Dangerous children in Strauss and Britten

Salome (Nadja Michael in David McVicar's Royal Opera House production)

I’ve recently had an article published as part of a bigger project (see also here and here) that examines Britten’s postwar interrogation of the human subject (‘Made You Look! Children in Salome and Death in Venice’. In Benjamin Britten: New Perspectives on his Life and Music, edited by Lucy Walker, 116–37. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2009.). This is fascinating in its focus on the role of a symbolically powerful authority – das Man in Heideggerese, or the big Other in Žižek’s Lacanian idiolect – which structures, through the language it uses, the space for individuals to create a self-identical personality.https://jpehs.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/harper-scott-2009-32.pdf

The essay explores the links between two seemingly unrelated operas as a means of situating one of Britten’s most astonishing musical statements in a longer cultural moment – an exploration of varieties of sexual expression – which began in the fin-de-siècle and has not yet run out of steam.

Both Strauss’s Salome and Britten’s Death in Venice are, among other things, sexually scandalous operas in the contexts of their times (and ours); both also incorporate surprising and morally risky characterizations of children. The striking differences in their respective musical languages are related to their literary sources, the one decadent, the other neoclassical, but both depend structurally on oppositions of tonal areas that are associated with particular characters, and more generally with solutions to the problem of operatic composition that were still, for Britten in 1973, essentially post-Wagnerian. In dramatic terms, both works focus on the effects of looking and the trope of the dance.

Thomas Mann attended the premiere of Salome in 1906 and, partly in response to it (and to his belief that Wagnerism was no longer the most viable artistic modernism) wrote Der Tod in Venedig in 1911–12. Britten’s opera intensifies Mann’s neoclassicism in its treatment of the Greek aesthetic arguments that it maps onto Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio, and modern criticism has tended to follow Britten’s emphasis. By relocating Britten’s opera in the aesthetic tradition that is its obverse, and by analyzing its handling of musical structure, this article seeks to direct attention once more onto its engagement with cultural constructions of the child in modernity, and onto the ethical complexity of operatic composition in the twentieth century.


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