corridors of argument and synthesized in confident, thick prose filling the space between the idiosyncratic and the arcane.

                      Kramer begins with a scan of the development of recent critically based opera scholarship of the 90’s. He notes that “… the very acts of focus on gender, sexuality, noumenal subjectivity and so on…have opened the study of opera to new, increasingly sophisticated modes of understanding”[1] and, further, that “Part of the intent of recent opera scholarship has certainly been to restore the historical (that is, the worldly and contingent) import so often blunted by too exclusive a focus on strictly musical questions.”[2] He recognizes that “there has been and continues to be a shift in priority from opera as music to opera as musical theatre.”[3] The study of opera has, in this view, migrated beyond the established music-analytical realm, resituating itself within the domain of cultural studies, home turf to the readership constituency. Kramer’s broad understanding extends beyond the issues and priorities of cultural studies to encompass traditional and not-so-traditional analytical/exegetical skills. Scholars who proceed from the same dedication animating Kramer’s work, will nonetheless be surprised in reading him. They will discover that while his deep literacy and musicality are powerfully integrating, his strategy of generous inclusivity is, as an ideal, not as open-ended as it is functional. But it is from this breadth that questions are drawn and Kramer’s questions are the book’s greatest strength.

                      Utilizing the philosophical concept of “best example,” Kramer centers his exploration of what he identifies as “big O Opera” on Wagner and Strauss as emblematic of social processes that bring about what he terms “middle modernity.” How, then, do these works define middle modernity and how can they be read as both embodiment and critical commentary of it? How might critical theory be engaged in the analysis of this repertory as a site for the construction of social and aesthetic value? In what ways can opera be understood as both the instrument and product of “symbolic investiture,” affirming and denying norms, abnorms and all that separates them? Kramer’s questions are compelling because they proceed from a cunningly designed intersection of knowledge and speculation, musical comprehension and cultural literacy. The reader’s response will be both qualified and provoked by Kramer’s strategy of differentially assigning weight and focus along the line separating the score as music from the score as cultural script. The strategy can be read not only as a confirmation of a fundamental shift in musical scholarship but also as the “refitting” of musical scholarship such that it more efficiently serve the priorities as well as the technical limitations of a growing readership.

                      But Kramer’s subjectivity does not serve subjectivity itself. Rather, it serves the goal of freeing musicology of its formalistic, philological, and historiographic habits, opening it to the intense issue-nexus of critical and social theory. It’s an idealistic objective that, while advancing renewal and expansion of musicology, opens theory and criticism to opera. Kramer has made significant contributions in redefining disciplinal frontiers with his work of the last decade and in particular, his Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge (1995), After the Lovedeath: Sexual Violence and the Making of Culture (1997), and Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History (2002). As both a literary and musical scholar, Kramer brings to his work an acute sensitivity to the interiors of language and an ability to potentialize suggestion and nuance, identify the most subtle connections, and, on this basis, to construct multi-directed arguments impelled by intuition, evidence, reasoning, and imaginative use of theory.

                      Kramer’s product is a tradable commodity within the current economy of scholarship. And, not surprisingly, his assumption is that its first consumers will be readers whose music-analytical skills may be less than finely developed. Accordingly, he is moved to advise the reader in such matters as score reading protocols[4] and to emphasize the most basic theoretical conceptions (e.g. the fifth scale degree as the “site of expectancy or demand” - a property that is of questionable significance in the examples cited - particularly in the decapitation scene of Salome where the syntactical role of pitch itself is brought into question.[5]

                      Kramer’s concern, albeit selective, with notes and their structuring serves to remind the reader, and in particular, the reader coming to opera through cultural studies, that the histories, ideologies, gender and racial typologies; the hierarchies, conflicts and transgressions - all the flotsam and glory of European culture illumined in opera cannot be drawn exclusively from the framing context. Stravinsky insisted that the notes are always “about” themselves and their relations even in a texted work. A more current and less severe view would recognize that notes do not constitute a closed system, but transcend the work itself, informing and reflecting the context in which both the work and its composer are held.  Context is independent, but not without trace in musical structure. The multidisciplinary nature of opera does not belie the fact that while our reading of it can be open-ended, it will always be bound to pitch/temporal relations. Beyond the subjectivity exercised in situating scholarly focus to either side of the score/context divide, the integrity of synthesis and theorization is strengthened when inquiry begins or, at the least, passes through secure comprehension of scores and their musical particularities.

