English, Department of


Date of this Version

July 2006


Text, music, and video from a paper delivered in the People's Republic of China, June 2006. Copyright © 2006 James Ford.


In both the East and the West the relationship between opera and literature is ancient and profound. As the Disciples of the Pear Garden would know, many of the most popular works of the Beijing Opera are based on famous Chinese historical novels. And when a group of late Sixteenth-Century Italians created Western opera they were trying to revive Greek tragedy. (They knew that Greek tragedy was sung in some fashion and the speaking-to-music we know as recitiative was their attempt to reproduce that ancient practice.) Of course, many, many Western operas have been based on plays, novels, and short stories.

But my focus is not the uses of literature in opera. Rather, it is the way authors have used opera in their literary works, and the implications of such usage for readers.

Suppose a writer needs to cause a character to fall down. He or she will have choices. A merely good writer will put any old object in the path of the character to trip him up. A better writer will select a stumbling block very carefully, one that will not only perform the required function—to trip up the character—but an object that will also convey some significant meaning. For instance, the object might be something that was given to the character by another character that he had wronged. Then the object adds an element of irony to the incident— perhaps making the “fall” both literal and figurative. The same thing is true of all elements in a work of literature: they can be functional but empty of significance or they can function and be inherently meaningful. Music is one such element that can be used differentially by good and great writers.

A piece of music may be referred to in a literary work merely to provide sound—for instance, in a novel there might be a radio in a room playing music that may add verisimilitude to the scene. Or, at the next, relatively low, level, the music may create a particular atmosphere, like the soundtrack of a movie that adds to the energy of a scary scene. Or, at a more significant level, the particular piece of music may be chosen to reveal something important about a character’s nature or state of mind, or it may develop a theme, or even advance the plot.

The PDF document contains links to online music and video files. The links were established and verified on July 20, 2006. The linked files are all free and open-access; they do not require purchase, registration, or log-ins.

The links are also included separately as supplemental PDF and MS Word files.

Reading with Ears--LINKS.doc (50 kB)
MS Word file of audio & video links

LINKS for Reading with Your Ears.pdf (14 kB)
PDF file of audio and video links