A Conversation on the Margins of Operrrra

Ana Vujanović with Bojan Djordjev

AV: Bojan, wherefrom the opera at all, here-and-now? What are your reasons? And what are your intentions with Operrrra…?

BĐ: Operrrra is a hybrid project conceived on the margins of opera, theatre, even television, in a marginal European culture such as Serbian. Just like the history of the Balkans is fragmented, without continuity, similarly the history of opera in this region is based on almost incidental premiers once in a decade or two. In the last couple of years with DreamOpera (TkH and Veličković), Narcissus and Echo (Đorđević), Zora D (Žebeljan), one staging of Nyman’s opera and several stagings of traditional operas by Bojana Cvejić, this history accelerates a bit. All mentioned pieces are made as festival productions and don’t have their repertoire life – which means that this Operrrra is also an ‘incident’ in several ways. With the very combination of materials the position of the author is relativised. Only one of the three compositions/acts is composed especially for this occasion (but conceived as an independent piece). Furthermore, through staging, or better through its lack in the traditional sense of the word, this opera or a musical theatre piece thoroughly examines the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk in the age of media, primarily making an analogy between the concept of Richard Wagner and an MTV musical video clip, that takes its place.
As every proper opera, this one is also a commission. On my one I would never start the operatic machinery, but if I’m offered such an opportunity, I accept. What I want to offer with this theatre project that has the word opera in its title is the possibility of a different reflection upon opera today. First of all, a pro-theoretical thesis as its title (Opera of female gender) that is performed through three acts that offer three contemporary modes of perception and utilization of female (operatic) voice: from the excess fetishisation (Kapetanović), through flirting with author pop voice (Đorđević), to exploration of expressive possibilities of voice all the way to its destruction (Walshe). What is under the magnifying glass here is the constitutive element of an opera – that is (female) voice. Further, this performance works with margins of opera and theatre. All the machineries of any opera/theatre piece are set to motion here, but now they are exposed (backstage, venue preparations, almost pornographic details of performer’s body that ‘works’) while what is traditionally exposed to the audience (stage) in this case is mediated (projection screens are the only thing that audience can see). In that way the very pleasure in opera/performance/’presence’ is delayed/postponed. Finally, the three acts of this opera, besides different ways in dealing with female voice, also contribute to the debate about opera as a popular or elite genre. All three compositions flirt with popular music – from Walshe’s explicit references to pop songs, to Kapetanović’s eclectic postmodern layering of different (popular) music genres, to taking over the cantauthor principle by Đorđević.

AV: References to pop culture are often very obvious in your theatre and other artistic works. Why do you use term ‘flirt’ (or: procedure of flirt), especially in the context of problematics of pop culture? Dealing with pop culture is political and ideological work par excellence… And ‘flirting’ is a totally un-problematising approach; so I’m interested in how do you use it with pop culture, or with theatre and opera.

BĐ: The situation with pop culture in this cultural context is much more complex than it may seem. As you said ‘flirting’ is an un-problematising approach. However, in local context ‘flirting’ with popular music in the framework of contemporary music is an extremely transgressive act because what is desirable/proscribed in the dominant stream of academic composer’s discourse is ‘flirting’/working with ethno music. In that way, on a ‘macro’ level, ‘flirting’ with pop becomes a problematising act par excellence, even a sort of political and ideological statement. What I do with pop culture in my projects (primarily in a long term project Desert of Picture with Siniša Ilić, started in 2002 in Belgium) is using pop images as readymade taken from the omnipresent surrounding (media) culture.
Thesis about the death of the opera (several events – opera premieres primarily, from the first half of 20th century compete for the exact date of that death) is well-known for some time already. Anyone who composes, even stages an opera must position him/herself in relation to that thesis. If course, opera is very lively for a deceased, and it seems that it leads even several post-mortem lives: as an elite art of experiment and exploration at the connoisseur festivals of contemporary opera; as a constitutive element of a national identity of a modern European state in state and/or municipal theatres; as entertainment for the millions (The Three Tenors at stadiums, Mercury/Caballet and Barcelona…); and as entertainment industry through publishing of CDs, DVDs etc. In that way, opera today is inescapably part of popular culture, which is not far from its past, especially in the 19th century. However, in this work, dealing with pop culture/music is primarily present in the musical texts and to a certain extent in the staging – using typical technologies of mass media (TV broadcasting system, video, etc.) while the way of using it is everything but popular – no narrative, no mimesis, ‘presence’ and live performance is mediated, usage of documentary materials from rehearsals and construction of the venue etc.

AV: You talk about and refer to (as well as our other collaborators) the death of opera as important determinant of this work. But, that work – regarding its programmatic (author’s) conception, director’s staging, many concrete arrangements of the venue/space (unfinished concrete building that is transforming into total stage), locating spectatorship and video, as well as regarding the junction of three independent and different compositions into unique work – is, at the same time, an attempt of re-opening possibilities for Gesamtkunstwerk, which is the climax of opera and its total and totalising universe.
The reference cannot be avoided, so I would like you to explain it. Particularly since there is a problem here that makes all the questions more complex. That is that »your Gesamtkunstwerk« is immanently non-coherent, is de-fragmented from the inside, it misses constantly the totality, which Gesamtkunstwerk from 19th century tried to reach. You position yourself as Wilsonean director-architect who projects the work quite arbitrarily using particular elements (that are not, from the very beginning, determined strongly by director’s requirements). Be so kind to explain your relations to the discourse, form, and ideology of Gesamtkunstwerk within Operrrra, as well as relations between that concept and the concept and practice of the death of opera.

