analytical essay on the anti-opera by Zachàr Laskewicz

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an anti-opera
for a male and female singer, two actors, violin, horn, percussion
(gongs, timpani, toy metallophone) and double bass

Het Loket is a new composition project produced for performance in the new music week 1993 in Ghent. The production of the work is for a concert of new chamber operas produced through the "Projekt Hedendaagse Muziek" (New Music Composition Project) at the Royal Ghent Conservatory, and certain of the elements within the work were prefigured, including instrumentation and the presence of opera singers, and even the author of the text. These conditions were certainly influential as to why we (the composers) chose to write an "anti-opera", but this is in itself a complex question that will form one of the main structural elements of this essay. As is obvious from the title, Het Loket is a composition that comes from a totally different philosophical standpoint represented clearly in the structure of the work and the elements involved, as well as presenting a clear and humorous parody of opera. However, although it is "anti-opera" in almost every sense, the work itself certainly attempts to go beyond a simple parody or an attempt at provocative anti-aestheticism, and attempts to explore other means of communication through music and theatre by adopting different musical and theatrical forms that have few or no common links with the operatic tradition. By making an "anti-opera" we are free to adopt any other performance form, and we are combining these forms in order to make a statement against opera: In our composition, we are using musical and theatrical forms taken from Eastern theatre, and more particularly the Peking Opera of China.

The Western definition of 'art' as something separate to life has evolved from the Platonic conception of perfect beauty and has become entrenched in Western culture. These very particularly Western notions of expression through 'artistic' or 'elevated' means simply do not exist in many ancient cultures, where defining categories are not necessary because expression through some creative means is an essential part of existence, and is designed to have appeal to all elements of society; there simply exists no word for 'art'. A clear demonstrative example is the Balinese culture: Dr. David George, in his article on Balinese Ritual Theatre[1] , discusses the intimate relationship between the complex religious rituals and the theatre forms (integration of dance, design, music); they are one and the same. This discussion of Eastern culture will rapidly become more significant as we introduce our own adaption of forms from the Peking Opera. A common factor shared by these theatre forms is the natural coalescence of all elements of the culture in a 'total' form of ritual significance, and the general non-linear, non-naturalistic forms adopted, using musical structures and alternative forms of communication moving beyond language to comment on ancient stories events that simply cannot be adequately explained through words. This is certainly a contrast to Western theatre forms where linear narrative almost always structures the performance.

The term "anti-opera" is certainly problematic, and before describing in detail the reasons for positing this composition as an "anti-opera" it is important to make certain clear distinctions about what 'opera' actually is, and more particularly what it is about opera that has brought us to the position where we find it necessary to create something whose intention is to make a statement against it. This entails examining the social conditions under which opera is viewed today, and perhaps its validity as a contemporary performance medium. The first important fact concerning opera that sets it aside as a distinctly Western theatrical form is the fact that it is certainly elitist. Opera, as we know it, arose out of the attempts of a group of artists and scholars during the Renaissance in Europe to recreate Greek drama, which was believed at the time to have been sung and not spoken. In its early days, it was of course performed alone at royal festivities, and supported by nobles who had enough wealth to indulge in such extravagance. It was simply understood that opera was a theatrical spectacle, an epic performance based strictly on text and narrative, and it became the amusement of the extreme elite in society: Royalty and wealthy men. By the eighteenth century, the traditions of opera as an elite form had become deeply entrenched; Social conditioning certainly played a large role in determining the make up of the audience. For instance, where you sat in the elaborate opera houses was indicative of your social position, and the opera itself became a social event where the music and the performance lost its significance. This has become reflected in contemporary performances of the great classic opera: Opulence, extravagance and decadence based on a strong awareness of social distinctions.

Initially opera grew from a desire to drive towards a unity and cohesion in music and drama, seen in the 'ultimate' form in the Gesamtkuntswerk of Wagner. If the intention of Wagner was to create a true unity between music and theatre, then it is my contention that he failed and is responsible for the extended prolongation of an elite form, one that fails absolutely in any sort of fusion and in fact creates a deliberate and impassable chasm between music and theatre, as well as supporting strict literary and performance traditions: Labels such as 'composer', 'librettist' and 'designer' become strictly separated and defined, and where no interaction between the roles are permitted. If it does not comply with a certain strict performance/literary etiquette, it is simply not opera. The glorified visions of Wagner have certainly been brought under much criticism because of its preservation of these elitist traditions.

