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:

Stephen Fry Reads Oscar Wilde’s Children’s Sto­ry “The Hap­py Prince”

Stephen Fry, Lan­guage Enthu­si­ast, Defends The “Unnec­es­sary” Art Of Swear­ing

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

by | Permalink | Comments (5) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (5)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • 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 …

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.