(3) // Raising the Bar: Agonist Opera, Ensemble Opera, Auteur Opera //

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’ : : :


It would pay to keep reminding ourselves that opera is more, not less than theatre. It is ‘theatrePLUS’. By definition, it can do and say more than spoken/physical theatre, or concert music, or a written play text, if only because these mono-disciplinary ‘languages’ are still possibilities within an opera anyway (e.g. in spoken sections, orchestral interludes, dance interludes, etc.). So opera shouldn’t have to assume some anachronistic representational language – naturalism or melodrama or commedia – in order to ‘leave space’ for music. Theatrically speaking, the presence of music should never seem like a ‘problematic thing’, which needs to be dealt with sensitively. It should seem like a whole extra dimension, in the manner of the introduction of sound into silent film in the early twentieth century. Viewed in this way, opera becomes a behemoth of multidisciplinary possibility.

Wagner imagined the ideal ‘artwork of the future’ to be a perfectly-integrated ‘total’ artwork, synthesising different artistic traditions (music, poetry, theatre, dance) in order to serve a common purpose. This idea has come to be known as the Gesamtkunstwerk or ‘total work of art’, and music dramas such as the Ring Cycle are taken to represent Wagner’s most concerted effort to produce such a work. The practical implication of the whole Gesamtkunstwerk idea is that the work is constructed and conceived with its final form borne in mind by all the artists involved, throughout the creation process. Rather than putting several quasi-autonomous ‘texts’ together and ‘seeing how far it reaches’, or even getting a director to ‘translate’ an operatic score into something like a focused, unified stage production, this final production should be conceived as something which requires the confederation of music, text and theatre in order to make sense. The analogy with sound film is then surely a reasonable one; when such a film is conceived, there is no question that it might exist – or ‘function properly’ – without shots, or dialogue, or visual effects, or even sound effects, nondiegetic music and editing. The film means through the interaction of these elements, but it also means more than the sum of these elements.

The language and possibilities of cinema is different from those of opera, of course, so a contemporary operatic Gesamtkunstwerk must be imagined in a different way; opera can’t imitate subjective sensory experience or naturalistic storytelling, for instance, like many films do. But this doesn’t mean that it can’t take some inspiration from the way that (auteur/art house) films are planned and overseen. Both are relatively expensive art forms which require input from a great number of collaborators. Both have small creative teams at their heart, as well as producers. The key difference in film is that a director oversees the entire process from its inception to post-production stage, while opera directors usually approach an operatic text (libretto+score) which is already ‘completed’. The director takes charge of the production halfway through, at the point where the composer and librettist ‘let go’. In other words, the opera is ‘finished’ and then it is ‘staged’.

Two statements from the Stage Notes conference illustrate this particularly well. First was the directorial advice from Second Movement’s director Oliver Mears, to ‘keep the composer out of the rehearsal process’. Secondly, the writer David Harsent related a very illuminating anecdote about Harrison Birtwistle. Apparently, in approaching the lengths of orchestral passages between vocal interjections, the composer would measure out the dimensions of the stage on his floor and time how long it would take for singers to move positions. Illustrated in these two examples is a clear tension between two ‘solutions’ to the opera collaboration problem. Mears is recommending (quite reasonably) that the director be free to interpret the music and narrative however she/he sees fit, without the pressure of the composer’s authorial presence. But the Birtwistle anecdote demonstrates particularly clearly just how the composer has already ‘interfered’ in the rehearsal process.

The setting of music – of duration, pitch contour, dynamics and metronome markings – is, to a significant degree, the setting of characterisation and movement. It is what makes opera so different from non-musical theatre (especially narrative, naturalistic theatre), and what makes the more ‘integrated’ model of film production a more interesting point of comparison in my opinion. If a composer is already imagining movement and staging in their composition, then it makes sense that a director should already be present in the process, at least to discuss these staging possibilities, especially if the opera (like most opera) is in anyway trying to appear ‘naturalistic’, to depict ‘realistic’ characters moving and acting ‘believably’. (One would hope this is the case with Birtwistle, but I wasn’t able to find out.) Either that or the composer, like Wagner, should just take charge of everything.

