Challenge to opera

In Wong Karwai’s new film, My Blueberry Nights, Rachel Weisz has a monologue that could almost

be an opera aria. When I saw the film, and Weisz quiets down outside a bar

where she’s just thrown a fit (with Norah Jones sitting by quietly, ready to

listen to anything Weisz says), I thought, “If this was an opera, now we’d get

Rachel Weisz’s aria.”

But I couldn’t have known how musical Weisz’s monologue

would be. For one thing, she often spoke in musical phrases, with pitches –

musical  notes – I could just about have

written down in musical notation. But she also made music in a higher sense, gripping

my attention simply with the sound of her voice, quite beyond the meaning of

her words. Up to a point, this happened as her voice was pushed and shattered

by her feelings, but as I listened – maybe because I’m a musician – the sound

took on a force that was completely musical (understanding here a wider

definition of music, which goes beyond the notes and chords of traditional

music, and enters the wider world of pure sound.)


to the monologue, and see what you think.

This, I thought, posed a challenge to opera – to new operas,

that is. (And don’t forget, in what follows, that I’ve written some myself.)

The simple way to put the challenge might be, “Who needs opera, when a movie

monologue carries this much musical conviction?” But that’s too simple. Maybe a broader way to make

a richer point would be something like this: in past centuries, when opera was

a truly current art form, people understood (instinctively; this hardly had to

be discussed, though perhaps it sometimes was) that opera created drama by

stylizing it, embedding it in well-known forms of music.

As time went on, and as musical language developed, singing

in opera could become less stylized – less dependent on full-fledged melodies,

with a purely musical form of their own – and more realistic, more like the

ways people actually speak. (Wagner of course had a lot to do with that.) But

let’s not forget that stage acting (and public speaking of any sort) was much

more stylized in those days than it is now. So realism of the Blueberry Nights sort – music closely

imitating speech – wouldn’t bring dramatic music where pure drama is today.

I’ll skip over the rest of operatic history (and especially

Janacek, who tried harder than any other composer to render speech in music

precisely as it’s spoken), and simply observe that new operas these days tend

to emphasize full-throated operatic singing. Which leaves them largely in the

dust if you compare them to Rachel Weisz, who also outflanks them musically.

Which isn’t to say that new operas are impossible. I tend to

feel, though, that they work best when they’re deliberately stylized. And since I think that, it can’t be coincidence that Philip Glass’s Satyagraha (stylized from beginning to

end) knocked me out more than any new opera I’ve ever seen on stage, and that I

wrote my own favorite among my operas, Frankenstein, deliberately

as an affectionate (well, loving, really) and stylized take on Italian opera in the 19th

century (which itself is stylized). If I wanted to write a realistic work – which really would appeal to

me – I’d listen again, and very carefully, to Rachel Weisz, and be afraid.

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  1. says

    This certainly is moving, rather like Ophelia in Hamlet or other mad scenes from Shakespeare’s works.

    But operatically, isn’t this a “recitative,” something we all suffer through ’til it’s aria time? And being on stage, she’d project just enough to the audience at her kneecaps. Next thing, the singers will ALL be miked. (Which soprano recently threw a little fit when she bashed the current crop of TV/pop opera singers who weren’t the real deal cause they wore microphones?)

    I’d see this more as an improvement on rap or hiphop, where to my ears, the songs’ poetry all sounds the same whether the song promises murder or extols the virtues of his Moma. Thirty years or more of this with little development of the form. Let’s move music forward by issuing a moratorium on 4/4 time and lame same rhyme.

  2. says

    I’m sure you’ve listened to a great deal of hip-hop in coming up with that opinion, too.

    When hip-hop fans tell me that all orchestral music sounds the same to them, I just smile and nod, in the same way I am now smiling and (mentally) nodding.