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Opera as the Looking Glass 


Musicalization in (Operatic) Drama

An Old Definition in a Contemporary Context

By Olga Chepurova

Muzicalization in the modern theatre plays one of the important roles in the formation of contemporary performance practice. This phenomenon is of high interest to theatre practitioners and theorists. Despite of the fact that using music in drama has a long tradition in theatre practice, contemporary theatre enriches it by new special treats.

In the present essay, I am not going to discuss traditional forms of music theatre like opera, ballet, operetta or musical. The object of my inquiry is a theatre where musical means and images are used for shaping the structure of the dramatic action. One of the reasons why musical features are actively employed in contemporary theatre is an aspiration to overcome a narrative development and a ratio-logical dependence on verbal text. Theatre theorists have connected this key feature of music with the cultural phenomena of deconstruction and postdramatic action in contemporary performance. Hans-Thies Lehmann discusses these connections in his book Postdramatic Theatre. He argues that: "The consistent tendency towards a musicalization (not only of language) is an important chapter of the sign usage in postdramatic theatre" (Lehmann 2008: 91). He also emphasizes that "for the actor, as much as for the director music has become an independent structure of theatre. This is not a mater of the evident role of music and music theatre, but rather of a more profound idea of theatre as music" (ibid.). As soon as dramatic theatre gains a new function as a consequence of the musical influence on the dramatic action, we could say that collaboration between music and drama in this case creates an original genre hybrid.

Another author who elaborates the topic of musicalization in an article, entitled "The Politics of the Performance: Musicalization in Contemporary German Theatre", is David Roesner. He points out that "musicalization has often been one of the means of achieving a certain liberation from logocentrism in the context of postdramatic theatre" (Roesner 2008: 7). Roesner also mentions that, because of including a music into the action structure, all the artistic means, which traditionally belonged to drama theatre, are rethought on a principally new level. The latter argument straightly correlates with Lehmann’s idea about "theatre as music". This "new" level of rethinking implies a change of the roles between music and theatre in terms of a superiority. Through performance analysis of well-known, modern German directors, such as Heiner Goebbels, Christoph Marthaler, Ruedi Häusermann, Stefan Pucher, René Pollesch, Manos Tsangaris, Einar Schleef, Sebastian Nübling, Michael Thalheimer (Roesner 7), Roesner comes to the conclusion that theatre "re-introduced the full range of textual potential: as a rhythmical, gesticulatory, melodic, spatial and sounding phenomenon as well as a carrier of meaning" (Roesner 7). Roesner stresses that application of the music in this case is not illustrative. Therefore, I claim that music here does not only support and tinge the emotions or make an accent on the dominant meanings, and contrast with dramatic situations. The presence of music has a more important value. It organises the whole action system according to a musical principle. Roesner argues that "musical characteristics of all elements of the theatrical event (for example the rhythmicality of the text, dynamic of movement, melodiousness of voice, tempo or succession of events, etc.) have been used on different levels (macro-/microstructure) as an organizational principle of performance" (Roesner 7).

Reconsidering dramatic theatre with musical principles we have to keep in mind the semantic nature and ontological features of music. From the early beginning, music was striving to perform a correlation between a human and spiritual world. Music as an art was opposed to the prosaic world, which tended to be dependent on the nature of materiality. The transformation of materiality to spirituality lies at the basis of musicalization. That is why music since long time ago was actively used for expression of human’s spiritual impulses in the ritual ecclesiastical actions (performances) and in music theatre as well.

In our contemporary situation the most part of the spiritual values are devolved or even destroyed, when "fragmentation" of reality becomes a dramatic factor of lost connection with the general image of the world, art tends to resist to the chaos, which is coming from inside. It becomes necessary to harmonize images of reality, to collect them and try to feel their illogical but essential interconnections. Thereby, directors find a tool in musicalization.

The last decades, this tendency, following the theatre practice in Western Europe, took an important place in Russian theatre. Aiming at reviewing and developing traditions of the national theatre, a new generation of directors called for the experience of Russian directors of the first part of the 20th century. They refer to Vsevolod Meyerhold’s, Evgeny Vahtangov’s, George Tovstonogov’s, Jurij Lubimov’s, Mark Zakharov’s experience in whose creative work musicalization in its modern meaning was one of the key features (Tarshis 1974). Meyerhold brought two definitions in the practice of the Russian theatre: "score of the action" and "scenic leitmotif". He realized several experiments with musicalization in his director’s practice for such performances as "Don Juan" by Jean-Baptiste Molier (in collaboration with Vladimir Karatigin) and "Masquerade" by Mikhail Lermontov (in collaboration with composer Alexander Glazunov). These productions allowed him to give meaning to the nature of the scenic action in terms of musical categories (Glikman 1989). Russian researches, for instance, associated his "Masquerade" with the opera oratorio based on the drama play.

Jurij Lubimov was another director who created a musical score for the performances in the network of his "poetic theatre". He collaborated with Alfred Shnitke for his performance "Revizskaja skazka" (1978) based on Nikolay Gogol’s novel The Dead Souls. Likewise, the employ of music in a process of poetic generalization was principally important for George Tovstonogov when he made a stage adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s story "Holstomer" ("The Horse story", 1989). Mark Zakharov also operated with musical principles, when he was creating peculiar dramatic rock-operas with composer Aleksej Ribnikov. The most famous among them is "Juno and Avos" (1983).

In contemporary Russian theatre, at least during the last five years, Andrey Moguchy is regarded as one of the leading directors among the Russian avant-garde. He actively use the principle of musicalization for creating a global and even mysterical picture of the world. Moguchy started his creative work as an oppositionist to traditional art, using different components of the street theatre, mass media images and musical in his compositions. He experimented with forms, played with space and rhythm of separate episodes and scenes. He worked a lot with the postmodernist and absurdist texts of Eugene Ionesko, Samuel Becket, Heiner Muller, Vladimir Sorokin and Sasha Sokolov. His stagings interacted with split and deformed narrative structures. Moguchy used a montage method and mutual deconstruction of the image mixing classical examples of the world-wide and Russian cultures for his interpretation. He also used video projection of classical films and effects of vivid video pieces, audiotapes of classical and popular music. He compared these audiotapes with real human voices and musical instruments. At the same time, Moguchy was strongly attracted by creating audiovisual mystery, which could synthesize these separated "fragmentary" realities in a structure.

