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Lucia’s Ghosts: Sonic, Gothic and Postmodern

  • Jessie Fillerup


In this article, I use an intertextual interference – the spectral presence of Norma Desmond in a performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor – as a locus through which to explore the consequences of the ‘open’ text in theatrical spectatorship, criticism and historical study. Norma’s ghosting of Lucia reveals how spectral effects function in musical and dramatic contexts, particularly in Gothic works. These effects replace illusions of linear teleology with temporal synchronicity and destabilise the boundaries that separate the critic or spectator from the work. Though examining Lucia through the lens of Sunset Boulevard inverts chronological sequence, it acknowledges the temporal contradictions inherent in historical work and assigns productive meaning to nostalgic impulses that engage a reflective mode of thought.



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Jessie Fillerup, University of Richmond; I would like to express thanks to Kendra Preston Leonard, who read an early draft of this article; to Joanna Love, who provided invaluable comments on multiple drafts; and to the anonymous reviewers, whose critiques markedly improved my work.



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1 Swanson, Gloria, Swanson on Swanson: An Autobiography (New York, 1980), 501 .

2 So, of course, says Roland Barthes, whose famed essay launched a thousand critiques. See ‘The Death of the Author’, in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York, 1977), 142–8.

3 See Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc., trans. Alan Bass (Evanston, 1988), 12.

4 Derrida, Limited Inc., 12.

5 See Jean Baudrillard, ‘On Nihilism’, in Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor, 1994), 162. Postmodern theorists offer a wide range of what might constitute postmodern critique, and my purpose is not to enter into that debate. Instead, I hope to return to those aspects of postmodernism that focus on intertextuality and ‘open’ texts to consider the ramifications of poststructuralist views on spectatorship, criticism and historical study.

6 Barthes, Roland, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York, 1975), 12 .

7 Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, 11.

8 Stewart, Susan, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, NC, 1993), 23 .

9 Dwyer, Michael D., Back to the Fifties: Nostalgia, Hollywood Film, and Popular Music of the Seventies and Eighties (Oxford, 2015), 9 .

10 Dwyer, Back to the Fifties, 9; Boym, Svetlana, The Future of Nostalgia (New York, 2001), xv .

11 Susannah Radstone summarises historical and modern approaches to nostalgia in The Sexual Politics of Time: Confession, Nostalgia, Memory (London and New York, 2007), 112–30. A variety of other theoretical approaches may be found in Christopher Shaw and Malcolm Chase, ed., The Imagined Past: History and Nostalgia (Manchester and New York, 1989).

12 Dwyer, Back to the Fifties, 10.

13 Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, xiii.

14 Small, Christopher, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Hanover, NH, 1998), 89 .

15 van Elferen, Isabella, Gothic Music: The Sounds of the Uncanny (Cardiff, 2012), 30 .

16 DeNora, Tia, Music in Everyday Life (Cambridge, 2000), 67 .

17 Jacques Derrida, ‘Living on: Border Lines’, trans. James Hulbert, in A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, ed. Peggy Kamuf (New York, 1999), 257.

18 Felski, Rita, Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture (New York and London, 2000), 3 .

19 Castricano, Jodey, Cryptomimesis: The Gothic and Jacques Derrida’s Ghost Writing (Montreal and Kingston, 2001), 120 .

20 Richard Dyer, ‘Side by Side: Nino Rota, Music, and Film’, in Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema, ed. Daniel Goldmark, Lawrence Kramer and Richard Leppert (Berkeley, 2007), 257.

21 Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, xviii.

22 In 2009, Maria Zimmerman’s production of Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera featured embodied ghosts that the audience was able to see.

23 Donizetti and librettist Salvadore Cammarano note that Lucia’s deathly pallor ‘renders her more like a ghost than a living creature’ (‘la rende simile ad uno spettro, anziché ad una creatura vivente’), as her stony gaze, convulsive movements and ill-fated smile point towards a life that is ‘already coming to an end’ (‘Il di lei sguardo impietrito, i moti convulsi, e fino un sorriso amaro, manifestano non solo una spaventevole demenza, ma ben anco i segni di una vita, che già volge al suo termine’).

