The chicken or the egg?

Chicken or egg

Prima le parole e dopo la musica, or Prima la musica e dopo le parole?

The other day I was thinking about the fact that opera still has the power to command people, and I don’t just mean in an emotional sense even if it certainly does that too.  What I mean is that people who love opera, “afficionados,” love it and would kill for it; yet, those who hate it, HATE IT!  For those of us who love it, it is infinitely difficult to convert someone from “the other side,” but it is possible, trust me!  So, what is it?  What is this thing called opera, this thing that has been an emotional, social, political vehicle, fully encompassing every artistic genre in order to achieve its premise?

In order to answer this question accordingly, we would have to embark on a serious study of this genre that has existed for centuries, now (sometimes I feel like I’ve been studying it for centuries, as the grey hairs on my head seem to suggest). But, to give a surface scraping answer:  opera is a spectacle of combinatory proportions with the sole purpose of “affecting” the listener beyond the manifestation of words alone.  It is meant to instruct us, frighten us, to arouse us, to seduce us, to make us laugh, to make us cry, and to infect us with the grandeur of life.  Opera, is life.

Of course, it combines music, staging, drama, literature, orchestration, costume, movement, and often dance, but the magical element above all these is the inclusion of the Voice, a most seductive and dangerous being.  As it is, the Voice can represent any number of things and often serves purposes that are not always relegated to singing, per se.  To me, the voice is a metaphysical being (which is why I capitalize it); that is, something that is not entirely of this world, something that descends from a higher realm and does not have a bodily or visceral form.  If that’s true, then how does it come from the body of a singer?  While some might think that the singer embodies the voice, I tend to think that the voice embodies the singer, which is why many singers actually transcend as they’re performing, a wonderful feeling to be sure (and I don’t mean they levitate…that would be scary…or wonderful, who knows?)

Since its inception in Italy around the 1600s (yes, it was us hot-blooded Italians that started this all…mix in some good food and vino and you’ve got a full evening’s entertainment), Italian composers and dramatists recognized the affects of the voice on the body, especially the solo voice, which is why they created “monody.”  Monodic songs (they weren’t really considered arias as of yet), had the power to shift the “affections”.  During the Renaissance, the general thought was that certain vibrations affected the body.  These vibrations, called hot and cold vapours, could either warm or cool down the body temple.  In other words, voices can either turn us on or turn us off.

Interestingly, one of the first imprecations in opera still remains today, whether the words or the music should come first, akin to the proverbial “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Prima le parole e dopo la musica or Prima la musica e dopo le parole? Actually, come to think of it, this was the first thing I ever learned about opera and it’s certainly intriguing that after so many years of studying this genre, I keep returning to this point.  Of course, it depends on the composer.  Would it surprise you to know that Puccini wanted the text to, “Si, mi chiamano Mimi” before he composed the aria?  When you listen to that aria, it seems almost unbelievable that he would manifest the type of melody he did, especially when the words and music seem so homogeneous.  But, then, this is the sign of a great melodist.

There were, however, other composers who wrote melodies first and then decided on the text.  If you were an opera composer, which methodology would you choose?  It’s an interesting topic, for sure, and there have been many studies on whether or not the overall success of an opera is measurable by this question?  Perhaps.  Some food for thought……

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