The music of Final Fantasy VI's Opera
Final Fantasy VI's opera scene is much, much more than an unexpected set piece for a video game from 1994: it's a vital storytelling component, one that enriched both the game and its narrative.
This column is “The music of,” in which I’ll go into detail on the soundtrack or a piece of music from a video game. Previous entries in the series can be found through this link.
There is often some kind of set piece in a Final Fantasy game that grows in fame and notoriety, that persists well beyond the release date of the game, that fans of a particular game hold dear to them. The scene-setting opening to Final Fantasy IV, with airships on a mission, Final Fantasy VII’s chance to relax and bond with party members in the Gold Saucer, and so on. I’d argue that there is none more effective in the long history of Final Fantasy, though, than the opera scene from Final Fantasy VI. It very easily could have just been a funny thing to do, an unexpected turn — opera? in a video game? what will they think of next? — but it had a purpose well beyond that or even then-series composer Nobuo Uematsu showing off his proficiency.
No, the opera scene from Final Fantasy VI was an impressive feat in and of storytelling in video games. It seems ambitious even now, in a number of ways, but for 1994? For being just a few years removed from Final Fantasy as a series where the narrative was relatively thin, and you were free to customize characters to your heart’s desire? It’s astounding that the opera scene happened at all, in that context.
In Trevor Strunk’s recently released book, Story Mode: Video Games and the Interplay Between Consoles and Culture, he includes a chapter on Final Fantasy and its evolution over the years, which occurs because of (and later, in spite of) audience reception. Final Fantasy began as a series promising significant levels of control to the player, but with Final Fantasy IV, a shift had begun, one that would bring narratives with more depth that Square themselves had more control over. Players still had some measure of control and had choices to make, yes, but it all had less to do with the player’s own agency and more to do with the tale Square was trying to tell than it used to. Or, as it’s put in Story Mode, “It was satisfying to have control over largely flat characters, but as it turns out, being the ersatz Dungeon Master (or DM) of a group of fleshed-out, conflicted characters in a full narrative was exponentially more satisfying.”
There is no opera scene in Final Fantasy VI without this shift. Or maybe there is, but it’s a hollower effort, the kind of funny oddity described in this feature’s initial paragraph instead of what it is. Which is a massively effective bit of storytelling, by way of foreshadowing, projection, and reflection of the events the game’s characters have lived through and are yet to live through (that also just so happens to feature a wisecracking purple octopus). That would simply not be possible, its effect not nearly as great, were the characters of FFVI not the more “fleshed-out, conflicted characters in a full narrative” that the series shifted towards beginning with Final Fantasy IV.
Opera is a genre of theater where music plays a vital role in both the performance and the narrative, to the point that these shows have their own orchestra and conductor playing live music during said performance. Obviously, there are significant differences between the art forms, but opera does share its storytelling power of music with video games, which are certainly capable of using their sounds and songs to be more than just background, and to actually assist in the telling of a story and the setting of a mood that enhances the story itself. The idea to put an opera within a video game, then, was an ambitious and inspired one, but not an impossible one to pull off, and Final Fantasy VI’s designers and composer were up to the task. The composer, as was the case for every Final Fantasy at this time, was Nobuo Uematsu. No stranger to creating orchestral sounds on the Super Nintendo or penning lengthy, evocative compositions in video games by the time 1994 rolled around, Uematsu was a perfect fit for the task at hand, and it can certainly be argued that Final Fantasy VI’s soundtrack is the pinnacle of his work in the series, due to the kind of ambition that led to the creation of an opera within a video game.
It might seem odd, just because of how diametrically opposed “opera” and “video games” seem as art on the surface, that Uematsu was so well-suited to the task, but give it some thought and you’ll find the sense in the pairing. A role-playing game’s soundtrack must tell a story. It must reflect the events of the game, contextualizing them and giving them additional emotional resonance through sound. The music powering an opera must do the same. FFVI’s soundtrack is a couple of hours long, with the opera’s music comprising about 12 minutes of that total. Uematsu basically wrote a miniature game soundtrack within his game soundtrack, one that had to reflect the events occurring on stage, to lend them emotional weight and gravity, that could signal the change in mood from Draco’s pre-battle song for his love, Maria, to Maria’s pining for Draco and the world that was before his defeat at the hands of the empire, to the surprise attack of the remaining forces of Draco against the empire, in his bid to rescue the woman he loved but had been forcibly separated from due to war. Of course the opera worked, musically, given this. That’s just how composing for RPGs works in the first place, and Uematsu wasn’t new to that.
