What does making a play or folk tale into the artform of an opera achieve ?

Discussion between 29th June and 6th July 2012 from the ‘Opera Talk’ Facebook page.

(Reproduced by kind permission of the participants.)

Rosalind O’Dowd Hi guys – here’s a question : What does making a play or folk tale into the artform of an opera achieve ? What happens ?

When thinking about characterisation, it seems from previous conversations on this page, that there is a tension between looking at the original source of the plot (be it a folk tale or a whole play), and on the other hand, just letting the music of the opera inform your view of the character; focusing only on the composer’s intention.

Maybe another way of putting it : how does characterisation of a character for an opera differ from that of a character in a play and what do we learn from that ?

Julian Porter May I generalise a bit? I think there’s an issue with any adaptation or reuse of characters. After all, even Shakespeare managed to produce 2 or 3 distinct characters, all called Sir John Falstaff, but with very different personalities. And then Boito fashioned them into a fourth character, a philosopher of pleasure, a hero, as opposed to Shakespeare’s comic anti-hero. So I think what’s going on is that whenever we adapt something pre-existing, we reposition it, reshape it to suit our purposes. So, if I were playing Falstaff, I wouldn’t pay much attention to Henry IV, and would be quite cautious with the Merry Wives.

Some other examples:
(1) It’s hard to believe that Marcellina in Barber and Figaro the operas are the same person (they are more clearly so in the plays). Note also that in Figaro the play, Marcellina has huge feminist speeches, all of which vanish in the opera, radically changing her personality.

(2) And then there’s Massenet’s Cherubin. A lovely opera, but it’s scarcely conceivable that its hero really _is_ Cherubino, in spite of our being told that he is. Ignoring Figaro entirely and treating this piece as purely a bit of frou frou seems the only way to go.

(3) Sophocles’ Elektra is a forceful woman who is entirely sane. Hoffmannsthal turned her into a deranged obsessive with a bit of an Oedipus complex, a character so different that there’s little point even thinking of looking at the Sophocles play. And then Strauss’ setting of the play changes things again.

(4) Sticking with Hoffmannsthal, bizarrely the characters in the opera Die Frau are radically different from the same characters in his novelised version (written at the same time). But much of the opera makes no sense if you haven’t read the novella! So here, I think you have to take both into account and somehow position yourself as the person in the opera, but informed by the person in the novella. However that works.

(5) Most interesting, what about real characters? All the evidence suggests that the real Hans Sachs was extremely conservative musically. Does it help to know about him? Of course. But Wagner created a new character based on him, and here Wagner’s intentions have to be paramount. Likewise, the real Queen Elizabeth would most likely not have approved at all of Gloriana. Again, I think the fictive construct has to come first, with the real Queen used only to fill in the gaps, done in a careful way so as to not obtrude too much of her into the very different fictive construct.

(6) Peter Grimes. In the poem, a sadistic fisherman. In the opera, not.

Fun, isn’t it?

Kate Flowers Marcellina’s Aria – often cut of course – is absolutely a feminist rant.

Rosalind O’Dowd Yes it is! I’m just learning the role now, in fact!

Julian Porter But of a different quality. Beaumarchais was aiming to rock the state’s foundations. Da Ponte was not. The author’s / adapter’s intentionality is critical in all of this, and so explains variation, and so must be taken into account.

For example, would we expect that Puccini’s and Busoni’s Turandots were derived from the same play? Thus the source is less significant than the creator’s agenda in adapting it.

Lindsay Bramley I’ve sung Marcellina several times now (as Kate knows!) – it does no harm to have those speeches in your head during some of the act 4 recit scenes! Da Ponte may have changed her significantly but I like to think something of the original remains…..


Kate Flowers Ah but …….. I see no reason why we as singing actors cannot reverse the “I am so happy” even with quavers on a G+ – it is quite possible and I believe essential to explore every possibility of a character just as one would in a “straight” play. The subtext that the music adds can be used in so many ways.

Myra Leung I did my dissertation on ‘To what extent does Mozart contrast the three female characters in Così fan tutte?’, I focused on the musical aspects rather than what Da Ponte had created. Message me if you are interested 🙂 x

Julian Porter Also, it’s much more complex than music in a major key is happy. To give a non-operatic example, in the song ‘Madam, you have dropped something’ in Shostakovich 14, the soprano’s ditty about how it’s nothing, only her heart is in major territory (not in a key exactly, this being late Shostakovich) and it’s absolutely horrifying. And in a totally non-vocal example, the fact that the major key ending of Shostakovich 5 can be triumphal or tragic depending on who’s conducting it shows that good music is just as much open to interpretation as are good words . . .

