3/29/2020 4 Comments
In Defence of Opera
Although opera houses, theatres, and cinemas are currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, many theatre companies are offering video downloads of some of their performances (see, for example, The Royal Opera House or the Metropolitan Opera). “But why opera?” you may ask… Often sung in Italian or German and often running two or more hours, opera can be a challenging art form to understand and value. This blog post considers what Christians can gain from listening to and learning to appreciate opera. As a unique art form combining multiple genres, opera offers audiences piercing insights into the human condition, insights that are powerful and illuminating. Opera also challenges audiences to engage their imaginative minds as they take in the broad range of artistic elements presented in an operatic production. 
"Opera challenges the listener to exercise their full imaginations. Audiences need to exert actively a 'willing suspension of disbelief' while viewing the operatic performance..."
Art doesn’t presume to be the thing that it depicts. A photo of a tree isn’t a tree and a portrait of a woman isn’t a woman. Opera, however, seems to embrace fully the fact that it isn’t real—it’s wholeheartedly and unabashedly unrealistic. Take, for example, the prolonged operatic death scene: for ten minutes the heroine sings a solo—called an aria—with tremendous passion and enthusiasm, all the while she is dying. The treacherous and mortal wound is inflicted, the heroine is certain to die, yet she sings… and sings… and sings. To many people, this makes opera seem very silly indeed. To others, it may seem silly but, like the emperor and his new “clothes,” they pretend it’s profound but don’t know why. Opera, however, is profound and powerful precisely because it is unrealistic. Opera challenges the listener to exercise their full imaginations. Audiences need to exert actively a “willing suspension of disbelief” while viewing the operatic performance. Unlike a modern cinematic Imax or 4-D virtual experience, which seeks to trick the audience into thinking they are actually immersed in an experience through eye-popping visual effects, immersive surround-sound and vibrating chairs, the audience of opera is never tricked into thinking the events on the stage are real. Instead of portraying realism, opera attempts to reflect “reality” by means of symbolism. The key to enjoying good opera is to realize that it attempts to function symbolically as “total art.” Opera is “total art” because it capitalizes on all of the resources of nearly every artistic form; at its disposal opera has orchestral and vocal music, poetry and drama, dance, choreography, and a host of visual arts—painted backdrops, sculptures, costumes, set pieces and props—all to convey symbolic meaning. The renowned musicologist, Aaron Copland, writes, “One must be willing to allow that symbolic things mirror realities and sometimes provide greater esthetic pleasure than the merely realistic. The opera house is a good place in which to find these symbolic pleasures.”
Opera also amplifies the human experience for all to hear and see. The power of the prolonged death sequence, for example, is that it slows down and magnifies a heartrending moment in time, allowing the audience to grasp the full weight of emotional and psychological trauma that the dying victim is enduring. The audience gets to witness the feelings of deep betrayal, the impending sense of finality and the reality that one’s hopes will remain unfulfilled. This is what good opera typically does well: enlarging and fully displaying the human emotional and psychological experience for all to see, hear and feel. Humanity’s greatness and folly, triumph and tragedy are showcased with the full weight of an operatic masterpiece. Opera presents a deeper insight into reality, which a realistic “death” would fail to do. In a realistic portrayal, if you blink, you miss it; opera doesn’t allow the audience to miss anything. So good opera, then, is profoundly real yet not realistic—real in its attempt to cause the audience to pause, reflect and respond to the magnified spectacle of human triumph and tragedy.
Christians can gain a great deal of insight into the human experience—the depth of human depravity and folly, the extent of human pride, and the beauty of love and sacrifice—all laid out and magnified before them on the opera stage. But learning to appreciate opera may also help Christians to slow down and better understand what God is doing in their own lives. So often, we rush through life without sufficient reflection or deep consideration of what God is doing or saying. Too often in our Bible readings we zoom through the text and sometimes miss the wonderful truths he has for us in his Word. Take, for example, Mary’s Magnificat recorded in Luke. Robert C. Tannehill in his essay, “The Magnificat as Poem,” points out that the narrative flow in Luke’s gospel is seemingly interrupted by Mary’s song of praise (Luke 1:46-55). This interjection, Tannehill argues, is intentionally designed to cause readers to pause and reflect on the magnificent events that have just occurred in the story so far. He writes, "the Magnificat is like an aria in opera. The artistic conventions of opera allow the composer to stop the action at any point so that, through a poetic and musical development exceeding the possibilities of ordinary life, a deeper awareness of what is happening may be achieved. A similar deep participation in the meaning of an event is made possible by the placement of this poem in Luke’s narrative."
Like an aria in an opera, Mary’s hymn slows the narrative down allowing readers to truly reflect on what is transpiring in Luke chapter 1. Mary’s song literally magnifies the moment—the pivotal moment in history, the incarnation—by putting a spotlight on what God has done and will do, and like an operatic aria, amplifies Mary’s emotional, psychological and spiritual response for all to see and hear. In so doing, the Magnificat invites the reader, like an audience at the opera, to reflect and respond with Mary in her praise of her Saviour and her God. Opera, like Mary’s “Magnificat,” can teach us to slow down and take in all that we are seeing and hearing on the stage, in life and in the Word.
Not all opera is good opera. As one opera aficionado pointed out to me, some operas are merely vehicles for narcissistic soloists seeking self-glorification. Nevertheless, Christians can learn to appreciate and enjoy opera and benefit from deeper insights into the human experience as well as be encouraged to pause and reflect on the marvellous work of God in our lives, day to day and moment by moment.
 Originally published in Barnabas, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Summer 2018): 20.
 The phrase, “willing suspension of disbelief” comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817)
Chapter XIV, and has been wildly applied to works of poetry, theatre and opera to mean an audience’s willingness to exercise an imaginative and poetic faith in the work of art, believing that the events are real and deciding not to “see” the stage, actors or set so as to enter into and experience the performance more fully.
 Aaron Copland, What to Listen for in Music. Penguin Putnam, 2011, p.185.
 Robert C. Tannehill, “The Magnificat as Poem.” Journal of Biblical Literature 93, no. 2 (1974): 265
 This opera aficionado is my dear friend Gordon Vanderwoude.
4/2/2020 04:13:33 pm
Interesting! This is well-needed in an age of fast food and ads, for we have been trained to only pay attention to what is easy to understand (thus maximizing our pleasure with instant gratification). The beauty of the opera, like you say, lies in the drawing-out and magnification of important moments. Could it be argued that operas are a kind of epic-form of storytelling? I would be interested to know...
4/2/2020 04:52:57 pm
Yes, I think an opera does resemble epic poetry. Like opera, epics enlarge, magnify, exaggerate: heroes become superhuman and enemies become monsters!
4/20/2020 09:10:59 pm
You should do a post in defense of the philosophers (not the same genre as opera, but that would still be super interesting). Are they still applicable today, can we solve modern issues using their ideas, etc.? :)
4/21/2020 06:56:23 am
Great idea! Definitely worth looking into... I'm going to need to do some of my own philosophical thinking to wrangle with this issue! Let me know if you have any thoughts on the matter.
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Jeremy W. Johnston
Christian, husband, father, teacher, writer.
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