On Opera

First published january 2003

What I like about opera, is the enormous potential for telling stories that mix myth and reality. For some reason I find that hard to do in normal theatre. Somehow the music opens up another part of us that allows for a much greater suspension of disbelief. When the music is playing we can do all kinds of things on the stage that would seem weird in a talk-play. We can freeze the action for ages and enter the mind of one of the characters. We can change mood and ambience from one second to the next without leaving the psychological evidence to the actor. We can create entire universes of wonder just by juxtaposing the abstraction of music with the extremely concrete world of Board Meetings and Document Shredders – as we have done in I-K-O-N™.
So I go on accepting commisions even though part of me really longs to be writing a novel and get away from all the travails of working with the big machine that opera also is.

Opera is a wonderful, otherworldly word. Ringing of magic and passion.
That is why I still use it for the music theatre I make, in spite of the false associations to a number of traditions that I am not particularly fond of.
For one thing the traditional focus in opera is strongly in favor of the composer and his genius, with the libretto and the librettist as necessary evils.
I guess Da Ponte is the exception confirming this rule, that is finally cemented by Wagner’s insistence on getting rid of the librettist altogether.
But to me opera is basically a dramatic art. It is acted out on stage in front of an audience. Music makes it bigger and more facetted than theatre. But when it comes to creating a bond with the audience, I do believe that the dramatic form is of huge importance.
We live in a culture that is so much stronger on images and stories than it is on music. If what happens on stage is dull, boring, incoherent, unprofessional or too abstract, it will make absolutely no difference to most audiences how extraordinary or fantastic the music is – they will lose interest and dislike the opera. On the other hand – if what they see on stage, if the story they are told is rivetting, thrilling or in some way strikes a chord in their own lives, there is every chance they will like the music even if it is rather complicated, strange or even “pling-plong”.

This is why I am fighting a continuos battle trying to stress the importance of the work of the librettist. If everybody involved in the process of conceiving and producing opera doesn´t start realizing the major importance of the libretto, I am certain the art-form will die. The classics will naturally live forever – belonging to the sphere of icons. But we will only see new viable operas, if the necessity of a strong libretto is taken into consideration from the very start of the process. After all the libretto is the groundwork upon which everybody else has to build – the composer, the director, the designer etc.

Opera is a unique artform in the challenge it poses to four artistic fields (music, language, acting and design) to find common ground and collaborate without smothering eachother.
It is a challenge that demands that you are fully aware of your mutual inter-dependence. If the participating artists are not extremely careful with their ways of expression, the opera will implode in a black hole of too much matter.
Opera is not a genre where each artist gets a chance to show off his very best, but a field where cooperation is everything.
And essential to cooperation is finding common ground and a common language. I believe that we have to accept that in a collaboration you need again and again to state, to define, to describe all the trivial things that you take for granted.
If a common concept on the relation between theatre and music is not defined from the start of any collaboration, we will go on seeing new opera that is either theatrically or musically trivial – or both !

And that is why I sometimes consider calling my work music-theatre rather than opera.. But then I always return to the point that its probably a more interesting challenge to take the term upon you – and try to change the implications of it.

Sanne Bjerg, January 2003

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