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Sincerity, authenticity, and opera stars

March 23, 2012

Anna Fishzon:

Zubasheva [a writer of opera fan letters] sought to explain this “ecstatic” state of being to the man who had enabled it [Ershov, an opera star]. She would not spare any detail to prove to him and herself that she was sincere, that she had not “made it up.” Ershov “helped her live,” but Tannhäuser seemed “supernatural” to her: “Your Tannhäuser… tears me from life… During the performance I feel [such] joy and intensity! Afterwards—a feeling of intoxication, inspiration that I don’t know how to overcome or what to do with. And I feel that I cannot return to my normal life, which I value and cherish… But I am happy even though this [feeling] also is excruciating.” Zubasheva ventured that her confessional manner was lurid, “of course ridiculous, perhaps even rude,” but immediately soothed herself, declaring: “this is You, after all—You-Tannhäuser.” Inspired by his greatness, she had undergone a “spiritual and physical metamorphosis” that absolved her of every verbal transgression. (815)

Fan letters like this one from 1924 are part of Fishzon’s evidence for an  “idea of authenticity-as-excess […] an excess enacted through confession, manifested in the lack of premeditation and self-control” that, in late imperial Russia, trickled down from opera and celebrity culture to the masses (818).

Besides fan mail, Fishzon looks at feuilletons that poke fun at opera celebrities or gramophone enthusiasts and early record reviews and ads in the music press.

A feuilleton called “Shaliapin’s Left Leg” ambiguously plays around with the contradictory elements of an opera singer’s public persona and real self (801-03). As social position became less fixed by birth in the Russian empire, Fishzon argues, people had to think more about what “the self” really was, and one of the ways they talked about selfhood was by talking about celebrities and their new, public selves (795-800).

Record reviews claimed to distinguish between the technical quality of a recording and the underlying artistic quality of the performance recorded, but in fact they constantly conflated the two (808-10). Advertisements played on a supposedly new tension between originals and copies; Fishzon mentions one that shows a picture of Caruso next to a picture of a record with the slogan “Both are Caruso” (810-14).

There was definitely something new going on with celebrity culture starting in late nineteenth-century Russia – I remember how odd I found it when I first looked at Chekhov’s collected works and found so many things about Sarah Bernhardt.

I’m a little more skeptical that recorded music and “mechanical reproduction” more broadly first made people confront the idea of originals and copies. I’ll believe that records revolutionized the experience of listening to music as photographs changed painting. But people had plenty of analogous experience with copies going way back – bird calls, tracings of signatures (and before that probably forgeries of wax seals), plaster casts, reflections, woodcuts. Even reading a handwritten letter from an absent person must have provoked some of the same anxieties as hearing a recorded voice. Naturally Fishzon and the theorists she quotes don’t claim that records were the first copies of any kind, but I find myself rebelling against even the weaker claims. I may just need to think about it more.

One way or another, Fishzon has a fascinating approach to a huge and difficult topic.

See Anna Fishzon, “The Operatics of Everyday Life, or, How Authenticity Was Defined in Late Imperial Russia,” Slavic Review 70.4 (2011): 795-818.

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