Edgar Degas and the stories we tell ourselves, at the opera and everywhere else.
The opera is an ideal place to be distraught. You’re surrounded by characters who are on the brink of emotional collapse, performing some exaggerated version of a familiar feeling: it gives perspective. It’s also an ideal place to dupe yourself, to tell yourself stories about who you are. You can go alone, sip your drink elegantly at intermission, as if waiting for someone just out of sight.
Edgar Degas was particularly in his element at the opera house. In 1875, Charles Garnier designed what might still be Paris’s most beautiful building, the Opéra Garnier. It was a place of cultural but also social and political power, set at a major crossroads of Baron Haussmann’s Second Empire boulevards. In the mid-nineteenth century, opera was embraced as a focal point for the burgeoning movements of realism, Romanticism, and Orientalism, and was viewed as the ultimate art form—a place to work out human potential and ambition: as heroes and villains, as cultures and nations, the grandest of stories. But as the Garnier was going up, opera’s sociocultural power was going down. France didn’t have a great singer and the dancers were just okay. Perhaps the Garnier’s beauty wasn’t fair to the performers: they had such rarefied surroundings, how could they ever live up to them? Degas preferred Paris’s old opera house, the one on the rue Le Peltier that burned down in 1873. The Garnier, he found, was too overwhelming.
“Degas at the Opera,” on at the Musée d’Orsay until January 19, includes dozens of his behind-the-stage scenes and explores the way in which the Paris opera was the Studio 54 of its day, the place to see and be seen and, crucially, to catch people at their most charismatic in the audience and at their most honest backstage, where the public wasn’t watching. Behind the curtain a number of stories transpired, and Degas, throughout his life, was the ultimate voyeur. He preferred the wily characters, the creepy men who held their top hats steady as they walked about the foyer de la danse, allowed to share space with the dancers backstage so long as they attended the opera three days a week. Technically, they weren’t allowed to touch, but invariably they did. In 1882, Degas wrote to his friend Albert Hecht, a known art collector, asking for a day pass to the opera’s backstage; eventually, he would subscribe himself. He began coming all the time, even when shows were not on. “He comes here in the morning,” a friend noted. “He watches all the exercises in which the movements are analyzed, and … nothing in the most complicated step escapes his gaze.” He was obsessed with the women of the opera, but according to his friends and by his own admission, he was celibate. Manet spun it differently: “Incapable of loving a woman or even telling her he does.” Or Van Gogh: “Degas lives like some petty lawyer and doesn’t like women, knowing very well that if he did like them and bedded them frequently, he’d go to seed and be in no position to paint any longer. The very reason Degas’ painting is virile and impersonal is that … he observes human animals who are stronger than himself screwing and fucking away and he paints them so well for the very reason he isn’t all that keen on it himself.” Degas only watched the stories unfold; he did not partake. And it was only by not taking part that he gained such a complex grasp. He recognized the artifice of the opera and of life—the business of the backstage, how the stories being told in front of the curtain were not the same as the stories happening behind it.
Mostly, the stories were of class. The men chasing the dancers around were of a higher social stratum—the age-old trade of wealth and status for beauty and youth. The dancers were almost exclusively from the lowest classes, and the glamour bestowed upon them by the opera was just enough to make them desirable as mistresses or even as wives. Degas did not like this. Having come from a wealthy family (he never had to work for money; his father a banker, his mother an heiress of a New Orleans cotton fortune), Degas advocated a rigid class structure: the ballerinas should be nowhere near lawyers and diplomats.
But the stories were also of gender. John Richardson, that cheeky art historian, was particularly tough on the performers’ looks. “Photographs,” he once wrote, “confirm that Degas was not exaggerating when he revealed his dancers to have been a depressingly dog-faced bunch. No wonder he preferred to show us a maître de ballet teaching a class or conducting a rehearsal rather than a ballerina strutting her stuff.” Degas likewise said harsh things of women. When he learned a female friend wouldn’t be attending a dinner party he was throwing because she was “suffering,” Degas wondered aloud, “How does one ever know? Women invented the word ‘suffering.’” About his supposed friend Berthe Morisot, he declared, “She made paintings as she would hats.” Was Degas a misogynist? In front of the curtain, in the way he spoke about women, he was, but behind the curtain, in the way he painted them, perhaps not.
Certain female scholars like Carol Armstrong and Norma Broude have concluded that Degas’s depictions of women are generally disinterested in what a male viewer might think. Others, though, like Hollis Clayson and Anthea Callen see him as just the prototypical man, maintaining the male gaze on his female subjects. So, too, the critic J. K. Huysmans didn’t buy the idea of Degas’s protofeminism. Degas, Huysmans wrote, wanted to “humiliate” and “debase” the dancers by painting them. He “brought an attentive cruelty and a patient hatred to bear upon his studies of nudes,” depicting them in pain, as they stood tall on their delicate toes, washing away their innocence for the supposed banality of the stage, for the supposed chance at a top-hatted man.
