ARC Fellows: Connections between Realist Literature and Verismo Opera


Opera Poster for Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (1890)

Connections between Realist Literature and Verismo Opera

Submitted by our 2016 ARC Fellow Team:
Melanie Gudesblatt (Music) and Joseph Lavery (English)

Meaningful connections between realist literature and verismo opera are surprisingly elusive. As a term of opera criticism, verismo describes a style of opera popular during the 1880s, 1890s, and early 1900s, which saw French, Italian, and German composers emulating literature by incorporating more ‘realistic’ subjects, dramatic strategies, and musical materials – all to make opera as arresting as the contemporary novel. By all estimations, verismo opera would seem an ideal topic for fostering interdisciplinary discourse. After all, Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (1890) – considered by many musicologists to be the archetypal verismo specimen – was not merely inspired by realist literature, but is itself an operatic retelling of a popular short story of the same name by Giovanni Verga published a decade earlier. And yet, musicologists have found the novels themselves to be inhospitable terrain for generating operatic insights. This is not entirely surprising, as opera and literature are different media that lack an easy equivalence. This complication has meant that in scholarship on verismo operas, literary realism is habitually cited as an important precedent but quickly abandoned in favor of less treacherous musicological ground. But is this all literature and music can do for each other here? Are literary realism and verismo opera really just ships in the night? We wondered whether more productive conversation on the subject would materialize if, instead of looking for common ground across novels and operas, we put our respective discourses in dialogue. In other words: what might we gain by examining the intersections of musicological views on verismo and discourse on literary realism? And what might these different perspectives tell us about the theoretical, philosophical, and methodological challenges of dealing with realist styles?

Potentially quite a bit, as it turns out. In a recently delivered paper, Joseph Lavery offers a fresh perspective on the nature of realism. His argument centers around an interesting “pause” in George Eliot’s novel Adam Bede: at this point, the narrator sets their sights on the fictive reader as a debate partner, thus catapulting the reader into what Lavery calls “a newly intimate, and therefore somehow realer, relation to the world of Adam Bede.” But what is especially provocative here is an observation that follows from his discussion of this moment. The attainment of reality, he concludes, does not depend on the abandonment of fantasy but is achieved through the reorientation of it. This conception, with its emphasis on the interplay between fantasy and reality, may prove helpful for discussions of the musical dimensions of verismo. Musicologists have had success discussing the frequent use in verismo works of sounds introduced from “real world” soundscapes, such as tolling bells, gunshots, and cannon fire. But it’s harder to account for the large swathes of music that surround these effects. How, for example, can we reconcile the claims of some contemporary critics, that operas like Jules Massenet’s La Navarraise exhibited an astounding lack of music, with the fact that bells and artillery fire make up such a small percentage of the opera’s score? We might begin by reconsidering our assumptions about how objects and experiences are made real through artistic media. That is, perhaps realist works do not adhere to pre-existing relationships between fantasy and reality as much as they help to construct those distinctions.


Joseph Lavery is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches Victorian literature and culture. His current book project examines the aesthetic and affective dimensions of the nineteenth century encounter between the British and Japanese Empires; essays from the project have appeared or will appear in English Literary History, Novel, and Comparative Literature Studies, for the latter of which he won the American Comparative Literature Association’s A. Owen Aldridge Prize.

Melanie Gudesblatt began her studies at Cornell University (BA in Music, 2009) and received a masters from King’s College London (MMus, 2011) before entering the PhD program in Music History and Literature at UC Berkeley. Her dissertation, entitled “Opera Upside Down: Reimagining the Operatic Voice, ca. 1890-1920,” examines how and why the operatic voice, previously understood as an organ whose primary purpose it was to sing, became re-conceived as an organ that sounded in German opera culture, as well as the ramifications of this shift on opera composition, questions of genre, and discursive constructions of voice.


Note: Over the course of the spring semester, each 2016 ARC Fellows team will submit a short blog post about their project and findings. We hope you will enjoy these short readings! The Fellows Program advances interdisciplinary research in the arts at UC Berkeley by supporting self-nominated pairs of graduate students and faculty members as they pursue semester-long collaborative projects of their own design. To learn more about the program, click here.