Intro to Opera without Singing for Kids: Star Wars (1977-2019)

The Star Wars franchise is a pretty great thing to have around. Each production—movie, tv show, cartoon, game—strives to be the best example of that media of that year. We find each steeped in homage, desperate to entertain, disappointing and/or successful to varying degrees. We always get stilted dialogue and line readings, juvenile logistics, timeworn plot tropes, and an almost total ignorance of orbital mechanics. But we also get the sheer fun of old-timey adventure and plenty of big fights: Ray Harryhausen-style monster fights, exciting spaceship dogfights, and ingenious, gymnastic laser sword fights. Sometimes interesting detective work. Always grand orchestration. Each embraces a psychedelic panoply of striking environments, clever robots, wild sound effects, and anything-goes spaceship and alien designs.

Each borrows from both the innocence of the Flash Gordon serials from 1936 to 1940 and the samurai cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Despite shameless marketing tie-ins, flat slapstick, questionable racial caricatures and occasionally dodgy special effects, even the lamer offerings like The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, and Return of the Jedi arrive packed with fun moments. Someone figured out how to make a building believably float in lava, for god’s sake.

Sometimes a Star Wars film seems like the best thing ever. Better than any other franchise’s offering. Better than an art film or the most historically accurate war film or the funniest comedy. The reasons why aren’t always clear. There’s something weird going on.

One obscuring agent is history. With eleven feature films released to this point, each new film gets compared to all the previous ones. What makes one Star Wars film better than another requires a therapist to unpack. How old are you? Did you see your first Star Wars film at 10 years old and, if so, what was your family situation at the time? How do you respond to nostalgia? Could one describe your personal ownership of the material as excessive? Have you created a personal unwavering head cannon that surpasses what the actual screenwriters come up with?

What’s Good?

Considered the best? The original Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) and its sequel The Empire Strikes Back (1980). These two set a standard for impressive world-building, a particular form of magical realism, and a lasting cultural impact. After that? The rest generate sharp disagreement. The Return of the Jedi has always seemed like a pedestrian exercise with rather pallid acting to me. Many completely dismiss the CGI-fueled phantasmagoria of the prequel trilogy but they also expanded the universe in interesting ways. The newer slate of films seem to receive an equal amount of praise and disdain.

Castigated by some for recycling the original template, The Force Awakens (2015) introduces a host of fascinating new characters centered around teenager Daisy Ridley and her surprisingly empathic performance. The actor’s ability to embody a sense of untethered longing makes the film the most emotional of the lot. The Last Jedi (2017) boasts some masterful film-making by director Rian Johnson, who invested the film with a sophisticated humor, a handful of oddball plot shenanigans, and a couple truly visionary and breathtaking sequences. Because of its standout artistry and desire to turn in unexpected new directions, the film also pissed off a lot of people. Until, that is, The Rise of Skywalker (2019), the recipient of a criticism avalanche that left The Last Jedi in its wake. Rise of Skywalker exhibits an impossibly dense, excessively stimulating, nostalgia-heavy mishmash of a million amazing ideas stuffed into a compact runtime. A very uneven, funny, cheesy, moving and probably bad film, as common fanboy expectations go.

40 million possibilities

Including the two extra films recently added to the franchise, we now have a total of 11 movies to argue over. How do they rank from best to worst? Considering the divisive nature of each new release, there are technically 40 million list combinations out there, if we actually calculate the factorial of 11:

11! = 11 • 10 • 9 • 8 • 7 • 6 • 5 • 4 • 3 • 2 • 1 = 39916800

Here’s just one:

  1. The Last Jedi (2017) (minus Canto Bight)
  2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  3. Rogue One (2016)
  4. A New Hope (1977)
  5. The Force Awakens (2015)
  6. The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
  7. Solo (2018)
  8. The Revenge of the Sith (2005)
  9. The Attack of the Clones (2002)
  10. The Phantom Menace (1999)
  11. The Return of the Jedi (1983)

That’s the adult point of view anyway. The full trilogy of trilogies, plus the recent standalone films Rogue One (2016) and Solo (2018) certainly remain well worth any 10-year old’s time.

One of the keys to understanding the elevated value of a Star Wars film is the 10-year old brain. Two things are working on it.

Something Weird Going On: Sound and Music

The significance of sound in a Star Wars film is not to be discounted. John Williams’ musical scores and Ben Burtt’s sound effects have performed as subliminal messaging since the beginning. Subconscious and insidious magic, like a Dark Side of the Force power. Burtt invested the blips and bleeps of a trash can with emotional resonance. He created a brilliant sense of audience expectation with the lightsaber hum. He came up with an “audio black hole” effect in Attack of the Clones which was built on in The Last Jedi by other artists to achieve an incredible theater experience. Burtt helped define the world of the modern space opera, but because it’s sound and not visual we don’t think about it. Film mixing and sound design are often called the invisible art.

