How Movie Music Can Help Save Opera
Movies and music are inseparable. Anyone who has seen cuts of Star Wars with the music taken out will agree with this statement. Lord of the Rings, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy, and The Godfather, all equally share in this status as well, and without their iconic music these films would remain incomplete as works of art.
This combination of drama and music is not by any means new, and has in fact been going on for the last 400 years in the Western Operatic Tradition. It’s no coincidence that when the first movies were made, composers like Erich Korngold, Miklós Rózsa, and Bernard Herrmann, who were all classically trained musicians, used compositional tools and techniques from this tradition to not only provide fitting background music, but to craft musical narratives alongside the stories being told on screen.
The best example of this comes from the music of Star Wars composed by John Williams, who, through his use of the leitmotif, has created one of the most well-known and popular scores in musical history. The leitmotif is an operatic device developed by Richard Wagner in his operas, and is a short melody or sound that would represent a specific character or theme throughout the opera. In the case of Star Wars, one can easily call to mind the Imperial March, the Force Theme, or Han and Leia’s theme, and instantly know what they represent within the context of the movie. Williams’ use of this technique along with his classical influences of Mahler, Stravinsky, and Holst, makes Star Wars a space opera.
With this knowledge in mind we are left to wonder: if there is such universal acclaim for the interweaving of music and drama through popular movie scores, why is it then that there aren't lines out the door for the Met or any local opera company? Maybe the operatic style of singing may turn people away, but surely if one is willing to sit through 12 hours of Lord of The Rings, then why would they not be willing to do so for 9 of Wagner’s Ring Cycle? The music and drama of any Mozart, Verdi, or Wagner opera arguably stands on par, if not surpasses, most of today’s movies. So if there is such an equivalency across platforms ,what is causing the death of this great art form?
Increasingly over the last century, classical music, and opera in particular, have become culturally irrelevant. This is largely due to the fact that composers of the 20th century began abandoning tonality and morality in music. Music, for many moderns, needed to become random, dissonant, and vulgar, to reflect the absurdity of modern life. We have all seen the silly works of modern art meant to be sneered at by most sane individuals (if you haven’t, I encourage you to visit your local art museum), but few know that this same trend has, for the last century, appeared in music as well. Musical structures and harmonies commonly associated with that of a three-year-old banging on the piano are now seen as edgy and sophisticated among elite concert-goers.
This is especially reflected in operatic music of the last 50 years. Whereas, the drama and music of the past centered around timeless stories of love and heroism, operas today are unnecessarily long-winded and disorganized, as with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s opera cycle, Licht, which, if all 7 operas were played consecutively, would last 29 hours. Understandably, this has never been done. While some may equally critique Wagner for his lack of brevity, no one can deny the compelling nature of both the music and drama. Even though Wagner starts bending the fibres of tonality in his score, there are certainly more radical and exotic passages in Star Wars and the music remains a listenable structure instead of a random collection of noises conjoined with an equally random series of actions commonly referred to as a plot.
Modern opera composers also like to shock audiences out of their bourgeois sentiments by portraying the taboo and deviant as common and profound. This is normally done by the addition of lengthy pornographic scenes, like in Thomas Adès Powder Her Face, the story of a seductress and her many sexual escapades. This attempt to shock audiences also manifests itself in political operas by blurring the traditional lines of good and evil as to make it appear as if there is a grey area where all judgement is suspended, as in the case with John Adams’ (the composer, not the Founder) The Death of Klinghoffer. This opera recounts the real life events surrounding an American Jew being murdered by members of the PLO who hijacked the passenger liner Achille Lauro in 1985. Adams’ use of choruses throughout the opera, the one Palestinian and the other Israeli, singing about the histories and events surrounding the opera, drew a moral equivalency between both sides and their actions.
Maybe instead of continuing this trend, contemporary opera composers could take a page from the great movies and their scores. Continuing with the example of Star Wars, the music is nominally tonal with the story being about a struggle to restore order to the universe. A return to this kind of music and these kinds of stories will give back to opera the place of pride it once held in our culture while also giving the world great works of art by which to represent our Civilization.