The time has come. With Season 4 under way and Mad Men fever at its pitch, now even opera aficionados have enough material to join the chorus of totally overwrought analysis the show has inspired. What follows is an interpretation of how opera is used in Mad Men (those put off by pretentiousness, you are forewarned).
Let’s begin with the show’s creator and lead writer Matthew Weiner. Between The Sopranos and Mad Men, it is clear he has a knack for the operatic, which is to say high drama, at turns ordinary and elegant, shocking and raw. He also has an awareness of actual opera and classical music that has been on display in Mad Men since Season 1, with the episode titled “The Marriage of Figaro.” This is of course the title of Mozart’s classic opera buffa, which is heard as background music on the radio during Sally Draper’s birthday party in the second half of the episode. The clip is meant to be one of those carefully placed cultural markers we always find in Mad Men: while the Met still broadcasts live every Saturday on radio stations around the country, not too many people today would leave opera on during their kid’s birthday party (or, I should say, not too many kids today would allow their parents to leave it on). But Weiner is also arguing for a larger metaphor here by naming the episode after this particular opera, in which Count Almaviva tries to have sex with his wife’s maid Susanna before she marries his valet, Figaro, in an attempt to enact the outmoded tradition of primae noctus, or droit de seigneur. Mozart and his librettist DaPonte turn the Beaumarchais original into something of a Shakespearean romp, with humor, disguises, misunderstandings, and ultimately, reconciliation. But really, it all starts with a man in power abusing his position for sex.
Sound familiar? Don first seduces Rachel Menken in this episode, and a newly married Pete must try and honor his new status around Peggy, still just a secretary. Mozart’s opera also contrasts young, passionate love with the strained relationship of the Count and Countess (read: Don and Betty), a contrast Weiner illuminates when Don catches the couple Janet and Henry Darling making out at Sally’s birthday party. While some of this is a stretch, one can argue Weiner is at the very least using the opera on two levels, both as a cultural reference (wow, young couples listening to classical music, on the radio, at a party!) and as a starting point for a commentary on the power politics of sex.
Another interesting, and I think more powerful reference comes in Season 2, Episode 12, “The Mountain King.” The episode begins with Don walking into Anna’s house in California, where she is giving a piano lesson. The boy at the piano is clunking away at Greig’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” incidental music composed for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. The music instantly evokes a cartoonish vision of Halloween and of feeling scared. But Weiner knows this is music of both mental and physical escape, and that Peer is a man of shifting identity, which has led him astray, as it similarly has not worked out for Don. “In the Hall of the Mountain King” in particular takes place in Peer’s dreams, and without a doubt, the Season 2 California episodes also have a distinct haze and surreality about them. In short, what might seem like nothing to some, or like an obvious musical metaphor of doom to others, is in fact a subtle, nuanced, analogy drawing on a clear understanding of the context of Grieg’s music.
Fast forward to Season 4, Episode 1, which, as an opera administrator, really had me geeking out. Don is set up on a date with Bethany, who turns out to be a supernumerary at “the opera.” Don is confused, and so Bethany gives him and America a lesson in Opera101: supernumerary is a fancy word for extra. She doesn’t sing. However, she does get to wear the fancy costumes (“just as nice as the singers’”). She’s an actress so this isn’t the best work around, but she loves the stories of the operas, they’re so romantic.
Weiner is really laying it on thick here: Bethany the super is Betty 2.0, a hollow prop, a pretty decoration on Don’s arm. And while the primary function of Bethany’s being a super is to draw the Betty parallel, it again serves as a cultural/class marker. Don says he’s been to the opera for business (and didn’t like it). And just three episodes later, opera comes up again in the same capacity: Harry tells Pete he’s recently been to the opera with Ken.
This is the “golden age” of opera. Rudolf Bing is in the midst of his legendary tenure at the Met, and in 1966, the company will unveil it’s new house in Lincoln Center with Leontyne Pryce starring in the world premiere of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. Anybody who was somebody was going to the opera. This “golden age,” after all, was also likely the peak of opera’s elitism, and Weiner is capturing that.
So maybe I shouldn’t get too excited about a mainstream television show portraying rich white guys talking about going to the opera fifty years ago, but I do. And the show’s more explicit operatic and musical analogies have been surprisingly rich. More opera in Mad Men would be most welcome. Maybe, in the end, it will take a trip to Don Giovanni for Don to change his ways.