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English professor explores history of opera in new book

Orfeo's lament ­ "Che farò senza Euridice" ("I have lost my Euridice") ­ swept through the classroom and out the open windows to beguile passersby with its pensive melody. Freshmen enrolled in "Opera and Literature," a new spring quarter seminar, were listening to a CD of one of the most famous passages in the history of opera, from Gluck's Orfeo et Euridice.

"There's no way of knowing from the tune alone whether it's really a lament or whether it's meant to be happy," Herbert Lindenberger, the Avalon Foundation Professor of Humanities, said as the counter-tenor approached a remarkable C.

"It's only too bad that we can't hear it sung by a castrato, the original voice it was written for," he added, sidling up to the punch line. "But, of course, we would not dare sponsor those operations today."

It was a trademark Lindenberger moment, as the scholarly professor of English and comparative literature quick-stepped to the edge of the outrageous, enjoying his dance with provocative ideas.

In his newest course, Lindenberger combines his lifelong passion for the high drama of opera with an interdisciplinary approach to literary texts and an obvious love of teaching. The seminar also gives him a chance to tap the extensive research that went into his new book, Opera in History: From Monteverdi to Cage, published last month by Stanford University Press.

The book already has drawn praise from the editor of Opera News, a publication of New York's Metropolitan Opera. Referring to Lindenberger's "splendid series of essays" and "reasoned, humane, learned rambles in the aesthetics and philosophy of opera," Patrick J. Smith adds that "we realize we are in the hands (and mind) of someone who is not only knowledgeable but insightful."

In its review, the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that Lindenberger "links the artists of opera to those of other realms, juxtaposing Monteverdi, Caravaggio and Donne, and comparing the rise, fall, and rise of the reputations of Rossini and Shelley."

The new title is Lindenberger's second work on opera and his eighth book to date, on subjects as diverse as Wordsworth's poetry, German playwright Georg Büchner, Austrian poet Georg Trakl, historical drama and modern literary criticism. Beyond the footlights, his research interests span the relationship of literature and other art forms, English and European romanticism, and the history of theater. He was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Vienna, and has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

A specialist in English, German and French literature of the 19th and 20th centuries, Lindenberger holds a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Washington. Before coming to Stanford in 1969 to launch the comparative literature department, he had directed similar programs at the University of California-Riverside and at Washington University in St. Louis.

The term "comparative literature" was created in the mid-19th century as an analogy to comparative anatomy, and Lindenberger says he gets a lot of questions about what, exactly, it is that he and his colleagues compare.

"I tell people, 'I don't necessarily compare. Sometimes I compare, and sometimes I contrast.'

"For me, comp lit is simply a way of having the freedom to move around and to do things the way I want to do them," he adds. "I can grab ideas from all sorts of places that have no connection with one another."

Like a juggler who may add an occasional flaming torch to his cascade of balls, plates and clubs, Lindenberger draws from a wide range of interdisciplinary studies to keep students engaged and asking questions. He alternates freshman classes with advanced undergraduate and graduate courses in literature and poetry, and gives himself regular pop quizzes in an attempt to keep the material relevant.

"I have lecture notes that go back to the 1950s, but if I gave lectures from those notes today, students would be bored to death," he says. "Some people argue that texts remain the same, but I think our perceptions of texts and the way we read texts change over time, and the interesting professor is going to be the one who's hopefully a little bit ahead of his or her time."

Colleagues describe Lindenberger as an indelible figure on the Stanford campus for three decades, and for many he continues to set the standard by which enthusiasm for teaching should be gauged.

"Herbie has never lost a certain youthful precocity and joyful excitement over all things literary and cultural," says Terry Castle, chair of the English department. "He has always brought an immense intellectual joie de vivre and enthusiasm to the department, whether for books or music.

"He delights in intellectual controversy and is a canny player in academic politics, but is also deeply informed about the way literary study, and indeed the humanities in general, have evolved in universities over the past 50 years."

All of those qualities, Castle adds, served Lindenberger well during his recent term as 107th president of the Modern Language Association (MLA).

As head of the largest national professional organization for the humanities, with more than 31,000 members, Lindenberger lobbied on behalf of scholars of languages and literatures, postmodern writing, the history of science, and ethnic, gay and lesbian studies. When controversies hit the media fan ­ for example, when Georgetown University dropped a Shakespeare requirement for English majors ­ he was one of the first academics called for comment.

"Conservative studies . . . seem to want to discredit contemporary students, whom they don't respect for the choices they make," Lindenberger told the Los Angeles Times last spring. "I rather respect my students."

