Get Real

Classic Arts Features   Get Real
Were verismo operas like Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci (now playing at New York City Opera) anticipating our current addiction to reality TV?

When the one-act melodrama Cavalleria rusticana premiered in 1890, it catapulted its young composer Pietro Mascagni to superstardom so spectacular that hordes of Italian composers scrambled to repeat the magic. Three years later, Ruggiero Leoncavallo's winning effort, the pot-boiling play-within-a-play Pagliacci, would be paired with Cavalleria for the first time. Ever since, the Cav/Pag double-bill has been the permanently conjoined centerpiece of verismo opera.

Verismo (from vero, Latin for "truth") is a style featuring characters drawn from real life, often the lower classes and even the underworld. Its most salient traits include vivid local color (Sicilian Easter bells in Cavalleria; the bagpipe player calling Pagliacci's villagers to Mass), compact dramatic rhythm, full-throated vocalism, and bold (even lurid) orchestration — all in the service of extravagantly human, sometimes violent passions. You know it when you see and hear it. It feels "real." And Cav/Pag has it all.

Verismo, sometimes translated as "Realism," initially described the Italian branch of a late 19th-century literary movement that swept through Europe. These realist currents were spawned by radical developments in science and technology that transformed societies worldwide. In England, Charles Darwin had published On the Origin of Species, challenging every familiar premise of being. And the budding science and art of photography was redefining physical realities. People's way of "seeing" the world around them — and themselves in it — was fundamentally changing, and cultural consumers now craved "objective reality" even in their entertainments.

In response, the Italian verismo movement sought to expose a culture of pretensions that, with its idealized historical and mythical themes, had mirrored a self-satisfied aristocracy. Verismo's goal was to depict uno squarcio di vita ("a slice of life"), in the words of Tonio in Pagliacci's Prologue; the poignancy and passion of ordinary people, rising to dramatic truth on the fragile wings of mere humanity. Cavalleria rusticana, for example, is based on Sicilian novelist Giovanni Verga's popular short story concerning a peasant whose adultery sparks an excommunication, a duel, and a murder. Leoncavallo claimed to have found Pagliacci's similar tale of adultery and murder within a troupe of traveling actors in a true-crime police blotter.

Mascagni and Leoncavallo belonged to a loose fraternity of composers called the giovane scuola, the "Young Italians," which also included Giacomo Puccini and Umberto Giordano. They faced the challenges of resuscitating a moribund Italian theater and mustering the dramatic power to stand up to Richard Wagner, who had already changed the soundscape of music forever. And to do this, these Young Italians tapped the box office appeal of sex, violence, and sweeping crescendos — and that had as much to do with the shape of the verismo style as anything else. Sure enough, the sensational Cav/Pag double bill has never disappeared from the standard repertoire, and its famous tunes have been appropriated again and again over the years — from Francis Ford Coppola's use of Cavalleria's "Siciliana" tune in his Godfather series to the reimagining of Pagliacci's "Tears of a Clown" theme by artists ranging from Smokey Robinson to Woody Allen (Zelig).

Following the composers' lead, verismo librettists began to write in a vernacular style, in the cadences of natural speech, and the emotional temperature of their texts rose accordingly, as when Pagliacci's Canio erupts with unpoetical ferocity in the aria, "No, Pagliaccio non son (No! I am no clown!)." Vocal lines in the verismo style were based not on formal musical principles but on the changing inflections of the unfolding text. Singers' diction, phrasing, and expressive declamation became more important than the pear-shaped tones and supple coloratura of the old bel canto style.

Around the same time, in the U.S., director David Belasco defined the look of Naturalism, "holding the mirror up to nature" with stage sets that might include an entire flock of real sheep, up to eight galloping horses, or a meticulous replica of Child's famous restaurant, serving accurately aromatic pancakes. Belasco was dubbed "The Wizard" for such "sensation spectacles," though his proudest and most legitimating accomplishment was what he called "a magic naturalism of color and light… to produce maximum psychological and emotional effect." His seminal work in the nascent art and technology of stage lighting was so effective in his play Madame Butterfly that Puccini was moved to set the play to music without having understood a word of its English text. Across Europe and the United States, the goal of such Realists was to see it, smell it, sing it, and "tell it like it is."

