21 January 2020
Music Theatre NOW and Post-Opera, Rotterdam (2019)
Caroline Wilkins's essay draws on her experience of attending the Music Theatre NOW forum and the Post-Opera Symposium in Rotterdam on 18-21 May 2019.
Music Theatre NOW1, an international competition for music theatre and new opera, held annually in Rotterdam, represents an important forum for the selection and live presentation of works by their creators. Alongside this prestigious platform, organised by the International Theatre Institute, was a symposium entitled Post-Opera: Installing the Voice, held at the TENT Rotterdam2. The symposium formed part of an exhibition, installation and performance program entitled 'Post-Opera' that took place at both the TENT and gallery V23 . Initiated and curated by Kris Dittel and Jelena Novak, it was also supported by Operadagen Rotterdam, and focused on ways in which contemporary artists, composers and performers reinvent the relationship between the body and the voice.
In this article, I bring elements from both events into a parallel discussion that places emphasis on emerging perspectives, drawn from both practitioners and theorists, for the future of the widely diverse genres of music for the theatre. I begin by discussing the first event of the program, the symposium Post-Opera: Installing the Voice, followed by consideration of the Music Theatre NOW award-winning presentations, also touching on panel discussions that ensued as a result of these.
Post-Opera: Installing the Voice
Organised under a committee of four4, the symposium proposed to examine strategies for giving the operatic singing body a place, both within the framework of music theatre and the context of an exhibition. It gathered researchers and artists from the fields of voice studies, musicology, opera studies, and cultural theory5 . The symposium themes included: staging the voice, the voice-body, temporality in space, the politics of the voice, vocal 'becomings' (or potentials), the virtual voice and operatic installation. In her keynote, Michal Grover Friedlander focused on embedding the voice within contemporary operatic productions, emphasising its dependence on the listening context of its reception. Indeed, for her, sets and props onstage could embody a 'voice' in a process of 'musicalising' the materials. From my own experience as a creative artist, I would fully endorse this approach as one that allows an audience to perceive a multiplicity of meanings within the staging of a work. On a more critical note, however, what remained for me unchallenged in her presentation was the question of a new aesthetic approach towards vocal technique, one that could unleash new possibilities of a voice sounding itself rather than representing a traditional bel canto style of singing.
In stark contrast to Friedlander, the second keynote speaker Paul Elliman explored a history of the siren, from historical origins to contemporary environmental forms, examining the voice-body before speech and the gender of vocal sound. His presentation was interspersed with live siren sounds from a vocal ensemble that manifested itself later into a performance entitled 'How we learn the old songs'. This all-encompassing approach towards the human voice, emerging in unexpected correspondence with our urban surroundings, came as a direct answer to my above questioning of assumptions made with regard to the use of standard operatic technique in a contemporary genre.
Continuing with the theme of vocal objects touched on by Friedlander, Birgitte Felderer explored notions of the voice as an exhibition object that can relate to and reflect on the haptic materiality of actual objects. For Felderer, voices have a potential in their presence as 'media of immediacy'. This notion was taken up more fully through the example of an opera installation in Berlin, Einstein on the Beach (2001 and 2005) by stage designer Veronika Witte.6 In this essentially site-specific project, the singers became moving sound-sources within the vast architecture of a derelict, multi-storey building.
Jelena Novak developed the subject further in her examples of the voice performing within a visual arts context: Opera for a Small Room (2005) by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller and The Opera of Prehistoric Creatures (2012) by Marguerite Humeau, conferred fresh meanings to the genre of (post)opera in contemporary Western society.7 Here, the relationship between the voice and the singing body as a visual presence to be exhibited amongst other objects onstage, was re-examined. Vocal sound became independent of its physical source, allowing for more 'play' between an audience's aural / visual perception of events.
Hannah Bosma took up the challenge of the electronically mediated voice, so prevalent in our digital age, as part of her reflections on artificial voices, gender, and embodiment. In re-visiting not only the voice but the body of the singer, she brought attention to the value of embodied knowledge within the vocalist, stressing the difference between a human and an electronic voice with regard to breath and phrasing. Drawing from my own experience of working with voice and electronics, this dividing line can be overcome through a process of re-embodiment on the part of the virtual voice by technical means, thus awarding it a recognisable relationship to the original voice and a very real presence on the performing stage8. (See, for instance, Mitsalim - [2012/14] - a collaborative audiovisual work by Rees Archibald, video; Oded Ben-Tal, interactive audio electronics; and Caroline Wilkins, movement/voice.)
