The academic treatment of operatic productions of the classical canon continues to labor primarily under the terms of debates surrounding the transition of text/score to mise-en-scène/interpretation, from page to stage. From this standpoint, the score prescribes specific rules to transpose the text into scenic action. In most cases, the unique, actual performance is not considered a worthy object of analysis. As opposed to this score-oriented approach, I will propose an approach to theorize the performative dimension of operatic productions. This approach starts from the observation that in operatic performances moments can be experienced that cannot be explained as mere translation of a prewritten text or score or as a symbolic representation of something like a dramatic role or character preimagined by a preexisting authorial figure; instead, these moments produce, first and foremost, intense corporeal reactions to what is being viewed, felt, and experienced.
Based on the premise that the performative dimension of opera is to be understood as the transitional, ephemeral, and reciprocal process between performing actors/singers and recipients, this article asks how this process can be theorized and analyzed. In my opinion, the special appeal of a performance consists in no small part of those aspects that manifest themselves in details derived from the ephemeral presence of performance—moments to which I cannot immediately assign any significance or meaning, moments when nothing other than the actual configuration of the employed materials (bodies, voices, rhythms, sounds, and tones) and their effect on the spectator is relevant, and where this material comes into existence only in the moment of performance.
In her controversial article “Music—Drastic or Gnostic?,” Carolyn Abbate suggested that the discipline of musicology was founded—and to this day, still serves—as a hermeneutic discipline dealing with musical texts and decoding hidden structures and complexities. Because of this, she claims, the discipline has lost its true, original object: music as (the experience of) sound. She assumes that it is performed music (voices and sounds), and not the written score, that drives every musicologist to engage with music.1 I agree with her diagnosis; however, we still lack a clear sense of how to deal with operatic experiences in a more appropriate way. At the very end of her article, Abbate gives two short examples of her experience with the object that interests her. She describes her experience attending a performance of Wagner's Meistersinger at the Metropolitan Opera with Ben Heppner as Walther von Stolzing, who lost his voice “spectacularly” when he
Abbate admits in the very last paragraph of her article that there is still a problem when focusing on the experience of a performance:
cracked on the high Gs and As while singing the first strophe in the first verse in the preliminary versions of the Prize Song, and at that point I made a quick calculation that he had five more strophes in two full verses in the preliminary version, and nine strophes in three verses in the final version in the last scene, in short lots more high Gs and As not even counting the act 3 quintet. This was when my eyes closed in despair. […] Heppner would go on singing knowing what lay ahead. Now the other performers seemed […] still to inhabit their roles in Wagner's jolly Nuremberg, while Heppner became a unique human being in a singular place and time, falling from the high wire again and again. I was transfixed not by Wagner's opera but by Heppner's heroism, and what was important was not the apperception of concealed meaning through hermeneutic alchemy […] but the singular demonstration of moral courage, which, indeed, produces knowledge of something fundamentally different and of a fundamentally different kind. Perhaps one could call it drastic knowledge.2
This is a form of thinking that I would like to develop, with particular emphasis on the question of how to grasp such specifics of every operatic performance, including the need to emphasize the ephemerality of a performance and the subjective quality of each perception.
This first person, this I who isn't going to forget, must be willing to walk onstage once what counts is the live performance that once took place, experienced only by those who were present. […] There is no place to hide behind formalism's structural observations about works or texts. […] A performance does not conceal a cryptic truth to be laid bare. But accepting its mortality, refusing to look away, may nevertheless be some form of wisdom.3
Theater studies, when analyzing performances, has also long based its analyses on hermeneutic and semiotic theories.4 Only within the past several years can we observe a slowly awakening interest in that which “meaning cannot convey,”5 in the “performative turn” of culture and theater.6 Focusing on the performative dimension of theater has demonstrated the limitations of semiotic approaches to performance analysis and the possibilities of phenomenological theories of perception. I will try to demonstrate some possible theoretical and methodological paths through this emerging field. Using the theories of performativity as a starting point, a shift of the theoretical and analytical perspectives takes place: the transition from representation to presence, from referentiality to materiality, from symbolic sense and semiotic meaning to experience and sensual feeling that reflects the oscillating processes of perception in a performance. This field of oscillation is the main focus of my interest in opera as and in performance.
