Theater der Zeit

von Giordano Ferrari

Erschienen in: Recherchen 113: Die Zukunft der Oper – Zwischen Hermeneutik und Performativität (06/2014)


Throughout the course of the 20th Century, the singing voice (how it is composed, its technique, but also its aesthetics) experienced an evolution characterized by many parallel trajectories, some tied to a relatively traditional perspective, others decidedly more radical in their break with 19th Century aesthetics. The first half of the 20th Century witnessed an emancipation of the lyrical register from an emphasis on the typically 19th Century “vibrato”, and the directions taken already evoke an aesthetic perspective of a different nature: for example, the voice of “populist” inspiration (Kurt Weill) is re-evaluated; the stylistic palette is extended with new expressive registers, such as the Sprechgesang or the Sprechstimme of Schönberg; it is inspired by a pre-Romantic relationship between text and music (Stravinsky). A more radical change can be observed beginning with the 1950s, when the most advanced forms of musical theater effect a break not just with Romanticism, but with the same lyric opera, with its narrative and formal codes. It is a break that, in theater, corresponds to the prose that abandons drama, correctly interpreted and theorized by Hans-Thies Lehmann in his essay dedicated to the “post-dramatic” theater. In this context, composers tend to abandon the libretto as a motor of action or to search for new typologies that are possible in the relationship with the text. In the first case, the role “text-music” gradually reverts to second place: the voice can also be abandoned, or it can sing textual “materials” not loaded with dramatic function, or sing without text and be treated like an instrument. In this sense, it can evoke a different nature : from Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass (from the year 1976) to Séraphin (1991–2007) by Wolfgang Rihm, until the absence of the voice in Stifters Dinge (from 2007) by Heiner Goebbels. In the second case, many composers begin to search and to develop new vocal techniques: a way of composing is born that becomes the linchpin of a theatricality that develops directly from the impulses of a “new” vocality (gestures, actions, symbols, physical expression, and so on). It is precisely this second perspective that I would like to briefly examine during my talk.

The first course taken is without a doubt that of using timbral effects produced by the mouth and from the modified sounds produced with the movements of the tongue or by using the breath. In addition to these effects are the imitations of noises and onomatopoeia that elude the schemes of the linguistic syntaxes of the word: each single word is viewed as an amalgamation of “phonemes” more than as a linguistic unity. Here, what should be noted is the experience of the collaboration between Luciano Berio and the singer Cathy Berberian at the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s. Most significant, above all, is Circles from 1960—for female voice, harp and two percussionists on a text by E. E. Cummings—, where the singer physically describes an outline between the instruments and the instrumentalists that is also delineated in the score: in the beginning, the singer is situated in front of the instrumental group facing the audience, but during the piece, she progressively moves to the middle of them, creating a semi-circular path, something that is also clearly designed in the introductory page of the score.1 The question of the circle, that is also evoked by the title, is at the foundation of the formal structure in five sections and re-emerges at various levels.2 Inside of this framework, the singer performs musical gestures (also using some small percussion instruments),3 that have a direct sonic relationship to the instruments. A good example is the “s” of “dreams” that concludes the first section (at the 2/4 of page 7 in the score): a sound enhanced and “sustained” by a sand block and the maracas. This is only the beginning of interactions between the voice and percussion instruments that become increasingly more intense, as in the finale of the third section (pages 27–30), where Cummings’ text breaks up into phonemes, sounds derived from the text but also in imitation of percussive gestures: the gesture on the “w” immediately imitated by the percussion instruments at the end of page 26; the “tktktktktk”—in fortissimo—while the soprano is instructed to turn and move toward the second music stand (page 28); finishing with the exchange between the instrumentalists and the singer of vigorous and dry Ka, Ki, Ke and Ku sounds (pages 28 and 29). The voice and the percussion instruments share the same gestures, the same “sounds”. Also a very important piece in this regard is the Sequenza III for voice (1966), but a particular mention is due the works in which the voice of Berberian encounters the world of technology, specifically those works produced on tape and intended for the radio such as Thema—Omaggio a Joyce(from 1958) and Visage (from 1961).

