This book opens with a chapter on Beethoven’s opera
Fidelio that explores the two aspects of melodrama
studied, for the most part separately, in the remainder
of the book: the impossible plot situation, and the music
that accompanies it. Combined, these two strands pro-
vide the etymology for the word “melodrama” (melos +
drama). Combined, they offer the thesis this book ex-
plores: melodrama is an aesthetics of the impossible
situation, where “of” means both “derived from” and
“representing.” In Beethoven’s opera, Leonore is in an
impossible situation. She is a wife who wishes to rescue
her husband from unjust political imprisonment; to do
that, she needs to disguise herself as a man: women do
not have political efficacy. The disguise plot offers the
hope that she will not be confined by gender limitation,
but that is unlikely given the slogan that links liberty
and equality to fraternity—that is, unless “fraternity”
were capable of being understood beyond its gendered
meaning. Leonore is able to become the jailer’s helper
and his daughter’s fiancé, but salvation of her husband
is accomplished by the arrival of a benign minister. He
appears like a deus ex machina in a Greek tragedy at just
the moment that Fidelio reveals that he is Leonore. She
is returned to her position as wife, and whatever hopes
the plot raises of relationships outside of heterosexual
gender limitations seem to disappear in the supposed
“happy ending” that restores a familiar social order.
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