Concentration on experience and sensual feeling implies that the subjectivity of perception is not an impediment to a scientific, scholarly approach. Rather, without the disclosure of subjectivity, there can be no understanding of perception. Thus, I propose to employ a phenomenological approach, one in which there can be no perception, no event, beyond a concrete, bodily relationship between subject and object.7 If one takes the subjectivity of perception seriously—that is, the “I” to which Abbate refers—it becomes impossible to write or speak of experiences that are not one's own. This is not to argue for a reintroduction of the empirical methods of reception theory. Rather, a scholar—or indeed, I as a scholar—who is conscious of his or her own modes of perception can conceivably arrive at insights into more general processes of perception. But in order to do so, it's necessary to become aware of one's own perception, to become conscious of one's own predispositions, a process that Abbate—with her demand for a reflection upon the “I”—inaugurates. The point is to “reflect upon the subjective preconditions of the process of reading/observing/listening. Why do I see what I see?”8 In the following discussion of experiences of performances, I refer first and foremost to my own perception, but also to that which I perceive of those sitting around me. Of course, it's not always possible to distinguish between one's own perceptions, one's reflection upon those perceptions, and the incorporation of the perception of others: thus, in what follows, the subject of perception will be variously inflected as “I”, “we,” and “the audience.”
Taking into account the processuality and “eventness” of culture as performance, another important phenomenological model of perception is especially helpful: a model that defines every experience as an interaction between the impression of the present moment, the memory of the recently experienced past, and the anticipation of the immediate future. This article will illuminate this approach by focusing on three aspects: (1) the sensual experience of a voice; (2) the perception of temporal qualities of aural and visual elements of a performance; and on the basis of the first two aspects, (3) perception as active participation.
Sensual Experience of a Voice
There are many ways to speak about voice. The phenomenological approach implies that nothing that happens can be described independent of the describer's own sensual experiences.9 In this view, voice is understood as the experience of a relationship between producer and perceiver: copresence or, more precisely, covibration. Just as singing is a physical process, an extension of bodily characteristics into space10 and an expression of these characteristics, experiencing a voice is also a physical process. The interrelated processes of singing, being heard, and hearing can be understood as an intimate act of exchange. Michel Poizat has introduced the term “jouissance” (i.e., lust or voluptuousness) for this process. The term has an explicit sexual connotation.11 Similarly, Roland Barthes has described the experience of the singing voice, especially in live performance, as bodily participation. In S/Z, Barthes wrote that singing is related to kinaesthetics, that singing “has something coenesthetic about it, it is connected less to an ‘impression’ than to an internal, muscular, humoral sensuality. The voice is a diffusion, an insinuation, it passes over the entire surface of the body, the skin […]. Music, therefore, […] can effect orgasm.”12 The voice becomes a kind of drug to which one can become addicted. The prospect of hearing a particular voice creates concrete expectations of satisfying corporeal needs. Corresponding to the physical concept of the experience of voice, the concrete reaction—applause, ovation (an extreme, sometimes animalistic uttering of sound)—becomes understandable as physically necessary. A segment from a review of a 1993 performance of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos in Zürich, with Edita Gruberova as Zerbinetta, reflects this physical necessity:
Prepared by the press […], one knew that in any case, something great was to be expected. Edita Gruberova […] would […] without doubt be brilliant. Yet everything was totally different than expected, because that moment arrived—the moment which left both the expert and the ignorant speechless. In that moment, the entire audience leaned forward in astonishment, held its collective breath, and each member could hear the pulse of his or her neighbours—twelve minutes of paralysed disconcertion […]. And what followed was not a gesture, not an opera ritual; it was a physical necessity. As if after a too generously-measured transfusion, a part of the overflow of sound had to be channeled into wildly enthusiastic screams.13
