The Straight Story? (pt. 1)

The conversation we have most frequently at Experiments in Opera is about how to prioritize narrative in opera.  Jason, Matt and I each come to opera with different sensibilities about how important the narrative is to the experience of music and story.  Composers we work with tend to fall into the same two camps that we outline in our regular programming discussions: 1) the Straight Story camp where the characters in the opera talk to each other and move directly along a narrative timeline throughout the opera; or 2) The Poetry camp where the singers may or may not be identifiable characters or have a A–>B narrative to act out, but instead ideas or images that speak through abstract ideas and sounds.

The dialogue between these two approaches to narrative seems rather common in the world of opera in general, but also in the world of storytelling on screens.  Because EiO looks to screen-oriented media as a benchmark of how audiences engage with characters and stories in the 21st Century, I think it helpful to take a closer look at a couple of popular ways that these shows work with narrative.  Rather than fit into the binary approaches of ‘narrative’ and ‘poetry’ these shows generate their stories through other information that is embedded in the DNA of their approaches.


Storytelling through Occupation

One of the most regularly accessible ways of orienting narratives is around characters.  I love the (now) HBO series High Maintenance for its innovative use of a single character to tie together completely separate narratives created for each episode.  But the more interesting aspect of this approach is the fact that the stories are connected not so much through who the character is, but by what he does. The Guy is a drug dealer and he delivers drugs to the characters who inhabit each episode.  That’s it.  That’s all that ties these episodes together, but it works so well…


Storytelling through Place

I have been particularly struck this fall by the show Atlanta, which is ostensibly about three friends, but is ultimately about the place of their interactions (you guessed it), Atlanta.  This show feels different and looks different, and not only because of the almost exclusively African-American cast, but because, for a change, the action isn’t taking place in New York or Los Angeles.   I haven’t spent much time in Atlanta, so I can’t say whether the depiction is accurate, but the narrative seems driven by a series of physical dichotomies: Country/City, Middle Class homes/Public Housing, interiors/exteriors.


Storytelling through Premise

This approach may seem like its a no-brainer, but it is really important that some stories are clearly more about generating new ideas through a premise than the characters themselves.  Rick and Morty, an animated series on Adult Swim, is an interesting example of this approach.  Yes, Rick is nuts and yes Morty is naive, but the whole idea of their relationship, love and investment in each other is what drives this hallucinogenic series that explores the power of multi-generational relationships and science.


These are three examples of how to mess with narrative and storytelling in novel and experimental ways.  There are so many other examples on screens these days, that we plan on highlighting some more series in another post.  What series should we make sure to include?