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Opera by Any Other Name
by John Fitzpatrick

Despite the intimidating prospect of trying to make sense of so complex a thing as opera, the differences between East and West promised to inject the surprising the unexpected into the search, and that lent a certain sense of adventure to the study.

Chinese opera is uniquely different from Western opera whether Mozart or Wagner. There are so many details: origins, storylines, costumes, facial painting, stage rituals and customs, character types, and so on, not to mention musical usage that makes Chinese opera a unique form. Still, as I got further into this adventure into the once unknown, it proved to be the case that the dissimilar illuminated the similar.

Certainly, the differences between Chinese and Western music and language separate Chinese and Western opera. What is interesting is that such obvious differences lose their impact with the realization that opera is much more than simply music and speech. Every song entails music and language, yet an isolated song is not opera in the strictest sense. So what exactly is opera, anyway?

I spent an afternoon with some Chinese friends recently. We watched a video of a Chinese opera. To fully appreciate Chinese music I am sure one needs to understand the language, which I, unfortunately, do not. Chinese is a highly tonal language, and the melodic shapes of Chinese music are intimately related to the language much more so than is the case in the relationship between the European languages and music.

After the video, my hostess brought out some printed music of sorts. The notation method was a simple numeric rendering of the principal notes in a song, with the words above in Chinese. She sang the song for me.

At first, I was at a loss as to what she was doing. I do not read Chinese and had no idea about the text. I recognized the numbers 1 through 7 as being notes of a musical scale, but could not follow the melody. The notes she sang did not match what was written.

She explained. Only the principal notes were written down. Subordinate notes were understood. She pointed at the notes as she sang them again. Ah, yes. Now I heard La when she pointed at the number 6. I heard Sol when she pointed at 5. I heard Ti when she pointed to 7. Between these notes, her voice turned and embellished the principal tone with upper and lower neighbors, or other chord tones.

The music was unexpectedly diatonic, which is to say, that it uses a 7 note scale with half steps and whole steps. I had always thought of Chinese music as pentatonic which is to say, using a 5 note scale with whole steps and minor seconds. A standard Western composer's device to emulate the effect of Chinese music is to use a major pentatonic scale. Such music, in appropriate rhythms, has a decidedly Oriental quality.

But the melody did finally cadence to 1, which in Western music is the tonal note in a major key. The half step relationship between 7 and 1 gives the final sound a decidedly major diatonic feel.

This melody had a strong emphasis on 5, 6, 7, and 2 which gave it a Greek modal effect. Where Western music modulates through a variety of key centers in the major or minor mode, Chinese music by this one example modulates through the different modes implied by a given scale, or key center.

Such was my thinking about the most distinguishing aspect of Chinese music from the viewpoint of harmonic theory. Of course, there are the obvious differences. Apart from the two-stringed fiddle, a Chinese orchestra mostly consists of plucked strings. Add flute and clarinet, but no deep brass, no contrabassoon. Chinese percussion, as well, seems to favor the higher end of the audio spectrum, the result being that the sound of a Chinese orchestra is decidedly brighter and crisper than the sound of a Western orchestra. But these similarities are intuitively felt.

When the tempo increases, so does the level of emotional energy. Likewise does the loudness of the music. The dramatic effect of music in support of opera takes its cues from common human experience in reaction to sounds. Smooth, legato phrasing accompanies softer, more tender, more sensitive feelings. Rising pitch, rising mood. Falling pitch, falling mood. Sudden, unexpected percussive sounds increase emotional tension and drama; the steady pulse of a drum, or a repeated melodic figure imparts a sense of relentless motion, or the inevitability of time's motion.

The relationship between the music and the drama the story is the essence of what any opera is. Many differences between Chinese and Western opera which at first glance appear to be differences in kind, prove rather to be merely a question of degree and emphasis. It might be said that Chinese opera is more abstract, less realistic than Western opera. But it would not be accurate to say that Western opera is realistic, any more than it would be accurate to say that Chinese opera is abstract. Either is a mixture of both abstract and concrete elements which achieves an identity as an art form an abstract idea.

The use of representative props and stage settings in Chinese opera is not fundamentally different, after all, than the more realistic effects utilized in staging and costuming an Italian opera. A canvas painted to look like a castle wall made of stone for an Italian opera setting, is nevertheless, a canvas not a stone wall. In Chinese opera, the audience is shown a flag as the bare canvas as it were and imagination sees the stones without their having been painted.

The theatrical make-up and colorful costumes of an Italian opera may seek to create the illusion of realism, but are nonetheless, not realism, but spectacle. So, too, are the equally colorful costumes of Chinese opera. The dramatic value of brilliant colors makes the visual element of opera understandable in both cases. But neither in Italian, nor in Chinese opera are we talking about the realistic depiction of a situation. In either case reality is represented by a finite number of discernible elements: characters, props, plot, action, emotions, and music and we are to ignore the stagehands and ropes.

The rules of representation are different between Chinese and Western opera. The vividly painted faces of the characters in Chinese opera may seem to require a greater participation from the audience's imagination. Clowns, for example, are represented by a white nose area painted in the face. But opera, whether Chinese or Western, is rife with metaphoric representation. With Shakespeare, the giveaway for a clown was that he was digging a grave. In Western opera, there are various ways to indicate a clown. The essential similarities continue to be illuminated by the differences. Why should we bring on the clowns in any case? Because clowns are made necessary by universally understood artistic considerations having to do with balance and symmetry and contrast, and the tragic content of the most dramatic conflicts. Opera:   Conflict and resolution set to music and acted out. My intuitive expectation seemed confirmed. Opera is opera, just as music is music, and language is language.

What makes opera so interesting and so tedious to study, is that it involves bringing together such a large number of art forms in a single production. There is literature, music, painting, acting, singing, gymnastics, sculpting and the list goes on. It is hard to take it all in at a glance even when one does know the tunes and speak the language.


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