In the former, Berberian reads the beginning of Chapter XI of James Joyce’s Ulysses: a reading that is in fact a musical manipulation of the text. In the latter, the emphasis on the communicative capacities of the voice transforms the phonemes and the false words used in this composition (only the term “word” is actually employed), to ultimately create a series of expressive situations that design the sound portrait of a “face” of woman: the expressiveness of the human voice emancipates itself from language. The case of Berberian (whose voice also inspired the experimentations of Sylvano Bussotti and John Cage) is not unique, but here too, each case is revelatory of a different path. One recalls, for example, Roy Hart who, as an actor, gave life to sonic and musical readings “musicals” to amplify his interpretative perspective (I would mention, as an example, The Rock, Chorus VII, by T. S. Eliot) and which, like the “voice of the baritone”, has inspired scores that oscillate between sung and recited, as if the singing and theatrical expressivity would reunite on the same terrain: one recalls the Versuch über Schweine (1969) by Hans Werner Henze and Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969) by Peter Maxwell Davies. These two scores are rich with sounds that are forced, screamed, guttural, doubled and whistled, that often develop by touching the extreme registers of the voice. Not phonetic fragmentation as for Berberian, but deformation necessary for interpreting the text, the ultimate expression of a psychological perspective: Hart was active in the wake of the psychotherapeutic vision of the voice of Alfred Wolfsohn, of whom he was a student. Other actors are sensitive to the sonic dimension of the word, and the research at the border between theater and music, but also between different musical genres, produces different results between the 1960s and 70s. A very interesting case of research beyond a precise musical genre is that of Demetrio Stratos (1945–1979), a Greek singer, born in Alexandria in Egypt, and who had a brilliant career first in Italy, then internationally, beginning as a pop rock singer and ending as a vocalist of experimental music, collaborating with university centers and with composers such as John Cage. Stratos offered a voice with extra-European technique (diaphony), with phonetic games on different expressive registers (like Berberian) and virtuosic diction, but also musical interpretations in the footsteps of Hart (one recalls his interpretation of a text by Artaud in Paris in 1972). Stratos explores the voice by recovering its primary functions (his vocal research began when listening to the pre-linguistic “la-la” sounds of his newborn daughter), liberated from the culture of Western music (which, in contrast, remains very present, for example, in Berberian-Berio): his is an extreme example of the refutation of the operatic vocal culture, which was understood as the highest expression of the voice in Western music, in other words, that path that had begun in the first half of the century.4

We will now take an inverse path, going from these examples of “breaking” toward a prospective of “integration” of these experiences in different forms of musical dramaturgy. We will begin with the example of Aventures (1963) and Nouvelles Aventures (1966) by György Ligeti, for three voices (soprano, contralto, and baritone) and seven instruments (flute, horn, percussion, harpsichord, piano and celesta, cello, and bass). Here, too, as in the previous works of Berio, the works are composed with the sound of the word and the invention of phonemes without meaning, which sound absurd from the semantic point of view but not from that of the theatrical gesture. The objective, as in lyric opera, is that of creating scenes and relationships between dramatic entities (personalities, characters), dialogs and monologs, scenic design, moments of tension, and so on. It is as if a composer would write a libretto using purely musical means, only that the plot or the story remains completely imaginary and without any concrete content. In this “simulated” drama, the word is treated as a theatrical gesture. And again, the collaboration with Hart certainly influenced the composing of El Cimarrón by Henze (1969–70), where the male voice (baritone) narrates a story from a Brechtian perspective, using different registers and techniques between the spoken and the sung and interacting with the accompanying instruments and instrumentalists (flute, guitar, and percussion).

A case that is likewise interesting in the path that we are delineating is the entire theatrical production of Georges Aperghis (1945), which is founded on the idea that in the realm of musical theater, it is possible to recompose the significant function of the word through a kind of pre-language made of gestures that are aural and visual, which actors and musicians realize on stage. This is a research into scenic expression which, since the first productions of the 1960s at the Festival d’Avignon or at ATEM (Atelier Théâtre et Musique), was carried out by Aperghis in meticulous work each day with interpreters (singers, but primarily actors and instrumentalists who speak and sing). This process of scenic-vocal composition has given life to experimental performances of musical theater concentrated on the construction of a theater as an expressive space that offers more paths and ways of interpretation, which the spectator may reconstruct according to his own taste and culture. (This is exemplified in the more recent Machinations from 2000 or Luna Park of 2011, where Aperghis adds the use of computer music.) At the same time, the process has also given life to forms that are close to a narrative that is formally more traditional, almost “operatic” (one recalls the recent Les Boulingrins on a vaudeville by Labiche, presented at the Opéra Comique in 2010).

