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  • Between Realism and Re-enactment:Navigating Dramatic and Musical 'Problems' in Voyage to the Moon
  • Joseph Browning (bio) and Jane W. Davidson* (bio)

How do practitioners understand the relationship between performance, history and emotion in Western art music? Based on an ethnographic study of a contemporary pasticcio opera, we take the rehearsal room as an important, yet often overlooked, site in which creative artists imagine and perform different relationships with their musical and cultural heritage. Focusing on the interplay between two performative modes, which we call realism and re-enactment, we describe how the creative team navigated various dramatic and musical challenges associated with the opera, generating a final production that was ambiguous and multi-layered in its emotional registers and attitudes towards the past.

Day 8: Starting Work on Aria 16, A Question Emerges

As people arrive at Victorian Opera for the morning rehearsals, Horti Hall gradually fills with talk and activity. Soon we take our normal places in the large rehearsal room: the singers occupy the central stage-like space; we (the authors and researchers) sit at a long desk in front along with the stage manager and director; the covers (understudies) watch from one side. It is Day 8 of the Voyage to the Moon rehearsals and attention turns, for the first time, to Aria 16, in which Astolfo challenges Orlando to, as the title puts it, 'Stand and fight'. As work begins, Michael Gow, the director and librettist, comments 'For me it's the weirdest thing in the whole show, because why doesn't he open the box?' (His reference is to the box containing Orlando's sanity: Orlando is crazed and violent, so why doesn't Astolfo restore his friend's sanity immediately, rather than start a fight?) Gow and Sally-Anne Russell, the mezzo soprano playing the part of Astolfo, joke that perhaps Astolfo is simply unable to open the box, maybe because it is locked. Putting the problem aside temporarily, they start work on 'the music' for the aria. Phoebe Briggs, Musical Director for the production, accompanies Russell on piano as she sings through, then they discuss details of timing, diction and variations for the repeat of the A section. [End Page 17]

After the break, they are joined by Emma Matthews, the soprano playing the part of Orlando, and set about 'blocking' the previous aria, number 15, titled 'As strong as an army'. Gow's idea is that Orlando enters stage left, resting his sword on his shoulder, then circles around to centre stage—looking 'crazed, like a polar bear pacing in a cage'—to begin the A section of the aria. This leaves space in the bridge to the B section for what he calls a 'musical joke': Orlando should stalk past the onstage orchestra (located upstage centre), sweeping his sword at them as if in provocation. From this starting point, Matthews tries fragments of the aria, experimenting with gestures and movement in the space. In the da capo (repeat of the A section opening), she adds emphasis to the high notes in her vocal part by stabbing her sword upwards into the air. Gow adds further details, suggesting that Orlando should sing as if threatening the audience. They run the whole aria to consolidate the ideas, then break for lunch.

I. The Voyage to the Moon Rehearsals: Context, Problems and Performances

This vignette briefly sketches just a few hours of work, but it introduces many features that characterized the seventeen days of rehearsals for Voyage to the Moon. The large hall served as the locus for rehearsal activity, an 'emotional arena' in which various ideas around emotion and performance were played out.1 Work alternated between time spent on 'the music' (focused on sonic and expressive features of the vocal performance) and on 'blocking' (focused on the movements of the singers within the stage space). It also oscillated between verbal discussion and practical experimentation with bodies, props and sounds. And the production was shaped by a taste for jokes and playful distancing effects, including breaking the fourth wall (for example through singers addressing the audience or through singers' interactions with the onstage musicians). Hidden amongst these ongoing preoccupations was a...


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