Patrick O’Connor

Singing & Silence

On Opera

By

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Bernard Williams was once introduced to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as ‘a great lover of opera’. The famous baritone gave one of his characteristic little smiles, and replied ‘Ah, I am not’. As a philosopher Williams could take this in his stride, and an essay he might have written would have concerned the interpretive artist’s frustration with the material with which he has to work.

It was a visit to the opera, to a performance of Janacek’s The Makropoulos Case, that inspired one of Williams’s most influential essays, ‘Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality’ (in Problems of the Self, 1973). In Janacek’s opera, the central figure is a woman who has drunk the elixir of life, and has already lived for 300 years. ‘Her unending life has come to a state of boredom, indifference and coldness.’ She has reached the joyless conclusion that ‘in the end it is all the same, singing and silence’.

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