Musical Introductions in Opera

There are ways to introduce characters without using words. This is one of the powers of opera and it's been translated into film and television. The next time you watch a pilot episode of a new TV series or in the first 20-30 mins of a film, listen carefully to the music as a new character enters the screen, or if the music changes to something dramatically different and then a new character appears, you'll see/hear what I mean. Music is being used to identify characters, let us know if they're the good guys or not - or to confuse us into thinking they're the bad guys when they're not. All of this is in the hands of the composer.

In working on the opera, "It Must Be Fate" my wife (the librettist) and I are reviewing a number of different mediums to identify elements of plot, structure, tone, theme and what music is doing to tie together these elements. Some of what we've seen has excellent dialog, great screen angles and passably poor music, or really poor dialog and fairly good music. It is rare to see both good dialog and good music together. However, when they are in-sync, it tends to be with programmes or movies that are huge in popularity.

It is also interesting how cheesy some of the introductions are in terms of music. We heard the proverbial "dant-dant-dah" for the bad guy, or perhaps a bit more subtle would be a minor or diminished chord (which we also heard) - but still seems to be a bit too in your face in terms of getting the message across. Yet, the point of communication is to transfer an idea; these well known devices are good at communicating because they are well known. I hope we can find more subtle ways to communicate the same ideas and yet still get the message across.

The next step is perhaps to look/listen to other operas to see how other composers communicated these same concepts - if they even bothered (I'm not sure they always did). Off the top of my head, Britten did a wonderful job in Peter Grimes with the court scene making the music feel repressive particularly as Grimes enters the court. However, it tends to go on a bit over long for me. Puccini's Turandot presents the Princess Turandot with a regal introduction, so we understand her royal status, and her character is alluded to in the crowds calling for blood. Before the Princess appears, we have a good idea of her character. Liu, the sympathetic character in the opera is given Signore, ascolta! which illuminates her character, but no really musical introduction prior to that. Ping, Pang and Pong have comic music and they are the comedic relief. Weir did a wonderful job with the introduction of the bad guy in A Night at the Chinese Opera, but I didn't get a strong sense of who the good guys were in terms of the music. I have only seen it once, and may not have been in the best seats (based on a friends impression of the same performance was very different than mine).

Some of what I'll have to decide will be determined by the librettist: Is the character a good guy or bad guy? Do we want to foreshadow a love interest? Will there be plot twists meaning we will want to allude to a character trait that isn't accurate, or will be turned at some later point in the opera? There is a lot of work still yet to do....


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