Opera as drama

–         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.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Alex on February 21, 2011 at 12:32 am

    In my opinion, in the great operas, music doesn’t depicts nor decorates. It’s not even in service of the drama. The drama is in the music. It hasn’t always been like that, though. In Baroque Opera, where the stars of the show were the singers (they appeared in bigger letters that the composers on the posters), the plot was, more often than not, a vehicle for the virtuosic display of the singers. In Baroque Operas, the recitative conveys the action and the arias express the feeling of the characters. Just like in musical theatre until the 50’s, where the action is conveyed by the spoken parts and the feeling is expressed through the songs.

    Composers whom were also great dramatists, like Mozart, started to convey the action also through the arias. In his operas, music is never decorative. Everything conveys something, and sometimes, in the subtlest of ways, the music even contradicts the meaning of the words, like in Come scoglio, from Così fan tutte.

    In Romantic opera, like in modern musicals, the boundaries between recitative and arias begin to merge and the drama is also conveyed through the arias until, in Verdi’s last operas and most of Wagner’s, everything is sung. In Sondheim’s musicals, the songs convey the plot and express the feelings of the characters. In Sondheim’s artistic concept, there’s really no diference between opera and musicals; it’s just the musical style which is different.
    By the way, I love your blog; it’s one of my favourites.
    Best regards,

    Alex

    Reply

    • Hello Alex, and thanks for that

      I knew I was on dodgy ground when talking about Sondheim, as I am woefully ignorant of his work. But it does strike me that if the only difference between opera and musicals is that of expectation, then it is pointless having a distinction between the two in the first place. Gershwin, for instance, was quite clear in that he regarded Porgy & Bess as an opera, and something like Girl Crazy as a musical. That is not to say that one is necessarily superior to the other (I think they’re both great works), but that they were different in nature. If Sondheim’s music really does depict the drama instead of being merely decorative, I’m not entirely sure why he called them musicals rather than operas. But I suppose there’s little point getting worked up over mere taxonomy.

      And indeed, I take your point that in opera, the drama is in the music. Absolutely. And this is why it is missing the point to criticise something such as Il Trovatore, say, for the silliness of its plot, without having experienced the drama created by the music. However, the point needs to be emphasised that the music of an opera is not divorced from the dramatic action on stage. There is drama in the music of a Beethoven symphony as well, but that music is not operatic: the drama created in a Beethoven symphony is more abstract in nature. But the drama created by operatic music is certainly not abstract: it relates to what is happening on stage. And if it is to miss the point of opera to focus on the action on stage without considering the drama created by the music, it is surely to miss the point also if one were to focus purely on the music without taking into account what is happening on stage. This is why the fate of Rigoletto and of Gilda can move us to pity and terror, even though we know that the mechanics of the plot are silly. Verdi’s music is not abstract: whatever it makes us feel, we feel it for the characters on stage.

      It is a curious form, opera. It really should not affect us so deeply, and yet it does. And thank God it does!

      Thanks again for the kind words you say about the blog.
      All the best for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

      • Posted by Alex on February 22, 2011 at 12:43 am

        You being a Bardophile, let me quote a line about Shakespeare by T.S. Eliot which is totally relevant regarding Mozart or Verdi: “. . . when Shakespeare, in one of his mature plays, introduces what might seem a purely poetic line or passage, it never interrupts the action, or is out of character, but, on the contrary, in some mysterious way supports both action and character.” Opera is indeed a curious art form. It doesn’t always work, but when all those elements do coalesce, opera can be one of the most moving, glowingly beautiful experiences.

      • The role of blank verse in Shakespearean drama is, I think, a good analogy for the role of music in opera. They both introduce a strong element fof artifice, but art, after all, is artificial, and certain types of artifice take us closer to a deeper truth.

  2. Posted by alan on February 21, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    I attended the ENO’s ‘Parsifal’ the other night – the Leicester Square ticket booth was practically giving the tickets away by Opera standards.
    I cannot claim to understand what I witnessed, and on one level it seemed palpably insane, but it was certainly dramatic and drama was in the music.
    There was something insidious about this, and as I certainly could not attend closely to both the music and the stage performance at the same time, then the music could creep under my emotional radar. If it had been sung in the original German then that division would not have been such an issue, because I could simply have treated the voices as instruments.
    The work was still infecting me the following day, but I’m glad I live in a more cynical age and have the necessary antibodies to deal with it.

