Opera's Narrative Prosthesis
In their influential work Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, David T. Mitchell and Sharon Snyder write that:
The authors coined the term ‘narrative prosthesis’ to scrutinise the persistent appropriation of disability as a narrative obstacle in literary works, where it is exploited for what it represents rather than for its very real socio-political and cultural significance.
As well as highlighting the sheer abundance of disability narratives across literature, Narrative Prosthesis observes the prevalence of certain representational tropes that frame disabled characters within restrictive categories of characterisation, and utilise disability as a metaphor or a plot device.
Along similar lines, Michael Bérubé writes in his article Disability and Narrative that disability ‘demands a story’, and in Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People, Paul K. Longmore outlines some of the most common screen images associated with disability – such as the disabled criminal, the disabled ‘monster’, and disabled victim of fate.
The exploitative uses of disability outlined in these examples see the presentation of disability as a crisis or a problem to be overcome, whilst at the same time shoring up culturally embedded ideals of ‘normality’. As is often the case with this type of work, however, these considerations are almost invariably restricted to portrayals of disability in literature and film.
The central idea of Narrative Prosthesis – that disability functions in literature as 'crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight' (49) – is also applicable to opera narratives.
The database of musical representations of disability reveals a comparable prevalence of disability narratives in opera. As in literature, disability plays various roles in opera as a stock feature of characterisation, an opportunistic metaphorical device, or a form of comic relief.
In Fromental Halévy’s L'éclair (1835), for example, Lyonel is struck by lightning and becomes blind. His visual impairment is a means through which to generate comic confusion, and he regains his sight at the end of the opera. Blindness is also depicted metaphorically in other instances as a bad omen, such as in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, when the title characters come across three blind men in the second act.
The loss and restoration of sanity is another common narrative trope, and can be found in both comic settings (Meyerbeer’s Dinorah, 1859) and in opera seria (Vivaldi’s Orlando, 1727).
The ‘redemption’ of disabled characters through heroic acts is a recurring dramatic theme in opera plots. For example, Robert Schumann’s 1849 opera Genoveva features a young boy with a hearing impairment (deafness) and vocal disfluency (muteness) who saves the title character from death.
Characters with dwarfism are frequently depicted in opera plots as having supernatural abilities: in the case of Ignacy Jan Paderewski’s 1898 opera Manru, for example, the dwarf character Urok is an evil sorcerer. Another common stereotype is that of the ‘evil dwarf’, such as Alberich and Mime, who can be found in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876).
Nikolai Putilin as Alberich during a dress rehearsal for 'Das Rheingold', Kirov Opera, Metropolitan Opera House (2007). He is dressed in yellow robes and is wearing facial prosthetics to alter the shape of his head and elongate his ears. Photograph: Timothy A. Clary.
These examples only just begin to scratch the surface of where and how disability is represented in opera. Nevertheless, they help to illustrate how composers and librettists have appropriated disability as a narrative obstacle and subjected their disabled characters to the narrow confines of stock character tropes and formulaic plot conventions. I think it’s safe to say that literature is not alone with regards to its dependency on disability.