Another example: vocalist David Moss performing Orlofsky's song “Ich lade gern mir Gäste ein,” one of the most famous and highly regarded arias in Johann Strauss's operetta Die Fledermaus, in a 2001 production at the Salzburg festival. Moss is regarded as one of the most innovative singers and percussionists in contemporary music.14 At first glance, Moss's performance seemed to evince the very opposite of the review of Gruberova's performance. In the Fledermaus production, staged by Hans Neuenfels under the musical direction of Marc Minkowski, Moss, who is anything but an opera singer, was cast as Prince Orlofsky. What did we in the audience experience? Instead of the warm and beautiful bel canto voice that we are accustomed to hearing in the role of Orlofsky (e.g., the voice of Brigitte Fassbaender), we were treated to deep and breathy tones, gravelly sounds, a voice flipping over into falsetto, rattling, cawing, croaking, sighing, and taking liberties with the intonation. Moss's entrance on stage probably caused physical pain in some audience members as well as a destabilization of their frame of reference. What was fiction (i.e., what was still diegetic) and what was reality? Was it Orlofsky who was groaning, panting, and coughing? Or, what sort of creature was it that had laid claim to the stage? Or, was it just David Moss himself, with all of his virtuoso expressive vocal talents, who was drawing people into his fascination for experimentation? The audience experienced the collision of the idiosyncratic vocal performer David Moss, prominent representative of the artistic tradition of experimental music, and traditional framework of opera and operetta. The friction between the two caused a profound disorientation, a liminal experience, a strong impression of instability, provoking those experiencing it to take a stance regarding their feelings about it.
This disorienting interplay of memory and expectation, highly active in the perception of Moss's performance, applies to every act of perception, as it does to every theatrical perception. However, it seems especially compelling for the specific perception of operatic performance because the processes of perceiving contemporary stagings from the canonic operatic repertoire are characterized by a high degree of repetition and expectation.
Perception of Temporal Qualities of Aural and Visual Elements of a Performance
The interplay of memory and expectation leads to my second point: the attempt to grasp the temporal, ephemeral quality of a performance. Since Aristotle at the latest, “time” has been an object of ongoing and exhaustive reflection. In the twentieth century, the phenomenological writings of Henri Bergson and Edmund Husserl have been among the most influential in the theorization of time: in their accounts, which echo older positions—Augustine's position in particular—the experience of the present is to be understood as taking up a relation to the past and the future. The fact that we continuously refer to the past or are influenced by the past, Husserl calls “retention.” Continuously referring to expectations of the future, Husserl calls “protention.”15 While an initial impression is established at the beginning of a process of perception (e.g., that of a single tone or of a certain musical figure), it is also inscribed into memory. Thus, the initial impression passes over into retention. Out of this experience of the recent past, a certain expectation of a future impression is generated, an anticipation of the continuation of the process—that is, protention. Opera in performance has (as performed music and theater in general have) the potential to create specific time experiences, to produce a wide diversity of time experiences. The wide variety of experiences of time and its transformative potential are based upon the ever-changing construction of time, which in turn is based upon the invariably distinct relationship to the past and the future. One's experience of temporality depends upon the relative weight accorded the three dimensions (relationship to the past, intensity of the present, relationship to the future). In this regard, the acceleration or deceleration of time are most readily experienced, and they are experienced through the overlapping of different layers of time in the relationship between the performed music and the mise-en-scène: the relationship between the aural and visual perceptions of stagings. I will illuminate this with two examples.
In 1976, Patrice Chéreau produced Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen for the Bayreuth festival: the so-called Centenary Ring. At the end of the first act of Die Walküre, driven by the lashing character of the music, Siegmund and Sieglinde textually and musically realize that they are twin brother and sister and, above all, in love. In this moment, Jeannine Altmeyer and Peter Hofmann physically got down to business. Their bodies seemed drawn to each other; they seemed to have the need to devour each other. Seventeen years later, again in Bayreuth, Heiner Müller denied the forbidden lovers Tristan and Isolde (and the audience) a fulfillment of such orgiastic inclinations. In Erich Wonder's cubiform space of light and color and in costumes by fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, the two singer-actors, at the moment of musical climax, were subjected anew to the tremendous tension of distance rather than liberated from it. Waltraud Meier and Siegfried Jerusalem moved toward each other in slow motion and, at the moment of the climax, reached out to one another, palm to palm. The gesture suggested a suppressed energy in the bodily tension of both performers, an energy that could not release itself and that, perhaps precisely because of this, communicated itself to the audience in a particularly strong way.
