Why does new opera only include classical voices?

Convener(s): Jenni Roditi         

Participants: Derek Shiel, Emma Bernard, Kath Burlinson, Disherlock, Laura Kriefman, Ellan Parry, Leta Lily, Steve Vitale, Kate Gollege, Chris Grady, Jon Holmes, Jenni Roditi

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

  • because non classical singers can’t read music! Well, have you not heard of the natural voice practitioners network? No… they teach non readers to sing complex music to a high standard. What about The Shout – they use singers including , Indian, jazz, musical theatre as well as classical… Can this new opera include the spoken word?? Can it include atmospheric soundscapes? Well… there’s a new way of working which is creating a devised piece with a composer… I’m doing it now.. the composer is called Robin… (can’t remember his other name!)… We have a fully scored piece which was created as part of an extended rehearsal devising process. There you can work with the singer-actors or actor-singers in new ways!
  • Yes – and I’m interested in the possibility of improvisation as part of a fully scored piece where the individuality of the singers voices can be expressed in personal inflection and dramatic timbral characterization around the written lines. Also: what about using a freely improvised (non text based) vocal part in the overall texture? But surely the most important thing about opera is making theatre? ( Convener thinks : errr sorry the most important thing about opera has to include the music, at least!)
  • But no… it’s not about making theatre… it’s about audience expectation!
  • Opera is expensive and exclusive! We have rigid expectations about what opera is…. We have the break down the old opera.. opera is where theatre was 50 years ago!
  • Wait a minute I’ve got an example of a combining of many vocal styles in an opera in my production of Electra at the Riverside. We had a non trained singer in the main role. She was an actress not a singer. We also used a beat boxer and megaphones….Some of the music students from Trinity who were part of the chorus were well pissed off that the lead role was being played by a non singer. There was a culture of bitchiness among them. Nasty rivalry. Snotty they were. This was probably fostered by a culture of insecurity and competition.
  • Hang on a minute isn’t is all down to the training singers are getting? It isn’t breeding open minded artists! We wanted to work with singers who had high level of training but whose voices we actually liked! The sound of high opera isn’t that appealing. We found what were were looking for (Electra). But it’s all down to the fact that opera singers aren’t paid for rehearsals! So they can’t explore and devise. They are expected to turn up for 3 rehearsals with their parts already learnt. There’s no room for play. This is all doing new work a disservice in the in the cause of facilitating change. … I have been working at the ROH education department and we didn’t want to call it opera – but what to call it?? Play with singing?? We used singer actors not opera singers for our education project at ROH. Yes but I think the problem is with the WORD opera itself.
  • Well that brings us back to the fact that the training of singers is crucial. The training is not open minded enough. The rehearsal period for opera is much too short to work in any kind of devising way. But actually the opera singers themselves are not happy to experiment with their voices. There’s a lot fear. Even composers that I’ve met tend to freak out beyond Gershwin or Britten. It’s like asking a ballet dancer to improvise!! The composer in all this is crucial. You need an open minded composer who can lead the way stylistically and can work in a variety of musical styles.
  • Like my colleague Robin who enjoys funk and jazz as well as modern classical. So as directors we have to encourage a willingness to explore.
  • Interestingly the ROH community project went well but the board of the ROH were freaking out about having to go to the sticks to watch this show!
  • They were in the end reluctant and mystified by it all. But back to that thing about the singers fears. They are afraid they are going to hurt their voices…but they shouldn’t be! The ROH Board enjoyed, in the end, the strong element brought in by the chorus of community singers which was very powerful. There are some instrumentalists who are very flexible as musicians – like the Carnival Band. Medaievil and classical combined. Why can’t singers be like that? There are singers who are definitely willing to experiment and explore but they are the exceptions. They are precious!
  • There was a great project at the South Band with the Lost and Found Orchestra (STOMP) and the Voice Lab community choir. Excellent mix. Very high standard. And there’s something special about the untrained voice that we miss in the highly trained singer. Something emotionally true. Untrained singers have easier access to their emotional life which appeals to a lot of listeners. The same is true of actors and dancers who aren’t trained. There is a natural, touching quality that often gets lost after training. So… we have this need to find performers who combine… both the natural, authentic simplicity of the naïve untrained artist and at the same time we want singers who can deliver a high level of performance excellence. If we fall too far towards the ‘natural’ we go ‘foggy’, if we fall too far towards the disciplined we go ‘rigid’ So it’s this elusive balance that we are looking for in singers that is somehow the Holy Grail.
  • As a director I have to coax singers out of their fears. That is at the bottom of it all. YES, but isn’t it also that the singers need to have an understanding of the artistic goals when they are being asked to experiment? If they don’t have a sense of the aesthetic reason you can understand a reluctence. It’s the job of the composer and director to inspire confidence and belief in the project. In the music. In the theatre, then the singers will want to participate in the new. We need a more visible culture of the new! HOW can we create this? Let’s create a new festival of small scale opera and music theatre! We have Tete a Tete and Almeida but we could do with more! Opera is the theatre of music. Opera is the thing that uses classical voices. Why not call it something else?
  • Well I’ve just butterflied in from the network group and they are talking about Opera Music Theatre Forum which includes very small fringe groups and national companies… it’s an interesting network. Yes.. but they don’t let individuals join ! Only companies! Let’s call it experimental opera or new opera or something to get out of the opera label. Contemporary Dance got out of the ‘dance’ rut by using the word contemporary word. WHY doesn’t the RSC devise work ?? BECAUSE it’s the RSC. Same with Opera – it is what it is. We need something different.
  • I called my piece an Opera/Musical, with Dance – as I couldn’t plum for just one. When you use music and voice AS theatre that is something else! Not Opera. Good paper by Paul Reeve ROH Education. On new audiences. Very political of course. Then there was Julian Joseph’s Jazz Opera. But it was a flop commercially as the jazzers thought it wasn’t jazz and the opera lot thought it wasn’t opera…. You can put on Opera in outside spaces – like I did – Hansel and Gretal – we sold out all 150 seats. 

LET’S PUT ON A FESTIVAL!  Do we agree on something here between us all? That there is a kind of singer/actor and there is a kind of musician and a kind of theatre director who sit totally comfortably in a middle space – a space between the worlds of trained and untrained, a space (an open space even!) between musical genres, and between theatre making practices, that creates an emotionally engaging, honest and yet highly focused performance style which excites and attracts non exclusive audiences and takes forward the art form of combined music and theatre to new heights and depths!


Jenni Roditi. 10.12.09