Such an emphasis on the timbral materials that make up a voice was reflected in Bosma's reference to voice science and the example of a 'Singing Machine' made by inventor and designer Martin Riches, the functional mechanism of which became clearly audible and visible during his own later presentation9.
Surrounding this discussion were important perspectives given by Katarina Zdjelar and Kris Dittel on issues of power within the field of voice and language, together with proposals for an imaginary post-humanist conception of the voice.
In sum, Post-Opera: Installing the Voice succeeded in providing a sound, theoretical basis for future creative departures within the genre. By re-examining the relationship between body and voice, new contexts for operatic performance enlarge our conceptions of what opera is and might become.
Music Theatre NOW
The second and third days of Music Theatre NOW featured a series of sessions in which the winning ten works were presented by their creators10. Moderated by theatre scholar Pieter Verstraete, each session ended with a panel discussion. The opening session concerned three works that were created using specific locations whereby spaces between performers and audiences were bridged and non-regular locations chosen by their creators, this in a deliberate attempt to open up or close in the performance space. The works in question were:
Laila Skovmand, Denmark
Robert Karlsson, Sweden
Ela Baumann, Choreographer, Luxemburg
Juri de Marco, Artistic and Musical Director, Germany
Alistair Duncan, Co-Composer, Scotland
Klaus Janek, Italy
Milena Kipfmüller, Brazil/Germany
These productions took on the challenge of building other 'worlds' in which to communicate with an audience. While Aquasonic took place in large underwater tanks, #Freebrahms mingled its performers freely amongst an audience in a vast interior space, and Musraopera became a concerto ambulante moving through the streets of a city. Highlighted in all three performances was the acknowledgement of spaces 'in between' the music through freeing the performance context and allowing access to (and in one case input from) their audiences.
Heritage and the past, along with a re-examination of cultural histories, formed the basis of the next four prize-winners:
Mehdi Agahikeshe, Director, Iran
Navid Gohari, Music Director, Iran
Elli Papakonstantinou, Concept / Libretto / Directing, Greece
Tilemachos Mousas, Musical composition / Orchestration, Greece
Li Jingyuan, Composer, China
Xu Ying, Libretto, China
Qian Xiaohan, Staging, China
Vladyslav Troitskyi, Director, Ukraine
Roman Hryhoriv, Conductor / Composer, Ukraine
Illia Razumeiko, Piano / Composer, Austria
Dealing, in each case, with material from mythical or biblical origins, such as Prometheus, Plato's Cave, traditional Japanese tales, or the story of Job, each work brought a contemporary treatment of ancient song, language, music or puppetry to its content. A common parallel between at least three of them was the use of multiple or invented languages that went beyond meaning and relied on their communication through music in order to bridge a gap of understanding. Mythological archive was turned into contemporary dialogue, new music superimposed on traditional instruments, and forms such as the Peking opera, opera-oratorio, or opera-requiem, invested with new perspectives.
A final grouping of the last three contestants consisted of:
Eva Reiter, Composition, Austria
Jorge León, Staging, Belgium
Lasse Schwanenflügel Piasecki, Composer / Text / Staging, Denmark
All three of these final works concerned psychological portraits of characters whose sources were based on real-life incidents. Here the role of the 'voiceless voice' in all its manifestations was made apparent by each production, whether by means of an 'Aria of Solitude' (Mitra) or the use of non-verbal language in an attempt to express and communicate. Again, like some of the previous works discussed, there was a clear tendency towards going beyond the realm of language and opening up new possibilities, for example, in relation to gender. The focus in all three works centred on the powerful affect of sound on the audience as a 'listening body', achieved by means of strong amplification and unearthly electronic instruments, such as the theremin, that were used in conjunction with the voice.
Premiered in 2018 by the company Carriageworks in conjunction with the Sydney Chamber Opera, The Howling Girls comprises sound design by Bob Scott, with solo soprano Jane Sheldon and conductor / theremin player Jack Symonds. The synopsis is curious: In the weeks following September 11, five young women presented separately to hospitals in New York with identical symptoms. They were unable to swallow and believed that debris from the destruction had lodged in their throats. The surgeon who examined them found no obstruction. This haunting image became the seed for The Howling Girls.