Both examples are musically similar, with a driving, tension-building line, a sequential increase of a group of four eighth notes (in Tristan a bit drawn out by the dotted notes) that builds to an extreme in range and volume that cannot be further augmented until it eventually explodes. The musical parallels are also apparent in the suggested tempo and meter markings: Die Walküre: “Sehr belebt—Immer schneller” (“Very animated—Always quicker”) in 4/4 time; Tristan und Isolde: “Immer belebter—Sehr lebhaft” (“Always animated—Very lively”) in 4/4 time.16
The important and noteworthy distinction between the two lies in how the acoustical and visual planes are brought together, leading to two completely different experiences of time. In the Chéreau staging, we experience a parallelism of musical and scenic movement, a reciprocal increase in speed. How can we explain this sense of acceleration with reference to the phenomenological experience of time referenced above? In order to do so, I will explore a model proposed in 1964 by the philosopher and psychologist Wilhelm Keller. Keller's account, which is based upon Husserl's differentiation, places the parameters of retention and protention in relation to the experienced fullness of events:
The deceleration of time occurs when there is a strong retention in the face of an overabundance of experiences (aka: intensified retention), or through a stronger protention in the wake of a diminution of contents (that is, in the face of an excess of expectation). An acceleration of time occurs when there is weak retention in conjunction with an abundance of experiences as well as a diminished protention and minimal fullness (a lack of events and low expectations).17
My sense is that the Chéreau example offers a combination of a fullness of contents and weak retention, which, according to Keller, leads to an accelerated experience of time. The fullness of contents is based upon the many quick movements of the two performers. I would characterize as weak retention the fact that all of the performers' movements are familiar from basic everyday experience (in contrast to the many possible movements that could be established in the course of a production; for these to be understood, one would have to refer back to the establishment of the movement codes).
In contrast, in Müller's Tristan staging, the performance plays with our expectations of parallelism between music and movement but does not fulfill them. Physical movement comes to a standstill; the music continues without it. Through the collision of these two tempos, the slowness of the movement has an even stronger effect. Keller states, “The deceleration of time occurs […] through a stronger protention in the wake of a diminution of contents (that is, in the face of an excess of expectation).” What we experience with Heiner Müller's staging is strong protention—that is, the great, unfulfilled expectation of parallelism between music and scene combined with a rather meager offering of present events. The movement in slow motion thus produces a deceleration and intensification of time.
Theater critic Alfred Kerr put it aptly when, in a review of a performance about which not much else is known, he notoriously quipped: “The performance began at 8 p.m. When I looked at my watch two hours later, it was 8:30.” This famous bonmot points to one of the fundamental characteristics of the study of how time is experienced in music and theater. There is a difference between objective, so-called chronometric time, and subjective time, time as it is experienced or felt. If our analytic focus is no longer directed solely at the work of art as a stable entity, but also at its processuality, execution, and “eventness” (Ereignishaftigkeit), then time becomes one of the defining dimensions distinguishing the performative. The experience of time presents itself as the paradigm of performance perception, which comes about via the interplay of memory, experience, and expectation.
Perception as Active Participation
When dealing with the performative dimension of opera, it becomes clear that the act of perception is of crucial importance. The core of the performative is the relation between the processes on stage and the audience's perception.18 In order to have a closer look into this special relation where perception becomes active participation, I will consider a final example in some detail: Calixto Bieito's production of Mozart's Entführung aus dem Serail, which premiered in June 2004 at the Komische Oper Berlin. The production was set in a contemporary brothel; the singers and actors acted as pimps and prostitutes. This production caused an uproar the likes of which even this theater—famous and infamous for its courageous scenic innovations—had not seen before, nor since. Bieito's staging was perhaps the most controversial, most confrontational production at the Komische Oper and beyond and thereby one of the most successful.