Noting that Shakespeare wasn't "accepted as an uncompromisingly great figure" until the 19th century, Lindenberger went on to argue that courses on the Bard's work are thriving on university campuses today: "Shakespeare has survived the canon changes better than any other single author."

In addition to his frequent sound bites, Lindenberger may well be remembered for the address he delivered as outgoing MLA president in December. In parting remarks to colleagues in the "venerable though not quite universally venerated organization," he acknowledged that his term in office had been defined by "the continuing need to reassure a public skeptical about the humanities that we have something vital and necessary to offer the students of North America."

He then proceeded to skewer the interpretive disciplines of academic culture. At one extreme, Lindenberger identified the "With-its, those who believe that an idea voiced more than a very few years ago, or a style of writing associated with such an idea, is automatically suspect."

At the other extreme, he suggested there were the Nostalgics, "who, citing the need to preserve what they see as traditional values, define themselves through their resistance to and rejection of whatever form of With-itness seems to prevail at any given time."

Occupying ground somewhere between these two extremes Lindenberger found a "vast army of what one might call the Indifferent, those who ask simply to be left alone to do their own work."

Lindenberger served on several MLA committees that produced ground-breaking reports, including one about the current employment crisis in higher education, where there are far more candidates for professorial jobs than there are tenure-track positions. The committee recommended that departments nationwide reduce their program sizes and step up efforts to provide graduate applicants with data on the state of the job market and on their institutions' placement of Ph.D.s.

"One of the things that is wrong with the current system is that a lot of people are in collusion to keep it going," Lindenberger says. "Professors want graduate students to teach, graduate students want that Ph.D., and administrators want cheap labor.

"The only people who end up unhappy are the graduate students, and by the time they find out they're going to be unhappy, it's too late."

At a time when the national economy is doing well, Lindenberger says, Stanford Ph.D.s still are having a hard time landing permanent, tenure-track positions in the academy.

"Universities have become more corporatized than before and they do everything to avoid having fixed costs," he adds. "So when jobs are vacated through retirement or resignation, universities cut a professorship up into several part-time jobs. And we end up with a huge population of very talented, highly educated people who hang on for years at extraordinarily low pay and without any kind of job security or benefits."

Lindenberger's perspective draws from a wide range of university service, including several terms as a member of the Faculty Senate, where he once launched a discussion about how senators could alleviate boredom at the sessions. He served as interim director of the Humanities Center in 1991-92, and was a member of the Advisory Board from 1986 to 1989. In 1980 Lindenberger also served on a humanities task force charged with recommending women for tenured slots.

While he continues to believe that tenure should be "hard to get" at Stanford, Lindenberger says he also realizes it has given him the courage and freedom to go into areas of research that were thought to be questionable.

"And I can say for myself that I would have been fired six or seven times in the course of my career if there hadn't been tenure," he adds.

Lindenberger argues that it is becoming more difficult to make tenure decisions in the humanities because the model for the decision increasingly is coming from the sciences.

"At an age when a scientist will already have shown himself or herself to be very distinguished, that is, in his or her early- to mid-30s, it is very hard to find that level of distinction for someone in the humanities. If anyone were to set up a list of the most interesting books in a particular field in the humanities, my guess is that those books were completed when the authors were between 40 and 55."

Given today's academic employment market and the increasing difficulty of being tenured at many institutions, Lindenberger says, his advising of doctoral students has taken on new immediacy. He's come to think of himself as a coach, in addition to fulfilling the traditional roles of psychological counselor and intellectual mentor.

"My team is made up of one person, and I want that person to win," he says. "And I try to help that person plan the right strategic moves."

As a faculty adviser, Lindenberger says, he constantly encourages undergraduates to override their parents' objections to choosing a liberal arts major. As the parent of a son who majored in art history and became an account executive, and of a daughter who majored in history and went on to medical school, he says he is convinced that "humanities people" are attractive to employers.

"I tell students that I can't guarantee them that they'll get an interesting job, but I can guarantee that they'll be much happier if they do what really interests them," he says. "There will always be someone who will reward them for their breadth."

In addition to the courses he teaches in English and comparative literature, Lindenberger has lectured for many years for the various iterations of Western Culture, CIV and Introduction to the Humanities, and also has been an integral part of the Humanities Special Programs.

"Herbie's classes are among the liveliest and most rigorous I have attended," says Helen Brooks, senior lecturer in English and in Humanities Special Programs, who has known Lindenberger since the early 1970s.

