4 October 2017 at 11.00am | 9 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.
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.
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