April 11, 1997

Words and Music

He wrote this composition under a handicap: he had no talent.

Danny Kaye

A musician friend of mine once told me that she didn't like musicals. I assume that it probably included opera. I agree with her about most of combinations of words and music. The vast majority of combinations of words and music aren't worth much. As a consequence, most rapidly disappear.

Opera has managed to survive because of a dedicated group of fans who will go to any opera, regardless whether the singers, words or music are worth listening to. I think that it was Mark Twain who said that Wagner's music is better than it sounds. The same can be said of most popular music.

Fine melodies are so rare that many composers, both classical and pop, have had to rely on folk tunes for their melodies. Even the great composers seem to have had a limited number of tunes in their heads. Fine and meaningful poetry is also rare. To find a combination of fine music and fine poetry is extremely rare. As a consequence, the percentage of songs that survive into the next generation is very small, as it should be. Most aren't worth saving.

When you carry composition a step further and attempt to compose a whole opera or musical, quality is still rarer. Many an opera survives in spite of itself, and some survive because of a few fine songs. The same can be said for musicals.

Ruggiero Leoncavallo(1857-1919) wrote nineteen operas. Only one has survived to the present time. That opera, I Pagliacci (The Clowns), has survived because it has an interesting plot, well written words, fine music, all blended to produce a total dramatic effect. It is also short. To find such an opera, with beginning-to-end melody, is extremely rare. Some day they will make a movie of I Pagliacci, with fine singers who are also fine actors. That combination is also rare. I know of two opera singers who had that rare combination: the basso Feodor Chaliapin and the soprano Maria Callas -both dead. There are several fine directors and orchestras and conductors who could do it, but the rest is missing.

One of my favorite operas is George Bizet's Carmen. Oscar Hammerstein changed the locale from Spain to the U.S. and wrote superb English lyrics for it. They made a film of it with the fine actor Dorothy Dandridge playing Carmen, and opera singer Marilyn Horne doing the singing. That was great. Harry Belafonte, who played the male lead, is a good actor and a superb folk singer. Unfortunately, they didn't use an opera singer for his voice. The plot was Hollywooded up. Some day it will be done properly and it will become a film classic. I have a similar hope for George Gershwin's wonderful opera Porgy and Bess. I will not hold my breath for either one. It will probably take two people to do each part, with one singing and the other talking and acting. But it is possible.

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