I love opera. I think it’s a great way of telling a story. I love the music, the voices, the spectacle. Most of all I love the emotions: passion, jealousy, hatred, revenge, joy, redemption. Last week I wrote about operatic emotions and how to get similar feeling into fiction. Today I’d like to cover a couple of structural techniques that opera can teach writers of fiction.
Give characters a theme. A leitmotif is a musical theme that’s associated with a particular character (or a place or even an idea). When a character comes onstage, that theme gives the audience an idea of how to respond to that character. Is the music light and happy? heroic? sinister? And when the character reenters later on, the leitmotif reminds the audience who that character is. A famous example is Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, which announces the entrance of these battle maidens who swoop up fallen heroes and carry them off to Valhalla. (If you ever saw the Bugs Bunny cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc,” it’s the music playing when Elmer Fudd sings “Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit, kill the WABbit!”)
Writers can give characters distinguishing characteristics in the same way. For example, if an old lady has bright blackbird eyes, readers get a sense that she’s vivacious and alert. Later, when she appears again, a quick reference to those blackbird eyes provides a shorthand way to help readers remember who this character is and what she’s like. (Use the emotional filter when you choose a distinguishing trait so that readers know how the point-of-view character feels about this person.)
Here’s a concert performance of the opening of Act 3 of Die Walküre from 2005.
Use emotional touchstones to come full circle. I love it when a character looks back from a new, more experienced place at former hopes, fears, dreams, or meaningful moments. Verdi composed an operatic version of Shakespeare’s play Othello. In Verdi’s Otello, Act I ends with a love duet between Otello and Desdemona in which Otello takes kisses his wife three times. At the end of Act IV, after he’s killed Desdemona and realized he was wrong in his jealous suspicions, Otello stabs himself and then kisses his dead wife three times before he dies, himself. The music and words echo their earlier love scene, recalling the love that Otello has thrown away.
In writing, it’s also an effective technique to circle back to key moments and show them from a new perspective. It emphasizes how a character has grown or how dreams have shattered.
The following clip happens early in Verdi’s Don Carlo. In it, Don Carlo and his friend Rodrigo sing a rousing duet about friendship and freedom. Much later in the opera, Rodrigo sacrifices his life for his friend. In his death scene, the music echoes a theme from this duet, but softly and in the background, with no singing. (To hear it, go back to this post and watch the third video; the theme comes in at around 1:50.) It’s a poignant way to recall the promise their friendship held.
Singers here are Jose Carreras (Don Carlo) and Piero Capuccilli (Rodrigo). They’re allowed to move around more than you see here, honest.