It is necessary to discuss the performance traditions and conventions supporting the elitism of opera in more detail. The first and foremost is the audiences clear acceptance of the musical form commenting upon the action on stage. Although the action on stage may be set in Ancient Egypt, the musical style itself is a strictly classical form (Aida). The educated audience can also make the distinction between certain types of singing styles, and if the lead singer sings an aria, then the course of the drama is naturally interrupted in order for the audience to applaud. We have inherited these ridiculous conventions from the traditions of the 'great' Italian opera. The second group of important traditions stem from an attitude to the text: It is subordinated always to melody and singing styles, and is discovered purely for its semantic possibilities, despite the fact that it can rarely be understood during an opera performance because of the extreme difficulty in understanding opera texts sung in distinctly 'operatic' singing styles (such as bel canto or coloratura).

Opera, therefore, creates many possible distinctions and points of separation so that an imagined "connection" between musical structures and theatre is strictly based on social and cultural definitions and presents no second interpretative possibility. This separation is one of the main explorative elements of our composition, and through deliberately colliding the opera traditions with contrasting philosophical viewpoints and theatrical forms we are trying to point out more essential problems with the social conditioning ever present in opera performances, as well as provide new possibilities for representation through music and music-theatre performance. As our composition is an "anti-opera" it seems only natural to adopt Eastern forms, standing firmly against the traditional notion of expression through music based on strict cultural conventions. In this composition we are deliberately reaching out in order to find new ways of combining music and theatre; as well as questioning the traditions of opera, we are going further in trying to find a relationship between music and language, or pointing out some possibilities for interesting new combinations of performance and music so that there are different levels of performance and music running simultaneously. In this essay, the purpose is to present a semiotic exploration of the systems of communication adopted, and the possibilities and difficulties of communication through music-theatre.

Before discussing the possibilities for extension of theatre into music, it is first important to determine the relationship between music and language: To what extent is music a language, what radically distinguishes it from verbal language? According to Kristeva [2] the similarities between the two systems are considerable. Verbal language and music are both realized by utilising the same material (sound) and by acting on the same receptive organs. The systems both have writing systems that indicate their entities and their relations. But while the two signifying systems are organized according to the principle of the difference of their components, this difference is not of the same order in verbal language as it is in music. The musical code is organized by arbitrary and cultural (imposed within the framework of certain civilisation) difference between various essential values. While the fundamental function of language is the communicative function, and while it transmits a meaning, music is a departure from this principle of communication. It does transmit a "message" between a subject and an addressee, but it is hard to say that it communicates a precise meaning. It is through this ambiguity that musical discourse can be extended through music-theatre: This is where our project moves beyond being simply "anti-opera."

'Musical' communication is certainly difficult to define, and communicates in an entirely different way to vocal language, the primary form of communication between human beings. One could say that music succeeds in communicating where language fails, communicating things that simply cannot be said in words. Another system of communication that is comparable to musical communication (and that we have adopted in this composition) is the gestural form. It is clear that gesturality is a communication system that transmits a message, and that consequently can be considered a language, it is nevertheless still difficult to clarify certain elements as in vocal languages which are easily fragmented into minimal units. It is no doubt the property of gestural practice is the privileged realm of religion, sacred dance, and ritual. We can recall the secret traditions of Noh (Japanese theatre) or Kathakali (Indian theatre) or Balinese theatre, which served as the basis for Antonin Artaud's proposition for a radical transformation of the West's theatrical conception.[3] According to Artaud, in Balinese theatre "one senses a state prior to language, able to select its own language; music, gestures, moves and words. . . It has invented a language of gestures to be spatially developed, but having no meaning outside it."[4] In this theatre, gestural communication moves surely into the realm of music, communication without a definite translation that nonetheless communicates strongly and deeply. Here the gesture is a primordial act of signification, were the signification is engendered in a form that can not be transferable to language. This type of 'musical' communication takes us to the limit of the system of signs, a differential system without semantics, a formalism that does not signify. Stravinsky himself considered music as powerless to express anything at all: A feeling, an attitude, a psychological state, a phenomenon of nature, etc: "Expression has never been the immanent property of music. . ."[5] Music then has not the possibility to communicate some particularity, it simply communicates. Our project is more specific however in adopting musical communicative modes, the function being firstly to provide a level of musical communication through abstract symbols and sounds in the form of Balinese performances (abstract symbols without referents),and at the same time to provide deliberate ambiguity by playing off the audience who are witnessing "opera performers" in a "chamber opera" form, expecting of course signification and resolution. By providing the audience with some of the elements from the opera traditions (enough of the elements to set up expectations), but not providing the opera singers themselves with the communicative forms or narratives that are necessary for resolution, in fact forcing them to perform in alien and abstract forms (movement, gesture, and alternative singing styles), we are hoping to force the audience to question the elitism of opera.

