A Night at the Opera

Up until now I’ve avoided opera—not out of malice or a disdain for the music (my dad had a large collection of classical LPs he used to play when I was a kid which included a number of opera scores, and I remember enjoying them), but simply because I didn’t feel qualified to give an intelligent appraisal of the art. So when I was invited to join some friends for an operatic performance of Carmen, I thought it my duty to experience this centuries-old art form for myself.

You see, pretty much everything I know about opera I learned from Gilligan’s Island and certain Warner Brothers cartoons. (Who can forget Elmer Fudd dressed as a Valkyrie singing “Kill da Wabbit!” or Bugs Bunny performing a Barber of Seville-style haircut?) I enjoy most types of music, and as a musician, I’ve played in a variety of settings over the years, from orchestras and jazz ensembles to rock bands and Irish pub groups. But in my three decades of playing music, I had yet to see a classical opera. I must say my experience watching Carmen was certainly illuminating.

I’m a firm believer that, in the world of the arts (as in most areas of life), nothing equals the experience of being in the presence of people who are masters of their crafts. Whether it’s Yo Yo Ma coaxing notes from his cello, Paddy Maloney churning out jigs and reels on his uilleann pipes with The Chieftains, or Randy Johnson throwing a perfectly placed fastball or slider (yes, I do consider top-level athletes to be just as much artists as dancers or singers), I’ve always been enamored by people who are really good at what they do.

Without a doubt, the cast members of Carmen were indeed superb, and my hat goes off to people who dedicate their lives to such a demanding art. In addition to the singing and the dancing, these performers must be able to play their parts convincingly in a show that runs nearly three hours in length. To all of these talented individuals, I say, “Bravo!”

This is not to say that I am now an ardent devotee of the operatic arts. As in many of life’s endeavors, some tastes are acquired (like coffee or beer). For an opera novice like myself, there are several hurdles to be overcome, such as the communication gap.

For those of us plebeians in the audience whose college major was something other than Romance Languages, the company provided subtitled lyrics which were projected onto a narrow screen above the stage. While this was certainly helpful (for non-French speakers, it was essential—although even for a native Frenchman, it would have been difficult to decipher the singers’ lines through all the operatic warbling), it also created a sort of paradox; I realized as the words were flashed before me that it seemed to take an eternity for the singers to say whatever it was they were trying to communicate. There was one character in particular who spent ten minutes trying to relay four lines of dialogue to her boyfriend. (And every time she took the stage, she said the same thing: “Here’s a message from your mother.”) About two hours into the show, I started glancing down at my wristwatch, and there were a couple of moments when I would’ve sworn I saw the date change.

Of course, much of my problem with the time factor could be attributed to my own limited attention span. We moderns are used to two-hour movies and thirty-minute sitcoms. Elizabethans, by contrast, thought a preacher was just getting warmed up when his sermon reached the three-hour mark. Oh, how times have changed.

According to the historical information printed in the Carmen playbill, the 16th century composers who helped introduced the world to opera believed that the “current state of dramatic and musical expression was inadequate to convey the complexity of human emotion.” I don’t know about that. Sophocles used music and poetry to tell stories pretty effectively. And of course, there’s always Shakespeare. I think his narratives came out alright—even without the song-and-dance numbers and the ten minute arias. But hey, what do I know? I’m just an amateur who likes cartoons that feature speech-impaired hunters chasing rabbits around with spears.

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Is a Good Mystery Hard to Find? Part II: The Lehane Addiction

One of our blog readers made an excellent point in response to Part I of this series of blog posts (Thank you Katie!). She stated that most mysteries are more plot-driven than character-driven. This explains why in some mystery novels, the characters seem a little flat.

Luckily, I believe I have found a mystery writer whose stories are both plot and character driven: Dennis Lehane. So far I have read two of his novels (and am almost done with a third): Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone. Both of these novels are compelling stories with fascinating and well-developed characters.

Shutter Island revolves around a U.S. Marshal traveling to an insane asylum on a remote island to investigate the disappearance of one of the inmates. The characters and the plot of this story are quite complex. For instance, along the way we learn that U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels is on the island for personal as well as professional reasons. I don’t want to give anything away (although many have probably seen the film), but suffice it to say that this is one “missing persons” mystery with a whole lot going on. If you pay close attention while reading the book, you may well figure out a significant part of the mystery, but the strength of this book is that even if you have figured it out before the end, the storytelling abilities of Mr. Lehane inspire you to read on.

In this novel the characters and the plot were very well-developed and as a writer I was fascinated to see how the author wove the complicated threads of the story together. For those of you that saw the movie without reading the book, I encourage you to pick up a copy. You will find the writing interesting and even knowing the end can’t take away from the power of the characters and the potency of a truly great mystery.

