BWW Blog: English-Language Opera and The Vocal Instrument
Some audiences may dismiss opera as lofty or inaccessible, but operatic narration is structured with the same basic tenets of spoken theatre: conflict and resolution, marked by the surprising (yet ultimately expected) reactions of characters, makes for good storytelling. In spoken theatre, dialogue and dramatic action are the main vehicles for chronicling the story; musical theatre uses these forms along with musical storytelling. Song and dance in musical theatre accomplish the same tasks as dialogue: they serve to move the story forward narratively, or to present character development through emotional expression. The same concept applies in opera, and can be seen in the two main types of musical presentation, recitative singing and the arias. Recitative singing is exactly what it sounds like-spoken theatre (dialogue) that is set to music and sung. The arias are the more traditional-type songs, often used as character-driven exercises in emotional expression.
Spoken theatre can rely on fast, expository storytelling in the forms of monologues and dialogue to impart information, whereas operatic drama unfolds at the pace of the music. Watching foreign-language opera is, for me, akin to watching a non-language-based performance set to music, and the performers' voices are the featured symphonic instruments. It's fairly easy to infer dramatic motives based on stage action, so I rarely find it necessary to read the subtitle screens; sometimes it's more interesting to get lost in the music and associated movement. The subtleties of the story can be lost in translation this way, but the most powerful moments of opera-the grandiose, poignant, passionate actions set to equally commanding scores-are easily recognized and appreciated with or without context.
I find English-language opera, however, somewhat baffling. As an art form, it straddles the fence between language-based storytelling and movement or music-based storytelling. Dramatic action as presented through recitative singing still moves at the speed of the musical score, which can be, in a euphemism, luxurious. While I enjoy languid, thorough explorations of musical themes as presented by an orchestra, when the performers' voices are used as the source of exposition instead of a musical instrument, I start to notice the speed of the story's development. When the story flows with the speed of the musical movement, dramatic progression toward climax can seem substantially hindered.
I've been considering this since seeing The Consul, the last show of Opera Santa Barbara's 2013 season. The Consul was beautifully staged, with a film-noir ambiance. Magda, the tragic protagonist, lives in a dingy loft apartment somewhere against the cityscape, and the Consul's office lobby consists of stage-to-catwalk file cabinets, reminiscent of Mulder and Scully's dimly lit basement on The X-Files. However, despite the exciting trappings of an expertly staged theatrical piece, I had difficulty merging the language-based and non-language-based types of storytelling in my head. As a result, I had trouble enjoying The Consul.