Partly Mozart

Went to the Kennedy Center Thursday night to see the Los Angeles Opera’s production of The Abduction from the Seraglio, which is nearing the end of a one-month run.

Opera is something I know zilch about. Whenever I go, I recall an essay I read in college. A Soviet literary critic–either Viktor Shklovsky or Roman Jakobson–described ostranenie (or “making strange”). Great art, the critic implied, hews (comfortingly) to the familiar, but cultivates states of mind that (challengingly) make the familiar fresh. In those days, we budding artistes found this doctrine a congenial one, since you could carry it out by getting drunk before lectures or going to breakfast stoned.

But the essay’s example was Tolstoy’s use of Natasha Rostova in War and Peace. At Tolstoy’s balls, teas, and operas, even jaded readers get to see everything anew–because we see it through Natasha’s gushing teeny-bopper heart. At balls, Natasha doesn’t understand the music and looks at men’s faces. At teas, she doesn’t understand the conversation and concentrates on the cakes. At operas, she doesn’t understand what’s going on onstage and just scans at the crowd.

It’s a good point, but it was lost on us, since we were all more or less unfamiliar with balls, teas, and operas ourselves. So perhaps I’m just extrapolating a generalized boobery out of my own specific ignorance. But whenever I go to the opera I feel like I’m in a roomful of Natashas.

The show-stealer Thursday night was the baritone Gunter Missenhardt as the Pasha’s sadistic overseer Osmin. He has sung the role in half dozen big European houses, and seems made for it–burly and snarly, with a gift for violent gesture.

But for this Washington crowd, the delight was more than operatic. At the end of Act 3, Osmin catches the four lovers trying to escape their Turkish captivity. Since the Pasha owns three of them, he would be within his rights to hang them. He pardons them, of course, and sends them on their cooing way. But while he’s thinking it over, Osmin goes into a paroxysm of bloodthirst, demanding that the four be first decapitated, then hanged, then impaled, then burnt at the stake, then tied up and drowned, and then flogged:

Erst gekopft, dann gehangen,
dann gespiesst auf heisse Stangen,
dann verbrannt, dann gebunden
und getaucht, zuletzt geschunden.

Osmin delivers this tirade while jumping and grunting and flapping his whip. In so doing, he shows us that a great deal of sadism, animality, and outright lust can lurk behind people’s anodyne professions that they just want to “uphold the law” or “maintain a level of decency.” To fall afoul of the tiniest law or custom is to issue orgy-invitations to the authorities.

Washingtonians know this. It’s what lawmaking nowadays is all about. President Clinton is our leading Osmin victim, having nearly lost his office for conduct that in other countries would be considered praiseworthy. But he’s also our leading Osminist. Look at how deadbeat dads are jailed, how drug- using small-fry get put away for decades, how the 30% of Americans who continue to smoke are gradually being made liable for the entire federal budget.

So it wasn’t Missenhardt’s singing–marvelous though that was–that made Osmin’s rantings so thrilling. It was that all the Natashas in this Washington audience had suddenly recognized themselves. And we are all Osminists now.

Christopher Caldwell