Truth and accuracy had become virtually the only criteria in all the arts. But the claim of "truth" for any artwork is, at best, untrustworthy, and, at worst, fraudulent; even the widest slice of life is just a sample of the whole, subject to the selectivity of the blade. Every kind of art or experience is subject to framing, whether by camera lens, picture frame, proscenium, or attention span. Just as there's always something just outside the frame, so everything in the frame is intentional and purposeful.

The more things change, of course, the more they stay the same. We Postmodernists are very well aware of the power of television, for example, to both spy on and to sequester experience. That "little black box," "small screen," "blind eye" in the corner of every modern home has both framed our culture and helped to define it — not only supporting our pursuit of "reality," "truth," and "accuracy," but also facilitating the seductive pleasure of seeing our ordinary selves the way we like to be seen.

Indeed, the mass media have allowed our obsession with "Reality" to run rampant. Queen for a Day, introduced on radio in 1945, was part tabloid tear-jerker, part mega-game-show, allowing the TV studio audience to reward one hard-luck housewife with crown, scepter, and a major appliance. Allen Funt's long-running Candid Camera, debuting in 1948, spied on hapless Americans reacting to bizarre set-ups. Its contemporary cousin, America's Funniest Home Videos, gathers a studio audience to watch its own home movies together.

Arguably, the first "reality show" in the contemporary sense was the so-called docudrama An American Family (1973), about the Louds, a wobbly nuclear family. Similarly, Michael Apted's Up series, a cycle of documentary films revisiting the same group of unrelated Brits every seven years, has lodged itself in the consciousness of a generation.

A decade ago, millions reclined upon a collective national couch to stare at the long-running Seinfeld, comedian Larry David's television juggernaut "about nothing," in which David directed an actor in a scripted characterization of himself. Nowadays, on cable TV, the same Larry David directs himself as his ad-libbed self, "true-to-life" in every detail, a scrupulously unmanipulated reality — until you put a frame around it.

These were the innocent first steps down the path toward the shady and mean-spirited phenomenon called Reality TV, which first seized America's attention in 2000 with the interactive British quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. The reality genre — with its staged emergencies, summary judgments, and gratuitous humiliation of contestants — presents purportedly unscripted situations, actual events, and ordinary people. "What is normally private and guarded is flaunted in front of millions of us," writes Colin Sparks of the reality franchise Big Brother, "not with the distancing conventions of drama but with the rhetoric of authenticity."

Reality TV has proliferated to encompass competitive adventure-type shows like The Amazing Race and "docusoap" dramas that throw strangers together just to stir things up, like Big Brother or Temptation Island. Purposeful true-crime programming like John Walsh's America's Most Wanted slid into the adrenalin-pumped Cops, first featured on Fox in 1989, and now accommodates the likes of the ex-convict known as "Dog, the Bounty Hunter." There are dating competitions (The Bachelor), career- or dream-chasing contests (The Apprentice), "celebreality" farces (The Osbourns), and self-improvement contests (The Biggest Loser). The seemingly limitless expansion of transmission platforms (countless cable TV stations, satellite radio, YouTube, etc.) has created infinite air time, and because there are essentially no creative costs, failure poses virtually no economic risk. Profit margins on successful shows guarantee sequels far into future seasons, which assures more ordinary people more opportunity to submit themselves to a fantasy of celebrity, the stakes ever escalating, the rewards ever more fleeting, the fall-to-earth ever more imminent.

Let's be real: There is nothing "real" about Reality TV. In due time it will exhaust its turn at the center of American popular culture, just as Belasco, a national celebrity in his time, lived long enough to hear his life's work decried as "nonselective Naturalism" and "hideous Realism." Mascagni himself confessed, "The man that the world knows in me is not real …. I have to force myself not to show myself as I really am…." Still, the heart of verismo (opera or TV) is the unstoppable urge to be what we are — human, "real." And it is never far from us.

Kathleen Watt writes frequently on the performing arts.

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