The story of the opera itself isn’t all that fascinating or unique — it’s rather cliche, but likely on purpose, so that the player can spend more time focusing on what it is the story of the opera is reflecting and projecting into Final Fantasy VI’s larger narrative. And its success in this is what makes it so memorable, and so powerful, decades after players first experienced it.
How did your party end up at an opera, anyway? You are searching for a way to reach the continent that the Gestahlian Empire’s capital resides on, and an airship that can evade their defenses seems to be the ticket. The only owner of an airship anyone is aware of just so happens to be in love with Maria, the opera singer… who former Gestahlian general and current rebel Celes just happens to be the spitting image of. Setzer, the airship owner and pilot, makes it known that he plans to kidnap Maria during her next performance. So, in need of a way to get in touch with Setzer, Celes plays the role of Maria — an “opera floozy,” as the extremely embarrassed former general puts it right before she slams the door behind her and starts her vocal warm-ups — in order to gain entry to his ship. Where she will then have to reveal that she is not Maria, but she is in need of Setzer and his airship.
It’s all funny, yes — again, a recurring boss fight against a talking purple octopus eventually occurs on stage while the orchestra plays an appropriate theme — and moves the main plot along, but that’s not the storytelling I’m referencing as powerful. Instead, it’s the more personal nature of the opera set piece, the portion of it that draws out more of who Celes is and who she believes she can be, the part that shows that there is something between Celes and Locke, the thief/treasure hunter who saved her from execution as a traitor by the empire for reasons both of them remain, at this point, unclear on.
How the scene itself further humanizes Celes, how it reflects her own journey in-game, is what makes it more than just some unexpected fun. Maria, the character Celes is playing, has been ripped from her home due to war, and is expected to become the bride of the prince of the empire — eventually, she will be queen to a man and a country she does not love. Celes, too, has been ripped from all she knows, and thrust into a new world, one she is unsure of, one that hasn’t quite accepted her, but one she, like Maria, cannot escape. Celes was basically an experimental soldier, infused with magical powers in order to see if she could become a vital piece of the empire’s ever-growing forces. She was a child when this happened to her, and the reason she becomes a general so young is because she was always raised with that future in mind. Her powers would lead her to victory, making up for a lack of experience which would come.
At least, that was the empire’s plan. Celes, once placed in a position of power, questioned authority and the brutality she was expected to unleash on the empire’s enemies. She was labeled a traitor, tortured by prison guards, and scheduled for execution. The only life she had known was now gone — it was one that made her unhappy and unsure of herself, but it was also the only one she knew. Locke rescued her from this actual and metaphorical prison by chance, but didn’t simply let her go — instead, he promised to protect Celes, who was certainly not fragile physically, but was clearly in need of support all the same while she tried to figure out what the point of continuing to live even was. Locke’s reasons for wanting to protect women were, at this point, still a mystery, but Celes was the second such woman he had pledged to look after, following Terra, who would also spend much of FFVI trying to find her own way and place in the world.
Celes’ turn as Maria gives her the first chance to be something other than a soldier. To this point, the Celes you know has been nothing but that: even after her defection to the rebel forces, she is still forced to fight, and it’s purposefully left unclear whether she’s fighting for or simply alongside the rest of the rebels out of convenience given her own situation. The truth is that Celes doesn’t even know the answer to that question yet. The opera allows her to further distance herself from the cold, hard life of a soldier, to prove to herself that she can be more than someone who simply follows orders: she goes on stage and puts on a convincing enough performance that Setzer goes through with his plan to kidnap Maria! And it also presents the first opportunity for Celes and Locke to begin to tiptoe around the fact they feelings for each other.
