Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Opera is one of those staple Theatresports games. They're usually big, and memorable, and they give tremendous scope for music and singing.

The basic idea of an Opera is that it's a scene performed entirely sung, without any speech. The musician supports the actors throughout the scene.

When you first try performing an Opera, a great way to start is be as melodramatic as possible. In workshops we try an exercise where we perform a 30 second straight scene about something pretty boring, like trying to buy something but having your credit card declined. Then we'll play it again as a 4-minute Opera, making all of the emotion over the top. The purchaser is giddy about their new purchase, the shopkeeper might be relieved to finally see a customer, then embarrassment and dismay as the card is declined and the purchase fails to go through... until the customer realises they have cash, the purchase is made, and the scene ends triumphantly.

I have a style I like to play in Operas, which I guess resembles what I think a stereotypical real-world Opera sounds like. My music history and theory is woeful, but I've been told I play in a baroque style for Operas. (I have a lovely Opera keyboard patch that lets you whisper with a piano or roar with tympanis and strings - that's in a future post.) That's not to say you can't play other styles; some of our players love a good Rock Opera, for example.

The music should be as vibrant and melodramatic as the emotion on-stage, showing good contrast as the scene progresses. Operas are going to feature optimism and tension and heartbreak and transformation and triumph, and the music needs to morph smoothly from one emotion to the next.

Operas don't have a musical momentum like a song, so as the musician you need to be ready to react instantly to offers from the players and be changed. This is one of those games where my eyes and ears are wide open all the time - I won't glance at the keyboard, or the audience. It's really important to listen carefully and watch everything. For example, if you're in a particularly tense showdown, and one of the players shows some subtle emotion as through they are going to back down, you'd better react to that and be ready for a change to come from that player.

Practicing without music

It's interesting when I get to play Operas with Youth Theatresports kids who have never worked with a musician before. They have become accustomed to holding every moment with their singing, and often the scenes are basically similar to spoken scenes, just sung. They tend to not maintain a steady rhythm or structure. Because they haven't had musical support, they'll often try to fill every bit of empty space with sung dialog. Presented with a musician, their training/habits can naturally clash as the musician tries to impose a structure on them. Some kids will pick that up, others forge ahead as they've practiced. Best advice here is to just get out of the way. Keep listening, and be tentative, until you see one or more of them leaning on to the music and being changed by you.

But wait!!

All kids say "why?", all dogs understand "go home!", and all improvisers love to say "but wait!" in an Opera. I don't know where this comes from, but that two-word phrase transcends age, gender, and impro background. In any scene, players can put up obstacles that must be overcome for the scene to continue, and that works sometimes and other times not. Opera seems to attract this sort of obstacle-building way more than other scenes! And the trigger phrase is "But WAAAAAAIT!", as (say) the recently defeated villain makes a miraculous recovery to attack the hero again.

Just for grins, next time you're watching an Opera and it doesn't seem to be working properly, count the "But wait"s. The most I've seen in a show is four. In a workshop, my record is 17.

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