By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert The Vampire, performed on March 17, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.
The great novelist Vladimir Nabokov ridiculed the common impulse to find symbolic meaning, particularly of a Freudian kind, in any narrative or witnessed event. But he might have made an exception for the long-standing fascination in Western culture for vampires. Of all the manifestation of the supernatural, vampires have had the most enduring and adaptable symbolic value for the last two centuries. Without accounting for this utility, it would be difficult to understand why otherwise intelligent people would be so obsessed by what Bram Stoker called the “undead” : individuals who have been infected by like-minded individuals with a need drink blood, who rest by day in coffins, are afraid of light and (in some versions) of garlic and mirrors. They can be killed (or re-killed) only by driving a stake through their heart or by exposing them to the light of day.
The vampire stories are a clear case in which the symbolic completely trumps any literal meaning. It is possible to trace the various features of the legend to popular (and not unwarranted) fears, such as being buried alive, the mysterious powers of blood and of the moon, etc. But the development of the story through the 19th century suggests that first and foremost it is about the connection between sex and death. It reminds us that our sexual drive, when realized, forces a confrontation with our own mortality. In the Christian narrative, the loss of innocence triggers two forms of consciousness: the recognition of mortality and the recognition of desire and sexuality. In Western culture, love and death are strange but inseparable bed fellows. Therefore, love and death are not surprisingly the only subjects that make for great opera. Whatever the operatic plot may be, the potential for love and death must be present even if not realized. Despite its obvious adaptability to the worst kitsch and the silliest of teenage entertainment, the vampire story has, like opera, offered a powerful analogy to our complex responses to love and death, two of the most powerful sources of meaning in life.
Another analogy offered by the figure of the vampire, especially after Dracula, is our ambivalence toward those who are outside society, either because they possess unique qualities or because they romantically suffer from a tragic affliction. They are greeted with both desire and fear. The magnetism of the ordinary person to the vampire is an attraction to taboo-breaking freedom, deviance and dissent from the usual rules. Much like the “other,” the non-European that Europe created in fanciful tales of the East, the vampire is compelling precisely because his or her presence calls into question the vapid, oppressive rules of society. It is no wonder that the vampire’s most compelling embodiment, Dracula, was a product of the Victorian age, and that in refining his vampire, Stoker decided to displace the folktales of his native Ireland to Romania, then a remote border region next to the Turkish empire. For 19th-century Europeans who were dulled by routine and industrialized urban life, the vampire is the ultimate figure of the artist and thinker who doesn’t play by the rules and is impossible to ignore. In that respect, the dangerous vampire offered the same vicarious, passionate experience that audiences sought in the operas of Wagner, full of larger-than-life figures who suffered, created, used magic, and dared the gods. The rebellious power of the vampire is perhaps nowhere better acknowledged than by the dictator Ceausescu’s banning of Stoker’s book in Romania. The Romanian government found the novel to be insulting, but clearly a story about breaking the rules and defying conformity would not find favor with the tyrant. Incidentally, Dracula was one of the first books translated into Romanian after Ceausescu’s fall.
The most resonant and complicated taboo symbolized by the vampire, however, was and is sexuality. In earlier vampire stories such as Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Stoker’s countryman, the vampire is female, and clearly represents a familiar story about the fear of female sexuality. But later accounts often have a central male figure who may or may not have female companions trailing behind him. Scholars such as Eve Sedgwick have argued that this shift in focus to male vampires suggest that the real sexual tension in vampires stories is not between the vampire and his female victims, but between the vampire and the mortal men who defend the women. In other words, the focus of sexual fear for an implied male reader has moved from female sexuality to male sexuality. Modern readers familiar with Dracula films are often surprised to find that the novel is mostly about how the vampire invokes a deep bond between the male characters pledged to protect the nearly invisible young woman. The vampire of our opera, Lord Ruthven, is, as Thomas Grey points out in his fine notes to this concert, a relative of Don Giovanni, whose devastating attractiveness derives from his aesthetic refinement and poetic sensibilities. Ruthven-Giovanni mirrors late 18th- and early 19th-century notions of the masculine, in which aesthetic sensibility, refinement, and elegance were more important, as they were for Lord Byron, than brawny insensitivity and a disposition to warlike behavior, a distinction to the ideal of masculinity which we have inherited from the later part of the century. Marschner’s libretto also points forward particularly to Wagner in its emphasis on the relations between men. Nominally Tristan und Isolde is about the love between Tristan and King Mark’s intended bride. In order for Tristan to love Isolde he must betray King Mark, but that betrayal is made possible only by a magic potion, not Tristan’s free will. Tristan’s transgression is in his unfaithfulness to his male friend (thus the greatest music—between King Mark and Tristan—comes at the end of Act II). In today’s opera, Aubrey’s seemingly incomprehensible adherence to an oath made to Ruthven even to the point of endangering his fiancée suggests how compelling the male relationship is.
The vampire story can invoke such possibilities and offer tantalizing alternatives to staid, acceptable European mores, but in the end, those mores and the rules of society must prevail, and so the vampire must die. But he has shown that he will always return. He has been embraced as an enduring image in popular culture over generations, especially in cinema and television. This may explain why he has not been seen more in operas like this one, where he perfectly embodies so many of the themes and symbols so cherished in operatic stories. Today’s opera is a tribute to the imagination and literary gifts that flourished in the early 19th century. He is too much a favorite of the most puerile media—from Dracula to Count Chocula. But who can tell? Perish the thought, but perhaps someday we may see an operatic treatment of The Twilight Saga.