What happens if you analyse opera like a TTRPG? - Part 2, opera as social game
Updated: Jul 31
At first, I thought I’d do this via the Marxian models I tend to use. Then I realised that, actually, doing it via ‘what do the players/characters/game-rules do?’, as for the TTRPG section above, is potentially fun.
What is the game about? Well, it depends on who you ask. Like D&D in TTRPGs, many people have internalised the values of the dominant product as the only possible answer. In opera, that’s Romantic and verisimo work, where people sing because they have SO MANY FEELINGS and are (usually) suffering because of social pressures.
However, other operatic approaches have singing to represent gods who are above mere mortal speech, to reflect the complex interweave of different social forces, to honour religious/secular elites, to satirise, to show off how much money the king could spend on musicians and special effects, to advertise tunes that people would buy sheet music for after the show… Some people have even suggested that real-life stories sit uneasily with a form where people sing all the time.
In reality, much like TTRPGs, there’s a lot of options for what the game is about. And, like in TTRPGs, ignoring that in favour of the market leader’s answer involves buying into a certain worldview.
So, what do the game-rules tell us? Well, the Romantic model tells us that stories are interesting because individuals have SO MANY FEELINGS. While this is a popular view (and valid for some tales), some rather excellent stories are not about that. Comic songs are one example - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has emotional songs, but also some that are simply funny because the genre is incongruous with the lyrics. At the opposite end, only assessing Aoi no Ue (a Noh play) in terms of its strong emotions or social repression would be to miss a great part of its beauty.
If we break Romanticism’s rule, we can tell stories about entire communities (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny), ones favouring small, quiet emotions but complex philosophy (a one-handed opera I forget the name of), or even ones with minimal plot but great ritual effect (Akhnaten). We can also talk about forces that are bigger than individual ones; consider the socio-economic and environmental trends that create our world.
In terms of how fringe and canon operas position themselves in the world, it’s as scattered as the TTRPG scene. But there’s a similar broad divide between a bubbling independent scene that is consistently puzzled by an often old-fashioned monolith that simultaneously claims to be very supportive of the change-seeking minnows while also having a deep emotional attachment to staying the same. Even if, in opera’s defence, our monolith is 400+ years old.
There’s not so much to say for what the characters do in opera as in TTRPGs. After all, their acts are dictated by the score years before they walk onto the stage. They’re constrained by form and genre, but opera-as-game has hugely restrictive rules for its characters. Not only their words, but the rhythm and pitch at which they’re said is predetermined by the composer/librettist (with room for some interpretation within that box). In game terms, it is as railroaded as possible (though this can be a good thing, given opera’s goals tend towards beauty, not play).
Some independent opera rips up the score a bit more, allowing greater extemporisation, rearrangement, or straight-up reinterpolating numbers. But this is rare, and… not always well received by others in the sector.
Which brings us on to the players. My thoughts on hierarchies in opera rehearsal rooms are laid out in more detail over here. To summarise: the default set up when we ‘play’ opera draws on a tradition of hierarchies that can be traced back to the French kings who watched the first operas. That’s inevitable for all expensive opera (and any opera with that many people onstage, in the orchestra, and elsewhere is expensive), because it needs a relationship with people with power.
There are often not very many written rules in opera beyond the score and the bill. Outside that, there is a fruitful void. During the game, players often create very interesting things, and raise interesting ideas. But, as has been discussed a lot over the past 12 months, they also want to get the next job. Or, if they’re in charge, they often want to abuse their power over others to get… other things they want. And anyone who’s walked into the auditorium of a major opera house while looking scruffy/touristy/visibly not-white will have noted other ‘players’ in the audience making glances as their unspoken rules are broken.
Much of the best independent opera avoids this by trying to create a fruitful void where there are game-rules that protect people, and unspoken things that help reduce hierarchies and build the trust needed for players to resolve things among themselves. Obviously, much of that also lacks the financial resources of bigger, canon operas. But, thanks to a Creative Agenda, much of the indie sector doesn’t particularly care about those resources (this gets complicated, since most TTRPGs have one designer and maybe an artist; operas usually need to pay more people and a theatre).
With Our People's Song, the goal is to create a bigger fruitful void. One where the score isn’t getting in the way. One where we trust the singers. Where we don’t know the ending before we start.