Accomplishing the opportunity to create such a structure, Moguchy translated the performance action under the musical principle of the organization and, thereby, he musicalized the performance. He used this principle in his earliest performances. At least intuitively, he already turned to dramatization of musical structures by the beginning of 2000, he produced Wolfgang Rihm’s opera "Jacob Lenz" (2001) in St. Peter and Pavel’s German Church in St. Petersburg, and Modest Musorgsky’s music drama "Boris Godunov" on the cathedral square of Moskow’s Kremlin.

I am going to elaborate on a tendency of musicalization through an example, namely the performance "Ivani" (2008) produced by Andrey Moguchy based on Nikolay Gogol’s novel, entitled The novel about how Ivan Ivanovich and Ivan Nikiforovich have quarreled. Here, the director uses the principle of musicalization both as a means for dramatization of prozaic text and a principle for organizing the stage action.

In this performance, muzicalization appears on three levels. First of all, Moguchy uses opera’s elements like vocal numbers and choruses as a mean for poeticizing everyday occurrences. Secondly, he treats music as an element of stage action which enables him not only to transmit the emotional nature of the scene, but also to express and characterize the dramatic situation. Music comes into a relationship with the particular dramatic situation or concrete character and stands as a leitmotif. So, the director allowed to consider the performance from a thematic and leitmotif’s point of view. The third level of musicalization appears as a core for the stage action.

Using the polyphony principle, Moguchy creates a "multivoice" stage score of the performance, where episodes and scenes unite according to the musical principle rather than to the plot or storyline. This three-leveled approach gave the director a chance to create a substantive and artistic scope to the performance, which presents a particular kind of musical-performance hybrid.

Important is that Andrey Moguchy created the performance in close collaboration with composer Alexander Manotskov, who wrote part of music to the performance during the rehearsal period. The composer’s purpose was to include and organically dissolve the music in the dramatic structure of the performance; to give, therefore, a rhythm to the action and, eventually, gradually subordinate the stage action to the musical score. He also involved his choir "Eleon" in the production. This choir has a vast repertoire consisting of folk music rather than orthodox psalms.


The fact that the composer used vocal and even operatic elements is legitimate. The text of Gogol’s novel itself is extraordinary poetic and musical. It is known that Gogol was interested in folk song tradition; he collected Ukrainian folklore and even became an editor of the Ukranian songs textbook. In "Ivans", in the melody of the characters speech and their intonations we could discern traditional melos. Therefore, it is not unusual that Gogol’s "Ukranian novels" very often became the basis for operatic librettos.

In developing his approach on musicalizing speech intonation, Modest Musorgsky wrote a comic opera based on the plot of "Sorochinskaya fair". Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov created two operas on the "Ukrainians novels" – "May Night" and "Night on Christmas eve". Chaikovsky composed a lyric opera "Cherevichki" (verbatim – "Shoes"). In all of these operas, poetic and comic elements are connected to each other: comic recitative was combined with lyric arioso and duets. At the same time, mysticisms were embodied by epic ballads and fantastical symphonies in ballet and choir scenes. These elements, which were essential for the operas based on Gogol’s plots, were reconsidered by Andrey Moguchy. Traditional operatic forms were considered as ironical and parody.

There are some examples which could be used as arguments for this assumption. The Ukrainian traditional song "The Sun is Low, the Evening is Close…" performed by the character of the old-man Ivan Ivanovich at the early beginning of the performance, became a parody on the typical young-character’s lyric arioso. The choir’s episode symbolizes a parody on the national hymn, where, instead of a traditional patriotic text, the spectator could recognize Gogol’s poem about Russian fate.

There is a scene of a phantasmagoric dream in the performance which is a typical feature of the "magic operas" where we could hear polyphonic chorus of evil spirits and a "devil" solo by Ivan Ivanovich transformed in Ivan Nikiforovich’s sister-in-law. (By way of a footnote, magic operas are operas in which there are many magical effects and often animals appearing on stage. The plot of a magic opera may involve the rescue of one of the major characters. Such operas were very popular in the 19th century and were a specific genre which is found on the cutting-edge between opera and drama). A strong people’s chorus of Mirgorod citizens presents a lower variant of people’s chorus from opera "Khovanshina" written by Modest Musorgsky in the 19th century. Religious and edifying text of song "Look with a diligence" written on the music of an ancient chant became a basis for the final duet between two principal characters.

Choruses, duets, arias, dances, ballads, musical scenes-intervals ("Morning", "Day", "Night"), - became the integral accessory of this musical-scenic composition.

Musicalization of the Narrative Text

The principle of musicalization penetrated deep into Gogol’s text, which helps to dramatize the novel’s narrative. The director and the composer use Orthodox Church music as a means for representing the author’s speech in the performance. They organize it as a roll-call during the reading of the gospel texts and tonal chant order, similar to a church service.

The director and composer also created a narrator character. The narrator was potrayed by a dwarf actor, Aleksey Ingelevich. The narrator is represented like a God, who came down straight from the theatre’s grate bars, and as Ivan Ivanovich's son in a phantasmagoric dream. He pronounces his lines as song lines. Most of the time, he is singing his text, except for some moments when he suddenly stops and starts to cackle as a goose.

In addition, the director and composer created a score for the Bursak’s chorus – students of an Ukrainian religious school. The Bursaks comment upon the actors' actions and support the narrator repeating some melodic turns of his speech. By means of the repetition, they suppose to emphasise the cutting-edge moments in the story.

The God-goose and Bursaks become epic narrators who take part, at the same time, in the stage action and re-embody the citizens, the members of local court or the sinister spirits in Ivan's nightmare.

