Great Opera

Written by Richard Murison

Here’s what I wrote back in Copper 72:

Many people can’t stand opera, and to be fair, you can see where they’re coming from. Hour after hour of tedious recitative, all in Italian, interspersed with the occasional aria, and all sung by strangled and warbling voices seemingly intent on shattering glass. But oh, those arias!

If opera arias are all so wonderful, and if the recitative is so deadly dull, why does a typical opera apparently comprise something like 20% arias and 80% recitative, rather than the other way around? And what’s with those “strangled and warbling voices”. These would be very good questions, and I’ll try to address them for you. And even if you’re not an opera fan, please bear with me, because I might not be heading quite in the direction you think I am.

First, the voices.

Opera, of course is musical theater. It is basically a stage play where the dialog is sung rather than spoken. Anyone who has ever performed in a stage play – whether it was just the school’s Christmas production your poor devoted parents were obliged to sit through every year – will know that the most important skill you need to learn is vocal projection. You want to deliver your lines in such a way that everyone in the audience can hear them, but without losing control over the critical attributes of expression, inflection, and tone. You don’t want to be sounding like a coach at a football match, screaming instructions with apoplectic fury from the sidelines. So you learn to develop a declamatory style of address – a “chest voice” – together with precise diction. [And as a bonus, you later get to learn that the same tone of voice can be used to great effect to gain control of a meeting.]

It may come as a surprise to learn that, contrary to stage actors, movie actors deliver their lines in a totally different manner. They generally whisper their delivery at the lowest possible volume that the microphone can pick up. Don’t for a moment think that I’m exaggerating here (I must apologize for this, because “muttervision” is something you can never “un-know”, and no movie or TV drama will ever look the same to you again. Sorry.). But, in summary, movie actors whisper, and stage actors project. The two techniques are quite different, even though both have ostensibly the same purpose of delivering theatrical lines to an audience.

It is the same with opera. An opera singer has to project – all the way to the back of the hall – while still maintaining control over tune, tone, and vocal inflection. And there’s also the problem of a pretty large orchestra which they have to sing over at the same time. And as if that wasn’t enough, they need to be able to do this night after night, week after week, month after month, throughout the course of a (hopefully) long career, without wrecking their vocal cords in the process. This is why opera singers develop such exaggerated and singular vocal styles. It is a necessity in order to accomplish all of those core requirements.

In many ways it is like comparing a Major League Baseball pitcher to a couple of kids tossing a ball about in the back garden. The kids often have a lazy, natural athleticism to their throwing technique, where the MLB pitcher has an ungainly, but highly stylized mechanical action. The kid can (and eventually will) throw a baseball through your kitchen window, but the pitcher can throw it through the window, all the way through the house, and out again through the front room window. Still, if your kid can do that, he may have a future in the Big Leagues.

Surprisingly enough, a similar situation exists with modern genres of music. Take for example AC/DC, one of the most successful rock bands of all time, known for Brian Johnson’s lung-busting primordial vocals. His leather-lunged vocal stylings sound as though they’d be loud enough to curdle yogurt. But they’re not. He actually sings at an extremely low volume, tensing his vocal cords to deliver a screech-like tone incredibly quietly, and letting the microphone and its preamp do all the grunt work. Chances are you might have at some point done the exact same thing when you’ve been singing along – except you don’t have a microphone. Have you never wondered why, when you see your favorite power-vocal pop or rock performer on stage, he has the microphone pressed hard to his lips? Who knew?

So an opera singer is like a stage actor, where a rock singer is like a movie star.

Back to opera, then, and the apparent dearth of arias. Opera is just musical theater…in fact many of the world’s greatest operas are adaptations of previously successful stage plays. And a play is all about the exposition of a plot, which typically unfolds through dialog between the play’s cast members, sometimes with an assist from a narrator. The dialog tends to set out a serial narrative, by which I mean that if you change the order of the lines you can very quickly lose the plot. It also tends to mean that a lot of lines are needed in order to convey a detailed plot. These sorts of characteristics simply don’t tend to lend themselves to arias. All the best arias have very simple words, and relatively few of them. They also tend to involve a lot of repetition. Arias are best suited to the expression of a character’s emotional state, a discussion of his or her conflicts, their desires and ambitions.

Here we have the aria “Recondita armonia” from Puccini’s famous opera Tosca, sung quite magnificently by one of the world’s current pre-eminent tenors, Jonas Kaufman. In the aria he tells us that although he is painting a portrait of a blue-eyed blonde, he is only thinking of his love, the brunette Floria Tosca. That’s about all there is to it, and it takes him a good three minutes. But what wonderful minutes they are:


Still, they aren’t moving the plot along, and we have a lot of plot that needs to be moved along. That is the purpose of the recitative, and the challenge of the composer is to make it sufficiently interesting. He can do that using a number of techniques including the use of themes and musical motifs that convey ideas, people, or places that the audience can identify with, or at least feel familiar or comfortable with. At least, that’s the idea. For the most part, though, the recitative is very rarely something an audience member would hum to himself on the way home from the theater. Which is troublesome for an opera composer.

