Was Meyerbeer Forgotten Because He Was Jewish — Or Because Of A Goat?
The composer Giacomo Meyerbeer got pushed out of the operatic canon because of anti-Semitism. That much is fact.
But if you’re looking for a reason that Meyerbeer’s 1859 opera “Dinorah” hasn’t been performed in the United States since 1925 — that is, until now — the first thing you really have to reckon with is the goat.
Yes: The goat.
Opera is a genre notorious for its attachment to plots that can, at best, be described as unintelligible. Lost children and siblings are found with alarming frequency; people are poisoned in extraordinarily unscientific ways; Don Giovanni is bodily dragged directly into hell. Yet “Dinorah,” which New York City’s Amore Opera has revived in a brief production that closes this Saturday, is perhaps unique in its reliance on a barnyard animal not only as a plot device, but a genuine, and frequent, onstage presence.
The goat gets lost, leading its loving owner, the titular village maiden, on a chase that exhausts her already fragile mind. The goat lures two treasure-seeking men to the jackpot for which they’ve yearned — well, sort of. The goat, escaping Dinorah (for the thousandth time), almost becomes the instrument of her murder.
Audiences in the United States regularly gobble up “The Magic Flute,” in which, among other curiosities, two fully grown humans who spend all their time dressed as birds fall in love. The Metropolitan Opera’s 2015 production of “Lulu,” in which Jack the Ripper closes the show by singing about the extraordinary fun of killing both the protagonist and her adoring follower at the same time, was heralded as one of the august company’s best recent efforts. As a longtime opera audience member who has voluntarily paid money to see both the above operas, as well as an interpretation of the regicide drama “Un Ballo en Maschera” set in an IKEA — really! — even I find the goat difficult to get behind.
The story of Meyerbeer is effectively the story of “All About Eve.” A German Jew, he was the grand master of grand opera, the French 19th-century tradition that eventually led to such famously mammoth productions as Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.” Meyerbeer, in fact, directly led to Wagner; he took on the younger composer as a quasi apprentice in 1839, eight years after his miraculously convoluted and musically bravura “Robert Le Diable” made him the unequivocal star of the Parisian opera scene.
Lest you doubt the comparison to the 1950 drama about an ingénue scheming to replace a star, consider the letter Wagner sent Meyerbeer, early in their relationship, in which he wrote “But my head and my heart are no longer mine to give away — they are your property, my master.” Almost no one seeking professional advancement has ever written such words without secretly intending to supplant the object of their supplication, a goal that Wagner eventually revealed he shared. As Meyerbeer advocated for Wagner’s work, the younger composer began to blame his mentor for his failures. That blame began to take the form of extreme anti-Semitism, culminating in Wagner’s 1850 tract “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (“Jewishness in Music”), in which he condemned Meyerbeer, alongside all other Jews, as engaging in art only as a way to earn capital, not out of any true feeling for the medium.
That article went a long way toward making Meyerbeer’s music fall out of fashion, especially after Wagner, who originally published the work under a pseudonym, reprinted it in 1869 under his own name. Meyerbeer had died five years before, and Wagner, after a period of exile, had returned to Germany and become the country’s foremost operatic composer. “He became better known as the object of Wagner’s vicious, anti-Semitic disdain than for his music,” Zachary Woolfe wrote in The New York Times in 2017. In Germany, Meyerbeer’s music was banned after that Nazis came to power in 1933, a restriction that spread to much of Europe. But even after the war, distaste for the composer lingered. Combined with that distaste, the enormous technical effort required by most of his operas ensured that his work remained out of style.
Nathan Hull, the director of Amore Opera, noted that the company would have liked to put on one of Meyerbeer’s grand operas, but that very same question of resources demanded that they instead choose one of his two pastoral operas — “Dinorah.” (Amore Opera is partially dedicated to reviving operas in the United States that have long gone unproduced.)
He acknowledged the obvious narrative issues that hobble the work: “You have to accept the story as it is,” he said. And it’s indisputable that the opera, musically, is a treat, particularly as an exhibition for the coloratura soprano singing the title role. The argument for reviving such music is strong; so is the argument of fighting anti-Semitism in the arts, as everywhere.
But still, there’s the goat.