What Writers Can Learn About Voice From Opera

writing and opera
Photo credit: Ted Drake via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-ND

Today’s guest post is by author Jeff Shear (@Jeff_Shear).

Writers profit from listening to others’ conversations, tuning into their voices—cocktail voices, household voices, voices of hucksters—voices beyond the obvious growls of anger and shrieks of delight. Careful listening develops an author’s skill as a ventriloquist able to project a character’s lines into speech. The skill requires a good “ear” —the opposite of a tin ear—particularly when it comes to the rugged, logical rigor of great dialogue. The butcher and the baker may be enjoying a conversation, but when the professor of theoretical physics shows up across the counter, the conversation changes. There’s a new voice in the room. The professor stands apart, and the reader should hear it; even if the professor is from the neighborhood, he’s still the customer.

Consider opera (uh-oh!) and the use of voices. Opera is the single Western art in which voice determines character, or, more closely, expresses character. For writers, opera offers a set of finger exercises, if not pointers.

There’s a taxonomy of opera voices called the Fach system, if you’re into the finer points. But it’s enough to know seven broadly defined voices evoke the personas ruling the opera program: soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto among the women; and counter tenor, tenor, baritone, and bass among the men.

Sopranos, the highest voice among the women, take a lead role, the heroine. Or her opposite. A little more nuanced is the “lyric soprano,” whose role depicts a tender, plaintive character. Mimi, for instance, who anchors Puccini’s La Bohème. Staged as a tale of 19th-century struggling “creatives,” the libretto requires a lyric soprano to embody a woman falling in love and later tragically losing her life to the ills of Bohemian poverty. Who might play Mimi in a novel? A young idealist, a librarian and a bookish intellectual desperately in love and doomed, much like the character of Liz Gold, a pawn sacrifice and involuntary heroine in John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

On a recent Sunday in The New York Times an item appeared that said, “Over the last 35 years at the Metropolitan Opera, Franco Zeffirelli’s staging of Puccini’s La Bohème,” Mimi’s destiny opera, “has played nearly 500 performances and sold 650,000 tickets.” Let’s try some quick writer-math. Translated into the universe of indie novels (and assuming I do the math correctly), the equivalent number of books per year is 18,142. That’s a good number. Sold at $3.99 as an ebook, La Bohème would gross $72,390 each year for 35 years. At Pronoun’s 70% royalty, it represents a $50,673 a year in income. A sustaining wage for a family, or a bucket-list of primo vacations for writers with trust funds.

So, it’s fair to say, opera works; but how can it work for the writer? Regard the clown, a virtual archetype. He opens the opera Pagliacci. His name is Tonio, and he appears in a pointy hat and a mask of plaster-white makeup. He frowns more than smiles and heralds the opening moments before a cast costumed for dramedy mounts the stage and inches toward murder. There’s a message here for the writer, a way to bring dimension to a character. Often played by a verdi baritone (to my ear, at least), Tonio’s voice ranges from wistful and pleading to broad and declamatory. “Comic” Tonio exhorts his audience, “Our author has endeavored to paint for you… a slice of life, his only maxim being that the artist is a man, and he must write for men. Truth is his inspiration.” (Reproduced with express permission from http://www.murashev.com/opera/)

Those are portentous lines for a clown; he’s been cast against type; he’s more than he appears, a man of many parts, expressed through his voice. He sees the plot unfold, knows the players, recognizes their quandary, and witnesses their deaths. What a clown! And he’s a familiar figure to readers, the Fool from “King Lear,” a harlequin who recognizes his sovereign verging on a disastrous choice, advising him in couplets to keep his powder dry. “Have more than thou showest, speak less than thou knowest…”

Opera offers parallels to print, but it also tempts parody. It’s akin to Japan’s Kabuki theater, formal and stylized; although Kabuki aims at stereotype. It’s cultural. It’s nothing like Wagner’s Brünnhilde, a mythical character once portrayed as a mountainous woman wearing braids, helmets, and horns. (See Bugs Bunny in “What’s Opera, Doc?” for reference.) Brünnhilde, a deathless Valkyrie, half-god and half-human, requires a voice equal to her climactic role, an epic mezzo soprano whose scorching arias crash in battle. (Read Lord of the Rings for contrast.) Brünnhilde’s type should remain a deathless character for writers, however, despite the risky cliché. There’s no changing archetypes, but attention must be paid: No breastplates and thunder allowed. Better to substitute tattoos and a cell phone. Enter, stage right, Lisbeth Salander. (If she ain’t a Brünnhilde, you haven’t read Steig Larson’s original trilogy.)

Voice is big and delicate, a part of a character’s costume as much as a plaster mask. But it’s there to be used, developed, changed in deathless prose and complex characters. The great voices of opera and print require skill and care. The clown who plays against type, the heroine dying in poverty, and a Brünnhilde who barely speaks and writes computer code. The voices remain, like the letters on a keyboard, which must be chosen to be made into narrative, character, scene, and plot.

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