“The (Lost) Vocal Object in Opera: The Voice, the Listener and Jouissance”
by Carlo Zuccarini
December 1, 2008
This psychoanalytic exploration considers some aspects of Lacanian theory pertaining to the gaze and the voice and their relevance to opera, in particular the (lost) vocal object, as well as the erotic nature of the listener’s pleasure in response to the (soprano) voice. These aspects are discussed within the context of the various layers of opera (drama, music and singing) and specifically the way in which the individual elements of narrative, music and the voice relate to opera. The combined effect of these individual elements is discussed to arrive at a possible interpretation of the way in which the listener/audience relates to opera. The material presented here is largely based on and freely adapted from the author’s previous and ongoing research.
The material presented here is largely based on and freely adapted from the author’s previous and ongoing research (Zuccarini, 2006). This psychoanalytic exploration of opera – primarily operas of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – is not intended to be a definitive study. Rather, it provides a springboard for a number of theoretical considerations dealing with some aspects that characterise the interplay between the various layers (narrative, music and singing) of this multi-layered art form, with reference to Lacanian theory relating to the gaze and, in particular, the voice as part-objects. In addition, it considers the resulting erotic nature of the relationship between the vocal object of desire and the listener/audience, which culminates in the jouissance, or extreme pleasure, of the ‘operatic orgasm’ (Abel, 1996). It is perhaps the erotic nature of this relationship between opera and the listener/audience that has ensured the continued health and vitality of this art form, despite claims that opera is dead: “The very historical connection between opera and psychoanalysis is thought provoking; the moment of the birth of psychoanalysis (the beginning of the twentieth century) is also generally perceived as the moment of opera's death" (Žižek and Dolar, 2002, p. vii).
The ‘Layers’ of Opera
Opera consists essentially of three main elements, or ‘layers’, namely: narrative (the storyline and dramatic action set out in the text of the libretto), music (the musical score played by the orchestra) and singing (the vocal performance by the singers of the lyrics in the libretto according to the musical score). The narrative element in opera, as defined above, can be said to serve three basic functions. Firstly, it fulfils a fundamental requirement of providing material for the plot and dramatic action of the storyline. Secondly, it creates a space for the development of an appropriate dramatic structure and forward progression. It turns the story that is being told into something more than just a factual account, which as such would provide little dramatic impact on the stage. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the way in which the narrative is put to use serves to justify the presence of the orchestra and singers. The narrative provides a carefully crafted framework that allows musical variation of climax and anti-climax. But the narrative does even more than this: it justifies the operatic voice itself. The dramatic structure is put to the service of the music and, ultimately, to the voice.
However, as will be discussed later, the voice follows a trajectory both because of the dramatic action and despite it. The voice ultimately transcends the storyline, the visual elements and the music and follows its own trajectory to its final destination, even despite itself. As Michel Poizat1 (1986/1992, p. 145) states in his psychoanalytic approach to opera, based on the theory of vocal jouissance in response to the soprano’s ‘cry’, “the voice does not express the text – that is what theatre is for; the text expresses the voice.” Poizat (ibid.) illustrates this by explaining that, although the dramatic logic of the libretto may lead to the death of a female character (the soprano), causing her to cry out before she dies, it is the logic of the developing vocal jouissance that creates the dramatic conditions for the cry to occur, demanding a death. This would explain how the vocal component of an opera can remain unaffected even when the narrative structure of the storyline may appear to be illogical, far-fetched or even absurd – which is the case in many operas.
Abel (1996, p. 113) addresses this actual or perceived ‘weakness’ in operatic storylines by explaining that the position of opera in modern times is with the cultural elite and not potential revolutionaries. The political impact of storylines is largely lost on modern audiences, and parallels missed, leaving apparently disjointed plots in which the only readily appreciable elements that remain to impact us today are sexuality and the voice itself. However, both of these elements are actually removed from the text, from the action and even from the singer, as a disembodied vocal object (Poizat, 1986/1992).
No matter how far-fetched the storyline may appear to be, the moments of dramatic jouissance – as opposed to vocal jouissance – are mediated by the voice. They are possible because of the voice. As such, they occur both as a result of the dramatic development and despite it. These are the cathartic moments of extreme pathos, in which we experience pleasure in sorrow. The dramatic conditions are created by the “logic of vocal jouissance […] driving at the cry” (ibid., p. 145), as will be discussed later. Although these moments provide a raison d’être for particular qualities in the music and singing, they do not shape the singing as much as they are shaped by the singing. When salient elements of the plot surface to produce a climax in the narrative, and we experience the pathos to its fullest extent, beyond the text and even the action being played out on stage, the dramatic jouissance of theatre becomes subservient to the music and ultimately to the voice. For operatic (i.e. vocal) jouissance can only be found in the voice (Abel, 1996, p. 46).
