Stephen Fry Hosts “The Science of Opera,” a Discussion of How Music Moves Us Physically to Tears

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.

Related Content:

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Mathemusician Vi Hart Explains the Space-Time Continuum With a Music Box, Bach, and a Möbius Strip

Find Yale’s Course “Listening to Music” in our Collection of 775 Free Online Courses

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Roy Niles says:

    Music has always been the language of our emotional brain. We continue to evolve its use without knowing exactly how we once used it as our basic means of communication.

  • Cristina Lopez says:

    I’m very surprised to learn than being moved by music to tears is rare, compared by let’s say being moved by a poem or a story, since when we listen to music we do not need to process it “logically” at all. I would have thought the opposite.

  • Malu says:

    There’s not one individual of common admiration that didn’t fail grossly on some level; I think it’s a mistake to judge people who lived in previous centuries, decades. Perspectives, life circumstances, survival, were radically different in all eras; yes, there’s an underlying bottom or a line that we all, no matter what era, were aware it should not have been crossed and yet we all do it sooner or later. The best alternative is to evaluate the specific formal elements and achievements of the art made by anyone, focus on the rational, on the facts, on the measurable components and creativity levels of art, and leave judgment for those who need to feel superior. I think the Wagner ‘defender’ was much more effective and if Verdi was a more revolutionary musician, we’d have no need to debate outside the parameters of art and artistry. (I’m not a Wagner fan all the time, and I enjoy Verdi much more often, but I’d have voted for Wagner at the end of this presentation)

  • Jonathan White says:

    I would like to see a similar study with operetta, specifically, the movie version of Maytime. The last few minutes of this delightful always provokes incredible autonomic responses.

  • Margaret Rose Stringer says:

    Oh, opera …! u2013 the absolute joy of it. The bliss of being carried away on wings of song …nBut NOT WAGNER!nIn my memoir, I’ve written how my husband and I would walk over burning coals to avoid the Wagnerian message; but there was one part of it that we accepted willingly u2013 the instrumental. How anyone can actually like the stuff with words in the Wagnerian archive has never been comprehensible.nBut Verdi … and Puccini … and Donizetti … and Mascagni … and all of those FABULOUS Italian composers … I can listen to their works over and over and over, and never once do I lose a single atom of their glory.nQuanto siamo fotunati …

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