What Makes for “Good” Opera?

Today I will address something more specific than what the title indicates: that is, what makes a piece of operatic music well written and easy to sing? For the layperson—-even for me, pre-opera studies—-opera seems to be a magical art form in which the music flows and the words convey. That is true, when opera is at its best! But there are certainly plenty of works that are not well written and a nightmare to sing. For now, let’s take a closer look: consider this the Layperson’s Guide to Opera.

Asking which is more important, the words or the music, is rather like asking which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Richard Strauss addresses this dilemma quite cleverly in his symbolic opera Capriccio, in which the heroine Madeleine is torn between her two lovers, a composer and a poet. Very often, a libretto was written on commission or by a particular writer, often based on a famous work of literature, and the composer set the music to it. In the case of liturgical music, such as Mozart’s Requiem (a work so beautiful it’s enough to make anyone want to convert to Catholicism upon death), the text has already existed in Latin and each composer takes his or her stab at it. From the singer’s point of view, it’s a sort of buy one, get a dozen free situation, for you learn just one text and then learn the music particular to each piece! But in all seriousness, liturgical music has shaped the foundations of Western classical music, though it no longer remains at the forefront of how we perceive music in the West. There were indeed composers who wrote the music first and had a librettist add words to the melodies. And finally, there were the rare few who wrote both the words and the libretto, such as Richard Wagner or Hector Berlioz, a feat of considerable genius.

But let us look a little more deeply at the words and music. Very often, the words are written in rhyme or a particular rhythmic scheme. Rhyme dates back from our earliest cultures as a way of helping people remember long passages of words, our inheritance from our oral traditions. Advanced Italian classes teach the students how to examine the rhyme and count syllables and word stresses in a verse or poem—-in other words, in an aria. The prosody or rhythm of the words varies from language to language. For example, French tends to lean heavily on the 2nd or last syllable, whereas English leans heavily on the 1st syllable. Italian’s double consonants and musical inflections make for sonorous waves and pauses in the language. The precision of the German language is shown through its word stresses and nuanced vowels. A good composer will respect these unique features of the languages. Are the long notes appropriately placed on the longer syllables? Is a high pitch to be sung on an easier or open vowel such as “ah” rather than an umlauted o?

As for the music, there is more variance here, for different voices are able to handle different vocal demands. For example, my voice is a lyric soprano, and I am best able to handle long, smooth vocal lines that move up one step at a time, rather than by leaps. However, there are other voices that can handle leaps and staccato, even shrieks, for whom the long smooth vocal lines would be torture. But I would argue that the best-loved arias are the ones that tend to be written with smoother lines and with memorable melodies—-something “hummable” that has a simple melody, often repeats itself, and perhaps features a few embellishments here or there or a cadenza (a solo, unaccompanied moment, sort of like what one hears in a jazz combo when each musician takes his/her turn to show off). Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” for soprano would be one good example of this, or “Nessun dorma” (made famous by Pavarotti during his tenure with The 3 Tenors). A good composer builds momentum and a climax into the piece, engaging the listener and making him or her want to keep listening to hear what’s coming. Beautiful melodies are often found in opera choruses as well: those who know the unofficial Italian anthem of Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” might very well tell you it is one of the most gorgeous melodies ever written. A beautiful operatic melody will permeate your heart and soul, until it must come out of your mouth at random moments, such as while washing dishes or driving in the car.

But even when the words and music match beautifully, when the melody respects the natural inflections and rhythms of the words, there is yet another layer of nuance that only the best vocal composers can create. It is a layer of subtlety in which each character’s part is completely unique and suited to that character alone. We might think of the dark vocal lines and erupting passions of Carmen, contrasted with the pure, long lines of Micaela, her counterpart. There is the chatty nature of Leporello contrasted with Don Giovanni’s bombastic boasts; and within Don Giovanni himself, one hears a wide range of emotions: the caressing seduction of “Deh vieni alla finestra” to his dismissive recitatives to Donna Elvira to his unwieldy defiance of the Commendatore up till his last earthly moments. There is Musetta’s coquettish waltz, with its pauses and giggles as she revels in her good looks and ability to charm men. The best composers, like Mozart, have this skill and genius for reflecting a character’s moods through his or her vocal lines.

This is nothing new and it still continues today in the best modern operas as well as in popular music. Why did millions of fans want to hear Robert Plant in his Zeppelin days? He brought a moaning, aching sound to blues-inspired hard rock songs that made you feel what he was feeling. The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, infused his hits with a sense of energy that pulsated from his dance steps and erupted into his voice. Even today, singer-songwriter Bjork brings primal howls to her songs that are very often related to nature or romantic passion.

So it is not just a brilliant composer who integrates words and music, but also a talented performer who can interpret those compositions and bring them to life for the listener.

