The Opera Reflections: Modern Aging and the Unique Role of Technology

This is the first article in a series that examines mental health themes in opera. Special thanks to the Lyric Opera of Chicago for the invitation to the 2018-2019 season to examine the mental health themes in opera and to Roger Pines, Lyric’s dramaturg, for his insightful knowledge about all things opera.

The ongoing obsession with longing for the past and propelling into the future seems to be a timeless concept that we see depicted in art throughout the centuries. Classical operas such as Gounod’s Faust and recent works like Luc Steels’Fausto all depict characters who want to change an aspect of their present for promises of a better future. The existential questions we ask ourselves in terms of meaning and legacy exist for people of different generations. We have examined these ideas through a counseling lens and provided commentary on humanity, technological advancements, and the eternal search for the fountain of youth.

Fear Around Aging

Youth is and has always been a source of great debate. The young long to be older to enjoy elusive privileges and experiences; those who have reached a certain age crave the feeling of limitless potential associated with youth. In both cases, desire revolves around freedom and possibility. Perhaps our self-determination to cling to our ever-changing relationships, reverse the process of aging on the body, and exhibit more power than that of time itself allows us to feel that we are somehow in control. 

Art represents our struggles with youth beautifully. Fausto, the new opera by Luc Steels, reinvents Faust as a grieving tech enthusiast who sells his body to Mephistopheles to spend the rest of his days living in virtual reality. The new version of the much beloved opera highlights our modern quest for consciousness. Beyond selling his soul as Faust did, Fausto expects to move beyond the confines of the body to ascend to a higher place frozen in time. As an app developer, Fausto uses artificial intelligence (AI) to scan social media to create human avatars. His perception of the perfect love is skewed through his belief that we can exist in an altered state of consciousness without interference from external factors. Although Fausto desires to retain control of his reality and relationship, he is ultimately left with questions about what is real and who is actually in control.

We can apply the same examination of consciousness to our own connection with technology. Steels is a linguistics, music, and AI expert who skillfully blended history’s obsession with youth and our modern obsession with technology. In an interview with the International Journal of Science, Steels said, “The original Faust sells his soul to the demon Mephistopheles in exchange for eternal youth and knowledge. Our Fausto is a hipster who is addicted to social media and virtual reality.” Upon the death of his love, Fausto sells his soul to upload his mind to the cloud as a way to have contact with her (think the movie Her with a twist).

Despite the drawbacks, researchers found that technology use can be a positive when actions bring about feelings of acceptance and belonging. Therefore, we need an awareness around technology to derive the value—a feat that may be easier said than done.

Replacing Relationships: Social Media/Online Dating

Today we rely more than ever on our technology to forge and sustain connections in our relationships. It wasn’t so long ago that people would wish upon a star to meet their soul mate—or at least someone with a close resemblance. In this modern age, they can upload specific criteria about the person they want to meet and immediately begin the process of dating online. 

Social media provides a way to communicate a crafted description of who we are in the world. We cultivate a personal narrative for others to consume at their leisure. Given this depth of exposure and lack of actual connection, people can move faster than ever in and out of relationships. But does this technology allows us time to breathe, think, and feel? When online life is more robust than life in real time, we may ask ourselves, “Are we really living?” We may need to take a page from Fausto’s playbook and evaluate how much of our online lives represent reality or fulfillment. It’s imperative that our true selves transcend the images we upload so that we don’t lose sight of our authenticity.

A counselor can explore their client’s sense of meaning and purpose as a way to highlight the client’s strengths and resources.

Our society’s obsession with youth rapidly increases with help from technology. Based on our likes, searches, and maybe even our conversations, advertisers provide us with the latest products to aid our pursuit of what is considered the false binary: the epitome of beauty as light skinned, attractive, thin, and youthful. Society’s unease with aging is big business. The global anti-aging market is anticipated to reach an estimated $66.2 billion by 2023 with a compound annual growth rate of 5.7% from 2018 to 2023. The gap between those who are achieving the ideal and those who are failing to meet society’s anti-aging expectations is widening.

Anti-Aging Phenomenon

Our desire to slow down the aging process is intricately linked to the privilege and power of our group identities. The media plays a strong role in promoting an ideal where white privilege dominates. Women are expected to maintain a certain regime to stay young, thin, and pretty. Since younger people assume that middle-aged and older adults would prefer hide their age rather than reflect the natural aging process, there are strong societal expectations to consider. Economic resources make pursuing anti-aging easier and more productive, so there is a disparity in opportunity and outcome.

Gender plays a role as well: A University of Toronto research team found that people tend to accept women’s anti-aging endeavors over those of men. Beyond the scales of injustice, underrepresentation of diversity in the media perpetuates the notion that everyone must sacrifice their individuality to fit into the idealized majority. Similar to Fausto’s struggle to retain his conscious life frozen in time, society has the choice to live within our cultural programming around aging or break free of the paradigm of inequity.

If we fight the aging process, we might not be able to live fully in the moment. When we conceive of our lives within the biopsychosocial and spiritual realm, pushback against aging does not create space for balance physically, mentally, socially, or spiritually. Instead, it contradicts our basic principles of love and happiness. In Strauss’s De Rosenkavalier, the Marschallin is an “aging” woman (age 32) with a young lover, Rofrano. Her cousin, Baron Ochs, has his sights on a much younger lover as well, Sophie. Rofrano delivers the news to the Sophie that she is to marry an older man, at which point they fall immediately in love.

The Marschallin sadly acknowledges that her time as a young woman has passed and encourages the young lovers to pursue their relationship. She no longer wishes to wear the figurative and literal masks to hide her honest feelings and desires to eliminate the social oppression the young lovers (and she herself) face.  

What if we consider that aging affects all dimensions of our existence, not just the physical attributes recognized by others? Our current wellness models may not take into consideration the spiritual aspect of longevity, so we perceive our efforts as fighting aging rather than embracing a natural process. Different than religion, a person’s spirituality represents an expansive awareness of themselves in relationship to other people and the global community. The Marschallin is a classic example of the outcome of wrestling with the existential questions about meaning and providing meaning to others through authenticity.

Meaningful Connections to Aging

A counselor can explore their client’s sense of meaning and purpose as a way to highlight the client’s strengths and resources. Activities such as meditation and yoga help people develop a sense of spiritual connection that can support the natural aging process from a biopsychosocial perspective. Since aging is intricately linked to feelings and fears around mortality, exploring our false assumptions, misperceptions, and biases around aging advances our understanding on a personal and societal level. When we reflect on our own belief systems, we are able to recognize what we have control over and our own discriminatory behaviors that emulate our personal fears around aging, so that we can make different choices that do not symbolize or promote ageism.

Aging is an external and internal process. On the outside, we are human beings possessing physical bodies that will age no matter our strategy or intervention. We can endeavor to take care of our bodies, and that links our internal motivation. On the inside, we are sentient beings capable of greater awareness about our truth, despite the damaging effects of years of cultural programming and reinforcement around the negative aspects of aging. Our choice is how we approach the existing imbalance around the prospect of longevity.

Do we, like Fausto, opt to live in a fantasy state where we detach from the physical body—and the expectations of society—with the help of advanced technology in order to stay frozen in a moment of time? Or, do we dismantle the misconception around growing older and develop personal meaning aligned with our values and beliefs, like the Marschallin? Our measure of satisfaction could be represented by our sense of connection to ourselves and to others. Perhaps not being in control and allowing ourselves to journey on the path of aging allows us to experience the freedom of possibility that we appreciated so much in our youth.

Citation for this content: Northwestern University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program.