Theatre & Opera Magazine

Recent Innovations in Opera - Part 1: "The Strange but Awesome"

Posted on the 11 September 2012 by Pinkall
This week has been only somewhat exceptionally wild, so belatedly, I am back to talking about what has been going on in the World of Opera as of recent.  I am very thankful to have a break in preparing any roles, and that has given me an opportunity to see what has been going in the world outside of my own cloistered mind.
I chose to look at some new developments in opera, from the spectacular to the truly strange, I will highlight ten recent innovations in opera - some may be brand new ideas, and others may be a theme and variation of past operandi - but all of these are vastly entertaining to me, and hopefully these ideas are paving new paths toward enlightenment amdist our rather pointless wash of pop noise.
1.  Recent Innovations in Vocal Technique
When I say "vocal technique", I really mean, "crazy sounds people can make on purpose".  Nothing is as unique as the Angel of History's aria in Liza Lim's opera, The Navigator.  This opera gained its premiere performance in Brisbane, Australia in 2008 and its strange but vomitingly effective sounds are sure to chill every audience to the bone and perhaps even wonder if they are witnessing a live demonic possession.  The opera is a story of archetypes and the Angel of History is an angel doomed to witness all of human carnage knowing both the past and the future.  The first chorus is a chorus of cicadas (which is a normal nighttime occurrence for where I'm from) to symbolize the quivering feathers of the Angel of History as it is trapped within man's struggle between war, immortality, reality, and ecstasy; the aria is a half-human, half-insect, half-angel, half-stomach flu experience (and I know that adds up to 2 whole experiences, but after you listen to the aria, the angel truly sounds like the girl from the exorcist speaking in several languages at once - but it really is one person making all those incredible and awesome sounds). The Navigator is an opera showing a game of chance in war at the beginning, the beauty of love in the middle, and the hope of the future at the end with a chorus to decide annihilation or creation (for as unique as it is, it sort of reminds me of "The Matrix" trilogy)

2.  Recent Innovations in Opera Genres

There have been many kinds of opera in the past: Verismo, Opera buffa, Comedie lyrique, Farsa, etc. In all of history, I have never heard of this...opera for infants!

3.  Recent Innovations in Visual Elements
Stockhausen's Mittwoch aus Licht made its World Premiere recently in Birmingham, England.  The opera is 6 hours long, and contains some of the strangest visual elements including a bullfight between a camel and a trombone, a helicopter string quartet, instrumentalists flying through the air, and the rest of the opera takes place in an abandoned warehouse.  For as strange as it appears, the opera is an event! - every performance of it has sold-out.  The synopsis is quite complex but if you would like, you can read more about it here on wikipedia.

4.  Recent Innovations in Opera Advertising
Spencer Tunick was commissioned by the Bavarian State Opera to make an artistic display to advertise their upcoming production of Wagner's Ring Cylce, one of the largest productions in history.  And if you don't know anything about Spencer Tunick, well, his artistic medium is naked, painted people - and with 1,700 volunteers, it is certain to attract all kinds of attention.

5.  Recent Innovations in the Opera Experience

When you go to the opera, you should expect a production that showcases the best of art - an elaborate, larger than life set design, massive voices, large orchestra, a libretto of literary perfection, beautiful costumes, and the list goes on.  Of course, not every opera excels in all of these categories, but recently, one of my favorite new composers, Nico Muhly, conspired to create an opera with yet a new experience - smell.  That's right, this "scent opera" has received incredible reviews from nearly every major publication and newspaper that covered its premiere.  I cannot show a video because it is an opera that is void of any visual elements.  In order to be effective, you sit in near darkness.
The opera is titled "Green Aria" and according to the New York Times review, "the scents, whether subtle, pungent, intoxicating or stinky, became this opera’s characters, with names like Absolute Zero, Runaway Crunchy Green and Shiny Steel."

According to the playbill, the opera synopsis is the following: "Technology joins forces with Nature. Evangelical Green preaches the Gospel of Modernism forging a man-made world where scents sound, touch and pour… Life's medium transmutes; the immaterial takes improbable form. A parade of 'Greens' spill out until at last, Green Aria breathes."

According to Amanda Gefter of New Scientist, "Written in four movements, the olfactory tale tells of the earthly materials giving rise to base metals, which in turn give rise to industry. As man usurps nature's powers of creation, chaos ensues, and is quelled only when Evangelical Green calls for the holy alliance of nature and technology."
The opera is only 30 minutes long, and to smell the scents, everyone in the audience is equipped with a "scent microphone" that they can place as close to their nose as they wish. Again, according to the New York Times, "At the start, the opera’s dramatis personae, five elements and 18 supporting characters, were introduced. As each name was projected on a video screen, the audience heard the music and smelled the scent associated with that character. Fire + Smoke had crinkling electronic sounds and a piercing, burnt-ash scent. At the end the characters took curtain calls, in effect, when their names were flashed on the video screens, and the audience got one final whiff of their scents. The loudest ovation went to the faintly sulfurous, aptly named Funky Green Imposter."

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