Opera has a reputation as a rather dreary art form, full of over-complicated/ridiculous plots and fat women screeching. Nothing could be further than the truth in a lot of cases. And rather than mocking opera without even trying it, many people would do well to learn lessons from it. Writers especially because it may come as a shock to some, but opera imparts some very important lessons to us. The following are just some of them.
Lesson: Good characters can have terrible flaws.
As taught by: Tosca, Ernani, Aida and La Boeheme.
In Tosca, the title character (who is a notable singer within the opera) is the epitome of a wonderful person: she’s sincere in her faith, tries to do good in the world and her love for Cavaradossi (a notable painter and her lover) knows no bounds. Except that Tosca becomes wildly jealous when she sees that Cavaradossi has portrayed another woman as the Madonna in his painting in the church in Act 1. She is haunted by the woman’s eyes and they argue back and forth before Cavaradossi finally changes the Madonna’s blue eyes to black eyes like Tosca’s.
Normally I’d say that extreme jealousy like Tosca’s would make me hate a character, but it works in her case. She’s a good person but has a fatal flaw: her jealousy. The same is true in real life, as I’m sure we’ve all noticed. Even the best people in our lives can have horrible character traits and that’s something authors really need to recognize. Yes, even the main character of the novel has to have something unlikeable about them. That’s how real life is so why should fiction be any different?
Lesson: Good people can do horrible things (and still be likeable).
As taught by: Ernani, La Boeheme, Rigoletto, Un Ballo in Maschera and Andrea Chénier.
There are so many examples of this in the opera world that I’ll use one of my favourite operas as an example: Andrea Chénier. The opera takes place during and after the French Revolution and we even see one character, Carlo Gérard go from a humble servant in the home of the Countess de Coigny to a main figure in the revolution. Gérard is not the main character, but we see his love for the Countess’s daughter, Maddalena survive throughout the Revolution. He becomes so desperate later on when he sees her walk by one day that he sends people out to follow her, eventually arresting her lover Andrea Chenier to get to her. He then tries to pull a Scarpia Ultimatum to finally possess her, even if it’s just once.
As with Tosca’s jealousy this would normally make me hate the character. And it does, briefly. Then his disgust at his own actions outweighs his desperation and lust and he vows to help Maddalena save her lover. The important lesson from all this (besides that if someone doesn’t love you back, let it go) is that good people are perfectly capable of doing bad things. Are they still good people? Mostly, yes. But haven’t we all done things we regret, things that could be considered downright cruel? Yet in fiction, main characters never really seem to do this. All their actions are justified by the author/themselves and even in the best novels we don’t always get to see the effect their actions have on the other characters.
Lesson: No good deed goes unpunished.
As taught by: Tosca, La Traviata, Un Ballo in Maschera, Aida, Ernani, Andrea Chénier and Don Carlo.
In novels, when characters do good things they’re almost always rewarded by having good things happen to them in return. Maybe a person they helped comes back to help them during their time of need. Perhaps it’s just the mystic karma of the Author’s Hand rewarding them for being good people. Yet in opera, as in real life, no good deed goes unpunished. Let’s go back to Tosca, shall we?
Tosca has the sort of faith that’s rare these days: totally sincere. She loves pretty much everyone and believes there is so much good in the world. And what does she get for her charity and kindness? Her lover Cavaradossi falls into the hands of the chief of the secret police, Baron Scarpia and she listens to him get tortured. (Cavaradossi himself is also a victim of this lesson because at the start of the opera he decides to hide the fugitive Scarpia is after rather than turning him in.) Tosca then pays even more for her good deeds by having her lover sentenced to death and learning the only way the sentence can be commuted is to spend the night with Scarpia. Oh, and did I mention that Scarpia planned on killing Cavaradossi anyway, despite his bargain with Tosca?
In an ideal world, people would always be rewarded for being good. But in reality, no good deed goes unpunished.
Lesson: Stupidity isn’t free.
As taught by: Ernani, Don Carlo, Salome, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, etc.
The funny thing about this is that this is one of my father’s favourite saying: “Stupidity isn’t free; you have to pay for that too.” And what better examples can you find than the ones in opera?
There are so many, but I’ll discuss the sheer stupidity of the title character in Ernani. Ernani is so driven by the need to avenge his father by killing Don Carlo (whose father killed Ernani’s father) that he makes a bargain with the man who hates him the most: Silva. Silva joins with Ernani and gives him his men in exchange for Ernani’s life. Yes, you read that right. Ernani swears to his enemy that he will die immediately whenever the enemy wants him to as long as he gets help to kill Don Carlo. Commence eye-rolling.
The thing about this lesson is that in operas, there are usually consequences for a character’s stupidity. (Spoiler: Ernani dies.) Yet in novels, especially YA there seem to be no consequences at all. The main character throws herself into ridiculous situations that no person with any lick of common sense would get into and usually comes out unscathed. In City of Bones, Clary goes to the villain’s lair despite knowing how dangerous he is. In Twilight, Bella blunders into one dangerous situation after another and somehow comes out unscathed. In real life, these two characters would probably be dead.
I know that obviously not all writers ignore these lessons. The best books take these lessons to heart, actually. They’re what make books more realistic and opera relatable to the average person. Bringing realism into fiction isn’t always easy, but I think authors in general (especially YA authors) need to bring at least some semblance of the real world into their writing. Even in fantasy worlds! Just look at how successful A Song of Ice and Fire is and you’ll see what I mean.