2012 Jerome Roche Prize winner: ‘Bourgeois Opera: Death in Venice and the Aesthetics of Sublimation’
Christopher Chowrimootoo, an Early Career Fellow in Opera Studies at Oxford Brookes University, has been awarded the Royal Musical Association’s Jerome Roche Prize for his article ‘Bourgeois Opera: Death in Venice and the Aesthetics of Sublimation’, published in Cambridge Opera Journal (22/2) last year. The prize, inaugurated in 2001 in memory of the British scholar Jerome Roche, is awarded annually by the RMA to a distinguished article by a scholar in the early stages of his or her career.
The focus of my article is the early production and reception of Death in Venice, Benjamin Britten’s operatic swansong from 1973. The starting point for my research was the defensive reactions that Britten’s opera appears to have attracted ever since its premiere. While commentators have often chalked this defensiveness up to concerns about the work’s homosexual subject matter, my article set out to understand it as part of broader aesthetic anxieties surrounding the place of opera in late twentieth-century culture, particularly with respect to the so-called ‘great divide’ between modernism and mass culture.
Weaving analysis of text, stage design, choreography and music into my argument, I explain how Britten’s opera invited commentators to translate its prurient storyline into abstract philosophy, its salacious spectacles into balletic form and its compelling musical rhetoric into large-scale structure. More broadly, I propose and theorize what I call an ‘aesthetic of sublimation’ as a way of understanding these processes of translation.
In my conclusion, I excavate the aesthetic and historiographical stakes of these acts of sublimation, both for this particular work and twentieth-century opera more generally. For, in encouraging audiences to convert its more ‘immediate’ charms into rarified terms, Death in Venice was able to mediate some of the key oppositions of modernist criticism – between mind and body, form and rhetoric, modernism and mass culture – offering audiences the chance to revel in the ‘cheap’ pleasures of operatic spectacle even while enjoying the prestige that comes from rejecting them.
It’s here, I would argue, that the broadest implications of my article become most obvious: in opening up space for a kind of history that acknowledges the force of the ‘great divide’ on the one hand, and looks beyond it on the other. Indeed, the problem with Death in Venice – I ultimately suggest – was not that it reconciled an irreconcilable opposition by straddling the divide between modernism and mass culture but, rather, that it exposed the extent to which such a divide was already an act of sublimation, which was only ever designed to obscure as much as it revealed.
To view Christopher Chowrimootoo’s paper, please click here.