Opera vs. Melodrama

Opera and melodrama are alike insofar as they’re both on-stage narratives which are performed with musical accompaniment. However, whereas in opera the narrative is mostly sung, in melodrama it is spoken. Furthermore, melodrama describes a specific narrative type. It’s often a sentimental drama with an extremely improbable plot, and follows an arc where the virtuous suffer the whims of the villainous, but eventually triumph. Its characters are stock characters: hero, heroine, villain. Melodrama does not focus on developing these characters, but instead on staging their specific set of sensational episodes to music. Originating in France in the mid-1700s, a result of French political and social turbulence, and the influences of the English Gothic novel and German Romanticism, melodrama became popular in England and the United States until around the start of the 20th century. Most of its narrative strategies can be seen in present-day TV dramas.
Opera, on the other hand, arose out of a much different tradition. Around the middle 1500s, Florentine intellectuals became enrapt by the traditions of the ancients, namely Greek literature. Part of what they determined was that Greek literature had achieved such emotional depth because it was almost entirely sung. This led to the development of opera’s most notable feature, what the Encyclopedia Britannica calls “a highly inflected form of solo vocalization somewhere between speech and song.” In some respects, opera was just as concerned with this relationship (song and speech) as it was with the ancients. As such, it became a humanist tradition. Similarly, unlike melodrama, it has yet to fade out as an art form intended for the stage.

Tod Slaughter: A Melodramatic Influence

Tod Slaughter is a virtually unknown name in name in cinema, however this obscure 1930’s British melodrama actor and director deserves at least a certain amount of historical interest. He’s best known for being one of the first to transpose Victorian melodramas to the cinema, some of his significant works include: Maria Martin, Sweeny Todd, Jack Sheppard, and The Silver King. Even during his time his films were dismissed as being “crude, brainstorming exercises, mere filmed stage plays rather than cinematic experiences”(Richards, 140). What then if any is the historical interest behind this seemingly third rate actor and director from the 1930’s? In the case of Tod Slaughter it’s his flaws rather than his virtues that make him interesting.

By adapting the Victorian melodrama to cinema Tod Slaughter’s seemingly second rate films has significant influence on modern horror movies. Melodrama’s in their original form were mimed to music, so the overacting, extravagant gestures, and musical accompaniment transferred easily to the silent screen (156 Richards). But when the “talkies” started coming out cinema experienced a shift, a shift that many of the best silent film actors and actresses couldn’t survive. Slaughter’s, Sweeny Todd for example retains this highly theatrical element. Highly characteristic of the melodrama are over exaggerated roles of hero and villain, the stories focus mostly on plot with very little character development.

Slaughters films are extremely true to this style. After watching Sweeny Todd, what may at first seems campy, actually draws you in. And the charisma both characters (Tod, and Todd) seem to mix so well that you cant help but to enjoy Slaughter’s adaptation of the classic melodrama. Graham Greene a critic from The Spectator describes him saying “Mr. Tod Slaughter is certainly one of our finest living actors…that dancing sinister step the shoulder and flickering eyelid…you go to laugh but find yourself immediately- from ingenious titling on- in the grip of the fine firm traditional dialogue.” (141, Roberts). This is where I think Slaughter and the melodrama’s influence can be most felt in modern American horror cinema. We go to slasher film not because we think were going to see something mildly realistic or even that scarry. We go because we love being transported into an alternate reality where the nuances of good and evil, ugly and beautiful are simple and exciting. And of course we go for the characters. When I watched Todd Slaughter’s Sweeny Todd I was reminded of character’s that were although overacted an melodramatic completely irresistible; Jason, Freddy Kruger, and Chucky to name only a few famous fiends. Its only another example of how even the oldest theatrical strategies retain their influence through adaptations. Sweeny Todd (1936 film)

Richards, Jeffrey. "The Unknown 1930s: an Alternative ..." Google Books. Web. 28 May 2011. <http://books.google.com/books?id=g1icpzTz6gcC

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