Lilly Ledbetter, Mika Brzezinski, and American Astronauts: True American Feminists

This week’s post is more of a reflection on a general theme that seems to have arisen in my mind in the past couple of weeks—-I have been reflecting on the strength of and challenges faced by American women.  A number of things have led me to reflect on this:  hearing Lilly Ledbetter give a talk on her remarkable courage in fighting for the equal pay she deserved from Goodyear, reading Mika Brzezinski’s book Knowing Your Value (perhaps a precursor to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which I have yet to read), seeing Alfonso Cuaron’s brilliant film “Gravity,” and reading about women astronauts.  What struck me as a common thread among these seemingly disparate women and fictitious versus non-fictitious settings was that these women were, in a sense, ordinary.  Now, before the reader begins to raise a fuss, let me define “ordinary” as I perceive it.  These women are not radical, radical feminists, man haters, overly politicized, child haters, or even, perhaps, willing to label themselves as feminists.  They have accomplished their goals by being who they are and facing the same challenges that women face across all socioeconomic statuses and value systems.  They were trying to find their own way to achieve their goals in a culture that did not necessarily support them.  But in doing so, they have as role models for all of us.

Take the example of Lilly Ledbetter.  Her graceful tenacity and belief in doing what was right—-fighting for equal pay—-is an inspiration to everyone, women AND men.  A working wife and mother who was tipped off anonymously by a colleague that she was making less than her male counterparts, she began a fight that lasted over many years in order to get what was her due.  She had to fight a corporation (Goodyear), and even a legal system that was supposed to support but then denied her case.  What struck me as central to Ledbetter’s fight was simply her desire to help her family and to retire comfortably, and to be treated fairly as a woman.  Certainly, Ledbetter was well aware of the challenges that women and minorities face (she hails from rural Alabama), and knows the data.  But her goals were both so personal yet universal, and for this reason, I find that she was truly a success and an inspiration.  President Obama did right by naming the fair pay act after her.

Mika Brzezinski represents another type of role model for women.  Highly educated, savvy, and moving in elite circles, she has faced a set of challenges that highly ambitious, career driven women often encounter from men and the norms of American corporate culture.  America.  But what is perhaps more extraordinary is Mika’s courage and willingness to share her own mistakes as a woman in navigating the workplace and trying to get ahead.  In Knowing Your Value, she reflects on these mistakes and discusses them with other women such as Suze Orman, Sheryl Sandberg, and Tina Brown as well as a few men like Donald Trump, and Donny Deutsch.  She shares her struggles as a working wife and mother, as a woman in the media for whom appearance is important, and as a journalist.  Brzezinski discusses gender differences and how they affect one’s negotiating style.  Also of note is her acknowledgment of the men that have helped her with her career, and the women who have not; this is often a very sensitive issue for career women, but again, Brzezinski launches into a discussion about the complexities of this. Despite her arguably elite position in society and career, she still faces the same dilemmas as any working wife and mother faces—-how to juggle it all and to get ahead in a man’s world. Again, this is another example of a woman touching on universals that affect women everywhere.

America has long held the top position in space exploration, and a number of women have been part of that.  One must, of course, praise the contributions of women astronauts from other countries, such as Russia/the former Soviet Union (who sent the first woman into space), South Korea, and France.  But the list of American women who have gone into outer space, often risking their lives, is extraordinary.  The loss of the pioneering Dr. Judith Resnik in the 1986 Challenger disaster was tragic, but this tragedy is tempered when one sees what a passion she had for both science and for her own womanhood (she let her abundant hair flow when she wasn’t wearing her helmet and proudly carried a picture of TV star Tom Selleck on board!)  Sally Ride, the first American woman in space was actively involved in her later years in encouraging women in the sciences and running science programs for young people while remaining quietly lesbian in her personal life.  Mae Jemison was another pioneer, as she was the first African-American woman in space.  She was also quite a pioneer, in that she was a female engineering student at Stanford University, and an African-American female engineering student at that. The multi-talented Jamison has also had a lifelong interest in dance, both in performing and choreographing it, as well as acting.  Most importantly, she is a humanitarian who became a doctor and served in the Peace Corps.  Who could be a better role model for young women and men?

As human beings, we must have concrete role models, but we also have an innate yearning for hero stories.  The film “Gravity” is one such example.  It taps into our primal need for a hero, and we are given one in Dr. Ryan Stone.  She is estranged from (presumably) her husband, her late daughter, and her fellow astronauts with whom she embarked on this space mission.  It is her intelligence and courage that sustain her as she is cut off from her spacecraft and the others, but in the end, it is her emotions that guide her to rekindle her desire to live, her heart that guides her to do what is right in choosing life over her brooding misery over her daughter’s death.  Dr. Stone meets one misfortune after the other throughout the course of the movie, and is determined to untangle herself from every difficult situation.  Cuaron’s choice of a female scientist as heroine is a very interesting and necessary one, especially in an age of trashy tramps and Miley Cyrus and Kardashian Kulture.  His rendering of a female character as a strong heroine, and yet also a woman, is shown beautifully as Dr. Stone’s lithe figure floats through the spacecraft—-a tribute to the female form.  Dr. Ryan Stone is that rare film character who is intelligent, strong, successful in a typically male field, maternal, and embracing of her femininity.

We still have a long way to go in American culture in allowing women to feel that they can be complete and multifaceted, that they can embrace traditional roles (such as motherhood and marriage), the miracles of their bodies, their intelligence, and their ambition.  Ladies, don’t give up!