Wagner turned opera upside-down with his solution to this conundrum. He considered an opera as a grand theatrical symphony. And if opera had to be mostly recitative, why not embrace that as a core attribute and instead make the opera 100% recitative. He could then write it as a grand symphonic structure where the voices would contribute as though they were members of the orchestra. And there would be no need for arias at all!

Was he successful? You can be the judge of that. Here is the closing scene from “Das Rheingold”, – it’s from the Patrice Chéreau production at Bayreuth from the 1980’s [and Heinz Zednik absolutely nails it as Loge]. It’s about 8 minutes long, but give it a chance. At the end, as the Gods join hands and march into Valhalla, Richard Wagner invents the Riff. Trust me, Wagner would have totally got The Who.

But that doesn’t really get us anywhere. Far, far fewer people enjoy Wagner than enjoy a good old concert recital of opera arias. Can we not somehow cobble together the opposite – a true opera comprising 100% arias and no recitative? That would be extremely difficult. How would we deliver the exposition? Can we develop an aria style that is able to deliver a measure of exposition, while still staying true to the core attributes of an aria? These present very significant technical challenges for a composer to overcome.

There may be only one composer who has accomplished this feat, and his magnum opus is a truly magnificent achievement. Actually, it is quite likely that you may have even heard of him…and it. His name is Pete Townshend, and his all-aria opera is called Quadrophenia.

I know what you’re saying – “Cheat! That’s not an opera!” – but greater and more qualified authorities than I would beg to differ. It is one of the two so-called “Rock Operas” (the other being “Tommy”) released by The Who. [Actually, Townshend worked on a third, informally titled the “Lifehouse Project”, but he was never able to complete it.] For various reasons, Tommy gets all the recognition as the first Rock Opera, but in truth it is a flawed work and Quadrophenia far better fits the bill as a true opera, and remains the superior work (and by a large margin, in this writer’s opinion).

But is it actually an all-aria opera? I would say yes. Each stand-alone track – even, arguably, the overture (“I Am The Sea”) – has all the characteristics of an aria. They are tuneful, melody driven, song structures. They are introspective and/or reflective in nature. They function perfectly well as stand-alone recital pieces. Even those without words (“Quadrophenia” and “The Rock”) have essentially all the core characteristics of arias.

Quadrophenia manages the task of delivering exposition in an all-aria opera by the ingenious technique of leaving it mostly unsaid (although, to be fair, one or two of the arias do include a fair bit of overt exposition, such as “Sea and Sand” and “Bell Boy”). It is not a particularly challenging exercise to extract the entirety of what is a reasonably complex plot from the arias themselves, but the plot itself is never explicitly stated; even the denouement is largely left to the audience’s imagination. Here is a clip from the movie version of Quadrophenia, featuring an excerpt from the aria “I’ve Had Enough”.


Unlike the aforementioned Tosca, Pete Townshend did not write Quadrophenia in the form of a performing score which can be picked up and performed by opera companies worldwide. Quadrophenia is, after all, uncompromisingly a rock album. It is one of the heaviest, hardest, purest hard rock albums ever made. It defiantly resists being viewed as a non-rock musical material arranged for rock band. Simply put, Quadrophenia lives in our consciousness as an Album by The Who, rather than as a Work by Pete Townshend. This leaves a big unanswered question as to what its operatic legacy is to be. For example, if the New York Met wanted to put on a production of Quadrophenia how exactly would they set about doing that?

In the wider “modern music” world, playing another artist’s song is referred to as a “cover version”. Furthermore, a good cover version of a modern music piece tends to be evaluated in terms of the distinctive arrangement that the covering artist creates for it. A straight note-for-note re-hash is rarely received positively outside of the somewhat sad confines of the ‘tribute band’. This is not the situation in opera, where an opera company will strive to put on a note-for-note production of Tosca or La Boheme. In rock, a good cover version is usually one where the covering artist has put his or her own original stamp on the song, but such ideas are rarely well received in the world of classical opera.

How to conclude, then?

In the genteel, very English game of cricket, the field on which the game is played is generically referred to as a “wicket”. The qualities of this playing surface impact the course of a cricket match in a way, and to an extent, that is not encountered in any other sport. The best cricket wickets in the world are legendary, and probably the most revered is that of Arundel, in Sussex. A (probably apocryphal) story goes like this: Someone asked the groundsman at Arundel what the secret was to producing a wicket as good as his. The groundsman responds that there is no secret to it. “You prepare a flat field, with good soil and good drainage, sow it with good quality grass seed, and when it sprouts you mow it, water it, and roll it every day. That’s the key. Mow it, water it, and roll it every day. After about 100 years or so, you should be good to go.

That’s how it will be with Quadrophenia. In about 100 years time we should have converged upon a consensus as to where its true legacy lies. But for the time being, I would advance the positions that Tosca is a great opera, and Giacomo Puccini was a great composer…and that Quadrophenia is an equally great opera, and Pete Townshend is an equally great composer.

Thank you for reading.

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