The work explores the medium and metaphor of the voice, together with an immersive orchestration of theremin and electroacoustic music created in a kind of proto-language - an attempt to communicate in a mode beyond the rational. Jury member of Music Theatre NOW, Shoshana Polanco, had this to say about the work: 'Adena Jacobs and Damien Ricketson turn us inside out with The Howling Girls. Their attempt to express trauma specifically located in female bodies succeeds not only onstage, but also piercing our audience bodies. The soundscape and staging of this piece is ambitious and non-apologetic, giving a much needed time, space and voice to pain, and us, as audience members, permission to experience it.'12
Each of these works reflected a definite tendency towards performer-specificity. They would not be easily transferable, if at all, to another production cast, as has almost always been the case with the operatic canon, historically speaking. There are a number of reasons for such a paradigm shift, including the circumstances under which collaborative work is now made, its interactive and technological demands, and its focus on particular performers' skills. One would say that a production emerged out of the unique constellation of its makers and could not simply be re-staged according to the fixed basis of a musical score. Indeed, given the multiple components pertaining to each production, it could be argued that subsequent performances by the same company would inevitably lead to further changes and developments of both form and content. In short, the onus is now on the performative nature of 21st century new music theater and opera rather than on the conception of a 'work', which has become a thing of the past (although it is true that I have used the latter term throughout to describe each presentation).
A general panel involving all the presenters concluded the Music Theatre NOW conference, focusing on the 'how' and 'where' of international circumstances surrounding new productions. With such a degree of cultural diversity, not only within a single project but also between the works themselves, together with varying definitions of the term 'music theatre', it seemed most appropriate to talk of transnational work in this context. Again, as mentioned in my introduction, this reflects the intentions of the organisers, whose aim has been to avoid drawing direct comparisons between theatrical forms from different cultural spheres.
The concept of alterity, of giving space to the 'other', was used in relation to the meeting of two or more artistic desires within a creative process, one that would result in a stronger potential to make good art. Contributors spoke of embracing the risk, of keeping a sense of responsibility towards the creative subject by acknowledging its 'otherness'. Of primary importance at this juncture in the proceedings was the need to constantly examine our histories of cultural appropriation.
Symposium / Conference
It now remains for me to compare the aims of each event in an attempt to combine the resulting cross-over of themes into some sort of direction for the future of new opera and music theatre. While Music Theatre NOW supports new work that has not succumbed to commercial forces of standardisation, Post-Opera: Installing the Voice aims to make the voice manifest and set it up for analysis or experimentation. A strong link becomes evident between the two, in which the context of one justifies the importance of the other and gives it room to exist. One is reminded in turn of a similarly radical event happening under the auspices of the Munich Biennale of New Music Theatre, 13, whereby platforms for the processing of new work are set up during the two weeks of the festival and no demands are made on each creative team to show a finished production. What is clear in both cases is a desperate need to defend the conditions under which new work is made in order to open up any new aesthetic ground for the future.
From such a post-'work' perspective, it seems invaluable to re-examine the voice in relation to the performer-body, to gender and to language. Faced with an increasing palette of technological possibilities, the place of vocal technique needs further exploration, in terms of training, if we are to really explore new aesthetic challenges offered by the digital era. The listening-bodies of both performers and audience can communicate in a more affective, experiential way, due in part to technology and to the possibility of new spatial relationships between them. Immersive, site-specific work brings with it a haptic quality to the event, a shared participation in its unique energy field.
There is much to be explored in the application of visual arts terminology to new opera or music theater, whereby installations and objects can take on other guises in a relationship of suspended ambiguity towards the performers. Narrative, in the form of a libretto, is being replaced by multiple levels of language, both verbal and non-verbal, ones that go beyond syntactical meaning and open up new paths of communication. Such questioning of traditional materials, forms and techniques that no longer seem relevant in contemporary society can lead to real aesthetic changes within a genre that is continually evolving and finding its own new public.
Fischer-Lichte, E. (2008) The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics, London / New York: Routledge.
Salzman, E. and Desi, T. (2008) The New Music Theatre: Hearing the Body, Seeing the Voice, New York: Oxford University Press.
1 Music Theatre NOW is supported by the International Theatre Institute, ITI German Centre, Operadagen Rotterdam, Performing Arts NL https://fondspodiumkunsten.nl/ and Austrian music export www.https://www.musicexport.at/, both accessed September 23, 2019.