The century closes with a masterpiece that synthesizes many of these tendencies very well: Das Mädchen mit des Schwefelhölzern. Musik mit Bildern (The Little Match Girl. Music with Pictures) (premiered in Hamburg in 1997) by Helmut Lachenmann (born in 1935). The narrative structure of part of the fairy tale of the little match girl is associated with two other texts: one, recent, is a letter from prison by Gudrun Ensslin, the German revolutionary activist; the other, much older, is a fragment taken from the Codex Arundel by Leonardo da Vinci. Both of these texts interact with the fairytale. In the opera, the word is spoken, sung, fragmented in syllables (a technique used by Luigi Nono) and it merges with a sonic universe made of very recognizable symbols such as those of the “cold” sounds, atonal and high-pitched sounds of the strings and percussion at the beginning of the performance. Here, we are going in the direction of a theater made up of musical and visual images, that are, in their nature, symbolic and suggestive, and that are controlled by the narrative rhythm of the music. These images contribute to create a universe that is complex and legible at the same time, capable of attributing more perspective to the fairy tale that is here intended mainly as a suggestive poetic framework for the creative imagination. A voice that is no longer soloist, tied to a personality, but that is now one with the sounds, the noises, and the instrumental gestures of the orchestra.

The end of the 20th Century again witnesses the establishment of a new technological element that reveals itself to be important for the use of the voice on stage: the wireless microphone. An important example for this is found in the last work for the stage by Berio, Cronaca del Luogo (1999). The character of Nino, interpreted by a singer/actor who performs with a wireless microphone, enters the scene at the beginning of the third part, titled La torre with vocal writing characterized by sound effects, timbral changes also indicated note for note (actor’s voice, nasal, lyrical).5

It should be noted that the role was interpreted by another vocalist who is particularly involved in vocal research, David Moss. The voice of Nino interacts with that of Abulafia, the character who expresses herself by performing on the trombone, and with Saphir, who plays the trumpet. In this way, a rich interweaving of instruments and vocals is created that recalls that of the old Circles or Sequenza III, made possible here thanks to the device of amplification of the voice: technology had in fact opened up to Berio the possibility of integrating into the theatrical realm that new vocality that he experimented with almost forty years before in more “chamber like” or acousmatic dimensions.

But the amplification of the voice on stage can still inspire other paths. As for example, Medea by Adriano Guarnieri, a video opera in three parts, freely adapted from the tragedy of Euripides, for video sequences, soloists, chorus, orchestra and, indeed, live electronics. Staged in 2002,6 Medea presents three female voices (soprano, contralto and “light”, i. e. non-lyric voice), that all interpret Medea, or—as the composer asserts—a symbolic aspect of the tragic character: the soprano is the female aspect; the contralto is the mother, but also the symbol of power; the non-lyric (light) voice, however, evokes the dimension of everyday life.7 The composer also emphasizes that there are no melodic characterizations to differentiate the three faces of Medea, thus, nothing characterizes Giasone, interpreted by a counter-tenor: they form an “ideal quartet”, just one voice. This directly refers to a characteristic of Guarnieri’s writing, which he himself defines as “material singability”, that is, a singing that excludes traditional types of melodies, since everything originates at the interior of the “galaxy of the sound”8, of the sonic material. The voices of Medea and Giasone articulate, first and foremost, a “sound” that is the result of an association between harmony (intervallic construction), counterpoint, and timbre that is not just vocal but also orchestral: Guarnieri recalls thinking of “the orchestral material as being very close to the sound of a sheet of metal” and then, “the lyricism of the singing does not have an accompaniment, it is truly suspended on clumps of transformed sounds of which one cannot speak of sonorities that are tonal or atonal; but of a mass that gets close to the material, between iron and steel.”9 Guarneri does not want to tell the story of Medea, rather, to express her inner suffering, the passionate aspect (from here the cultural reference to lyric opera in the sub-title) thinking first and foremost of “sound”, of its spatialization, its live transformations.

