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Features Opinion Published 24 November 2011

Opera as Time Travel

Anachronism and augur.

Robert Barry

For geeks of all stripes, the biggest news of the last few months must be the continuing attempts of scientists at CERN to refine their experiment which seems to prove that Einstein was wrong: things can travel faster than light – and therefore, maybe, travel in time  – even if only very, very small things. For those of us with a passion for the music drama, one of the most delightful elements of this experiment is the fact that the project is calling itself Opera (an acronym for Oscillation Project  with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus).

To the best of my knowledge there are no operas that specifically deal with the subject of time travel. Perhaps the closest bet would be Janacek’s adaptation of Karel Čapek’s Věc Makropulos, in which an elixir takes the central character from the 17th century to the 20th simply by dint of long life. Jules Verne’s twice-set novella (first by Offenbach, later by Gavin Bryars), A Fantasy of Dr. Ox, deals with time’s acceleration. I have yet to see Tod Machover’s opera based on Philip K. Dick’s semi-autobiographical novel, Valis, so I cannot say for sure whether it includes the scene in which Horselover Fat finds himself embedded in a vision of ancient Rome.

But there is another sense in which opera is inseparable from the idea of time travel. Today we think of the opera as an art form from the past. Once upon a time it was the ‘artwork of the future’. It seems that throughout the genre’s history it has been out of time, temporally displaced, at once anachronism and augur. It may be no coincidence that it was over a hundred years before anyone thought to set an opera in the here and now.

Monteverdi gave his audiences the opportunity to travel to ancient Greece and witness the fall of Rome. Landi’s Sant’Alessio offers a glimpse of the inner life of a fifth century saint. Handel takes us on a ride to India alongside Alexander the Great and his Macdeonian generals. More recent productions take anachronism a step further. Like Bill and Ted in their phone booth bringing Napolean and Freud to San Dimas shopping mall, Peter Sellars placed Figaro and Don Bartolo in the Trump Tower; Michael Haneke made of Don Giovanni a modern businessman.

Despite the controversy such productions still sometimes cause (the great soprano, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf described the work of Sellars as “criminal”), the practice is much older than is sometimes assumed. Balila Pratella used his first Manifesto of Futurist Musicians in 1910, to “declare the stupidity of the contempt felt for contemporary dress.” It was the Russian futurist group around Velimir Khlebnikov and Kazimir Malevich who first used their opera, Victory Over the Sun to stage a vision of the “Tenth lands of the Future.” Since then composers as diverse as Karl-Birger Blomdahl, Philip Glass and Meredith Monk have set their operas in the time to come.

Though today it is almost a commonplace to see the Trojan Horse board an interstellar spacecraft in productions of Berlioz’s Les Troyens or to find Cavalli’s La Didone set in the futuristic world of Mario Bava’s cult sci-fi horror, Planet of the Vampires; such directors still run the risk (or perhaps feel the need to deliberately provoke) the odd cry of outrage from the dress circle. Anachronism is an integral part of opera: the theatre as time machine. So a century later it remains as urgent as ever to repeat Pratella’s battle cry, “To combat categorically all historical reconstructions and traditional stage sets and to declare the stupidity of the contempt felt for contemporary dress.”

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Robert Barry is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine