Thursday, 28 May 2015

How can opera survive in the 21st Century?

I'm trying to think over this tremendously wide subject ahead of a conference hosted at the Royal Opera House on 6 & 7 June. In preparation I've been reading John Culshaw's extraordinary reminiscence of recording Wagner's Ring Cycle for Decca in the 1960s, Ring Resounding.

I pursued this text for two reasons. Firstly, the recording was hailed at the time as a significant technological achievement. Culshaw and his colleagues took advantage of the new standard LP record and the even more novel stereo recording technique to capture drama to their recording. Secondly, Wagner's score has all the theatrical drama written into it. It was Culshaw's intention to realise Wagner's drama through faithful realisation of the score, rather than making a record of a theatrical production of the opera (a useful distinction for further unpicking).

Ring Resounding prompts many tributaries of discussion. It also has some useful opinions. I have decided to quote this beautifully composed paragraph in the epilogue (or 'Coda', as he calls it) in full as it seems so pertinent today.
We remain faithful to outdated techniques and methods because  they are a sentimental part of our past. We can all of us spot the flaws in a new and challenging technique, and are usually glad to dismiss it because of them. So far, attempts to blend the worlds of the cinema and the theatre have failed, and any sort of electrical amplification for voices or orchestra is considered an outrageous interference by technology... But if the audience for opera in general and Wagner in particular is to grow, and if that audience is to make contact with the drama in any serious sense, the time is coming when technology must play a greater part at the cost of a few sacred artistic cows. Just as the conductor is no longer in charge of every aspect of a recording session but is none the less able to create a more accurate and prepared realization of his wishes because of the facilities provided for him, so I believe that the opera theatre of the future  will be under the control of men who conceive opera in terms of an expanding communication. In that direction there is at the very least a hope of survival; in the other, the tomb is waiting. Opera as a social event, or as a vehicle for a single star, may not even survive the twentieth century*, any more than the court theatres survived the nineteenth: simple economics and the expansion of private forms of communication like records and television will see to that. The survival of an art form depends partly on its relevance to any given era, and partly on its adaptability in terms of communication. With a few distinguished exceptions, we still approach the presentation of opera with the mentality of the mid-nineteenth century; and when anyone trues to put it effectively where it belongs, which is before the eyes and ears of our own younger generation in a manner that is attuned and attractive to that generation, the howls of alarm from the elders of the critical establishment can be heard the length and breadth of Europe.
John Culshaw Ring Resounding (Martin Secker and Warburg, 1967, p261-262)

Here is Humphrey Burton's complete documentary of recording Götterdämmerung as part of the Solti/Decca Ring, 'The Golden Ring' (1964)

(* NB - 'Opera as social event' may well have survived  the 20th c., but only by changing the parameters of what the public's expectation of opera is. This may be a 'crossover' discussion issue)

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Opera: telescoping with the voice

I went to see - and hear - the final performance of Szymanowski's King Roger at the Royal Opera House last night. I liked it. The music is colourful, just this side of lurid. The orchestra spills out into the side boxes (the harps) and there's an off-stage organ, not to mention the chorus of course.

That's not to say that the music is an unremitting blaze of orgiastic post-romanticism. On the contrary, among the best moments of the opera are the hushed opening chorus, rendered in a theatrically thrilling blackout (the conductor wearing temporary pale sleeve covers so that the musicians could see his beat), the Shepherd's description of his faith - and the King's wife's reaction to that - and the King's tortured self-examination in the second Act.

I also saw the production on a laptop at the weekend, streamed by the Royal Opera. For all the impressive spectacle and clarity of relayed sound it was no match for hearing the performance in the theatre.

It made me think about the recent trends for opera: the fad for immersive, site-specific and general close-proximity performance; the successful culture of cinema or live stream relay. These are trends that are supported by an audience's interest in getting close to the performers and all but coming into direct contact with their experience as they essay it in action and song on the stage.