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Spoiler Alert: My thoughts on spoilers inside!

Image by dstrelau via Flickr

I don’t think spoilers are that big of a deal.  I just ruined the end of this post for you, but I hope you keep reading.

I understand why they bother a lot of people – they want to be surprised by the twists and turns of a movie when they see it. Especially if they’ve just forked over $15 for a ticket and popcorn, they want ever danged nickle’s worth of possible value.  But honestly, does much that comes out of Hollywood really surprise us anymore?  Can you not guess the major plot points of most major movies, especially with the trend to putting out trailers that give half the movie away three months in advance?

That’s just me being snarky, though. The reason spoilers don’t bother me much is that I appreciate good storytelling even if I know where it is going. Do you have movies you’ve seen multiple times?  You already know every plot point, so why do you do it?  You like the tale. I’ve seen Fight Club, Star Wars, American Beauty, Shawshank Redemption, and a slew of other movies dozens of times, yet I enjoy them just the same. If a movie is good, knowing points about the first viewing won’t change your experience, or make it a lower quality film.

Even though I disagree, I try to respect the whole “no spoilers” idea for the most part, but sometimes it’s silly.  If someone gives away the ending of The Sixth Sense at this point (Hint: HE’S DEAD THE WHOLE TIME) it’s not a spoiler – you’re just lazy. That movie has been out for ages.  People saying No Spoilers around the Lord of the Rings movies were also driving me batshit. The books came out in the 1950’s. I refused to reign in my discussions about the movies (which I loved) because someone couldn’t get around in the last half century to reading them. Tbbbttt…

Personally, I wish people would relax more and enjoy the storytelling for an experience, and not as a revelation of secrets. Who knows… maybe if people put less stock into first time revelations it might encourage Hollywood to put more effort into solid storytelling that stands up no matter what you know about the plot.

SPOILER: It won’t work, but I’m a stubborn dreamer.

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Shock & Awe: Surprise Endings

I recently read a short story where out of the blue and with no warning, the main character dropped dead, stopping the story cold.  Though it was intended to be a surprise ending with an ironic, poignant twist, it felt more like a cheap shot — plain old shock value for shock’s sake.

The problem with shock endings is that there’s no second act for the author.  No sequels for the director either. Think The Sixth Sense.  M. Night Shyamalan hasn’t produced anything of similar stature since, unless you count those Amex commercials.

Once the reader knows an author is out to trick them, because that’s their shtick, it’s like approaching a street huckster.  Even for those that want to be suckered again, it’s nearly impossible as a writer to meet the raised expectations.

If you want to tell a ghost story, then let the reader in early. Everyone sitting around the campfire knows the stories are meant to scare the bejesus out of you, but that doesn’t lessen the entertainment value. And, there’s nothing wrong with an ironic twist, like “The Gift of the Magi”, or “The Necklace”.  A surprise ending works when it’s subtle and leaves the reader with an ‘ah ha’ moment, not whiplash.

Readers need a thread to follow from beginning to end, one they can trace back with appreciation. A slap upside the head as an ending is not the same thing, and will normally be tolerated only once.

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What’s your story about?


img from Jerry @ Flickr

I realized I was becoming a big(ger) writing geek when someone asked me “what’s your screenplay about”, and without thinking I replied “Do you mean what’s the story, or what’s it about?”

Of course he meant what is the story, but it made me realize how much I can get my head wrapped around this particular axle.

The Story

The story is the what happens and who is doing it of the writing. It’s where I start, either with an idea or a character, and build things out. Some of this is just mechanics, but it is still a place I’m learning and trying to improve. Stories without good characters, plot, and development have a fairly small readership. Usually among insomniacs.

As it develops, though, something odd happens. The story becomes “about something”. A theme develops. Or maybe just a perspective. A deeper meaning.

What’s It About

This is where I usually get into trouble. I see a pattern or an idea in my story, and instead of continuing to develop my story I start to worry about the idea. I wrote a piece once that started to incorporate some religious ideas. Suddenly I realized I had a pile of things that could be metaphors – like a group that had 12 members, or someone showing up after being thought dead. I got paranoid. Was I making it too heavy handed? Too obvious? Were there better metaphors to use?

I upended the story to try and hammer in cues and clues that I felt better supported my developing theme.  It was no great shock that I ended up with a mess.

It’s About The Story

I put the story away for a while, and came back to focus on the story. I ignored the little yammering voices that were guessing, second-guessing, and third-guessing my subconscious motives and just focused on the story. As a result, I made more progress with that “inner meaning” than when I was obsessing over it.

I did some minor tweaking in the end to support the theme that developed, but I treated it as a fairly minor cleanup item at the end. It was something I did alongside cleaning up plot consistency and character dialog.

In the end, focusing on the story worked out much better for me, and is what most people really are interested in anyway.