2 Post-Opera: Installing the Voice is supported by Mondrian Funds, TENT, Operadagen Rotterdam, the Centre for the Study of the Sociology and Aesthetics of Music (CESEM), Nova School of Social Sciences and Humanities (NOVA FCSH), Universidade NOVA de Lisboa, Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT), CBK Rotterdam, Stichting Stokroos, Fonds Podiumkunsten, and Culture Ireland. www.tentrotterdam.nl/en/show/next-up-post-opera/, accessed August 1, 2019.
3 https://v2.nl/events/swarming-chants, accessed October 16, 2019.
4 The committee was Ivana Ilić (University of Arts, Belgrade, Faculty of Music), Joāo Pedro Cachopo (Universidade Nova de Lisboa / CESEM), Kris Dittel, independent curator, and Jelena Novak (Universidade Nova de Lisboa / CESEM).
5 The contributors were Hannah Bosma, Kris Dittel, Paul Elliman (keynote), Brigitte Felderer, Michal Grover-Friedlander (keynote), Jelena Novak, Veronika Witte, Katarina Zdjelar, and Martin Riches.
6 Veronika Witte stage -designed these Berlin productions of Einstein on the Beach. See more details at www.operaworks.de/eob1.html, accessed August 2, 2019.
7 The two productions cited by Novak can be seen at:
www.cardiffmiller.com/artworks/inst/opera.html, , accessed August
we-make-money-not-art.com/opera_for_prehistoric_creature/, accessed August 2, 2019.
8 See, for example, my collaboration with electronics composer Oded Ben-Tal: obental.wixsite.com/main/single-post/2016/09/23/Zaum-Beyond-Mind, accessed August 2, 2019.
9 To view Martin Riches's "Singing Machine," see www.martinriches.de/singmore.html, accessed August 3, 2019.
10 For details on the prize-winning productions see: www.mtnow.org/competition/mtn-2018, accessed August 5, 2019.
12 See link: https://curiousnoise.com/live/
13 www.muenchenerbiennale.de/en/platforms/, accessed August 6, 2019.
© Australian Music Centre (2020) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Independent composer/performer/researcher Dr. Caroline Wilkins comes from a background of new music performance, composition and theatre, and has worked extensively on solo and collaborative productions involving these. Her particular interest lies in creating new forms of presentation, whether in the field of inter-medial sound theatre, sound poetry or performance art.
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Has Opera Entered the Age of Jazz
Dr Wilkins comments that many of the pieces presented at the forum "...reflected a definite tendency towards performer-specificity. They would not be easily transferable, if at all, to another production cast, as has almost always been the case with the operatic canon... One would say that a production emerged out of the unique constellation of its makers [and employed technology] and could not simply be re-staged according to the fixed basis of a musical score...In short, the conception of a 'work', has become a thing of the past.."
It is not really news that mainstream opera companies increasingly operate on the basis of repeat productions of known repertoire, using traditional staging methods simply varying the staging to make some difference to entice audiences to attend yet again.
However, this concept of bringing performer specifity to each performance, let alone a particular production, is also not new. Jazz musicians are the primary location (in Western music) of music that exists only in the moment of its performance, in a way which might never be replicated in exact detail.
While Jazz is perhaps the most extreme example of built in variation through the improvisatory nature of the genre, actually how often do performers of Western art music, including Opera, manage to give a perfect rendition of the score in every performance. The score is simply a point of departure for most musicians and directors, who chop and change to suit their artistic temperament and the technical problems involved in staging a performance in any venue, let alone any accidents that might occur on the night.
What is interesting here, is that these new Music Theatre makers are naming and claiming this transient nature of their pieces as a key point of departure from the traditional operatic canon, whereas perhaps it is the naming and claiming that is the key point of departure from the traditional operatic canon.
response to Ceridwen
thanks for your feedback. I think it's important to look at the context of making new music theatre, which is entirely different to that of the jazz genre and much more complex. The important issue to be addressed here is the starting point and not any interpretation of a fixed operatic score.
To your second point, it's not so much the theatre makers that are naming and claiming this departure from the traditional operatic canon, but myself as an analyst and theoretical commentator on their procedures. These theatre makers have concentrated essentially on the practice of creation and resorted to the best means possible of realizing a collaborative process within the context of their own working conditions and with respect to all the multiple skills that it involves; this without necessarily concerning themselves with issues of 'authorship' or 'work'.