January 6, 2013

Mordred: Iago with jazz hands

I'm about to begin a grueling several weeks driving around the Commonwealth of Virginia teaching opera appreciation courses for no fewer than ten - count 'em! ten! - lifelong learning programs. (If you'd like to sign up for one and meet me in person, click on the "Operation Opera and YOU" tab at the top of the page for details and links.)

Students at these classes range from seasoned opera aficionados to curious beginners to pouting men dragged kicking and screaming by their better halves (one imagines) to "get some culture". There are certain questions that the newbies invariably want to ask, and probably the most common of all is the following:

What's the difference between an opera and a musical?

This is not as simple an issue to explain as you might think, since there aren't really any rules governing such classifications. The lines of demarcation are blurry at best, as demonstrated by reviews of the current film version of Les Miserables from director Tom Hooper. It's a given with many that Les Miz is a musical; just as many counter that it's obviously an opera, since there is almost no spoken dialogue. The main problem: when composers and their collaborators create a new stage work, they don't always care about conforming to people's expectations. They write as they please, and the rest of us come along later, parsing and analyzing and bestowing our designations.

When haircuts go horribly wrong:
Burton & McDowall as Arthur & Mordred
This isn't the time to publish a lengthy treatise on the subject, but I can offer one constructive example to furnish a partial guideline. It has to do with the nature of the music assigned to any drama's villain; the antagonist of the drama; the "bad dude".

Take Mordred, the bastard son of King Arthur in Lerner and Loewe's musical Camelot.  Actually, it's sort of amazing that no legitimate operatic composer has ever taken up the challenge of the Arthurian legend. Even echt-Englishman Sir Arthur Sullivan, composer of a pompous opera about Ivanho, stayed away from the Knights of the Round Table.

Mordred shows up in Act II with a typical villain's biography: he's a seething hot mess of bitterness, anger and resentment over the raw deal life has handed him. His illegitimate status has turned him into a calculating sociopath with no moral scruples or conscience, leaving him primed to wreak havoc by disgracing his deadbeat dad and taking the throne for his own bad self.

He confides his true nature to the audience in his solo, "The seven deadly virtues", in which he offers cynical commentary on the ethics all the rest of us try to follow.

Wait a second - hmmmm; sociopath with no conscience, feels he's been cheated out of his rightful station in life, discloses his evil nature to the audience in a solo, and determined to bring down the local ruler. Remind you of anyone, opera bunnies? It should; I just described Iago, the villain in Verdi's Shakespearean masterpiece Otello.

So let's compare and contrast their corresponding monologues: "Seven deadly virtues" versus Iago's famous "Credo" from the perspective of both lyrics and musical treatment. The lyrics to Mordred's song are not actually poetry, unless your poetic models are Dorothy Parker and Ogden Nash. To be blunt, they approach the level of doggerel, defined by poetic terminology.net as light verse, "humorous and comic by nature, often viewed ... as containing little literary value."

That would seem a fair verdict on Lerner's text. Here's a sample:

Take courage-now there's a sport
An invitation to the state of rigor mort
And purity-a noble yen
And very restful every now and then
I find humility means to be hurt
It's not the earth the meek inherit, it's the dirt
Honesty is fatal, it should be taboo
Diligence-a fate I would hate
If charity means giving, I give it to you
And fidelity is only for your mate
You'll never find a virtue unstatusing my quo or making my Beelzebubble burst
Let others take the high road, I will take the low
I cannot wait to rush in where angels fear to go

With all those sevn deadly virtues free and happy little me has not been cursed

The clever rhymes and general air of word-play and puns ("Beelzebubble" - heh heh heh) have a leavening effect on the way in which we process Mordred's take on life. We react not with horror or dread, but with a smile and with tapping toes, given the definitely light-hearted, classic song-and-dance character of the music. If music had a genre called "doggerel", this would be it, in a performance by Roddy McDowall, who created the role on Broadway. (Click on Roddy's name for a YouTube video.)