Another important factor concerning this composition is the notation itself. As already mentioned, notation is one similarity between music and language. We have already mentioned the traditions and conventions of opera performance, but the strict conventions that exist in literary forms (particularly theatre) as well as musical notation are something that I also explore when notating music-theatre works: When the composition is exploring a different element of music as a communicative form, it is exploring also language as a musical form and therefore it has been important for me to invent my own forms of notation that fragment the traditions of both of these strictly culturally determined media in order to create an entirely new way of writing performance texts. This has been an important element in much of my work, especially the recent music-theatre pieces,and the compositions that have adopted Eastern musical forms and instruments requiring an entirely new attitude to notation because of the contrasting nature of this music. This notation attempts to find a new "language" for use in performance that can be created by abandoning or changing the conventions that are structured around music, theatre and opera.

It is important to discuss the creative process that went into this work. It began first with the necessity to write a chamber opera for the "New Music Project" course in the Conservatorium. Moniek Darge, the co-director of the Logos Foundation in Belgium, invited me to collaborate with her on this new project, and we were required to take texts from plays by a French Absurdist playwright - Tardieu, an element that would obviously play a role in the creation of the composition. We finally decided on a play called "Le Préposé" (the teller), but were certainly unsatisfied with the representation forms adopted: Metaphorical/symbolic language and narrative that would certainly seem outdated because of the strong existential thematic material used: A client approaches a teller behind which a railway attendant sits, and asks for information concerning the next train. Through a series of wordy encounters where the client has extreme difficulty in asking questions just as the attendant seems completely unable or unwilling to answer, we discover that the client is actually seeking answers to very impossible questions about the nature of his life and existence. The two indulge in probing word games that explore the superficiality of spoken language, which further frustrate the client leading him to question his own identity and finally to his destruction. The emphasis is on the difficulty in communication, and the difficulty that we have in expressing ourselves, and "indefinable concepts" that construct our psyche, through words: He finally leaves, questions unanswered and a terrible car-crash is heard. Evidently he didn't make it to the train.

As an entirely separate instance, Moniek had a recording that she made during the tour of her performance duo through China. She wanted to use this as the basis for a performance, and as it turned out this element would play an important role in the genesis of the composition. The recording contained a particularly beautiful "narrative" that was characterized by the fact that it used no verbal language as we can understand it: It was a recording of an older Chinese man teaching a younger Chinese girl one of the songs from the Peking Opera. The teaching method itself was quite complex, but one could tell that the man was teaching the girl a simple song through the use of an extremely rhythmically and melodically elaborate melody. There were many other uses of language and musical communication that were to affect the way I composed and structured the music and theatrical elements within this composition, but simply the fact that the tape recording provided an entirely different method of communication through musical discourse is enough for now, and that certain similarities existed between this narrative and the narrative of the Tardieu play in question.

In any case, for our collaborative project, we were left by force with a play that we felt was essentially outdated and a musical/theatrical form (chamber opera) that we felt could certainly no longer be taken seriously as a valid contemporary form of artistic communication, so strictly bounded by form and tradition. However,the other element that was so suddenly thrust forward in this description - the Chinese recording - brought us to a point where we felt we could create a performance. Certain other elements that exist on the Chinese recording were influential points for the creation of the composition. The first was the sound of Moniek herself attempting to imitate the sound of the Chinese language, which introduced some ideas about performing in a "nonsense" language. Moniek imitating the song provided an interesting contrast with the girl trying to learn the song, both involving forms of communication that are not simply verbal. The second was some of the Chinese language spoken by the older Chinese man before he begins teaching the song: This language is in fact "enhanced" language and has deliberate musical qualities, and was also represented through the musical forms that were to follow. This is a characteristic common to much Asian theatre, where the very musical nature of the language is explored rather than being simply subordinated to the semantic meaning supporting the words. The contradiction presented by the possibility of combining elements of Western opera, an elite form for the selected few in Western society, with the Peking Opera of China, which is an ancient system adopting simultaneously various different communicative systems in order that there is something for everyone in the audience to appreciate (comparatively non-elite), was too exciting to ignore. I could also see exciting possibilities for the adoption of these communication systems in expressing some of the themes from "The Teller", expressing the themes in an entirely new fashion - through a combination of musical and representational discourse, adapting theatrical and musical forms based on ethnic and folk performance. Peking Opera also, in adopting a multi-levelled array of communication forms simultaneously, forms an important element in this composition, relating again to the play by Tardieu. Hence the creation of Het Loket (a Dutch translation of "The Teller"), a performance piece where two actors simultaneously perform the client and the attendant from "The Teller", and the teacher and the student from the Chinese recording. All of the actual vocal "text" used in the composition is also taken from "The Teller", but the way the text was extracted relates more to the "enhanced" musical language of Chinese theatre: Moniek formed a text by taking out the characteristically French vowel sounds, and in the composition this text is used both to imitate traditional opera, and in imitation of the very characteristic Peking Opera singing style. An analysis of the exact means and methods that this would be realized, in combination with the anti-opera element, will provide the basis for the rest of this paper.

