The lights go down. Deep rumbling drums shake the very foundations of the earth. Powerful chords from mithral lyres shatter the darkness. In an explosion of light, sound and syncopation, the masters of rock and stone take the stage! And the diminutive audience roars! BANG YOUR HEAD! This is dwarven opera. The loudest, heaviest music in the Flanaess, the violent collision of hard rocks and screaming hot metal. Welcome to the forge!
Songs of the Flanaess - Dwarven Opera
By: Glenn Vincent Dammerung, aka GVDammerung
Dwarven opera is the oldest known operatic tradition. While there is significant scholarly debate as to whether and to what degree dwarven opera influenced the initial development of mannish opera, most scholars agree that dwarven opera has had a significant influence, initially or subsequently, on mannish opera. One need look no further than the works of Karyl Evard Vagnar to see this influence. Vagnar’s high theatrics and alternatingly heavy and soaring scores bear more than a passing resemblance to dwarven compositions both in a musical sense and in terms of pure dramatics.
All dwarven opera is high drama. Its themes are uniformly epic. Musically, dwarven opera is highly percussive, using a variety of uniquely dwarven percussion instruments, such as the bass war drum, the dwarven rock drum and the admantine cymbal. Stringed instruments are almost as distinctive and include the stone harp and mithral lyre. Dwarven opera has been described as having a "heavy" or "booming" quality, punctuated by crescendos of strings. To the untrained ear, dwarven operatic compositions may seem atonal or even chaotic. With sufficient exposure, however, the harmonies amidst the percussive onslaught and the quick string harmonies may be recognized and appreciated.
Vocally, dwarven opera is as often almost shouted or screamed as much as sung, with chanted refrains being quite common. The result is a complex polyphonic effect that well compliments the music. Those unaccustomed to dwarven vocal stylings may be surprised at the range of the dwarven voice. Of course, not all dwarves have the ability to sing opera, just as not every human can sing mannish opera. Dwarven tenors, sopranos, alto and bass voices are almost all male, however, again distinguishing dwarven opera from the mannish sort, where women dominate the soprano range and sing as many alto parts as men. Some few humans who have attempted dwarven operatic roles and proven successful have won great respect among dwarves.
Finding an opportunity to hear dwarven opera is, unfortunately, not easy. In the Flanaess, there are two principle venues outside of a dwarven hold. In both Gyrax in the Principality of Ulek and in the free city of Irongate, special concert halls have been constructed just for dwarven opera. While dwarven opera can be performed in any concert quality hall, the acoustics in the dwarven concert halls in Gyrax and Irongate are specially designed to best showcase the unique qualities of dwarven operatic productions. The popularity of dwarven opera among non-dwarves in Gyrax and Irongate is such that there is no reason to suppose the operatic form would not prove popular outside of areas with large dwarven populations if given proper exposure. However, with few exceptions, dwarven opera remains largely a racial speciality.
Those listening to dwarven opera need to understand that its form is somewhat different than that of mannish opera, which has a variety of forms and is generally quite flexible and adaptable. Dwarven opera is always performed in three, and only three, acts. The first and third acts are entirely sung. The second act is spoken, like a play. The relationship between the first and third acts and the second act is complex. The first act tends to foreshadow the second act, while the third act presents a dramatic resolution of themes developed in the second act but also reprises themes from the first act. Coming in part way through a performance will often leave a viewer mystified as to what is going on, and is considered the height of bad taste. While dwarven opera has a libretto, unlike mannish opera, there is a substantial improvisational aspect to the actual performance, with more famous performers taking greater liberties.
What follows is a catalog of the classic dwarven operas. If any opera of dwarven composition is performed outside of a dwarven hold or the confines of Gyrax or Irongate, it is likely to be one of these compositions. No composer or dates for first performance are given as all of these operas are ancient, even by dwarven standards.
Moradin’s Forge (drama)
Note - A libretto was published in Gyrax in 110 CY. There has been no subsequent republication.
Act I - Hammers High (March of the Dwarven Gods)
Act II - The Anvil
Act III - By This Axe I Rule
Moradin’s Forge tells the creation story of the dwarves and the crowning of the first dwarven king. The chief dramatic conflict is between Moradin and Abbathor. Abbathor attempts to usurp Moradin’s creation of the dwarves and, when he fails, he then attempts to corrupt them. All of the dwarven gods appear on stage but Moradin and Abbathor have the largest roles. Interestingly, Moradin’s Forge is not considered a religious work but a secular work of history. Hammers High is as close to a universal dwarven anthem as exits, as the piece is often used as a war march. By This Axe I Rule, contrastingly, is extremely popular, so much so that, divorced from its meaning within the opera, it is often sung by dwarves as either a triumphal song or as a battle hymn. No disrespect is taken from either of these uses.
King Under the Mountain (drama)
Note - A libretto was published in Gyrax in 440 CY. There has been no subsequent republication.
Act I - Hammer and Shield
Act II - Under Hills Across Chasm’s Wide
Act III - The Mountain King’s Return
King Under the Mountain is a hero’s journey tale made into an opera. It tells the story of an early dwarven king wrongfully dispossessed of his throne. Before he can reclaim his crown and avenge himself on his usurpers, he must first undertake a dangerous journey into the bowels of Oerth to find a mythical weapon - the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords. Returning with the Axe, the king regains his throne and meets out justice. As in most hero journeys, however, there is a great deal of mysticism, allegory and philosophy intermixed with the otherwise straightforward plot. One of the densest dwarven operas, one can learn a great deal about how dwarves see themselves and their concepts of honor, justice, duty, wisdom and mercy from King Under the Mountain. Deeper meanings are also said to permeate the music and dialog but to decipher such one must study the opera more than casually, as well as have a good understanding of dwarves to begin with.
The Fall of Radrunndar (Tragedy)
Note - No know libretto has been generally published.
Act I - Hammers Ring in Ancient Halls
Act II - The Axe (of the Dwarvish Lords)
Act III - Silence Falls (Shattered Halls)
The Fall of Radruundar tells the story of the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords, its loss and the fall of the fabled dwarven kingdom of Radruundar. This is a very straightforward opera. It is also surprisingly lyric for a dwarven composition. Dwarven audiences can be particularly effected by a strong production of the opera, often sitting in stoney silence after the first Act. Non-dwarves have attempted to find in the details of the production some hints or clues as to the location of either Radrunndar or the Axe itself. None have been successful as far as is known. Dwarves from whom advice has been sought have been silent on the subject at best and monumentally offended at worst. The Axe holds a special place in dwarven history, being highly revered. While no dwarven opera is strictly religious, The Fall of Radruundar, albeit for purely secular reasons, comes close to such reverence.
Between the Hammer and the Anvil (drama)
Note - A libretto was published in Gyrax in 220 CY. There has been no subsequent republication.
Act I - March of the Giants to War
Act II - By Moradin’s Beard (Battle Cry of the Dwarves)
Act III - The Breaking of Stonebones
Between the Hammer and the Anvil is a famous opera in its own right but is also representative of an entire sub-genre of dwarven operas - the war story. In the instant opera, the dwarves confront their greatest racial enemy, the giants, and naturally triumph. In many other operas, the giants could be replaced with any number of foemen - orcs, goblins, bugbears, dragons etc. As is the case in other such operas, the climatic battle takes place in the third Act. Dwarven audiences usually get quite worked up by the close of these productions, which often seem as much a communal riot as an artistic production. Non-dwarven audience members are often taken aback by the conduct of the audience, if not outright frightened and put to flight. With but few exceptions, however, the audience rarely becomes truly violent. However, because weapons are not forbidden at dwarven operas, one never knows.