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How can opera be relevant in today’s time-poor world?

In a world where time is short and news is instant, is there a space for opera’s lengthy death scenes and extravagant vocal numbers?

By Flora Willson (Lecturer in Music at King's College London)

4 October 2017 at 11.00am | 5 Comments

Scenario 1: a man is being chased by a serpent (bear with me on this one). Instead of running away, he stands still and sings, begging for someone to save him. Luckily for him, three women appear from nowhere and dispose of the serpent while turning out neatly coordinated three-part harmony. All in a day’s work.

Or how about scenario 2: a young woman is dying of lung disease. She’s very weak, and the doctor has warned that her end is nigh. She’s on her own, in bed. But that doesn’t stop her performing one last big solo vocal number – high notes and all. With two verses.

It probably won’t surprise you that these are moments from two operas still regularly performed today: the start of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) and the end of Verdi's La traviata.

Opera is notorious for its silly plots. And in comparison to some twists of operatic fate, even these two episodes look like gritty kitchen-sink drama. It can, without doubt, be a very strange art form. Some characters in opera sing because they’re musicians. Others because they’re ordering a drink, or signing a contract, or showing off a new hat, or reporting on how totally, amazingly happy they are. In fact, opera has been crowded with over-sharers for hundreds of years – long before social media came along.

But there’s a big difference between a tweet and an operatic aria, even if both can seem self-indulgent at times. The aria will go on much, much longer. As theatre and opera director Katie Mitchell puts it:

'Everything in an opera takes... more... time. In a play you can have a lot of fast-spoken lines, but in an opera it mostly goes slower than in life.'

Small wonder it’s so easy to laugh at opera these days, or to dismiss it as irrelevant: we live in a world where we dive down backstreets to shave seconds off our journeys, where news is reported as it happens, where messaging is instant. Speed matters. Time is short.

There’s another side to the story, of course. We also live in a world obsessed with wellbeing, de-stressing and finding ways to live in the moment. From slow food to slow TV, the 21st century has also brought new forms of push-back against the whirlwind of modern life.

This is where opera comes into its own.

Yes, characters in opera mostly sing, most of the time, even when they’re saying something quite mundane. Yes, that opera-singer sound can take some getting used to. It’s an art form predicated on an extraordinary feat of athleticism, its stars able to project their voices – without amplification – to the back of huge theatres. But the real magic in opera starts when time stops: when one of those superhuman voices is so loud, or so quiet, or so powerfully expressive that you can’t think about anything else. When opera’s slowness – its tendency to stand still when a more realistic art form would offer rapid action – makes time when we need it most: to explore, to think, to feel.

Find out more about opera composers and the opera artform

Explore more questions around why opera matters in today’s society as part of our free online opera course, ‘Inside Opera: Why does it matter?’ curated by Flora Willson. Find out more and sign up

By Flora Willson (Lecturer in Music at King's College London)

4 October 2017 at 11.00am

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged Die Zauberflöte, Dr. Flora Willson, Inside Opera, Katie Mitchell, La traviata, MOOC, Opera: passion power and politics, the magic flute

This article has 5 comments

  1. Ruth Elleson responded on 4 October 2017 at 1:13pm Reply

    I'd be much less time-poor if I didn't spent half my nights at the opera!

  2. David O'Brien responded on 4 October 2017 at 2:20pm Reply

    Contrary to what scientists would have us believe, Time does not move in an equal measure.We have all experienced the speed time passes when we are engaged and happy, and conversely how slow a minute can be when endlessly waiting for something. Good writing or composing does this. The novel that we cannot put down, the film that seems to fly by, and of course plays, ballets and opera. They all need to lead their audience into their own time frame.. and once we give ourselves to the piece and tune in on it's time wave, we can be transported. Music and the heightened emotions of singing all help to enrich our understanding of the world. We need to buy into that illusion. However, if all the elements do not work together that blissful five minutes or five hours can seem interminable.

  3. Bryan Moore responded on 11 October 2017 at 7:51am Reply

    No technical explanation here but, speaking for myself, I need to escape from the real world to the wonders of the opera stage with sublime music, wonderful settings and incredible talents washing the cares of the day away and soothing the emotions and the soul. What does it matter if it's not real? Movies aren't real, much of literature is based on romance and fairy stories but is still read. Life today is a rush for survival, comfort and possessions, opera is a balm to ease those pressures for which I am eternally grateful.

  4. David Ellis responded on 11 October 2017 at 8:00am Reply

    Opera is a chance in a hectic world to stop and for an hour or two live in a world where the human condition is expressed in beautiful music and for a short time to experience emotional heights that we not normally feel.

  5. Sarah Scott responded on 12 October 2017 at 2:16am Reply

    The longer the opera, the more chance I have of three harps live, so win-win. With an epic Verdi or Wagner time slows down. Fact.

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