What is music theatre?
- In its widest sense, music theatre means
any performance art that combines music and drama. That would include opera,
operetta and musicals, as well as music written for plays, and, in a sense,that
is its best definition.
The trouble is that defining music theatre has become more complicated, not
least because the last ten years have witnessed the introduction of a new kind
of music theatre in Europe, largely as a result of (and alongside) an injection
of new blood and energy into conventional opera. Opera, long seen as a somewhat
stuffy genre, has been invaded by a raft of artists from other disciplines:
theatre directors, sculptors, choreographers, film-makers – all have brought
their own perspectives, backgrounds and energy to opera, and have fuelled a
desire to seek out new forms; people have started to look outside the
opera-house walls, in search of the many and varied possibilities that the
wonderful combination of word and music opens up.
The result has been a
myriad collection of different works for theatre that all use music in
incredibly diverse ways.Since these have all been lumped together under the term
music theatre, it’s really no wonder that agreeing a definition has become
By the time Muziektheater Transparant started in its current form in 1994,
the the various music theatres were already bubbling away nicely. Our aim was to
challenge boundaries, push barriers and find the freedom to bring new depth and
meaning to the combination of word and music, breaking open convention and
form,and allowing fresh air and ideas to penetrate. The point was not only to
explore new genres, but to give the old works a new chance to survive, to
continue alongside us into the modern world.
The history of Muziektheater Transparant’s youth operas began also in 1994
with one of the company’s founding objectives: that Transparant’s work should
appeal strongly to young audiences.
Projects with young singers
One of the ideal projects for that matter is our yearly production with young
singers. Most of them are in between 16 and 23 years old. Unlike other
initiatives in Europe where a production company wants to bring a specific opera
from the known repertoire and will start auditioning the singers for that
repertoire piece, we work the other way round. We start from the auditions
and the quality and possibilties of the young singers, and although we often
start from a libretto or an opera, the opera fragments are choosen for the
available singers and will be shaped into a new music theatre piece. The
emphasis is placed on the artistic quality of the singer, which doesn’t mean the
artist has to be a perfect singer.
There’s a rehearsal period of several weeks, and the resultant production not
only goes on a short tour but also takes in at least one arts festival. The
focus is the final product. Unlike comparable programmes in other companies,
education is a welcome by-product of the work, but not its priority. These youth
operas strive to be recognised widely; these aren’t shows by young people who
can sing a bit – they will be of a high, professional standard or they won’t be
The answer to why to work with these young singers who have just graduated
from the conservatoire, or might even still be studying is as unusual as it is
simple. When we as artistic team see and hear young people tell a story on
stage, we are moved. Self-expression through song and music has enormous power
and this expression is really the cornerstone for the artistic journey that
these young people undertake. These youth operas reflect real life, and it is
from this that the company’s artistic vision naturally flows; the youth operas
necessarily challenge the genre opera, and so become something of a
testing-ground in which opera form can be pulled apart, played with, and tested
for its elasticity to the point that it must bend or break. Within the youthful
arena of the rehearsal room, there is space to experiment, sculpt, break things
apart and stick them back together. This is opera renovated, revamped and
The youth operas offer a vibrant alternative to commercial music shows; they
are proof that classical music has an enormous power to affect and move, not
least for other young people. This is the trail being blazed through the field
of opera: this work brings young talent out of the shadows and places it centre
stage, but at the same time, it’s introducing a new, fresh audience to the
hallowed portals of the national opera houses. These youth operas don’t just
have a history behind them; they are creating the future.
Who are the young people in rehearsal? Where do they come from? Why are
they here? The answers differ according to each individual, but there is a
shared underlying motivation: they are hungry for experience, and experience is
what drives them. These young singers are trying things out in an ideal social,
friendly environment, which feeds and nurtures intensive exploration and
creation. The biggest difference between this project and professional opera is
the level of openness. The singers feel safe but they don’t stick with safe
ideas – people are trying things out that feel original. Sometimes it works and
sometimes it doesn’t, but everyone on stage is proud of what they’re doing.
Drift, our most recent youth production around Arianne, the lost opera of
Monteverdi (but the libretto exists) is a perfect example of this process, from
its performance style to its design.
Here is an opera that isn’t really an
opera, yet this is a story beautifully brought to life. Monteverdi’s Lamento and
Ariadne’s sorrowful lament at her lover’s departure are interspersed with other
baroque works, some by Monteverdi, others by lesser-known composers like Mareo
Marazolli and Bonaventura Aliotti. The classic love story is presented
faithfully, but has been carefully translated into a modern context, a parable
about young people adrift. Theseus becomes a fighter, a gang leader; Ariadne his
captivated girlfriend. Monteverdi meets West Side Story, in a style that is
Transparant’s own. The chorus, Theseus’ gang, is made up of a colourful
collection of characters who inhabit a warehouse’s vast space with energy and
imagination: there’s a gum-chewing girl, a country boy, a soldier-type, a man
with a limp, a naive child.
All these characters have been born out of
Transparant’s individualised, improvisatory approach, and they bring lightness
and air to the piece. Grand theatrics of conventional opera have made way for
detail: a girl shaves her legs, lost in her own world, while her two friends try
on clothes in front of a mirror. The characters are all absorbed in themselves,
rather than performing for an audience. There are moments of classical grandeur,
such as the androgynous Amor pushing the goddess Venus slowly across the stage
on a tall cart, and there is pathos, yet the lasting impression is one of
vulnerability. This is music theatre of detail; it is unassuming, and this is
precisely why it is so powerful emotionally. This is perhaps most evident in the
key scene where Ariadne sings her lament. One moment, she lies full of joy and
wonder in her lover’s arms, on a small concrete podium centre stage that is
their bed. The next, she is standing alone against the vast back wall, singing
out her anger and frustration at love. It says a great deal about youth opera.
The best moments are not those with big sets and special effects – they are
simple, allowing the music to work its magic, on the singers as well as the
A European context
Transparant strives to inhabit the interface between opera and real life,
understanding that wherever you can find truth in a role, the audience will
quietly but surely be drawn in.
This is the heart of Transparant’s work:
telling stories. Stories live free from the perfected techniques and theories of
dramaturgy. They are about being young, and singing about who you are.
Regardless of which way you look at it, this process is resulting in more and
more productions that can hold their own against professional large scale opera,
even if only to inject some life into them.
The future of this project is a European connection. A lot of partners
are lining up for a collaboration. The last project already involved
singers from Spain – in 2006 the project will be created in Zürich, during
the festival Theaterspektakel, but this will be a coproduction between Holland,
France, Switserland, Belgium, Spain an may be more. Our ideal situation
would be that Transparant can be the artistic centre and that every year this
project is made in another country so we can open up our project to more young
singers. There is no language barrier, the only thing that brings these
young people together is the beauty of singing.