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.

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