What is Music Theatre?

What is music theatre? Since this usage, although known in various European languages, is relatively new in English, the question has been posed in various ways.

Opera is an abbreviated form of a still-current Italian expression, opera lirica, which can be translated as “lyric work” or “works that are sung”… (p.3)

So begins Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi’s 2008 book The New Music Theater, in an introduction entitled ‘What Is Music Theater?’. This is clearly an important question in a book that presumably aims to define, locate and promote not only ‘music theatre’ but ‘the new music theatre’, in relation to other terms like ‘opera’ and ‘musicals’. We might expect them to answer questions such as: how does ‘the new music theatre’ differ from ‘new opera’? Is opera ‘the old music theatre’? What makes the new music theatre different, apart from its newness?

In May of this year, I attended the Music Theatre Now meeting in Rotterdam: the culmination of a triennial competition showcasing the best new music theatre from around the world, as selected by a jury of artists and producers. Amongst the winning productions were several that described themselves as ‘operas’, several that were produced by opera companies, some that were even staged in opera houses. Amongst the audience were representatives from many of the world’s leading opera venues, eager to see the new work.

The reason why I chose to open with the Salzman/Desi quote is because it perfectly captures the slippage that so often occurs between the terms ‘music theatre’ and ‘opera’. This was a constant feature of the talks in and around the MTN meeting, including the various scheduled lectures and debates, whereby the object of discussion would suddenly shift in order to justify some line of argument. There is a definite sense that the two terms aren’t synonymous, but their relationship is clearly very ambiguous. Is opera a subcategory of music theatre, or is music theatre a subcategory of opera? Or are they two distinct fields that occasionally overlap?

While this ambiguity was never resolved at the meeting, this was hardly due to a laissez faire attitude to such questions of taxonomy. On a number of occasions, presenting companies were challenged by members of the audience, claiming that, as far as they were concerned, their piece wasn’t music theatre (in spite of the fact that they had won a competition called Music Theatre Now). This is a strange response that nevertheless recalls all those new opera reviews that basically forfeit any attempt to make a judgement on the basis that ‘it’s not opera’.

The mobilisation of such taxonomic statements can be a powerful rhetorical tool. They are often used (and were frequently used at MTN) to safeguard certain institutions and reassert the authority of gatekeepers. Concepts like ‘music theatre’ are reproduced by institutions like MTN, in the very act of a supposedly authoritative jury pronouncing what does and doesn’t pass as music theatre. This has a direct impact on the work that is funded, commissioned, programmed, reviewed, etc.; in short, the work that exists and the work that doesn’t. For this reason, it is important to interrogate such taxonomies.

How not to define music theatre:
a book review

Eric Salzman & Thomas Desi, The New Music Theater: Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Salzman and Desi’s introductory chapter answers its opening question with a host of partial definitions, some of them mutually contradictory. The authors introduce new music theatre as something that ‘was created outside [the] categories’ of operatic convention. It is ‘distinguished by innovation and revolution’ and it ‘rejects the grandeur of grand opera’ for reasons including ‘economics, the preference for non-projected voices, a desire for audience immediacy, or a general aesthetic or philosophical preference for small-scale, unpretentious, small-theatre work’ (p. 4). However, they also state that ‘some works might still fit the operatic model because they use operatic voices or because they integrate well into the standardized process of operatic production’.

A little later, they make an important distinction between an ‘inclusive’ and an ‘exclusive’ usage of ‘music theatre’. The former embraces ‘the entire universe of performance in which music and theatre play complementary and potentially equal roles’ (p. 5). ‘In this sense’, they continue, ‘opera can be viewed as a particular and historical form of music theatre.’ However, they then pin their colours to the ‘exclusive’ usage, claiming that their ‘new music theatre’ is ‘meant to exclude traditional opera, operetta, and musicals’. Although it has ‘sometimes been designated as fringe or experimental opera’, it is ‘most easily defined by what it is not: not-opera and not-musical’. They then give two further definitions of this new music theatre: a) ‘the wide and evolving territory that lies between opera and the musical’, and b) (most completely):

[T]heatre that is music driven (i.e., decisively linked to musical timing and organization) where, at the very least, music, language, vocalization, and physical movement exist, interact, or stand side by side in some kind of equality but performed by different performers and in a different social ambiance than works normally categorized as operas (performed by opera singers in opera houses) or musicals (performed by theatre singers in “legitimate” theatres”). (p. 5)

The rest of the chapter proceeds to complicate these definitions, identifying grey areas and historical ambiguities, before suggesting that ‘contemporary opera, music theatre in its various forms, and the modern musical coexist on a continuum and the lines between them are often blurred’ (p. 6). Still, ‘this does not mean that valid species do not exist (they clearly do), and should not lead us to deny that differences exist’. The writers then promise to sketch, alongside their survey of new music theatre, ‘the largely unwritten and shadowy history of “alternate opera”’.

