By Michael W. Harris
“Oh my hero, so far away now.
Will I ever see your smile?
Love goes away, like night into day.
It’s just a fading dream.”
That is how Celes’ famous aria, the “Aria di Mezzo Carattere,” begins in Ted Woolsey’s translation for the original American version of Final Fantasy VI. And it will always be how I remember the lyrics.
It is hard to overestimate just how powerful this scene was for me as a fourteen-year-old music nerd. I had been playing musical instruments since I was in either Kindergarten or first grade (hard to remember exactly when I started), and by the time FFVI rolled around I had already learned piano, clarinet, and bassoon. I listened to classical music because I honestly loved it, and had been in love with film music for as long as I could remember.
I also knew about the opera scene from reading Nintendo Power and was sure that I had to get the game for this part alone. The rest was just a bonus.
Needless to say, I was very excited when I finally arrived to the Opera House during my play through, and I was not disappointed. Check out the whole scene below, sadly not captured from my cartridge because I don’t have the time to replay the game just to get to the scene.
Note: The actual opera starts around 4:20.
The music is soaring, the opera plot is touching, and the whole side plot with Ultros is just weird and funny—Ultros strikes me now as a nice counterweight to the maniacal Kefka, keeping the game from being too dark. But if there is one fault I can find in the whole scene, it is that there is no way that Celes could have learned all of her lines in the short amount of time afforded to her! But that is just me getting nitpicky and holding a game to real life standards.
For as much as I love this scene, I have also found it to be the one that I am the most critical of when it comes to live performances. Maybe it is because I am a classically trained musician and a lifelong music nerd. Maybe it is because my memories of this scene are so strong, despite the fact that I only ever played through it once over twenty years ago. Maybe it is just because I am a hypercritical fanboy.
But whatever the reason, the music from the opera scene is the one that I am the most critical of on orchestral arrangement albums, and I have only ever found one that measures up…and it is only after tireless searching and research for this post that I have uncovered where it comes from. More on that later, though. Let’s first examine the more easily accessible versions of the opera’s orchestral arrangements.
Much like the previous entry in this series, we begin with the album Final Fantasy VI Grand Finale.
This version contains only Celes’ “Aria di Mezzo Carattere,” and not the entire opera, unlike the other versions I will discuss.
Side note: “Aria di Mezzo Carattere” translates as “Aria of Half Character,” though Google Translate also renders it as ‘Air Vehicle Character,’ which is interesting since the entire point of the opera sequence is to gain access to Setzer’s Air Ship.
Overall, this performance is good, and the soloist, while maybe a bit too Italian operatic for my taste in this context, is also quite good. But the recordings on Grand Finale are all lacking in fidelity, sounding like they were recorded in a giant pit with someone randomly selecting levels on the mixing board. Not to mention that some of the orchestral playing is a bit lacking in places.
Also, the harpsichord on the recording strikes me as a strange choice. Maybe they couldn’t find a harpist? Overall, not the greatest recording of the Aria in my humble opinion. Though the album itself is worth picking up if you are a fan of FFVI and the music.
The second version comes from the first Distant Worlds album, and is also the arrangement that I heard performed by the St. Louis Symphony in 2012. Indeed, when I was selecting which of the two performances I wanted to see, I selected the one with the opera performance on the program.
The Distant Worlds version is probably the one that is most faithful to the original game, though it is lacking the narration text, something that is included in at least one other version I know of. But, even with the knowledge that it is among the most faithful renderings of the opera, I still find parts of it lacking. And I must admit my reasons for this are not very good. It really boils down to that it was not the first orchestral arrangement of the opera that I heard. It shortens what are really repetitive sections, tightens up the entire arrangement, which makes it much shorter than many other arrangements. In the end, though, my reasons for it not being my favorite is that it wasn’t the first one I heard. Part of me is certain that had I encountered this version first, it would probably be my favorite, mainly because the overall quality of the performance and recording is the best.
Before I get to that favorite, though, I have one other version of the opera that I want to discuss: The Black Mages.
I will discuss this group a bit more in depth in the next post, but their brief bio is that Nobuo Uematsu put together a metal band, The Black Mages, and for many years they would do limited shows in which they would perform metal/hard rock arrangements of Final Fantasy music. For me, the group is a bit of a mixed bag. Some tunes don’t really need such treatment, while others become epically awesome with it! The opera is the former, while I will talk about the latter case in my next post in this series.
I will honestly say that while there are things to like about this arrangement, especially its inclusion of the narration present in the game, the entire track strikes me as a bit problematic. The guitar driven style just does not mesh well with the opera, especially since the original is classically oriented in the game. While many progressive metal bands can do more emotional ballads, this version of the opera is entirely unnecessary and, I feel, hard to listen to. The inclusion of this track on the album actually put me off buying it for many years. I finally broke down and picked it up specifically for the purposes of this post.
Okay, so finally after so much build up, here is, hands down, my favorite version of the opera and it was only by scouring YouTube while writing this post that I have finally discovered its origins. It is a recording from the fourth Orchestral Game Music Concert and was performed by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra in 1994, the year the game was released!
For years, I was stymied by trying to identify its origins because I picked the mp3 off of Napster back in the early 2000s when I was in undergrad. For those of you old enough to remember Napster, you might also remember just how bad/inaccurate the metadata was.
So why do I like it the best? Well, while some of the performance is a bit lacking, much like the Grand Finale version, and while it also takes some liberties to smooth out transitions between sections, and it also doesn’t include the narration…well, I feel like that as a piece of music, it flows the best. It has a sense of narrative and flow. Of all the arrangements I have heard, it works the best as a standalone work. When you get to end, it feels complete. The other, shorter performances feel truncated to me.
Though I might also be biased since it was the first complete version of the opera I ever came across and I probably listened to it for ten or more years before I ever encountered another recording of it.
Regardless of what version I listen to, though, what strikes me most about the opera is the life it has taken on outside of FFVI. In the game, the sequences lasts for maybe 30-minutes (if you include the battles), while the game itself has around 50 hours of gameplay. So the opera is maybe 1% of total gameplay time at best. Yet, these thirty minutes have a reputation that far surpasses almost any other part of the game.
So why is that?
To begin to possibly explain this phenomenon, I return to Ryan Thompson’s model of reading the entire game as an opera. If we accept his proposition, as I believe we should, then it is easy to understand why the opera is so famous. Like Shakespeare’s play within a play, the opera within an opera is the key to understanding the game. One could even take the opera’s story of the two great warring nations (the Empire vs. the rest of the World, or even Kefka vs. the Emperor), a resistance made up of defeated warriors (the Returners), and the two lovers (Celes and Locke) as metanarrative for the game itself. But such a deeper analysis is beyond the scope of this post.
Maybe if we bombard Ryan’s twitter account he will expand his research on the topic?
Though I would hate to see him react negatively to such encouragement and begin dancing like a mad man.
~End Act III~