Composer’s Counterpoint #1 – Really? Opera? Are You High?

Posted: February 3, 2018 in Uncategorized

An old pizzicato theme likely to recycle elsewhere and a bit of random inspiration…

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Hey, doing an opera here! Yeah, you heard me; I’m going to create operas (libretto and score)! Announcing for the Met’s 2028 season, the comic opera Just Another Drunken Dwarf. Now, there’s a good way to burn the ships behind me on the Trojan beach.

I either write the opera to thunderous applause, write the opera to – “Huh? Most atonal crap I’ve ever heard!” – or just never do this and slink out of town before the laughter gets too loud. I have other creative outlets; so all three outcomes are okay with me (especially if I bust out a good book…lots of books). It’s not like I haven’t previously flopped on the floor for other peoples’ entertainment. However, you’ll notice the specific use of the still soft 10-year deadline? I need the time.

Why an opera? This question more or less drops along these lines – storyteller who also likes music, duh! Get me drunk and…no, even loaded my enjoyment of opera doesn’t publicly go beyond a writer simply wanting to punch up a scene with an aria for strings and brassy soprano. Besides, to wax that craptological about What Opera Means (almost as ridiculous as the original Point Break explaining What Surfing Means) I actually need tickets to a show (on my To Do List, I swear). For now, I like the music and the plots pop off Wikipedia.

So why Just Another Drunken Dwarf? I’m going to weasel here and explain the why not of another opera concept briefly included as a Go Project in an earlier version of this post. Provide contrast with a rejected idea first – Tales of the Angel Association, which is no longer a proposed opera. This year, at least.

What is Angel Association? A pack of mostly twenty-something spandex-heroes set up shop in Los Angeles to fight the villains of the Legion of Chaos and learn to grow as people. Yes, Folks, a superhero opera.

I got the idea about six hours after the one for Just Another Drunken Dwarf rubbing my hands with glee. I’ve periodically wondered why neither Time Warner nor Disney-Marvel (they paid for a concert hall in LA) have commissioned operas to flog the products of their respective IP mills to the opera going segment of the public, stereotypically a different bunch than superhero movie fans. Apologies to my fellow crossover people.

Imagine Batman: the Opera. Bruce Wayne stands brooding atop Gotham Cathedral and rips off his cowl to sing – Don’t Cry For Me, Gotham City (Really? I can do better than Andrew Lloyd Webber as a source). A hit in the making once you figure out that Batman is the single most Wagnerian character in a mythos that probably lands on Wagner’s head being a stark Gods and Monsters franchise.

By contrast, Marvel operas would run all over the style map. The Wagner clone from above could pull off The Avengers, but so too could a composer doing Verdi, Berlioz or Mozart, with a different feel to each. But, many of the other characters would need other giants on whose shoulders to stand.

No way does Spider-man land on the opera stage for anyone but Gilbert & Sullivan. All you have to do is repeat With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility while grooving on the joke about these Brits that all their work is about Duty. Besides, Peter Parker spends so much time comically stepping into it with Gwen Stacey and later Mary Jane Watson. Fits the funny edge to Gilbert & Sullivan.

Of course, all of this ran through my head contemplating my spandex opera. But, without either a commission or permission for doing it on spec, what follows is essentially fan fiction with good music. I’ll save that itch for actual fan fiction gifted as a loss leader for increasing readership, thank you very much.

I thus needed to cast about for other similar concepts. Angel Association is a set of characters that might out Wagner the DC mythos, just knowing from where I grabbed inspiration, especially Night Fury (a heroine for Me Too times from before the hashtag). Pretty much, I knew I needed to acquire Richard Wagner’s sheet music to reverse engineer the style and tone without devolving into outright plagiarism.

At this point, Angel Association is a go. I hear the themes that I suspect many librettists might hum while setting down the story, especially since the characters will brood from the spire of the Library Tower (brooding in high places is union-mandated at this point). Luckily, the beauty of doing both Book and Score is that I can’t piss off a composer (unless I go full MPD, a post for another day).

At this point in my narrative about my mouth writing checks my musical ear can’t yet cash, I’m also thinking about the state of spandex genre across all media. I’ve commented on Facebook how limiting it is that we have an IP duopoly, which until things shake loose with characters from other smaller publishers, will eat up all the big bucks in our culture. Marvel and DC feed directly to their in-house production studios and no one else in Hollywood wants to take a risk developing/buying characters from other sources.

Part of the wild, now time wasting, tangent about my desire to port over these characters from the fragments of prose, comic scripts, screenplays and, most recently, and old-timey radio script relates to this concern. Maybe if I do an opera with these characters I can force the issue of cultural relevance, I thought. Which isn’t the purest motive for doing anything, akin to “write a screenplay to make money.” But, something somewhere has to give to expand things beyond Batsie and Spidey, over and over again…until the end of time.

All of the above runs through my head. So why is Tales of the Angel Association now officially off my proposed opera plate? I have four words for you split down the middle. The first two: Wagnerian Scale.

