Of Sounds and Images

Author(s): Luciano Berio and David Osmond-Smith
Source: Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Nov., 1997), pp. 295-299
Published by: Cambridge University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/823627
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The profound and revolutionary coherence of Wagnerian opera seems entirely to justify this assertion. to reveal. Music will tend to govern all the different elements of the performance. It becomes the emblem of an ideal trajectory and. what is seen on stage may. there are moments where the narrative seems to assume a shape.Idomeneo. and because it shows Wagner distancing himself from the utopia of the Gesamtkunstwerk that he had earlier theorised. It was at about the same time that Wagner. and indeed to 'direct' narrative and dramaturgical functions that it has itself generated. in an opera as coherent in its expressive intensity as Wagner's.and therefore reinterpretable . harems and pyramids that have found their way into the opera house. given its emblematic nature.] Siena 1880. And indeed. Richard Wagner stayed for nearly two months in the neighbourhood of Siena. 295-299 ? 1997 CambridgeUniversity Press Of sounds and images LUCIANO BERIO [Translator'snote:Thislecturewas deliveredbyLucianoBerioin November1995 on the occasion of his acceptingan Honoray Doctoratefrom the Universiy of Siena. Walhalla or whatever) flows naturally from the mythical . Indeed. actually be replaced by music. The transformation and metaphorisation of the original elements (whether Mime's cave. or of Tristan. During his penultimate trip to Italy. Norman cathedrals. Siegfried's forest. if you look at the stage designs for the third act of Parsifal as they were prepared for the first performance at Bayreuth in 1882. as we've seen. The musical processes at work in Le nozze di Figaro. and went one day to visit the cathedral. 3. It tends to organise. because it confers upon the visual dimension. Indeed. even emblems are arbitrary. in spite of all the tears. In the great tradition of musical theatre.Cosifan tutte . Even in Mozart's musical theatre. an emblematic function. it's no surprise that we can find a great deal of coherence in 'alternative' and often quite properly provocative realisations of the Tetralogy. there is nothing in Wagner's approach to prevent Siena Cathedral being replaced: it has in other words no specific narrative. He was completing the orchestration of Parsifal.basis of Wagnerian opera. descriptive or even simply evocative functions. faced with a question about how he imagined his music dramas being realised on stage.Cambridge OperaJournal. as with all signs.9. which is simple only in appearance: because it also involves non-visible and non-explicit narrative dimensions. But it's worth noting that. Any of them can be replaced with anything else. Don Giovanni. music is almost always in charge. you will find that the Temple of the Grail does in fact open on to a fairly faithful reconstruction of the interior of this city's exceptionally beautiful cathedral. There's nothing strange about seeing a famous Italian monument on the Wagnerian stage: just think of all the Scottish castles. exclaiming 'this the Temple of the Grail'. replied that he thought of them as musical action made visible. Hardly had he got inside when he dissolved into tears. and may indeed take their place. a dramaturgical organisation dictated by the sonata and concertante processes that govern the rest of his work.

