September 11, 2011

Big giant Haiku: the art of the plot summary

If you enjoy opera, reflect for a moment on how many times in your life you've read through the plot synopsis to an opera, be it in a program book at the theater, a reference book or the libretto that comes with a recording.  For some of you, this would amount to hundreds of times.  Plot summaries are a genre of writing that can easily be taken for granted.  What's the big deal?  Describe the events which occur onstage, do it simply and concisely.  Any high-school English student with at least a B average should be able to nail it, right?

Ha!  Try it sometime.  It's a path to instant frustration and, at times, a test of ingenuity.  Believe it or not, the fact that the story has already been written nothwithstanding, summarizing an opera libretto can call for real creativity and problem-solving skills.  I've learned all about it first-hand in recent weeks, as somehow it fell on my less-than-broad shoulders to write the plot synopses appearing on the Virginia Opera website for the current season, a season consisting of Aida, Hansel and Gretel, Orphée, and The Mikado

At some point over the summer I saw that synopses were missing from the website and mentioned it to our Director of Communications.  My "helpful" observation was "rewarded" with being assigned the task of doing it myself.  (Note to self:  keep yer big mouth shut in future...) I don't know who provided these to the company in the past, but that was clearly then and this was clearly now.  Fine - no problem.  I guess it would be on shaky legal ground to, you know, copy and paste the synopses from the Metropolitan Opera, right?  Yeah - that's a lawsuit waiting to happen.  Could get nasty.  Okay, let's do this thing.  Should only take a few minutes!

Here's what I learned:  the problems presented in summarizing an opera plot are related to the problems faced by a composer of music, believe it or not.  Teaching music composition basically amounts to dictating a set of limitations to the student.  Professors of composition don't say "Write something really beautiful and moving"; instead the assignment will be along the lines of "Write a three-movement work for two flutes using secundal counterpoint."  Immediately the student has three major limitations.  The challenge and discipline of working within limitations is the nature of composition, which is to say the nature of true creativity.  Every piece of music ever composed arose from limitations, usually self-imposed by the composer.

In writing a plot synopsis, the limitation is obviously that of limited space.  A typical specimen will average between five hundred to seven hundred words.  If that sounds like a lot, bear in mind that many operas are epic in scope, with events spanning many years; others are full of intrigue, with a profusion of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies spawning a multitude of evolving psychological states among the principal characters. Oy. You know where you can find a good model for minimalist writing to narrate complex events? 

The Bible. 

Read any familiar Bible story you remember from Sunday school and you will find a masterful example of the "less is more" school of story-telling.  Take the story of Abraham being commanded by God to make a sacrifice of his son Isaac, which by general consensus is considered to have been written by Moses.  This tale is among the most dramatic scenes in the entire Old Testament; an obedient servant of God is commanded to prove his faith by killing his beloved son as a human sacrifice to the deity.  The story is found in chapter twenty-two of Genesis.  Once Abraham receives his marching orders from The Big Guy, we are told in verse three that "...Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him."  Well and good.  But in the very next verse, here's what we get: "Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off."

Huh?  Say what?  Hold on here - back up the truck, Clyde!  What do you mean, jumping willy-nilly to the third day?

WHAT HAPPENED DURING THOSE THREE DAYS?!?!?  Did little Isaac bug Abraham by constantly asking "Are we there yet"?  Did they stop at inns on the way?  Did Abraham have trouble getting to sleep at night?  Did he wonder if he could go through with it?  Did Isaac notice his dad was tense about something?

Moses leaves it to us to fill in a whole lot.

If you ever have to supply a plot synopsis for, say, Aida, it might be well to bear this in mind.  The painful part of this job is deciding what to leave out, because you have to leave out a lot and it all seems important as you're counting words and realizing you're running out of them.  To illustrate, let me summarize a scene from Aida the way one might wish to narrate it if one could; then I'll counter the "before" version with the bare-bones "after" that made it to the website.

BEFORE:  Having been condemned to death by the tribunal of priests, Radames has been locked in the darkness of a tomb below the temple of Vulcan while above him, priests and priestesses perform sacred dances associated with his punishment.  Believing himself alone, Radames reflects upon his fate with stoic resignation.  He wonders what became of Aida, hoping she managed to find freedom and happiness.  A sudden stirring from within the tomb startles him. With horror he realizes he is not alone; Aida, having surreptitiously entered before him, reveals her presence.  Radames' is distraught to see his lover facing certain death, but his grieving is cut short as Aida assures him that her place is with him and that the joys of heaven await them both.  In frustration, Radames attempts to dislodge the mighty stone sealing the tomb's entrance as, above them, priestesses begin chanting for his soul.  Aida draws him to her side as, now fully resigned to the death that is mere moments away, they bid farewell to the sadness of earthly life and welcome eternity.  As their lungs begin to struggle for the vanishing air and life begins to ebb, a remorseful Amneris appears on the temple floor above, weeping and quietly praying to Isis for peace.  The curtain falls.

It's nice, but it's two hundred eleven words, or about 40% of my allottment for the entire story!  Let's try this:

AFTER: Entombed beneath the temple of Vulcan, Radames is shocked to find Aida waiting to share his fate with him. They bid the world farewell in each other’s arms, while above them, a grieving Amneris mourns and prays for peace.

Thirty nine words.  There you go - Moses would be proud.  Verily.  "And it came to pass that Glenn completed his writing.  And the webmaster saw the writing, that it was good.  And the synopsis was posted on the sixth day.  And on the seventh day, Glenn watched some TV."


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