In the previous two posts, I outline my thoughts concerning a recent conference for new opera creators, hosted by Sound and Music with the Royal Opera House. It focused on what I’ve termed ‘the ideology of opera creation’ - a set of assumptions which I believe dominate the way in which most new opera producers think about and approach their work. Central to this is a division of artistic labour between three key creative collaborators – composer, librettist and director – as well as an emphasis on the process of collaborative creation as the locus of the work’s ‘success’, at the expense of a strikingly new and progressive final product (I compare this notion of creative labour to that involved in contemporary capitalist production). In this post I want to posit a couple of alternative approaches to operatic collaboration and the relationship between the various artists, the collaborative process and the final production, which themselves draw on historical strategies . . . . . .
Back to the ‘Problem of Opera’
Critiquing the ‘collaborative process’ and the equation of opera with the commodity-form doesn’t exactly solve the ‘problem’ of different artists from different disciplinary backgrounds attempting to collaborate sympathetically on a cogent final project. Whatever one might think of all the Marxist analysis, I think it would be valuable at least to attempt to conceptualise the collaborative process differently from the step-by-step layering of ‘treatments’ – scenario, then libretto, then music, then staging, all attempting to ‘serve’ each other – which has, in my opinion, hijacked the imagination of opera creators, presenting itself as ‘standard practice’. Instead, I want to re-propose two radically-opposed historic strategies, not necessarily in the forms or for the purposes that they were originally conceived, but as more audacious and progressive ways in which to imagine the roles of the various disciplinary dimensions within opera. These historic strategies are: Wagner’s theory of the Gesamtkunstwerk (or ‘total’ work of art), and Brecht’s theory of the ‘Separation of the Elements’ : : : Continue reading →
In my previous post, I discussed a recent conference for new opera creators, hosted by Sound and Music with the Royal Opera House. I attempted to outline what I perceived as a particular set of assumptions about how new opera creation should be approached, which I termed ‘the ideology of opera creation’. Along with an emphasis on the ‘collaborative’ nature of opera, one of the key aspects of this ideology was a location of a new production’s success and value within its creative process, rather than in the critical/revolutionary potential of the work itself, or in its ‘truth’ (however that may be understood). In this post I will unpack this idea further, particularly in relation to Sound and Music itself, to ‘official’ culture, and to the question of whether or not opera is a commodity . . . . . .
I do understand why the Stage Notes conference focused on process rather than product. Sound and Music is a public-funded organisations that does a lot of work within a kind of ‘apprenticeship’ model, encouraging young and emerging ‘cultural’ or ‘creative’ workers, creating performance and collaboration opportunities, and helping to expand their ‘skill sets’ and networks at the start of their careers. This is particularly apparent in its ‘Sounding Out’ series of discussions ‘providing insights into professional practice across new music and sound’.
As part of the Sounding Out series, the conference aimed to dispense the creative equivalent of practical vocational guidance; it certainly isn’t the intention of Sound and Music to prescribe what kind of opera needs to be made (even though in practice, as an important funding body, that is exactly what they do). Instead, the focus of initiatives like the Stage Notes conference is to hone the skills of a new generation of producers, so that whatever happens, new work continues to be made (and ‘good-quality’, successful new work which continues to attract audiences, sell tickets, maybe get more people interested in the art form, and thereby optimise conditions for its future reproduction (for economic, social or spiritual reasons, depending on whom you ask)). Continue reading →
The Royal Opera House recently hosted two events addressing the present state and future of opera (you can read my post on the first of these – the opera vs elitism debate - HERE). The second event was a half-day conference for new opera creators, co-hosted by Sound and Music, called Stage Notes. It featured contributions from (in various configurations): composers Judith Weir, Jennifer Walshe, Huw Watkins and Laura Bowler, writers Martin Crimp and David Harsent, directors Oliver Mears and John Fulljames, and chief executive of Aldeburgh Music, Jonathan Reekie . . . . . .