Here, the authors of the performance use very important cultural and historical motives. In orthodox seminaries in the Ukraine it was very popular to produce musical, religious performances based on biblical parables and plots taken from the everyday life. Gogol also visited these school performances. Keeping in mind the stylistic imagery, Moguchy and Manotskov introduce a certain general epic element in the performance, which belongs to an old Russian-Ukrainian musical and theatrical culture.

Creation and Development of Musical-Scenic Themes and Leitmotifs

The director and composer distribute the narrative text over the voices and provide each character with particular tonal and musical characteristics. Therefore, the most part of the character’s vocal scores are not based on melodic line, but on tonal contrast of speech, which reveals a dramatic sense of the particular roles.

For instance, the lyric theme of Ivan Ivanovich, which was assigned in his first song enters in contradiction with the other "devilish" theme in the 'Mere dream'. Both these themes are developed during the performance and are repeated by the ochesrtra.

The tonal order of the God-goose role is based on the collision between chorus chant and the goose’s high-pitch cries, which are heard at the most unpredictable moments. These contrasts produce a grotesque character and culminate at the scene "Mere dream", when, instead of goose yells, the dwarf starts to scream out words in German. Subsequently, when the conflict is solved, both of these themes reconcile in final didactic chant: "Look with the diligence…". The first musical phrase of this chant is one of the most important leitmotifs in the performance. It sounds in different variations from the early beginning being included in other compositions and it becomes some kind of "memento mori" for all of the characters. It sounds both in instrumental and vocal – solo and duet versions after it appears the first time in the scene of quarrel.

Another important tonal motif of the performance is an epic theme on a ballad about two brother-kings, which appears in the score of Baba-In-General. The tonal colouring of speech and a vocal score could remind the spectator of an echo. The intonation changes: in the beginning it corresponds to a ballad, and later, it transforms to a drawling recitative.

Apart from the vocal and tonal dramaturgy, the composer as well as the director make use of instrumental music, which frames and creates a particular thematic core of the performance. This use characterizes dramatic regulations and conditions that become a bearer of the topics and ideas.

The second leitmotif is a serene lullaby which melody reminds of an old menuet performed by string and wind instruments. The melody accompanies a morning of coming and awaking after a nightmare. It will also appear in the finale as an echo of a disappearing humanity in people’s relationships.


One of the most important principles of constructing the key scenes of the performance is a principle of poliphony, which materializes in several music themes and dramatic lines developping at the same time. Here, different themes and leitmotifs are developing simultaneously. They create the capacity for the story to enrich its content. Several voices could sound off-line or together, demonstrating conflict relationships or create sharp contrasts, shading each other in relation to the dynamic of the storyline. There are at least three key scenes in the performance which are built according to the poliphony principle: the peculiar introduction "The Morning", the phantasmagoric scene "The Dreadful Dream", and "The Terrible court".

The episode "The Morning" is already developed as a polyphonic picture where in one frame the intonations of different heroes, epic storytellers, the comments of chorus and various musical leitmotifs are united. Here, the score of human voices is joined by the virtual voices of the musical instruments. The complete polyphonic picture begins its intensive development after the key dialogue-quarrel of Ivan Ivanovich and Ivan Nikiforovich, who fell out because of the gun. The chorus enters at the moment when Ivan Nikiforovich names his friend a Gander-goose. The chorus depicts the fatal situation with the phrase: "Have quarrelled, have quarrelled, have quarrelled!.."

This sounding of voices in polyphony gives volume to the action, transforming the everyday story into a happening. In this context, David Roesner’s initial idea fits in well. His earlier claims convince me of the leading function of musicalization in the performance of "Ivans": "The Dreadful dream" is one of the most impressive and phantasmagoric scenes in the performance. Here, the reality and imagination intertwine. Ivan Ivanovich who was offended by Ivan Nikiforovich intends to go and destroy his goose shed. He is sleeping and dreaming at the same time, plotting on how he will do it. The painful elegy and trembling sounds of an alarm in the melody of the orchestra piece create the background of the actor’s pantomime. The known leitmotifs and the new musical and scenic themes come out from the silence of the night.

In the beginning of this episode we see a well-known scene from Tchaikovsky’s ballet "The Swan lake" on the TV screens which are situated in the rooms of the friends-enemies. The gentle melody of a famous adagio simultaneously embodies the lyrics and alarm sounds. But this melody develops an ominous character in the context of the spectator’s perception, because the TV broadcasting of "The Swan lake" is associated in Russian society with the political Revolution of 1991. During the day of Michael Gorbachev’s overthrowing the power, instead of the news, a video recording of Tchaikovsky’s ballet was constantly broadcasted on all the TV channels. In this way, the theme from "The Swan Lake" became the symbol of the new epoch. It simultaneously came to represent a secret, political diversion. Director and composer uses the recorded images in relation to the voices in the audiovisual score of this episode. This recorded cliche presents the conflict with the peaceful melody through the video technical medium. It provokes the development in a contradictive polyphony of the dreadful dream.

At that moment, Ivan Ivanovich and Ivan Nikiforovich start to knock with guns on the ceiling and on the floor of each other’s rooms, as if they aspire to vex each other. This was custom for people who lived in a soviet "kommunalka", to stop neighbour’s noises at the night time. The most unexpected and phantasmagorical things in the performance action begin from this moment. Two huge wooden scaffolds come down to the stage floor and create a semblance of the roof of a big house that is cosidered as the common living space for all the heroes of the performance. "House in general", we could say. From the top of the theatrical space appears Baba in General with a gun in her hands. She slowly comes down and then soars upwards again. Finally, she lands on a pipe of the roof. In addition, she accompanies her equilibrations by singing. Her folk singsong intonations turn in a sharp fragmentary rhythm.

The director and composer incorporate all of these themes in freakish connections and combinations in relation to the dramaturgy of the episode. On the ground floor of the tower in a so-called kitchen, we see Bursaks cooking. All of them are in white aprons and caps. They start to prepare an infernal meal from the dwarf-goose swinging with kitchen knifes around the head of the character planted on a huge dish. They decorate the dwarf as a Christmas goose with shines and a streamer. They put on him a funny brilliant jacket which reminds us of the royal dress and a tsar’s hat.

