What is Music-Theatre?

Convener(s): Jenni Roditi 

Participants: Derek Sheil, Jenni Roditi

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

A conversation between Derek and myself… I offered the idea that this question about Music-Theatre was a development of the conversation we had started in the previous session (no 6) ‘Why does ‘new opera’ only include classical voices?’ In that (very well attended) session we explored the idea that the traditional classical voice was limiting the expressive range used by composers and indeed directors. The full blooded classical voice was often the thing that was alienating new audiences from attending opera, and new opera. Music Theatre, I posited to Derek was a fully integrated form of music and theatre, in the widest sense. A space where a wide range of vocal styles could cross pollinate and positively contrast each other, a space where choreography rather than blocking was used, a space where musicians were a visible part of the theatre itself and a space where devising and collaboration were integral to the creative process.

But where is everybody?? Why are there only two people in this group?? How strange, when the ‘new opera’ session drew a large crowd and a lot of animated talk and debate. This session was clearly not attractive to people.

Music-Theatre scares/doesn’t interest people. ‘New Opera’ means something. People get real work in new opera. Be it in the education department or as directors.  People do not get work in Music Theatre. We wondered…. could that be true.

Both Derek and I are exploring an edge in our own creative work that doesn’t fit entirely comfortably into the category of New Opera. Derek works with composers who write music to be played on ( and around?) his original sound sculptures. He has worked with dancers and sound sculpture as well. To me this is probably a very pure form of Music Theatre. You watch the musician play the sound sculpture – it becomes a form of Music Theatre instantly simply to watch the musician within this beautiful construction, which is made from found objects. What is not Music Theatre about that?

In my work I am composing ‘new opera’ for voices across a spectrum of vocal styles and I  am including singers who have a background in improvisation, Extended Vocal Technique (EVT), process-orientated psychology with voice-work and experience working with musicians from indigenous world cultures, such as Indian music.

Both Derek and I, in our very different ways, are a little bit outside the mainstream idea of staged music-drama. Derek is coming from the Harry Partch, Stomp, Max Eastley tradition and I am drawing on my own experience as a singer, as well as a composer, in my pieces. My singing is rooted in the self taught, singer-song-writer starting point and I then went on to study classical composing at the Guildhall where I was exposed to groups like Electric Phoenix (an amplified vocal group in the 1980’s) who used EVT and then I went on the work with members of the Roy Hart Theatre – who connect the whole of the voice to the whole self – where no vocal utterance that can be made by humankind is off limits.

Following that I studied in some depth with North Indian Khyal singers from Calcutta – Rajan and Sajan Misra. (Recently Michael Nyman has collaborated with them and they did a concert at the RFH.).

As a result of these experiences my music has returned to a new tonality (that was once notably absent during my Guildhall years!) and has returned to a body- sensitive, body guided (as opposed to a Guildhall intellectual!) compositional process. This brings to my music a kind of sophisticated simplicity and a willingness to be open to processes beyond the head space of the Guildhall training as a composer I received.

Now….interestingly, as I am typing this, someone called Allen has just come up to me and told me about this ‘new opera’ (his words), that was recently on Channel 4 over Xmas - called “Serenity”. (Jason tells me it’s called “The Eternity Man” – not Serenity!)  About a man who painted the word Serenity/(in fact Eternity) all over Sydney after his traumatic experiences in the Second World War. Allen said the singer was ‘trained, but not classical’ and it was directed by Julian Temple who made the film ‘the Filth and the Fury’ about the Sex Pistols, thus he chose a performer that wasn’t a traditional opera singer. Yet Allen said at first, he saw this amazing opera on the TV.  He then went on to say ‘it was an amazing of music-theatre I have ever seen’. So… what does this mean? One minute he uses one term the next another!  Are we looking at an interchangeable term? Perhaps it is a subtitle???

First of all we call it opera. Then to clarify that it is not coming from the traditional lineage of  Grand Opera as such, (ie Sex Pistols documentary director and a man who created visual art in Sydney) he qualifies what he means by saying music-theatre. So… are we then saying the definition of the form is created not by its generic components, music and theatre, but is defined by the artists themselves who participate in the work itself?

And if they are coming from outside mainstream Opera, Music Theatre is a more appropriate term.

I would like to call my stuff Music Theatre. I really would,  – but I will not, because New Opera or even ‘New Musical’ attracts more people. I have to think about my relationship with the outside world!  At least 12 people came to my session on New Opera,  1 person came to my session on Music Theatre….

And now I’m talking to Jason… he asks me why is all the stuff he sees at the Linbury ROH2 so ‘safe’? I do agree with him. I recently saw something there put on By Music Theatre Wales in conjunction with Opera Genesis. I left at the interval… frustrated and claustrophobic. Jason found himself doing the same with many things at ROH2…..

Jason works for a company currently transferring “Spring Awakening” from Off Broadway to the Lyric Hamnmersmith – he knows his stuff.

Jenni Roditi 11.01.09