Academic journal article Themes in Theatre

Is This Still Opera? Media Operas as Productive Provocations

Academic journal article Themes in Theatre

Is This Still Opera? Media Operas as Productive Provocations

Article excerpt


Several years ago, at the world congress of the International Federation for Theatre Research in Amsterdam (2002) I gave a presentation on CNN operas in the course of which I parenthetically mentioned the phenomenon of television opera. Television opera functioned as an example of operas that were musically, dramaturgically and scenographically conceived for the medium of television. One woman in the audience was visibly annoyed that the composers called their works for television "operas". For me, it was the first of several encounters with the seemingly widespread conviction that "that's not opera anymore". During my research on media operas-works that have been conceived and composed for audiovisual media-I realised that the term "opera" in this context seems to be so challenging that people feel obliged to protect the concept of opera from being abused. However, if-for example-a television opera such as Perfect Lives by Robert Ashley is not considered an opera, then what is a proper opera? Instead of proposing yet another definition of what opera is, the following article asks why some works that are called operas by their composers provoke opposition against the use of the term "opera". To contextualise this discussion, I will draw attention to a critical gap that I perceive in opera studies, whose conventional approach to scholarship resists discussing contemporary opera and music theatre: "despite impressive approaches", suggests Björn Heile, "there seems to be a lack of critical mass for a sophisticated sustained discourse to establish itself' (Heile 2006: 73).

This lack of theoretical discourse is already evident with experimental works, especially those performed outside of the opera houses, let alone with works that leave the conventional operatic stage in favour of alternative social and medial environments, such as, for example, television. In many cases, conventional musicology does not address the achievement of radical new forms, particularly if these experiments are performed outside of the ordinary, established institutions: if composers are not already well known as "serious" composers, those works are for the most part not visible on the academic agenda either. This affects contemporary works by American composers in particular.

Thus, the aim of this article is two-fold: after introducing what I call "media opera", the paper will explore the relationship of the term "opera" to its implied mediality, and the correlation between the mediality of opera as an art form and opera as a social and cultural practice. Summing up, I will propose some ideas about how media operas can serve as productive provocations for our everyday as well as scholarly understanding of opera and how they might open up a new perspective for studies in music theatre.


Opera-as with any other cultural work-does not exist in isolation from other media, nor in isolation from other social and economic forces. Thus it is a commonplace that opera and music theatre have always integrated new technological developments. Taking the recent historical dominance of the televisual into account it is no wonder that audiovisual media have had a major influence on the art form of opera. Whereas technological inventions in the past have mostly affected individual elements of the performance such as for example the orchestra or the scenography, the technological influences that are enabled by electronic media have led to developments that can fundamentally change our understanding of opera: they call into question our common understanding of this art form and at the same time oblige us to reconsider some of our familiar propositions.

According to Philip Auslander's widely-discussed publication Liveness (1999), the term "mediatised" indicates "that a particular cultural object is a product of the mass media or of media technology" (5). …

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