The definition of opera might be fluid, however, the richness of artistry is undeniable. What makes opera so special is a feeling of grandeur, the expression and evocation of emotion, and a reverence for music. To limit that experience to a prescribed formula of “soprano + large stage + orchestra” also limits experimentation. Opera Omaha hopes to combat staleness by thoroughly exploring processes of interdisciplinary collaboration through its ONE Festival. The company is attempting to deconstruct opera in order to provide a space for truly diverse performances while still cultivating the craft.
Opera should not be expected or derivative; the deconstruction of its components provides the impetus to question everything and seek answers which can produce spectacular works that might never have existed otherwise. Deconstruction is not destructive, but rather generative. The order and amount of artistic ingredients can be changed and still maintain operatic flavors. The performances of the 2019 ONE Festival described below might not be what first comes to mind when one hears the word “opera”, but the performances are revealed to have those same qualities that make opera special.
A goal of Opera Omaha’s ONE Festival is to expand what opera can mean for the art form as well as for the community. Within the 2019 ONE Festival, there are three projects that explore the deconstruction of opera in inventive mediums such as film, multimedia dance performance, and sound sculpture installation. In three performance works this year, the artists consider why and how poignant artistic expression comes to exist.
Sound artist Ross Karre, member of International Contemporary Ensemble, has curated a performance series with Film Streams called CINEsound. In it, he investigates the intersection between opera, cinema, and the creation of sound for an audience. More generally he considers, “How does sound inform, support, and inspire a visual tableau?”.
To start the series Karre performs Hannah Hartman’s “Message from the Lighthouse”, which blends seamlessly into the opening of Andrzej Zulawski’s film, Possession. The following sessions include participants scoring iconic scenes in film in “Music and the Moving Image”, live performances accompanying a medley of experimental short films in “Silents in Concert”, and a presentation of short documentaries about post-WWII composers who redefine sound.
Karre considers opera to be, at its core, intermedia work. There are layers and elements that are deserving of analysis. Deconstruction allows participants to dissect auditory aesthetics. The CINEsound series is a creative way to consider the power of musical construction. We know that sound can illicit reactions and mimic all manners of emotions in audience members, but there is an underlying structure informing the soundscape. That structure could not be examined as easily in other performance contexts.
One might wonder what makes musical construction in film operatic. How can these genres combine organically? Karre’s CINEsound is “pulling back the curtain on defining decisions of compositional gesture”. A compositional gesture crosses genres, and this is why both film goers and opera consumers will find the series enlightening.
Opera lovers will enjoy this series because of the incorporation of corporeal bodies as live musicians. With the sound-making instruments visible and focused upon, there is an opportunity to assess the sound production cerebrally rather than simply emotionally, as can happen when musicians are hidden or the music is buried within the film. Why not invent new ways of experiencing performance practices? If you’ve ever wondered how and why sounds are made, this is a valuable series to attend regardless of your artistic background.
Chris Emile is the curator and choreographer of For Research Only, a multidisciplinary immersive dance exhibition examining the psyche of performers and the formation of a performance. There are many components to consider: dance, video projection mapping, acting, live music, set design, costume design. Emile’s project is operatic in that it involves a live vocalist, exaggerated theatrical notes, and both real and surreal drama. This project also explores themes of internal compromise and the abandonment of self is service of a work of art.
Emile’s work adheres to a concept of operatic deconstruction because he is minimizing barriers between performers and audience members. Emile considers it equally important to see all of the sweat, tears, and agony that is expressed by performers as it is to see the final product. Music alone could not demonstrate the multiple perspectives in the same way as this particular combination of technology and movement of the body can. Emile encourages that audience members “...not be narrow in the information that [they’re] receiving”. This is part of the mission of the ONE Festival, which attempts to shine lights from multiple angles onto the artistic components of opera and not be docile in our acceptance of the current structures of opera.
Ellen Reid’s Playground is a sound installation piece housed in the Joslyn Art Museum, free and open to the public during all museum hours. Her original composition, Run, helps to tether the work to the tradition of opera in its soundscape. For Reid, opera is musical storytelling, and the work evolves from there. Her work is seemingly innocent, but does insinuate the fragility of the future for humans on this planet, as the playground is made up of pollution-causing parts.
In Playground, she considers who is making the music and who the music is for. These are considerations that mainstage opera does not necessarily have aside from a marketing standpoint. Playground is transformative to the operatic sphere because it exists for a new audience. It is made for the audience and they themselves produce the music through play. It brings joy and interactivity to opera and launches music on a different trajectory. Reid seeks to “Expand the palette of what the sound installation is”.
The aforementioned works explore sound from new angles using mediums that are often poorly integrated into operatic performances, or that are never really analyzed in the first place. They each, in their own way, address the ways in which sound and the human body shape mood and experience for the audience. In CINEsound, the inventor’s body is considered in the conversation alongside the technical work of sound artistry. For Research Only intertwines both performative bodies and the bodies of the audience. Playground encourages people of all ages to engage directly both with sound making, but also engage physically with thematic questions of the installation itself. These artists are using individual components to highlight wider debates and potential unexplored territories, and considering the implications of an audience’s interactions with sound making.
By Lillian Snortland
Opera Omaha Weitz Fellow