Our adaption of folk theatre forms is certainly an important starting point for analysis of this piece. As already mentioned, these forms generally use non-naturalistic and musically-based forms, particularly evident in Balinese theatre. Characteristic structurally of the layout of a Balinese ritual theatre performance, something common also with many folk theatre forms, is the integration of the musical instruments, both physically (by direct use in the performance space, dynamically interacting with the performance) and symbolically, where the music is not merely commenting on or accompanying the action; the structures of the music are intimately related to the performance text. For instance, Indian and Balinese performances there is a strong numerical relationship between the performance texts and the music. This is also particularly evident in Indian classical dance where the rhythmic nature of the language dictates both to the musicians and the dancers. The musicians and the music take part in the performance in a way that is totally contrasting to forms of Western performance, providing the possibility for the adoption of musical form into the theatrical structure. In our composition the instrumentalists are similarly integrated into the performance, forming a ring around the central performance area and thus "defining" it (characteristic of folk theatre), as well as being the vehicles for the narrative when musical discourse plays a structuring role. The simplicity of the set design, which is practically non-existent, is also a move against the extravagance of opera, but at the same time the adaption of something common with folk theatre forms. This is based on the simple premise that a performance space is always a performance space, and there is little point in going to a lot of trouble and expense to try and convince an audience otherwise, whether it is a drawing room in an English a mansion or a small patch of African jungle or the bottom of the sea. Using simple media is perhaps the most effective way to define a performance space; through a combination of music, movement and text along with simple objects (a chair can represent a mountain) allows the audience to form their own picture of the space. As well as being a common factor of folk and street theatre forms where in order to create theatre simple elements are adopted, it is the central premise of Grotowski's "Poor Theatre."

Eastern theatre is also generally characterized by another important element: The distance that exists between the characters the actors are portraying, and the actors themselves. In these theatre forms, the actors are people who always remain actors no matter which character they play; as for example in Japanese Noh, where the conventions don't ask you to believe that the actor is actually a character from a medieval Japanese story. The actor is in fact clearly distanced from his role by a mask in which the face of the actor is actually visible, reminding you always of his presence. Instead the audience allows the actor to communicate through an ancient theatrical form. As such, the mediums of communication can be abstract and non-linear, and one actor can play many different characters in the same play, presenting entirely different channels to Western theatre where you are actually expected to believe that an actor, for the time of the performance, will 'become' another person for a brief space of time. This is represented in our composition by the contrast between the roles of the actors and the singers. The actors are not restricted to a single role as they are required to perform simultaneously in two narratives ("The Teller" and the Chinese teacher/student narrative). In the Chinese teacher student narrative, the actors are required to perform as if it is a pantomime; communicating through exaggerated actions without vocal sounds. Although one of the characters is a "young girl" and the other is an "older man" these roles are not required to be played by actors fitting this description, they must merely act as such in a very affected pantomime style. The roles of the opera singers however are strictly defined, and must be played by real opera singers who not only appear as such (in the most stereotypical form possible), but who are able to sing in an operatic style.

