“No good opera plot can be sensible. … People do not sing when they are feeling sensible.” — W.H. Auden, 1961
We all know what an opera is, and even if we’ve never seen a soap opera, we’ve all had the feeling at some point that our life feels like one. But how did these art forms get their names, and are they really related?
The word opera means “work” in Italian (it is the plural of the Latin word opus, meaning “work” or “labor”). Its usage as a noun describing a staged spectacle combining the arts of solo and choral singing, declamation, acting and dancing ( ie. a lot of hard work by many!) dates back to the late 16th and early 17th century. The earliest such composition recognized today as an opera — Dafne, by Jacopo Peri — was written in about 1597. (The score to Peri’s later opera Euridice, which he wrote in 1600, is the first opera score to have survived to the present day, and the earliest known opera that is still performed regularly today is Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, composed for the court of Mantua in 1607.) In the mid-18th century, the word opera broadened its usage to describe a whole genre of dramatic and performing art, rather than just a single staged production.
So how did we go from the lofty art form of centuries past to the modern-day soap opera — a radio/TV serial typically broadcast during the day about a cast of recurring characters whose interwoven lives are usually beset by high drama, emotion, suspense, romance, conflict, and moral and sexual predicaments? Well, I think we’ve just described a typical opera plot, which is generally built on melodrama and demands a necessary suspension of disbelief from the audience: so we’re good on the opera front. But why the soap?
The word opera was already in use in a non-operatic context several years before soap operas came into being. Horse opera was a popular term in the 1920s referring to film, radio or TV westerns (ie. theatrical films or programs depicting adventures in the American Old West); another name for “horse opera” — adopted slightly later, in the ’30s — was “oat opera”, or “oater”.
Clara, Lu and Em was the first radio drama of its kind — not about cowboys and Indians in the Wild West, but about real humdrum people leading less than humdrum lives. Written and performed by a trio of sorority sisters from Northwestern University (and originally conceived as a theatrical sketch), the show followed the lives of three women living in a small-town duplex. Starting life in 1930 on Chicago’s WGN-AM just three evenings a week, it quickly gained in popularity, getting picked up by NBC’s “Blue” syndication network and moving to daily daytime hours, where it was sponsored by Colgate Palmolive. And so began a tradition of daytime radio dramas sponsored by soap manufacturers whose commercials targeted the house-proud launderers of the daytime hours: stay-at-home housewives tuned to a wireless world that magically transported them to lives and loves more dramatic than their own. The soap opera was born.