THE OPERATIC CONVENTION
THE SIMPLEST WAY of describing what an opera is is to say that it is a play set to music. In some operas, such as those of Wagner, the music is continuous from the beginning of an act to the end of it; in others, such as the earlier operas of Verdi, the music is continuous, but it is broken up into pieces that we can recognize as songs, and in many theatres the audience applauds them and even encores them. If we listen to an opera by Mozart, we may find that the songs, duets, etc, are separated by what is called recitative, a sort of mongrel thing that is neither plain talking nor real singing, accompanied by uninteresting chords on a pianoforte. Readers of Dickens will remember that Mr. Skimpole in Bleak House had a curious habit (being a gentleman of dangerously artistic tastes) of conducting ordinary domestic conversation in recitative, playing his own pianoforte accompaniment. And there are other operas, generally of a comic type, in which the business of the play is carried on in ordinary speech, but every now and then the characters burst into song.
Children and uneducated people who see an ordinary play for the first time in their lives often suppose that what happens on the stage is "real" and not pretence. It may take them some little time, perhaps indeed several visits to the theatre, before they can adjust their minds to the convention by which we receive some emotional excitement, whether tragic or comic, from what we are watching on the stage, while the whole time we know perfectly well that it is all mere pretending. Persons who have had a little more experience of theatre. going soon begin to discover that even in an ordinary play of modern life things do not happen exactly as they do in the world of reality; but there is at any rate some illusion of reality, and certain authors, actors, and producers take endless pains to be as realistic as they possibly can, just as certain portrait-painters try to paint as much like