Our Theories of Chamber Music Theater

by William Osborne, April 26, 2011


The Missing Genre

The Development of New Theories of Small Theater

A Different Type of Vocal Production

The Importance of Texts

Stage Directions As An Integral Part of Scores

The Unity of Image, Time, and Place

Capturing the Musicality of Language

Character Portrayal

Performance Practices

The Practical Value of Small Music Theater

Filling Niches




Itís probably no exaggeration to say that only those who have attempted to write chamber music theater understand how difficult it is. It is virtually impossible to combine words and music into theater in a way that isnít hokey and clunky.  And it is even more difficult if the goal is to give the words, music, and theater an equal artistic value in the service of substantial characters that develop.  It should also be noted that these difficulties are vastly compounded if everything is in a raw, exposed chamber music format without the trappings of opera to pad the work with lavish sets, deafening bel canto voices, massive orchestras, and cavernous houses.  


In spite of these difficulties, our goal is to make our performances so natural, and the compositions so effective, that they seem to border on the effortless.  In some cases, this can be a bit misleading.  In this article, we will give you a look behind the scenes and outline some of the theoretical concepts of music, theater, and performance involved in the creation of our work. We hope this will help people better understand why chamber music theater is so difficult to create, and why it is virtually non-existent in the oeuvre of Western classical music.  You can then view (or review) our videos to judge for yourselves how well we have realized our theoretical concepts. 


It is also important to know that we have been involved in this work for a very long time.  Winne, for example, was completed in 1983.  As time allows, we will be creating and videos of our other chamber music theater workssso those interested can see how our efforts have evolved.so those interested can see how our efforts have evolved.  The filming process is very complex, and we continue to learn how to make better videos.  As time allows, we will also create better videos of works we have already filmed.  We will also be adding technical essays about our methods of creating texts, about composing the works,,about videoing them,,and about the sorts of performance practices we have had to develop.and about the sorts of performance practices we have had to develop.


The Missing Genre


It has long been the goal of Western culture to establish a genre of chamber music theater, but this has never been achieved.  We lack a substantial literature for such a genre, which for the most part, exists only in theory.  Western culture has also long had the goal of creating music theater that fully integrates text, theater, and music on an equal basis.  This ideal has also not been realized.  If there are works that come close to obtaining these goals, they are only the exceptions that prove the rule. 


These ideals about small formats and the integration of music theaterís elements were first outlined by the Florentine Camera which flourished from 1577 to 1582.  Early developments in opera were soon diverted away from chamber music theater toward large scale productions with elaborate staging featuring the bel canto voice accompanied by sizable orchestras.  Since the bel canto voice is poorly suited to delivering texts that can be understood, the chances of opera genuinely integrating music, text, and theater were greatly reduced.  And the focus on spectacle often precluded more subtle theatrical exploration. The goal of genuinely integrating music and theater in small formats was lost.  Subsequent efforts in the following centuries were considered unsuccessful.  Among the most notable were the melodramas off Romantics like Schumann, Schubert, and Liszt.  The music was often remarkable and inventive, but there seemed to be a lack of theatrical theory that could provide a basis for the creation of effective, small-format music theater.  (To listen to a recording of Schumannís melodrama "Die FlŁchtlinge", Op. 122, Nr. 2 performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau click here.)


The absence of music theater in chamber formats represents an enormous gap in the oeuvre of Western classical music.  Filling it is a fascinating challenge that remains to be solved.  One reason this has not been done is that the capacity to create music theater of any sort is one of the rarest of all human abilities.  In the 500 years since the Florentine Camerata first formulated our concepts of music theater, there have only been about 10 or 15 composers whose operas are regularly performed.  For chamber music theater, the number is zero. Nevertheless, this dismal situation might soon change.  Developments in technology and advances in the theory of theater since the Second World War seem to offer exciting new possibilities for the creation of an effective genre of chamber music theater.


