Opera is a Different Beast

Writing is a tortured occupation - writers are neurotic - the written word is so final on the page! We spend endless hours asking ourselves questions.
  • How much should the character say?
  • What portion of their back-story must be told, what can just be hinted at?
  • Would they use slang?
  • If they say A, then would B follow, or would they jump to K?
  • Will they be honest?
  • Monologue (Aria) or dialogue?
Trust me, the list of potential writer's block inducing questions is endless. In the novel form, in-depth character information can be laid out with deliberation and evocative description. In a Musical, back-story is ignored, or referred to obliquely. Film uses montage or flashback sequences to communicate the necessary information. Opera? Well, Opera is an entirely different beast.

Opera can be murky, uncertain. Characters can have hidden motives; they can lie about their feelings. Back-story can be communicated only via the printed programme. Audiences are expected to just 'roll with it' - Pagliacci is a clown, therefore he is tortured and a little off-balance, therefore when we see him go bonkers over his wife's infidelity we can accept it - because he is bonkers!

Writing for the musical stage is a unique skill. Allowing characters to 'sing' their feelings means the writer must approach the words with an ear to musicality, while trying to maintain character, motivation, dramatic and narrative thrust. In Musical Theatre a writer is constrained by the necessity of being direct and honest. Musical songs are about how things are, or how the character feels about how things are. Musical characters generally do not lie to the audience - they do not have hidden motives. In the Musical, the music most often directly supports the character's motivation and feelings. Opera? Well, Opera is an entirely different beast.

In Opera the music can be used to put the lie to the character's words. The gentle profession of love can be turned sinister simply by underpinning it with tri-tones, diminished 5ths and suspense chords. Similar to writing for film (where the motto is 'show, don't tell'), the librettist of an opera must be aware of those places where the music can 'fill in the blanks' and apprise the audience of the words not said - the feelings unvoiced.

So the librettist must add to the list of questions that any writer asks of themselves:
  • Are they being honest here? With the other characters, with themselves?
  • Would it be better to allow the music to tell the story here? To show that the character is of 2 minds?
  • Are my words getting in the way of the music?
The dramatic possibilities offered by the music allow the writer to give an audience a glimpse into the inner life, the subconscious of the characters. It is this ability that makes Opera such a gloriously different beast!


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