The Art of the Opera-Beast

As I sit trying to think of what to write next, I’m listening to Philip Glass’s opera theatre piece In the Penal Colony, after the Kafka story by the same name (really great, I highly suggest it). I find myself thinking of the difference between opera and what is generally perceived as straight up musical theatre. There are lots of varying opinions on this and I’ve heard great arguments from whatever side you may be on, but I’ve always sort of avoided the topic because I never really had an opinion.

For some, the difference is about the character and sound of the singing voice. For some, it’s about lack of spoken dialogue, or it lies in orchestration, or language, or even length. And for some, it’s simply about what the author theirself has decided to call it:

“Blah Blah Blah”
an opera in 3 acts.

It has occurred to me that this delineation is not important to me. At all.
But something else about the definition of opera is.

Sean Long Jumps Through History:

At first, opera was a thing specifically invented by a group of white aristocratic artists near the end of the 16th century. Literally invented. It was designed as a high class art where music tells a dramatic story on stage.

Jumping ahead (a couple hundred long years) we arrive at the late great asshole of musical brilliance, Richard Wagner, who pioneered the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, by which all of the arts (music, drama, poetry, dance, sculpture etc.) work in tandem to create one piece.

And then we come to now.

The old Metropolitan Opera House, 1966. (Henry Groskinsky/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.)

The old Metropolitan Opera House, 1966.
(Henry Groskinsky/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.)

This opera-beast has broadened to a place where I don’t think you can really even delineate opera as its own thing anymore. It has come to a place where there are so many blurred lines between musical theatre, ballet, opera, plays, performance art or what you will, that divisions are no longer necessary. I prefer to look at each piece on its own. I suggest that opera has become, quite simply, the act of attending “A thing that has been created.” This could even go as far as to include the time it takes to view a painting or a sculpture. You are attending a thing that is to be appreciated as art.

The word opera is just the plural of opus.

It is the artist’s choice whether or not to call their piece whatever they want to call it. It’s a thing they have created.

I find that thinking of my own work in this way helps to open my mind when I write. I use the tools I have to say what I want, how I want. I just happen to be a composer, so I do this through music. Wagner did it his own way. Glass does it his way. Anna Deavere Smith does it her way. Samuel Beckett did it his way. Taylor Mac does it judy’s way. Suzan-Lori Parks does it her way. Harvey Fierstein does it his way. Cher does it her way. Salvador Dali did it his way. All artists have tools by which to create. Some define themselves very specifically. Some do not. It’s all for the sake of the purpose of the piece, and for whomever is there to take the time to appreciate it.

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