Bieito's staging raised questions regarding the contemporary meaning of terms like “seraglio,” “harem,” and “harem beauties” and sentences like “tremble at the threat of every kind of torture” and “you may order, command, storm, rage, roar, death will finally free me”—all words used in the libretto to describe the pasha's world. In this production's account, the libretto resonates with a contemporary oppression of and violence against women. The chosen arena was a brothel or bordello; the depicted sexual practices and violent acts were, as could be read in the newspapers, ones that are common and widespread in such locales. It is in the original libretto that Osmin lists an impressive repertoire of brutality people commit upon each other: “Erst geköpft, dann gehangen, dann gespießt auf heißen Stangen; dann verbrannt, dann gebunden und getaucht, zuletzt geschunden” (“First beheaded, then hanged, then impaled on hot stakes, then burned, then bound and dunked, and finally tortured”). Such fantasies allow themselves to be interpreted onstage. In Bieto's staging, they were translated into acts of sex and violence.
I will look at the staging from an analytical viewpoint, which takes the venue and its performance tradition into account, through glasses tinted with the theory of the founder of the Komische Oper, Walter Felsenstein, one of the most influential opera directors of the twentieth century. Felsenstein, director of the Komische Oper Berlin from 1947 until his death in 1975, was the inventor of the so-called Realistisches Musiktheater (realistic music theater). His intention was to find a way to make opera relevant for today's world, to replace the overdecorated, pompous, and static performance practice of opera he called “concert in costumes.” By introducing Stanislavski's acting technique into opera, he tried to make singing on the stage credible and convincing. The goal was to convince the audience that the singer's part “could be communicated only in song.”19
Felsenstein was very aware of the importance of perception in the opera performance. In 1957, he proposed the following on the occasion of the ten-year anniversary of the Komische Oper Berlin:
Very similarly, his assistants Götz Friedrich and Joachim Herz wrote: “Musiktheater takes place when it succeeds in activating the audience into the role of a 'participatory' partner in this type of musical and scenic realization.”21 Felsenstein drew a distinction between film and recordings on the one hand and live performance on the other, emphasizing the specificity of the live theater experience, that it can be influenced during the process of the performance. With that, Felsenstein and his assistants Friedrich and Herz underlined what in contemporary performance theory is defined as the basic condition of performance: the physical copresence of actors and audience members, the unpredictable dimension of the performance that can be influenced and manipulated, the feedback loop between stage and audience.22
In the theatre […], the audience wants to be a part of the action which is being portrayed by real people and exerting its influence on real people. Audience members do not expect a factual report, but rather a performance which is strong enough to force them to take part in it and which—if the audience responds to it—arrives at a higher truth. The experience of theatre is based upon this exchange between performance and response.20
In Bieito's staging, during Konstanze's aria “Martern aller Arten” (“Every Kind of Torture May Lie in Wait for Me”), in which she resolutely withstands Bassa Selim's demands that she love him, Bassa and Osmin force Konstanze to look at a prostitute being slowly and cruelly tortured with a knife by her pimp Osmin until the prostitute loses consciousness and is then raped and finally butchered. This scene reads as an overly explicit display aimed at those who would rebel against authority, to show what happens to the disobedient, but also as a violent counterbalance of the powerlessness of the torturers in view of Konstanze's resoluteness. In the middle of one of the vocally most demanding passages of the aria, uproar broke out. Boos and loud cries of “Stop!” “No more!” and the like crescendoed to such an extent that the decibel levels of the audience at times drowned out the stage and the orchestra pit. The drastic scenes to which we were being subjected took our powers of perception to their absolute limits.
“Martern aller Arten” is one of the vocal highlights of every Entführung performance, especially with such an exquisite Konstanze as Maria Bengtsson. Normally, in an audience that has been anxiously awaiting this aria the entire evening, no one could be driven to disturb it, not even to so much as cough, much less to undertake such an active disruption, unless something truly extraordinary had transpired. The protests were presumably the physically necessary reactions of self-defense against what was being perceived as an attack upon one's own body.
Because this staging took the original text and drama so seriously—for many, too seriously—it went beyond certain limits of shame and taboo for many opera spectators and thereby afforded very explicit, boundary-stretching experiences, which opera (if it wants to be considered a contemporary art form) must address. These experiences, which transgressed existing limits, brought about concrete physical reactions from the spectators such as leaving the auditorium, slamming doors, and booing.
