Towards Understanding the Opera/Music Theater Spectrum
Developing a Grand Unified Theory of NewOp

by Barry Drogin

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I have never been one in favor of trend-spotting. A trend implies a movement, and a movement implies a bandwagon, and a bandwagon implies conformist mediocrity.

On the other hand, I think the notion of "pluralism" is a cop-out, a way of obscuring the cultural fact of aesthetic, influence and tradition. If art is an evolving conversation with the past, then each piece exists in relation to other pieces that form evolutionary streams that are eventually perceived as traditions forming repertoires. Some of these repertoires may be preserved through institutions, some may be lost to history or re-discovered later. The institutions may be religious, amateur, academic, professional or commercial in nature.

Lately, there have been efforts to identify "music theater" as an identity that might be removed from "opera" and given its own funding, institutions, category for marketing and criticism, and so on. That there exists something that is most decidedly "not opera" is evident, and I tried to get my hands around it in the essay, "Let Op Be Op" (which included the phrase "Let Music Theater Be Music Theater"), written after NewOp7. However, a simple bipolar analysis felt insufficient to me, and I contributed the essay, "Recognizing a Third Stream in Performance," in the NewOp8 reader, which restricted itself to productions in the United States. I had experimented with a draft dogma for music theater, which I finessed into the "song" that opened the presentation sessions for NewOp9, "NewOp DooWop."

(Even "Let Op Be Op" referred to various "sub-genres", and the first two streams in "Recognizing a Third Stream in Performance" were subdivided further between large scale and small scale productions.)

Lukas Pairon of Belgium and Dragan Klaic of the Netherlands, in founding what has become the NewOp meetings, essentially proposed scale as category with the original title, "International Meeting of Small Scale Opera and Music Theater" (which was later finessed into "Small Scale and Medium Scale" with the clever "NewOp" moniker attached). Eric Salzman, who is commissioned to write a book on "The New Music Theater" for Oxford University Press, has been developing a theory based on vocal style which I respect and rely on enormously. In "Let Op Be Op" I proposed narrative strategy (which was proposed as well by Pierre Audi of the Dutch Opera at NewOp9), but was also concerned that contemporary classical composers ignorant of the rich opera repertoire were taking over the opera house. "Let Op Be Op" was, in essence, a proposal to purify the opera tradition of many twentieth century operas, to "let opera be opera," and encourage contemporary classical composers to pursue the non-narrative theatrics of music theater. In so doing, I paired narrative strategy with musical style.

NewOp9, however, brought musical style to the forefront in a session entitled "Non-classical music in music theatre" which I could not attend. There were also several presentations, especially in youth opera, where a kind of "third stream" of musical style was evident.

This has led me to a new five-dimensional model of NewOp identifying at least three forms of musical style, two forms of vocal style, two forms of sound presentation, three forms of narrative style, and four forms of scale. I have attempted to arrange these in an order with pure "opera" at one end of a spectrum and most "music theater" situated somewhat further off, but acknowledging further movements off the deep end into popular music and electronic media. This model acts as a first draft of a kind of grand unified theory of NewOp, and clarifies the purpose of NewOp as a forum for the interaction of all of the forms, rather than for the definition of a single "non-opera" form called "music theater" or something else.

The theory does not in any way solve funding and institutional issues, although it does provide a perspective from which a sense of mission can be derived.

At the conclusion of NewOp, I was interviewed by a journalist writing for a German publication, who asked me whether NewOp had exposed me to work which would help me as a composer. I cited Ari Goldman's book, "The Search for God at Harvard," which contains the paradoxical but true statement that you cannot know your own religion until you know other religions. Similarly, I think that attendance at NewOp, by providing a forum for presentations of work unknown and ignored by the opera world at large, helps composers, librettists, singers, directors and other creators understand better their own work, their own unique vision, and as such must remain a place for the presentation of all work, opera, music theater and otherwise.

Musical style

Vocal style

Sound presentation

Narrative style


At NewOp13, there was also discussion about the problems imposed by the culture due to the duration of a piece (anything that lasts significantly less than or more than two to three hours), and inherent problems posed by the language of the original musical setting of the text (which is not as easily translated as spoken theatre and film).

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A Musical Contrarian 2000-2007

Last Updated: August 4, 2007