Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Breaking an Opera

Photo by Cornelius Bartke
Operas are a little unusual as far as musical games go - no speaking, just singing. The music plays throughout the entire game. What can you do to avoid turning it in to one gigantic song?

When should you change?

The easiest time to change the music is as one in-game scene transitions to the next, with a big change in characters or location. When the action moves from the evil scientist's lair to the bumbling police inspector's car, that's a great time for something new.

If the scene gets a meanwhile, you can use that too. (OK, local lingo alert. For us a 'meanwhile' is someone from on- or off-stage announcing something like 'Meanwhile, at the zoo' or 'Later, after the moon landing'.) You can use the announced meanwhile to seed the emotional content of the next piece of music.

From an impro perspective, you will sometimes want to introduce a change within a scene, such as when a character begins to move from one emotional state to the next. Your change doesn't have to be abrupt; you might gently shift the tempo, or change the emotional feel with the chord progression you are using. A sudden dramatic event in a scene may want a similar sudden dramatic change to the music, but use this sparingly - sudden key changes or massive tempo shifts can disrupt an otherwise coherent scene.

The players can drive song changes themselves too; there are some good examples in Tommy's Little Boat where the actors make a clear offer to the musician to change style.

What can you change?

If you are introducing a dramatic change, you have a few variables to play with.

Jumping to a different key makes a big difference, you can freshen a scene with a small to medium jump up, and darken a scene with a small to medium jump down.

Introducing a change in tempo or feeling is an obvious difference for a scene change when you might want to start a new piece of music.

Keeping all other variables the same, adjusting the weight of the music can keep a thread going but change the feeling altogether. Some great examples of this in A Tim Tam Too Far - the tempo, the minor key, the general progressions are pretty static through the whole thing, but the piano moves from tinkly high-end all the way through to stomping roaring low stuff.

One area where you probably want consistency is the sound you're using. Generally if I start an Opera using a piano, I'll carry the piano all the way through. (And boy do my arms get tired! Rimshot.) If I start with a more complex orchestral patch like Overture, I'll keep that for the whole game.


When you're playing, and the actors synch up with you, everyone's happy. When you introduce a change in the music, it's vital to inform the players of what you're doing. Not by wandering over and telling them about it - by accentuating your change somehow so they hear you, and are receptive to breaking the momentum you and the actors have built. Some of the ways I'll do this are:

  • Accentuate tempo shifts: If you are sliding faster or slower tempo-wise, raise your level and emphasise the rhythmic aspect of what you're playing for a little bit.
  • A stop: Halting the music completely can give a actor's singing a wonderful focus, especially if they're about to drop a bombshell. A dramatic event like that is often followed by a brief sinking-in on stage, and that's a great time to establish a new musical style. (Not at the expense of the drama of course.)
  • A sting: Interrupting a verse of a song with some kind of dramatic musical bang is like putting up a big "I'm changing now" sign.
  • Key changes: If you have confident singers and you are keen for a key change, accentuate the music again as you change. I find towards the end of a song (opera or otherwise), a key change together with a slight reduction in tempo gives a wonderful finish.


Anonymous said...

I was listening to Kris at the Sitdown Comedy club the other day ( and he and the players did the most amazing impro Opera I have ever seen. Well done Kris.

- Nathan

Kris said...

Thanks Nathan - with pros like Kiesten, Dan and Al on stage, it is hard to do a bad scene :)

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