                      Opera and Modern Culture is not a work for the Liebhaber. It’s not an introduction or survey, but a dense, challenging work for the “advanced generalist.” Given the migration of musicology in the direction of cultural history and theory but without a corresponding migration in the direction of musical literacy evident in cultural studies, the experiential/analytical dimension of music is unlikely to function as a significant point of reference in the development of argument, idea and theory. It would be wrong to read such a prognostication as a volley in the ancient debate re. the primacy of words or music. Words, as Kramer has reported, hold precedence. It is, rather, floated as a prudential concern for ambitions in musical scholarship harbored by cultural theory and criticism which, though swelling in its current strengths, dissipates potential in presuming that opera or music in general might be approached without the intent to pass through the complex codes of the score. Kramer’s strategy of unequal weighting of music analysis and critical theory seems generally unobjectionable given his goals, but the thinness of the analyses themselves limits their effectiveness in supporting the larger argument.         

                      So it is that Kramer is moved to observe, for example, the obvious polarization of C and C# in the decapitation scene in Salome (how could these tonal centers be presented in temporal proximity without the intention/effect of polarization?) or to overlook asymmetricality in harmonic rhythm or the dissonance/functionality level in a prevailing harmonic environment as framing factors for analysis of specific harmonic structures. Kramer’s analysis of the harmonic/tonal events supporting Klytämnestra’s death scene is particularly surprising. Here, Kramer views such constructions as “common tone” modulation and “six-four chords,” both of which have a literal presence but no structural role in a harmonic context that is manifestly anti-functional. The duplicity or avoidance of dominants in post-romantic harmony, the role of third-related harmonies, mixture and double mixture in contexts without evident functional dominants leads to the identification of tonal shifts where there is but textually motivated articulation in an ongoing rolling, unsettled harmonic environment.[6] Kramer would only have validated his expressed intention “to think with some fullness about the phenomenon of Opera, and to think about matters of general worldly concern by means of Opera”[7] by bringing to bear certainly not a more advanced, but a more penetrating, heuristic analytical focus. Readers able to ply the broad waters from Plato to Derrida might also be expected to acquire and exercise a basic understanding of the materials of music. Notes serve as both source and reflection of idea. If ideas can begin with notes, than interpretive scholarship will begin with a confident understanding and sure presentation of the behavior of notes.


On Words

                      Of course, the argument could end here.  That’s because the world of critically and historically based analysis is not delimited as a domain of intellectual inquiry or defined in language and principle as is musical scholarship and music theory in particular. Music theory is 1,500 years old or older. While in accelerated flux over the past ten years or so, what it is and what it becomes is the product of a dialectic within its own domain and history. Cultural theory, however, defines and redefines spontaneously and its dialectic is global. It holds tribal, class and essentialist-rooted epistemologies as barriers to be transcended. Indeed, the work begins with the creation of a theoretical potency equal to the task of just this transcendence. Its inherent mobility enables not only large statements, but also powerful, composite analytical disciplines and nuanced strategies that are modeled to the analytical task at hand. Kramer is its master.

                      There is something novelistic about Kramer’s argumentation and style. The deftness and confidence with which he writes suggests something of the performer and a bit of the seer in his ability to toss about symmetries and shake out underlying asymmetries or to reason through the appearance of the extraordinary and expose the heart of convention. In the course of his writer’s virtuosity, he, far more than the many who have attempted it, is actually successful in approaching certain chapters as “interpretive performance.” Fraught with pitfalls, this is territory that has generated more unintended humor than any modality of communication in recent humanistic studies. Kramer, nonetheless, has the positive audacity and facility to compose an opening chapter that is organized as an “opera.” It proceeds from a prelude offering a film of Goddard (Two or Three Things I Know About Her, 1966) as paradigmatic for the normality/abnormality, rule/transgression, sufficiency/excess dialectic as it pertains to sex roles and desire in particular and human behavior more generally. It invokes Habermas, Derrida and a selection of feminist critics as sources of theoretical notions developed around the issue, and then proceeds through three scenes centered respectively on Whitman (sexualization of the opera experience), Freud (homosexualization of the opera/music experience), and Wagner (sexual transcendence, sexual negation), each of which develops themes of the prelude while motivating the whole forward to the “curtain.” Functioning performatively as both coda and bridge and posed in both deconstructive and psychoanalytic terms, the “curtain” hypothesizes the norm/abnorm paradigm, the unifying theme that is threaded through the six chapters and epilogue to follow. No, Kramer is not a novelist, he is a composer - irrepressibly Wagnerian - the Wagner of Meistersinger at that.

