Quick, who was the composer for the Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte? Of course you know it is Mozart. Quick, who was the librettist for these operas? Bet I gotcha, at least most of you. Lorenzo Da Ponte was Mozart’s librettist for all three. When operas are discussed, as oft as not, the librettist, the guy who writes the words, is overlooked. Thus, Figaro has become known as a Mozart opera, not a Mozart-Da Ponte opera, for most people. Why then does opera authority Fred Plotkin in his book, "Opera 101", p. 27, say that it is a great debate about which is more important, the music or the words? One can find further evidence this is a debate by looking to the opera, Capriccio, by Richard Strauss. Two suitors pursue the same woman. One is a poet who plies her with words, the other a composer who attempts to seduce her with his music. Throughout the opera they argue the issue and ask her to reveal her decision the next morning, by choosing the ending of an opera they have written together. Spoiler alert: the last paragraph of this post reveals the ending of the opera.
I was reminded of this question the other day while doing internet searching for opera information. My eye was attracted to a hit that stated, “Opera Stories…In Few Words, the Stories (divided into Acts) Of Over 100 Operas”. It turned out to be a 1910 book by Henry Lowell Mason (a clear online copy can be found here), and the face page further makes the statement, “Most persons attending an Opera wish to know only its story without reading its entire libretto.” The book contains photos of opera stars of its day (check out Enrico Caruso on p. 15) and is interesting to thumb through. I read a few of the synopses of operas I know and they seemed concise and accurate. With brief effort, I was unable to find out anything about Mr. Mason himself. Now, I haven’t seen any polls but I suspect he is correct in that historically most people have gone to see operas in languages they don’t know and read the summaries, but not the libretti, for the opera. It would seem to make the compelling case that the words are not crucial for a satisfying experience.
Today one does not have to make that choice because almost all performances now show supertitles of the translations of the text above the stage (the well-to-do Met has them on the back of the seats in front of you). I find that I choose to read the supertitles, but I also find them a distraction. While reading, you miss something on the stage and in the music, and perhaps most importantly it represents a micro-break in one’s immersion in the opera; while improving one’s understanding of what just happened and is about to happen, one has lost the present. When I listen to opera recordings on the radio I find the experience enjoyable, often without knowing the story. In fact, I wonder if I have a better musical experience than a native speaker hearing the words and comprehending their meaning. I wonder, for example, if Italians hear the beauty and fluidity of Italian operas the way I do, but perhaps it is the other way round. I, personally, am not sure that listening to operas written in English is superior to listening to those in a foreign language. I find that understanding the words both adds value and subtracts from the experience. And to tell the truth, given the distortions of sung words, I find the supertitles necessary even for English operas.
Science reported in the popular media lately has been telling us that multi-tasking is not really possible; you are in fact splitting your attention and not doing either task as efficiently and effectively as you could by concentrating on a single effort. Thus, one might infer that comprehending the meaning of the words and experiencing completely the music at the same time is not possible. However, the science of the brain seems to me to suggest that it is. Let me offer a quote from "Musicophilia" by Oliver Sachs, p. 226, “A piece of music is not a mere sequence of notes, but a tightly organized organic whole. Every bar, every phrase arises organically from what preceded it and points to what will follow. Dynamism is built into the nature of melody. And over and above this, there is the intentionality of the composer, the style, the order, and the logic which he has created to express his musical ideas and feelings. These too, are present in every bar and phrase.” This would seem to require attention away from the words. Yet, he also states, p. 235, that “…there are major differences (and some overlaps) in representation of speech and song in the brain.” He points to patients with aphasia, the loss of expressive language, who can sing songs including the words that they cannot speak. It appears that perhaps the two systems, one handling music and one handling speech, normally operate at the same time, and perhaps are capable of reinforcing each other.
In conclusion, I rest my case that music in opera is more important, but will yield to the assertion that without the words, it is not opera. One might argue that shapes in a painting are more important than the color of the shapes, but one would readily concede that shape and color together create a transcendent experience that either one alone cannot achieve. So, it is with music and words in opera. We can debate whether words or music are more important, but thank God, we don’t have to choose. Spoiler alert - As Countess Madeleine in Capriccio concludes when pressed to choose the ending of the opera her two suitors have produced, and thus choose between them, and words and music, she responds that she cannot choose and asks, “Is there an ending that isn’t trivial?”