24 Rayner, Alice, Ghosts: Death’s Double and the Phenomena of Theatre (Minneapolis, 2006), xvi .

25 Rayner, Ghosts, xvi.

26 Pugliese, Romana Margherita, ‘The Origins of Lucia di Lammermoor’s Cadenza’, trans. Martin Deasy, Cambridge Opera Journal 16 (2004), 2627 .

27 Pugliese, ‘The Origins of Lucia di Lammermoor’s Cadenza’, 27–8. The group included Imogene (Il Pirata), Anna (Anna Bolena) and Elvira (I Puritani). Amina (La Sonnambula) also performs in a state of altered consciousness, and the narrative theme of her sleepwalking song is markedly similar to those of the madwomen.

28 Pugliese, ‘The Origins of Lucia di Lammermoor’s Cadenza’, 38–9.

29 To see what Sontag has wrought, see ‘Notes on “Camp”’, in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York, 2001), 275–92. For a variety of views on camp, including deconstructionist approaches, see Fabio Cleto, ed., Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader (Ann Arbor, 1999).

30 Halberstam, Judith, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York and London, 2005), 2 .

31 Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place, 3–4.

32 Koestenbaum, Wayne, The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire (New York, 2001), 110 . The quotation comes from Koestenbaum’s analysis of the diva’s uneasy relationship to acting, which he demonstrates with photographs of Adelina Patti performing different characters with virtually the same expressive gestures.

33 The phrase is Rayner’s, in Ghosts, xx.

34 Ross, Andrew, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (New York, 1989), 139 .

35 Brooks, Jodi, ‘Performing Aging/Performance Crisis’, in Figuring Age: Women, Bodies, Generations, ed. Kathleen Woodward (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1999), 234 .

36 Fischer, Lucy, ‘ Sunset Boulevard: Fading Stars’, in Women and Film, ed. Janet Todd (New York and London, 1988), 107 .

37 Brooks, ‘Performing Aging/Performance Crisis’, 234.

38 Paul Fryer analyses the role that opera plays in contemporary Western culture in ‘The Business of Opera: Opera, Advertising and the Return to Popular Culture’, in Opera in the Media Age: Essays on Art, Technology, and Popular Culture, ed. Paul Fryer (Jefferson, NC, 2014), 12–15, 28.

39 On the Gothic in nineteenth-century opera, see Willier, Stephen A., ‘Madness, the Gothic, and Bellini’s Il pirata ’, Opera Quarterly 6 (1989), 723 ; Esse, Melina, ‘Donizetti’s Gothic Resurrections’, 19th-Century Music 33 (2009), 81109 ; and most recently, Protano-Biggs, Laura, ‘Bellini’s Gothic Voices: Bellini, “Un grido io sento” (Alaide), La straniera, Act I’, Cambridge Opera Journal 28 (2016), 149154 .

40 Deidre Shaun Lynch, ‘Gothic Fiction’, in The Cambridge Companion to Fiction in the Romantic Period, ed. Richard Maxwell (Cambridge, 2008), 47–8.

41 Brown, Marshall, The Gothic Text (Stanford, 2005), 31 .

42 David Punter does not consider Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor to be Gothic despite its macabre setting and melodramatic themes. The characters’ motivations seem too clear and purposeful, bound up in political and social realities at odds with Gothic mystery. See Punter, The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Terror From 1765 to the Present Day, 2nd edn, 2 vols. (London and New York, 1996), 1: 142–3.

43 Fischer, ‘Sunset Boulevard: Fading Stars’, 103.

44 Williams, Anne, Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (Chicago and London, 1995), 67 .

45 Williams, Art of Darkness, 67.

46 Another instance of bungled interpretation occurs when Max receives a call from Paramount Studies. Norma refuses to take it, believing that DeMille himself should be calling about the script that she had sent to him. She never accepts the truth: that a worker in the props department simply wanted to inquire about borrowing her car.

47 See, for example, Agee, James, ‘Sunset Boulevard’, Sight and Sound Monthly Film Bulletin 19 (1950), 283285 . The film broke non-holiday attendance records at Radio City Music Hall. See ‘Film Sets New Record’, Los Angeles Times (23 August 1950), A7.

