When people hate opera
, they hate the works of Richard Wagner
. They hate that they are big and fat
in every sense they could be. Big fat stories
, big fat orchestras
, big fat stages
, and big fat women
. Those same people are the ones who love the most successful opera of all time: Star Wars
Calling Star Wars an opera sometimes offends people, but the musical and non-musical aspects that Wagner's operas share with Star Wars are numerous. The most obvious correlation is how John Williams' score uses leitmotif, a technique perfected by Wagner.
In Wagner, every important character, idea, place, or object is assigned a musical theme (leitmotif) that identifies it. The music reinforces the idea every time it appears. The great part of it is that as the idea changes throughout the course of the work, the leitmotif changes with it. When the hero is heroic, the leitmotif is played heroically. When he is in love, it is played romantically. When he dies, it is a song of death. In addition, leitmotives are combined to form new ideas. For example, the helm of power has a leimotif, and the hero has a leitmotif, but when the hero dons the great helmet of power, they are combined into one seamless line.
John Williams, the composer of the Star Wars score, borrows heavily from Wagner (among other sources) in his work. Each important idea in the Star Wars canon has its own leitmotif. In fact, the leitmotives belonging to Luke and Leia are very similar to the themes originally used by Wagnerian heroes.
At the beginning of A New Hope, Luke watches the suns set, wondering what his destiny in the world could be. His leitmotif is played whistfully and slowly to reinforce this idea. Later, when he is in the midst of rescuing Leia, his theme is stronger, more percussive, and rhythmic. Essentially, the same notes are being played, but the style with which they are played makes all the difference in the tone of the scene.
Even earlier in the film, the audience is introduced to the real main character of the narrative, Darth Vader. His leitmotif, which he shares (essentially) with The Empire itself, is brassy, martial, and threatening. Most of the reason that Darth Vader has entered our collective culture as a symbol of evil and oppression is because Williams' music is so effective in conveying the idea. In Return of the Jedi, when Luke is burning Vader's corpse on a pyre, the leitmotif that was once so evil is now a slow death march.
The Empire Strikes Back is generally considered the best of the films so far. Musically, the film has a much darker tone than any of the others, because The Empire wins. All the heroes are captured and Han Solo is sent off to be wall decoration in Jabba's Palace. The somber tone of the film is set off, however, by the story of the blooming love of Solo and Leia. The two characters are both so proud in A New Hope that their leitmotives are strident when coincidental. In Empire, their themes begin to grow more lush and romantic because they find themselves falling in love with each other despite themselves.
The Star Wars films would hold only a shadow of their greatness without the music of John Williams. He was able to recognize Star Wars for the opera it is, and used the highly effective techniques of a man who lived 100 years before to reinforce the mythic status of the characters that make the Star Wars universe so great.