BĐ: I have already mentioned that this work deals with margins of theatre and opera, and in that way Gesamtkunstwerk as well. In the same way in which opera as a project of Firentine cameratta, conceived as a renewal of Greek tragedy was doomed to failure from the very beginning, Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk was also doomed to failure, because the return to the supposed unity of music, stage and word is not possible. More specifically, the very realization of Wagner’s concept was not consequent (I refer to Adolphe Appia here), because however radical his reforms were in regard to the music-text relationship, musical structure of the opera, even the opera venue, the staging stayed ‘unconvincing’ and disproportionate to the ‘seriousness’ and ‘graveness’ of the other reforms. As you said, Operrrra (that is its staging/staging) questions the possibility of Gesamtkunstwerk today, but baring in mind the impossibility of it; further: relying on the entire 20th century resistance to mimesis, experiences of ambient and installation art, even body art; even further: relying on the (modified) technology of TV broadcast, etc. And every of these references is in it self an idea of Gesamtkunstwerk.
Death of opera for me is above all an ending to the modernist progress and development – similar thing can be said for drama (post-dramatic theatre and post-opera). That means that each new opera must be an opera about opera, to position itself in relation to the finished modernist opera project, historic operatic techniques and concepts (such as Gesamtkunstwerk, such as bell canto, such as discussion music-libretto relationship, etc.). Therefore my procedure as a director could be called a ‘curatorial’ one – single acts and prologue of the opera are either commissioned or ‘re-discovered’ (Little Mermaid), and re/contextualized in the light of the central thread of the project, in this case the female voice.
When you mentioned director-architect, I can not resist not to read it ‘erroneously’ and mention the venue where Operrrra is realized – unfinished building of the Botanic Institute of the Faculty of Biology in the Botanical Garden. Unfinished building of an institute of a faculty that doesn’t have its own building. Experimental opera in a country with a very week opera tradition that consists of more-less one world premiere per decade or even two decades – and isolated (at the beginning of the text) mentioned ‘steps forward’ in the new treatment of opera are BY DEFAULT realized outside even two opera stages in the city, while an opera house (that is a landmark of urbanism, history, culture and national/state identity of every European capital) doesn’t exist. So this situation of an opera in the botanical garden resembles the construction of the opera house in the Amazon in Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo.

AV: That is why I believe this conversation – in which you articulate your author’s positions precisely – is important. Since, as many time up to now, you act with this work in an erased space, wherein almost only inconclusive shadows of traces elapse. So the very context does not obligate you; you are not in situation to bear hard ballast of tradition, neither of expectations. An (unbearable) freedom of self-responsibility is given to you a priori; responsibility that is in your own hands and the hands of your conceptualization and contextualization of the work, which will be also trigger for history.
Therefore, at last I would ask you to define your own comprehension of Operrrra’s politics, politics of its procedures and discourse. Considering the concept and the structure of the work itself, I suggest you to think on the line of Jacques Rancier speaking about political art as the crossing that wipes and/or re-disposes the borders between high and popular art, artistic disciplines, different social practices, as well as between art and life – in opposite to tactics of post-modernistic assemblage or confrontation of phenomena and practices from different regimes, whose borders maintain unchallenged. What position is closer to your own? …I by myself tend to firmer material framing practices, just in order to show that the framings belong to the domains of social competences and mandates; so I have got an ambiguous relationship to your fluctuation through the regimes of high art-pop culture, of theatre-opera-performance, jouissance-art-pro-feministic action, completed »piece«-projected social situation… Thereby this question, as well as the reference to Rancier (Politics of Aesthetics), is directed to support your articulation of your own conception and to face yourself with the responsibility you take for it.

BĐ: I have mentioned several times margins/borders – whether of the two (or more) media, or two regimes of art (elite and popular). What drives me most on my work in the performing arts is the very question of the borders and changing/redefining/displacing the status of an art piece (even the notion of ‘piece’ towards the notion of ‘work’). In Wittgensteinian sense, I think that every new project must set up the ‘new rules of the game’ and in that sense change, expand or contract the borders of the media. What I’m interested in is the politics of form (by which the ruling paradigm is changed), and opera (or Operrrra) formulated as an (from the start unsuccessful) attempt of a Gesamtkunstwerk is an ideal ground for testing the borders and their solidity/permeability/changeability.
You are right when you say that Operrrra is realized in an erased space. However, opera projects that I mentioned earlier as ‘incidents’  do create a referent system. On the other side Operrrra firmly relies on the references from abroad, that is the notion of ‘opera in the age of media’ (J. Novak) and authors such as Willson/Glass, Greenaway/Andriessen, Reich etc. With every new work, these authors give an answer to the question about the death of the opera, that is about the new reincarnation/recombination of constitutive elements (radical re-defining of the performing ensemble, choice of libretto, abolishing of staging by introducing video, etc.), and in relation to the changes in the bourgeois society of late capitalism. If we start with the thesis that Opera is the top art accomplishment of Western (European) civilization and that in order to explain the European society to a hypothetical anthropologist from Mars, we would take him/her to an opera performance, then everything that is happening in opera in the sense of changing the paradigm of the genre, is a political act par excellence.

This project is in a way a hommage to the baroque opera theatre of machines, it is a testing ground for ‘performability’ of those elements which are not human body. In this opera, besides the musicians and singers, the performers are also: the ambiance, the TV technology, but also those constitutive functions of any theatre project that typically not viewed as such: director, dramaturge, musicologists, visual artist/designer, film director, sound designer. So this is a theatre without actors, this is opera without stage (further: without mimesis, without narrative, with no literary connection between the prologue and the three acts, etc.); this arbitrarily composed machinery sets in motion ‘margins’ of every theatre project and puts them in power – and that is its politics.