Degas framed his pictures untraditionally, going for odd perspectives, looking where he shouldn’t look: a woman askew, a seemingly key player cut out, as if photographically cropped from his canvas. The poet Paul Valéry, as noted by the American artist Paul Trachtman, thought of Degas as “divided against himself.” “On the one hand,” Valéry wrote, “driven by an acute preoccupation with truth, eager for all the newly introduced and more or less felicitous ways of seeing things and of painting them; on the other hand possessed by a rigorous spirit of classicism, to whose principles of elegance, simplicity and style he devoted a lifetime of analysis.”
Degas ultimately thought that his paintings of the women who performed at the opera cut through the stories they were telling themselves, about their claims to beauty, status, and talent. He believed that was the goal of the artist: to separate what we tell ourselves from what is true. “Women can never forgive me,” he told the painter Pierre-Georges Jeanniot. “They hate me. They can feel that I am disarming them. I show them without their coquetry, in the state of animals cleaning themselves.”
Degas might have been a misogynist, but he was right about the nature of human performance. We all tell ourselves stories, many of them conflicting, but, so long as we’re not irredeemably deluded, we know they are, at least in part, necessary fictions. Sometimes the cracks show between what we tell ourselves and what we know to be the truth. Nuance is key. At times, the curtain comes up before the dancers have had a chance to ready themselves, before the top-hatted men have made their way back to their seats. Some of us tell ourselves closely accurate stories, others turn themselves into victims or aggressors, kindly souls or crafty louts. We crave identity, selfhood—to have a story is to be human. Friends, therapists, lovers—they tell us our stories are correct. To affirm a person’s story is to affirm her significance.
The scope of opera is such that nearly any other story can fit inside. La Traviata is about a courtesan who falls in love, betrays her lover, loves him again, is forced to live modestly, then, only on her deathbed, receives his forgiveness. It was set in the eighteenth century, then the late-nineteenth century; today, it’s the most frequently performed of all operas, and it’s often set in the fifties. It’s elastic. Betrayal, love, and death are its constants. Or Carmen: a gypsy seduces a soldier who abandons his post and his first love; then, when he is betrayed by the gypsy, he murders her. Again: betrayal, love, death. The holy trifecta, the trinity of human experience. For the most classic opera, like the most classic stories, you can turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the specifics because there really are no specifics. Their point is their grandeur, and in this way opera is an exercise in spectacular sameness. It is an umbrella over all possible stories and emotions.
One of my favorite paintings by Degas, which is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art but is sadly seldom on view, is “The Ballet from ‘Robert le Diable’,” in which Degas depicts men in the audience distracted and bored as the performance rumbles on. One has even turned his binoculars to others in the audience, looking for different entertainments, different stories.
I’ve been going to the opera frequently lately—La Cenerentola, Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly—sitting in the cheapest seats at the Met, where only unwitting tourists and NYU students go. When I was younger, I didn’t enjoy the opera because I didn’t know how to watch; I didn’t know that sometimes what is happening off stage is as intriguing as the show itself. On a recent evening, I looked around my row to watch people watching, as the man in “The Ballet from ‘Robert le Diable’,” does. Have you ever watched others watch something? At first, they look like machines, and it’s difficult to think that they are feeling things as layered and intimate as you are. But then it takes you out of yourself. You see that what you are seeing and what they are seeing is both exactly the same and entirely different. You begin to see yourself in them because it is impossible to watch yourself watching. As the story goes on onstage, you see that we have all neared some form of emotional death; we have all been beaten down and raised up.
Degas could not see himself in the women he painted. He called the female performers “little monkey girls,” and he depicted their innocence leaving their bodies as their feet cracked and bled while they performed. He extrapolated backward. He could not see the individuality of those who comprised the great scenes at the Garnier. Huysmans found that Degas could translate what he considered society’s “moral decay” into his depicted “venal female rendered stupid by mechanical gambols and monotonous jumps.” Huysmans thought Degas could make the universal into the individual, but they both knew he could not find the individual in the universal.
Opera asks us to manufacture our own empathy. Because it is disjointed, it cannot manipulate emotions like music or movies or television can. With opera, you opt in or out of catharsis. But most of us don’t want to think too hard. To reflect is, almost invariably, to regret. We are all animals in the process of trying to clean ourselves, trying to get our stories straight. The trouble is that we need our stories. We cling to them madly. Go to the opera, tell yourself stories as you must, and leave knowing we’re all the same: our stories have overlapped for centuries, long before these elaborate palaces were erected. Palace of love, of death, of betrayal and of all the rest. The curtain goes up. The curtain goes down. In the end, acting or watching or painting—no matter what side we’re on—we’re all performing for ourselves.
Cody Delistraty is a writer and critic in Paris and New York.