MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Consuming Consumption: TB on the Opera Stage

Mimi-deathbed

On the TB angle in Puccini (for San Francisco Opera’s La bohème:

“But if she’s dying of that dreadful disease, how could she still sing such gorgeous music?” It’s a question opera-goers often get asked when trying to describe what happens at the climax of one of the most beloved works in the repertoire. In the famous scene from the film Moonstruck, the character played by Cher —who is seeing La Bohème for the first time — notices the paradox and declares, “I didn’t know she was going to die!”

But Mimì’s tragic demise isn’t a medical documentary: it’s depicted in the context of a cultural and artistic tradition in which a wide range of diseases — whether of the body or of the mind — carried powerful symbolic meanings. Influenced by the legacy of Italian opera as well as by Wagner, Puccini was intimately familiar with the sudden madness of Donizetti’s Lucia of Lammermoor, the innocent sleepwalking of Amina in Bellini’s La Sonnambula, and the mysteriously festering “wound” that torments Amfortas in Parsifal. Susan Sontag, in her landmark deconstruction of the use of “illness as metaphor,” observed that “sickness has a way of making people ‘interesting’ — which is how ‘romantic’ was originally defined.”

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Filed under: opera, Puccini, San Francisco Opera

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