Music-Theater Defined: It's ...Well...Um...

By Eric Salzman

How far Off Broadway is Off Off? Antwerp? Amsterdam? Copenhagen? Toronto? Montreal? And what of the differences among opera, musicals and music-theater? Are there any? And if so, what are they exactly? The questions came up earlier this month in Montreal, when about 100 people gathered, ostensibly to talk about the human voice and new technology. But the range of subjects at this eighth edition of the Conference on Small-Scale Opera and New Music-Theater was as wide as its title, though that academic-sounding name has been miniaturized into the rather trendy NewOp, against some protests from the anti-opera wing.

NewOp is not a festival. It is not a conference of academics and not even an organization. Americans would probably call it networking. Michel Rostain, director of a French theater and a charter member of NewOp, describes it as "Le Small-Scale," a coming together of an artistic community in a sort of trade fair cum coffee house with creative business conducted in "music-theater euros."

What Rostain means is that NewOp is a response to the internationalization of music-theater and to the fact that new music-theater has started up in a lot of places at once and in many different ways.

The borders that are crossed are not only geographical; artistic boundaries have been breached. New work is being created by artists from both theater and music and presented at nontraditional performing sites. That begins to sound like a definition of Off Off Broadway. If there is such a thing as an Off Off music-theater movement, NewOp would be somewhere near its center.

The five-day conference this year began on Nov. 10 at the Museé d'Art Contemporain. There was talk. There was show and tell. There were voices -- some interacting with machines, some not. And there were performances that the public could attend.

The nonprofit Montreal company Chants Libres, devoted to the creation of new music-theater work, was the host, and some of the official topics listed on the program were: "manipulated, synthesized and treated voice" and "interactions between voice and machine." Bilingual workshops included one on new vocal techniques, and several multidisciplinary teams of artists and technologists from France, Japan and Canada demonstrating new performance technologies.

There were live performances: by Pauline Vaillancourt, artistic director of Chants Libres, singing Giacinto Scelsi's performance piece "Chants du Capricorne," and José Evangelista's monodrama "La Porte." Three works in progress were presented: Pamela Z's "Gaijin," performed with a BodySynth that manipulates sound -- vocal and otherwise -- by means of physical movement; Rinde Eckert, from San Francisco and New York, singing and playing his "Idiot Variations" in various voices and on various instruments, and a Chants Libres commission, "Abel Gance à New York," by this writer and François Godin, a Montreal librettist. "Abel Gance" treats the French silent film pioneer's 1920 visit to New York with a mixture of old and new technologies (images from his films and projected live holograms), as well as old and new musical and vocal techniques (mixing fox trots, operatic and Broadway characters with experimental singing styles).

The conference also included the North American premiere of a new multimedia work by the Viennese group Granular Synthesis. Employing the voice and image of the American performance artist Diamanda Galas, it turned out to be a nonstop assault on the spectator, intentionally set well above the pain threshold. (If prisoners of war were exposed to this sort of thing, it would certainly be a violation of the Geneva Convention.)

The very existence of the conference inevitably poses a question: what is music-theater anyway? In spite of a certain amount of history, new music-theater and the outer edges of new opera constitute a young, still evolving and still not well-defined form.

In the early days of the American Music-Theater Festival in Philadelphia in the 1980's, everyone always asked, What is music-theater? Nowadays, no one even asks. But that doesn't mean the answer is any more obvious than it was back then.

When the term music-theater was introduced in the 1960's, it sounded like a translation from the German, which it was, and in many parts of Europe it still suggests 60's-style avant-garde experimentation. In North America, to complicate matters, the phrase is often appropriated for new musicals (no one calls serious Broadway musicals comedies anymore).

Music-theater is sometimes exclusionary (not-opera, not-Broadway) and sometimes a catchall for everything, operas and musicals included. At one end of this complex new-work spectrum, is experimental opera; at another is the serious, contemporary musical as practiced by composers like Michael John LaChiusa (the creator of the forthcoming "Marie Christine" at Lincoln Center, where his "Hello Again" was presented) and Adam Guettel ("Floyd Collins"). In between is a large and growing third stream -- music-theater in the exclusive, narrow sense -- that has grown out of performance art and live multimedia.

NewOp doesn't offer any definitions, but it does serve as an informal collective of nontraditional creators and producers of offbeat music-and-theater collaborations with an emphasis on the in-between.

Contemporary dance, performance art and new media interact, often with theatrical and popular arts; from there to music-theater is no distance at all. This is a music-theater that comes out of avant-garde performance but that can also connect to popular and non-Western cultures.

NewOp started at the Monnaie Theater in Brussels in 1992 and was organized by Dragon Klaic, director of the Netherlands Theater Institute, and Lukas Pairon, artistic director of the Antwerp ensemble Walpurgis and new-music orchestra Ictus. That NewOp had its origins in the Low Countries is not entirely surprising, as Flemish Belgium and the Netherlands are the least tradition-bound of European cultures.

New music-theater and experimental opera with media and pop connections are hardly restricted to the Low Countries. "In the 70's and 80's," Klaic said, "everyone was trying to reinvent the wheel. New music-theater composers, companies and forms were appearing all over the place. But no one knew what anyone else was doing."

It took someone from New York -- this writer -- to introduce one of the leading French practitioners to his music-theater colleagues in neighboring (partly French-speaking) Belgium. And it took a dramaturge, critic, theoretician, theater historian and teacher from Zagreb -- Klaic -- to organize the new music-theater community of Western Europe.

