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  • Opera for the Media Age:Composer Robert Ashley on Television Opera
  • Bianca Michaels (bio)

Robert Ashley . . . best opera composer of our era and still almost unknown to classical audiences.1

Opera, like any other cultural work, does not exist in isolation from other media or from other social and economic forces. And in the course of the late twentieth century, television emerged as the dominant form of media in the United States: “It is absolutely clear that our current cultural formation is saturated with, and dominated by, mass media representations in general, and television in particular.”2 Television can no longer be seen as just one among many elements in our cultural environment, but must be recognized as an environment in itself. Cecelia Tichi argues that television “has transcended its identity as a particular medium and is suffused through the culture as ‘the televisual.’”3

Given the dominance of television, it is no wonder that audiovisual media have had a major influence on opera. Video and film projections have not only been added at the level of stage production but have also played an increasingly important role in compositional conception. Beyond that, “the televisual” has also led to new forms of music theater through attempts to merge opera and audiovisual media. Living in a televisual culture, many composers, especially American composers, have been drawn to experiments with audiovisual media, particularly with video techniques and television.4 With the introduction of television in the twentieth century, a new genre, “television opera,” also emerged. Television opera is opera specially designed for television, which is not to be confused with regular opera performances that are broadcast from opera houses. After the successful premiere of the first television opera, Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors in 1951, there seemed to be mounting evidence that television opera would bridge the gap between the mass audience and the opera house and that this form might develop into a new kind of opera. However, because of high production costs, the success of television operas was short-lived indeed.5 Instead, live broadcasts (or “simulcasts”) from opera houses gained popularity. Another possible reason television operas didn’t become as successful as predicted might be that early television operas hardly generated a genuine musical, dramaturgical, or media style: conceptually the television operas of the 1950s and 1960s were more or less similar to stage operas with the exception that they were performed and recorded in television studios. [End Page 534]

One of the most important and distinctive pioneers of opera for television is composer Robert Ashley, who started to experiment with multimedia theatricality in the early 1960s. Born in 1930 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Ashley is especially well known for his collaborative performance and mixed-media works as well as for his innovative experiments with opera on television. In 1958 he founded the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music in Ann Arbor with Gordon Mumma; in addition, Ashley was also one of the founders of the ONCE Group. This group developed from the legendary ONCE festivals and soon became one of the most important centers in the Midwest for “happenings,” presenting new compositional ideas through multimedia experiments, avant-garde music, and otherevents.6 Collaborating with artists from various media, Ashley created many experimental works that explored different music-theatrical forms described as Electronic Music Theater. With Gordon Mumma, Alvin Lucier, and David Behrman, Ashley founded the Sonic Arts Union in 1966. Like the ONCE Group, the Sonic Arts Union welcomed artists from other media as composers and collaborators. The composers’ collective toured in the United States and Europe until 1976 and was considered to be in the vanguard of the field of experimental(electronic) music.7

In the 1970s, Ashley began composing video and television operas that combined his interest in language with his interest in using audiovisual media to express musical ideas. One of the most famous works based on video technology and conceived for television broadcast is his opera Music with Roots in the Aether from 1976. A fourteen-hour documentary opera consisting of interviews with seven contemporary composers and performances of their work, the piece was characterized almost twenty-five years later by its...


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pp. 534-537
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