George Lucas established a storytelling language for his space opera by pillaging many narrative forms, not the least opera. The phrase “space opera” didn’t evolve from opera directly. Rather, it’s a variation on “soap opera”, which first described tv shows steeped in the same kind of melodrama and sentimentality and featuring ensemble casts as musical opera, but interspersed with ads for soap. Lucas’ space opera is even more indebted to musical opera than the tv version.

Opera is a dramatic story told through song. It is considered by many to be the most complete art form, combining all of the elements of art, words, music, drama and dance… The unique thing in opera is the use of music to convey an entire story/plot. This is based on the feeling that music can communicate people’s reactions and emotions better than words (read or spoken) or pictures. Opera takes any type of dramatic story and tries to make it more exciting and more believable with the help of music. ~ OPERA 101, Indianapolis Opera

In many individual moments, and in maybe some of its best moments, Star Wars can exist on its soundtrack alone, without dialogue. It too represents a dramatic story told through song. The music also often communicates reactions and emotions better than the somewhat wooden dialogue. Additionally, Lucas used Holst’s “The Planets” suite, pieces from Stravinsky, Bruckner’s “Ninth Symphony”, and Dvořák’s “New World” symphony, as well as the soundtrack work of Korngold, North and Herrmann, for a temp track during the editing of A New Hope. This was before John Williams was brought on as composer. So it was originally designed to opera and symphonic music.

On many levels Lucas seems pretty heavily inspired by Wagnerian opera in particular. Lucas included songs from the “Ring Cycle” on his temp track, too. By “Wagnerian” we mean Richard Wagner and his 19th century German-language cycle of four epic dramas The Ring of the Nibelung, an immense work based on Norse myths found in the “Nibelungenlied”.

Early on, the word denoted a follower or fan [of Wagner]. Later, it marked an artistic quality, an aesthetic tendency, a cultural symptom… Eventually, it became a synonym for grandiose, bombastic, overbearing, or, simply, very long… Even when Wagnerism is defined more narrowly, its meanings multiply. In these pages, it may mean a modern art grounded in myth, after Wagner’s example. It may mean imitating aspects of his musical and poetic language. It may involve combining genres in pursuit of a total artwork. It may take the form of what I call “Wagner Scenes”—tableaux in novels, paintings, and films in which the music is played, discussed, or heard in the background of an interaction, often a seduction. ~ Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, Alex Ross, 2020

The opera landscape is enormously influenced by Wagner. It’s not the only reference point, of course, but to the degree that opera is one of the main tools for telling stories of myth, it’s the most relevant here.

The tendencies of Wagnerian opera are all over the Star Wars series, starting with the telling of myths about gods at war embodied by heroes and heroines of royal blood battling demonic antagonists, all clothed in spectacular costumes, surrounded by spectacular sets. Star Wars could work as a decent introduction for kids to the theatrical form, despite the lack of singing. Opera typically uses singing instead of dialogue, of course, and it’s difficult to imagine a non-embarrassing musical Star Wars. So ignore the wailing and warbling for a second. How do Wagnerian opera and Star Wars more specifically relate?

For one, as Alex Ross writes in the quote above, Wagner’s scenes where characters interact are often about seduction, and the music responds in different ways to what they are saying, how they are saying it, and what they are trying to obtain. Star Wars is ALL about seduction, too, about bad characters capturing good characters to own their stuff, about characters fighting the seductive power of desire and the desire for power and about the bad characters losing that fight.

Another connection, more fundamental, is the leitmotif, a short musical theme used a lot by Wagner and now associated with him.

One particularly Wagnerian moment in the original Star Wars comes when young Luke, stuck on a desert planet, looks longingly toward a sky with twin suns. Williams writes a melancholy, expansive G-minor melody for horn, which is then taken up by full strings. Its rising contour brings to mind the noble C-minor theme that Wagner associates with Siegfried. Williams’s cue becomes a leitmotif not so much for Luke himself as for the mystical entity known as the Force, which Luke learns to channel. James Buhler comments that the theme is first heard before the Force has been explained; in Wagnerian fashion, it gives us a foreboding of the dramatic future. This is probably the moment at which Star Wars steps out of the adolescent-adventure arena and into the realm of myth. ~ Alex Ross

This concept of leitmotifs, of subtle musical labels for characters or events, is explored well in the 2019 New York Times article How Music Tells the Story in Opera’s Greatest Epic. “Those musical connections lend shape to a four-opera saga that does not rely on the kind of song-like arias previous composers had used. Instead, the recurring and evolving themes frequently comment more subtly on the action.”