She has no one in her life, but Locke saved her, and vowed to protect her. That could have been an easily bungled or forgettable storyline, one in which Celes simply falls for Locke because oh, my hero! That’s not how it’s played, though. Before the two have even so much as hinted that there is something between them — other than Locke stumbling over his words when he sees what Celes looks like dressed up for the stage instead of for battle — Celes confronts Locke backstage, wondering if she is a replacement for Rachel, the woman Locke loved whom he failed to protect in his past. Rachel, the woman that is the reason Locke is so obsessed with protecting other vulnerable women in the present. It’s not just for their sake, but his own, too, to assuage his own guilt, to justify his continued existence when Rachel herself lives no longer. Celes needs to know, before she even opens herself up a little to the possibility of there being more to life than being a soldier, if Locke is capable of feeling something real for her. He dodges the question by complimenting her stage attire, which is the most honest answer he can give on the subject at this point.
Again, this is from 1994. That kind of depth in romantic storytelling doesn’t show up enough in modern games, never mind 26 years ago! The opera would further build on this relationship, though, thanks to “Maria’s” song that emphasizes her loneliness, her longing for the past, her desire to see her lost love Draco again, her hope that he can still save her from marrying the man responsible for taking her away from the life and love she knew. Celes, too, is at a crossroads, one where she must eventually make a decision about who she is, who she wants to be, and who she wants to be with, and the last of those not even just in a romantic sense. There are concerns throughout the game’s first half she might actually be a traitor, that she’s not truly one of the gang, and when antagonist Kefka labels her an imperial spy (because he’s pure chaos and an asshole), Locke, for the briefest of seconds, doubts her intentions. It is enough for Celes, never much presented as one who thought much of herself or her own worth, to once again bury herself under the protective emotional armor of a soldier, undoing the progress she had made as a member of the rebels, and it would be some time before the relationship between Locke and Celes repaired itself and progressed.
The two are clearly into each other, but neither is in a place where anything can happen with those feelings, both because of the state of the world and their fight to save it, as well as their own respective emotional states and the growth and moving on that needs to occur for them to be prepared for that kind of relationship with someone else. The game's narrative does not force the issue, either: not until the ending cutscene, when you're no longer in control, is the awkwardness, the past, fully put behind them, and we get a glimpse of a future together. Again, none of this is possible without the opera as a starting point for the two admitting to themselves — and intentionally or not, to each other — that there are even feelings between them, especially since it also opens the player’s eyes up to the possibility that something real is brewing here.
The game eventually circles back to the opera and its importance, but not until after the world as everyone knows it, not just Celes, falls to ruin. Whereas the first half of Final Fantasy VI primarily concerns itself with the physical and emotional journey of Terra as she seeks to find her place within the world, the game’s latter half, in the “World of Ruin,” centers more on Celes’ own personal journey and her search for not just an identity, but a reason to go on living. FFVI lacks an actual protagonist, but it does have a few members of its cast that it fleshes out and builds around far more, and Celes is one of them: she’d have to be, since the game’s second half begins with you in control of Celes, alone, on an island in the middle of nowhere. As far as she knows, she is on the last bit of land that exists in the world. And she feels a measure of responsibility for that, since it was her own attack on Kefka — following Celes’ declaration that she wishes she had never been born — that caused him to abandon sense and both literally and figuratively rearrange the world.
Celes attempts to care for the other survivor she finds on the island, who it turns out is someone she knows who is important to her past — [TW: suicide] there used to be more of them, but they all eventually gave up hope and their lives, flinging themselves from the cliffs and into the rocks below. Cid, the survivor, is capable of dying here, too: you are tasked with finding him fish to eat, and if you give him unhealthier fish — the ones moving more slowly — Cid will eventually pass away. If this occurs in your game, Celes, utterly alone and wracked with grief at the end of the world, decides that she, too, will jump from the cliffs while “the world’s slowly ebbing away.”
The music that plays as Celes considers her options and then dramatically falls through the air, to her death, is from the opera: it’s a reprise of Maria’s solo that Celes sang, when Maria was also despondent, and staring off the edge of her own physical and emotional precipice while thinking of the life she would never again lead, and the one she was now being forced into. It is, as you can imagine, a powerful moment in the game’s story, and while optional, serves you better than the in-game reward you get for saving Cid’s life.