The essential elements of opera, as discussed throughout this exploration, are summarised below in the figure of the Borromean rings (Figure 1).
This diagram provides a two-dimensional illustration of the various ‘layers’ of opera and their dynamic interactions. The ring on the left relates to the major dramatic themes in the narrative, while the ring on the right relates to the singing, and in particular to the soprano as the locus of the quest for vocal jouissance. The overlap between these two upper rings relates to the music played by the orchestra, which mediates the interaction between drama and singing towards vocal jouissance. The lower ring, which overlaps both of the upper rings, relates to the audience and the way it perceives and reacts to the drama, music and singing, namely synaesthesia and ultimately (vocal) jouissance. The overlapping areas of the lower ring relate to mediation of audience perception: on the left to visual perception and on the right to auditory perception. Visual perception includes the dramatic action on the stage, the scenery, lighting, special effects, and so forth. The visual aspect is indicated as reality in the context of dramatic fiction, as it refers to tangible objects rather than the ethereal vocal object. Whereas auditory perception includes the singers’ voices, in particular the soprano. This has been indicated as fantasy, in that it represents the quest for the vocal object, which is ethereal. The orchestral music provides mediation both for the dramatic action and for the singing. The overlap between the auditory and visual elements produces a synaesthetic effect on the side of the audience. Lastly, the central area, where all three rings overlap, represents the vocal object mediated by all of the other elements. This is the object of the quest for vocal jouissance.
The Voice and the Gaze
Dolar (2006, pp. 30-31) suggests that, by virtue of its focus, singing risks losing the voice by transforming it into a fetish object, which as such becomes the opposite of the voice as object a (the unattainable object cause of desire). However, he points to an ambivalence in this concept, in that music both evokes the voice as object and renders it less distinct by opening “the gap that cannot be filled” (ibid.).
Not surprisingly, the main focus of an opera audience lies in the gaze and, even more so, in the voice – the two partial objects of desire that Lacan added to Freud’s list of lost objects: breast, faeces and phallus (Salecl and Žižek, 1996, p. 90). These objects of desire, particularly the voice in the form of vocal jouissance, are central to an understanding of the dynamics of opera. Unlike spoken drama, opera has additional levels and dynamics that need to be considered in order to gain a thorough understanding of this art form both of itself and how, in turn, the audience relates to it. The key elements of ‘the text expressing the voice’, ‘the voice’, ‘the cry’ and ‘vocal jouissance’ have already been mentioned. Although useful, the analysis of narrative themes and constructs in the storyline of the libretto can only account for one of the multiple layers of opera which, for the purposes of this exploration, is essentially secondary in its subservience to the dynamics of vocal jouissance.
The same applies to the visual elements of opera, such as the stage sets, effects and even the singers themselves. Even though it is tempting to consider these visual elements as appealing to an audience’s scopophilic side, they actually are or become of secondary importance. It is paradoxical that the “dialogic” and “multi-layered” (Tambling, 1996, p. 109) qualities of opera – in the sense that this art form makes use of words and music, images and sound – disappear at the moments of most intense emotion, or jouissance, experienced by the listener. At these times, the signifying order can be said to fall away (Poizat, 1986/1992, p. 36). When the voice as object achieves the status of ‘pure cry’, the visual order ceases to exist, albeit momentarily. This paradox is all the more striking given the often lavish stage sets employed in the opera house. However, the lavishness of the sets and the complexity of the storylines perform the dual function of developing and adding to the dramatic interest and pathos, while at the same time concealing the audience’s ultimate progression towards the infinite void of vocal jouissance. Tambling (1996, p. 112) remarks that opera as discourse draws its power from its “pleonastic utterances”, with orchestral music supporting the narrative of the singing and acting. But this statement undervalues somewhat the role of music in opera. The catalyst of the dramatic and vocal elements in this elaborate mélange is the music, which modulates the tempo and determines (despite itself and the plot) the inevitable moment of non-return, in the form of vocal jouissance. Poizat (1986/1992, pp. 32-34) explains that the lavishness and complexity of the mise-en-scène is an integral element, in that it serves to create a perspective leading to a point of emptiness, by preventing a certain immediacy. As a result, those parts of the action which are most significant can take place around this point, the void around which art revolves, according to Lacan (1959-1960/1992, p. 135). When an enraptured listener reaches the point of musical jouissance mediated by the voice as object, they close their eyes to the stage apparatus that has led their gaze to the point of infinity and terminates in the void, that is, the point at which the void begins. Everything else up to that point outside of or around the voice as object (which on account of it being a lost object, is in itself a lack and thus a void) has contributed to the momentum, the crescendo required to achieve the ‘pure cry’. Even the singer, Poizat (1986/1992, p. 35) explains, almost becomes annihilated as a subject in order to achieve pure voice.
