Where Are the Schools for Music Theater?

September 11, 2007

I have devoted the last thirty years of my life to new music theater, but I have trouble responding to anything that has been said in this blog and its responses so far, because the statements are mostly just brief listings and descriptions of the painfully obvious.  The comments and publications listed here and through the various links might be useful for amateurs or young college students trying to orient themselves to the field, or for curious professionals wanting to see who gets listed and who doesn’t.  (One notes for example, the usual New York-centric bias with its sadly over-blown self-esteem.  Sorry for the harsh observation.)

To make the discussion more concrete, we might consider why there  is not a single school in the world with a specific program devoted to teaching the skills necessary for the creation of new music theater.  Music theater (of just about any sort) often requires specific forms of training that are not included in most composer’s and performer’s educations.

History illustrates that music theater is often a very specialized form of work.  The great opera composers almost always only wrote operas and their attempts at abstract music were often abysmal.  (Where, for example, are the symphonies, string quartets, and piano sonatas of Verdi, Wagner, Rossini, etc.?)  Mozart and Strauss are perhaps the two most notable examples of the few composers who were able to successfully write both theatrical and abstract music.  Since music theater involves very specialized skills, we need at least a few good graduate schools with programs specifically devoted to new music theater.

This kind of training is especially necessary, because we have inherited a historical trend toward stage works as a form of -Gesamtkunst- in which a single voice is responsible for a work’s major elements, particularly in regard to the text, music and concepts of production.  This trend has been established by composers such as Wagner, Berg, and Menotti, and even more in the newer forms of stage works such as “happenings” and “performance art”.  And yet it is notable that there is not a single school in the world where one can obtain a well thought out and complete plan of interdisciplinary studies designed to train one in the literary, musical, and theatrical skills necessary to create serious music theater, or other forms of performance art.

 The desire to integrate music and theater represents a long tradition in western music, and even though this has never been fully achieved, the attempts have often led to some of the most important advances in western music. The techniques and aesthetic philosophies developed by the music theater of the Florentine Camerata, Montiverdi, Gluck, Mozart, Weber, Wagner, and Berg almost outline the evolution of our musical heritage.  To this day, many of the most importance advances in musical thought have come from attempts to create new kinds of music theater.  So where are the programs for training composers, singers, and instrumentalists in this kind of work?

 William Osborne