Don't Miss the Opera in the Pit

This essay originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 3 September 2014. You can read it there by clicking here.

Most orchestras actually play mainly beneath the stage. Here is a pit orchestra arrayed in front of the proscenium.

Most orchestras actually play mainly beneath the stage. Here is a pit orchestra arrayed in front of the proscenium.

I am occasionally asked, on panels, and in master classes, why it is important for an opera composer to write well for the orchestra, do their own orchestrations, and use it for more than mere accompaniment to what’s going on twelve feet above.

I reply that an understanding of the orchestra’s role in opera is a prerequisite for crafting the very finest, and the most sophisticated, operatic scores. I stipulate that it is in the subtle use of orchestral colors and textures that much of the composer’s capacity for the telling of truth to power is made possible. The way the composer uses the orchestra is one of the chief things that differentiates opera from music theater.

It is in the suave use of the orchestra that a composer can artfully conceal many of her most provocative and innovative musical and psychological ideas while appearing on the surface intending only to entertain and divert. This is not sly, but it is often misunderstood as being too eager to please by people who tend to find dissonant music more serious than consonant music. The willingness to throw the audience a bone simply acknowledges the fact that sleight of hand must sometimes be used to disarm before the fool can whisper the truth into the king’s ear.

The role most composers and audiences are comfortable having the orchestra play is that of the story’s omniscient narrator. Things become more interesting, though, and more like actual human experience, when the music is in “disagreement” with the action onstage; it may also be telling the truth in a situation where the character is lying to themselves, or others. Portraying characters in denial, underpinning crossed emotional transactions, and tracking the progress of seduction—these are “what’s going on in the violas.”

It is in the orchestra that the churning, subliminal, notated subconscious of the drama—intuited but largely unnoticed by the audience—occurs. Occasionally, the orchestra may tell another story entirely from the one unfolding on stage; certainly, one of the reasons operatic villains are so fun is that the audience potentially hears all the (beautiful?) voices in a psychotic’s head!

When the orchestra is dealt in as an active and equal dramatic player, one risks melodrama, since the action onstage is being experienced by the audience from the orchestra’s point of view (POV). When the music precedes the action, melodrama results (example: sting chord, followed by a character singing “you MUST pay the rent!”). When it is simultaneous, “Mickey Mousing” results (example: well, the music one hears anytime Wylie E. Coyote heads over a cliff, is crushed by an anvil, and so on). It is in every way a more substantial and rich emotional and aesthetic experience when the orchestra is employed in a rather more filmic fashion, the music’s POV shifting continuously, fluidly, in order to frame, comment upon, deepen, and enhance the drama. 

What’s the difference, then, between a film score and an opera score? Besides the obvious fact that an opera is sung, not all that much, except that the composer sits in the driver’s seat in opera. The opera house was built to bring to life the vision of the composer, not the director. The composer in opera is the chief dramaturge and chief visionary. In film, a music editor translates and transmits the director’s wishes to the composer, who then executes music that may in fact save the scene, elevate it, and even be the thing that makes it truly great. But, no matter how galvanizing a film score is, the vision remains the director’s.

John Williams’ Star Wars soundtracks are held together by an extraordinarily complex web of motives, themes, overlays, and thematic transformation made all the more impressive by the fact that, because of the nature of the movie industry, he has had to pen them so quickly. Would he even be interested, one wonders, in writing an opera? I hope that he does. As obviously capable of it as he is, is he even interested in taking the wheel?

I admire Howard Shore’s scores for the Tolkien movies. They, too, partake of the operatic conventions of leitmotifs and thematic transformation. Mr. Shore’s opera, The Fly, for the Los Angeles Opera, however, could have used a music editor. Too often, the music refused to take center stage. At this point, it seems to me though that the closest heir to Erich Korngold (who came to film music after international success as the youthful genius composer of Die tote Stadt) is Andre Previn, whose operatic scores (A Streetcar Named Desire—hampered only by a libretto that one assumes is so true to the Williams play because the estate insisted upon it—and Brief Encounter, more loosely based on the Coward play, and in every way lighter on its feet) are technical marvels, fluid, with a flawless sense of dramatic timing, and an effortless command of harmonic ebb and flow. It is unfair of me to wonder aloud why Mr. Previn doesn’t seem to my ear to allow himself the fervent, sophisticated tunes that he did in his film scores when he writes opera.

It is fashionable among some composers to generate in the orchestra a neutral sea of sonic gesso over which float patches of “parlando recitative” (a sort of elevated, sing-songy dialogue that constantly reaches toward, but never achieves, actual melodic interest) that do nothing to differentiate the characters. Another popular, and perhaps glib, strategy is to provide music that remains ironically detached from the onstage drama, music that winks at the audience as though to say, “not really,” or “we’re better than this story or these characters.”

The better an opera composer gets at fully exploiting the orchestra as an equal player in the gesamtkunstwerk, the more the audience trusts her. On the one hand—the hand that matters—the composer’s musical message flows all the more freely into the audience’s heart and mind; on the other, the composer has concealed her craft so well that non-professionals who need to “hear the cogs grind” in order to feel that they’ve been in the presence of “inspiration” suspect that they’ve been manipulated by “mere technique.”

Some folks distrust composers who handle the “seams” between big set pieces well; they want their “stand and deliver” performance moments followed by an orchestral button that invites / enables / triggers applause. I wonder whether this impulse arises from the same place that causes my six year old to look away and fidget when an adult is admonishing him—it’s just too much.

Some audience members have difficulty understanding that the music they are hearing at any given moment is sometimes the character’s music, not the author’s, and that the POV of the orchestra, and even the music, may not be omniscient at all. Because of this, critics who either don’t understand, or are unwilling to go along with that the idea of a shifting POV, have sometimes misunderstood the musical rhetoric of contemporary scores, pronouncing them at best “eclectic,” and wondering aloud whether the composer has “an original voice.”

The next time you attend the opera, as the lights dim and the orchestra strikes up, why not determine to devote that evening an extra measure of attention to the opera going on in the pit? Given half the chance they deserve, those people down there might just steal the show.