The exchanges within this panel, and in conversation with small but serious audience, were in general very interesting; it was particularly enlightening for me to get a sense of how these new opera creators think about/talk about their work, about what they’re trying to achieve, etc. I want to use this post to do two things: first, give a little overview of some of the highlights (and lowpoints) of the event, as well as the key themes and concerns which I picked up on, and second, introduce what I saw as the central theme of the discussion – the idea of opera as collaborative process (along with the ‘roles’ of the various collaborators). The way that this idea is often framed, and the centrality afforded to it in the imagination of new opera creators, can be somewhat problematic. I would argue that, at its purest, it constitutes a fully-fledged ideology which, like all ideologies, presents itself as ‘normal’ or ‘standard-practice’, and therefore warrants some significant critique. Continue reading →
The Royal Opera House recently hosted two interesting events addressing the present state and future of opera. The first was a debate called ‘Are Opera and Ballet Elitist?’, held on 11th March and featuring a panel including Mark-Anthony Turnage and Katie Mitchell. The second was a half-day conference for new opera creators, co-hosted by Sound and Music, called ‘Stage Notes’. This latter event was interesting because it was interesting. The former event was interesting because it was terrible. However, for me, both ultimately fell short of addressing the most vital questions. As with all these things, I ended up frustrated by all the questions that were left unanswered, the glaring assumptions in operation, and the institutional/disciplinary ideology that went uncritiqued. So here’s a couple of posts giving (extensive) vent to my frustration…
‘The Big Question: Are opera and ballet elitist?’
Apparently not the big question but a big question, since this debate was part of an ongoing series; such a designation wouldn’t be surprising though, given the obsession that opera institutions, artists and critics seem to have with the ‘E’-word. At any rate, this was a minor abomination of an event, a craven show trial with obscenely overlong performance intermissions that amounted to blatant propaganda for the ROH’s outreach programmes. You can watch ‘highlights’ online here: WATCH HERE WATCH HERE Continue reading →
A visit to the Southbank Centre the other week has compelled me to think a few little thoughts about ‘feminist classical music’. Here is the third-and-final, following on directly from my discussion of Kurt Weill’s/Bertolt Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sins, in which I try and figure out why, if this piece can say something powerful about gender and class oppression (which I believe it can), it certainly wasn’t ‘saying it’ on the 3rd March 2013 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall:::
This is a post about the possibility of performing and presenting politically-committed music, or trying to put across any set ‘meaning’ or fulfil a ‘purpose’ through music, which is sometimes cast into doubt even while similar assertions about political film, literature or theatre would surely be deemed ridiculous. However, it means talking about the nature of ‘meaning’ in music per se, which is a tricky topic but not one that I think we should be frightened of. For one thing, a lot of power is concentrated within certain institutions who are very quick to silence any discussion of ‘meaning’ in music, reckoned to be an impossible question to address, beyond the fact that it’s ‘emotional’ and probably sometimes also ‘spiritual’ (both mystifying, ‘silencing’ terms par excellence). This allows such institutions to effectively dictate the delimitations of musical discourse, and to ascribe what we should or shouldn’t expect from a musical performance. Continue reading →
A visit to the Southbank Centre the other week has compelled me to think a few little thoughts about ‘feminist classical music’. Here is the second, in praise of Kurt Weill’s/Bertolt Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sins, a rare example (I will argue) of an explicitly feminist classical piece:::
The BBC Concert Orchestra’s performance of The Seven Deadly Sins was part of the Rest is Noise festival’s ‘Berlin in the 20s/30s Weekend’, programmed alongside Hindemith’s Symphony Mathis der Maler and Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Film-Scene. The ensemble was conducted by André de Ridder, with Shara Worden (aka My Brightest Diamond) singing the role of Anna, and members of Synergy Vocals singing the ‘Family’ quartet. Continue reading →