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FEATURE | Opera And The Art Of Living With COVID

By Robin Roger on August 20, 2020

Opera scholars Linda and Michael Hutcheon talk about the art form’s rich encounter with our susceptibility to disease.

From Mimi’s tuberculosis in La Boheme to Aschenbach’s cholera in Death in Venice, opera is a rich encounter with our susceptibility to disease. For some, this might make opera too dark to enjoy while COVID-19 runs its ongoing and unpredictable course. But for Michael and Linda Hutcheon, life partners and co-authors of several books and papers about opera, including Opera: Desire, Disease Death and Opera, The Art of Dying, the art form offers invaluable wisdom precisely because of the extensive variety of depictions of illness and death it presents.

Surely their deep immersion in opera accounts for their Stoic acceptance of the abrupt cancellation of their intended six-week Roman holiday after four days last February. They were looking forward to visiting friends and family, going to the Opera and enjoying la dolce vita.

“Things were pretty normal when we arrived,” Michael Hutcheon told me during our Zoom conversation, “but it became clear pretty quickly what was about to happen. There were already problems in the North. The Italian authorities were being very aggressive about trying to control what was already out of control. So we had a wonderful long weekend and then came home.”

“It was perhaps apt that the only opera we saw was Tristan and Isolde, the second night we were there,” laughed Linda, though she agreed with me that their situation was more reminiscent of Death in Venice, complete with rumours of advancing plague. Even so, the couple resisted characterizing their experience as even mildly operatic. “It was pretty low drama,” Michael commented.

“There wasn’t enough panic. Disappointment doesn’t make for great opera,” Linda added. They came back home, hunkered down, and followed all the public health recommendations.

Having written about the role that disease has played in opera, including tuberculosis, cholera, and syphilis, the Hutcheons were bound to reflect on COVID’s suitability as an operatic subject. We agreed that COVID-19 has several features that lend itself to dramatization: the ominous invisibility of its microscopic droplets, the sinister lasting after effects, ranging from losing your sense of smell to experiencing cognitive compromise called “COVID fog” makes it menacing, the isolation imposed during treatment is psychologically threatening, and that people can carry it without symptoms intensifies fear and mistrust. A librettist and a composer couldn’t ask for more to work with.

In fact, we’d each been imagining our own operatic scenarios in greater or lesser detail.

“The background to the opera would be one of dread, from seeing other people as agents of something bad,” Michael suggested.

Linda elaborated on a plot focused on the politicization of this disease, “from masks to Trump calling the disease a ‘Chinese virus’”. In her scenario, the lockdown happens just as a couple are getting to know each other, so they decide to live together. “They could be any gender mix,” explains Hutcheon, “one of them turns out to be an anti-vaxxer, and a denier, Republican, and the other isn’t. The one who is the denier turns out to be an asymptomatic carrier who causes the death of the beloved other.” All this would be against the background of dread, and bring in other issues such as contact tracing and surveillance. The sound of the ventilator would a musical motif.

“Ventilators make interesting sounds, with a breathing part to it,” explained Michael.

My plot revolves around a passionate public health physician who is fired for wearing a mask during a public health briefing before it has been sanctioned by the medical authorities. Stripped of his position, rejected by his inamorata, cast out by his family, he shelters alone, distributing masks for free in high-risk settings. At the climax, he is vindicated when masks are made mandatory, and he is recognized as a visionary. Stepping behind plexiglass he removes his mask and sings of a COVID-free world.

I didn’t realize when I was making this up that I could model my hero after Michael Hutcheon himself, who was an early advocate of masks.

“It was bothersome to me at the beginning, the dogmatic denial of the possibility of aerosol transmission, and I worried that people in certain area were not adequately protected by measures advocated by Public Health,” he told me during our conversation. “With COVID, you’re not allowed any mistakes. If you get the virus, it’s entirely out of your hands at that point.”

Just as Michael was prescient about masks, the Hutcheons were prescient in choosing to look at disease and death in opera. Nearly 25 years ago, in Opera: Desire, Disease and Death, they examined urgent public health issues presented in the operatic canon, from contagion and quarantine to surveillance and race, that face us today.

Their next book, Opera, The Art of Dying, is equally relevant to our current situation, in its premise that the enactment of death in opera can help audiences accept the inevitability of dying and in doing so, make life more meaningful. The staged presentation of life leaving the body is disturbing to be sure, but helps us avoid the human tendency of denial. This is especially pertinent during this pandemic. The death count rises, but we do not witness the individual deaths, because we are not allowed be at the bedside. Being mentally prepared for the sudden rending of attachments is critical for those who survive to withstand the loss.

According to Linda and Michael Hutcheon, watching operas such as Dialogues des Carmelites, Orfeo ed Eruidice, Der Ring des Nibelungen and others, can help us modulate the pervasive hovering anxiety that is part of being mortal at all times, but is so much more insidious during the pandemic. Watching these and other operas online with Opera The Art of Dying as a guide would be a constructive indoor pastime once the good weather ends.


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Robin Roger
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