The spectacle of the visual elements (the stage set, lighting and effects) can be said to arouse the desire in the gaze of the Other. It is like Salomé’s ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ which, through the gaze mediated by the music, conceals and then gradually reveals and leads to the object of the listener’s desire. It is the foreplay leading to the supreme moment of jouissance that results in the spectators/listeners ‘losing their heads’, not literally like John the Baptist in Salomé’s story, but in the sense of losing control of their emotions, becoming one with the voice as incorporeal object, the lost ‘pure cry’, fleeting in its evanescence like the pleasure of orgasm.
Barthes (1973/1975, p. 13) claims that the response to art in general – and therefore to the singing voice – involves sexual pleasure with climactic instances of jouissance. As such, it defies rational judgment, so that the only judgment can be “that’s it! And further still: that’s it for me!”
The culminating point of vocal jouissance as ‘the cry’, or sometimes the ‘pure cry’ (as explained below), is the interface between performer and spectator. In addition, it is the point at which both performer and spectator together transcend and ultimately transgress in their quest for jouissance.
As described by Salecl and Žižek (1996, pp. 92-93), and discussed by the art critic Joannes Késenne (n. d.) in the context of synaesthetic metaphor, when we enter the symbolic order, that is the order of language, we lose the immediacy of our experiences. Voice is permanently separated from the body and becomes autonomous, an evacuated object as soon as it is spoken, a mute voice resonating in a void, where the tone of voice represents a lost object of immediacy, a lament for a lost object. However, the ambiguous nature of the lament for the lost object means that the resonance in the void also serves to keep the voice as object at a safe distance. This is why we derive pleasure from listening to music: so that we do not have to confront the voice as object. When the music breaks down and becomes “a pure unarticulated scream” (Salecl and Žižek, 1996, p. 93), at that point we encounter the voice as object. In this way, Lacan explains the relationship between voice and silence, where the resonating voice provides a background against which the figure of silence becomes visible. This illustrates, in turn, the relationship that exists between voice and image, where the voice points at the gap in the field of the visible, at what cannot be seen by the gaze, so that “we hear things because we cannot see everything” (ibid.).
The synaesthetic experience of sound (the voice) surfacing in the visual field (the gaze) (Késenne, [n. d.]) has an interesting parallel in opera. There is an overlap between our senses of vision (the stage set and action) and hearing (the singers’ voices and the orchestra’s music), as well as the paradox of the written word (the libretto) that is not spoken but sung. As a result of the music and singing, the words become harder to understand and the narrative detail is potentially harder to follow. In the ongoing interplay between orchestra and singer, voice and meaning, a point is reached at which the voice exists as a (lost) vocal object beyond meaning and is enjoyed for its own sake amid vocal embellishment and ornamentation. An example of this might be a soprano’s high C (C6, two octaves above middle C), Lacan’s ‘pure cry’ as object of jouissance, the objet petit a, as discussed by Poizat (1986/1992, pp. 101-102) in relation to opera. Davies (1994, p. 207) remarks that the expressiveness of music, and therefore of singing, does not lie in a similarity with the speaking voice, but rather with wordless sounds such as howls and groans, even though music attempts to imitate vocal inflections.
In this respect, music is capable of letting us hear what we cannot see, as “it renders directly the drive of the life substance that words can only signify […] bypassing the detour of meaning” (Salecl and Žižek, 1996, p. 94). By allowing us to ‘see with our ears’, music mediates fantasy and daydreams (Késenne, [n. d.]). Interestingly enough, at the culminating moments of opera, the singing voice loses its connection with speech and language and becomes increasingly unintelligible as pure music until it finally builds up to the point of the ‘pure cry’. At this point, the listener experiences a melting away of everything else outside of the (soprano) voice, including the singer’s body itself, and becomes lost in the voice. The listener identifies with the voice as it becomes a vocal object and deep emotion is aroused that can only find expression in a breathless sob signifying absolute loss (Poizat, 1986/1992, p. 37).