When the phantasmagoria begins, the picture on the TV screens disappears and we could see only video interferences. This leitmotif of a destroyed virtual picture of the world is reinforced by the music score of this scene. The soft lyrical music playing by the string group from the early beginning, transforms to a sharp dissonant chords-sighs. Against this background, we could hear the drum’s blows and bell’s sounds from the theatre bell-tower. A shrill sound of a trumpet and a heavy breathing of a tuba introduce the coming of the Apocalypse.

After that, the Bursak’s chorus runs out on the roof carrying a dish with the decorated "goose" (dwarf) and put it on a table in front of Ivan Ivanovich. The latter is sitting in front of the wooden table which is fixed on the top of the roof as in a summer café. At first, he laments that he recognizes his son in a goose’s body, but then he starts to devour the goose’s "hand-wing" with inhuman passion. "Murder of the son" is associated with the character from Gogol’s story "Taras the Potato", which enters into the cycle to which "The Ivans" belongs. The "son" immediately turns in an aggressive being, starts to cry out words in a German language with fascist intonation as he starts fighting with Ivan Ivanovich. This action is also accompanied with the variation on the major music leitmotif performing a staccato that enters in contradiction to the terrifing narrative of the story.

At this moment Ivan Ivanovich dresses himself in female clothes. In his dream, he plays the role of Ivan Nikiforovich’s sister-in-law, who has arrived from Kiev. In the role of the Sister-in-law, Ivan Ivanovich sings then "an opera aria", describing how after Ivan Ivanovich’s death they could make сutlets (bitki) from his "back part". The aria consists of a recipe of "сutlets from human meat", for which the Sister-in-law is famous. "She" accompanies her aria with a refrain: "Do not put too much salt… ". The phrase is repeated many times. Ivan Ivanovich’s aria about the cutlets, the cries of the "sonny" sitting on a dish, the monotonous howls of the witch-woman – all these sounds and noises develop in a dynamic, accruing cacophony which then suddenly breaks.

The next polyphonic scene occurs before the episode of the "Terrible court". Ivan Ivanovich and Ivan Nikiforovich drive onto the stage on two carts harnessed by two of the Bursaks. They make several circles around the stage. Both of the main characters are screaming out offences and announce plans about forthcoming justice. In parallel to each new circle, the 'Author' informs that several years have passed but their business in court was not resolved in any way. The Bursak’s chorus accentuates the hopelessness of this business. At the same time, new characters jump into the carts. Finally, we see both former friends laying in the carts as dead corpses. Monotonous musical phrases gradually become more intense. A sharp blow of a bell is to remind us of the theme of Time. The chorus reveals its power and volume in this scene. It sounds similar to the "people’s scenes" in "Boris Godunov" or "Khovanshchina". The director and composer highlight the operatic scale in order to increase the intensity and to lay a stress on the national character of this moment – both ironocally and seriously.

As a sharp contrast to this scene, I want to propose the episode in which Baba in General is singing a solo ballad, "The Two Ivans". Sitting in a lap in the centre of the stage and shaking in the beat of the monotonous melody, Baba sings the infinite story about how two brothers-kings ruined themselves because of the reciprocal enmity. This song-legend becomes an original epic and mythological generalisation of the improbable history about two quarrelling neighbours. The folk element is also used in operas in order to create a mythological scale of action.

The episode of "The Terrible Court" is based on a parody. The director makes a sarcastic allussion on an ordinary session of a party bureau in Soviet times. This sarcastic turn reveals how two heroes are brought to the session directely from the coffins. When the two friends are almost about to reconcile, they start to dance the Ukrainian dance, 'Hopak'. The music and the dancing style of this Hopak are made into something original by both the director and the composer. In order to bring the ironical generalization, the composer includes in this piece passages from the different national dances where one could catch the Moldavian and Hungarian motifs. This weird idyll is broken, when after the dance, Ivan Nikiforovich again names Ivan Ivanovich "Gander-goose". At this moment, all tragical leitmotifs instantly re-enter. The characters leave the stage, and Baba in General suddenly starts to shout out, calling the lost son Vanechka to come home. This ending could be associated with the ending of Musorgsky’s "Boris Godunov", which culminates in the lonely voice of the Fool. These lonely despaired callings for the lost human soul is repeated as an echo by the Bursaks and Maidens, which have separated themselves from the chorus to produce separate voices.

Each episode in this performance is based on a polyphonical principle. Each leitmotif in the polyphony has its own tonal and visual characteristics. They are connected to concrete characters or to a certain theme. These leitmotifs carrу the vocal, tonal, timbral, melodical and rhythmical character. The system of leitmotifs is made by various kinds of musical speech (operatic or spiritual recitatives), choral fragments (cantos, choral recitatives, hymn, ode, spiritual and operatic chorus; female, male and mixed folk choruses), solo parts (popular and folk songs and ballads) and, at last but not least, instrumental music (with paraphrases on the themes from symphonies and dance music, but also with various musical phrases, presented by different musical insruments as solos).


The functions of a musical image in this performance are diverse. The music comments on the action by emotionally colouring the situations through intonation characteristic of each fictional character. The music thereby does not only organise the rhythms of expression and existence of the characters, but also the rhythm of the whole episode. Due to the variety of stylistic and musical form used in this performance (classical, folklore, popular and religious), the music creates the global volume of the scenic situations in terms of cooperation and interpenetration. Finally, the music organises the polyphony of the action’s score, collecting all the voices and leitmotifs in the general episodes and multifigured pictures.

Except for a rare exception, the composer does not directly cite and ignores the principles of collage in his musical score. Thereby, one could state that he follows Alfred Shnitke’s approach. Shnitke created the musical score for Gogol’s performance by Yury Lubimov, reconsidering diverse musical material through the means of stylisation.