I’m sure that the underlying darkness of characters like Night Fury (Wonder Woman meets The Hulk), Night Fury (Batman as a young record executive) and Funnyman (outright theft of the Joker archetype) would naturally find a home emulating the style of that crazy German bastard we only tolerate for the amazing music and being safely dead at least a hundred years. But, Angel Association is a spandex team story with at least twenty characters plugged into different modular stories. I might want the style to the exclusion of the scale especially since I’m just starting out; basically here’s an SAT analogy for you Tales of the Angel Association equals The Ring of the Niebelungen. Yipe!

However, believe it or not it was the other two words that really killed this spandex opera…for now. Stagecraft fail. An opera is first and foremost a stage play and I can’t port these characters to the opera stage without at least one bit of this has never been done before forced on that poor director. Yes, I’m aware that big budget stage and opera productions have solved most of the common effects problems: flight, fire, swinging, lightning and probably both water and ice. And then I created a character that will need a tandem flight rig.

Metal Goddess is a dual character that would need two singers to play, a young teenager tall enough to play volleyball and an alien armor symbiote. Pretty much, she’s femme Iron Man meets Firestorm. Unless the production decides to cover the Artemis (the symbiote) character by having her stay offstage on a headset until visibly called on stage, the soprano I imagined for Tullia (the girl) and the mezzo for Artemis will be joined at the hip. And Metal Goddess is pretty much the Dr. Watson narrator of the franchise so she’s in every scene!

I basically don’t need the bad karma from strapping two singers together and flying them around and having the rig blow up on stage. Hubris of this scale might have gone into Spider-man: The Unlucky Musical. Pity, I hear some interesting debate duets in my ears. Well, I can still pull off the radio drama.

And so we now come back full circle to Just Another Drunken Dwarf. When asked the real reason I buried the lead for the loaded dwarf idea, truthfully it comes down to…dude, I was just rolling my story dice and the pink image of a dwarf holding pick and stein kept coming up. I did sixteen rolls with twelve dice each and the dwarf came up six times.

No, I don’t get to wax craptological about getting the same result multiple times without it being a common result of probability juxtaposed with unconscious/semi-conscious behavior that diminishes the randomness. I keep my dice in a Ziploc bag and some sit higher on top of others and if the person picking the cubes doesn’t shake them flush beforehand, I freely admit that I might pull the same dice repeatedly. The rest is covered by the fact that when tossing coins true random probability says that long strings of Heads or Tails are possible results that will even out over time. So I had the die with the dwarf in hand at least six times and it came up six times.

I’ve wanted to do music and operas for a while trying to fight through the naysayers external and internal. Fighting against the laughter that knows I stopped the clarinet and the earlier flute going into middle school. Fighting against throwing some kind of fit at the age of four in some kind of preschool piano class and not really going back. And also fighting the disappointment from not trying the things I say I want to do.

It is in this emotional firestorm where all it takes to burn boats on the beach is two things, a loaded dwarf image seemingly coming up more than it should and the right interesting opera on the radio. What you listen to when you get your ideas will shape the idea.

In this case, the Met rocked and rolled with The Merry Widow on a Sunday morning as I’m going out to see a movie. Presented in English for the linguistically impaired, I’m just having fun listening to a comic tale of diplomats, their wives and the many “bargirls” (if you want a polite word for it) at Maxim’s in Paris scheming to get the wealthy widow properly married to a hometown suitor to keep her bank account at home. Halfway through the live presentation I get the idea for Just Another Drunken Dwarf and I’m laughing.

Comic operas and the classic plays on which many are based are typically “comic” if they end with a marriage, the Old World definition of Happy Ending. The tenor sniffing after the soprano singing the widow says and does the right things to create real love and everybody gets what they want. By contrast, if I’d been listening to my usual fare of Verdi, Wagner and others…my dwarf might just kill everybody in the room in the Fifth Act.

Right now, all I know is that I’ve pitched to myself that I’m doing an opera about a drunken dwarf and his adventures. I got the idea while listening to a comic opera, which guides the style of my idea. Which guides answering key questions about the basic plot.

Is Drunken Dwarf a story about the one fantasy/fairytale dwarf who is a teetotaler and angrily overcomes the diminished expectations of those around him? What composers would have gravitated to this version of the story? Wagner? Verdi? Berlioz? Basically, if the story is about overcoming others’ low expectations I might as well bid for the rights to do Martin Luther King Jr. from his estate.

Is Drunken Dwarf a story about a nobody that overcomes the alcoholism believed endemic to dwarves by getting clean to win the day? Right, Rocky meets Lost Weekend. If I’d been listening to any other opera that morning, maybe. Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t need me to add to their outreach, so pass.

Or do I go with the Drunken Dwarf that must realize that getting loaded is a cultural imperative for dwarves and that our hero must embrace being a dwarf in order to win? Rocky meets Drunken Master if you will. Given that Jackie Chan did a funny movie learning to get loose as he fought and I was listening to a comic opera, I think you’ll understand if I land the concept here.

Of course, this means that I need to acquire the right kinds of scores as part of the research and reverse engineering parts of going from “An opera? Are you high?” to “Wow! You did it!” I’ll need The Merry Widow. I’ll probably need to read more Shakespeare comedies. And if I’m really going after the underlying duty of a dwarf that gets drunk and wins for his people, I’m going to become more intimately familiar with the whole of Gilbert & Sullivan. And start making notes. That would help.

Did I bring enough gasoline for the boats? Time will tell.

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