Thursday Lecture Series

Operatic Fantasies in Early Nineteenth-Century Psychiatry

Thursday, The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room

In a celebrated essay on insanity from 1816, renowned French psychiatrist Étienne Esquirol reported on his experience of accompanying patients to the opera: “I once accompanied a young convalescent to a Comic Opera. He everywhere saw his wife conversing with men. Another, after the space of a quarter of an hour, felt the heat in his head increasing—and says, let us go out, or I shall relapse. A young lady, being at the Opera, and seeing the actors armed with sabres, believed that they were going to assail her.”  Esquirol’s account of the dangers of the opera on the mentally ill foreshadows subsequent debates around the pathological effects of the music of Giacomo Meyerbeer, Richard Wagner, and others.  These discourses played out within psychiatry as well, where the presence of musical and theatrical entertainment in insane asylums became both increasingly prominent and contested.

Raz proposes that late Romantic discourse around the pathological effects of the opera can be traced in part to the scandal surrounding the Marquis de Sade’s staging of plays and operas at the Charenton insane asylum between 1805-1813. Linking de Sade’s theatricals to role-playing therapies explored by the psychiatrist Philippe Pinel and other pioneers of the “moral treatment” of the mentally ill around 1800, she examines the subsequent medical controversy regarding the benefits and dangers of using music and dramatic spectacle in patient treatment. She then presents a close reading of two case histories from Peter Joseph Schneider’s System einer medizinischen Musik (1833). Exploring Schneider’s elaborate portrayal of staging dramatic musical enactments to treat mental illness, Raz argues that his accounts reflect a transitional moment in the medical sciences in which opera was regarded as both dangerous and therapeutic.