Friday, November 11, 2011

On Tragedy

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I studied classics before pursuing music. One of the things that has drawn me to opera since my degree is its similarity to Greek Tragedy. Of course, there are comic operas (and Greek comedies, for that matter, which I love just as much and find almost as interesting), but I want to talk about tragedy and the tragic here. I promise that’s not as depressing as it sounds.

Greek tragedy, for me, is one of the most fascinating art forms ever. It’s over 2000 years old, still going strong, and - believe it or not - still relevant. It’s the basis of so many of our stories, even now. Perhaps it’s because it’s hard to improve on a story almost as old as time (as we know it); perhaps it’s because Greek tragedy plays on themes that are utterly universal to our Western world - the relationship between religion and state, the perils of excess and self-denial, the complexities of justice. Most of us worship different gods, these days, but surprisingly little else has changed. For my money, Greek tragedy is the art that comes closest to having humanity at its core.

Opera has a very similar structure to Greek tragedy, and seems to have evolved in quite a similar way. Like the earliest tragedies, the earliest operas deal with mythical (or fictional, or ancient historical) stories, rarely have more than two characters on stage at once, and have long passages of introspection followed by choral commentary. As the benchmark was raised - both dramatically and musically - it became common practice to include several characters on stage at once, engaging in complex and often overlaid dialogue.

Unlike tragedy, however, opera moved away from myth and ancient history to engage with more contemporary writing. In a way, that’s very positive. There are only so many times you can retell a story that’s already at least a thousand years old, after all, and all art must move with the times or be left behind. But, somewhere between its obsession with killing off the main female character and its labyrinthine plots, opera seems to have lost sight of how tragedy really works.