- Orality, Invisibility, and Laughter: Traces of Milan in Bruno Maderna and Virginio Puecher’s Hyperion (1964)
Unexpected sounds from behind a curtain, heard amid the hushed semidarkness of a theater auditorium: this is what audiences experienced at the opening moments of the premiere of Hyperion, a one-act opera created by Bruno Maderna and Milanese scenographer and stage director Virginio Puecher, which was first performed at the Venice Biennale on September 6, 1964.1 First comes the clamor of male voices yelling at each other in Venetian dialect. Only then does the curtain part, in a slow, exaggeratedly haphazard way. The stage comes into view, but there is no one there, only an empty set. The backdrop is slightly crooked, hanging from the ceiling in midair without touching the stage floor. Only the obviously artificial rays of sunlight hitting the backdrop (it is 9 p.m., long after sunset) offer any clue that the offstage voices are part of the show.2 The voices grow louder and closer until a group of machinists (played, unbeknownst to the audience, by actors) arrives onstage; then comes the tearing screech of an offstage mechanical saw. One of the men walks to the front of the stage. The audience begins to clap tentatively, then stops. Stage notes tell us that the man “behaves as though he were alone: he whistles, taps, approaches the proscenium, recites in Venetian dialect a few classic excerpts, tries out the reverb of the room. Maybe he utters a few swear words: shit, bollocks. If anyone answers from the audience, he replies ‘the phantoms of the opera.’”3
This technician eventually returns backstage, as the shouting and noises from the workers begin to die down. A musician in tails walks pompously onstage, accompanied by an assistant carrying four flute cases and a table, and another machinist with a large music stand and some sheets of music. The musician is none other than flutist Severino Gazzelloni, a rising television personality in 1960s Italy and probably recognizable to some of the audience; others would have known him as a distinguished classical performer, one of Maderna’s closest collaborators. Gazzelloni wanders around the stage, obviously puzzled as his helpers go about [End Page 105] setting up; his flutes are placed on the table, the music stand is positioned. The flutist’s behavior is odd, at times theatrically clumsy (stage notes instruct him to be “grotesque, even slightly ridiculous”).4 The audience giggles. He finally chooses a flute, approaches the music stand, and readies himself to play. But before he makes a sound, odd metallic noises issuing from an invisible source—an excerpt from Maderna’s tape composition Le rire (1962)—ring out from the empty space around him.
Le rire began to play nearly six minutes into the 1964 premiere of Hyperion, and it is at this point that scholarly accounts of Maderna and Puecher’s work usually begin: only Maderna’s music—an extended flute piece, mixed into some forty minutes of electronic and orchestral music—is considered part of the text. This concentration on the musical score is, in the case of Hyperion, a consequence of the work’s extreme fragmentation, which has prompted scholars to establish a common textual basis for analysis.5 The creators left no libretto or complete published score. Every performance (there were five between 1964 and 1977) came with substantial additions and alterations; each was a discrete textual variant. But those noises, the paratextual or extratextual noises that were scripted via stage directions into the 1964 performance, are as much a meaningful part of the work as Maderna’s musical contributions, and indeed both provide a window into Hyperion’s linguistic and political conditions of possibility as a visual, sonic, and spatial event.
This article focuses on Hyperion’s first performance, which I will refer to as Hyperion’64. My description of the work’s opening moments is archival: it is only by digging through unpublished materials that one can recover this otherwise hidden seam of sonic traces. Such traces include, for example, the unofficial tape recording of the premiere and various unpublished scene synopses and stage notes. The...