Balancing Spectacle and Intimacy: Urban Opera, Domus, and Otherness
Over the past weekend, the Jubilate Orchestra, a project of Magnificat, served as the “pit orchestra” for Urban Opera’s production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. The performances took place in a sculpture garden between two office buildings by Mission Bay. The San Francisco Weekly noted that Bay Area audiences have the choice of a plethora of opera experiences and welcomed Urban Opera’s concept into the mix while acknowledging the climatic complications that the City by the Bay poses.
I was struck by the similarities in the company’s intention of “telling the beautiful, yet often improbable, stories of the classic operas in a compelling way for a modern audience” by setting these “tales of passion, betrayal, love and loss in unexpected locations in the City with minimal sets and emerging, talented singers who aren’t afraid to take risks” and the adventures of the intrepid and talented chamber music ensemble Domus in the early 80s.
Indeed, Urban Opera’s rejoinder “this is not your grandparents’ opera” seems like an echo of the Domus ethos, though Domus was perhaps more specifically interested in invigorating the interaction of performers and audience than with revolutionizing the performance itself. The Domus experience was eloquently chronicled in the inspired journals of pianist Susan Tomes, which were published a few years ago as part of Tomes’ Beyond the Notes. (Full disclosure: I had the privilege of playing a very minor role in one Domus tour – and a spectacularly ill-starred and exhilarating tour it was! – pp. 50ff.)
The Domus musicians felt that the formal protocol and elitism associated with the traditional concert hall created a barrier that kept many people – especially young people – from experiencing classical music. Their solution was to perform in a portable concert hall – a geodesic dome – that could be set up virtually anywhere, including places where classical musicians had not previously ventured. (For example – Wormwood Scrubs Green!) Visually striking, the dome itself attracted audiences and the compelling performances kept them there – and perhaps made them more likely to seek out classical music in more conventional venues. But it was the interaction of musicians and listeners that motivated the experiment (and sustained the musicians through all the stress of self-production). Tomes observes:
We were united by the feeling that formal concerts often inhibited both players and listeners, and also by the feeling that concertgoers should not be so entirely dislocated from the rest of the day’s activities. Admittedly, many performers find the Otherness of concerts both necessary and compelling because it gives the sence of a special occasion, because sometimes it gives a sense of a special occasion, and draws the best out of them. But this Otherness has a life of its own, independent of the performers; it doesn’t always amount to the feeling of a special occasion, but sometimes just feels stiff, and makes people feel they are not free to behave normally.
Fast forward to the Urban Opera last weekend. The Weekly observed:
There’s a lot to like about the idea of taking opera out of the grand concert halls and integrating it with the urban environment most of us spend so much time in. This move defamiliarizes and thus reinvigorates otherwise quotidian surroundings, even while making this usually rarefied art form more immediately accessible. In this regard, Urban Opera has done a fine job with its initial offering. The production makes use of the entire space, with performers trouping in from all directions at various points, and occasionally features two scenes unfolding simultaneously in different quadrants of the courtyard. At its best moments, the production effectively balances spectacle with intimacy.
Balancing spectacle with intimacy is a challenge for performers whatever the venue. Domus eventually abandoned the Dome and went on to a notable career in more traditional venues (including definitive recordings of the chamber music of Faure and others), but the philosophical and aesthetic issues raised and pondered as a result of the experiment continue to resonate.
Perhaps because I thought about the interactive relationship of audience and performer so intensely during that brief time hanging around Domus, or maybe because it’s just so fundamental to the experience of a musician, performance has always seemed like a two way mirror to me. As Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull to most of us) observes in Minstrel in the Gallery:
The minstrel in the gallery looked down on the rabbit-run.
And threw away his looking-glass – saw his face in everyone.
Performing historical music (especially the often obscure music that Magnificat performs) involves making an audience receptive to the unfamiliar – coaxing them to join in the “make believe” of musiking. Some Magnificat programs – especially liturgical reconstructions where applause is eschewed until the final “Ite missa est” or whatever – emphasize and, in important ways, live from “Otherness”. But in these programs as much as the ones where the audience laughs out loud (I really like those), the concert is a partnership, a joint effort by the performers and audience.
For years Magnificat has invited our Sunday audiences to stay after the concert and chat with the musicians and even when not formalized by wine and cheese, we’ve always had a pretty loose green room atmosphere at concerts. The conversations that take place after concerts are often enlightening and inspiring, but in the end, it is the non-verbal conversation that occurs between downbeat and applause that is the often the most powerful. It’s sort of the point of a concert really.
Thanks to Urban Opera for their efforts and for inviting Jubilate along for the ride – and for prompting me to once again examine the balance of spectacle and intimacy.