– You like opera?
It’s almost as if I’d been discovered to be an aficionado of hardcore pornography.
– Well, yes… I mutter apologetically.
– Really? Opera? Isn’t it a bit … er … a bit… well, you know …
Yes, I know. Indeed, it’s a bit. I try to explain myself. A bit. One can’t like all operas, I say, any more than one can like all films, or all novels. There are many operas I’m quite indifferent to, and can take or leave; some about which I have ambivalent feelings; some with which I have yet to come adequately to terms; and some I actively dislike. But then again, there are a great many I do like, and a handful that have been life-changing experiences.
– I suppose you just have to ignore the silly plots and listen to the music. I never could stand the sound of it myself.
I try to move the conversation on at this point. It would take too long to explain that, for me, opera is drama. Yes, it is music as well, but the music in opera serves, or, at least, should serve, the drama.
This needs to be qualified, obviously. After all, as everyone knows, the plots of opera are silly.
But are they? Is everyone right in knowing this? The plot of Peter Grimes, say, isn’t silly. Or Wozzeck. Or Elektra. Or Kátya Kabanová. These are all powerful dramas, and are often based on plays that are acknowledged dramatic masterpieces. Well, fair enough, not opera of the 20th century, perhaps, but if we go back earlier – don’t we have all that stuff with magic love potions and gypsy ladies throwing the wrong baby into the fire, and all that sort of thing?
Well, yes. You’ve got me there. Throwing the wrong baby into the fire certainly takes some explaining. But even here, I’d argue, the music serves a dramatic purpose, and loses much of its point if the dramatic context is ignored. As with blank verse drama, opera is a very stylised art form, and can, as a consequence, take much artifice. In other words, opera is not compelled to conform to the conventions (and they are merely conventions) of realism, any more than, say, Shakespearean drama is. After all, by the conventions if modern realism, even such imperishable dramatic masterpieces as King Lear or The Winter’s Tale are likely to appear a bit silly.
Stephen Sondheim, when asked what the difference is between operas and musicals, famously replied “expectation”. This is certainly true up to a point, but I don’t believe for one minute that Sondheim really thinks there is no real difference between the two forms. The difference, surely, is the use to which the music is put. Put crudely, the music in musicals serves a decorative purpose: a musical without the musical numbers is not likely to be particularly interesting, but it can still make sense as drama. A South Pacific or a My Fair Lady without the music can still be playable. But this is not so with opera, because, here, the music conveys the drama. Of course, things are rarely so clear-cut: one can easily point to passages in some musicals where the music does serve a dramatic purpose; and one can also point to music from even the finest of operas that are little more than decorative. But if we regard these alternatives not as a clear-cut dichotomy but as poles of a spectrum, it may reasonably be argued, I think, that operas and musicals tend to occupy different halves of that range. In musicals, the music decorates the drama; in opera, the music depicts it.
Take, for instance, the opening duet of Le Nozze di Figaro. Figaro is taking measurements of the room: his music, to begin with at least, is in broken phrases. However, when Susanna sings, she seems not to have heard those broken phrases: she offers us, instead, a couple of long-breathed melodic lines. This is because she is not concerned with Figaro’s measuring: she is trying out her new hat, and wants Figaro to look at it. Figaro resists for a while, continuing with his broken phrases, but, as Susanna shows no inclination to sing his music, he begins to sing hers. Those broken phrases of his are now forgotten, and the two end the duet singing in unison: needless to say, the tune they are singing is Susanna’s tune. The entire structure of this duet is a reflection of how these two characters react to each other.
Or consider the big sextet in Act Two of Don Giovanni – “sola, sola in buio loco”. Donna Elvira starts it off, with a melody bespeaking nobility and tragic dignity. Leporello then takes up this melody, but it is now subtly transformed to appear comic. This, once again, reflects what is happening dramatically: both are lost in the dark, but where Donna Elvira’s emotional vulnerability is being abused, Leporello merely wants to find his way out of a scrape. Then, Donna Anna and Don Ottavio enter, to expand what had been a duet to a quartet. And, as they enter, the music undergoes a tortuous change of tonality, as E flat gives way to D. There may be a musical reason for this: I am not enough of a musician to know about that. But there is certainly a dramatic reason: Donna Anna and Don Ottavio are not going to accommodate themselves to the music: rather, the music has to change, no matter how awkwardly, to accommodate itself to them. And even here, Mozart isn’t finished: Don Ottavio sings a mellifluous melody of consolation in D major, but Donna Anna, refusing to be consoled, changes immediately to D minor, and modifies Don Ottavio’s melodic line to incorporate rising intervals (which someone who can read scores better than I can will no doubt be able to identify) of heartbreaking intensity. No-one doubts the musical quality of any of this – we’re talking here about Mozart, after all! – but the point surely is that the music is in service of the drama.
One cannot make general rules, of course: operas come in so many shapes and sizes that it is pointless trying to define rules that will cover everything. The drama presented in an opera may be good, bad, or indifferent; it may even be silly. But it is drama, all the same, and the music communicates that drama. The music may even find dramatic depth where none exists in the libretto, but, whatever the quality of the drama it communicates, unless that music is dramatic in nature, it is not, almost by definition, operatic music. The drama of an opera can encompass the subtleties and complexities of a Cosi fan Tutte, or the passionate fervour of Fidelio; the sad intimacy of a La Traviata, or the epic myth-making of the Ring Cycle; the dream-like trance of Pelléas and Mélisande, or the thud and blunder theatricality of Tosca; the nostalgic charm of Der Rosenkavalier, or the harsh realism of From the House of the Dead. There is no end to the variety in opera, any more than there is to the variety of plays, or of novels. And this variety is essentially dramatic, I’d argue; and it is the music that communicates the drama.
Let us end by considering that quite extraordinary final act of Rigoletto. Verdi was never really bothered by the plot: it could be as improbable as one wants – the plot is hardly the point. The mechanism of the plot in this case – the mere matter of what happens – is negligible. What matters is the significance of what happens. Rigoletto lives in a heartless society in which he, a hunchback, is merely a figure of fun. The only way he can respond to this is to become part of the cruelty and heartlessness that surrounds him, to become himself a very agent of the evil that oppresses him. But one part of his life he has had to keep apart from this: he has tried to keep his beloved daughter protected her from the evil that surrounds her, and in a state of artificial innocence. It cannot be, of course: inevitably, her very innocence is her downfall. But in that final act, surrounded as we are by utter darkness, both literal and metaphorical, we find a kind of drama that only opera can achieve. The evil but utterly charming Duke enters with his famous solo – “La donna è mobile”. Famous though it is, there is not much to commend it in musical terms: it is slight, trivial, and even, perhaps, vulgar. But in terms of pure theatre, it is stunning. For this trivial little ditty not merely depicts the character of this swaggering, shallow and unthinking Duke, it provides also a contrast so striking to the enfolding darkness that it startles. It may not be possible to defend “La donna è mobile” in purely musical terms: but in dramatic terms, it is dynamite. (We shall hear a reprise of this trivial tune later, but in such a context that even after years of repeated listening, it still strikes terror in the heart) And then, there follows the quartet: an unthinking delight in the passing moment; rage and love; charm that we know to be rotten even as we are seduced by it; hope shattered and bitterness vindicated; cruelty and tenderness, pity and terror … it’s all there, and it’s all there at the same time, taking the listener’s ear and heart simultaneously in countless different directions. Only opera can achieve this. And what it achieves is dramatic.