Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Road Report #4: The Collaborative Gesamtkunstwerk

“Nude supers to the stage, please.”

Out they walked – two dozen unclothed men – onto the stage of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. They were the “Corps of Lovers” in the New York City Opera’s 2013 production of Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face. And they, in their bold, silent nakedness, were the topic of giddy conversations during intermission, on Twitter, and in all of the opera’s reviews.

These men are found nowhere in Adès’ score; they were an invention of stage director Jay Scheib, inserted into the opera’s most famous scene as a ghostly reminder of the main character’s many past anonymous romances.

Scheib’s decision was, without doubt, a coup. First and foremost, it was an artistically bold choice – the parade of bodies avoided burlesque bawdiness, instead combining in a haunting tableaux, silent of voice but damning in presence.

But nowadays, operas can’t thrive on artistry alone, and the “Corps of Lovers” also proved an irresistible topic for media (it even made a splash in British tabloids) and an undeniable draw for audience members, who flooded the lobby on opening night, delaying the curtain by 20 minutes.

Of course, Scheib’s staging was only one ingredient in NYCO’s success with Powder Her Face; the opera itself is a modern masterpiece, and the performers were all excellent. But Scheib’s work reveals the true power of a good staging: to amplify and deepen inherent aspects of a work, and to provide a unique draw even for audiences who might have seen or heard the opera elsewhere.

But does the presence of a living, breathing stage director threaten the sanctity of the composer’s vision? After all, Richard Wagner reacted against the imbalanced excesses of Grand Opera by imagining a Gesamtkunstwerk (“total artwork”), in which he, as composer, would seize control over all aspects of his work, including the music, the libretto, the scenery, the direction, and even the costumes (fortunately, Smell-O-Vision hadn’t yet been invented).

While we composers might fantasize about this level of control, it’s best for everyone if we recognize the truth: opera is, and always has been, a collaborative medium. And by welcoming the perspectives of stage directors, librettists, dramaturgs, and countless others, we can still arrive at a unified artistic whole – a kind of  ‘collaborative Gesamtkunstwerk.’

Of course, this is already happening (as the Powder Her Face example shows). And indeed, during my travels as a Douglas Moore Fellow, every opera I saw was a beautiful distillation of careful decisions made both by its creators (composer and librettist) and by its interpreters (directors, designers, and performers).

Opera companies play matchmaker for all of these artistic personalities, and they’ve even found ways to do it without losing money. While new operas are, inevitably, a greater financial gamble than tried-and-true classics, several administrators have told me that well-designed collaborations are integral to a new opera’s economic success.

If, for example, a composer is insufficiently famous to draw an audience, then an opera company should hire a well-known singer, or have the composer use a well-known story (as I discussed in the second part of this blog series). Or, if an opera company is looking to reach out to new communities and age groups, then they could commission new works that tell stories that appeal to these groups, or they could stage operas in new and interesting venues.

Regardless of these specifics, it gives me great hope that, despite five years of recession in the United States, opera companies continue to commission and perform new works at an unprecedented rate.

And then, as I travel the country, I grow even more hopeful when I see the brave collaborations that result in relevant new works for our time.

And, with each new opera company, I am amazed and inspired by the fabulous performers who sing and play new works even when they don’t need to.

Finally, above all, I draw hope from the audiences who, despite a world of distractions, choose to come to the theatre, to sit down in the dark, to watch, and to listen.

This is the last in a four-part blog series by composer and pianist Zachary Wadsworth, the 2012-2013 Fellow of the Douglas Moore Fund for American Opera. For more information about him and his music, visit

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