As I see it, a reassessment of the Gesamtkunstwerk ideal would be aided by:

a) A move away from text/libretto as ‘story’, or as the ‘playwright’ element. In opera, the burden of narrative is in everything: movement, music, meaning of text, sound of words, projected text, video, mime, dance, sign language, etc. etc. Rather than thinking of these things additively, as embellishments on a core ‘scripted’ story, they should be thought of as the necessary ingredients of the desired final complex of ideas/meanings.

The ‘libretto’ needn’t be the framework/bare bones of a structure or ‘story’. Such a framework could be movement-based, or music-led, with text in a more ‘interpretive’ role. Text can certainly be a vital element for the accessing of specific concepts and meanings, but dance theatre, physical theatre and abstract music have all taught us that coherent structures can be generated primarily through these other elements. As long as these elements are prepared to bear the burden of structure, there is no reason why opera shouldn’t have a lot more free attitude to the use of text, which would in turn make it easier to justify the presence of music, and would demand a more adventurous, poignant and meaningful approach to movement and staging. It might also give composers and directors the freedom and confidence to select or write their own texts without feeling the need to bring in a trained writer or playwright (many of whom seem to have little understanding or interest in using the unique potential of new opera for their own purposes, awed as they often seem to be by the dominating, mythic power of music).

b) Auteur opera. As discussed in the Stage Notes conference with reference to composer-director-performer Jennifer Walshe (read more here), the ‘auteur’ model would is one simple way to get around the ‘problem of collaboration’. Combining the roles of composer, writer and director would ensure that there was a single creative vision guiding the process of production from its initial planning to its final performance. This needn’t actually require some exceptional or egotistical polymath to do everything, nor indeed would it require a director capable of totalitarian control. Auteur opera just means replacing the libretto-to-score-to-stage division of the labour process with a more integrated process in which one person leads the dialogue throughout. (This was Wagner’s own approach, of course.)

c) Ensemble opera. The auteur opera approach can go very wrong of course. Instances of misguided composers taking up librettist or director roles are by no means rare, and there is of course a huge amount of value in the collaboration of specialised artists. Another approach might be the ‘ensemble opera company’ (a concept that I’ve been helping to develop with Opera Erratica‘s Core Company), in which composers, directors and writers (and performers) enter the composition process together, through devising workshops that might draw more on physical theatre or dance theatre troupes than on any other working process in literature or classical music (though not dissimilar from the creative process of pop, jazz or experimental music groups). Artists can then use their expertise to refine or redirect the work as it progresses – a composer might even transform the products of devised workshops into a codified score, which would then be introduced back into the rehearsal process – but the important thing would be that the text, music and movement would be evolving together, developing around each other, and moving towards a final product which would necessarily require music, text and movement to express what it was designed to express.

Separation of the Elements:

Back at the Stage Notes conference, the writer Martin Crimp put forward the idea that a librettist should produce a text that is somehow ‘lacking’, requiring the addition of music for its fulfilment. (I discuss this idea more substantially in a previous post.) I understand the logic of this perspective, but I also think it is potentially dangerous. If the text is calculatedly ‘incomplete in this way, the composer then needs to be totally geared towards its more than fulfilment in the music. In other words, to get a little mathematical, a 60% ‘complete’ or ‘successful’ libretto must be combined with more than 40% ‘worth’ of music (pretending temporarily that 1% text = 1% music, in the language of ‘complete’ and ‘incomplete’). It’s not just a case of ‘putting the music back into the text’, as it was described in the conference. A ‘60% complete’ libretto should be met with the equivalent of 50% music to give the equivalent of an ‘110% opera’, or a product which explodes the possibilities of spoken theatre (which obviously (for the purposes of this analogy) cannot exceed 100%). If this isn’t achieved then the whole exercise is doubly pointless – doubly lacking. You may as well just put the extra time and effort into writing an excellent (i.e. ‘100%’) stage play.

[This returns me to Laura Bowler’s statement, in the conference, that opera should be ‘50% music, 50% theatre’. My initial problem with this formula was that, for me, opera should actually be ‘100% theatre’, plain and simple. But given the whole ‘percentages metaphor’ thing, perhaps my preferred formula, to dip into the rhetoric of reality TV, is that opera should be ‘110% theatre’.]

