As I continue my quest to seek out stories and whatever lessons I can take from them, this time I turn my attention to opera. You read that correctly: opera. I am an opera fan, although not a particularly well-versed one. My favorite operas have gorgeous arias, duets, and quartets with amazing harmonic lines. In the voices of well-trained and talented singers using their voices like fine instruments, opera music, like so many types of music, can be transcendent. All that being said, I don’t consider opera my go-to medium for story.
However, operas are, at their heart, stories. (Don’t tell my husband, who is an operatically-trained tenor. In his world it’s All. About. The. Voices.) Yes, operas have a reputation for being melodramatic and predictable. In fact, upon entering an opera house, you are handed a program that contains, among other things, a full story synopsis rife with spoilers. Still, many operas also have strong protagonists with well-defined goals, stronger antagonists with their own goals, and a narrative through-line that is going to bring these forces to blows (literally or figuratively) in the end. You know, story.
And professional productions, like those performed at the Met (and live simulcast in HD movie theaters), have amazing directors who know how to block out action to demonstrate story and character growth. So when I went to see a live Met simulcast of Prince Igor this past weekend, I went in thinking about action, about looking for interesting choices the director has made, and about what I could
steal borrow when writing plot through action for my own characters. I came out thinking about the narrative thread, and how the loss of it can torpedo your entire story.
I knew there were problems with the story before I ever got to the theater. In fact, there have been problems with this opera since it was first completed, after Borodin, the composer, died, leaving the opera still unfinished after 18 years of working on it (how’s that for a timeline for a WIP? Yikes!). After his death, some of his composer buds got together and finished it for him, but the pieces of the libretto (story) and the music were disjointed and episodic, like WIPs often are.
The Met tried to remedy some of the problems, namely the fact that the protagonist and namesake of the opera just disappears in Act II. At least they reorganized the arias so Prince Igor was mentioned in each scene, first with his wife the princess lamenting his absence, then with the townswomen crying to her that in his absence, a bunch of hooligans are kidnapping maidens and generally wreaking havoc in town, and finally with the leader of the hooligans (who is the princess’s brother because, why not?) deciding he must quick! crown himself the new prince before the rightful prince returns. But still, there is neither hide nor hair of Prince Igor himself in the entire act.
Another problem that they didn’t fix is the antagonist. I would tell you more about him/her if I knew who/what that was supposed to be. At the beginning of Act I, it seems to be the Enemy, whom Prince Igor and his troops will march off to fight. By the end of the Act, it seems to be their leader, the Khan, who has captured our hero in battle. But then switch to Act II with its missing protagonist, and the antagonist has fallen off the map as well, to be replaced, I suppose, by the town’s new nemesis, the princess’s brother. Only he is not directly interfering with the missing protagonist, and then Act II ends with someone (the Kahn? some other enemy?) attacking the town and the princess’s brother dying, so he won’t be the antagonist in Act III. Act III turns into the world’s longest denouement, showing the aftermath of the attack on the town, and then, voila! there is the captured protagonist from Act I with no explanation of how or when he got back to town or how he escaped his captors. Are you starting to see how the lack of a narrative thread made this 4+ hour story a nightmare to follow?
When I popped onto the magical interwebs earlier today, I saw a post on Jenny Crusie’s blog discussing main plots and subplots, complete with fancy color-coded graphs to show screen time for the main and subplots in various TV show episodes. There were places where the colors overlapped because a subplot being shown on screen was advancing the main plot. If I had to do a graph for this opera, I would need three colors, one for each act. And there would be no overlap. I think there was one main theme, WAR IS HELL. It was hell when the troops had to leave their families and when they were defeated on the battlefield. It was hell when the hooligans took over the town and the soldiers weren’t there to save the womenfolk because they were off to war. And it was hell in the aftermath of the attack on the town. But main plot and subplots? I couldn’t tell you what they were.
So what did I learn from this week’s foray into story in new and interesting places? I learned that subplots that don’t support the main plot can break the narrative thread, or at least get it so tangled up, it’s impossible to unravel. For my own story, I’m going to work on creating subplots that support or echo or reverse but in some way directly impact the main storyline. I also learned that when going off to war, take the young rowdy drunkards with you or they will overrun the town….or steal your maidens…or something…I’m still puzzling through that subplot. Or was it the main plot?
How are subplots working in your story? And what writing issues have you been contemplating this past week?