Although, in the leitmotifs and separate episodes there are some reminiscences with the well-recognised musical fragments by Rakhmaninov (the lyrical theme from the "Second Symphony"), by Musorgsky (choruses from "Khovanshchina" and "Boris Godunov"), by Shostakovich (the introduction from the Fifth Symphony and fragments from some of his string quartets). Also we could recognise motifs from 17th and 18th century music and folklore. These fragments are not given by means of direct citation. The texture of the musical score is multilayered and internally dialogic, as well as the score of the scenic action, which is based on a musical principle.

All mentioned above provokes to comprehend the performance as a particular type of production among other dramatic performances on the contemporary Russian stage. Contrary to European music theatre, which exists on a junction of various art forms connected to music (dance, musical, etc.), there are not so many productions on the Russian stage which could be regarded as "music theatre" proper. In some sense, Russian repertoire is still more conservative, as the division between different genres of (music) theatre are stricter. The notion "music theatre" has also another meaning; it implies very concrete established forms of music theatre (opera, ballet, operetta, etc.). Nevertheless, as I mentioned in the early beginning, there are some serious attempts to make drama close to music through musicalization. However, there was no particular flow, which could bring the specific traits of this phenomenon together.

"The Ivans" could be considered as a unique phenomenon where drama action and text are completely subordinate to the musical rhythms. We could say that the text was musicalized itself, because the scenarist included musical phrases similar to Gogol’s melodic style of writing. I want to conclude with a very precise description of the feelings which arise from the performance:

"Texts are being "sung", not "pronounced". There are a lot of textual repetitions, as in opera, resigning in different variations. There is also an operatic structure – soloists and choir. And the choir appears at the same time as a commentator and a power motif. Stringed duet – cello and violin create a music solo of the performance; they level the time by their leisured sound and create the non-time atmosphere" (Pesochinsky: 2008; my translation, O.C.).

This quote confirms that the word "opera" is not accidental. It was at first mentioned by the director itself. Despite of that, it is not an accurate definition to this performance, because it is meant more figuratively than structurally. There are a lot of signs in this production which evoke associations with opera. There could also be found a certain similarity with musical-scenic oratorio. Sometimes, the performance develops more into an opera (including the parodied opera elements), but mostly into the musical drama. Both the director and composer had the aim to reveal the contradictive interrelations between high and low, local and global in our lives through this form. They had an aspiration to put the grotesque and split reality in a context of a universal mystery. Exactely this aim had Gogol when he overthought the ridiculous anecdote in the measure of eternity. This is the task of the classical writer who tells us "The Story how Ivan Ivanovich and Ivan Nikiforovich have quarrelled".

For developing the scenic version of Gogol’s story, director Andrey Moguchy uses musicalization as a staging device. He incorporates an arsenal of musical functions in order to change the dramaturgy and the way of perception, to rethink the interrelations between fictual characters, which leads from the direct dramaturgic dialogue into the sphere of the symbolically-mediated comparisons and contrasts. We could say that this way of constructing a 'scenic score' also influences the manner of acting, which calls for a new measure of comparison between the characteristic concreteness and the style of theatrical conventions.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. Author and Hero in Aesthetic, Aesthetics of the Verbal Art. Мoskow, 1979: 7-180.

Glikman, Isai. Meyerhold and Music Theatre. Leningrad: Sovetskij kompozitor, 1989.

Kahn, Douglas. Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001: 224-240.

Lehmann, Hans-Thies. Postdramatic Theatre. Trans. Karen Jurs-Munby. London & New York: Routledge, 2008.

Pesochinsky, Nikolay. "Apocalypse ot gusaka". [Trans. "Apocalypse from Goose"]. In: Empire of Drama (St. Petersburg, 2008).

Pokrovsky, Boris. Razmishlenija ob opere. [Trans. Thoughts about Opera]. Мoskow, 1979.

Roesner, David. "The Politics of the Polyphony of Performance: Musicalization in Contemporary German Theatre". In: Contemporary Theatre Review 18.1 (2008): 44-55.

Tarshis, Nadezda. Muzika v dramaticheskom spectakle. [Trans. Music in Drama Performance]. Leningrad:
LGITMIK, 1974.

Varpahovsky Leonid. Uroki Meyerholda: Muzika v dramaticheskom teatre. [Trans. Meyerhold’s Lessons: Music in Drama Theatre]. Leningrad: Muzika, 1976: 7-24.

Vinokur, Grigorij. Biografia i cultura. [Trans. Biography and Culture]. Мoskow: LKI, 2007.

Performance Credits

The Ivans. Dir. Andrey Moguchy, Scen. Alexander Shishkin, Comp. Aleksander Manotskov, Act. Nikolay Marton, Victor Smirnov, Svetlana Smirnova. Alexandrinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, 2008.

Last updated version: 25 March 2009



The “Orphic” Theme and

The Development of Music Theatre

By meLê yamomo





Music-theatre today still remains to be recalcitrant from definition.  It is often seen as synonymous to opera or musical theatre, although new scholars differentiate music-theatre, and favor to use this latter term to call this new emergent artistic form.  But what are the overlapping characteristics of opera and music-theatre?  And what makes them different?  Are there earlier theories in opera, as a specific musical dramatic art form, that music-theatre adhere to or contradict?  Can we derive a working definition of music theatre by looking into these similarities and differences in practices?


The task of defining music-theatre is a herculean task.  Traditional methodologies of formalism (where the nature of form is analyzed, as in analyzing the sonata form in music or tragedy in drama), and structuralism (where patterns and structures are investigated) are not anymore effective modes for the study of this contemporary art form.  In writing this essay, my interest does not lie in coming up with a list of characteristics of music-theatre, but towards a working methodology for analyzing the theory and practice of music-theatre making. 


