Jeremy Peyton Jones
One of the interesting things about music theatre in last
20 years is how, despite the experiences of the previous 20 years when
many people thought we would leave opera and operatic conventions behind,
today’s music theatre has to some extent returned to those conventions.
There are great, and laudable, efforts to encourage the production of
new operas and so revitalise the form, (for example the very exciting
programming going on at the Almeida and BAC), but I sometimes wonder whether
many of the great innovations in both music and theatre of the 50’s
and 60’s to create a new means of expression have been forgotten.
By the late 1960’s there was a distinct feeling that the form and
style of conventional opera was a thing of the past. Many composers in
the 60’s and 70’s simply avoided opera or operatic forms entirely
and several composers at this time (Cage, Berio, Kagel, Stockhausen etc)
explored radical new ways of theatricalising music or combining music
with image, action and text.
However, Ligeti having once said he would never write an opera eventually
produced the Grand Macabre and in recent years many others have grappled
with the form with varying degrees of success. Several composers who might
be considered at the experimental end of the spectrum, have resorted to
many of the standard operatic conventions when it comes to creating music
theatre: characters singing dialogue, all lines delivered by operatic
style voices, epic themes and lavish sets.
I’ve thought about this quite a lot and wondered why it has turned
out this way. There are never decisive or straightforward answers to these
things but I’ve thought of three possible reasons:
Perhaps we are generally, composers included, somewhat in awe of opera.
Once the word ‘opera’ is uttered composers feel somehow duty
bound to take on the trappings of the operatic tradition: opera singers
delivering lines in an operatic manner, instrumentalists in an accompanying
role offstage, narrative having pride of place, and so on. The enormous
theatrical constraints that this imposes are still in place – singers
have to be heard, they have to be able to sing at full volume while doing
whatever else it is they are asked to do etc. When one considers the ready
availability of technology which would enable any type of voice or vocal
delivery to be heard and combined with a huge array of sound sources,
both electronic and acoustic, it seems odd that composers (and opera directors)
are still willing to restrict themselves in this way. However, the word
‘opera’ is a resonant and powerful one and it’s easy to
fall under its spell. I can think of several contemporary operas which,
though hugely impressive in terms of their musical freshness and innovation,
are, in terms of the theatrical content, utterly conventional and often
therefore rather dull.
This is very odd when one considers that some of the most innovative theatrical
ideas of the last 75 years (from Artaud’s theatre of cruelty to Growtowski’s
physical theatre) have enormous potential for the use of music. This is
because of the simple fact that they have toppled the primary position
of text and narrative in favour of an equal expression through physical
action, image, sound, light etc as well as text. Many directors and companies
have created a theatrical style in which music can and does have a powerful
role to play. They use image, sound, and music as major elements of their
theatre on an equal footing with, or sometimes even replacing text and
narrative. Some collaborations with composers have been enormously impressive
forays into a new style of music theatre, and several musicians have taken
on the visual and physical aspects of live performance and given them
a central place in their work – people like Heiner Goebbels, Meredith
Monk and Laurie Anderson immediately spring to mind. However they remain
a small minority.
The second reason lies in the logistics of the way music theatre is produced,
and this is in a large part a question of economics. It’s no coincidence
that those composers mentioned above who have moved furthest from operatic
convention have found ways of being able to work intensively with their
performers on developing theatrical ideas over much longer periods of
time than is generally the norm in music – extended periods of exploratory
work with the performers, trying out ideas through improvisation, followed
by a period of gestation and development of material, followed by an extended
rehearsal period many large opera companies could only dream about. Many
of our most innovative theatre companies devise their work through extended
periods of rehearsal and the development of ideas – it’s only
really in this way that new languages for music theatre can be found,
and this of course requires a new awareness among funding bodies.
The third, and perhaps most significant reason is the way we train musicians.
Although standards of musical education both in this country and abroad
remain high there is still very little in the way of interdisciplinary
training where musicians can learn about theatre, choreography, design,
space, image etc. In some of my own teaching I’ve been lucky enough
to work with musicians who are also visual artists or theatre practitioners,
and with scenographers who want to know about musical structure, and some
remarkably strong work has resulted. In this way composers can expand
their knowledge about what is possible in theatre (rather than just relying
on what they know), and theatre practitioners can begin to understand
the abstract nature and power of music. Of course there are several institutions,
courses and teachers who recognise these things, but it is sometimes surprising
how barriers to understanding can remain.
Jeremy Peyton Jones
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