Originally posted on OperaMemphis.org, November 10, 2015

By Opera Memphis Music Director Ben Makino

I first read this a few months ago, and it was originally going to be the heart of a different post, but seeing as we’re in the midst of staging The Magic Flute, one of the most popular and studied pieces in the repertoire, it seems particularly appropriate now. It is from the introduction to Dennis Washburn’s new translation of The Tale of Genji, which I impulse-purchased in early August. While I unfortunately haven’t gotten into this translation of the Tale itself yet, I thought this excerpt from his translator’s introduction was an extraordinary summation of the relationship we have to the operatic canon. While it is long, it is worth reading in its entirety.

The canonical status of any work of art is the outcome of an ongoing evaluation of the ways an artist utilizes the possibilities of expression intrinsic to his or her chosen medium. This means that such status is dependent on the extrinsic values and agendas of particular readerships at different historical moments…Readers who come to [Genji monogatari] through a translation such as this one must recognize (at least in the abstract) that its perceived cultural significance depends as much on the many layers of annotation and interpretation that surround the original text as on its purely literary qualities. In addition, readers must situate the history of the reception of the work in a comparative context—one that accounts for the social and cultural conditions that have produced not only past interpretations but also contemporary expectations and tastes. Simply assuming the canonical status of the work—that is, being lazy or indifferent readers—provides an excuse to ignore the parochial limits of our own aesthetic preference. Of course, we can never completely step outside the ideologically determined values and literary questions conventions that ground our interpretations; but if we at least remain attentive to questions about how and why Genji monogatari has achieved canonical status, then through such critical reflection we can open ourselves more fully to the challenges and pleasures presented by Murasakai Shikibu’s art.

I have nothing else to say about the subject that I feel will add meaningfully to what Washburn has already stated. If there were anything I would contribute, specific to opera, it is that artists and audience alike come to a work through any number of “translations.” For artists, the history of the work’s performance and the traditions accumulated over a work’s history, as well as our own experience with the larger canon inform our interpretation of the dramatic and musical text. For an audience, the performance is the translation, wherein various aspects of the written document, the score, are featured, quieted or removed completely through a process of musical, dramatic and design decisions in order to accomplish artistic (and often practical) goals.

Thus, the performance is never “complete,” one reading naturally superseding others through the course of a production or even a single performance. The “complete” work only exists in the imaginations of the artists who create and of the audience who witness the performance. The “complete” work lives in the minds of those who are able, while having one experience, to simultaneously imagine all the other possibilities that in one instance cannot be realized.

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