                      Kramer’s historical/cultural analysis is securely connected to two basic concepts: symbolic investiture and the norm/abnorm dialectic. Their cogency is both complementary and intersecting. Kramer observes that symbolic investiture has had a long, staged entry into the world of intellectual trade. Its routing, from source material in Schreber’s Memoirs of (1903) and Freud’s famous study (1911) of this text, to its theorization in Lacan and, especially, Bourdieu and finally, and most pertinently, in Eric Santner’s remarkable 1996 critical study of the Byronic yet psychotic Dr. Schreber, maps a revealing intellectual genealogy. Kramer defines his appropriation of symbolic investiture as “…the process by which social institutions grasp the inner being of the individual in its essence, and in so doing both define and confer that essence.” [8] Things (national flags, the grail), individuals (Elvis, Siegfried), groups of people (Germans, Jews), and ideas (misogyny, anti-Semitism), are all subject to symbolic investiture. In his discussion of Wagnerian “enchantment” (a specific instance of and lot nicer word choice than symbolic investiture), he makes the point that while the “moment” of symbolic investiture is located in social process according to Bourdieu, for many, it is encountered in the artwork. Thus, Wagner - as opera, as social theorist, as aesthete and aesthetic - is in all of its instantiations the subject of symbolic investiture.  In this sense, it can be understood as a fragile psycho-social-aesthetic union requiring, as Kramer is quick to point out, regular renewal and upkeep.  But it is also immensely powerful, capable of creating truths of convenience and, through them, ideological environments of incalculable power. For the individual, [social investiture] “fixes the character of my social world, fixes my place in that world, and fixes its place in me.” [9] It is through symbolic investiture that “people become what they are.”[10] All of this reduces to a coefficient of the obvious: it is through symbolic investiture that societies become what they are.

                       Santner understands Schreber’s psychosis to be a condition resulting from the failure of environment to provide either facta or mythologia from which symbolic investiture might be fashioned, thereby frustrating the process by which the individual is able to “invest” both environment and self with meaning and value. For Santner, on the basis of his analysis of the Schreber case, and for Kramer, on the basis of his examination of the dialectic of modernity as presented in opera, modernity is defined by a “crisis” in symbolic investiture. Placed within a personal/political frame, such a crisis can be understood as the collapse of symbolic authority. Opera is constitutive of symbolic investiture and, in the works here under examination, frequently functions as the agency by which it is tested and confirmed. The very experience of opera, in Kramer’s view, can become a moment of symbolic investiture in that …”one of its functions…is precisely to represent being forcibly seized by a symbolic mandate as a forceful seizing of it,”[11] but also, conversely, “if modernity really is marked by a crisis of symbolic investiture, Opera offers itself as one of the antidotes.” [12]

                      The dialectic of norm and abnorm, woven of quite different but complementary strands of Habermas and Foucault, functions as a defining property of “big O Opera.” Kramer’s flexible approach opens the concept to readings of greater subtlety and value than simple opposition. In Kramer’s appropriation, the terms of the pair can also be complementary and generative in their reification as character and situation. Each is an analogue of ideologically, historically, or psychologically sanctioned states of compliance and resistance, supremacy and debasement. And, fascinatingly, each has the potential to morph into the other as exampled by Siegfried, Brünnhilde and the two “polymorphs”, Salome and Elektra. Together, the paired terms constitute the primary category of the abnorm (in the sense of “abnormal norm”) and are thus disposed to the norm in ways that parallel the relation with each other. Indeed, in Kramer’s usage, each creates the algebraic certainty of the other. It is these properties of “big O Opera” that form the object of intensive analysis through the structuring discourse of theory.

