18 Creativity

18.2 Comparison with theatre


Biranda Ford, in ‘a comparison of music and acting students’ concepts of preparation, audience and performance’ (2013),[1] comments on how differently acting and music students approach performance. That cannot be surprising to anyone who goes to both theatre productions and musical performances of classic texts. That difference between production and performance is itself telling. For musicians the idea that one might ‘produce’ a score seems shocking; for actors the idea that one might correctly ‘perform’ a text is bizarre. Why are these traditions of practice so unalike, especially given that these are the two major live-performance arts dealing in the shaping of feelings over time? Should they not have more interests in common?

It’s helpful to try, for a moment, to see each in the light of the other. Writing of theatre practice Richard Schechner (2013) presents the interrelationships between ‘sourcers’ (authors, choreographers, composers, dramaturgs etc.), producers (directors, conductors, coaches, designers, technicians etc.), performers, and partakers (spectators, fans, juries, the public etc.)—which together he calls ‘the performance quadrilogue’—as interactive and potentially varied, according to the preferred way of working for each producer.[2] Whatever the interrelationship, though, the artistic outcomes are worked out collaboratively to a much greater degree than in WCM, where even dialogue in the preparation of a performance is a luxury to be savoured. At the most basic level, the kinds of skills that students learn as technique are startlingly unalike in principle (quite apart from the obvious differences between speech and music). Actors learn to speak a commonplace phrase in many different voices and characters; musicians learn to play a phrase, to all intents and purposes, in just one. In acting there is a performance to be made; in music a performance to be given.

(Take a look at this acting exercise. https://youtu.be/Ohbh3bo5HDA?t=25. Then try to perform a musical phrase in as many significantly different characters as you can. It’s salutary.)

I don’t suppose we think that Shakespeare is a lesser artist than Beethoven. But relatively few, I imagine, think that Shakespeare still minds how we perform his plays; or that we owe him a duty of faithfulness to perform them in full and in the manner he expected; or that actors must be trained in the correct way of speaking his words; or that if they speak them in a novel way they are being unfaithful or disrespectful; or that they should read a text just as their teacher recommends; or that creativity must be limited to small details of intonation; or that performance norms need be so strictly drawn that a play can be staged on one rehearsal, or as traditionally as a religious ritual.[3] Looked at from the perspective of theatre, and its high public profile and widespread appeal, these beliefs seem quite mad.

A telling reflection of these differences can be found in newspaper theatre reviews compared to the kinds of things we saw music critics saying in chapter 9.

In 18 years as the Observer’s theatre critic I have totted up 24 productions [of Hamlet] – although I may have forgotten a couple. Some are barely recognizable as the same play.[4]

”To be or not to be”  is more of a “to do or not to do”. The speech is now delivered well into the action, though a little earlier than usual. I would have been curious to see it open the play, as it did throughout most of the previews. It might have given the production an extra touch on the tiller, and helped to make director Lyndsey Turner’s whirling ideas coalesce.[5]

It is impossible to imagine any classical music critic writing in those terms of a symphony, or even that the notion of reordering its constituents might cross her mind. And yet, why not? If it works for Shakespeare, bringing fresh insights that help the play to live, then why not for Beethoven? Is this why a theatre production can sell enough tickets to sustain a run of repeat performances while few concerts sell out once?

The nearest we come to this is in opera, needless to say, where what happens on stage—determined by a theatre director who comes from this kind of creative (Regietheater) tradition—is fresh and often revelatory, while what comes from the singers and the pit, wonderful as it may be, is almost exactly the same as every other recent performance. So you have two productions running simultaneously, usually contradicting each other. Holly Champion (2016, esp 400–01) has called this the ‘fidelity dichotomy’,[6] where musical production tends towards strict fidelity to normative views of the composer’s intentions or imagined historical practice, whereas for theatre fidelity is hardly an issue: the question there is what kinds of light the text can shed on current concerns. For opera performance in which staging and music are anywhere near the same page one has to look either to supposedly ‘historical’ productions of early opera, which aim to recreate period performance style and period staging, or to the so far tiny number of productions in which the music is reinterpreted along the same lines as the staging. Helios Collective’s 2016 ‘Dido & Belinda’, which we’ll discuss in chapter 24, is perhaps the most thoroughgoing example of that. This is surely the direction in which it would make sense for opera performance to go.

