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Features Opinion Published 14 September 2011

Opera Machines

Robert Barry continues in his monthly vein, discussing the machinic presence in music and opera.
Robert Barry

In Philip K. Dick’s second novel, The World Jones Made, the protagonist, Doug Cussick visits an opera house to hear the part of Don Bartolo in Le Nozze de Figaro, sung by the great singer Gaetano Tabelli. “A greater Don Bartolo there never was. And never would be. This performance, this zenith of consummate operatic staging, dramatic force, and perfect vocal artistry, had been frozen for all time. Tabelli was dead, now, ten years. The bright figures on the stage were scrupulous robot imitations.”

Manuel DeLanda once evoked an imaginary “robot historian” to survey the history of human warfare, but what would DeLanda’s android scholar look for in the history of music? No doubt, it would be interested in the way Joseph Haydn adapted his style to suit the distinctive timbre and capabilities of the musical clocks he composed extensively for in the 1790s, and the subsequent influence of this experience on the lively popular works of his London period – most obviously the “Clock” Symphony No. 101 in D Major. Equally, the career of Frederic Chopin would pique its curiosity; how the playing style of this supposedly most passionate and human of romantic composers was inseparable from his commercial involvement with the piano manufacturers, Pleyel, and the technical advances made in piano construction during this period, making many of his études scarcely more than technical demonstration pieces, akin to the electronic novelty records of the 1960s.

But more than anything else, perhaps, our notional robot historian would no doubt have been interested in how one particular genre of music had induced musicians to organise themselves into something like great machines – known as “orchestras” – into which they would fit like cogs. It would take note of the explosion of sophisticated new mechanical prostheses – called “instruments” – that would arrive to be fitted to the members of this orchestra, making steam-age cyborgs of each one (what musician that has ever visited a Victorian pumping station has been able to escape the resemblance of certain parts to great tubas and trombones that have co-operated to dispose of their human masters?). Finally, our ferrous friend would note how this one genre had inveigled not just its musicians but the practitioners of many other arts within its purview, making actors and architects, painters and poets, costumiers and choreographers, entangled in one way or another with feats of engineering. Here, our historian might conclude, was a human endeavour, where the deus was indeed machina.

From the very beginning, opera has been an art thoroughly permeated by machinery. The machines were the toast of contemporary reviews of the intermedi programmed and written by the Florentine Camerata for the 1589 Medici wedding. We find, in the same breath as the singers, composers, and poets; mention of the machines, on an equal footing in Jaucourt’s definition of opera in the Encyclopédie. We find them central to discussions by the French municipal government in the midst of the Revolution. And we find them today in the opera reviews in our daily newspapers – frequently almost to the exclusion of any mention of the music.

Stage machinery is not unique to the opera amongst theatrical genres, but nowhere is it so lavish, so highly developed, so central to the very identity of the work. A first time visitor to a modern opera house, familiar perhaps with the ‘straight’ theatre, is likely to be impressed first of all by the stage design as a great work of engineering. “Before machines and automata became useful,” says Slovenian philosopher, Mladen Dolar, “before they could serve as the basis for industrial revolution, they inhabited the space of a fantasy.” No other genre, as the science fiction writer, Brian Aldiss noted, is so well suited to the conveyance of fantasy; and no fantasy – until, that is, the arrival of the first romans scientifiques of Jules Verne – is so pervaded by machines. But if so, to paraphrase DeLanda once more, what might we expect of the opera in the age of intelligent machines?

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Robert Barry is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine