Being a child of the ‘80s, I was born into a group of peers that were less interested in watching laser discs of Joan Sutherland and more game to save Princess Toadstool from the clutches of Bowser.
For a time, it seemed like Mars and Venus. On Saturdays, my classmates played games manufactured in Japan while I went with my mother to see operas set in Japan and never the twain would meet. But by the time I was 17, I became a Grand Theft Auto addict thanks to my high school boyfriend and his observation that, when you stole a car, you could hear a radio station that played only opera (tooling around in a heisted vehicle while listening to the Champagne aria from Don Giovanni was, incidentally, the perfect way to offset college application stress).
In a refrain as timeless as the Brindisi from La Traviata, parents often caution against many video games, GTA included, for being “too violent.” However, opera—no matter how bloody—is encouraged as a cultural stimulant. That may be, but video games represent at the turn of this new century a means of choose-your-own-adventure opera. Why watch Belmonte rescue Konstanze when you can be Mario saving the Princess? Why hear Tosca shout “Muori, damnato, muori!” when you can shout the same at the green pigs in Angry Birds? Why listen to the connecting intricacies of a Philip Glass score when you can manifestly connect those same cogs yourself in Tetris?
It sounds harsh, but perhaps it softens the bloody tendencies of video games more than it cheapens the sentiment of opera. At their best, both are grandiose, explosive, immersive and obsessive. As later generations have become more interactive by default (see: Twitter, Facebook, comments sections and the like), opera thank the Wii or Xbox as a way of allowing the genre to be handled and manipulated by novices. Many of the more artful games have all of those gesamtkunstwerk elements, from movement and dramatic arcs to striking images to exceptional music.
It’s the music that draws the sharpest comparisons. As composer Philip Glass said in an interview for the NEA about the crumbling boundaries between opera and other musical art forms, “What we're finding in the younger generation is an ease with which a young [composer] can say, 'Well, I do video game music.' And at the same time they'll say, 'Would you like to see my new symphony?'” Today, people know by heart the themes to Tetris or Super Mario Bros much in the way Praguers hummed Le Nozze di Figaro or Italians strolled down the strada whistling Verdi. Final Fantasy VI even has a well-known opera scene, the genre weaving itself into the game’s 19th-century setting and structure.
With a newly released album, the London Philharmonic Orchestra amplifies these connections in The Greatest Video Game Music. The album concept, on first glance, may seem a bit cheesy—not to mention the cover art; a nod perhaps to the cellist of Sarajevo?—but the music is immensely listenable. The Angry Birds theme owes much to Dvorak and Brahms, the title theme from Tetris is a Cold War-style rhapsody, underwater music from Mario flows with the grace of a Lehár waltz, "One Final Efford" from Halo 3 is a lost Bartók piano concerto tempered with Copland-esque Americana, and the "Modern Warfare Main Menu Theme" from Call of Duty 4 is a work worthy of the International Contemporary Ensemble. Hearing it played by a full orchestra, one wonders when Domingo may add the character of Link from The Legend of Zelda to his ever-expanding repertoire.