Collaboration, dictatorial ideology, Platonic philosophy hangovers, and other thoughts before starting work on an opera

In preparing to write larger, theatrically bound pieces of music, a voracious appetite for webs of information, culled from as many fields as possible seems to take hold.  (I'm speaking as a "newbie" here because I've only written one opera previously, Bang The Law.) Perhaps, it is because things like opera involve so many different features: poetry, acting, producing, directing, music, stage design, costume, psychology, history. Reasearch into everything possible seems to be called for. There is also the perennial fear of accidentally creating something too narrow or trivial. I get into a kind of trawling, sometimes directed, sometimes not, that leads to the right sort of mental and emotional fullness and wonder that overcomes stagnation, procrastination, and distraction.  Opera demands collaboration anyhow so mental flexibility derived from poring over related ideas seems paramount becuse there is a certain openness and general knowledge required in working well with others with specialized talents.

I'm involved in the writing of a semi-operatic work currently so this is the process that seems to be dominant again.  A couple of months back I was handed a libretto by writer, Adam Falik, and agreed to collaborate on his libretto about a couple of early twentieth century art behemoths and a fictional encounter that drags them both down.  In perusing some of these webs of stuff, in this "pregnant pause" before writing,  I re-read something that had caught my eye a number of years back.  It's in a book called Composing for Voice by Paul Barker.  In a couple of earlier posts I had put sections of a Roger Sessions book up (see here) which dealt with the relationship between performer, composer, and listener.  This passage below really seems to get to the heart of certain features of that triad even better and really illuminate the different sorts of approach that go into the creating this sort of vocal work.

"Opera does not only combine text and music, but a plethora of visual and dramatic elements as well. When synthesis is achieved, the sum may become even more than the many parts. But here I discover the limits of language; even if a composer was able to describe in every detail how he or she would ideally like to see a performance of his or her opera, it would not help define its "meaning."  Theater is essentially a collaborative form, and all the creators and performers themselves must help contribute to the end result. The performance must then contain more "meaning" than the score. Whether that "meaning" can ever be expressed fully except through performance, or a single performance, is at least debateable. And whether that degree of collaborative meaning is always applicable for all composers, is also questionable; it did not seem appropriate to Rossini, who wrote in a letter to his friend Guidicini in 1851: "The good singer should be nothing but an able interpreter of the ideas of the master, the short, the composer and the poet are the only true creators."

"The relegation of performers to servility or their elevation to co-creativity with the composer goes to the heart of a dialectic on the nature of classical music performance practice, at least since the time of Beethoven and the elevation of certain compositions to "masterwork" status. Interestingly, the issue is sidestepped in the popular music world, where "cover" versions often provide the performer with undisputed freedom to create an individual interpretation of a song. It may be argued that Rossini's point of view reflects a dictatorial ideology, with its roots in a Platonic philosophy, in which creativity remains the sole responsibility of the high priests of culture.  This point is well made by Eric Salzman (Sept 2001):

The great irony in these views derive from German idealistic (or Platonic) philosophy which elevates music to the highest form of the arts because it is the purest and most perfect art and because it represents some kind of transcendent condition that speaks of the essence of things. "Great" works of art (the concept of "Great Art" and "Masterpiece" is an essential part of this view) therfore must challenge and eliminate other kinds of art and the job of the artist is to create these perfected essences and archetypes.  This essentially Germanic view, mystical and cultist, has come to dominate classical music everywhere in Western culture.  It is a view that, like organized religion, promotes dogma, priesthood, and a certain kind of near fanaticism that opposes anything that challenges its authority. It also leads to an idealization of essences (mystical states, death, sacrifice, terror) as well as to hierarchies and domination. It violently opposes non-idealistic art as dirty and unworthy. It particularly opposes what we might call the Aristotelian view that idealized essences made in heaven do not exist and that real artistic culture is the ongoing sum of all the works and experiences that go to make up culture."

Later Barker says:

"The search for meaning in opera has always been enriched or confused by the plethora of art forms involved. But I would suggest that these basic principles apply to a greater or lesser extent wherever music meets and interacts with language...both music and words are imprecise forms of communication. The level of precision will depend somewhat on the depth of the interaction of the composer, the singer, and the audience.  There are also many models for the relationships between music and text...One thing is certain: if the composer is unsure of his objectives in relation to textual clarity, the singer is left to resolve the confusion...The singer always gets the last word."


The real freedom seems to consist in figuring out the origins of the ties that seem to be formally essential and releasing them so that somehing a little more organic can go on.  There's never enough time's to a search for a little ambiguity and, faith in the collaborators that end up on the production.