The question is of course, how could the opera element be interpolated into an already complicated narrative structure. This was where the idea for an anti-opera clearly became manifest. On top of the two realities that already existed within the composition, the third discourse, that of the opera singers and (to a lesser extent) the musicians who in fact would often play a neutral role in the composition, merely acting as instruments through which the performance could communicate. The problems inherent in the operatic form could be demonstrated by having the opera singers play a role in attempting to define the narrative through language forms: One of the singers adopts gestural signs, and the other vocal sounds. The story of the student and the teacher is acted out central stage through musical interaction, (played by the musical ensemble surrounding the performance space), and the opera singers use nonsense sounds and gestures and therefore are actually unable to provide any semantic basis for the communication. This sets up an interesting ambiguity where the music speaks for itself despite all the efforts of the opera singers to confuse matters terribly. In any case, it can be seen that the third discourse of the opera singers is important in bringing out some of the important themes from "The Teller" where the near impossibility of vocal communication is presented. This is also the intention of combining the different discourses, whose collision provides ambiguities and points of confusion designed to make us question language as the only communicative form. The deliberate inclusion of a comic element into this composition is designed also to create a contrasting discourse that communicates through all the realities (although specially the opera singers who are appear the most absurd), allowing other elements to communicate more subliminally.

Many of these interactions and elements deserve further discussion, but it is important to see them in relation to the complete structure of the composition. Through a detailed analysis of this performance, these elements will become clear, as well as the multi-functionary communicative performance text forms used: Sounds an actions are explored through their communicative interpretations. The central element is of course the teller itself, symbolic of the distance that exists between people in the process of communicating, and the teller more specifically represents that barrier that can not be overcome in order to discover true understanding: Language. This also forms the grid between the teacher and the student, who are naturally played by the same actors. It is the central and pervasive element that forms the central structure in the set, and does not move during the performance.

Het Loket is divided into four sections, (i) Overture, (ii) Introduction, (iii) Exposition, and (iv) Conclusion. These titles allude both to structuring divisions ('movements') in music and also the four act structure of theatre, although the four sections flow together forming an uninterrupted performance.

Overture: The performance begins in darkness, and when the lighting rises the performers are seen as almost caricatures of musicians: Instruments in position ready to play, faces with serious expressions but exquisitely motionless. After a certain time of waiting, the first musical sound bursts forward: The audience hears the sound of a violin and sees the violinist play exaggerated performance gestures. After another time bracket accompanied by deathly motionlessness, a clarinet is heard and the clarinettist gestures as if performing. The percussion player moves to play the gong with a large and strong gesture, but approximately when contact is made with the centre of the instrument, a loud and brash Asian instrument is heard (Peking gong). The percussion player moves to play again, and then the performance is rendered entirely ridiculous when all that can be heard is the plunking sound of a toy metallophone. The instrumental sounds are being played on tape, and the live performers act merely to gesture as if they are performing. Although the results are initially humorous, the intention is to force the audience to question the musical performance medium as well as their own concept of how a musical performance 'should' take place. The structure of an 'overture' is also parodied: In opera, the overture sets the mood for the performance that will take place, introducing melodies that will recur during the performance. All the melodies used in the overture are taken from the music based on Peking opera, which is adopted in the third movement, but is played in a form which is deliberately unrecognizable: Very fast and with intense vibrato. The imitations of the tape become more ridiculous, until finally the sound of a single gong on tape cues all the performers to improvise furiously, but without making a sound. While this is happening, the percussion player lifts his hand in slow motion as if to play the gong, and then suddenly and shockingly plays the first live sound: A gong, bringing about sudden motionlessness from the other performers who were actively being silent. After a short time of absolute stillness, a real chaotic improvisation begins, with all the instruments playing together as loudly as possible. Then they begin playing fragments of Peking opera melody, played very quickly, but as time continues interspersing the fragments with silence. At this point the sound of a real opera overture which is on tape gradually emerges underneath the improvisation. When it becomes clear that another sound source has become manifest, the players begin to genuinely look around to find out where the sound is coming from, in between playing the fragments. Soon however, the fragments stop, and we are left with the musicians performing simply abstract movements of the head in a choreographed format. These gestures have become 'dehumanised' and now form part of the musical structure, as well as providing a deliberate contrast to the opera singers. When all that can be heard is the overture, the opera singers emerge from backstage, dressed so elaborately making them appear almost ridiculous, and when they reach positions at the front of the stage, the overture on tape has faded out. The entrance of the opera singers is designed to present a a deliberately negative image of the opulence of the opera. The use of a real operatic overture which summons forth the singers, is designed to clearly represent them their roles. The subsequent action posits them as the "superior" representatives of narrative who will structure the performance and bring about the resolution. This is quickly rendered absurd.

