What Opera Taught Me About Writing Fiction, Part 1

Yesterday I wrote about making an emotional connection with readers. Today I’m going to write about how listening to opera (yes, opera!) gave me some insights into doing that. I know that opera isn’t to everyone’s taste, but the insights themselves are still valid.

First off — what I learned from opera has nothing to do with plot. Opera contains some of the most ridiculous plots ever devised. Just read the plot synopsis of Verdi’s Il Trovatore or Rigoletto to see what I mean. If I were reading one of those stories in a novel, I probably wouldn’t make it to the end. Yet in his operas, Verdi turns the stories into something marvelous.

Why? Because the music taps directly into the audience’s emotions. When I go to the opera, if I’m sobbing, I know I’m having a good time.

Here’s how I try to apply what I love about opera to my writing:

Make it bigger. My favorite operas are about grand passions with high stakes. You never hear the tenor sing an aria that goes, “Yeah, I kinda like her.” His passion for the soprano is earth-shaking, and the music shows that. And it happens in a context of very high stakes: a life-or-death situation for the lovers or the fate of a country. Opera reminds me that my characters need to feel things intensely and that the decisions they make must have big consequences — for themselves or for the world around them. “Make it bigger” is my second-draft mantra. (That doesn’t mean no subtlety, of course, but what happens in the story has to matter intensely to the characters.)

In the following aria, from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, the character is searching for a lost pin. Not a big deal, right? It is to her, and the mournful, trepidatious music tells us so. (Translated lyrics here. The singer is Constanze Backes.)

Provide an emotional connection. In opera, the music supports this — it soars or plunges or whispers or screams. In writing, the emotional filter does the same job. The language an author uses, including metaphors and similes, helps readers feel what the point-of-view character is feeling.

In the following clip, from Verdi’s La Traviata, listen to how the music reflects the emotional states of the two characters. Alfredo (sung by Placido Domingo) begins with a beautiful but somewhat conventional love song. Violetta (sung by Teresa Stratas) is a party girl who claims to be incapable of love. At first, she answers him flippantly, but as he continues to sing his love song, he begins to win her over. They start out worlds apart but come together by the end of the duet. The music lets you know exactly when Violetta begins to hesitate and change her mind about love.

Let feelings play out. If a character is feeling something intensely and you cut the scene too short, readers may feel cheated. Scratch that, they will feel cheated, because they want the full emotional impact of what’s happening. (On the other hand, it’s possible to overdo things and go on for too long.)

Opera is famous for long death scenes where, by all the laws of nature, the character should have croaked long before he or she stops singing. But I like to think of these scenes, when they’re well handled, as a moment that happens outside of time. The ticking clock is suspended as the character sings, so that the life scenes or the regrets that flash before the character’s eyes can be understood — and savored — by the audience.

A good example is Rodrigo’s death scene in Verdi’s Don Carlo. In this scene, Rodrigo visits his friend Carlo in prison, knowing that the king’s men have orders to kill him. As he talks to Carlo, a shot rings out. Rodrigo falls — and then sings for three-and-a-half minutes before he dies. The aria is his farewell to his best friend. Here, the singer is a very blow-dried Sherrill Milnes (the performance is from 1980, after all).

More to come!

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About nancyholzner


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