I spent six hours at the opera yesterday, seeing one single opera (though most are only ~2-3 hours long) that is almost never staged. The music is absolutely beautiful, and the storyline is compelling and moving, with moments of drama, comedy, love, war, despair and more all wonderfully interwoven. And yet, this opera is rarely performed and is usually chopped into pieces even when it is, because it is quite frankly too grandiose, intimidating, and expensive a venture.
I'm talking about The Trojans, an undeniable masterpiece by Berlioz. For years, he hesitated to write this work at all, despite having been inspired by the Aeneid as a young child. In addition to the demands of the process itself, of the need to do these characters justice, Berlioz feared the failure of this opera. And the heartbreaking thing is, he was right. According to the program notes, The Trojans wasn't even once performed in its entirety during his lifetime. Occasionally, selected slices were pieced together, misrepresenting the work and leading to both critical and popular disdain. Of course, it didn't help that the style Berlioz chose blatantly contradicted what was popular at the time.
So what are we, as creators, to do? Do we avoid the intimidating ideas and pushing boundaries of what the public has come to expect? Or do we resign ourselves to the almost inevitable failure of visionary work — within our lifetimes, that is.
I have never written something that falls into that category, and I don't claim to have that level of talent. But I do have an idea that has been (not so) patiently waiting for me to have the guts to sit down and write it. Waiting mostly until I felt ready to do the characters justice. And though this idea is undeniably a romance, it will at the very least push against the standards of the romance genre. So do I write it and shelve it? Never write it at all, leaving these characters and their story safe in my mind? Or do I brave the demands of this story and send it out into the world regardless?
Berlioz obviously did the last of these. Countless other creative people have done the same, destined to be under-appreciated in their own time but then venerated for centuries to come after their death. Countless more likely never tried, or failed to such an extent that their work never did reach the audience whose lives it might have changed.
If we wrote for the sake of the work itself, we would be content with the option of slaving away, reaching a level that is personally satisfying, and then (metaphorically at this point) shelving the manuscript. There's a reason we strive to put our work out there, to be experienced by others — a reason Berlioz did so despite his spot-on misgivings — and a reason we're heartbroken when the work we pour our souls into doesn't seem to take root among the public.
Difficult as it is to write any story well, it is significantly easier to follow the beaten path, giving our audience what both they and we know they want. So what does it take to convince us to forge an unconventional path, and risk getting lost? And why do creative people continue to do so despite the history of related heartache?
If you have an answer, I hope you will be generous enough to share it in the comments.