Poizat (ibid., pp. 99-104) attributes the intense pleasure derived from opera to the jouissance experienced by the listener during the seemingly indescribable and unexplainable moments of musical ecstasy produced by the voice. He does so in relation to Lacanian theory concerning the voice and gaze as objects of a drive, which were mentioned above. According to this theory, a preverbal baby who is dependent on the Other for the satisfaction of his/her needs emits an empty cry in reaction to a need or some displeasure or discomfort that s/he is experiencing. This cry is then attributed meaning by the Other, who responds to the cry and provides satisfaction in some form, based on the Other’s interpreted meaning. This satisfaction, as well as the associated details of the situation, leave a trace in the baby’s mind with a link to his/her cry. Prior to this attribution of meaning, the baby’s cry was a ‘pure cry’ that had not entered the signifying order of the Other. The Other can only experience the baby’s cry as a demand, a ‘cry for’ something. As soon as meaning is attributed to the baby’s cry, the ‘purity’ of the cry is lost, as every subsequent cry will have signification as speech. However, the initial jouissance experienced by the baby at his/her first cry can never be repeated, it becomes lost, as the subsequent situation and satisfaction provided by the Other will not match the initial trace of the baby’s experience. In this way, the sound of the voice, the ‘pure cry’ devoid of meaning, becomes a partial (lost) object when the baby enters the realm of language through the desire of the Other, and as such becomes the object of a drive in the (impossible) quest to recapture it.
The ‘Operatic Orgasm’
According to Freud (1905 or 1906/1942, p. 305), drama serves the purpose of arousing “‘sympathetic suffering’” in order to “‘purge the emotions’” by opening up “sources of pleasure or enjoyment in our emotional life”. In addition to providing an outlet to discharge emotions through enjoyment, the affect that is aroused by drama is accompanied by sexual excitation, which allows us to experience the sensation that the potential of our psychical state has been raised.
In relation to the erotic nature of an audience’s enjoyment of opera, Abel (1996, p. 86) perceptively notes that operatic orgasms do not occur off-stage, as some plots would have it, nor do they occur between the characters, despite gushing love duets that would indicate as much, but rather they occur as part of the performance and are experienced between the singers and the audience. He affirms that the narrative of opera is punctuated by these orgasms. The stimulation experienced by the audience becomes a narrative itself, often replacing what may be perceived as an opera’s ‘weak’ storyline, by virtue of it being far-fetched or hard to follow. It mirrors sexual intercourse, in which there is foreplay, a development of tension and finally a climax, and the cycle is then repeated. This additional “orgasmic musical narrative” is what holds the interest of audiences, carrying them forward through the opera and allowing them to follow the plot, however absurd or unintelligible it might be, and even despite language barriers (ibid.).
This concept of forward motion in the music, aiming towards a goal, can be considered “dissonance striving to resolve in consonance” (Rose, 2004, p. 134). It is this sense of forward motion inherent in music that is believed to convey affect (ibid.). By extension, this movement in music reflects the variations in the listener’s desire, where rhythm provides a recurring stimulation (ibid., p. 135). Freud (1924, p. 160) proposed that sensations of pleasure and unpleasure are determined by variations in the strength of rhythmic movement. Therefore, this motion in music can be said to provide a framework that allows for an awareness of feelings (Rose, 2004, p. 135). The silences in the music mould the sound to create various depths in feeling, which are not necessarily understood right away (ibid., p. 3). The rise and fall in pitch, the forward movement, the crescendo, climax and anti-climax of music in general, and within the narrative/musical/vocal multi-layered structure of opera in particular, reinforce the sexual nature of the pleasure derived by opera-lovers.
In this respect, Abel (1996, p. 91) remarks that the operatic orgasm parallels sexual intercourse even in terms of the time that it takes (approximately seven to ten minutes): from the foreplay of the prelude that creates musical tension, to the development or crescendo and finally the climax, followed by a calm postlude. However, Abel (ibid., p. 87) explains that although the operatic orgasmic narrative claims to be universal, its linear structure deals exclusively with the male orgasm as imposed on the world and on language by men, and is thus reflected in fictional accounts of the world. Perhaps this would account for Poizat’s (1986/1992, pp. 156-157) claim that, even though opera audiences appear to consist of approximately equal numbers of males and females, the extent of emotional and financial involvement is perhaps greater in men than women.
According to Abel (1996, p. 111), opera produces a delimited space which allows for sexual transgression to be portrayed, to the extent that this transgression actually fuels opera and is inherent in the way the audience relates to it, given that the operatic orgasm itself is like “an elaborate form of exhibitionistic group sex” (ibid., p. 114). However, the sexual transgressions portrayed by opera remain safely within the bounds of the stage. They are visible, but at the same time concealed, and cannot impact real life. The audience has power over the operatic characters by recognising their transgressions, yet at the same time it can overlook that power temporarily and participate in the fantasy (ibid., p. 125).