Introduction: When the overture has faded out, the instrumentalists suddenly turn to the singers, clapping wildly, and the singers appear appreciative although behave as if this sort of treatment is quite standard. The violin player actually gets up and delivers an imaginary rose to the female opera singer and then curtsies in a childish way. You discover that it is a flower when the opera singer smells the rose and then tosses it over her shoulder, smiling. The singers then go through a process of 'introducing' the instruments to the audience. The male singer stays at the front of the stage, and sings a short recititative in distinctly operatic style, but with the absurd vowel text from "The Teller." The female singer who walked over to the double bass player and at first was gesturing operatically at this performer, now makes absurd imitative sounds of the instrument, accompanied by absurd gestures as if she is playing. This brings the double-bass player to life, resulting in a short improvised flourish. It continues in the same form with the French horn and then the clarinet, presenting absurd caricatures of the instruments, their performance style, and their actual sound. However, when it comes to the violin, the flow that has already been set up between the opera singers and the instruments is changed. The singer moves to the violin, and does the introductory gesture, but instead of imitating the sound, she picks an imaginary rose from the pocket of the violin player, sniffs it, an puts it in her bosom. The violin, who is gesturing, ready to play, all of a sudden moves out of playing position and takes the rose back (arrogantly), sniffs it and throws it over his shoulder, playing then one loud pizzicato. The sound of the pizzicato is designed to imitate the sound of the rose as it hits the floor, accentuating this action. As well as a deliberate change in expected flow of the performance, it acts to question the opera singers in their position of superiority, and also introducing an interesting interaction between the musicians and singers that was suggested by the flower giving at the beginning of the introduction. By this time, the opera singer has taken a dramatic step towards the audience gesturing towards them as if in philosophical thought, and starts another recititative. The female singer is looking around to see who she has forgotten, and then rushes over to the percussion player when she sees that the male singers last gesture at the end of his recitative is directed towards him. When she reaches the percussion player, she starts immediately with ridiculous percussion imitative noises and gestures. This time there is a short interaction between the percussion player, in the form of an improvisation. The improvisation is ended by the percussion player who goes suddenly mad on the Peking opera gong causing first the opera singers to move to positions at the centre of the stage, and then the entire ensemble currently performing to freeze. This is the cue for the actors to come on stage, beginning the exposition.

Exposition: The actors walk on stage. They are both holding strange and elaborate instruments.[6] The actor representing the "older man" comes on stage first, holding a large stack of papers in his right hand and the instrument in his left. He enters stage left, and sits in a predetermined position centre stage on one side of the teller, placing his instrument on the ground and then arranging his papers at a desk. The other actor representing the "younger girl" enters timidly some seconds later. A short performance takes place through the teller, where the desperation of the client is represented. No vocal sounds are made, but it is represented visually by the "client" (girl) attempting to speak to the "attendant" (man), but is constantly ushered away. The other performers stay totally silent and motionless during this event, but when the percussion player plays the loud and raucous Peking opera gong, this is the cue for the actors to freeze and the opera singers to come back to life, the male singer performing a ridiculous imitation of peking opera singing (with high falsetto and long sliding notes), using the same vowel text taken from the play, and the female performs distinct symbolic actions in an effort to "describe" the nonsense text. Then the sound of the gong from the percussion player cues the actors to start performing the Chinese student/teacher narrative. The singers have stepped back to watch this performance. The actors perform the pantomime with the unusual instruments which are designed to be as absurd and fantastic as possible (exaggerating the pantomime). The actual music is played by the instrumentalists who are surrounding the central ensemble; their role is obviously essential to the development in this section. The music itself is influenced by the Chinese recording, and is characteristic of heterophonic music common in many forms of ancient music, where a simple melody is elaborated into a totally new form. Some of the 'simple' melody that is adopted in the composition is a direct transcription of the music from tape. The teacher attempts to teach the student with an intensely elaborated version of the same melody. It begins with a complete recitation of the complex heterophonic melody (played by the violin), and is answered by the clarinet (representing the student) who evidently has no idea about how to play the simple version of the same melody. Then the teacher plays short examples,and when the student still can't make the connection, the teacher plays his melody a little simpler, and then a little simpler again. The student gradually is able to perform the melody slowly. Another raucous Chinese gong causes a sudden reversal of realities: The actors go back to performing the action of the "The Teller", while the nonsense Chinese text and gestures comes back into play with the opera singers. After a short recitation of the "text", it returns again to the Chinese pantomime, and gradually the student learns the entire melody. Also other instruments start joining the performance, first a double bass drone and then long notes from the French horn. The whole scenario is gradually reaching a 'musical' point of resolution. The performance swings between the discourse of the Chinese performance and the opera singers/Teller realities a number of times still, but the fifth division begins with a very short Chinese-like nonsense text that leads again into the full ensemble, but this time with the falsetto male voice actually singing a simple melody with the nonsense texts. The gestures of the female have also become stylised into a strict but melodious pattern that repeats with the same rhythm as the other singer. All performers are now playing together, forming a harmonious whole reminiscent of the gamelan music of Indonesia and adopting Peking opera melodies. This apparent harmoniousness is soon interrupted by sound of traffic sounds and car noises on tape ("The Teller" discourse) which emerge from beneath and then overtakes the sound of the ensemble. This signifies the end of the exposition and the beginning of the conclusion.