    Reply

    • “Palpably insane”: yes, it is. That’s a good description. And yet… Debussy wrote a withering critique of the opera, befor confessing in the closing lines of his essay that the work is the greatest monument ever raised to sheer beauty of sound (or words to that effect). Nietzsche raved and ranted against it, but attended every single performance of its run.

      I never really understood the work myself. I read Lucy Beckett’s analysis of it (I can lend you my copy of that) and I am afraid I am none the wiser: I am better informed, certainly, but none the wiser. But one cannot dismiss the drama, and treat the work purely as an abstract piece of music; for, whatever one thinks of the drama, and no matter how bemused one may feel about it, what that music makes us feel cannot be brushed aside; and what it makes us feel is not divorced in the slightest from the drama on stage. If it’s any consolation, you’re by no means alone in having found yourself “infected” by this extarordinarily beautiful but deeply troublesome work.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Kirsty on February 24, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    The music serves the drama, after all it’s strictly speaking programme music. Mozart and Verdi picked the materials before setting music to it. You can’t take the music out of the context without diminishing the effect. But the music is bigger and better than the context. You don’t go to a opera for the plot or to see what happens on stage, you go for the music. I can listen to a opera recording at home and still find it dramatic.

    I agree with Alex, if opera now seem a perfect marriage of music and drama, it’s only because some opera composers were great dramatists too. The form itself doesn’t require this, there’re arias which serve to display singers’ virtuosity instead of adding emotional depth to characters or driving the plot forward.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Neil Shepherd on February 26, 2011 at 12:15 am

    Hi Himadri

    Interesting that you use Trovatore as an example here. I have just bought the Leontyne Price/Domingo/Mehta recording and I can’t stop playing it. Trov was an opera I loved in my very young days but rather abandoned in favour of German stuff – and listening to it again now I realise what I have been missing!

    I needed a reminder of the story and have to admit I laughed out loud when reading the synopsis. Putting the wrong baby on the fire – yeah right, though I suppose I can imagine some chavette doing just that in these benighted times.

    You are right in the sense that the drama is in the music. This, I think, was Verdi’s genius – even with a story that makes modern soaps look plausible, one is given a sense of drama by the score even if the characters and story fail to interest.

    I still think there are more questions here than answers. Is Trovatore just a vehicle for singers which happens to have a dramatic score? It’s often been said that all you need to perform this opera is the four best singers in the world (they’ve got them in the Mehta recording). Or is this a piece of great drama in its own right, which benefits from fine voices? How come I can sit and listen spellbound to a recording of this opera without (a) understanding much Italian (b) seeing what’s going on?

    I for one don’t know. Given the choice ‘twixt one ot the other, I would put musical quality over staging/production quality when I go to see an opera. I can happily listen to opera on recordings without seeing anything at all. But your insights about the score/music AS drama per se – they are fascinating and could well make me look at opera in a new light.

    Thanks for another excellent article. Please could you delete my previous incomplete posting – it was just Windows being its usual annoying self!

    Take care

    Neil

    Reply

  5. Thanks everyone, for your comments – they’re much appreciated.

    You’re probably right, Kirsty, in that the form doesn’t require the composer also to be a dramatist: it is certainly true that there are many operas that are simply vehicles for virtuoso musical displays. And, if they give pleasure, there’s nothing wrong with that. There is, after all, little point in trying to define opera merely to encapsulate one’s personal preferences!

    But as far as personal preferences go, my own preference is for those operas in which the music, however wonderful this music may be in its own right, is nonetheless diminished when heard out of its dramatic context. Even in something such as Il Trovatore, where the drama without the music is impossible to take seriously, something like that “Miserere” seems to me to make a greater impact in the context of a dramatic performance, rather than perormed out of context in some gala concert. But yes, I do accept that is my personal preference, and no more.

    (And incidentally, I don’t think anyone, unless they were seriously ill mentally, could throw a baby into the fire, let alone the wrong one! The act is so grotesque even to think about, that it seems to be something out of a Sarah Kane play rather than from a mainstream popular opera!)

    And of course, I love listening to operas on CD as well. Recently, it’s been mainly Georg Solti’s gorgeous recording of Der Rosenkavalier with Regine Crespin, Yvonne Minton and Helen Donath. And, despite everything I have just said, I do sometimes just put on the Presentation of the Rose, or that trio near the end, and listen to them out of context. But that’s only because it’s hard to find the three hours or so of uninterrupted time to listen to the whole thing!

    Cheers for now,
    Himadri

    Reply

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