Although McDowall does his best to give a grim reading of the line "I find humility means to be hurt", the pit band accompanying him bounces along as though they were providing music for Tommy Tune to tap away our troubles. Jazz hands! Jazz hands!

MORE bad haircuts - geez! Otello swallows Iago's baloney.
Now let's examine a parallel character in a parallel drama, Verdi's Iago. In Act II of Otello, Iago momentarily drops his nice-guy act to vent his rage in a brutal parody of the Apostles' Creed. The text for this monumental aria comes exclusively from librettist Arrigo Boito; Shakespeare gave Iago no such soliloquy in his original play. Unfortunately, any English translation, including the following one by Jonathan H. Ward, can only give a glimmer of the undeniable "literary merit" of Boito's writing:

I believe in a cruel God
who has created me in His image
and whom, in hate, I name.
From some vile seed
or base atom I am formed.
I am evil because I am a man;
and I feel the primeval slime in me.
Yes! This is my testimony!

He rants on, then concludes:

I believe man to be the sport
of an unjust Fate,
from the germ of the cradle
to the worm of the grave.
After all this mockery comes death.
And then? And then?
Death is Nothingness.
Heaven is an old wives' tale.

It's so cool that the neat little inner rhyme of "germ" and "worm" also occurs in Boito's Italian original; this is the only trace in a pathologically dark and grim aria that comes withing a light-year of jocular word-play. Don't expect the musical setting to be geared towards "entertainment" either, except in the broadest sense of the word. Verdi rises to the challenge of creating a musical language for Iago's complete soul-less malevolence without ever resorting to the cheesy, over-the-top melodrama we would come to associate with sneering villains of the silent movie era. No verses and refrain, no "melodic lines"; rather a form of "heightened speech": declamatory, with little repetition other than recurrences of the angular, disjunct motive that ushers in the famous line "Credo in un Dio crudel".  Here is a compelling performance by the American Verdi specialist Sherrill Milnes.

Iago's musings are larger than life and deadly serious; Mordred's are more mundane, which may actually be appropriate for a sociopath; after all, it's said they have problems in feeling authentic emotional states. So Loewe's musical treatment may present a psychology that works in its fashion.

But operatic? No, sir; no ma'am; no way. The two characters, so similar, are worlds apart in important respects. The "Credo" is a cornerstone of Verdi's art and central to the opera; "Seven deadly virtues" is a passing moment of barbed whimsy: once heard, soon forgotton in the heat of the more passionate utterances of Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot.

My book THE OPERA ZOO: SINGERS, COMPOSERS AND OTHER PRIMATES is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online or by phone from customer service: 1-800-344-9034, ext. 3020. Also available at www.amazon.com

1 comment:

  1. As a fan of both forms, I’ve pondered this question also. And I’ve concluded that a key differentiator is the size of the orchestra (and therefore the orchestration and the types of voices) .

    I first happened on to this notion a few years ago when I got an email promoting a Broadway revival of On a Clear Day with Harry Connick Jr. Right under Harry’s name in big type was the claim of a “full 19-piece orchestra”. And I thought ‘ 19 piece orchestra??’ In opera, that doesn’t even qualify as a chamber orchestra.

    Even some of the earlier bel canto works call for 45-50 pieces, and when you get to Wagner and Strauss it can be over a hundred. One of the first operas ever performed - Monteverdi’s La favola d’Orfeo in Mantua in 1607 had an orchestra of 38 instruments.

    But then I thought, maybe back in the Big Band era, musicals had Big-ger Bands. But my (admittedly superficial) research revealed that the original orchestra for Oklahoma! (1943) was 28, and for South Pacific (1949) was 30. And you may recall that the wonderful revival of South Pacific at the Lincoln Center prominently featured the original orchestration with 30 pieces.

    My Original Broadway Cast Recording of Les Miz (a studio recording) had an orchestra of 35, though I really doubt that there were that many musicians in the pit for any live performance, and certainly not for the road shows.

    And of course, since the ‘60’s another MAJOR difference has been - - - amplification.

    Linda in Colorado