The contrasting three discourses adopted in this composition are most clearly exploited in this section. The narrative of "The Teller" is introduced at the beginning of the section, and recurs again and again while the singers are performing the absurd texts. The introduction of the teller narrative is important in demonstrating the communicative power of gestures accompanied by silence. The Chinese student/teacher discourse adopts a pantomime form and presents a deliberate contrast to "The Teller" discourse, as well as contrasting with opera performance through which in its elaborateness attempts to represent the higher themes in literature through strict narrative. This brings us to the opera singer discourse which is the most absurd of all. They seem to be representing the story of an opera, but of course are relying on means without semantics, in fact the gestures performed by the female singer are deliberately misleading and comic. The singers imitation of Peking opera singing style provides a deliberate contrast with the traditional role of an opera singer. The integration of all the dialogues at the end of the exposition (before the car noises) is a point that explores completely the notion of "enhanced" language, where vocal sounds are adopted purely for their sound and therefore forming alone part of the musical structure, growing from the influence of Peking Opera and other Asian theatre forms.

Conclusion: In a reaction to the cacophony now presented by the car noises, the musicians one by one leave the performance space. First the violin player leaves, then the percussionist with one of his instruments, then the clarinet player, and finally the double bass. This happens quite quickly, and the singers go on performing the same melody and motions. When all instrumentalists have left, the female actor goes off stage, and an incredible car crash is heard, ending the traffic sounds. The opera singers are still remaining to do what always seems to happen to the heros and heroines at the end of an opera performance: Die. All the other performers have left, except for the "attendant" who is sitting behind his desk shifting through papers. The singers appear shocked by the car crash, and attempt to narrate the story of the death: The female singer sings in typical bel canto style and appears to die, and the male singer performs gestures of death at the same time (shot in head, hung, drowned etc.), and also appears to die but has a final vocal respite. The "attendant" finishes classifying his papers, totally oblivious to all that has gone on, and walks off stage. This is the end of the performance.

It is clear that Het Loket is more than simply a composition that points out the negative aspects of opera, and is extended through the use of alternative communicative systems. It is also quite clear that by combining the contrasting narratives and performance discourses we are distancing ourselves from the two required forms (chamber opera and the play by Tardieu) in order to exaggerate these contrasts, and find new forms of representation. Below is a list of elements that result in an extension of communicative possibilities:

(i) Finding new communication forms through the adaption of alternative theatre forms.
(ii) Finding new ways of looking at performance texts by redefining and combining contrasting narrative forms.
(iii) Exploring the power of gestural communication.
(iv) Extending the performance text through a exploration of new forms of notation.
(v) Exploring the possibilities of narrative communication through musical discourse.

The resultant form is intentional; a deliberate questioning and rethinking of performance systems through their collision and interaction.

[1] David George, Balinese Ritual Theatre, Popular theatre course reader H292 (Murdoch University)
[2] Julia Kristeva, Language: The Unknown, (Columbia University Press 1989)
[3] Kristeva, Language: The Unknown
[4] Artaud on theatre, Claude Schumacher ,ed. ( Methuen drama, London 1991)
[5] Kristeva, Language: The Unknown
[6] Designed especially for the production.





May 2008 Nachtschimmen Music-Theatre-Language Night Shades, Ghent (Belgium)*
Send mail to zachar@nachtschimmen.eu with questions or comments about this website.

September 27 2013.



Major Writings