I have had, over the past 20 years or so that I’ve been trying to write science fiction, and on one or two occasions, to answer the question, “What is space opera?” It’s a fair question given that space opera is the type of science fiction I write, and that it is probably the most popular subgenre of the overall class of science fiction literature. The most common variation of the question has to do with the word “opera,” not so much the “space” part of it. Most people, even those who don’t read or write sci-fi, are aware, to one degree or another, that sci-fi takes place largely in outer space. That concept is so well ingrained in the popular consciousness it needs little further commentary.
To try and answer the question, let’s look at “space opera” itself. In his excellent introduction to the space opera anthology, “Infinite Stars,” Robert Silverberg reveals that the phrase was coined by Wilson (“Bob”) Tucker, an early science fiction writer, in 1941. He derived his term from the older term “soap opera” which arose in the 1930’s to refer to long-running dramatic radio shows (starting on radio and continuing into television) often sponsored by soap manufacturers, and from the similar term, “horse opera,” for low-budget westerns.
But what about the “opera” part of the phrase? What does space opera, as I was once asked, have to do with opera? My feeling is, nothing, and it’s kind of misleading to label space stories “opera,” as though there was some connection to the musical genre. I don’t know why soap got connected with opera, and I can’t really imagine, since the two are so different. Possibly it refers to the fact that soap opera or space opera tell a story, as does opera. But space opera could just as easily be “space stories,” or “space novels.” I say forget opera; just look at the story.
The connection to opera also fails due to the fact that in opera, the most important element is the music, not the story. Operas are designed to present music. With a full orchestra and singers, and tenors and sopranos and altos and bassos, and usually a chorus to fill out other vocal characters, opera presents music in all its forms and styles. It’s the reason for the production’s existence. As a result, it has little in common with outer space stories. (I have no doubt, though, someone will eventually write a real “space opera,” set in outer space or on another planet. But still, the music will be the foremost aspect of the production.) Granted, opera does tell a story, but the music is the overriding factor, not the story. The music is everything. In fact, some stories in opera are rather thin, not much more than a vehicle for the “Bel Canto,” the “beautiful singing.” Some operas, such as Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, are magnificent in scope and production, (they can be five to six hours long) and tell a great story, but in the end, it’s the music, both vocal and instrumental, that make the opera. We don’t go to an opera to see a story; we go to hear the music. Conversely, we go to see Star Wars to experience the story, not simply to listen to the music.
So, what does music have to do with space opera? Nothing. Forget about it.