Theater 30.2 (2000) 2-7
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Our title is New Music-Theater, and that's how we first thought of this issue. But really the hyphen should be moved: The focus turned out to be on New-Music Theater--music theater that isn't just contemporary, but experimental. There is a lot of theater with music around now, in a vast range of styles, and it's wildly popular in all its manifestations; from Dierdre Murray's lovely jazz-and-modernism opera Running Man to a lecture series at the Kitchen, every music-theater event I've gone to this last year has been packed, and the spectators have been young. Sometimes it seems as if the way images started to dominate text a generation ago is being paralleled by a new dominance of sound. As with theater of images, this is not necessarily a good thing. Sensuousness, emotional and intellectual complexity, social satire: music can add to them all. Unfortunately, in most music-theater it doesn't. When we started listening to tapes of pieces being "developed" as not-for-profit projects, a disheartening proportion was banally pre- or semi-Broadway. Only in the avant-garde--despite all that can be said against it and so often has--do artists seem free enough to ask hard questions and brave enough to look for new forms in response. Of course it's a sign of the poverty of the cultural system in the United States that NewOp took place in Montreal and that the best American music-theater artists are constantly struggling. But their inventiveness and seriousness, their perseverance, their works signify something much more important, and hopeful.
Extended Voices: Report from NewOp8 in Montreal
NewOp8, an international conference on new opera and music-theater held in Montreal in November 1999, began with Les chants du Capricorne [Capricorn songs], in which an artistic creation came to life in an abandoned studio. Wrapped in a shiny pink rubber [End Page 3] cape and adorned with unidentifiable (but female) body parts, Pauline Vaillancourt gave an accomplished solo performance as the sculpture-like creature who discovers breath, body, emotion, sound, and eventually silence. Giacinto Scelsi's 1972 wordless score for solo voice rarely surrenders to operatic convention; the character expresses her emotional and anatomical discoveries though a fluctuating and dynamic array of onomatopoeia: glottal stops and noises, exaggerated syllables, and extended trills. With a pair of tube-like horns sprouting from her head, Vaillancourt looks like somebody's severe hallucination of a Valkyrie, and the same might be said of Scelsi's vocal gymnastics.
This Pygmalion-like scenario was perfect to kick off a four-day investigation of new directions in music-theater. NewOp, founded in 1992 by Lukas Pairon and Dragan Klaic´ (originally as "Small Scale Opera and Music Theatre"), has previously convened in Brussels, Antwerp, Colmar, Copenhagen, Toronto, Cambridge, and Amsterdam. This year it focused on "Voice, Creation, and New Technology." Held at Montreal's Museum of Contemporary Art (in association with Washington-based Opera America and Montreal's Festival de la Voix), NewOp8 was the first to emphasize North American work. Composers, singers, librettists, producers, critics, and sound and technical designers from more than twenty countries assembled for performances, workshops, panels, and presentations. In the hallways and dining rooms they exchanged business cards, URLs, videotapes, and libretti; inside the museum's black-box theater they discussed everything from the mechanics of international coproductions to the place of the human voice in an era of dizzying technological change.
Many found Richard Armstrong's workshop on "extended voice" techniques the most inspiring event. Armstrong pointed out the ways in which urban industrial society forces us to reduce and narrow our vocal range; singers seeking greater expressiveness must also unlearn the self-consciousness instilled with traditional opera training. With extended voice study, vocalists can overcome the restrictions of conservatory training and discover the greater range of sounds they can produce. (The barriers may be psychological rather than technical.) The brief workshop Armstong led with a music student yielded astonishing results; within minutes she emitted sounds that could easily have come...