Verdi and the early Puccini transcended the established conventions of the Italian tradition. with the music. and neitherarousesnor resolves moral conflicts. and thereby take on great complexity. in terms of the larger scale and of global design. describewhat is on stage. have not shown themselves to be particularly open to the exploration of new relations between dramaturgy and music. the theatre of Weill and Brecht. a formidably wide-ranging process: one that can reach out to all possible forms of spectacle. and to the inexpressibly large range of experiences that have accumulated within them. Perception of what stands before us is instantaneously global but is also slow and successive. or reading a book: . immediate but also stretched out. It's like looking at a picture or a landscape. or so it seems. sublimating them into a new musical dramaturgy. whereas in musical theatre the relation between musical time and stage time. Musical theatre only seems to take on a deep and enduring meaning once the dramaturgicalconception is generatedby the music. become estranged. within dimensions called into being by the musical text. It is a territory that has to be explored anew every time. like the music that narratesit. a concert-hall performance is also potential theatre. so that from Mahagonnyto Lulu one can trace a conception of dramaturgy that is in continuous. can separate. But there everything happens in a unanimous and homogeneous time.comment upon. self-conscious and salutary conflict with itself: a sort of self-analysis pursued. however eminently efficient and semantically rich a set of rhetorical instruments they may be. What is essential in all events is that the global design and the narrative trajectories establish a relationship.I would say that musical and narrativedramaturgiesmust be in accord.296 Luciano Berio and so forth. Operatic conventions. Berg seems with Wo!0eckto narrateand to synthesise on stage the intensity and the rigour of his musical thought. Whether we like it or not. Faced with a stage design or a picture. whilst individual moments can maintaintheir autonomy. Music can express. and that of Berg. It's clear that transferring musical thought on to a stage and developing a significant dialogue between that thought and dramaturgy is. between what you hear and what you see. particularly in our own time. Rossini's final works.leafed throughwith an eye to a music theatrethat is yet to come. contributed to a constructive separating and intensifying of the various criteria governing musical theatre. Scrutinising what's on stage engages a subjectively variable and discontinuous temporal dimension. The gestures on stage seem like episodes from a film determinedlyedited by the music. In the last century. His Pelleaset Melisandehas no sense of previous events.Debussy seems to give scenic substance to the ellipses of his musical thought. Nearer our own time. and is structurallyanalogousto it. of meaning and sign-vehicle. In this century. though not necessarilyidentical. enter into conflict.More precisely. Even a concert is a spectacle. even straightforwardly but it can also estrange itself. remain indifferent. The scansion of the scenes in Pelleasseems to evoke images from a book of memory. however dialectical or antagonistic. and enter into provocative conflict amongst themselves. It seems to come from nothing and to end in nothing. actually seem to invent the psychology of the characters. we are led to react in terms of form and content. though avoidinga tautologicalsimilarity.

that process of conditioningwas. wrote Adolphe Appia in 1895. already seen and alreadyheard guaranteed the easy availabilityof materialswith which to assembleoperas. a cultural meeting point. In the dialogue between the two temporalitiesof music and of images. Not so long ago. in the theatre. and articulationthrough theatricalconventions that increasinglyand irrevocablybecame mannerisms. that must dictate conditions to the image . entirely abolishing the painted set.but also the relations between eye and ear. we can linger on one detail as long as we want or equallywe can skip over it. but rather the illusion of a man in the atmosphere of a forest'. with its antecedents. Appia was the first opera producer to react strongly to Wagner's own conception of how his works should be put on stage. 'We no longer try to give the illusion of a forest.it should representthe emotional ambience. and stillwould seem to be. Listening to music may seem a fragile. images may. But when we listen to music.and as I said before.even when opera no longer has any sense outside of itself. A staging that aspires to something more than manneristicdecoration does not have to concern itself with slavishlyfollowing and illustratingthe action (even when this seems to demand a specific or indeed a positively anecdotal setting): rather.Of sounds and images 297 we can turn back. a form of collective ritual.music will help us to rereadin a differentway what is presented to our eyes. and all that lives within it.and is not unlike that lived time which heaps together diverse temporalqualities. It's the music. referringto one of his stagingsof Siegfried.and permits us to scrutinise. and was the first to detach himself from scenographic naturalism. or linger on a detail. so substantialas to justifystagingsessentiallyconstructed from stereotypedingredients. Opera's inexorable and self-protective supermarketof the alreadydone. the 'Stimmung'of a musical.and why. scenic and poetic situation. Our perception of musical processes cannot slow down. it is the music's temporal qualitythat prevails. be open to substitution. thus also abolishing our much-loved Siena cathedral.belonged to the people.analyseand comment on what is presented to our eyes. we can close our eyes. said Appia.It allows us to turn back only in memory. time is self-evidentlyirreversible. outside of its stubbornlyfetishistic bel canto. that it was the musical equivalentof a dialect. and a primarily emotive instrument of social . vulnerable activity: it is without the protection and validation of language and it is not as concrete an experience as is the observationof scenic space. Yet in musical theatreit is without doubt the strongest and most resilient dimension.words spoken or sung. Which is why a re-hearingmay be qualitativelydifferent from a first hearing. while conditioning our perception of it. like emblems and symbols. In opera I sing therefore I am.could heavilycondition not only musical functions and characteristics. speed up. the presence of a story to be told. as much in its most elevated and originalmoments as in its most crude manifestations. But we shouldn't forget that during the last century Italian opera. We may repeat the experience in another time and place .conflicts and catharses. For better or for worse.and the memory of a previous hearing will condition and enrich our perception. He maintainedthat Wagner'svisual sense was not attuned to the novelty of the music.