The Development of New Theories of Small Theater 


One of the most important of these developments was the appearance of a group of  playwrights who dedicated their careers to works suitable for small theaters with limited resources and a limited number of actors.  Important among these playwrights were a group of post-war writers based mostly in Paris that included Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Antonin Artaud.   (Pinter, of course, was based in London, and Artaud worked mostly before the war.)  Their work established new forms of theatrical theory, but their writings and plays do not seem to have been widely explored by composers or librettists.  This is unfortunate, since the concepts of these playwrights could be very useful for the creation of music theater in small formats. 


This is nowhere more apparent than in the work of Samuel Beckett, who late in his life wrote a series of miniature plays such as Rockaby and Ohio Impromptu that he felt were literally analogous to chamber music.  His texts are also extremely musical, and as a director he demanded that they be delivered with musical precision, almost as if he were directing a musical score.  One of his most important interpreters, the actress Billie Whitelaw, once observed when performing his short play Footfalls: "I felt like a moving, musical Edvard Munch painting and, in fact, when Beckett was directing Footfalls he was not only using me to play the notes, I almost felt that he did have the paintbrush out and was painting."   


Unfortunately, few composers seem to consider the idea that writing opera might begin with examining the most recent developments in the theory and practice of theater.   And there are no music schools that offer such studies as a part of their curriculum.  Most composers, as a result, continue to write operas based on theories of music theater still aligned with late 19th and early 20th century concepts of the bel canto voice, massive spectacle, and large orchestral resources.  Progress has been further hindered because these works are often so weighed-down by the massive resources required for their production that useful experimentation and theatrical exploration remain impossible.  


In recent decades smaller works have become more frequent, but as with efforts during the 19th century, they seem to fail due to the inability of most composers to apply effective theatrical theories to small-scale forms of music theater.  From the most critical viewpoint, conceptualism often seemed to become the resort of ignorance and inability in many of these works. This was a general problem that plagued many artists in the post-war era, because so many common practices and belief systems were completely shattered.  There were few accepted technical or aesthetic theories at hand, and those that were in the process of being formulated, as with the aforementioned playwrights, were difficult to recognize in the atmosphere of doubt that characterized the period.


In our attempts to solve some of these problems, my wife and I began by spending seven years studying the plays of Samuel Beckett and performing chamber music theater works we created based on them.  The musicality and theatrical precision of Beckettís plays were perfectly suited to this endeavor.  The small format of our works allowed us to put music theater in a test tube, as it were, and carefully explore and try-out what worked and what didnít.  Miriam, Part I, The Chair was the first music theater work we wrote after those many years of involvement with the plays of Beckett, and the theories of his work are everywhere apparent in it. 


A Different Type of Vocal Production


One of the first things we learned is that the bel canto voice is often poorly suited to integrating music, text, and theater because it can make words difficult to understand.  It can also hinder the forms of vocal inflection that fully integrated acting demands.  The bel canto voice is extremely beautiful and can reflect profound humanity and emotional depths, but it can also have a warbling, horsey, egoistic, physicality that subsumes all other elements of theater.  Even in opera, the elephantine character of the bel canto voice sometimes borders on the ridiculous. The bel canto voice can be applied to some forms of chamber music theater, but in some cases, it requires that the singer adapt his or her forms of vocal production.


We found that the basic vocal techniques of bel canto applied to a more natural vocal style were essential to creating the types of integration between words and music for which we were searching.  Among the things you will notice in the videos are: 1) all of the words are easily understandable, 2) we strive to give the text a weight equal to the music, 3) detailed character development is an essential part of the piece, 4) the work requires extensive acting skills.  These goals could only be achieved with new vocal techniques. Opera singers are sometimes criticized for poor acting, but the fact is that musical and theatrical contexts for good acting are often not even provided by operatic scores.