"He is a true humanist who brings a broad knowledge of and abiding commitment to those studies that delineate and transmit human cultures, from the ancient world through the present," she adds. "And his own firm grounding in interdisciplinary studies in the humanities has made him one of the most respected professors teaching in the undergraduate honors program in Humanities Special Programs."

From the honors seminars he teaches on opera and the humanities to the arias he listens to while composing university memos ("a needed distraction"), Lindenberger is constantly tuned to the melodies he discovered at age 12 when his parents took him to his first opera, a production of La Bohème by a touring company.

"We didn't have anything else to go to in Seattle," he says. "But we did have one week each year of all the most popular operas ­ Aida, Carmen, La Bohème. They were performed with the flimsiest stage scenery imaginable, but they got me started. And what really got me interested were recordings on old shellac records I played on a wind-up Victrola."

Lindenberger's parents had emigrated from Germany, and his father traveled extensively in Europe on business, returning home with tales of great performances he'd seen. Today, Lindenberger has his own stories to share with other opera aficionados on campus.

Historian Paul Robinson, the Richard W. Lyman Professor in the Humanities and author of Opera and Ideas, talks about Lindenberger's "generous colleagueship" during the years they have compared notes on Wagner and Verdi as participants in the Stanford Opera Study Workshop at the Humanities Center.

"Herbie is the founding father of the workshop, where he entertains us not only with his critical and historical insights but also with amusing stories about his opera-going as a teenager and young man in New York City," Robinson says. "He especially loves to recount the horrors of any performance by Lily Pons, and the glories of Melchior and Flagstad singing Wagner."

Robinson says he and Lindenberger also are co-conspirators in a less publicized association.

"I like to joke with Herbie that we are charter members of the Stanford School of Operatic Studies, which is distinguished by the stipulation that none of its members can be trained musicologists."

Thanks to Lindenberger's enthusiasm, Robinson says, he now listens more carefully to Rossini's serious operas, and also is open to the work of recent composers, such as Kurt Weill, Philip Glass and John Adams.

"What distinguishes Herbie's work on opera, beyond the intense love he brings to the subject, is his ingenious ability to find connections between opera and other forms of cultural expression ­ above all, literature," Robinson adds. "He is, finally, an original character, often affectionately imitated by his colleagues and students."

Lindenberger's new book, Opera in History, is his second foray into the exotic and avant-garde worlds that are staged in productions ranging from Verdi's Aida to Brecht-Weill's Mahagonny.

"When I wrote Opera: The Extravagant Art in 1984, I was trying to apply ideas from literary theory to opera and to think of opera as a larger cultural entity, a form that participates both in the literary and the musical," he says. "In the new book, I'm interested, as well, in the issue of the 'high' and the 'low' ­ how opera is embedded in both high art and popular culture.

"I think people want to be moved greatly, and I think opera answers a need in our present day for a certain kind of controlled extravagance," he adds. "So you have some people coming whose allegiances are only to the elite, as well as others for whom opera is very much a popular form. And I also think there is a new generation of people who started out with rock concerts and actually enjoy both rock and opera."

In fact, as he glanced around the house at a San Francisco production of Wagner's Ring in 1985, Lindenberger said he was cheered to spot members of the Grateful Dead occupying one prominent box. Since then, he and his wife, Claire, have conducted a peripatetic study of fellow opera-goers, and what they've observed during intermission strolls composes the entertaining finale of his new book, a chapter titled "Opera Audiences."

In his merciless depictions, Lindenberger pulls few stage punches. He describes the Avid to those whose affection for opera approaches that of the religiously converted, suggests that the Passives prefer operas with several intermissions, and excoriates the Conscientious for the "sonic contribution" they make in applauding arias and scenery alike. The Faultfinding, Lindenberger writes, are more apt to note that "the soprano entered too sharp and is taking forever to warm up, or that she's displaying a vibrato that will force her retirement within the year." Then there are the Uncompromised: "Just as meat consumers convert to vegetarianism once they think too much about slaughterhouse life, the Uncompromised are always in danger of giving up altogether on vocal music and making do with the great instrumental repertoire that developed with the concept of 'absolute music.' "

Opera buff Terry Castle says that Lindenberger's ability to connect the history of opera with the other arts and with cultural history in the broadest sense is "unparalleled."

"Opera in History is a terrific sequel to Opera: The Extravagant Art, perhaps even deeper in the historical sense than the former, incisive though that was," Castle says.

"Herbie is like Verdi ­ full of buoyant energy and life ­ and he will be achieving great works into his nineties."


By Diane Manuel

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