This is pretty much the last time in the book when a clear distinction is made between ‘music theatre’ on the one hand, and ‘opera’ on the other. From here on, the terms are interchanged abruptly, or used together — ‘opera and music theatre’ — suggesting that, while they are essentially distinct, they frequently share the same cultural space. The authors never indicate where their history of alternate opera ends and their survey of the new music theatre begins. Instead, we are expected to accept the idea of ‘the new music theatre’ as a kind of historical tendency, given cumulative weight through the aggregation of specific indicators that may or may not be present. Pop or jazz influences, amplification, non-trained voices, site-specific staging, small theatres, extended vocal techniques, improvisation, minimalism, political commitment or contemporary subject matter, even atonality: none of these is necessary or sufficient to turn an individual opera into a piece of music theatre. However, taken together, they exert enough ‘anti-operatic’ pull to create a grey space around a recoiling, tightening ‘hard core’ of opera, redefined in opposition to each ‘revolutionary’ schism. Given enough of these ‘innovations’, and each resulting defensive retreat, the idea of opera comes to be limited solely to the aggregate of operatic history extant around the first decades of the twentieth century, and every subsequent operatic ‘reform’ or ‘revolution’ is shown retrospectively to not have been opera at all, but something else. We effectively learn that any innovation in the operatic form is tantamount to its becoming not-opera, and that opera is therefore incapable of innovation. Indeed, opera is defined by its incapacity to innovate.*

[* I believe the one dimension of innovation that opera is permitted is that of innovation within the ‘musical material’ (i.e., within the autonomous field of music-as-such: atonality, serialism, minimalism, spectralism, etc). I will discuss the implications of this in the next chapter.]

This is only the impression I get, reading the book. If it sounds like a convoluted conclusion to draw, that’s because it is a convoluted study. For me, the quote at the top of this essay gives some indication of its defining features: endless unanswered questions and constant non-sequiturs. To be clear, the study is as invaluable as it is maddening. The central section presents an excellent survey of twentieth-century innovation in opera and experimental music, arranged in a sequence of intertwining national movements (Italian teatro musicale, German Musiktheater, New York’s Downtown scene), with fascinating descriptions of individual pieces and a great selection of photos. However, bookending this central section are a series of chapters that aim to contextualise this period within a much broader history, as well as discussing some of the particular elements of this ‘new music theatre’ in detail. The result is painfully unfocused, full of digressions, contradictions and repetition, with no clear argumentation or consistent approach to the subject in question.

Most heartbreaking (for a music theatre nerd like me) was a chapter entitled ‘Toward a theory of the new music theatre’. This turned out to be a rambling excursus on the value of music analysis, whether music can really ‘mean’ anything, how can we judge it, etc. etc. Not only do the authors fail to address their ‘the new music theatre’ specifically (as opposed to music theatre in general), but they rely far too heavily on approaches from the musicological study of opera. I found this a consistent issue with the book; it features a detailed genealogy of the musical avant garde (much of which is fairly irrelevant to the theatre being discussed), while barely mentioning equivalent theatrical trends (or, indeed, performance art trends) in any detail. Most problematic, while they deal with Broadway musicals and jazz-inspired opera in places, they provide no sense of the history of pop performance as it interacts with new trends in music theatre. The result is a book about music theatre from the perspective of opera studies. As such, it is incapable of characterising an artistic movement defined by its relation to experimental theatre, live art and pop performance.

As with the Music Theatre Now meeting, it feels necessary to address the shortcomings of the book—in particular, what I consider its failure to define the ‘new music theatre’ of its title—because of the ways the authors use their (non-) definitions as gatekeepers. By defining an entire genre in terms of ‘innovations and revolutions’, the authors grant themselves the authority to judge what does and doesn’t count as a legitimate innovation. Behind the occasional gesture towards relativism—the sovereignty of the audience’s interpretation or nominal critiques of the idea of progress—the book contains a lot of prescriptive language: ‘misinterpretation’, ‘deficient’, ‘inappropriate’, ‘regressing’, etc. The authors’ forced equivocations give the sense that they’re presenting a disinterested academic survey of a new art form, when in fact they’re attempting to validate their own work by setting it at the centre of a fairly arbitrary intersection of historical legacies—chamber opera, the European avant garde and Downtown performance—at the expense of others. Music video is explicitly excluded from the study, while live pop performance receives only cursory mentions. However, they later ponder the following:

Do sound installations and various forms of concept music constitute musical performance or, in any sense, music theatre? The question is, of course, unanswerable. Music theatre today exists on a continuum from traditional performance in a designated theatre or opera space to sound-producing actions and activities, which may take place in nontraditional or nontheatrical public sites. (p. 72)

Here the authors ask a question, proclaim it ‘unanswerable’, and then proceed to answer it in the affirmative, but in an incredibly roundabout way that excuses them from properly engaging with the theoretical implications of their answer. They try to appear even-handed and undogmatic, but it is very clear that they know exactly what they consider to be included in their category, even if it seems they have no intention of justifying its inclusion. Later on, they are praising Heiner Goebbels’s Max Black:

Is this still music theatre? Do we care? … Perhaps there are some people—the funders, the theatre company, the public relations officer, or the critic—who need to put the piece in the right drawer, who care whether this really is music theatre. But why should we care? Pieces like Max Black have been and remain a provocation to traditionalist institutions. (p. 302)

The implication of the repeated ‘we don’t care’ is that, on some level, the authors don’t consider this to be music theatre, or at the very least, they don’t consider themselves able to argue for its categorisation as such. Still, they are happy to include it in their study, as part of their ‘new music theatre’, with no further justification than a petulant ‘why should we care?’: a strange rhetorical move that surely undermines the very raison d’être of their study.

