April 22, 2019

The Science of Opera

While we know that the studies of math and music have often been linked, with music theory appearing mathematical and with analytical approach, as well as music being particularly vital in early childhood development, the most fascinating studies now are about the body’s physical reaction to music. One such study in this area was conducted by Stephen Fry and Alan Davies, with the Royal Opera House in 2013, studying the effect art has on our bodies during a production of Simon Boccanegra, by Giuseppi Verdi.

The Science of Opera at the Royal Opera House was a captivating exploration of how emotional peaks and experiences triggered physical responses to the production. Professor Trimble, Professor Christopher Mathias, and then PhD student Andrew Owens from University College London were all on hand at the discussion to support the findings from the study. Fry and Davies were hooked up to devices tracking their blood pressure, heart rate, and sweat gland activity during the exciting performance of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, and the results were riveting. While Fry’s sweat gland production rose after a cocktail at intermission, the observance of heart rate changes and pacing was most notable.

During the peaks of the opera, most remarkably, both Fry’s and Davies’ heart rates increased synchronously. This remarkable discovery shows that collectively, an audience responds in similar physical patterns at the same time. Whether the sight of Fafner’s glowing dragon eyes in Siegfried makes your heart rate increase, or Mimi’s tragedy in La bohème sends your entire row into a collective sob, science and medical advances tell us that our bodies are communicating and understanding the art form we know and love together. So, rest assured, if you feel your blood pressure increase or particularly tense during the gripping 90 minutes of Elektra, by Richard Strauss, it’s likely that your neighbor is too.

Watch the full session below!

The Science of Opera with Stephen Fry and Alan Davies

Written by Anna VanDeKerchove