48 Bosley Crowther, ‘Hollywood Scandal: Some Further Observations on “Sunset Boulevard”’, New York Times (27 August 1950), 11.

49 Pryor, Thomas M., ‘The Screen: Inner Workings of Filmdom’, New York Times (11 August 1950), 15 .

50 Rayner, Ghosts, xx.

51 Van Elferen, Gothic Music, 16. Simon Frith compares the cinematic close-up to whispering and murmuring in sound recordings, which also imply physical proximity. See Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Cambridge, MA, 1996), 187.

52 Lawrence, Amy, Echo and Narcissus: Women’s Voices in Classical Hollywood Cinema (Berkeley, 1991), 166 .

53 Derrida, Limited Inc., 12.

54 Van Elferen, Gothic Music, 22.

55 Van Elferen, Gothic Music, 40.

56 Robynn J. Stilwell, ‘The Fantastical Gap between Diegetic and Nondiegetic’, in Beyond the Soundtrack, ed. Goldmark, Kramer and Leppert, 187.

57 Philips, Gene D., Some Like it Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder (Lexington, KY, 2010), 4 .

58 Chandler, Charlotte, Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography (New York, 2002), 159 ; Daniel Brown, ‘Wilde and Wilder’, PMLA 119 (October 2004), 1222.

59 Sikov, Ed, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder (New York, 1998), 300 .

60 Interview with John Waxman in ‘Franz Waxman and the Music of Sunset Boulevard’, Sunset Boulevard, directed by Billy Wilder (1950; Hollywood, 2012), blu-ray.

61 Van Elferen, Gothic Music, 9.

62 Cucullu, Lois, ‘Wilde and Wilder Salomés: Modernizing the Nubile Princess from Sarah Bernhardt to Norma Desmond’, Modernism/Modernity 18 (2011), 516.

63 Cucullu, ‘Wilde and Wilder Salomés’, 516.

64 Robertson, Pamela, Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna (Durham, NC, 1996), 12 .

65 A classic text on the performance of gender is Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, 1990). See also Doane, Mary Ann, Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (New York, 1991).

66 Felski, Doing Time, 3. Felski adopts Ernst Bloch’s phrase, ungleichzeitige Gleichzeitigkeit, to describe a multi-textured way of inhabiting time that accommodates variations of experience in the same historical moment.

67 An inventory of scores may be found at

68 Castricano, Cryptomimesis, 131.

69 Castricano, Cryptomimesis, 98.

70 The duet is a case of retrospective prolepsis: Lucia and Edgardo imagine a time in the future when they will be apart, but they will be comforted by reflecting back to a time when they were together.

71 Clément, Catherine, Opera, or the Undoing of Women, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis, 1988), 88 .

72 McClary, Susan, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (Minneapolis, 1991), 9197 .

73 Smart, Mary Ann, ‘The Silencing of Lucia’, Cambridge Opera Journal 4 (1992), 119141 . One question that few scholars have considered is whether Lucia’s singing might be diegetic, a symptom of her madness that evokes the songs of the mad Ophelia. For Smart, Ophelia’s songs are liberating because they appear as departures from the predominant discourse of speech, while Lucia’s songs, which occur in a musical setting, lose their differentiating power (see Smart, ‘The Silencing of Lucia’, 124). This theory does not account for differences in the phenomenology of operatic song: often it is the communicative norm in a sound-drenched world, but occasionally, it is specially marked as a kind of performance. (Abbate calls the former ‘noumenal’ and the latter ‘phenomenal’ song.) If the characters perceive Lucia as singing her mad scene, then she indeed belongs to a literary and dramatic tradition of hysterical warblers.