                      While the shadow of narrowing the sample to accord with preconceived conclusions hovers, Kramer’s definition of “big O Opera” is an interesting one:

[Big O Opera] can be understood only by, and as, a continuous negotiation of the space between the contested positions of normality and extravagance in the fields of identity and desire. But it must be added immediately that this is not a statement of the need to mediate two positions that just happen to be in contention. Rather, the historical truth of Opera-meaning, in this book, the Opera of the core repertoire, a relatively small group of favorite works composed between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries; not all operas, by no means all, are Opera - the historical truth of Opera is that it must above all be understood by, and as, a negotiation between just these positions.[13]

                      Accordingly, Kramer focuses his analysis on characters such as Siegfried, who, in the eponymous opera, enters as Nietzsche’s favorite abnorm (Kramer sees him as “ascendant,” an “exemplary immoralist”); intuitive, “natural”, fearless, dedicated, generous, but conscienceless, unsoiled by social or sexual constraint. This is the revolutionary, supremacist Siegfried who, six hours later, exits a debased chump in Götterdammerung, having been deceived by the morally degenerate half-Jew, Hagen and reduced to the status of conventionalist - a dumb conventionalist at that, never having discovered his real enemies. The racialism firmly established in Rheingold through the sulfurous Jew-dwarf, Alberich, thus advanced in Siegfried and Götterdammerung, becomes a toxic, self-confirming “truth” - a subject of the transforming process of symbolic investiture. Notwithstanding the surety that the pilgrims at Bayreuth might truly have understood that what was before them was artificial and not substantiated by experience, it presented a coded message, rooted in pseudo-mythology, in the pseudo-science of Rassenwissenschaft, and in their investiture as German cultural epistemology. In the end, the fall of Siegfried from hero status “foretells what will happen to Germany if the race is not held pure”(78). The transformation of Siegfried, the first of Wagner’s breaches for the sometimes worshipful but always uncannily aware Nietzsche was followed by a more serious violation, this time descending to the surefire territory of guilt inducing sexuality and bourgeois religious sentimentality of Parsifal. Through Siegfried’s transformation, Brünnhilde remains unimpeachably heroic in design, purpose and essence. She intensifies her exaltation of Siegfried, rising to suicidal apotheosization in the immolation scene. Alas, no better defended than is the rest of the race of heroes against the manipulations of the wicked, Brünnhilde too becomes the object of abjection through the conspiracy of power, lust, and spiritual depravity of the Jews, the magic, power, and guilt of Wotan, and by the country-boy naiveté, heroic non-reflexivity, and flat-out, dumbed-out sexual treachery of the imploded Siegfried.


Gods, Girls and Depravity 

                      Negotiating positions of normality/extravagance, power/abjection in Salome is intense and unrelenting. Seen as “a focal point for a bundle of instabilities produced in and around the fin-de-siecle gender system.”[14] she is both object and subject of obsession. She is thrust into abjection by the pornographically impelled gaze of Herod and the corporate gaze of the court (and audience). But Salome has power. She is not simply the victim of their perversity; she is its witness, responding in kind, returning abjection with abjection, gazing, so to speak, on the gazers. The circle of deviancy is more than matched by her obsession with the handsomely corporialized but obsessively decorporializing Jochanaan (John the Baptist). She must possess this body, so strangely blind to itself as both subject and object of desire. She must kiss its mouth. When rejected, she demands the symbolic castration of the unpossessable, seizing power by exploiting Herod’s lust with an erotic dance. She is rewarded by presentation of the castrated object, the severed head and by her sexually triumphant act: rape of the mouth of Jochanaan.

                      This, then, is the medium; expressed in supercharged language - dressed in sensuously decorative imagery and apprehended in music of unprecedented textural complexity and sinuosity - the whole made-to-order for a world of designed prettiness, encroaching technology and terrifying new knowledge of the forces that shape human life and desire. It is a statement that is cunningly designed to exploit the volatile turn-of-the-century mix of repression, guilt, misogyny, racism, hidden terror and apathy, all of which Kramer references and integrates so well. Strauss may have understood himself as a “first-class second-rate composer,” but, then, he understood something of himself and his audience that remained beyond the reach of other composers until the advent of Mick Jagger and Sting. Had Artaud known Strauss’s Salome? I think he would have overcome his disdain for bourgeois delusion and dared to love it.

