Exiting Paradise

4 questions that unlock storytelling in song and opera.

In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. Margaret Atwood

All storytelling revolves around conflict; the 'will he, won't she' bit of a story that grabs our attention.  Conflict can be both external and internal. For example, the external conflict that drives the three little pigs' objective to overcome their obstacle, the big bad wolf. Or the internal conflict we struggle with when trying to change our behaviour, like giving up cigarettes, alcohol or cream cakes.

Why conflict?
Conflict is central to storytelling because its narrative structures mirror humanity.  As we journey through life, our choices are set against the constant flux of the universe's binary opposed building blocks; light vs dark, good vs evil, love vs hate, wealth vs poverty etc..  In this big old world, we try to find love, wealth, success and happiness. Along the way, we meet obstacles that we have to navigate and the road ahead is never straight.  The concept of Paradise, a beautiful place where nothing happens, is a well designed reward for an ever-changing life on Earth.

Our ability to face our obstacles and aspire to overcome them is the heartbeat of our existence.  We're taught this mindset and behaviour as a child: 

"Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed." G.K. Chesterton

So, we are a species of bettering ourselves.  We know that if we don't adapt we won't survive. And we use our stories to help us to communicate the legacy of our existence.

Staves of conflict
In essence, song form is a sung story.  It's a narrative structure that explores a journey or an idea by fusing time with text, vibrations, textures and colours.  As interpreters we need to honour the journey of the song and avoid the trap of just singing the result.  Or if you like, singing Paradise - sounds beautiful but nothing happens.

We can tap into the journey of the song by getting clear on its obstacle and objective and letting that drive the interpretation. For example, it is easy to get wrapped up in the searing, sobbing legato lines of Charlotte's aria Va! laisse couler mes larmes from Werther.  To avoid playing the result - Charlotte's sadness and despair - find out what Charlotte is fighting for and play that instead.

The 4 questions
When working on song or aria repertoire, here are four questions to apply to explore conflict.  Finding answers to these questions will drive your energy into how your character deals with their obstacles and objectives.  When this happens, the character lifts off the page of the score and walks into the minds of your audience.

1. What is at stake in the song/aria/scene?
2. What are the circumstances of the song/aria/scene?
3. Who or what is the character fighting for?
4. What could stop the character winning the fight?

I believe humanity was born from conflict. Maybe that’s why in all of us lives a dark side. Some of us embrace it. Some have no choice. The rest of us fight it. In the end, it’s as natural as the air we breathe. Criminal Minds, Season 6 


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