I considered my encounter with this performance of King Roger in relation to these trends. For all that opera productions happen in a space that might seat up to 2,000 people separated from the stage by an orchestral pit, it's the inimitable quality of the (singing) voice that brings the audience into immediate, intimate contact with a performer - or character. Even if you're 70m away at the back of the Amphitheatre (I often am!) the nature of good singing means that you don't have to use the equivalent of opera glasses to hear the singing. Good singing telescopes that divide.

One of the great misconceptions about opera is that it's loud. Well, it often is, as it was in various dramatic or damascene junctions of King Roger. However, the great asset of operatic performance is its ability to be just as persuasive, affecting and, yes, dramatic, through performers reaching across a distance with projection and clarity. Furthermore, it's a metaphor in itself.

To hear simple emotions or truths uttered within the context of a grand spectacle can be a perplexing but wonderful juxtaposition of perspectives on a lyric theatre stage. However beautiful the music or the stage production, mediated relay can only negate it.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Betrayal, I Fagiolini, Village Underground

Photo: The Independent
I wanted to wait and see the live stream of I Fagiolini's latest project - Betrayal, a dramatised performance of 16th century Venetian composer Carlo Gesualdo's exotic, tortured madrigals - before trying to pin down my experience of it.

I first saw the performance live in preview. Director John La Bouchardière has created an operatic experience for a promenading audience at Shoreditch's Village Underground. Well, at least it seems like an opera on cursory reflection - the dramatised performance organises the sequence of madrigals into a narrative with each of the singers acting in tandem with a dancer.

The story is told in flashback. Audience tickets are invitations to a crime scene. The front of house staff are (in-character) over-officious authoritarian figures, issuing blue-beamed flashlights and demands for hush. The floor is covered in evidence markers and body outlines. The introduction of the singers (who just start singing as they approach these areas) suggests that they are mourning in the present.

But then the dancers engage and re-enactment begins. Seeing the production again via the live stream I was reminded of my fascination at how the sense of the performance quickly shifts from madrigal performance to full-on operatic drama with the introduction of a partner for the singers.

At once we move from a conventional performance to something with more focus and dramatic credibility. Each of the six singer-dancer duos form a discursive relationship; the body language manages not only the language barrier but also the transposition of the 16th century text into a crime scene vernacular (even if our own experience of that 'vernacular' is TV shows!).

from the Guardian/YouTube live stream
The live stream cannot give the impression of the proximity of the performers (and of course it can't re-create the ensemble sound in the space) but what it does give is the impression of watching the whole thing on CCTV, complete with remote-operation zoom. Being able to cut between the six fixed positions helps this as if jumping in on certain actions - but watching for any length of time does test this suspension of credibility.

I wanted to wait and see what it looked like on screen as site-specific/immersive theatre and cinema relay are often talked about as growth trends in presenting opera nowadays.

My experience as a live audience member was rather isolated, compared to immersive experiences with other companies (Opera Up Close or even Secret Cinema). The performances were essentially introverted, ruminative, brought to life only with their dancing counterparts. The dancers were, nonetheless, distinct, even spectral figures; or even like Chris' perpetually reincarnating wife in Tarkovsky's Solaris - are they actually there?

As for the stream, the restricted movement of the cameras streaming to my laptop rather than a public auditorium (not to mention my having seen it play out once already!) meant that this experience was also somewhat unengaging. I think this was probably more of an issue with there being six separate narratives, negating conventional direction. The stream was a fun counterpart to having seen the show live first and couldn't recreate it in the same way that (now conventional) opera relay does.

Perhaps I need to make clear that I was, by the way, seriously impressed with the capability of the technology to capture a coherent performance that one can see and hear clearly given the low light and diaspora of the ensemble. I was awed by the ensemble of the performers of I Fagiolini themselves, rendering the taxing polyphony, one to a part, without recourse to conductor or pitch corrector... not to mention singing beautifully without a break for over an hour.

Above all I was utterly absorbed by the dancers, ignorance of whose discipline was no barrier to comprehension or fascination on my part. If there's one idea that one might take from this successful staging experiment then it's that cross-discipline work really comes off if it's in the service of illuminating the drama.