Dr. Don Fineberg, an adjunct faculty in the PsyD in Clinical Psychology program at Antioch University Santa Barbara, recently led a continuing education workshop in conjunction with the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico.
Dr. Fineberg’s workshop was on August 1 and was entitled “From the Novel through the Opera: Narrative Continuity and Ethical Dilemmas in Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain,” was part of Santa Fe’s Opera and Psychology series, which he has been involved in for almost 20 years.
Dr. Fineberg also conducted a conversation with the source novel’s author, Charles Frazier. The news program PBS News Hour was on hand to film a behind-the-scenes segment on the production, although Dr. Fineberg does not appear in the finished piece.
Dr. Fineberg wrote a piece examining the psychological aspects of Cold Mountain, and it is reprinted below.
The Psychology of Cold Mountain’s Narrative: From Novel to Libretto, by Don Fineberg, MD
Lessons learned from teaching for 20 years (mostly psychology, oft times English) converged in the year’s Opera and Psychology seminar. The seminar focused on Charles Frazer’s best-selling novel, Cold Mountain, as interpreted in the world-premier opera of the same name and capped off a whirlwind week with the author, including a discussion with students at the opera and an hour-long “conversation” at Collected Works bookstore. This presentation before a SRO crowd also included Gene Sheer, who converted the novel into the brilliant libretto. A PBS News Hour crew videotaped the event. The Opera and Psychology seminar investigated the powerful narrative at the core of both the novel and the opera.
When asked about the story of your life, what crosses your mind? Most people reflect on biographical highlights: when you were born, where you grew up, what school you attended, who you married, or how you make a living. That’s one kind of story. Yet, each one of us lives a second, even more important story – the “narrative” of our life.
Narrative informs our every thought, feeling and action. It remembers our past and anticipates our future. Consider this: if Hollywood made a movie of your life, starring YOU, the director would proclaim you the greatest acting talent ever to appear on screen. In every scene, the way you talk, act, express emotion is a perfect you! Put in an unexpected situation, you respond completely as you. Surely, you would be a favorite for the academy award. How do you do it? How does anyone do it? Simply put, our brains reinforce our personal narratives 24/7. It is our personality. It is how we live our lives.
The opera, Cold Mountain, sheds light on this process. The music, through-sung text (without spoken dialogue), acting and direction translated the lush, descriptive novel into a powerful evening’s performance. It narrated the same story: a tale with archetypal power, about a Confederate soldier’s longing for and travels towards home after he deserts in the closing months of the Civil War. The story detailed his trek, as well as the challenges experienced by Ada, his love at home awaiting his return. Reminiscent of Homer’s Odyssey, but not exactly parallel in content, this core human longing vibrates in each of us as we chart the course of our life, emancipating from mother, parents, family and community and carve a life uniquely ours.
Unlike the real world, opera must make clear the motives and feelings of the characters that inform their actions. Opera has the unique capacity to express all of these for characters as individuals, in duets, trios, quartets, quintets and of course moving chorus pieces. Sometimes, the music itself reveals the character’s inner life. Sometimes, the music weaves together the thoughts sung aloud simultaneously by several characters. In Cold Mountain, for example, one dramatic passage uses the symbol of “fences” – literal and psychological. The barriers we construct as well as those erected around us. The “fences” clearly represent something different to each character, even when they sing the exact same text. As with every great work of art, we find that the opera reflects, informs and sometimes inspires our quest to fulfill our personal longings for love and achievement.
Psychology brings a perceptive lens to opera narrative. With a variety of psychological approaches, we can deepen our appreciation of the narrative that unfolds before our eyes. WP Inman, the protagonist, has suffered terribly with physical and psychological wounds. How do the symptoms of his post-traumatic stress inform his actions, his character and ultimately his fate? Ada, his love, has chosen to survive the hardship of subsistence farming rather than return to the genteel life of the city where she was educated and raised. Through the opera’s story, we can better understand the motivations that lead to these decisions. As psychotherapists we ask, how do people’s experiences determine their life choices? What shapes their narratives into adaptive and functional lives? Or, what parts of their own stories undermine their striving for health and personal growth? The Opera and Psychology seminar had the advantage of asking these questions of fictional characters without conflicts of confidentiality.
Cold Mountain’s narrative invites us to explore relevant personal and social issues: Security – too much is confinement and too little is fearful chaos; Crisis – step up as a hero or shrink back as a coward; Setbacks – respond with resiliency or get mired in misfortune. Do we live in a world that makes sense or remains mysterious as we tell ourselves the story of our lives? As psychotherapists, we help others through these dilemmas. We seek ethical ways to guide people on these journeys. However, as this compelling opera reminds us, we all traverse the uncertain challenges of life. And, we all can embrace a narrative that meets these challenges.