If one accepts the theoretical proposition of the erotic nature of the pleasure derived by an audience (and more specifically, as indicated above, predominantly by those male members of the audience who experience the most intense emotional involvement) from the whole operatic experience mediated by the libretto, the stage set and effects, the orchestra, and the unmediated ‘pure cry’ of the soprano’s voice, then at those times when the operatic orgasm occurs, it can be argued, the aim of the audience’s desire has been achieved in identifying with the voice as object. The soprano, as woman, both fills the lack and is the locus of lack itself. Thus, being characterised by a lack herself, as Poizat (1986/1992, p. 150) explains, woman in opera is the natural locus from which the quest begins for the vocal object which, being a lost object, a missing object, is itself a lack. As such, woman as voice becomes the cause of man’s desire in being able to fill the lack. However, the quest to recover the vocal object is impossible, just as impossible as man’s desire of being satisfied by woman as voice, and so the quest becomes endless. If man’s desire were to be completely satisfied by woman as voice, this would entail the death of his desire, and ultimately his own death. Thus, woman as (pure) voice approaches the divine and is considered a diva (ibid.). However, the impossibility of this desire being fully satisfied creates a feeling of disappointment and yearning for more, a phallic jouissance, as any satisfaction that can be achieved from the elusive vocal object is fleeting (ibid., pp. 150-151).
Given the erotic nature of the relationship that can be said to exist between audience and opera, with the soprano’s voice as the ultimate object of desire – and the fleeting nature of the jouissance that results from this encounter – the quest for the lost vocal object and its jouissance proves to be endless in its impossibility. As Poizat (1986/1992, p. 150) points out, opera meets all of the requirements for the voice as object of jouissance. It is an inaccessible lost object, ethereal, impossible to recover and thus prohibited; it is the source of a quest that results from desire; and it is a deified object, seductive, but potentially lethal (ibid.).
The constant quest for the elusive (female) vocal object of desire and the resulting jouissance of the ‘pure cry’ is what drives the repetition compulsion of the committed opera fan. Because of this, it is central to opera and the most extreme followers, naturally enough, are men (ibid., pp. 156-157). This endless quest would also account to some extent for the fact that, despite a potentially vast repertory, opera houses can survive by repeatedly producing the same ‘popular’ operas. Abel (1996, p. 86) believes that this confirms how “we never tire of hearing that great fundamental narrative, the story of sexual climax, especially when we ourselves get to participate in its enactment.”
Abel, S. (1996). Opera in the flesh: Sexuality in operatic performance. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Barthes, R. (1975). The pleasure of the text (R. Miller, Trans.). New York, NY: Hill and Wang. (Original work published 1973)
Davies, S. (1994). Musical meaning and expression. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Dolar, M. (2006). A voice and nothing more. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Freud, S. (1924). The economic problem of masochism. In J. Strachey (Ed. and Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 19, pp. 157-170). London: The Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis.
Freud, S. (1942). Psychopathic characters on the stage. In J. Strachey (Ed. and Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 7, pp. 305-310). London: The Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Original work published 1905 or 1906)
Késenne, J. (n. d.). Synaesthetics/synesthetica. Dr. Hugo Heyrman - Museums of the mind. Retrieved on June 20, 2008 from: http://www.doctorhugo.org/synaesthesia/e-kes.htm
Lacan, J. (1992). The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book VII: The ethics of psychoanalysis (Jacques-Alain Miller, Ed.) (D. Porter, Trans.). London: Routledge. (Original work published 1959-1960)
Poizat, M. (1992). The angel's cry: Beyond the pleasure principle in opera (A. Denner, Trans.). Ithaca, NY-London: Cornell University Press. (Original work published 1986)
Rose, G. J. (2004). Between couch and piano: Psychoanalysis, music, art and neuroscience. New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge.
Salecl, R. and Žižek, S. (1996). Gaze and voice as love objects. Durham, NC-London: Duke University Press.
Tambling, J. (1996). Opera and the culture of fascism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Žižek, S. and Dolar, M. (2002). Opera’s second death. London: Routledge.
Zuccarini (2006). The desire for power and the power of desire: politics, sexuality, jouissance and the operas of Giuseppe Verdi. MA dissertation. Brunel University.
Received: January 1, 2008, Published: December 1, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Carlo Zuccarini