The Element of Surprise

Working on a short film score this past week has been a nice break from my long-term opera project. While on the surface it might seem that synced scoring and stage scoring were close cousins, the sudden juxtaposition of the two has only made clearer what a laughable comparison this actually is. It’s strange to suddenly be pinned down to the tyranny of the click track after luxuriating in the less precise pacing of music theatre, and stranger still to suddenly find myself accompanying the drama rather than propelling it directly with the music. But I’ve been wondering if the most glaring difference of all involves how surprise functions in either medium.

The experience of seeing a film (of the narrative variety, at least) tends to be bound up in wanting to discover the outcome of the plot. Glaring exceptions abound, and of course this is not the only or even main reason that people go to movies; I’m merely stating that one’s experience as a viewer of most mainstream films is molded by the viewers desire to find out what happens in the end. And this desire becomes one of several motivating factors that make us want to keep watching.

While there’s no reason that opera couldn’t provide an analogous narrative experience in theory, in practice the bulk of mainstream opera cultivates an experience that works quite differently. To begin with, the amount of operas which rehash cherished works of literature and familiar mythological subjects are far more numerous than those with original libretti—indeed today it’s nearly impossible get companies to commit to projects that lack the supposed economic safety-net of a well-worn book or figure already known and beloved by all. In addition, press materials and program books practically go out of their way to give away every major plot point in the opera at hand, a far cry from the movie buff’s world where spoiling an ending can be considered downright treasonous.

This is not to say that witnessing an opera for the first time must be a thoroughly unsurprising experience; the surprises are there (or at least they should be!), but they’re correspondingly less related to narrative outcome and more about the delight of particular moments and transformations along the way. My first experiences of most operas are something like my second viewings of a film—there’s very little curiosity in the big-picture plot points, but with the dogged need to follow the plot removed we begin to appreciate the way in which the story is told.

This is a cultural difference and mainly one of presentation, so I hope it’s clear that I’m attempting to respond to the respective experiences of opera- and film-going rather than something integral to either art form. Is it a difference that stems from differing economic motives—the need to bait with a movie preview and subsequently withhold the plot payoff, or in the opera world the need to placate, cajole, and make safe an experience that is occasionally less-than-inviting to the uninitiated?

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