In search for other attempts to define music-theatre, I find Eric Salzman’s descriptions quite similar to how I perceive the aesthetics and historical locus of this new performing art form.  In his article, From Stage to Page: Music Theater in Print, Salzman likens music-theatre to modern dance (Salzman, 16-17).  In his words: “modern dance is to ballet, as music-theatre is to opera.” He sees this both in the aesthetic practice of the art form, as well as the production’s magnitude – where ballet and opera are known for big cast, orchestration, set, and production budget, while modern dance and music-theatre is known to be smaller in cast and budget.  In his analysis, though, he points out the limits in this analogy.  Where modern dance now finds institutional and commercial funding in commercial theatres and festivals, music-theatre remains to be an ‘orphan’ in budgetary allocations of big theatres and foundations in North America.  It is only most recently that government art subsidy offices in Europe list music-theatre as a performing art discipline, separate from dramatic-theatre and classical music concerts/recitals.


I specifically mention here Salzman’s points to follow through the trajectory of music-theatre development that he has set.  While other theatre scholars relegate music-theatre as the more general term, wherein opera and musical theatres are subdivisions, I am looking into music-theatre as, in fact, a theatrical development from the opera.  While, Salzman sees this as a practical solution to budgetary constraints of contemporary art funding situations, my contention is that the philosophical and aesthetic development of the music-theatre from opera could also be traced in the framework of the “Orphic” theme that I will develop in this essay.


For this essay, I would like to develop a philosophical framework using the theme of myth of Orpheus as the impetus of analysis for music theatre development.  Orpheus is the quintessential creator/artist who affects nature with the power of his art.  Orpheus is also seen as a seer, astrologer and physician. The Orphic nature shows the relationship of the arts to the sciences.  His participation with Jason and the Argonauts and his death displays his involvement in politics as well. [1]


I would like to follow the methodology of Peter Kivy who studies art as a philosopher and metaphysician.   Specifically, I will use how he derived, from Edward T. Cone’s ideas, the concept of the “Orphic” theme.  To develop this framework, I will lay down some of the historical developments of the “Orphic” theme in the history of art in general and the development of music-theatre.  Subseuently, I will analyze  a contemporary music-theatre piece – Theatre Cryptic’s An Ocean of Rain.  Using the “Orphic” theme as a framework, I intend to look into the new directions of music-theatre in connection with the “Orphic” theme impetus. 


For this essay, I will focus my analysis on the new opera by Yannis Kyriakides, An Ocean of Rain.   This production was staged by Theatre Cryptic.  Using the “Orphic” theme framework, I will look at how An Ocean of Rain adhered or rejected the conventions borne out of this concept.    I chose to use this production and this methodology of locating the characteristics of music-theatre by comparing it to opera, primarily because of how Yannis Kyriakides, the composer himself has defined his work.   On the Cryptic Theatre’s website he writes:


“When my friends asked me, this past year, what I am currently working on, I have had to reluctantly admit that it was a ‘kind-of-opera’. Since there were characters, a story, even themes of love and death interwoven in the narrative; it didn’t seem right to call it the more hip ‘music theatre’ this time. I make that distinction because in my previous stage pieces I have always assembled the text myself, which has been there to serve an image or abstract concept that the music would elaborate on; a more abstract form, hence music-theatre.” (Kyriakides)


Although in this statement, it was Kyriakides himself who specifically chose not to call the piece a music-theatre piece but a ‘kind-of-opera,’  I feel that it is this very process of adhering or rejecting operatic conventions and theories that defined the emergence of music theatre.


A Short Timeline of Music Theatre and the “Orphic” Theme


To shed more light to the use of the metaphor and theme of the nature of Orpheus and the Orphic myth and its influence in the development in the music theatre, I propose to look into a short timeline of some of the more known records of productions based or influenced from this myth.


Records of the myth of Orpheus were kept in literary record from the Greco-Roman antiquity to the 340 BC Derveni Papyrus discovered in Thessloniki in 1962.  In this timeline, we see that much of the history of music theatre is tied to the evolution of the Orphic myth.  A brief but comprehensive timeline that served as a good source for this paper is the article compiled by the Rosicrucian Research Library.  The Rosicrucian order (or Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis), is a group of scholars studying mystical and ancient philosophies and religion, and have recently dedicated one issue of their journal, Rosicrucian Digest on the articles written on the subject of the Orphic religion and myth.


The first known record of what could be seen as an early precursor of opera is Angelo Poliziano’s Fabula di Orfeo.  Poliziano staged the performance in 1474.   The stage design was by Leonardo da Vinci, who while being more known for his talents in art and science, was also a musician and played the lyre (Rosicrucian Research Library 14).  In 1600, Jacopo Peri’s opera Eurydice was staged, it being the first opera whose score survives to this day (Ibid).  In 1607 Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo was performed.  L’Orfeo is considered the first popular opera, and is seen to be the seminal operatic piece that will set the standard for the future operas, with its emotional drama, large instrumentation and grand-scale production (F.W. Sternfield).  In 1762, Christoph Willibald Gluck composed another evolution of the operatic form in Orfeo ed Eurydice.  In Orfeo ed Eurydice, Gluck favored simple affecting music and classical era elegance over the virtuosic vocal display fashionable at that time, thus paving the way for a new direction in opera that will later influence Mozart, Wagner and Webber (Ibid).  It is also worth noting that in this opera, Orfeo’s lyre is represented by the harp and this is thought of as the beginning of the use of the harp in the French orchestras. In 1858, Jacques Offenbach composed the satiric operetta Orpheus in the Underworld.  At the start of the 20th century, Orpheum Theatres opened all over North America.


The myth and theme of Orpheus also continued to influence the other allied arts.  In 1865 Gustave Moreau painted Orpheus which was seen as the beginning of French Symbolist Art (Rosicrucian Research Library 15).  In 1911, the Orphism Art Movement was founded and influenced the art practices of Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, among others (Ibid).


The “Orphic” in An Ocean of Rain


In this short time-line, we see how Orpheus is used as a narrative element, as well as a thematic element in the history of music-theatre.  In the allied fields, it is the metaphysical and philosophical nature of the myth of Orpheus that visual artists used to develop the Orphism Art Movement. 


For this essay, there are two levels through which I would like to trace the “Orphic” theme in analyzing the production.   The first one, Orpheus as the Composer-Singer is an investigation to the development of music theatre from opera in the nature of Orpheus as the artist who creates by singing and composing.  The second one, Orpheus in the Underworld, looks into the part of the Orphic myth when Orpheus attempted to resurrect his dead wife Eurydice and lost her again, and how this mythical theme reflects in the nature of the production of An Ocean of Rain and in the concept of music-theatre itself.