                      In deconstructing all of this, Kramer explores the late-19th century fixation on the figure of Salome, in its various appropriations by writers beginning with Flaubert and continuing through Huysmans, Wilde, of course, the drawings and paintings of Beardsley, Moreau, Klimt, and, what is surely the most breathtaking “find” in the book, the frankly sensual but non-voyeuristic rendering of Salome by the American painter Ella Ferris Pell.[15] This, he cleverly reserves for the final page of the fifth chapter, “Modernity’s Cutting Edge.”  He could not have chosen a more arresting, elucidating statement. It provides interesting perspective for Kramer’s perception …”that the Salome craze, constituted an effort to normalize by means of aesthetic pleasure, what Freud identified as the dominant sexual disturbance of the age, the coupling of masculine potency with the debasement of women.”[16] Ferris’s Salome is not degraded, fully sexual and balanced. Her breast is bared, the charger is without head, and Salome lovely and without passion. It is a wonderful negation of the male-authored Salome myth.  Salome, it turns out, need not be played as a whore. The mystery and fear that colors the imagined sexuality of women, and Salome as one of its most powerful symptoms, constitutes the site of an incantatory, aestheticized pornography and a response to the monstrous that guarantees its perpetuity.

                      Kramer offers an interesting cycle of interpretations, really speculative riffs on Salome beginning with a reference to Frank Kermode’s notion of Salome as emblematic of art, in keeping with her idealization as a figure integrating sensuality and mind.[17] Salome, responding only to herself and her obsession, is, in her dramatic presentation, the least integrated of characters. The writers provide Kramer with a speculative field of greater potential. Here, Salome is, herself, seen as an artist. Huysmans sees her as “a specialist in adornment and ornamentation, using her clothing and jewelry to form a prolific vocabulary of gestures and figures. … In Wilde she is a love poet who speaks in an incantatory stream of similes, of which the seven veils of her dance form visual emblems.”[18] Wilde’s Salome is seen to effect a gender-blurring in the anxiety, the hopelessness of her passion, a perspective conjoining Beardsley’s illustrations, which, beneath their complex symbolic web, evoke a Salome who is mad, magical, wicked, and gorgeously androgynous.

                      Conforming to a fin-de-siecle Europe profoundly invested in debasing mythologies of female sexuality, Wilde/Strauss create a Salome whose obsession nonetheless leads her to cross significant cultural frontiers. She dies, Herod lives - but only Herod is defeated. Herod, the historical “nasty-boy” without peer, while clearly a character of great fascination for Strauss, given his brilliantly developed musical characterization, holds little sway with Kramer notwithstanding the primary focus on the ironies of the supremacy/debasement dyad. Through the instrument of the dance, Salome, with help from mom, reveals and reduces Herod’s pretensions to power - not at all by yielding, but by exploiting his malign lust. Both the abjection of Herod and murder of Jochanaan, however, can be read as perversely heroic acts, the one driven by disdain and the other by obsession of such power that it overwhelms even the indulgently perverse Herod. Her dance reveals that beneath Herod’s grotesque appetites lies the fear that was shared by the Viennese bourgeois. The only gratification here (a short-lived but ecstatic one) is Salome’s, who kisses the mouth of the severed head but a moment before she is destroyed at Herod’s command. Obsession is Salome’s, as it is Electra’s, potion - a potion of such power, that, as is the case of so many operatic characters, we lose sight of the absence of an underlying integrity motivating the act itself.

                      Kramer’s reading of this event is extremely insightful. But for all its breadth, it is incomplete in one detail. He makes clear that Salome’s epochal act of destruction eclipses the flow of words from the mouth of the Baptist. He speculates on the significance of the kiss as an act in which power is seized by the political/sexual act of absorption of words and, with his words, the source of the Baptist’s authority. Kramer does not address the words themselves as thematic for the opera or relevant for its reception history. Nor does he reference the words as the symptom of an embedded doctrinal polemic vexing Strauss’s audience as it did the court of Herod. Beyond the angry rejection of Salome’s advances, the Baptist’s words are limited to the doctrinal; “son of man”, “world to come” are its indices. Salome is not only an artist and a hero; she is a theologian. Princess in a Jewish court, her murder of the man and his prophetic message adds another dimension to the anti-Semitic animus that Kramer explores insightfully but too briefly. Strauss’s characterization of hyper-shrill Jewish advisors makes it unambiguously clear that anti-Semitism is as much a bedrock of the work as is misogyny. To the instantiation of Salome as the extreme abnorm, Strauss appends the mission of Salome as murderer of the Christian message as surely as is the crowd at Golgotha the murderer of God.