Who is opera for? Anyone who’ll pay the high ticket prices, is the most obvious answer; and for the reasons we’ve seen over and over, that means those with status and a status quo to protect. But so is theatre, on the whole, and there these same people are perfectly happy (perhaps more than usually happy) to see Hamlet or Henry V as a woman. But not Siegfried. The much admired theatre director Robert Icke, on directing Ibsen’s ‘The Wild Duck’, said:

I’m interested in somebody who goes to opera and loves classical theatre and knows their classics, but I’m just as interested in someone who’s watched ‘Gogglebox’ coming to see ‘The Wild Duck’, you know, and I want to give that person the same quality and intensity of experience that I give to somebody who already knows the rules. I sort of feel like, if you’ve watched TV, if you’re alive in the world, and you speak the language that’s being spoken, you should be able to participate in an act of theatre, and if you can’t then I think the act of theatre’s got something wrong.

Could that not be true of WCM, and if not why not? There’s a difference between dumbing down and being comprehensible and accessible. ‘Try and make it as natural as possible’, Icke says; and that’s a good guideline, I think.

None of these plays were designed to be performed as museum theatre, and so I feel very strongly that I don’t want to be alive at a time where all we do is go, ‘Oh god, didn’t they write great plays 200 years ago?’

Every single decision that you make is a now decision by a now group of creatives with the goal, I guess, of speaking to a now audience. And I think sometimes to pretend otherwise is actually disingenuous. … It’s necessary to update. (Robert Icke, Radio 4, ‘Behind the Scenes’, Weds 15th May 2019)

What this foray into theatre practice shows us, I think, is that there is a perfectly good model for performing classic texts that’s highly successful as an artistic and commercial practice and that provides all the precedent one needs for a more creative approach to WCM. All that prevents it is the beliefs of those brought up to it.

We have only to imagine for a second how dreary theatre would be if every performance of ‘Hamlet’ used the same staging, the same costumes, the same gestures, the same intonations—all enforced by an ideologically-driven community of actors, directors, producers, theatre managers, owners, critics and scholars—to see how disastrously WCM has backed itself into a corner where no one else feels much inclined to go.

Just apply some of the critics’ comments quoted in Chapter 9 to a performance of ‘To be or not to be’ in which the pause between ‘be’ and ‘or’ was slightly longer than usual, or ‘not’ was just a little higher in pitch or a little more drawn out—the actor damned as egocentric, narcissistic, intrusive, exaggerated, mannered, distracting, vulgar, or coy—and you will immediately see how deathly that would be to a lively theatre culture, and how deeply damaged WCM is.

It’s more than time for a new approach.


Continue to Chapter 19 ‘The ethics of musical performance’

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[1] Ford, Biranda. 2013. Approaches to Performance: A Comparison of Music and Acting Students’ Concepts of Preparation, Audience and Performance.  Music Performance Research 6, 152–69.

[2] Schechner, Richard. 2013. Performance Studies: An Introduction. 3rd ed. (Abingdon: Routledge). Until recently music studies have been quite oblivious of this field of ‘performance studies’; as Nicolas Cook and Richard Pettengill observe at the start of their introduction to the first collaborative collection of essays in these fields (2013, 1), ‘The wonder is not that music and performance studies come together in this book, but that they ever needed to be brought together.’ Cook, Nicholas and Pettengill, Richard. 2013. Taking It to the Bridge: Music as Performance. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press)

[3] Patricia Kopatchinskaja, in an interview with Laurence Vittes (Strings no. 254, June 2016, p. 19), says: ‘When you attend a play, for example, you hear the director’s view, whether it’s Shakespeare in costumes of our time, or different spaces and times. In classical music, however, it’s been prohibited to think like that. It’s like we’re in a robot world in which everyone has to achieve a certain level of playing, which is polished, shiny, perfect, beautiful—and that’s it. Everything else is considered a disturbing element.’

[4] Susannah Clapp, Genius, coward… or madman? Why Hamlet gives actors the ultimate test. The Observer, 9 August 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/aug/09/hamlet-ultimate-actors-test-benedict-cumberbatch

[5] Susannah Clapp, The Observer, New Review, 30 August 2015, p. 23. Clapp is interesting and informative on female Hamlets in ‘To be a she or not to be’, The Observer, New Review, 21 September 2014, p. 21. Online with different title: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/sep/21/hamlet-maxine-peake-royal-exchange-review-delicate-ferocity

[6] Champion, Holly. 2016. Dramaturgical Analysis of Opera Performance: Four Recent Productions of Dido and Aeneas. PhD thesis, University of New South Wales.


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