I vividly recall my first opera. It was The Marriage of Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. A friend bought two family circle tickets—nosebleed seats—and insisted that I come along. She was a trained opera singer and aficionado. I was an unlearned neophyte. Most of my expectations were fulfilled: the enormously impressive space, plenty of bombast, intricately designed sets and costuming. And it was long. Very long. But not, as I had feared, boring. Not at all. I had not expected, in fact, to be so physically moved by the performances, and not only moved to basic emotions—I was moved deep in my gut. There’s no way I could adequately explain it.
But the medical scientists in the video above can. In “The Science of Opera,” actor Stephen Fry and comedian Alan Davies convene a panel of researchers from University College London to discuss what happened physiologically when the pair were hooked up to various sensors as they attended Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at the Royal Opera House. Like the pairing at my first opera, Fry is a knowledgeable lover of the art and Davies is almost an opera virgin (the story of his actual first opera gets a good laugh). The gadgets attached to Fry and Davies measured their heart rates, breathing, sweat, and “various other emotional responses.” What do we learn from the experiment? For one thing, as neurobiologist Michael Trimble informs us, “music is different from all the other arts.” For example, ninety percent of people surveyed admit to being moved to tears by a piece of music. Only five to ten percent say the same about painting or sculpture. Fry and Davies' autonomic nervous system responses confirm the power of music (and story) to move us beyond our conscious control and awareness.
And why is this? You’ll have to watch the discussion to learn more—I won’t summarize it here. Just know that we get insights not only into the science of opera, but the art as well—Verdi’s art in particular—and the various disciplines represented here do much to expand our appreciation of music, whether we specifically love opera or not. This is not the first talk on opera Fry has been a part of. He previously hosted another Royal Opera Company event called “Verdi vs. Wagner: the 200th birthday debate” (above). Though I favor the Germans, I’d say it’s a draw, but partisans of either one will likely come away with their opinions intact, having learned a thing or two along the way.