I would like to conclude this brief discourse with a very recent work where the amplified10 voice plays a central role in a dramaturgic work that presents identifiable characters, and thus, at least formally, very close to the universe of lyric opera: Re Orso by Marco Stroppa, on a libretto adapted from the fairytale of the same name in verses by Arrigo Boito, staged at the Opéra Comique in May 2012. We find ourselves in the year 1000, Re Orso (countertenor) is an autocrat who sows terror among his own subjects, ordering decapitations with great ease, and finds an unexpected rival in the character of Verme (mezzosoprano) one of his first victims. The first act concludes with the extermination of the entire court, while the second act stages the death of the genocidal dictator, with Verme returning victoriously on top of his tomb (the worm does not die even if it is cut in two). It is a subject that is of course symbolic: the worm, symbol of the most humble creature of nature that destroys the powerful one blinded by his madness. All of the voices here are amplified, with very little treatment by the computer (only some synthetic sounds): the amplification of the sound serves principally to allow us to hear all of the gradations between pianissimo and fortissimo, without making it difficult for the singers. For Stroppa, it is about putting a magnifying glass on the voice. In the same first act, however, there is an exception: Verme, having been executed at the opening of the act, is an almost phantom presence that expresses itself with a voice very elaborated by computer technology. In the second act the contrary process occurs. Orso is dying and all of the characters have perished (including the instrumentalists of the orchestra pit): their singing is now accompanied by the only electronic sounds that were realized in a more or less direct relationship with the voices, a substantial part of which are synthesized sounds, while for Verme (and the only instrument that accompanies her, the accordion), the voice frees itself from the computer transformations. In this work, Stroppa asks the singers to emphasize certain sounds of the words (the “s” for example, as in Berio’s Circles) which, together with the amplification and the computer sounds, he uses to create a “new” sound universe and, at the same time, one that is derived from and homogenous with the voice. (For this, Stroppa utilized and further developed the program Chant which was created at Ircam during the 1980s and was already used to create the voice of the famous castrato Farinelli in the film of the same name by Gérard Corbiau from 1994.) It is a type of vocal writing that is later put at the service of a dramaturgy that is carried out in the singing of the characters. In other words, a voice that is born from the experiences of the avant-garde and from the technological research to renew a dramaturgical principle that is typically operatic: that of telling a story, representing a content through singing.

The array of examples that I have presented here, I believe, are sufficient to demonstrate how research on the voice of the last fifty years has contributed to the emergence of various theatrical forms, but has also permitted a reinterpreting of old tasks and functions of the dramatic and operatic voice. If, as I recalled at the beginning of my talk, though the voice is not always present in new works of musical theater, taking it as the point of departure for discussion is certainly fruitful: the voice has integrated new sounds, sparked technological research; it has thus become a rich expressive source at the composer’s disposal, “new” and “old” at the same time.

1Universal Edition 13231 Mi.

2See Osmond-Smith, David: Berio, Oxford/New York, Oxford University Press 1991 (Oxford Studies of Composers 20), pp. 67–70.

3Claves, ginger cymbals, wood chimes and glass chimes, finger cymbals.

4Another possible example, closer the miminalists, is that of Meredith Monk. Among the different genres, one should also note Diamanda Galas and Fátima Miranda who received the Demetrio Stratos Prize for their careers.

5See Berio, Luciano: Cronaca del Luogo, score, Milano 1999 (ed. 2004), pp. 73–74.

6Medea was staged in 2002 at the theater La Fenice of Venice by Giorgio Barberio Corsetti with videos by Fabio Massimo Iaquone, live electronics realized by Alvise Vidolin and Nicola Bernardini, conducted by Pietro Borgonovo.

7Adriano Guarnieri: Visioni di Medea: a colloquio con Ariano Guarnieri, in Medea, La Fenice, Venice 2002, p. 10.

8Cf. Petazzi, Paolo: I. Un mondo onirico sul teatro musicale di Adriano Guarnieri prima di Medea, in Ibidem, p. 95.

9Ibidem, p. 112.



Neuerscheinungen im Verlag

Das Ding mit dem Körper. Zeitgenössischer Zirkus und Figurentheater