Orpheus as the Composer-Singer


In his essay, “Speech, Song and the Transparency of Medium: A Note on Operatic Metaphysics,” Peter Kivy built upon Edward Cone’s phenomenological analysis of the world of opera, as to how Cone uses the image of Orpheus as the central concept in the ‘world’ of opera (Kivy, 64).   In Kivy’s reading of Cone, it is the nature of Orpheus as the improvisatory composer-singer that operatic singers are framed.  In the world of opera, it is the nature of the characters to sing.  And it is singing that defines the very linguistic expression of this art.  Within the opera world, singing is the reality.  It is the utterance and the expression through which meaning is conveyed. 


In An Ocean of Rain, there are five characters - Sister Delhi, Kyoto, New York, Cairo and Kiev.  It is interesting that the first four characters sing their lines as is expected in the “world of opera.”  But Kiev, whom whose perspective that the opera is told, was made to speak her lines.  This poses two interesting possible readings within the “Orphic” composer-singer framework. 


At the onset, this could be seen as an outright rejection of the operatic convention that Kivy is proposing, and of the “Orphic” concept.  While Kivy is arguing that singing is the norm in the opera world, Kyriakides is exploring a different direction in music-theatre.  It can be seen as a rejection of the operatic convention simply because Kiev, the lead character was made to speak, instead of singing her lines.  Kyriakides himself admits his way of questioning the convention of opera, of how everything should be sung and sung in a particular way (Kyriakides, 2008).


On the other hand though, this could also be in-fact seen as a stylistic re-interpretation of the Orphic idea.  The choice of Kiev’s speaking, versus the singing voice, is actually still borne of a musical decision.  For Kyriakides, it was not a choice towards naturalism, but more along a questioning and exploration of the musical conventions and language.  He pointed out how “the speaking voice can offer richer, more complex and multi-dimensional musical information.” (Ibid) 


Another element of music-theatre is the use of contemporary or “new music.” With the term “new music,” I refer to the post-1945 modern forms, also referred to as post-tonal (du Noyer, 272).  This means, the emphasis in the music composition shifts away from tone as the primary musical element.  It is a movement away from the tone-centric musical development of classical and modern music.  Thus we see the development of minimalism, seen in works of Philip Glass and John Adams, or of conceptual music as in the works of John Cage.  


In An Ocean of Rain, the music is almost mono-tonal (specifically with the arias and ensemble songs of the four singers).  This could also be seen as following the opposite direction of the nineteenth and early twentieth century operatic tradition of lush and melodic works of Verdi and Puccini. 


This nature of new music and the development of music-theatre within this paradigm could also be seen as another evolution of the “Orphic” theme within the framework of Orpheus being the singer-composer.  I would like to go back to Kivy’s notion of Orpheus as the quintessential singer and improvisatory creator of song, and from here build this idea by looking into another aspect of the Orphic myth.  Orpheus also is known for saving the Argonauts from the Siren’s musical calls.  Here, I would like to emphasize the difference of the nature of Orpheus role as the singer-composer, and the paralyzing nature of the Siren’s song. 


This finds similarity in Brecht’s Epic Theatre, where Brecht sees the Aristotelian theatre as too engrossed in its conventions that it puts the audience into an uncritical, passive position of watching an illusion.  In his Epic Theatre, he wanted to employ Verfremdungseffekte, to keep the audience aware that they are watching a creative theatre process (Williams, 77).   In parallelism to the “Orphic” theme, it is the active position of being a creator/singer that Orpheus has which saved the Argonauts from the passive and paralyzing position of merely listening to the music of the Sirens.  Here we also see the de-subjectivizing nature of the siren’s song.  In analogy, the passive position of pleasure and enjoyment of listening of classical music is to Brecht’s illusion of the classical theatre.


In its evolution, opera has become the Sirens.  The grand opera of Verdi and Puccini has reached a grand height of lush orchestration and beautiful melody that drowns and paralyzes its audience.   If the Orphic theme is to lead the development of the creative process of art, it is therefore Orpheus’s role to constantly be an active creator who will not allow himself to succumb to the paralyzing songs of the Sirens.  It is his role to create something original that will move him forward.  And it is in this nature of Orpheus that necessitates the evolution of opera into music-theatre.


As with any other art, the original is not necessarily something completely new, and coming from no context.  The original often is a recapitulation of the past or a digression from it.  Looking into Kyriakides’ process as an artist, we see his impetus as a composer from an interview by JCP Da Villa on Margen Magazine in Spain.


“There's a saying (I can't remember who said it) that there are two types of artists -
beavers and foxes. A beaver is someone who digs new paths not knowing where they'll lead - they are the real pioneers (Partch, Xenakis ,Cage) .

The foxes steal from the environment around them - they take what suits them from here and there - they like to recombine things (Stravinsky, Berio, Kagel) .Of course everyone has a bit of both in them , but I think I'm more of a fox (though I'd like to be a beaver) . I like to think that composition is putting together disparate sounds or musical languages that don't necessarily belong together. In that sense I think my music has a very strong link to the past - I like to recontextualize material and languages from the other cultures displaced in time or geography. As an artist I have a lot of sympathy for and in a deeper sense I feel my roots do lie in the agvant garde as you put it - the avant garde of the early part of the 20th century - and the avant garde agenda is still relevant now as it was at that time (though with a certain loss of innocence or naivete).” (Kyriakides as interviewed by JCP Da Villa)


In looking at the composer’s artistic development as an artist, we see how Kyriakides looks back to the past as his resources and using them to move forward. 


Orpheus in the Underworld


Another aspect of the “Orphic” theme that I would like to discuss is Orpheus’ dual nature as a conjurer of memory and a doubting artist.  Although this might be seen as two separate concepts which could be discussed into two different subcategories, I would like to discuss them under the same vein.  This dual nature of the Orphic myth for me links together the second part of my argument on the development of music theatre from opera. 


