Pet Sounds: A series in which teaching staff and students from the English Department reflect on a piece of music or song. [Read all entries.] [Revisit the “Headspace” series.] [Revisit the “Ongoing” series.] [Revisit the “Interrogative” series.]
I have always appreciated melodrama – in storytelling, that is. Even as I have got older and more jaded, this sentiment remains unshaken. I love the larger-than-life characters, the outsized emotions, and the all-consuming totality of the worlds rendered. A good melodrama can serve as the perfect antidote to a world that often feels too quotidian, too normal, and too sane. When you give yourself up without reservation to melodrama, you immerse yourself in a world complete and full, in and of itself. It is the beginning and end of the world. Nothing exists outside of it.
My affinity with melodrama in art is probably not one shared by many others. Even the word itself is often tinged with negative connotations. I get it. Melodrama is full of excess. With so much seemingly uncontainable emotion and sincerity, the scales can easily be tipped to the other side so it appears ridiculous, forced, and unsubtle. One time I was in the cinema watching Far from the Madding Crowd, and during a climactic scene between the two leads, while I was completely engrossed in their declaration of love against the unforgiving circumstances that life threw them into, the person sitting next to me let out a laugh which shocked me out of my immersive reverie. It was as if we were watching completely different films. It takes a special kind of emotional constitution to attune oneself to the melodramatic imagination.
For me, at the heart of a melodrama is usually a great love story: a pair of star-crossed individuals whose love is so intense that it threatens to unleash Ragnarok upon a mundane world which seeks to trap them and keep their passion in check. Sometimes fate cuts in, sometimes the lovers themselves stand in their own way, but no matter how things turn out, the world can never be the same again. Stephen Sondheim’s musical Passion perhaps best epitomises this formulation.
Based on Ettore Scola’s 1981 film Passione d’amore, Passion tells the story of a handsome young soldier, Giorgio, who at first resists the obsessive adoration from his Colonel’s plain and ailing cousin Forsca, but eventually comes to realise that her love for him is more than any he has ever known. They ultimately consummate their love (see clip below) before Forsca passes away.
Back when I was in college and had to take twenty-hour journeys by train back and forth between home and university, the original cast recording of Passion was my best travel companion. When you are trapped in close confinement for that length of time with crowds of strangers and all the attendant reminders of life’s dreariness, nothing spirits you away quite like a good melodrama.
Watch the original Broadway production of Passion in its entirety here.
Listen to the cast recording on Spotify here.
Holden Liang Qichao is a PhD student at the Department of English Language and Literature. [Click here to read all pieces by Holden.]