Mr Klaic, a graduate of the Yale Drama School and a theater philosopher fluent in multiple languages, is an example of the new European. He first tried to bridge the communications gap with Euromaske, a sumptuous Belgo-Yugoslav theater magazine that was an early casualty of the post-Yugoslav wars. The founding of NewOp and his surprising appointment to the Netherlands Theater Institute took place at about the same time in the early 90's.

After Brussels, NewOp has gone to a different city every year: Antwerp, Colmar (in Alsace, France), Toronto, Copenhagen, Cambridge, England, Amsterdam and now Montreal. In each case, a local organization has served as host and had the responsibility for raising funds locally and putting together the program. Between meetings, NewOp appears on the Internet in the form of the C-Opera e-mail forum ( Unlike the mostly European NewOp meetings, the Internet forum is dominated by correspondents from North America.

Although experiments with new forms of music-theater and opera, popular and avant-garde, go back to the 1920's in Europe and to the 30's and 40's in North America, the current flowering dates from the last few decades. In the United States, much of the recent push came from the Off and Off Off Broadway theater, from the dance world and from performance art.

To choose only a few examples: Philip Glass was the music director for the avant-garde theater company Mabou Mines; Meredith Monk was known as a choreographer before she began to compose and create music-theater pieces, and performers like Laurie Anderson and Ms. Galas come out of performance art.

In Europe, new-music composers experimenting with music-theater have included the Argentine Mauricio Kagel in Germany and the Hungarian Gyorgy Ligeti in Austria, as well as the Italian Sylvano Bussotti and the Greek Georges Aperghis, both working in France. Louis Andriessen in the Netherlands and the German composer Hans Werner Henze have created political music-theater in updated versions of the Brecht-Weill tradition. And there is much talk (and some action) about the creation of a new "Euromusical" to replace the old moribund operetta.

Theaters and small-scale opera companies devoted to new work and with a mix of popular and avant-garde elements have cropped up in Europe and North America. Suddenly everyone -- not just composers, writers and directors but also dancers, poets and visual artists -- wants to do music-theater or recreate opera in some ultracontemporary form. If modern dance was the quintessential new performing art of the 50's, music-theater of one sort or another seems to have the same dominant position today.

Although the United States has played an important role in developing new music-theater, NewOp is still strongly Northern European in character. However, North America is finally beginning to take part, and participants from some of the farther-flung corners of Europe (and the rest of the world) are starting to show up. More than two dozen countries have been represented at NewOp meetings, including Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Venezuela and the United States.

The sessions are usually attended by composers, writers, stage directors, artistic directors and producers; there is also a scattering of performers, designers, visual artists, critics and academics. Participants are rather evenly divided between the music world and those who come from theater, dance and (as the Europeans say) "performance." Technologists can now be added to this list, after the Montreal conference.

[Poster's note: To visit participants' web sites, check out the list of NewOp Sponsors and Attendees at]

If new music-theater is a movement, it is certainly not a school; a wide range of musical styles are represented, from old-fashioned serialism (still a factor in heavily subsidized companies in France and Germany) and latter-day descendants of Weill and Brecht to newer forms of tonality influenced by minimalism (American and East European), jazz, rock and world music.

What is notable is the resurgence of the voice after decades of instrumental domination of new music. As the Montreal topics suggest, new technologies are also on the agenda, and the notion of the amplified voice is being taken a long way beyond mere amplification or enhancement.

But the question of what music-theater actually is remains a difficult one. Is music-theater any more useful a moniker than, say, modern opera? I once conducted a question-and-answer session with a Philadelphia audience after a performance at the American Music-Theater Festival of "Hydrogen Jukebox" by Allen Ginsberg and Philip Glass. The questioners kept calling this totally unoperatic work an opera, and I finally asked why. "Well," came the reply, "aren't those all opera singers?" Indeed they were.

On the other hand, modern opera when produced in the theater mysteriously turns into musical drama or even music-theater.

These age-old arguments and confusions show no sign of abating, and they are now fought over furiously on the Internet.

[Poster's note: See, for example, "Let Op Be Op!" from "A Musical Contrarian" about NewOp7 in Amsterdam, as well as "Opera" from the same source.]

Opera is music-theater sung by opera singers in an opera house. Music-theater sung by musical-theater singers in a big Broadway or West End house is, well, musical theater. Pure music-theater must be what's left: that which is performed somewhere else by other kinds of singers. This may be as clear a definition as we're going to get.

But what happens when you have a mixed cast?

NewOp is not a place where such knots can be untied, but it is a forum where hot issues are examined, new work and new ideas exchanged and debated. It has helped create cross-border collaborations and nurtured a sense of international community among creators previously working in local and sometimes isolated Off Off Broadway situations.

Next year, NewOp returns to Brussels, capital of the new Europe (in 2001 it will be in Oslo). What new music-theater will be in the next millennium is anybody's guess, but through NewOp it has transcended borders and languages -- and, who knows, perhaps even acquired a name.

---Eric Salzman has been working in new music-theater for more than 25 years and is writing a book on the subject for Oxford University Press.

[Poster's note: In addition to Eric's credits mentioned in the article, are the following: His famous "The Nude Paper Sermon" appeared in John Cage's "Notations." He founded the experimental music-theater ensemble, Quog, and the American Music-Theater Festival in Philadelphia. He created a series of "radio operas" for National Public Radio with Michael Sahl, including "Civilization and Its Discontents," which was a Nonesuch LP. He produced the popular recordings of "The Tango Project," as well as Teresa Stratas' Weill album. As of 2003, he had attended eleven out of the first twelve NewOp meetings; at the tenth NewOp he was honored for his contributions to NewOp and the field.]

This article reprinted from The New York Times of November 28, 1999, with permission of the author.