An especially important characteristic of the form of singing we developed is that it allows for seamless movement between singing and speaking.  We found that being able to use both sung and spoken passages allowed for much more dimension in our works.  The  wider pallet of inflection allowed by a lighter voice increases the ability to create believable acting and the authentic portrayal of characters.  And of course, we do not present these ideas merely as a concepts or theories.  We offer videos so that people can see the practical application of our theories and how they work.


The Importance of Texts


We feel that the value of music theater texts must be reasserted if the genre is to continue to evolve.  One of the reasons opera began to decay during the 20th century was the loss of the art of the librettist.  Since music, spectacle, and the bel canto voice had already begun to dominate opera even in its early history, librettos took on a strongly inferior role in productions.  Especially in the Italian operas that came to dominate the genre during the 18th and 19th centuries, the creation of librettos became hack work based on stock characters.  By the time the 20th century arrived, few authors were interested in work that was considered demeaning and anachronistic.  


These negative views of the librettistís art are somewhat one-sided.  Even though librettos all too often fell to hack work, their importance is demonstrated in most of the truly great operas.  Boitoís adaptations for Verdiís Othello and Falstaff are well-known examples.  Other important examples are the librettos of Da Ponte which so deftly provided a framework for Mozartís genius. It is impossible to write truly great operas without excellent librettos.


The dearth of librettists during the 20th century thus had catastrophic consequences.  More operas probably failed due to bad librettos than to poor composition.  Another result was that the art of writing librettos did not continue to evolve.  The few librettists that remained continued to think of opera in terms of 19th century practices, and failed to keep pace with the 20th centuryís newly evolving theories of theater.  Many recent operas are so locked in slightly updated 19th century conceits that they hardly even reach the early 20th century theoretical concepts behind the comedies of Oscar Wilde or the social realism of Berthold Brecht.  Some librettists have employed the seemingly modern techniques of minimalism, but still in service of spectacles reminiscent of 19th century theatrical values.  There have also been attempts to revive opera by embracing exoticism, such as the use of Chinese instruments and myths.  Here too the efforts are superficial, have a 19th century quality, and do not provide long-term solutions or the basic understanding of current theatrical theory that is needed if classical music is to keep the development of music theater alive.


Perhaps it is worth noting that one off-shoot of this problem with librettos has been the development Regietheater.  In essence, it exists because many, if not most opera librettos are so absurd that they beg for enhancement.  Sadly, this seems to apply to many contemporary operas as well.  Unfortunately, Regietheater is a stop-gap method of trying to improve librettos (both new and old.)  And even more, itís a largely futile attempt to recreate texts in ways that might give the standard repertoire more theatrical substance and modern relevancy.


Stage Directions As An Integral Part of Scores


In addition to giving our texts a weight equal to the music, we also place a special emphasis on stage directions and actions, and precisely notate them in our scores. Through our study of Beckett, we developed the theoretical concept that a music theater score can (and perhaps should) be so detailed that it becomes a production book.  As part of this, we generally notate the rhythms of even spoken passages in order to precisely coordinate them with their musical accompaniments and to highlight the musical nature of their cadences and rhythms.  It is interesting that when Beckett directed he demanded that his words be delivered with certain kinds of rhythms even though he had not developed any way of stipulating them in his texts.  In the mid 1980s, I gave him several of the scores I had written based on his texts and he invited me to Paris to meet with him.  He was especially interested in how the rhythms of the spoken words had been notated.


Beckett was a young man during the silent film era.  He was initially interested in becoming a film director and considered traveling to Russia to study with Sergei Eisenstein.  Beckett also admired the work of silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.  In 1964, he wrote a silent film script for Keaton.  Two of Beckettís plays are scripts for a pantomime without any spoken text, entitled appropriately enough Act Without Words I and Act Without Words II.  We were thus able to set and perform Act Without Words I explicitly following his stage directions. (See the video.)  We followedthe same principle of explicit stage directions in writing, setting, and performing our workk Miriam, Part I, The Mirrorrwhich is comprised entirely of stage directions with no spoken text.   (See the video.))