                      While the conventions of anti-Semitism evident in Salome must have left Strauss’s audience strongly justified, it is not convention that is addressed in the presentation of sexuality. Strauss confronts the audience with a multidisciplinary apotheosis of madness and sexual obsession that “speaks” in tones of piercing intensity and a vulgarity quite distant from the erotic refinement of Baudelaire, Klimt and the others. It is the novelistic science of Freud that marks the most direct path to obsession and it is Strauss who most grippingly converts it to the aesthetic. Stripping aside restraints, it is Strauss, the most inertially bourgeois of composers, who turns on the bourgeois with the vision of a teeming sub-rational self; a self agonized by knots of ego, gender, phallo-centric and power anxieties that haunted his world as they continue to haunt our own in the imagery of popular culture. For all its heat, for all the cruelty of its institutions of repression, for the burghers of late empire, the psycho-cultural map drawn by Strauss maintained the pretension of stable social investiture. Salome and Elektra, like so much of the artistic product of the age, are discomfortingly predictive. In ten years, what Schorske called its “rotten underbelly” would bloat and its shroud would thin; in thirty, it would transmute to mass psychosis. Kramer does not broach this, the inevitable end-point of his analysis, but the trajectory of his thinking suggests that the conclusion is drawn.

                      The meta-narrative of the period suggests that Schorske’s striking metaphor may be more limited than extreme. Kramer’s Elektra, seen from the perspective of supremacism (an unfortunate term in view of its usage in painting by Malevich, working during the same period) only confirms it. The corrosive, foreboding supremacist environment may be best imagined as a system of concentric circles of ideological aggression radiating out from a centre of misogyny/sexual hysteria. Energy flows through the model in both directions, creating a closed and mutually affirming system fueled by the power and intellectual respectability of evolutionary anthropology and racism. The paradigmatic source of this profoundly disagreeable world is women. Of the rich selection of choices, Salome and, even more so, Elektra, present themselves as preferred brides of the supremacist context.

                      Kramer’s discussion of supremacism begins with a citation of Otto Weininger’s “blockbuster,” Sex and Character, published in 1903, two years before Salome. Yet another in a seemingly inexhaustible stream of deracinated intellectuals, Weininger became the modern day equivalent of a “best-selling” author and an international “authority on women” and how not to like them. While the (supreme) Aryan male is spiritually capacious and powerful, the idealized (debased) woman lives only by instinct and “atavistic bodily energies.” As such, women (along with Jews, who are, by definition “feminized”) constitute the greatest threat to civilization and its continued spiritual advancement. The male/female dyad, fixed in its supremacist dressing, is the paradigm from which parallel pairs are inferred to elucidate race, cultural development, and religion. Influential works such as Tylor’s Primitive Culture (1871) and, more bound to the restraints of piety, Robertson’s Religion of the Semites (1889) and Frazier’s The Golden Bough (1890), extended, under the dignity of scholarship, the penetration of such thinking through the world of intellectual discourse and, as intellectual discourse is wont to do, into the world of cultural forms that defined what it means to be human, male, “civilized,” and white.

                      Both Salome and Elektra are Weininger proof texts. There are obvious differences between the two. Salome both fascinates and repels. That her corruption is total does not eclipse the fact that she is also bewitching. Preternaturally polluted by gender, she is caught in a situation that challenges the only strengths that are hers. The response is predictable sociopathy - the only response of which she is capable. Elektra, in distinction to Salome, is a perfectly one-dimensional figure.  She has one purpose; mayhem. She has one sound; also mayhem. As character and as music she flies off the map of the “known world” and writes her own psychopathological language. As Kramer points out, there is nothing bewitching in Elektra; she’s a “big scare” from beginning to end.

                      Beneath the transparent distinctions, lurk the commonalities that qualify them as Weininger poster girls and as “just the ticket” for the fin-de-siecle horror show: no fangs, no chainsaw - just big orchestra, big voices, and girls. As “just girls” of the supremacist realm, they are saturated in feminine super-subjectivity, blocking the light of reason. Both lurch madly toward destruction; Salome, because she horrifies the horrid (Herod), and Elektra, because she imagines and realizes her objectives only through violence and, lacking judgment or control, destroys herself by the sheer momentum of compulsion. In common with many of operas memorable female characters, both are polymorphs; Salome, seductress and murderer’s accomplice and Elektra, also murderer’s accomplice, imbued with apparently moral purpose, but driven by blood lust. From the perspective of supremacism and in common with many other operatic heroines, this qualifies both for the honored operatic convention of sacrifice.

