Arias and recitatives
The opera is a fascinating art form combining both text and music to dramatize a story. Most operas contain both arias and recitatives. The aria is the full blown and usually passionate singing in an operatic piece that highlights a key emotional or narrative theme of the story. The recitative is the “connective tissue” that maintains the storyline between narratives. It is usually more speech than music. I am by no means an opera expert, but in thinking about these two components of opera, I see a strong analogy to the creative process.
In my book, The Art of Invention, I talk about the “staircase of creativity.” I describe how it is almost impossible to be constantly creative. One often goes through significant dry periods between creative ideas or breakthroughs. The step of a stair has a flat horizontal section called the tread which we stand on to gain our footing and a vertical section called the riser which we step above to gain height. By design, the tread is longer than the riser. I compare the riser to the creative burst and the tread to the “latency” that precedes the burst of creativity. It struck me that the opera analogy is similar. It seems that nothing is happening during the latency period but in fact, your unconscious mind is working very hard preparing for the creative breakthrough. When the creative breakthrough comes, it sings out vibrantly. Unfortunately, the latency period, like the recitative can seem to go on and on. Creative people will often feel very frustrated during the latency period. They will think that they are “completely blocked” or that they are “finished and will never have a creative idea again.” All creative people go through this frustration.
But like the operatic recitative, this latency period is a necessity for the next aria. In opera the recitative not only connects the story line but builds anticipation for the dramatic release of the forthcoming aria. Our creativity works the same way; our unconscious is always working, processing thoughts and sensory inputs in ways that we cannot fathom. It makes connections that we would not normally make and when the moment of creativity comes, it has laid the groundwork for the breakthrough.
While creative breakthroughs are exhilarating, the latency periods that precede them are disheartening. Often after a creative breakthrough, we become very depressed. Sometimes, the more successful our breakthrough, the more depressed we become. “I’ll never be able to do something like that again,” we think. But the truth is, we will. As I say in The Art of Invention, “If our creativity stems from unconscious connections, we need to accept that these connections are not made according to any predetermined schedule.” It is all part of a cycle; the recitative that precedes the aria.