All of Beckett's plays contain extensive and explicit stage directions whose semiotic meanings are often quite profound and are as essential to the work as the spoken texts.  Beckett thus refused to allow productions which didnít follow his stage directions, and his estate continues this practice..  In the first few pages of Beckettís play Happy Days, there are over a hundred stage directions explicitly describing the main characterís actions as she begins her morning ablutions.  When I set the text in 1983 to create our work Winnie, I followed Beckett's stage directions in great detail and even wrote specific musical accompaniments for almost all of them.  (See the video.)  


As you can see from the  videos of the first parts of Miriam, Part II, The Chair, Street Scene for the Last Mad Soprano, and Aletheia, we employ similar techniques in our own librettos and settings.  Each score contains about a hundred small gestures all correlated with specific, short musical figures.  Our goal is to create a sort of ballet out of the characters' simple gestures. Words, singing, speaking, gesture, and acting are strongly integrated and coordinated with a patina of music.  This is possible because movement, gesture, singing, and speaking are precisely notated in the scores which function as a production books, and align all of these elements with music.


The Unity of Image, Time, and Place


In our chamber music theater works, we also follow Beckettís reemployment of the Aristotelian ideal of using a single time, place, and image for each work.  Our sets are very simple, and designed so that all of the theater naturally and spontaneously flows out of them.  One sees this theory at work in Beckettís play Happy Days, where a woman is buried in the earth to her waste, and later to her neck, but is trying to remain optimistic.  It is also apparent in Waiting for Godot where two tramps wait endlessly on an empty road with nothing in sight except a small, barren tree.  Time, place, and image reveal an existential unity.  Similar techniques were used by Ionesco in plays like The Lesson, by Genet in The Balcony, Sartre in The Chamber, or Pinter in The Caretaker.  In theory, this unity of time, place, and image creates an especially powerful, iconic effect because it removes all that is extraneous and thus reveals fundamental aspects of our existential condition.


This is a world far removed from the bellowing, pompous, excessively lavish, Zeferellian worlds portrayed by most operas and their productions.  The humanity of the characters is all too often buried underneath the monstrous size of the productions. (An example would be the Met's current Ring production which uses a 45 ton stage machine.)  By stripping away all that is superfluous, our goal is just the opposite, to put the human center stage and examine the most fundamental aspects of their lives.


Capturing the Musicality of Language


As musicians, our goal is not only to give language an equal importance in our music theater, but also to develop language that is realistic and natural while being inherently musical.  Even though Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, Genet, Sartre and Artaud all represent similar developments in the theory and practice of theater, Beckett stood apart in his use of language.  It is rewarding to study how he created very real characters with natural language that is often astoundingly beautiful and musical.  His teacher and mentor, James Joyce, once advised him that, ďIt is not what you say, but how you say it.Ē  Beckettís thought is notably profound, but the ideas reflected in his work might be most appreciated due to their poetic formulations. 


Note the beautiful cadences in the famous excerpt from Waiting for Godot quoted below.  Picture two tramps on an empty road in the middle of nowhere.  Listen to the subtle use of repetition; the sounds of the words that sting the ends of sentences; the quick, faceted movement between extroversion and contemplation; the richness of the vocabulary captured in simple, single-syllable words; the percussive patterns created by the calculated rhythms of crisp consonants; and the perfect form of the paragraph as a theatrical beat. And notice how all is in seemingly natural language heavily imbued with the humorous and profound ironies of absurdism:


"Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say? It is true that when with folded arms we weigh the pros and cons we are no less a credit to our species. The tiger bounds to the help of his congeners without the least reflection, or else he slinks away into the depths of the thickets. But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to comeó"


Beckett savored the sounds of words and always employed them for their sonic effect.  This same sensibility was applied to the shapes inherent in his sentences which were always formed by the most musical rhythms, repetitions, and symmetries.  His frequent use of alliteration and subtly permutated repetitions are other techniques, as was his ability to write natural dialog infused with the cadences and syncopations of poetry, but without ever descending to poesy.  Especially notable are his uses of silences, which are exquisitely musical and precisely notated in his texts. 


