Michel Poizat's The Angel's Cry begins and ends with his transcript of a conversation with a group of opera fans whom he met in January 1985 on the front steps of the Palais Garnier (the "old" Opera) in Paris, where they were waiting through the night in order to buy tickets for a new production of Tristan und Isolde.
Throughout the rest of the book, Poizat makes use of their attempts to describe their emotional and physical responses to opera as the basis for his own analysis of its uncanny power--its power, at least, over the sort of people who are willing to stand in line thirteen hours for tickets.
It happened to me at Bayreuth. I had
tears running down my face, but I had
no idea why. It was Parisfal, the end of
the first act. I cried and cried and I don't
know why I was crying.... You collapse
into your seat and can't move, you're
completely out of it, short-circuited. It's
as though you've received an electric
shock. (P. 17)
[W]hen Callas sings, when she's going
to kill herself [in Madama Butterfly],
maybe it's idiotic, but I snap.... At that
point I just fall apart, I'm down on my
knees. (P. 26)
The five friends (all single teachers between the ages 20 and 35) aren't sure the experience should be called a "pleasure"--hence, perhaps, the subtitle of the new English translation. They describe it more as a "blind impulse," a druglike "fix." "There's a need for song, a need to feel the vibration in the ear canal, to feel it in your throat ... you really have the illusion that you're singing" (p. 27).
Poizat acknowledges the supreme oddity of opera, and the irrational, almost manic hold it has over such devotees. By means of psychoanalytic theory, he undertakes to trace the unconscious wellsprings of their extreme, rationally unexplainable responses. Following Jacques Lacan, he labels the nature of these responses jouissance. The translator leaves the word in French, arguing that no English approximation--not "bliss," not "ecstasy," certainly not mere "enjoyment" or "pleasure"--contains the sexual, outlaw connotations of jouissance, a word that appears 128 times in the text. I was reminded of Peter Conrad's insistence (in A Song of Love and Death [New York: Poseidon Press, 1987!) that all true opera is about extravagant, over-the-edge emotions.
Poizat's thesis begins (about halfway through the book) by accepting Lacan's thesis that there exists in all human beings, in addition to Sigmund Freud's oral, anal, and genital drives, two additional radical impulses related to the ear and the eye. He hypothesizes--which is all any psychoanalytic critic can do--that an infant's primal cry is something absolute, like a birdcall ("a pure manifestation of vocal resonance linked to a state of internal displeasure" [p. 100]), which is only interpreted by the adult (m)Other as signifying hunger or thirst or a need to be cuddled. From then on, as he is gradually educated into the ways of the world, the infant's cries cease...