Why Bother With Innovation?

By Indyana Schneider

Across the equator, the Australian National Opera Review recently called for ‘greater levels of artistic vibrancy’ and for ‘the opera sector to be more “innovative”’.

Question: Is innovation in the arts (specifically opera) a good thing? Why bother with innovation?

I’ve compiled a shortlist of primary arguments against innovation in music:

  • The music of the past is truly beautiful, breath-taking, exquisite, unparalleled. Why innovate?
  • Innovation can be alienating. Think of Schoenberg’s slogan, ‘If it is art, it is not for all; if it is for all, it is not art’.
  • Is it even possible to innovate in genres with so much history?
  • Too innovative? Small audience. Small audience? Small box office. Small box office? Financial struggles.

Let’s follow this thought-train for the sake of continuity (though I’m certainly pro-innovation).
If not innovative, what should music be?

‘Authentic!’ cry advocates of the Historically Informed Performance Movement. During the 1950s, the idea of ‘authenticity’ began to exert influence over the performance of Western Art music. In order to be ‘authentic’, performers should be faithful to*:

  1. The composer’s intentions
  2. The performance practice of the composer’s lifetime
  3. The sound of performance during the composer’s lifetime

(*At least according to Peter Kivy)

Personally, I take issue with the word ‘should’ when it comes to music. ‘Should’ is restrictive. Music is creative.
What should music be? Sorry, trick question.
I prefer to ask, what can music be?
But more on that later.

I’d also argue that when musical movements impose restrictions, these boundaries serve to channel creativity, and ultimately, end up innovating anyway. Perhaps unintentionally, the HIP movement certainly led to innovation, be it in the use of new instruments (modern 'recreations' of early instruments) or new sounds (in an attempt to 'recreate' old sounds).

Studying musical history means studying innovation. Creativity and experimentation become the signposts within these studies. Opera is a wonderful example – an incredibly innovative artform. The current V&A exhibition clearly shows how varied opera can be in different places and times (would recommend).

So when asked, ‘why bother innovating’? I guess I’m responding with: innovation is inevitable as we continue to create and re-create.

Great. Let’s move on.

Next question: How do we innovate here at OperaUpClose?

Innovation (as well as accessibility) is vital to OperaUpClose’s DNA. Our exceptionally orchestrated chamber renditions certainly aren’t just musical reductions. They are fully-fledged compositions inspired by great masterpieces. Not only are these renditions musically innovative, but they allow us to tour to venues far and wide as the band can join the singers on stage and we can tour to venues without orchestra pits.

Our unique English libretti situate the dramas in the here-and-now, allowing our productions to present and explore issues pertinent to contemporary culture and to our audiences. For instance, working with young people in Research and Development for The Magic Flute inspired librettist Glyn Maxwell to include the theme of homelessness within the drama. These new libretti allow us to update the racist and sexist baggage which so often hinder the opera genre. We also create opera for children and constantly commission new compositions.

Here at OperaUpClose we certainly ask (and hopefully answer) the question: what can music be?
Come see our next production, Eugene Onegin, if you’re looking for a musical response.

Thinking about musical innovation got me wondering how the opera world was innovating these days. So I did a little digging and now I’ll do a little sharing, in case you’re interested too.

Final question: What’s new in opera today?

Obvious answer: Technology

Technology has deeply influenced musical innovation. People like Stockhausen take ‘the sky’s the limit’ a tad too literally in works such as his ‘Helicopter String Quartet’. In the opera world, live Simulcasts are gaining momentum, with many of the world’s leading opera houses broadcasting live into cinemas. Companies such as Silent Opera boast digital DNA, as audiences plug into the orchestra using headphones whilst the story and singing unfold around them in real time.

Vireo is a made-for-TV-and-online serial opera about a fourteen-year-old girl genius entangled in the historic obsession with female visionaries, as witch-hunters, early psychiatrists, and modern artists have defined them. Opera On Tap created the world’s first virtual reality opera, The Parksville Murders.

Site-specific and immersive opera are also all the go. Rather than installing scenery to create specific experiences in non-specific settings, companies like the US’ On Site Opera capitalise on a space’s unique features and match a work accordingly. Their The Tale of the Silly Baby Mouse (Shostakovich) was set at the Bronx Zoo in 2012. Other venues include a wax museum and historic mansion…

(Keep your eyes peeled for a site-specific OUC production one of these days…)

Secret Opera presents gender-bending versions of classics (CarMEN; The Trousered Traviata). San Francisco Opera Lab performs in clubs and replaces surtitles with ‘memes’. NonClassical offer Opera Club Nights. Paisley Opera Project will soon perform the first ever performance of a full opera in Paisley, while Scots Opera Project has operas translated entirely into Scots and performed.

Opera in the twenty-first century – an eternal changing landscape of sound.

However, the fourth point in my shortlist of primary arguments against innovation in music (above) has an element of truth. It is difficult to be innovative and devoted to artistic adventure when you’re risking the box-office failure.

Help us take a risk or two?
Help us morph the landscape?