Der Vampyr and the birth of horror

click the picture, if you dare..(!)

I’ve been immersed in blood for the past few weeks. No I am not training to be a butcher or a surgeon.  None of this gore is real. I’ll be teaching a new course at the Royal Conservatory of Music in the fall titled “Theatres of Terror: Gothic Horror in Music, Opera and Film.” (click link for info), and it has been my pleasure to watch films, listen to operas, and read stories designed to elicit terror.

Here’s the course description from the RCM website:

As long ago as Aristotle’s Poetics, tragedy was understood to achieve catharsis by means of pity and terror. Do you scare easily? While music and drama seek to stir the audience, not everyone likes to be terrified. However, theatre has long played upon our emotions, often pushing us to extremes. Over the centuries, the technologies of terror have been refined, so that the thrill of pure horror is now sought out as an end in itself: because of course it is now its own genre.
From the musical and dramatic perspectives, this course will investigate how terror has been done best. As artists, and as audience members, we will explore how this genre works when it works well. We will dissect a few bodies – the scores and films that is – to see what makes them tick or bleed. Maybe as we explore their anatomy AND our own we can discover a few things about what makes us scream.

This week Summer Opera Lyric Theatre will begin performances of Marschner’s Der Vampyr (1828) a romantic opera that has not quite found a place in the standard repertoire. It’s a tuneful work that brings out the best in its singers, and ideal for the students of SOLT.  For example here’s an aria sung by Jonas Kaufmann.

Like its predecessor Der Freischütz (1821) by Carl Maria von Weber, it encases dark deeds in a story of Christian redemption.

While Gothic novels were already being written (the first, Walpole’s the Castle of Otranto, dates from half a century before these two operas), the horror genre had not really been born as a recognizable type of drama or theatre.  Horror had a purpose, aiding mightily in the telling of a tale, but was not yet an end in itself, the reason to go to the theatre. Edgar Allan Poe –one of the masters –was only born in 1809. The first edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein dates from 1818.  Classics such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula & Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde date from the 1890s, while Leroux’s Le Fantôme de l’Opéra only appears in 1909.

I am looking forward to hearing the young talent of SOLT on Friday singing Marschner’s lovely music, not expecting to be scared but certainly charmed.

Perhaps we’ll meet there, in the dark…(?)

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Cinema, video & DVDs, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays. Bookmark the permalink.

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