Monday, November 1, 2010

Operatic writing

As writers, we pay constant attention to the Don'ts of writing. Don't Tell: Show. Don't bog the story down with long flashbacks. Don't create stereoytypical characters. Don't give in to melodrama. And whatever you do: Don't kill your characters off at the end. That's cheating.

Saturday night, my husband and I were given complimentary tickets to the Metropolitan Opera's production of Il Trovatore (Verdi). Most of the first act was given over to endless flashbacks and telling, as Ferrando entertains the Count's restless troops with a complex tale of a Gypsy's curse, a dead baby, and a daughter's revenge. The opera's love story is based on a hopeless triangle; the audience knows, well ahead of time, that a final union is impossible. In the last scenes, Verdi gives us betrayal, suicide by slow-acting poison, a beheading, and fratricide. We never know whether the main characters go through any sort of internal change, as most are dead when the final curtain falls--or lying prostrate with grief. The opera broke every rule in the book--and the audience went wild when the final curtain fell. My husband's first comment, even though he cheered as loudly as anyone, was: "What a silly plot."

Indeed. But does the charm of opera reflect our hidden desires? Do we all long to be as wildly dramatic and overemotional at times? Do we, too, wish we could reach the soprano's impossibly high note while lying in a lover's arms, our long hair cascading across the stage? Do we imagine a lover sending his army to rescue us from a tower? Would we challenge a rival to a duel by swords, in order to win the one we love?

Perhaps the message of the opera to writers is: Let it all go. Don't be afraid to fall--and fail. Every now and then, wail and scream at the top of your lungs. Be passionate, scale the tower walls, declare your love to the world. Hit the high note--and go out with a bang.


  1. And I should probably try telling my story in Italian, as it can't be any less comprehensible than what I have now.

  2. Thanks for this, Liza!
    Being slightly more simple-minded than you, perhaps this is why I have such a love for musicals (the layman's opera)--the melodrama, the passion, the ridiculous plots, and bursting into song at heightened moments. I even forgive the chauvinism and stereotyping involved all for that final dance number.

  3. I want to have a big Broadway dance routine in mine.

  4. Wow, Liza. What a fascinating post. Makes me want to start singing. Ah, I mean writing. Sometimes stories work when they have some amazing parts and too much or too little of others. They're not perfect, but like opera they touch us down to our toes.

  5. That is a lovely post, very inspiring. It also reminded me of teaching undergrad. playwriting and giving them a list of don'ts on the first day. Don't write a play about three guys who are getting drunk and stoned on a couch. Don't write a play where the whole thing ends up being a dream. And don't have every other word start with F. Make up some new words.