Last week, as part of the Coming Up festival – a joint venture of Old Vic New Voices and IdeasTap giving a unique platform to emerging young artists in various different disciples – director Daisy Evans presented a particularly original new staging of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, under the arches at Debut, London Bridge. Dubbed ‘Silent Opera’, Evans’s production took direct inspiration from silent disco, in that audience members were each given headphones. The singers’ live vocal tracks were then mixed into a pre-recorded orchestral accompaniment, allowing the production to escape the restricting considerations of the placement of orchestra and conductor, relative to the audience and the actors. The resulting freedom of movement for both performers and spectators should then open up the work’s staging to many of the techniques developed in modern theatre which might be impractical given the need to accommodate instrumentalists and a visible conductor.
This is an example of a particularly daring innovation, using pre-existent and familiar technology, which should allow opera to focus on its theatrical, rather than its musical, aspects. Yet it also has implications for the musical side of things, a consideration emphasised in Evans’s article on her decisions. Connecting musicians directly to audience members through the intimacy of headphones suggests the kind of personal musical communication that we’ve become familiar with, as consumers of recorded music in the age of iPods. It allows perfect audibility and comprehension through bypassing the potentially obstructive mediation of the physical, acoustic environment, and to some degree the other members of the audience. It therefore connects and blurs the two quite disparate experiences of live and recorded music, and the relationship structures which these entail and which we have come to intuitively accept.
What Evans’s Silent Opera has provided is another way of approaching opera. Its key benefits include its suitability to small and unconventional performance spaces, which might not easily accommodate an orchestra, and to such exciting possibilities as promenade stagings. The cost-effectiveness of avoiding the need to employ live instrumentalists is also a great benefit to the technology; any new development that should allow more opera to be performed must automatically be a great blessing. Obviously, it has its own clear drawbacks, both logistical and in terms of the particular effect of the detached solipsism of headphone listening to the live experience, but it is ideal for an approach to opera – a multi-disciplinary genre, after all – that might want to foreground its theatrical aspects, rather than its musical ones. Opera has, for a long time, been moving away from its associations with ‘concert music’, and by increasing the performance options available to directors and producers, the number of performance circumstances, possible audiences, fruitful cross-media collaborations, and artistic interpretations will grow and grow. Silent Opera is just such an option, and one which we should view with excitement at its potential for expanding opera’s ‘conventions’ and creatively engaging with modern listening modes, rather than as a peculiar novelty.