Local Lit: a psychiatrist examines opera 

Did Jacques Offenbach sacrifice his true potential to be accepted as a Jew in a Christian world? Was Iago driven by unconscious homosexual feelings for Otello? Did Wagner suffer from a narcissistic personality disorder?

These are some of the questions raised in Grand Opera: Mirror of the Western Mind, a new book by psychiatrist Eric Plaut, a retired professor of clinical psychology and behavioral science at Northwestern University who calls himself a "modified Freudian." He's also a onetime music student and an unmodified opera lover.

This collection of 18 essays on 24 operas--four by Mozart are treated in a single chapter, as are the four of Wagner's Ring cycle--started 20 years ago as scripts to accompany the Thursday-night opera broadcast on Indiana Public Radio. Plaut sensed he was on to something and hung on to the scripts, continuing to work on them.

Plaut takes the operas in chronological order, the better to explore the zeitgeist of each one. His theories range from the sensible to the farfetched. "The primary focus of most of the chapters is an examination of what about this particular opera appealed to the composer so much that he devoted sometimes years of work to its production. I looked at the composer's life and circumstances and at the psychology, culture, and era in which each opera was written."

For instance, Plaut contrasts Beethoven's "superficial and stereotyped" treatment of "the 'little' people" in Fidelio with Mozart's lively, lovingly drawn Figaro and Susanna. He attributes Beethoven's "contempt for working-class people" to his terrible relationship with his working-class younger brothers and his endless social aspirations.

In his essay on Madame Butterfly he asserts that while Cio-Cio San "is the victim of imperialism, racism, and sexism, she also helps to create her own situation." He also finds correlations between Puccini's fascination with "tainted" women like the geisha Butterfly and his personal life--a life of affairs with women who were beneath him, including a maid who was hounded to suicide by his jealous wife.

As for Wagner, Plaut states that he was a "transcendent musical genius and a profound and original thinker" but "a mediocre poet and an appallingly bad philosopher." Plaut thinks Wagner saw heroes--and himself--as existing outside the normal rules of society. "The dictionary definition of [narcissistic personality disorder] could have been written with Wagner in mind," he writes. Plaut attributes Wagner's problems to uncertainties concerning his parentage and a hideously sickly childhood.

Grand Opera, published by Ivan R. Dee, sells for $28.50 at many booksellers. For more information, call 800-634-0226.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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