Leaving dodgy mathematical metaphors behind for now though, if we do have to take the ‘tripartite’ approach to collaboration (and there are often persuasive reasons to do so), it would surely be safer to construct operas from three equally strong elements which comment on, contrast and critique each other, rather than trying to engineer three purposefully ‘weak’ elements which magically complete each other. If, for whatever reason, the tripartite artistic division of labour needs to be maintained, and the three key artistic ‘personalities’ need to remain ‘present’ in the work (for career, funding or ego reasons, or whatever), it would seem progressive to accept, to deal with and even to deconstruct this pluralism, rather than trying to ‘hide’ it. Instead of seeming like a failed attempt at total cohesion, operatic collaboration could then be reinterpreted as a number of artists/texts entering consciously into an agonistic discourse.

Agonism is a post-Marxist political theory, put forward by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau in their critiques of Marxism, and to designate this approach as an ‘agonistic’ opera is just to open the process of collaboration up to the greater variety of purposes, aims and interests of different artists, along the lines of the theorists’ own ‘pluralist’ idea of democracy. The agonistic model of democracy – as an arena for positive conflict between different agents, groups and interests – was developed as an alternative to the idea of consensus as the ultimate goal of democratic process (or, indeed, of communist/anarchist notions of all-embracing utopias). In my conception of ‘agonistic opera’, this illusory consensus might indeed correspond to that perfect fusion of the different elements, or the Gesamtkunstwerk: the assumed ‘ideal solution’ to the ‘problem’ of opera as collaborative process. Even more problematically, following my previous blog post, this consensus might even be ‘opera’ itself – or ‘great opera’ – forever unattainable because of the problematic paradigm of a collaborative (democratic) process that strives for an impossible absolute solution.

[Both Theodor Adorno and Alain Badiou have directed specific critiques towards the illusory/mendacious notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk, very much along these lines…]

An alternative ‘agonist’ approach to operatic collaboration would extend to performers as well. Every element, process or performance would excel only insomuch as it engages with everything else, adds commentary, criticises, contributes a dialectical antithesis, etc. This is hardly radical stuff really; it is one way of understanding what theatrical directors do with classic plays, what choreographers do with extant music, what performers do with the direction they’re given, and what singers do with old scores and old conventions. The simultaneity of the different artistic languages in time and space allows for a kind of ‘imminent critique’ between texts. This is the polar opposite concept of the one which understands a melody to be a ‘stand-in’ for speech inflections (both expressive of grammar/syntax, and of emotion/rhetoric), or somehow representing the meaning content of the text, in that kind of ‘redundant’ configuration which says realism or emotional verisimilitude. Contradiction and dissonance between music and theatre is used conventionally as an effect quite often in opera, especially through the incursion of diegetic music is present, to create dramatic irony or bathos, but there is no reason to accept it as the ‘exception’ to the ‘rule’ of musico-dramatic empathy.

This is a slightly sideways approach to Brecht’s concept of the ‘Separation of the Elements’, the anti-Wagnerian aesthetic strategy which he extols most overtly in his operatic work with Kurt Weill.  I would argue that it is actually an easier way into combining music, text and theatre, and does not require a forced compromise on the part of specialised artists who nevertheless want to remain ‘themselves’ and produce their ‘own’ texts. This is, therefore, an advocation of Brecht’s strategy for pragmatic rather than overtly political reasons. However, it should be pretty obvious by now that I’m no post-Marxist, and one of the reasons that I’m so interested in opera (since you ask) is this very potential for a dialectical relationship between text, music, movement and spectacle, which makes operatic collaboration a potent arena in which to further investigate a Marxist aesthetics. However, I know that relatively few artists (and very few opera creators) share these particular opinions, but I still think that a conscientious move back towards an ‘agonistic’ approach (which was, after all, utilised extensively by the modern and postmodern avant garde, especially in interaction with historic or canonic works) would be – for any collection of artists eager to enter into the operatic ménage à trois – a helpful and productive alternative to the old problem of opera collaboration.

Auteur opera, ensemble opera and agonist opera: in good agonist practice, none of these strategies are meant to be total solutions to replace all opera production. Moreover none of them are even new concepts for opera creation. But they are three under-utilised ways in which the debilitating obsession with the ‘ideology of opera creation’, with collaboration-as-process, and with the delineated roles of the various collaborators, can be transcended.

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3 Responses to (3) // Raising the Bar: Agonist Opera, Ensemble Opera, Auteur Opera //

  1. Pingback: (1) // The Ideology of Opera Creation // |

  2. Pingback: (2) // opera vs the commodity form // |

  3. Pingback: Triptych: a new work by Opera Erratica |

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