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Jessica Duchen
Saturday 8th August 2009
Wanted: Comic Opera, Must Be *Funny*

This piece in The Times suggests that opera is way too pompous and that it needs some decent comic works for a change. I couldn't agree more, though I hardly think that the piece's proposed topic (from this description it looks like today's usual tired, pandering celebrity rubbish) promises to be especially appealing.

Some of my best nights at the opera have been at fabulous comedies, with sparkling texts, gorgeous music, great singers and very clever staging. Mozart, Donizetti (La fille du Regiment took the biscuit), Rossini, Verdi's Falstaff, Offenbach (naughty!) and Johann Strauss spring to mind. Oh, and Gilbert & Sullivan, anyone? 

The trouble any screenwriter will tell you, comedy is the single most difficult thing to write! It's an art we've lost not only in opera but also largely on TV - I can't believe some of the things that pass themselves off as 'comedy', though was certainly in stitches over the brilliant Outnumbered. Real comedy - to generalise appallingly - is original, fast, topical, off-the-wall and above all has a very light touch.

That's hard enough to do on TV, let alone in an opera where, unless your librettist is terrifically clever (like Da Ponte, Boito or WS Gilbert), everything slows to half-pace because words take much longer to sing than to speak. And if they are to be funny they need to be heard. So you need brilliant singers too.

When it works, it really works - and I still haven't seen Jerry Springer: the Opera because it was sold out and I couldn't get in. But yes, we need more of them, they need to be good and they need to be created for opera with all its specifics. There's certainly a prejudice in the opera world against having fun. A great pity. 


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August 8th, 2009
1:08 PM
Nice to expand the thinking into the topic of music and humour. I found some humorous (sic!) pianists the other night- review here.

Michael Monroe
August 8th, 2009
12:08 PM
I agree completely; I think the problem generally comes from the musical establishment (composers, companies, patrons, academics, etc.) taking itself too seriously and forgetting that it's OK to focus on just being entertaining. You're correct that comedy is hard, but it's especially hard when you think too highly or yourself. And, as Mozart, Verdi, etc. have proved, entertaining comedy can still exhibit limitless depth and nuance. I'm surprised that more "classical" composers haven't tried their hand at musical theater, or at least been willing to get beyond the notion of having to sing throughout. The way recits are handled in Mozart and Rossini is much closer in spirit to musical theater than to a lot of over-composed opera. Especially in English, recit-style passages often come off as forced and artificial, although Britten could pull it off. Sondheim has proven that a skillful composer can do lots of wonderfully subtle things in the musical theater context - and I'm not really even a fan of his music. Post-Bernstein, how many composers from the classical world have written in the operetta/musical theater vein?

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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