What happened here can be attributed to a degree of personal involvement that manifested itself in various forms of active participation. The challenge to our visual perception, however, resulted in something else as well. In the interaction and intensification of visual and acoustic perception, it seemed as if our ears were finally opened, as if a strong blast had blown away the layer of rococo powder that had to that point covered our reception of the aria like a layer of dust, thereby exposing what a vocally and acoustically extreme experience this aria actually can be. The scene offered a head-on confrontation with an opera audience's kitschified expectations of the treatment of the aporias dealt with in the opera (i.e., abduction, violence, prostitution) as well as the repression of these aporias by the public.
And the singing? And Maria Bengtsson? She sang for her life, for her survival, not only as Konstanze, confronted with the tortures that were burdening her soul and that were being acted out with cruel clarity before her, but also as a singer faced with an out-of-control audience whose shouts and protestations were drowning her out. With every means available to her, she defended herself against the waves of displeasure that were coming from her public. What the audience and I experienced in her performance was one of the very characteristic perception modes of opera performance brought to an extreme: a fluctuation between the embodiment of a fictional role and the real bodily presence of a singing actor. I remember her aria as having a double effect. Her singing became even more intense and insistent than ever, and at the same time, she conveyed a sense of intense fragility and vulnerability. The conjunction of these factors, which resulted from the audience's participation, rendered the moment acutely painful and intense, overly demanding on all of the senses, overwhelming.
By describing this scene, I have attempted to establish a relationship between, on the one hand, what transpired in terms of the active participation of the audience and its interaction with the stage, and, on the other hand, Felsenstein's vision of what he called “Spiel und Widerspiel”23 (“action and counteraction”). Here, the counteraction clearly took the form of an interchange between the stage (singing and action), the audience (protests, boos, and rejection), and then the stage again (singing more intensely).
If we go back to the performative perspective on opera, noted at the beginning of this essay—encompassing the transition from representation to presence, from referentiality to materiality, from symbolic sense and semiotic meaning to experience and sensual feeling—we can interpret the events around Konstanze's aria as a perfect example for this approach. In these moments, we could experience a fluctuation between the embodiment of a fictional role and the real, bodily presence of a singing actor, this oscillation being responsible for the magnetic attraction that was, however, precisely what Felsenstein wanted to purge from opera. Friedrich and Herz stated that “everyone involved in the production serves the revitalization and clarification, through music-making, of the plot and its statement unconditionally […]. Thus, singing, conducting, direction, or imagery are each prevented from becoming an end in itself.”24 Yet even Felsenstein did not succeed in removing this fluctuation from performance completely. He was always dealing with the personae of strong singers, who brought their own personalities, their own experiences, their own stage presences, and their own sound to any role they portrayed, whether they wanted to or not. If we carefully read the second thesis of the manifesto by Friedrich and Herz again, we may perhaps find a loophole through which the singer as performer can shine outside of his role: “The plot results from the actions of real characters. They are created by the singer, who identifies—based on his own personality—with the motivations and emotions of the represented character or accurately portrays the character's behavior. The individual character attains a unique and unmistakable life by virtue of the creative union of the singer's own personality with that of the character as determined by the work.”25 The resulting uniqueness and inimitability described here are based completely upon the phenomenality of the performer's body and voice; it is never possible to become completely one with the character portrayed.
In order to develop a theory of performance analysis in opera that focuses on the performative moments of the ephemeral, the three aspects on which I have focused in this essay are of crucial importance. Particularly in opera stagings, moments occur that can only be described in terms of categories that have come into use since the “performative turn” in the arts in the 1960s: a concentration on materiality, an accentuation of the sensorial instead of the signified, a concentration on the event or on moments of presence and intensity. In discussions regarding contemporary music or sound installations, this approach has become entirely familiar. But it is still largely unfamiliar in discussions of classical music or the traditional operatic repertoire. Here, the performative aspects of the performance are normally not considered important and are swept under the carpet.26 Usually, audiences tend to seek out a linear dramaturgy and the convincing representation of dramatic characters. Everything that falls outside the common parameters is considered an accident, a peculiarity of an impossible genre. But it is these moments that are often the most attractive and most successful parts of an opera performance and are in most cases, I would claim, responsible for the affective engagement of the consumers, the listeners, the spectators—the opera addicts.