74 The question of what an opera character hears has been asked before, perhaps most famously by Edward Cone. In one version of Cone’s theory on musical personae, operatic characters are not consciously aware that they are singing, and they do not actively perceive their orchestral accompaniments, either. Cone asserts that Lucia ‘must synchronize perfectly with her flute, but she must not reveal that she is conscious of its presence’. (Over the years, singers have tended to break this rule: among the Lucias who react to the orchestral music are Joan Sutherland, Natalie Dessay and Anna Netrebko.) In a later version of his theory, Cone notes that characters hear the music of an ‘imaginary orchestra that they, as composers, carry around with them’. This theory fails to distinguish between different types of imaginary orchestras: those that accompany sane characters in both their lofty and their quotidian expressions, and those that are conjured by mad characters who may hear and produce inaccessible sounds. Ben Winters, contra Cone, proposes that the world depicted in film may well be ‘saturated with the “sound” of music’, making non-diegetic music – the equivalent, broadly speaking, of operatic orchestral music – a part of the film’s reality. See Cone, Edward T., The Composer’s Voice (Berkeley, 1974), 30 ; also Cone, Music: A View from Delft, ed. Robert P. Morgan (Chicago, 1989), 137; Winters, Ben, ‘The Non-Diegetic Fallacy: Film, Music, and Narrative Space’, Music & Letters 91 (2010), 233.

75 In place of the flute, Donizetti had wanted a glass harmonica, whose sound might suggest ‘anxieties about young women’s vulnerability to nervous derangement, taboo eroticism, and alienation from healthy, normal society’. Its ethereal timbre could also evoke the uncanny, the otherworldly, and trance states, as Heather Hadlock notes. But Donizetti decided against the instrument, and in modern performance – with the odd exception aside – it is the flute that is drawn into Lucia’s mad sonic orbit. See Hadlock, , ‘Sonorous Bodies: Women and the Glass Harmonica’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 53 (2000), 534535 .

76 Hadlock, ‘Sonorous Bodies’, 534.

77 Sala, Emilio, ‘Women Crazed by Love: An Aspect of Romantic Opera’, trans. William Ashbrook, Opera Quarterly 10 (1994), 32 .

78 McClary, Feminine Endings, 85.

79 Esse, ‘Donizetti’s Gothic Resurrections’, 93.

80 Esse, ‘Donizetti’s Gothic Resurrections’, 93.

81 To be clear, I understand madness to be an umbrella term, much like hysteria, which may have emotional, psychological and physiological effects.

82 McClary, Feminine Endings, 86.

83 McClary, Feminine Endings, 86.

84 Felman, Shoshana, ‘Turning the Screw of Interpretation’, Yale French Studies 55/56 (1977), 201 .

85 Felman, ‘Turning the Screw of Interpretation’, 201.

86 Smart, The Silencing of Lucia’, 140.

87 Scott Brewster, ‘Seeing Things: Gothic and the Madness of Interpretation’, in A New Companion to the Gothic, ed. David Punter (Oxford, 2012), 485.

88 Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, xiv.

89 Brewster, ‘Seeing Things: Gothic and the Madness of Interpretation’, 482. Jon Blandford explored the interpretative possibilities that arise from inverting temporal chronology by analysing Uncle Tom’s Cabin through Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The approach ‘dismantles the sentimental machinery’ at the conclusion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, restoring a sense of agency and authorship to the central character. See ‘Rethinking Gothic Temporality: Beloved’s Ghost on Legree’s Plantation’, paper given at the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association (31 October 2014).

90 Van Elferen, Gothic Music, 13.

91 Think, for example, of the microbiome – an ecosystem of bacteria, viruses and fungi that inhabit our gut.

92 Van Elferen, Gothic Music, 27.

93 Derrida, Jacques, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (New York, 2006), xix .

94 Colin Davis, ‘État Présent: Hauntology, Specters, and Phantoms’, French Studies 59 (2005), 379.

95 Mark Mazullo makes this claim, noting how David Lynch appropriates objects of cultural nostalgia in the film Blue Velvet. See Mazullo, ‘Remembering Pop: David Lynch and the Sound of the 60s’, American Music 23 (2005), 495.

* Jessie Fillerup, University of Richmond; . I would like to express thanks to Kendra Preston Leonard, who read an early draft of this article; to Joanna Love, who provided invaluable comments on multiple drafts; and to the anonymous reviewers, whose critiques markedly improved my work.

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Lucia’s Ghosts: Sonic, Gothic and Postmodern

  • Jessie Fillerup


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