Many would describe an opera as a play set to music – a play in which the characters sing the words rather than speak them. But that won’t do. After all, it is usually easier to understand words that are being spoken than to understand them being sung. So why complicate things by adding music?
Consider first why people sing and when they sing? Songs are used on many occasions – when people are happy, when they are sad, when they are in love, when they join together for a common purpose such as a church service, a football match or a protest march and so on. On these occasions the songs express more than just the words, they also express the singer’s feelings.
Every time a composer sets words to music it is because he or she believes that the music will increase or improve the listener’s understanding of the words: music intensifies the feelings being expressed.
We experience the power of music every day as we watch television. Almost all programmes are introduced by music, even news and interview programmes. Its purpose is to set the mood for what is to follow. In films, soaps and plays, music is often used not only to create the mood for the action taking place but also to suggest what is about to happen, or sometimes to tell us what is really happening although the characters might not be aware of it! For example, something a character does might be leading to disaster without that character knowing it. Perhaps he or she is entering a dangerous situation. Dark, mysterious background music warns us, the audience, of what lies ahead.
Or two young people could be attracted to each other and might even be falling in love, without realising what is happening. ‘Romantic’ music in the background tells us what they are feeling and could indicate how their friendship will develop. If, later, we hear the same music, it reminds us of those people and their feelings for each other, and perhaps of that earlier meeting.
Music, then, is able to express feelings in a different way from words alone – sometimes more powerfully, sometimes more tenderly, and with a range of feelings between these two extremes. It is able to create mood and to remind us of past events as well as to suggest what might happen in the future.
In an opera, for all the reasons mentioned, a composer uses music to help tell the story. But an opera composer is also particularly interested in expressing the private thoughts and feelings of characters as well as their conversations.
Think of it this way: in comics or cartoons an artist often draws a ‘bubble’ above a character in which he writes the words that character is speaking or, sometimes, what the character is thinking. Now apply a similar process while watching a play or soap. From time to time, perhaps when the mood is tense, press the pause button. While the picture is frozen, imagine a bubble over each character. What words might you put in each – either what the character might be saying or what he or she might be feeling or thinking? Think what sort of music might be best suited to each.
One thing is almost certain; that a character’s feelings and thoughts will take longer to play and sing than to be spoken. Music needs time to convey the right message.
In an opera, characters sing to each other (as in conversation or in an argument) but there is often a good deal of singing in which a character is thinking aloud about his or her actions, feelings or behaviour – thoughts which, it is pretended, can be heard only by the audience, although there may be other characters on stage at the time. In a play, a soliloquy is an occasional feature; in opera soliloquies and asides occur frequently and are essential characteristics of the art form.
Sometimes such singing can seem to be extremely ‘unreal’, for example when a character is dying but sings for several minutes about his or her life, the past and, maybe, the future. In a play such a delay would often be thought to be absurd. But remember that in opera such musical moments help to give us an understanding of characters. In real life it is often said that when a person is dying their whole life flashes before them: in opera it takes rather longer!
Unreality – the ‘unrealness’ of the story and its characters – is a feature common to many operas. But although an opera might not represent a slice of everyday life as we know it, it will almost certainly be about personal qualities, behaviour and relationships, which we recognise and which are true of people everywhere and at any time in history. In their different ways nursery rhymes, fairy tales, fables, myths and legends similarly give us examples of how people behave.
Even though some operas are musical treatments of famous plays, poems or novels, an opera is much more than just a play set to music. Like most plays, an opera has a range of characters and is divided into acts and scenes. But the music is not something which is simply tagged on: it offers a different way of sharing the emotions and thoughts of individual characters.
Singing, acting, orchestral playing, sets, costumes, make-up and lighting combine to create an intense dramatic experience. Particularly for the newcomer to opera there is no satisfactory substitute for the live performance where all of these different aspects can be appreciated. Approaching opera for the first time through just one medium, for example the music alone, inevitably reduces the full intended impact and can dampen the appetite for more.
Surtitles are used in many theatres where opera is regularly performed, but prior knowledge of the story will also enhance enjoyment.
To follow: Who does what in Opera?