November 2001

New Opera?

by 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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Previous articles:

October 2001
Composer Associations

September 2001
Private Commissioning

July 2001
Joined-up Commissioning

May 2001
The Martland Interview

April 2001
Looking Four-wards

March 2001
Chamber Made

February 2001
Publishing, Promotion and Profitability

January 2001
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December 2000
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November 2000
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October 2000
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July 2000
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June 2000
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May 2000
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April 2000
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June 1999
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May 1999
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April 1999
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