“From the very beginning opera brought together all the arts. It involved painting, poetry, drama, dance and music, making it the most complex of art forms. It was, as Samuel Johnson later pointed out, exotic and irrational, and, as many have found, remarkably expensive. It remained, nevertheless, of continuing social and political importance. In the first respect it edified and entertained, and in the second it served as an expression of the power and splendour of the monarch in an age of kings.” From the Naxos Opera Guide.
Wagner pronounced opera the Gesamtkunstwerk, a supreme unified totality of a multiplicity of disciplines. But if he imagined it a democracy of the arts, he was mistaken. Equality among all the arts involved is simply unachievable. Indeed, the history of opera can be written as a history of the struggle for supremacy among its many protagonists.
And what protagonists they are – the plot, the music, the singers, the opera houses, the patrons, the unions, the scenic and lighting designers, the costumers and wigmakers, the politics, the money, the class, and after all these years, the tradition. Ah, the cultural anthropology of it all!
Happily, last week’s premiere of The Ghost Train at the Carolina Chamber Music Festival, in New Bern, North Carolina, was limited for reasons of copyright negotiations to a concert performance, meaning that our singers stood in a line on stage with the orchestra behind them, and the stage business was left to the imaginations of the audience members. This meant that the representatives of most of the various other competing disciplines were absent.
There was a minimum of costume, no lighting design, no stage direction, no props. It was austerity opera, put together in four concentrated three-hour rehearsals by some astonishingly focused musicians ready to pull an impressive rabbit out of a very small hat.
Pulling it all together in so short a time is a miracle of musical community. Musicians do it all the time, it’s expected, and I for one am always amazed at the speed with which any musical composition, years in the calculation, design and planning, takes wonderful and sudden shape. With rehearsal time and stage space at a premium, the burden of the imaginative work, (providing the characters’ physical interactions, for example) was left to the audience. A short spoken introduction to each of the two acts asked for indulgence in supplying what lack of space and time had not allowed us to provide. In the end this came as a refreshing change that paid enormous dividends. Rather than presenting everything as a finished product on a screen, we invited the audience to be co-producers of a piece of theatrical imagination.
Shakespeare was well aware of the theatre’s need to enlist the audience. In the opening speech of Henry V, since there is no way that the few resources and scant space available to the paltry players can conjure up the three bloody battles of Crecy, Harfleur and Agincourt without appearing ridiculous, the Chorus enjoins the audience to use their imaginations:
“Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.
…Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth,
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.”
Henry V Prologue to Act 1
What a thoroughly ennobling and cost-effective job description. Just because we mention horses, we aren’t going to trot them out onto the stage! What implications this speech has for casting decisions, for scenery, for theatrical budgets generally. And how wonderfully it paid off for the premiere of The Ghost Train. The audience was so engrossed (Engrossed! In an opera!) that no one dared cough for fear of missing a line of crucial dialogue.
Our next step is to mount a full production adding some action, lighting, and a bit of costume. But most importantly we want to retain the audience engagement and the musical community that made the concert premiere such a thrill.