My problem is not that the authors deign to introduce a category from which they then exclude (or include) existing work. My problem is that they are unsystematic, unreflexive and thus dishonest about this process, while pretending that the category in question retains an objective ‘validity’ beyond their own value judgements. The force of these value judgements is especially pernicious in some of the more familiar, uncontroversial definitions of music theatre: the idea of ‘music-driven’ theatre, or ‘equality’ between the various ‘elements’:

In the Kantian view, opera (or music theatre) is a product. The more correct analogy may be that it is a process of addition, “the sum of its parts,” … [or] it actually may be the product of multiplication, where music, text, and action are synchronized and “surplus value” is formed as a result. … Of course, these simple mathematical analogies with sums or products as end results do not really do justice to a truly organic symbiosis of elements in a music-theatre performance where the interaction is dynamic and ongoing. (pp. 320–321)

This extract is from the ‘Toward a theory…’ chapter, and it reproduces some of the favourite platitudes of opera creators. Typically, it is an attitude that privileges the production process over the perspective of the audience member; it is also an attitude that comes from an understanding of opera as ‘augmented music’, not as theatre. In theatre, the audience is used to the simultaneous presentation of movement and visuals and language and sound, to be interpreted and judged at once. However, Salzman and Desi draw the bizarre conclusion that, if opera were the ‘product of ‘multiplication’, ‘[it] would need different specialists to judge and analyze the different intertwined arts’. How this would result in a better understanding of opera’s ‘surplus value’ is beyond me.

Similarly, the notion of ‘music-driven theatre’ is a presumptuous one, relating to the creation process and not the audience’s experience. A piece only becomes ‘music-driven’ if the audience is taught to interpret it as such: to relate the progression of the drama to the music that is ‘driving’ it. As with any artistic experience, it is up to the individual audience member to decide what is important and what can be ignored, or what the ‘causal’ relationships are between the sensory stimuli presented; this can be influenced by the theatre-makers, but ultimately it can never be dictated.

These definitions are therefore tautological: music theatre becomes music theatre when the audience treats it like music theatre. Yet, in all fairness, a definition of this nature is the best we can hope for when faced with such culturally dependent categories. Somewhere beneath Salzman and Desi’s ‘Theory’ chapter are their prescriptions for initiation into this interpretative attitude, whereby the audience learns to treat music theatre as music theatre. Like so many prescriptions written by creators, it hinges on reconstructing the creative process (whether fragmenting the musico-theatrical ‘object’ into its consistent elements, or perceiving the ‘intentionality’ of the ‘meta-text’ (p. 322)). It thereby takes for granted the fundamental processes at work in experiencing music and theatre as such, which always require forgetting the creation process and the artist’s control to some degree.

For all the confusion and frustration of The New Music Theatre, I would never deny that there is such a thing as ‘music theatre’, as a distinct category from opera. It was clearly a coherent concept for many composers and directors in Europe through the twentieth century, and it appears to have a great deal of international currency now, as evidenced by institutions like Music Theatre Now. Nor would I deny that this category generally corresponds with the key examples presented in the book. I believe that many of Salzman and Desi’s problems arise from attempting to present a number of different (and often contradictory) traditions together as a single artistic movement. As a result, there is a huge disconnect between the internal coherence within each central chapter—looking at the evolution of particular trends within a national context—and the attempt to lump all these trends together with sweeping generalisations about how music theatre works, what it should do and how it should be judged, which can never hold for all of the work discussed (not least because so much of the work is predicated upon breaking down all of these conventions). As a result, the only functional strategy to make everything cohere is to take the aforementioned negative definition (‘not-opera and not-musical’) and then cultivate a stereotyped picture of these supposedly ‘pure’ forms that excludes any formal idiosyncrasies whatsoever.

But perhaps there is some particular ‘operatic imaginary’ that sets it apart from other music theatre, at least in the experience of the initiated audience member. In the next post, I will outline an alternative strategy of defining music theatre (both in its ‘inclusive’ and ‘exclusive’ modes), which takes a far more structuralist approach. As far as I’m concerned, any serious attempt at such a definition that doesn’t depart from the most fundamental point (in this case, the Western concepts of ‘music’ and ‘theatre’ as they relate to ‘sound’ and ‘the world’) will necessarily run into problems somewhere along the way. By attempting to be systematic, I hope to open up my logic to scrutiny in a way that was so frustratingly denied by Salzman and Desi, and—if it stands up as a coherent system—use it as the underlying basis for further work.

This entry was posted in book review, essay, music theatre, opera, theatre, theory and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What is Music Theatre?

  1. Pingback: What is Music Theatre Actually? (A Theory of Musical Performance) |

  2. Pingback: Logics of Musical Worlds (A Theory of Musical Genre) |

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