In the myth, when Orpheus’ wife, Eurydice dies, his songs of grief moves even gods of the underworld.  With his singing he is able to convince Hades to resurrect Eurydice, under the condition that he shall return to the World of the Living without looking back, while Eurydice walks behind him.  He agrees, but he travels back in silence.  In his silence, he is filled with doubt, and at one moment looks back to see Eurydice for the last time, fading into the darkness. 


There are many interpretations to this part of the Orpheus’ journey to the underworld.  The two aspects of this that I would like to discuss are: First, Orpheus’ desire to resurrect Eurydice.  This can be seen as a metaphysical desire to bring back the spirit of a lost love.  In modern interpretations of Gluck’s opera, this is seen as a desire to bring memory to life and to dwell in it.  The second one is Orpheus as a doubter.  This was the fundamental argument that Ferres raised in her lecture, that Orpheus doubted his own art that is why he looked back.  Ferres pointed this further by quoting Louise Glück’s reinterpretation of the myth in her poem Eurydice.  In Glück’s poem, trust becomes the key to the narrative:


Only for a moment

when the dark of the underworld settled around her again

(gentle, respectful),

only for a moment could

an image of earth’s beauty

reach her again, beauty

for which she grieved.


But to live with human faithlessness

Is another matter.



Going back to An Ocean of Rain, the narrative of the production transpires as a flashback.  At the beginning of the narrative, Kiev recounts the past; Sister Delhi, New York, Cairo and Kyoto have died earlier in a Tsunami.  In essence, the four singing characters appear onstage as ghosts of the past.  Similar to the myth of Orpheus ed Eurydice, Kiev (synonymous to Orpheus) needed to go to hell (symbolized by her burning herself through a voodoo ritual), to speak with the four dead women (Eurydice) who embodied her memory and desires. 


As I have earlier discussed, Sister Delhi, New York, Cairo, and Kyoto – the four dead women – sing.   Kiev speaks her lines.  Here, the singing enters a different level of theatrical convention – the singing voices are the voices of memory and of the disembodied ghosts of the past.  The past and the memories are portrayed in a different plane of reality – that which Kivy calls the metaphysical world of opera, where characters sing their thoughts.


Orpheus was given the chance to have Eurydice (the memory) back, but he was not allowed to look back. In looking back he kills Euryice.  And he did.  This was Orpheus doubting – distrustful of the reward in the end.  Will all his effort be in vain? To Ferres, this is Orpheus doubting his art.  He cannot trust that his music has really convinced the gods that they have given Eurydice back and that she is really walking behind him. 


In the history and development of music theatre, we can also see that opera – the history of the grandeur of this art, and the “safe” form of this art (capable of drowning one in its musical richness) is a tempting memory to conjure and dwell in.  Other practitioners of music-theatre tend to become the doubting Orpheus, distrustful of their art. Opera seemed to be a stable past that an artist could conveniently return to.  But in the “Orphic” theme, it is also in looking back at the past that kills the past.


In An Ocean of Rain, Kiev needs to look back into the memory.  The performance was, in fact, a re-telling of that memory.  She needed to look back for assurance.  But she will also need to kill the memory, for she knows that dwelling in the past will not allow her to move forward.  At the end of An Ocean of Rain, we hear the four voices of the past singing: Goodbye.


It was Orpheus’ doubting and looking back that he is confronted of memory, and in this act he kills the memory.  But it is Orpheus’ loss and gain.  He was assured of the power of his art, but he loses Eurydice and her memory forever.  Music theatre will have to deal with the ghost of its past and know that it has the power of a new art. Looking back to opera will mean killing the old art form, but this will also be a reassurance music theatre’s emergence as the new art form. 





Daniels, Maria E. The Mythology of Orpheus and the Mysteries. Rosicrucian Digest 86.1 (2008): 22-23.


Du Noyer, Paul, ed.. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music.   London: Flame Tree Publishing Ltd., 2003.


Ewen, Frederic.  Bertolt Brecht: his life, his art and his times.  New York: Citadel Press, c. 1967.


Ferres, Kay.  The Opposite of History: Valuing the Arts (Professorial Lecture).  Nathan, Queensland: Griffith University, 2005.


Glück, Louise. Eurydice. Vita Nova. New York: The Ecco Press, 1999


Kivy, Peter.  Speech, Song and the Transparency of Medium: A Note on Operatic Metaphysics.  The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.  Vol. 25, No. 1.  The Philosophy of Music (Winter, 1994).  Blackwell Publishing.


Kyriakides, Yannis. Creative Development: Yannis Kyriakides|Composer. [Online].  Available from:  20 November, 2008. 


Kyriakides, Yannis (interview) JCP Da Villa, (interviewer). 17 February 2007. Available from: 22 December 2009.


Rosicrucian Research Library.  An Orphic Timeline. Rosicrucian Digest 86.1 (2008): 9-18.


Salzman, Eric.  From Stage to Page: Music Theater in Print. Theater 32.1 (2002): 63-71.


Sternfield, F.W. The Birth of Opera.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.


Williams, Raymond. Drama from Ibsen to Brecht.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1969 (c. 1968).


[1] Kay Ferries has summed up the nature of the Orphic myth and the arts in a professorial lecture she delivered as Dean of Faculty of Arts at Griffith University:  “There have been many reinterpretations of this story: in opera, in poetry, in the visual arts and in film. My purpose in recalling it here is to draw out some themes that still resonate in discussions of the arts. This is a parable about the power of music. Orpheus’ performance affects all of creation: it entrances wild animals; it causes trees to move and rocks to soften; it arrests streams in their flow. His gift is associated with other powers: he is a seer, an astrologer, and a physician. The arts, in other words, are closely bound up with religion, law and the sciences. And as the circumstances of his violent death demonstrate, the arts are also implicated in politics.”  In Kay Ferres.  The Opposite of History: Valuing the Arts (Professorial Lecture).  (Nathan, Queensland: Griffith University, 2005)


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