- Interview with Robert Ashley
New York, April 23, 2003
You have to invent the circumstances for your music now. You can make the circumstances in the information media.1
Bianca Michaels: Let’s begin by discussing your notion of opera and your definition of opera.
Robert Ashley: I’ve been doing this for forty years. I tried for a few years in the beginning to find another term like “electronic music theater” or something. But if you make up a word, it doesn’t mean anything. I don’t really care about a definition of opera—I’m not trying to rewrite the history of opera. When it does all the things that we have seen on stage in nineteenth-century operas, I don’t think there is a better word. I think you have to call it an opera. People can call it whatever they want as far as I am concerned, but I think I have to call it an opera because there is simply no other word that is as simple in definition. In other words: it’s not a symphony, it’s not a song cycle, it’s not that, it’s not that—it’s an opera.
I really don’t think that the definition of opera for television is going to be in dispute for very much longer because there will always be composers who want to write operas, and the simple practical fact for every composer is that you have [End Page 537] to write the opera for the resources that are available for you. In Europe of course there are many, many more opera houses, so for European composers there would be a tendency to stay with the conventional stage. In the United States there are simply no opera houses to speak of. I don’t know if I can name five opera houses. And those opera houses are not very interested in contemporary music, so that means there is no place for us to play.
Michaels: So, if you were a European composer?
Ashley: I don’t know what I would have done if I had been somebody else. I just know that in the early 1970s, I found myself without any resources at all. There seemed to be some hole. I don’t want to speak too much of the history of the politics of television in the United States, but there was at that time the idea that there would be a lot of independent television productions—they didn’t all have to come out of Hollywood and New York. I thought that it would be possible for American composers to work in their own locations and make pieces that would be distributed through television as opposed to being distributed through scores and realized by different people depending on where the scores landed, as it is the European tradition. So I made a conscious decision for myself that I was going to write opera for television. Also, television is so important in American culture—and in European culture now too—but certainly in American culture since there is nothing else besides the movies. It’s a direct connection between the composer and the audience that you can’t find in any other situation.
In New York there are a couple of situations, but from the composer’s point of view, that’s poverty—there is essentially no choice at all. If you make something for television, the possibilities of your work grow with the technology of television. That’s still true and is even more true now. In other words, as television gets to be more a part of our lives, it’s more and more likely that there will be some sort of a musical component to television which it doesn’t have now.
Michaels: Do you think there is an audience for new music on television?
Ashley: Yes, I think there is a huge audience for music. America is a huge country, and when I go out to lecture in another place outside of New York, everywhere there is a huge audience for new music, and they are not satisfied by their ability to...