All the City’s a Stage – Tradition/Innovation Beyond the Opera House.
Cities are filled with potential impromptu and unlikely venues that, if exploited in innovative ways, can be used for opera performances. By using forgotten yet architecturally and socially significant places, rather than typical opera houses, opera can widen its audience and become more relevant to a democratic and heterogeneous society while also responding to current and future economic constraints. Typically modeled on Classical and Victorian ideals of civic munificence and public show, opera houses have inadvertently entombed the art they celebrate by freezing it as a museum specimen rather than encouraging it to expand and contract as a living entity.
Chamber opera was an understandable response to the overheated scale of production that existed up to the mid-20th century. This short-lived, and mainly European phenomenon, proportionately lowered some of the house’s overhead. Nonetheless, the scale of the buildings still makes for an extravagantly over-packaged experience. Rather than let the historical architectural hardware drive contemporary musical software, composers and chamber operas need spaces that respond to the intimacy of the medium. If opera is to survive the transition to the iPod generation, new, smaller companies need attractive and adaptable repertoire that takes advantage of entirely new circumstances independent of the demands of proscenium theaters.
Our work is to research, write, and stage site-specific operatic works that establish a new compositional and performance model to decentralize the concert experience. By moving away from monopolized discrete venues, operas such as these attract a broader public to a living art form that reuses public space and encourages urban revitalization.
Theater is very adaptable to outdoor and innovative sites in a way that live opera and orchestral performances are not; its portability makes it flexible where musical organizations cannot be. Upcoming performances of Shakespeare’s Hamlet on Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, for example, are at the cutting edge of how artists are breaking away from the confines of the theater and are using whatever is available to explore the theatrical art.
Times of economic distress demand unusual creativity from composers and their audiences. Stravinsky, for example, conceived and wrote a revenue-producing piece of musical theater for a tour of Swiss market squares in the aftermath of the First World War; L’Histoire du Soldat is a Russian folk-tale of a princess wooed by a soldier who sells his soul to the devil, with dancers and a speaker accompanied by a quirky septet made up of the only instrumental players available at the time. It was continuously rewritten to accommodate financial fortune—with the role of the king coming and going—as box office receipts fluctuated.
The wake of the Second World War brought its own exigencies, and chamber opera suited the belt-tightening mood by providing a less wasteful option to the extravagancies of grand opera. In 1947 Benjamin Britten formed The English Opera Group, a small touring ensemble dedicated to the performance of his own works, in order to circumvent the gargantuan bureaucracy and political machinery he had experienced in his first ‘Grand’ opera Peter Grimes of 1945. Britten’s postwar theatrical works established a template for dramas that are psychologically rich and yet are proportionately smaller and inexpensive to mount, offering singers a more intimate relationship with diverse audiences because their scale adapts well to smaller venues. However, until the three Parables for Church Performance of 1964-8, even Britten did not officially escape the proscenium. In the late 1960s The Pierrot Players/The Fires of London and the composers Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies were more consistent and intrepid explorers of the potential of ex-theatrical music theater; Down by the Greenwood Side and Eight Songs for a Mad King are operatic chamber pieces to be performed wherever there is space. Escaping the architecture of the opera house and its funding channels also enabled composers to venture politically and artistically further afield.
With greater economic prosperity in the 1950s, few composers in America felt the need to shift their energies to producing dramatic works on a smaller scale. Of the handful of works that were written, those that are the most successful such as Menotti’s The Medium and Amahl and the Night Visitors are performed regularly, but are not easy to stage afresh under reduced circumstances. Then, at a time when press and television coverage of the NEA’s attempts to regulate artistic expression was raising public awareness of official governmental and ecclesiastical displeasure at the content of the visual arts, opera increasingly became the ‘safe’ art subsidized by a preponderance of conservative interests, and composers were rarely rewarded for linking opera to innovation in any form.
Our recent economic downturn has seen a proliferation of inventive productions of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas from 1689, an English piece that can easily transcend its classical setting and be staged in a new and imaginative way. The Dido Project in Manhattan staged the work in Samsung’s Time Warner showroom at Columbus Circle in 2008, using the surrounding flat-screen televisions and hi-tech telephones to re-imagine Aeneas’ victory as a hostile takeover in a Silicon Valley board room.
This project, The Ghost Train, for six singers and twelve instruments is based on an original stage play written by Arnold Ridley in 1923. It is designed to be performed in and around abandoned railway buildings, but could also be performed in a variety of venues. What begins as melodrama—travelers thrown together by fate one stormy night at a rural railway station—turns into political allegory as the group ignores repeated warnings to leave before a legendary apparition appears, bringing destruction in its wake. Increased and more elaborately hysterical warnings to look away if the ghost train should pass keep the travelers from realizing the truth, until one of the conspirators realizes she has been betrayed. Providing a level of intimacy by being performed without a proscenium, The Ghost Train is intended to continue the operatic tradition of relevant political debate, but at the same time to provoke audiences to think about venues and their meanings, their potential disappearance, and perhaps challenge them to engage with their reuse.
The initial tour of New England is envisioned for summer of 2012 in cooperation with various preservation and place-making entities throughout New England, taking in a performance or two on the High Line (an elevated railway that runs down the west side of Manhattan, now a public park) and will culminate in a performance at the Carolina Chamber Music Festival in New Bern, NC, at the town’s 1910 railway station, in partnership with the New Bern Preservation Society.
Alongside its artistic goals, The Ghost Train hopes to present the viability of the alternative temporary concert venue as a means to reach new audiences, and to establish a functional partnership model that aligns composers and presenters with the ideals of urban revitalization. There are up to one thousand railway-related structures in New England that could benefit from and serve well as impromptu arts venues. Without a valid economic future, usually as condominiums or offices, many will be lost. A few stations have been turned into arts centers, railway museums or restaurants, but many add to the dissolution of community life by sitting vacant and unused when they could be brought to life as a temporary host venue for live music.
Creating small-scale, adaptable stage areas re-appropriates on a more modest scale the Renaissance tradition of transforming piazzas into ephemeral theatrical sets, and offers a fresh layer of inventive challenges and a unique opportunity for younger and less well-known designers to adapt multiple spaces to house the same production on a limited budget.
The new economic context that reuses and recycles buildings and public spaces in innovative ways, provides an opportunity to replenish the operatic repertoire with pieces of musical innovation that speak to a wide audience in underused and unexpected venues. Perceiving the entire city as a stage can help artists, preservationists, and urbanists focus attention on culturally significant spaces and buildings that might otherwise be abandoned or lost. Relevant and original American opera will draw new audiences, revitalize community life through the imaginative recycling of its forgotten architectural resources, and revive public interest in and ownership of the culture of poetic musical drama.