If we were to go in search of space opera, to paraphrase Hawkwind, what exactly would we be looking for? The answers are closer than you might think- consider the Star Wars series, with The Force Awakens serving as the latest act of that particular long-running saga.
Yet the man who coined the term "space opera" originally intended it as an attack on what he saw as an over-reliance on stock elements similar to those found in both soap operas and the lesser-known Western equivalent, the horse opera. Wilson Tucker, for 'twas he who came up with the phrase, defined the basic DNA of said galactic epics as being "hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn".
However, Keith M Johnston of the University of East Anglia has a different point of view and offers probably one of the best arguments for their appeal, writing in The Guardian that,
"They're more fun and less solemn than other sci-fi. They've got that melodramatic flair, that slightly swashbuckling feel to them, and the sense that there are different civilisations and possibilities out there."George Lucas' unwavering creative vision helped to usher in a new age for these most grandiose productions. He was inspired by something in the original Flash Gordon serials from 1936, which Lucas had grown up a fan of, and sparked off an interest in him of developing a new entry into the format. Rather endearingly he could see through "how crude and badly done they were... loving them that much when they were so awful" as he said in one 1979 interview.
Two years earlier he had really let the cat out of the bag in admitting that the constituent parts of his own attempt at space opera were,
"The flotsam and jetsam from the period when I was twelve years old. All the books and films and comics that I liked when I was a child. The plot is simple—good against evil—and the film is designed to be all the fun things and fantasy things I remember. The word for this movie is fun."On which count Star Wars inevitably succeeds!
A more in depth look at the operatic aspersions hinted at by the overall term, and indeed the often stuffy highbrow musical form from which its name was pinched in the first place, might also lend a surprising new insight to the appeal of shifting the whole thing into far corners of the galaxy most likely far far away in the first place.
And it certainly helps if you have a composer on hand who knows what he's talking about in these matters - John Williams having been a keen student of the likes of Richard Wagner. Maybe some credence is lent to the idea that Williams treated each of the Star Wars instalments as "operas without singing". The same has also been said of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who worked on the score for the 1938 screen adaptation of Robin Hood, starring Erroll Flynn, whose portrayal of the man in tights would inspire Lucas in his conception of the character of Han Solo in a tenuous link!
There's certainly a lot which would appear to back up the Classical MPR contention that,
"The ultimate influence on Williams's vision for Star Wars was Richard Wagner, whose Ring Cycle combines a wealth of musical ideas that would inform Williams's work. Daringly dissonant and boldly dramatic for its time, Wagner's four-opera cycle was the original "cinematic" composition, its lurid Romantic vocabulary providing the basic toolbox for a century's worth of film composers."
What, you might wonder, is the best showcase for this display of bombast in the Star Wars universe? Think of the Empire & that familiar "dun dun dun, dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun"...that is the Imperial March. Glorious. Now, listen to the Ride Of The Valkyries. Little wonder that a certain German equivalent to Emperor Palpatine heard so much to relate to in Wagner's music, perhaps!
Its also a fantastic example of the leitmotif, as used in both opera and film score. A recurring musical phrase, Williams deploys it cunningly within A New Hope as raved over by Vanity Fair....
"Its first occurrence in the movie, and in movie history, is almost subliminal: right after the introductory crawl, as the Imperial Destroyer dispatches its probes, a lonely piccolo, buried in the mix, peeps out two measly bars of it. The theme makes its boisterous entrance proper just as we’re re-introduced to Darth Vader, surveying his fleet of Star Destroyers.Less huffy types might observe that it does that within opera into the bargain. And while Wagner may have been first to insert it into opera, Fritz Lang was arguably the first to utilise it in cinemas with 1931's M.
It returns, after a tumble of timpani, in long seismic booms later in the movie, after Vader’s shocking revelation in the Reactor Shaft, the camera lingering on the wounded Luke as he “searches his feelings.” Its first four notes crash down once more in the final moments of the end credits: the musical manifestation of the movie’s cliff-hanger. ''. All alongside its iconic status as introduction to the might of the Empire.
Yet the technique's use in cinematic scoring drew criticism from Theodor Aderno in his book In Search Of Wagner. Scathingly, he stated that ''The degeneration of the leitmotiv is implicit in this... it leads directly to cinema music where the sole function of the leitmotiv is to announce heroes or situations so as to allow the audience to orient itself more easily."
As Filmsound recalls, the director's use of part of Edvard Greig's Peer Gynt had the desired effect.
"The simple, repetitive and effective rhythmic theme is immediately retained in auditory memory, making it very easy to associate with the mysterious murderer. But it is not the same music which establishes the link: it’s the murderer’s whistling which tells us that this man - whose face is not seen - is M."High" & "low" culture on a seismic collision course with Alderaan perhaps, in a sense?
This example is interesting because - despite its simplicity - it introduces the idea of identifying or labelling a character by means of sound. Lang was aware of it and it was not by chance that he decided to include a blind balloon-seller. M buys a balloon for Elsie - the next victim - and he whistles the leitmotif to indicate the identity of the killer.
The blind man is telling us “you don’t have to try to see the face, you have to listen to what I am able to recognise”. The blind man will be the key to catching M, or to put it better, his ears listening to the leitmotif will."