Crucially. of primordial events. of course) that impose their presence and their model. For the danger lurks that. It must promote relative auto-sufficiency between musical discourse. cavatinas and ensembles. the composer should always be aware that most of the operatic conventions. will always bear the mark of operatic associations. Richard Strauss.that is never empty because it throngs with memories and ghosts (operatic ones. whatever they may do. A modern musical theatre must have the capacity to seek out new techniques and new possibilities for encounter between the elements of which it is made. betrayed or impoverished in the name of a false respect for the past which thus ends up betraying . The impulse to seek out a union between image and sound comes to us from a long way off. can be perceived as the result of a process of more or less discontinuous accumulation. drama with music or whatever . say or sing. Often that process and the ever-changing history of all those encounters between narrative and musical structure are ignored. between three narratives that become one. complex and bristling with compromises. Exodus 20:18: 'And all the people saw sounds and lightning and the sound of the shofar'. is common to almost all narratives of origins. Wagner. of myths and of consciousness of the world. The deeper sense of the relation between narrative structure and musical structure is never an occasional. they implicitly carry about them the signs of operatic experience. light and word. Every form of musical theatre played out within an opera house is also. duets. to have already sung arias. in whose hands even the visionary accomplishments of such composers run the risk of being offered to 'theatrical consumers' as any old piece of words-and-music-ware.carries with it the history of its own evolution and of the social conventions that have conditioned its origins. every form of theatre . Rossini. not even Mozart. momentary or contingent one. Seeing music. seem to have already sung their story. It's obvious that the sense of their work can always be placed in history. inevitably. The conditions that make this possible are numerous. opera. marches. And then we may well take fright. on stage. a parody. Consider Monteverdi. hymns and fireworks. Those figures. they seem all the same to be 'singing' because. Mozart. who knows where or when. Like all other aspects of our culture. scenic discourse and text. in such hands. from an ancient synaesthetic vision of the world. perhaps enlivened by the odd image. They are inhabited by them and themselves inhabit a space . Verdi or Wagner will be able to resist being flattened out by such sinister 'horizons of expectation' as are put in place by those experts.298 Luciano Berio understanding that was at times no more sophisticated than songs. in more or less explicit form. musical comedy.as Adorno would say . characters or ingredients on which he is so keen to turn his back are unavoidably present. be they never so experimental.the opera house . Even if still and silent or employed in unexpected vocal behaviour.be it musical action. by those equally sinister protectors of the past. and music often seems to become the most potent intermediary between the . Whatever they may do. those 'characters' that advance towards us.its own hopes. The link between light and sound. and thus make it possible to develop a polyphony between three different but jointly responsible discourses. the figures that come and go on the operatic stage. its meaning and its functions.

and maybe sacred. (Translated by David Osmond-Smith) .Of sounds and images 299 eye and the ear. A space that seems at times to lead us to the threshold of a mystery. between the shifting outer limits of a space that always needs to be explored and interrogated anew. by means of theatre. but that in fact always contains a nucleus that is intangible. we insistently try to explore and secularise. A space that.