As is my wont every April and November, I am going to do a 30-day series (give or take a few, seeing that it’s April 5 already). In 2013 it was poetry about music and in 2014 it was great first lines.
For this month, a painless intro to opera in 30 or so bite-sized nuggets. As somebody who has been an opera-lover since my teen years (a future post will reveal the sensational “how I was recruited into the opera lifestyle” story), I no longer recall what it is like to feel daunted by it. Yet many are; just today a friend, considering a trip to see an opera said he thought it would take such concentration, to say nothing of the preparation, that he was permanently discouraged. The idea that it might be something one attended for fun was not a premise he had considered. Rather, like learning a foreign language, or training for a marathon, it might be a worthy task for self-improvement, but not a source of innocent merriment.
One way to back away from this “self-improvement project” (or the even worse “cultural litmus test”), is to sneak in the back door by considering things that share DNA with opera, but don’t have the baggage, in fact, are generally just plain fun. I mean, of course, musical comedies and Gilbert and Sullivan.
The musical comedy tradition, one of America’s indigenous art forms, grew out of operetta and vaudeville—sharing a genealogy with opera: at their root they are story plus music, as is opera
Whether your taste in musicals runs to Spring Awakening and Matilda, or South Pacific and My Fair Lady, they all share the key characteristic that a dramatic narrative is embodied in music for the voice. The infinite ways this can be accomplished, and, tbh, the equally infinite numbers of ways it can go wrong, have given music theater (and opera before that) its characteristic ability to reinvent itself.
The creators of musicals often (although not invariably) work with a combination of spoken dialogue, songs (typically verse and refrain) duets, larger ensembles and choruses. All of these have precedents in opera, but to get our feet wet with the idea of how music and drama work together, I offer three examples. (I am afraid that my examples will tend towards the classic Broadway shows—I’m the last one to wallow in nostalgia about the ‘way it used to be’ brilliant musicals are being written today–but the examples I have to hand are these.
First: the “Tonight Quintet” from West Side Story.
This is really a dazzling piece of work. If you are not familiar with West Side Story (and you should be) it is based on Romeo and Juliet, and this ensemble brings together the voices of the main protagonists, each anticipating the fateful dance. Each line introduces a musical and a dramatic point of view, building in turn into an ensemble (with the lovers’ lines soaring above.)
So this is an ensemble (meaning a piece that uses multiple voices), a classic operatic form. It illuminates opera’s ability to play with time: Just as movies rely on narrative techniques like flashbacks or epics use frame stories, operas often stop time during an ensemble, as the action goes inward and we learn what everybody is thinking via the music we can hear (but which isolates the characters). Although, this is possible in spoken drama or novels, but in those the trick is hardly worth the candle, setting it to music gives it a rhetorical dimension that is far more powerful. (Later this month, if I remember, I will post the stunning example of this stopping of time and multiple perspectives in Barber’s Vanessa.)
The next example is “You’re Nothing Without Me” from City of Angels.
Duets are all over the place in opera, most often of the love variety, but running the gamut of dramatic purpose. Love duets are staples of musicals as well, but Cy Coleman. David Zippel, and Bart Gelbart’s loveletter to film noir, City of Angels offers a different take. Here, which the writer who has created a famous detective faces off with his creation as the double narratives that drive the show come to a fizzy head. It’s a show-stopper, a great first act closer for an altogether wonderful show.
Finally, the solo song. This is probably the oldest form in opera, perhaps in music and it taps the atavistic power of the story-teller. Here is an example from South Pacific, in which Emile de Becque (in the Tony winning performance of Paulo Szot) reflects on the love he believes he has lost.
So solos, duets, ensembles, here are the basic building blocks of operas. If you found yourself enjoying these, you are on your way. Next, Gilbert and Sullivan, truly a gateway drug to opera.