Friday, 27 April 2012


Recently I went to an evening of new operatic projects at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre. Part of the Operashots series, the pieces are written by composers new to opera, not only in the tradition of the repertory or canon but also new to the resources and the space that opera offers.

Naturally, the idea is that a composer should write an operatic work, a drama to be staged and sung by the characters populating it. This is at once a superb opportunity for a composer who might not otherwise be commissioned by a regular opera company. It is also, potentially, a burden of perceived obligation or a hazardous area for the novice. Faced with using a theatre space with lighting and video effects, and a chamber orchestra, and the main house's props, costuming and stage construction resources, the possibilities can prove either overwhleming or simply confusing. Worse, it can be both.

In the main the Royal Opera deals with this issue well. The composers that are invited to step outside their familiar operational areas, or genres, are chosen because their work demonstrates an aptitude for dealing with either the drama or the multidisciplinary nature of opera. In other words the capabilities or interests of the composers are relevant to the potential offered by opera as an art form and the Royal Opera as a resource.

Nonetheless, I found myself rather frustrated by the amplification of the singers in the first piece by Graham Fitkin. I should say to begin with that the music was rather brilliant, rhythmically insistent, jazz-inflected and energised in a manner after John Adams. However, whether it was a decision necessitated by having the instrumental musicians on stage, whether it was because those musicians were themselves using instruments that required amplification or whether the composer had decided that amplifying the voices was an aesthetic preference, the two female singers were amplified using head microphones.

I have written elsewhere about two reasons why this works adversely with opera. Briefly, 1) the microphone picks up the voice too close to its source, denying the upper and lower resonances and partials which are also produced and which combine to give the voice its colour, character and body as they blend in the space of the theatre. The acoustic process of singing is negated. 2) The physical connection between performer and audience, being synthesised is also negated; the direct physical connection with the sound and therefore the method of its production means that the audience is denied this intimate and exclusive component of the drama-through-sound.

On this occasion, I recognised a third reason why I find that amplifying interferes with the experience. An extension of my second caveat, I found myself enduring (rather than thrilled by) the loud volume of the music as it pressed on me in a monodimensional wall of sound, even high up in the penultimate row of the studio. Consequently, I felt that the sense of three dimensions not only of performers in a space but also in the nature of the work - an opera called Home, concerning a pair of protagonists inside a room and with outside/offstage interference with with room - was annulled. In short, I felt pinned to the back wall by a heavy flat-screen reproduction rather than drawn forward and surrounded by a vivid hologram.

This may have been an aesthetic decision, not only because the composer wanted the sound of amplified voices but also through a desire to have greater control over the balance (which he necessarily cedes to a single person, the sound engineer, who is was a third party on this occasion, the composer conducting the ensemble from the keyboard). It might also be an aesthetic decision about the staging which is considered more pressing than the requirements of the music.

Either way the use of intermediary media does not enhance but compromises the aesthetic. I must stress that my negative opinion of the outcome has nothing to do with the quality of the music or the performances of the music. Indeed, the greatest pity is that it is not possible to tell with absolute authority just how good the music and its performance really is.

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