Michelangelo once famously said he released his sculptures from the marble that encased them.  Setting Beckettís words to music is somewhat similar.   The music is simply released from the words that encase it.  Speaking his sentences is like softly moving a string of mellifluous bells.  And yet these words also portray very natural and idiomatic characters without Sondheimian cuteness, Gilbert and Sullivan show biz, or Rogers and Hammerstein poesy. 


Even though the challenges are obviously almost insurmountable, we sought to make these theoretical principles the basis of our own texts.  We wanted texts that would allow us to portray and explore fundamental existential concepts; texts that accurately portrayed natural and believable characters; and texts that notated actions with such precision that they could be fully integrated with the spoken words and given structured musical accompaniments.  And as with Beckett, we sought texts so musical that we could notate even spoken rhythms and pauses, and language that could easily flow between spoken and sung words.  Naturally, it was and remains a difficult and frustrating task.  Our  videos show the extent to which we have solved these problems.   


Character Portrayal


We especially admired the aforementioned authors because they were all masters of character portrayal, even when examining the most abstract existential concepts.  Character development is ideally suited to the genuine integration of music and theater. When the subjective emotionality and visceral levels of music are genuinely integrated with the objective nature of theater, a Gestalt is formed that reveals a wider spectrum of human consciousness than any other art form can achieve.  Due to music theaterís simultaneous focus on the mental, visceral, and emotional levels of human identity, it is especially well-suited to character studies.  That is perhaps why many operas focus on a central characterís development, and why the works are often named after them.  Orfeo, Lenore, Tosca, Siegfried, Salome, Elektra, Madam Butterfly, Wozzeck, Lulu, Peter Grimes and Billy Budd are but a few examples.  Following in this tradition, all of our works are monodramas that explore a single characterís world stripped down to its barest, existential foundation.


Performance Practices


To genuinely integrate music, text, and theater we had to create new performance practices and spend years developing them.  As mentioned, one of the most important was a more natural way of singing that would not overwhelm the other elements of theater, that could create an easy flow between spoken and sung passages, and that would allow for nuanced acting.  To perform these works, Abbie spent years studying singing, acting, mask work, dance, and pantomime.  In order to precisely incorporate these disparate elements into music theater works, we also had to develop new concepts of musical notation.  (These performance practices and their notation will be the subject of a separate article, but for now you can examine the scores of Winnie, Street Scene for the  Last Mad Soprano, Cybeline, and Aletheia to get a sense of some of the methods we use.)


The Practical Value of Small Music Theater

In addition to expanding artistic possibilities, small forms of music theater also have a great deal of practical value.  We live in a time where slap-dash concerts and opera productions have become the norm.  The large size of symphony orchestras and opera houses places them under severe financial constraints. There is often a lack of musical thought in their performances because there is simply not enough rehearsal time for the conductor to convey his or her ideas to the musicians.  Over the centuries, opera grew to such a grand scale that it could only exist in very elaborate and expensive support environments. (To be provocative we might describe them as something like those humongous dinosaurs that would collapse on their own weight unless they stood in large bodies of stagnant water.)

The most notorious of such houses is the Metropolitan Opera whose 300 million dollar per year budget is about twice that of comparable houses in Europe, and even though its seven month season is four to five months shorter than its European counter parts.  No expense is spared on its usually conservative and lavish productions, and the Met strives to hire only the most famous and expensive singers.  Strangely, the artistic results are often superficial.  The lavish but conservative staging is designed to suit the houseís wealthy patrons and is criticized for lacking aesthetic dimension.  And the star singers have very full schedules which greatly reduces the amount of rehearsal time they are able to devote to the Met.  They often show up for only a few rehearsals so the stage direction has to be very simple.  Essentially they are told where to stand and sing and not much more.  These park-and-bark productions with lavish, conservative sets oriented toward the tastes of wealthy donors are not held in particularly high esteem by the international opera community.  They are noted more for extravagance than substance. 