Lindsay Bramley generally composers know what they are doing though – a good realisation picks up the multitudes of subtleties in the text which gives you not only a good idea of how he/she saw the situation and character, and leaves you with a good deal of freedom in terms of colouration to illustrate your interpretation. (always assuming you go for what is actually on the page rather than what shows your voice off best!!)  ‎(which we hope is the same thing. Excuse lack of lucidity, it’s silly o’clock here)

Julian Porter I don’t think music is any more univocal in its emotional impact than are words. Music is a means of communication, like words, and as with all forms of communication, it is unreliable. The intention of the originator is unclear, and the recipient of the communication has considerable freedom in interpretation. And when you introduce performers as well, they have the freedom to add their own interpretation, much as a translator does.

Lindsay Bramley Yes, indeed we have got slightly off the question! Sorry about that. I do disagree with your assertion that the music limits us, which you come back to in your post. Julian has put it much more lucidly than I could, so I will largely leave it to him, except that to say that it is our job to find the subtleties and subtexts in the score (in its entirety – not just our bits) in the same way as a “straight” actor will work on the text, which I find liberating and enlightening rather than limiting. It’s an interesting point though, and thank you for raising it and making us all think!

Patricia O’neill-wheatley A singing Actress has to look at both..first proceed as an actress ..look at character and plot and then proceed to the music ..there are signposts there…changes in tempo ,pitch and key will mean the composer wishes you to to do something emotionally or practically e.g.movement

Wills Morgan CHARACTERIZATION and THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO: Who is older…Susanna or Countess Almaviva?

Well…according to Beaumarchais, Susanna is 20 and Rosina is 19.

Now imagine yourself at a music college…any one it doesn’t matter. y

You’ve got a promising 19 year-old student who can sing Rosina’s third act aria well enough. Would you allow that student to be cast in a college production of Figaro?

And would you cast a 19 year-old ahead of a 25 year-old who couldn’t sing as wellas her younger compatriot…but needed the showcase?

FIGARO AND MOZART were the same age…30. So Fig has 10 years on Susanna, but is still one of the young ones in the opera.

COUNT ALMAVIVA is a young man. Only three years separate the headstrong ROSSINI Almaviva from the MOZARTIAN Lord of the Manor.

Interesting that Rossini’s count is a role for a tenor. And that Mozart’s count is lower (and deeper in all sorts of ways).

Prior to Mozart, character development was made through the Aria. (Think of the great roles in Handel’s operas.

Character development in the Mature Mozart operas is in the ensembles. Without the Act ll finale of FIGARO we could not have had the great TRAVIATA duet of Violetta and Germont Snr.

I believe all opera students should know FIGARO finale acts ll and lV; COSI both act finales. DON GIOVANNI both act finales ZAUBERFLOETE both act finales. Not know of them: but actually know them.

…and now an answer to that question. An opera is a play where the actor sings the character. Ergo…not much difference , apart from the notes and the music.

Julian Porter I hesitate to start out on this line of thought, especially after Lindsay described me as lucid (?), but there are actually some quite deep philosophical questions that are very important to this discussion, namely issues around translation theory.

Why translations? Well, any act of communication, be it me writing these words for you to read them, da Ponte adapting Beaumarchais, Mozart adapting da Ponte, or you performing Mozart’s characters, involves translation from one person’s world of ideas to another’s. And the key points are these:

(1) No two persons have the same world of ideas; we communicate and can agree on common reference for terms, but we cannot know what those terms signify to one another. As Quine pointed out rather devastatingly, your rabbit may be my coherent collection of animal body parts, and we can never know whether that is so.

(2) All communication is unreliable, in that translation errors arise, deliberately, by accident, and systemically because of that fact that ideas and meanings that were obvious (say) to Beaumarchais may be completely invisible to a modern audience and / or performer. So information is inevitably lost and gained as we pass from one version to another.

This means that you as performer are, in fact, creative. Moreover, it means that any quest for the composer’s / librettist’s intentions is ultimately pointless, for they are in principle unknowable. The best you can do is to call on all relevant sources that you know about, but this means that you should not be frightened of introducing resonances that mean something to you, even if they may have meant nothing to the composer. What matters is that you and your colleagues form a coherent whole, not that you chase after a chimeric concept of authenticity.


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