It is also not the end of Celes’ tale. Somehow, she landed in the waters below, and not the rocks. She washes ashore, and is woken up by a seagull bandaged by what looks to be the bandana Locke was always wearing. Celes realizes that she is not as alone as she believed — her friends might yet live, and there is a world beyond this island prison. That she still has a chance to attempt to right the wrongs of her past, to see her friends and the world again, and maybe, just maybe, live for herself… and for Locke, as well.
It would have been motivating for Celes to find an identifying bit of clothing from any of her former comrades, yes, but seeing Locke, specifically, lights an even more personal fire under Celes, and gives her the strength she needs to take the kind of leap that Maria, locked up in her tower, forced to endure a marriage she could not abide as her people were absorbed into the kingdom of their enemies, could not. Celes is the hero here: she has already been saved simply by finding out she has something left to live for, and now it is her turn to return the favor to not just the world, but her friends, too. Something to fight for, and not just because she was given the orders to do so. It’s her life, and she is finally prepared to take control of it.
The hope Maria maintained that Draco yet lived and could save her paid off within the opera: Draco and the surviving forces of the west would attack the stronghold of the east, and Maria would see her love once again. Celes, at the point in which she was pretending to be Maria, had no such hopes. She was still finding out what it even was that she wanted, and if there was anything she did want. The opera, though, opened her eyes to possibilities that had not existed before: that there was more to her life than being a soldier, that hope was not too much to ask for, that there might be someone she could share her life and love with. It resonated with her, to the point that it played as she stood at the edge of a cliff, pondering whether her next step would also be her last — whether it should be her last. As a story unto itself, FFVI’s opera isn’t providing much. As a reflection and extension of Celes’ story, though, of the possibilities in her life, and a potential relationship with the world around her and with Locke? With someone who could actually love her back? Well, nothing in Celes’ excellent story works the same without it, as it’s the pivotal moment where everything changes for her, that the rest of her story is neatly tied around.
I’ve already embedded the actual opera scene and the cover of the song performed by Nobuo Uematsu’s band, The Black Mages, above, as well as a live performance of the opera’s music, which can also be found as studio version as part of the Distant Worlds collection. There are even more versions of “Darkness & Starlight” or “Maria & Draco” or whatever you want to call it worth sharing and listening to, however, thanks to the OverClocked ReMix project. These are fan remixes of video game music, and the Final Fantasy VI soundtrack is my favorite in what has become, over the years, a deep library of them.
The opera is actually split into three distinct tracks on the "Balance and Ruin” OC ReMix soundtrack. They are not meant to be orchestral versions of the opera, but are instead, as the name says, remixes, with a real diversity of instrumentation even from track to track. The first of the three is “The Nightmare Oath,” which focuses on Draco’s song for Maria that opens up the opera:
You’ll notice this is all a lot more rock opera than opera in OverClocked’s interpretation of the music, and for that, I thank them. We’ve already got multiple opera versions! Taking the music to a new place is welcome, and never more so than in part two of three: The Impresario medley.
Do you want to hear what it would have sounded like if Nobuo Uematsu handed Queen his ideas for a rock opera in a video game and told them to have at it? Because all you need to do for the closest approximation of this fanfiction we can manage is to listen to what Jake Kauffman and Tommy Pedrini did with the middle portion of the opera. It’s fantastic, it’s sprawling, and did I mention it reminds me of Queen? The whole thing is wonderful, but it’s also a song where you keep thinking you’ve heard the best part, until you hear the part that follows and surpasses it. Basically, on its own, it is justification for all of the hours that have been spent making fan remixes of video game soundtracks.
And to close, you get an aria from Maria that helps you come down from the intensity of The Impresario. It’s a beautiful piece of music, one that combines the orchestral source material with a more modern sensibility, and creates something both familiar and new in the process:
Really excellent stuff, worthy of the emotional weight that the opera set piece holds for fans of Final Fantasy VI. If you’re not familiar with the music, or with Final Fantasy VI, I hope this convinces you to spend time with either or both. And if you are familiar already, I hope this gives you the itch to experience it all again.
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