That said, many different composers are referenced in the Star Wars soundtracks.

Williams often samples/deploys/incorporates musical themes from influential symphonies and operas. He clearly cribbed Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Holst for A New Hope. Variations on “Su! del Nilo il sacro lido” and “Gloria all’Egitto, ad Iside” from Verdi’s Aida seem to inform A New Hope‘s medal ceremony track. (Bits of the orchestration of Aida‘s “O tu che sei d’Osiride” sound like the super-iconic Superman: The Motion Picture theme song.)

In fact, the incidental music of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, the orchestral moments helping to introduce and exit scenes and accompanying non-dialogue scenes, share many commonalities with the atonal expressions of character mentality and mood Alban Berg created for his opera Wozzeck in 1925, to the extent that Alban Berg’s work, along with his contemporary Erich Korngold, seems like a lesser known but major touch-point for cinema orchestration in general.

When Erich Wolfgang Korngold, narrowly avoiding the dark cloud of Nazism in his native Europe, settled in Los Angeles in 1938, he would later credit the same year’s film The Adventures of Robin Hood with saving his life. What cinephiles and music fans would credit Korngold with in turn was saving the life of the film score. Journalist, consultant and president of the International Korngold Society Brendan G. Carroll described his process as “treating each film as an ‘opera without singing.'” ~ Olivia Giovetti, John Williams and Alban Berg: Two Sides of the Same Coin

The avante-garde style defined by and associated with Berg serves the rather subtle purpose of elevating genre material, making it feel more complex, like there’s something more going on than meets the eye. That a higher intelligence underlies the adolescent conflicts.

And imagine Williams listening intently to a piece, picking out the phrasing of one specific instrument and re-purposing it for a completely new theme; an interesting lesson for kids interested in musical composition.

What we hear mostly in opera are expressive, emotional, melodramatic voices, rising and falling. Arias, duets, quartets, choruses describing fear, anger, determination, vengeance, victory, love, heartbreak. It is this melodrama that is really being translated to screen in Star Wars. Transpose opera voices to action sequences. The correlation is relatively easy.

Audiences of the best Star Wars films are manipulated by the score—reminded of past events, introduced to strange, unseen, secondary factors, clued in to otherwise-hidden character motivations, and distracted by deceptive themes. All without being told directly. The invisible art works most insidiously on those the least likely to notice it.

Something Weird Going On: Morality Lessons, or The Holocrons for Life

Just as much as music and sound, the Star Wars films traverse many elemental emotional components, all the essential building blocks of knowing how to live in the world. They might even operate as a way-finding tool for growing up, pointing as they all do in such a distinctly moral direction. The grandiose, operatic tragedies of the prequels, the second set of three films, probably resonate more for 10-year olds anyway, for whom the whole franchise is ultimately created. The prequels aspire to a Godfather I and II-level of tragedy, that feeling of acute dread you experience from a masterful combination of story, acting and editing. To most adults they seem to come up short, landing on a more obtuse Godfather III-level of tragedy, the kind you notice but don’t feel so much. Counter to Yoda’s most famous line, though, the attempt is still laudable. Kids take the meaning.

Academic Camille Paglia (as adult as it gets) summarized Episode 3 by saying “Nothing in the last thirty years in any of the arts has been produced that is as emotionally compelling and significant as the finale of Revenge of the Sith.” Her refreshing interpretation completely looks past the film’s conventional failures. Instead, she responds, rather intensely, to the film’s passionate theatricality around the origin of Darth Vader.

Then we come to the present releases, circa 2015-2019, and we find flicks somewhat cannier in their writing, far more successful in satisfying the disparate expectations of a wider age range. The same components exist as before. The overarching theme continues to say darkness surrounds us, politicians suck, power corrupts, and being an entitled brat makes you a particularly easy target for manipulation. But! Determination (and even Stoicism) proves a means to defeating these evil machinations and, most importantly, making friends and being a decent person. That’s good stuff.

More: The Real Aerial Battles That Inspired Star Wars, Is Opera Part of Pop Culture? Pretty Much Pop #15 with Sean Spyres, Camille Paglia about Revenge of the Sith and why it’s so good, The Last Jedi locates that middle-chapter, Empire Strikes Back mojo, The Rise of Skywalker Spoiler Review – Rule of Two, Is There a Connection Between The Jedi and The Stoics? Professor William O. Stephens Has The Answer, The Beginning: Making Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace, Secret Passage: Decoding ten bars in Wagner’s ‘Ring’, How Wagner Shaped Hollywood, How Music Tells the Story in Opera’s Greatest Epic, John Williams and Alban Berg: Two Sides of the Same Coin

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