From NewOp to Non-Op:
A Draft Dogma for the new Music-Theater

by Barry Drogin

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In 1992, Lukas Pairon of Belgium and Dragan Klaic of the Netherlands held the first "International Meeting of Small-Scale Contemporary Music-Theatre and Opera." Since that time, annual gatherings in Europe and Canada, re-titled "NewOp," drawing participants from Australia and the United States of America as well, and an international listserv, "c-opera," with an e-mail server in Canada and an American moderator, Kent Devereaux, have revealed a healthy but struggling community of creators of new, important work in what is starting to become known as "Music-Theater."

The relationship of this movement to what the general public, funding organizations, and artistic community understand to be "opera" is being questioned, especially as music conservatories and opera houses start to fund a revival of interest in producing new work for their venues. Looking to other art forms for guidance, the Music-Theater community has been going through an identity crisis. Are opera and Music-Theater separated only by scale, like symphonies and chamber music groups, novels and short stories, mainstream and independent film, A&R and garage bands, or Broadway and Off-Broadway? Or are the forms much more distinct, like film and television, prose and poetry, ballet and modern dance? It would seem that, as the form becomes more recognized and better funded, small-scale has extended to medium-scale, and even to large-scale venues. It has become clear that opera is not the only form that can combine music with the stage arts, even when grand.

It is time to declare a new aesthetic, as creators reexamine the old tradition and seek to syncretize the basic components of text, music, movement, image and space in ways more accessible, immediate, relevant, and affective than can be achieved using the craft, techniques, models and expectations, let alone the sociological, cultural and political infrastructure, of the opera community. Similar to "The Vow of Chastity" of Dogme 95 invented by filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg in Copenhagen, the new Music-Theater needs its own set of defining rules. These follow below.

1. We reject the operatic voice. We will exclusively use different vocal techniques, such as contemporary pop, jazz and musical theater voices, extended vocal technique (EVT) singing, intimate lieder and early music tonalities, microphone and electronic manipulation techniques, and other singing styles we may discover or invent.
2. We reject the opera house. We will seek performances in our own venues and spaces, in new music and alternative music spaces, in theatre and performance art spaces, in site-specific and non-traditional spaces of all kinds.
3. We reject the opera farm system. We will work directly and early in the creation process with our own singers, forming our own companies and establishing long-term relationships with singers willing, able and capable of singing in the new styles we desire.
4. We reject the term "opera." We will not label our work or our companies as "new opera", "contemporary opera", or use the word "opera" in any of our marketing materials, publications, scores or advertising.
5. We will be multi-lingual, mono-lingual or alingual. We will not use subtitles, surtitles or print texts in our programs. We will create works in the language or languages of our audience, or specifically avoid using language or use a language not understood by our audience on purpose. Whereever text is to be understood by the audience, we will use languages the audience understands, sung in such a way that the audience can understand.
6. We will salvage from history a lost repertoire rejected by the opera houses. Selected works of Weill, Blitzstein, Partch, Britten and others yet to be discovered will be our ancestors.
7. We will be recognized and heard. We will use every media and forum at our disposal to publicize and proclaim the existence of our new form. We will grant interviews, write articles, set up web pages, and encourage the creation of magazines, newsletters, directories and other publications devoted to our field.
8. We will work together. We will form practical alliances that allow for artistic exchange, touring and joint productions.
9. We will freely associate. We will not form organizations, committees, associations or not-for-profit corporations in support of our cause, but will rely on mutual respect, consensus and each other as facilitators, enablers and initiators.
10. We will not be discouraged. We will take pride in our work, share excitedly and unconditionally, confident in the dynamic strength of our vision. We will not be a "poor cousin" to anyone. Our work will flourish.


Although some of the founders of Modern Dance studied ballet in their youth, they were also familiar with new acting techniques, ballroom and folk dancing, and, common to all, burlesque skirt dancing. Their careers started in the commercial sector, not in classical ballet companies. They were theorists and experimentalists, dancers themselves, and formed dance companies and schools to teach new ways of breathing, movement and interpretation.

Kurt Weill famously rejected “writing for posterity” and embraced the commercial theater, as did Blitzstein and Bernstein. Music-Theater must survive on a fraction of the funding available for mainstream opera. We must be particularly creative in finding spaces, cost savings and monetary support from our audiences. Although we may end up recognized by our peers, we will get only a fraction of the government and private funding available to “the tradition.”

Some of us will not be able to be so “pure,” just as the first Dogme 95 films have “cheated,” some say. Certainly, there is no intention to hide our work from the opera community, or from anyone else. But we must endeavor to stick to our principles whereever and whenever possible. If this is our vision, this is our mission.

Song: "NewOp DooWop"

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007