Johns Hopkins Gazette: July 8, 1996

JHMI Cultural Affairs
Film Series: Arias
And Ailments

Mike Field
Staff Writer
It ain't over till the fat lady sings, runs the common perception of a night at the opera.

In fact, opera buffs will tell you that it ain't truly over till the fat lady contracts a fatal ailment, sings a heart-wrenching farewell aria, and magnificently expires. Now that's opera.

And that's also the premise for this summer's free film series, sponsored through the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions Office of Cultural Affairs. Titled Arias & Ailments: Melodies and Maladies, the series of four films running consecutive Wednesday evenings in July will look at the way illness, disease and death are projected through the lens of operatic performance.

"We run these film series every summer," said Dick Macksey, a professor in the Humanities Center and one of the planners of the event. "In past series we've used film to look at ideas ranging from psychological illness to the healing powers of laughter. Recently there have been a couple of interesting books out on opera and illness so we thought this would be a timely and appropriate series to create."

Calling opera "that extravagantly composite art form," which acts as a mirror to the culture that produced it, Macksey suggested that music drama offers a glimpse into the prevalent ideas and preoccupations concerning health and well-being at a given time and place.

"At the juncture of eros and thanatos, many operatic deaths are, of course, the result of violent interventions: stabbings, poisonings, strangulations, shootings, drownings, occasionally some boiling in oil or an avalanche," he wrote in program notes to the series. "But many others reflect presiding medical anxieties, notably the great plagues that occupy the popular imagination."

From Violetta's death by tuberculosis in Verdi's La Traviata to the specter of syphilis in Wagner's Parsifal and the post-modern plague of AIDS in the current Broadway rock opera Rent, disease has always proven an effective tragic device. Yet it also creates a grand tradition of victimization, which has been the subject of considerable scholarly interest in recent years.

"There is this general theory of the woman-as-victim being a very familiar plot pattern in opera," Macksey said. "Susan Sontag has written about each age having its own 'poetic illness,' which is perfectly illustrated in La Traviata where you have the lead soprano dying of tuberculosis."

In part, goes the theory, great tragedy, which is amplified in successful operas through the power of the music, is frequently created through the victimization of the hero, or most often, the heroine.

One heroine who is undoubtedly victimized--but to great comic, rather than tragic, effect--is Margaret Dumont, grand dowager and impeccable foil to Groucho in many Marx Brothers movies. Arguably their greatest--A Night at the Opera--leads off the summer series on July 10.

"The Marx Brothers have the best comic approach to opera that I am familiar with," Macksey said. "We titled this segment Movie Mania, because we think of Groucho, Harpo and Chico as manic in the sense of the word that [professor of psychiatry] Kay Jamison uses in her book Touched with Fire." The movie will be introduced by Maria Farland, assistant director of the Comparative American Cultures Program at Homewood.

A Night at the Opera will be followed by G‚rard Corbiau's Farinelli on July 17. Dubbed "surgical excess" by Macksey for its subject matter of an 18th-century castrato who was the singing sensation of all Europe, the film won the 1994 Golden Globe Award for best foreign film and was nominated in the same category for the Academy Awards. It is in fact not dubbed at all, but spoken in French and Italian with English subtitles.

The third film in the series is Franco Zeffirelli's La Traviata, starring Teresa Stratas and Placido Domingo. Verdi's opera, one of the most popular in the classical repertoire, is based on the Alexandre Dumas novel Camille and features hauntingly beautiful music for the heroine to die by.

"This is the movie that should please everyone," Macksey said. "It has a wonderful story, great singing and a full-blown case of TB." The July 24 presentation will be preceded by remarks from Anthony Krupp, a German department graduate student and member of the Baltimore Opera Company, who sang in its acclaimed production of Verdi's masterpiece last season.

The final film in the series is not exactly a film, but a pastiche of great opera mad scenes. On July 31 the series will conclude with "Opera's Looney Tunes: The Mad Scene from Classicism to Modernism." Mark Canuel, who recently completed his doctoral degree in the Department of English, will act as host to a guided tour that attempts to look at why opera is so fascinated with the spectacle of mental illness. From Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor to Strauss's Elektra, opera composers have found madness an effective dramatic device for enlivening the action and, as will be shown, creating opportunities for great singing.

All films in the series will take place at the Mountcastle Auditorium in the Preclinical Teaching Building on the East Baltimore campus. The presentations are free and open to the public and begin promptly at 7:30 p.m.

"People sometimes associate the East Baltimore campus with all work and no play," Macksey said. "But this film series promises to be a good deal of fun. That's part of the purpose of the series, to get people over to East Baltimore for fun."

For further information, contact the Office of Cultural Affairs at (410) 955-3363.

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