                      The case of Elektra is particularly closely read by Kramer. She is both creature and transgressor of the supremacist ethic. Kramer characterizes her as the “most extreme” of opera’s polymorphs. The supremacist vision understands human affairs to be closely bound by intersecting lines separating the attributes, values, and behaviors of male from female and its correspondents - purity from impurity, heroic from ordinary, rich from poor, and racial majority from racial minority. Within an environment of hysteria and the present threat of violence (the saturating dramatic and musical environment of Elektra), lines of demarcation are jealously guarded and violations are summarily punished. But Elektra crosses the most paramount of these lines, invading the male domain by playing the “enforcer.” In this, she is not only effective, but overwhelming. Interestingly, it is her woman’s physical impulsivity, her woman’s moral emptiness, obsessiveness and irrationality that empowers the seizure of male virtue: not an act to pass unpunished by boys.

                      The contemporary bourgeois, in whose camp I gratefully pitch my tent, is more than saturated with what in our fond years of repression was identified as deviance. Pity, there is no romance in deviance any more. The old lines of demarcation have become faint beneath layers of corporate-driven crosshatching and the paths of intersecting quotients of entitlement, ownership, and self-invention. Nothing is so rare, so strange as the perception of strangeness itself. The last remaining heterodox hunger is for the re-invention and empowerment of the normative. Perhaps it lingers beneath the cold detritus of a modernity collapsed into itself. Problem is, as Kramer insightfully points out, that normativity can be neither stable nor self-sustaining. Social normativity is dependent on fresh sources for continuing vitality. It has always been thus. Abnorms of supremacy and debasement are in constant creative mode, contending and negotiating with the assumptions and forms of the normative. The normative, clings to authority, surreptitiously consuming its abnorms while defending its lines of demarcation.

                      The modernity of which the operas of Wagner and Strauss are generative and emblematic, is the product of a parallel aesthetic system of opposition and appropriation. It is the operation of this aesthetic economy that nudges the avant-garde as a defined structure into existence at about the time that Strauss penciled-in the final fff in his Elektra score. Given Strauss’s creation of the idiom of the extreme and the consistency of his strategy of exploitation, there is a case to be made for Elektra as the first knowingly, deliberately avant-garde work. Dedicating all musical resources to the expressive potential of “shock,” Strauss rises to the terms of his self-estimation in creating a music that is conceptually simple and technically sophisticated.  But, then again, Rosenkavalier, his step back from the edge, is, in this respect, no less formulaic.

                      In the epilogue, Kramer indulges in a bit of Whitmanesque play with his audience of readers.  He tells us that his purpose has been as much …”to embody the concept of opera as to propound it. The writing has drawn no firm line between evocation and explanation, metaphor and theory.[19] Of course, Kramer provides a perfectly intelligent justification for his cheekiness. But the most convincing justification is that “he’s got ‘attitude’”. He views lines of division between his subjective self and opera, between the writing of a book and the composition of an opera to be ephemeral. Seriously at play while seriously at work, and fearless in his drive through the demarcations of “academic supremacism,” Kramer’s deep scholarship, erudition and writerly rhetoric have created something extraordinary in Opera and Modern Culture.

[1] Lawrence Kramer, Opera and Modern Culture: Wagner and Strauss, Berkeley: UC Press, 2004, p. 26.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kramer, 2004, p. 245.

[5] Kramer, 2004, p. 148.

[6] Kramer, 2004, p. 206, 207.

[7] Kramer, 2004, p. 2.

 [8] Kramer, 2004, p. 5.

 [9] Kramer, 2004, p. 108.

[10] Kramer, 2004, p. 5.

[11] Kramer, 2004, p. 6.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Kramer, 2004, p. 15.

[14] Kramer, 2004, p. 129.

[15] Kramer, 2004, p. 166, Figure 4.

[16] Kramer, 2004, p. 129.

[17] Frank Kermode, Romantic Image (New York: Random House, 1957).

[18] Kramer, 2004, p. 138.

[19]Disgruntled parties take note: I know about this breakdown. I do it on purpose. I will do it again here.” Kramer 2004, p. 221.  Note Whitman: “Did you find what I sang erewhile so hard to follow?/Why I was not singing erewhile for you to follow, to/understand - nor am I now:” (Drum-Taps, “To a Certain Civilian”)