Productions of new works are especially difficult under this system.  They are thrown together as quickly as possible and the performances are usually little more than glorified sight readings. One often senses an aggressive grasping at the music by the orchestra and stilted performances by the singers that is very unrewarding.  Chamber music theater, by contrast, can still allow for extensive preparation, study, and experimentation.  The performers can become fully committed to the art they are presenting and deeply embody it. Naturally, the results can be far more satisfying in terms of the depth of the performance and the messages conveyed.  Chamber music theater can stand in stark contrast to the pompous, factory-like, slap-dash vacuity of work by opera houses.  Chamber music theater could even benefit opera as a whole by setting new standards for innovation and engagement.  If nothing else in our videos, you will notice the unusual intricacy, depth and commitment of Abbie's involvement.


Filling Niches


Chamber music theater could also fill important niches in Europe and America, though for somewhat different reasons.  Germany has 83 fulltime, year-round opera houses while the United States with four times the population doesnít have any.  (As noted, even the Met only has a seven month season.)  We only have a handful of real opera houses, and they have only partial seasons.  In terms of opera performances per year (2011) Chicago is in only the 62nd position, San Francisco 63rd, Houston 101st, Washington 121st, and Santa Fe 172nd.  (Updating this in 2020, Chicago is no longer even in the top 100.)  The few other companies that exist in America have even shorter seasons.  They usually do not have houses and perform in poorly-suited rental facilities with pickup orchestras and singers. This applies even to cities with metropolitan populations in the millions like Atlanta in the 272nd position, Kansas City at 275th, Baltimore at 322nd, and Phoenix at 338th.  They are far outranked by even cities like Pforzheim, Germany which only has 119,000 citizens but occupies the 87th position and thus outranks even our nation's capital, Washington D.C, by 34 positions.  (These and many more valuable statistics are available at Operabase.)  Nothing can replace the beauty and grandeur of opera, but in a society where opera hardly exists, and where the vast majority of citizens will never experience live opera, chamber music theater could serve as at least a partial alternative.  This is one of the reasons we refer to ourselves somewhat sardonically as The Wasteland Company.


In Europe, opera houses are far more common and a large number of them also have a studio theater (usually in a black box format) for the presentation of smaller forms of music theater.  Unfortunately, there is not much literature that actually fits the purpose of these small music theaters, so they are often neglected and even used for other purposes such as spoken theater productions, new music concerts, parties, cabarets, and so on.  One major German house even used its black box theater as a store room for several years.  By creating a genre of chamber music theater, opera houses could greatly expand the sorts of productions they present, and expand the kinds of interesting, challenging, and rewarding experiences they provide to their artists and publics.


We hope these thoughts will help those who watch our videos better appreciate what they are seeing and hearing.  Of course, these are just words and donít mean anything if they canít be put into practice.  So watch the videos and decide for yourself what they are worth.  Consider the integration of acting and music; the balance between music and the text; the detailed and sustained character study; the new performance practices that are shown; and the ways they are notated in the score.  And please consider the viability of chamber music theater, the important gaps it could fill in our artistic expression, and the practical uses it would fill in our societies.  With such a difficult undertaking as chamber music theater, we are keenly aware of the risks we constantly take.  And we are intensely conscious of how badly we can fail, and that we often do.  But every artist has to sooner or later put him- or herself on the line and show the proof of their efforts.  Whatever people might think, we hope the videos and this article might help them develop their own ideas.  If you have any thoughts, comments, or suggestions, we'd love to hear from you.  Thank you for visiting.





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