What is “operatic” material?

I’m a big reader and this week I enjoyed Nuiala O’Faolain’s The Story of Chicago May.

Untitled

[‘Chicago May, one of the few notorious women in the male-dominated rogues’ gallery of American criminals.’]

The Story of Chicago May  is a biography by an Irish author about a native daughter who moved to America and traveled in international criminal circuits during the Belle Époque. At its heart, it is a quintessentially American story of re-invention and moving through social stratum. “Chicago” May Duignan saw many sectors of humanity in her short and dramatic life. I hadn’t read far into it when I found myself thinking, “This would make a fantastic opera!”

Chicago May

What do we mean when we describe something as “operatic”? Plenty of musical theatre could technically pass itself off as an opera, except that it’s not big enough; it’s not dramatic enough. Oftentimes, it’s not tragic enough. It’s not histrionic and exaggerated enough.

What makes for operatic material? Larger than life. Bigger tragedy. Bigger love. Bigger risk. Bigger rewards. Huge personalities where almost nothing seems able to contain them. Even prison and crushing poverty won’t diminish these bright sparks. They make huge mistakes. They are vile and angelic in turn but never mundane.

And then O’Faolain wrote:

“I don’t know where they first saw each other. I only know that I always believed that opera is as true to life as the most cautious realism–that quiet lives and theatrical lives are made of the same basic material. People are betrayed, alliances are formed, misunderstandings thrive, and villains and heroes abound. Things happen in the most improbable ways and places. And sometimes the hero has only to set eyes on the heroine to fall instantly in love.

And that’s what happened to Charley Smith. He met May and fell for her at once.

Dammit. I wish I were a composer.

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