Thursday, 14 October 2010

Opera Houses

Driving out of Oslo, from its shiny glass and steel centre towards a country that still doesn't really have anything you could call a motorway and only 60 km of high speed rail (principally, from Oslo to Oslo Airport), one is offered a panoramic view of rapidly encroaching modernisation. From the soon-to-be-replaced E18 highway, overlooking the once-rundown dockland area of Bjørvika, you can see that the only thing separating the enormous 1960s container port from the "€500 million stone behemoth" (Icon) of the new opera house is a wasteland of cranes, half-built bridges, and projects in-development. Google "Bjørvika" today and you'll be offered an awful lot of hotel rooms and not much else.

A great deal of very interesting stuff has been written about container ports as vectors of contemporary capital, heralds of the hypermodern, in the wake of series two of The Wire. The curious thing about driving out of Oslo, however, is that it draws your attention to what might otherwise seem an absurd collocation: container ports and opera houses.

Baron Hatherley suggested to me, via email (well, Facebook actually...), that, "Opera and ornament do seem linked in some manner..." But although Oslo Opera House's architects, Snøhetta, may be most famous for the super-ornamental new Alexandria Library (dismissed by Charles Jencks here), this particular building doesn't really evoke either the swishy expressionism of Zaha Hadid, nor the "doily-tecture" pooh-poohed in Douglas Murphy's post on the Shanghai Expo. Actually, particularly from behind, the Operahuset has a rather South Bank-esque stark blockiness to it. It's an edifice, "a rogue iceberg" as the Icon piece linked above puts it, "crashed into the eastern edge of Oslo's harbour." It resembles in some ways a cracked open freight container - or a series of them, badly stacked, as if by some automated robotic crane gone haywire.

Markedly similar in its jutting frame - if somewhat more decorative in the detail of its surfaces - is Copenhagen Opera House. Completed three years earlier than Oslo's, in 2004, the Operaen occupies a similar space in the city's harbour, separated form the container port only by an expanse of empty polluted land that was, last year, the subject of a Reclaim the Streets-style action. Reffen, described as a "utopian building project," involved the temporary occupation of the land by "constructors" who built ad-hoc dwellings out of found materials. If anything, the link between the opera house and the port is made even more explicit in Copenhagen by the fact that the $500 million required to build it were donated by Maersk, the largest container ship and supply vessel operator in the world.

How to make sense of this juxtaposition of the totally inhuman face of freight transportation with perhaps the quintessential humanist art? Of course, there is an issue of gentrification, which was the focus of the Reffen occupation. And of the attempt to paper over (and launder the proceeds of) "dirty" industry with supposedly elevated culture, which we might relate to the presence of the Cité de la Musique and Parc de la Villette in Paris at the site of the old (pre-containerisation) Port de la Villette, glimpsed in Jean Vigo's poetic realist masterpiece L'Atalante. I would by no means wish to diminish the force of such explanations with the perhaps more figurative exploration that follows.

An hour's walk, south of La Villette, will take you to the Opéra Bastille, a building which, as much as the Oslo Operahuset, seems to invite the public onto its great slopes and surfaces as much as it lurchingly imposes itself on its surroundings. A project initiated in 1968 by Pierre Boulez and inaugurated on the bicentenary of the storming of the Bastille, it is significant that the very site of the violent surging forth of the modern world should be marked by an opera house.

Opera may be associated in public consciousness with fusty old-fashioned ideas, and of course it is true that the form became established in the baroque period and the first opera houses were built at this time - even many late-nineteenth century opera houses were built in a neo-baroque style (so the esteemed Mr Hatherley is, of course, right, as usual). But the rococo was really a period of opera's sedimentation and formalisation. As a genre, it emerged out of the Renaissance and arguably flowered into maturity in the revolutionary period from the late-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, broadly between Gluck and Wagner. Revolutionary governments in France and Russia placed enormous stress on the importance of opera (to Lenin, it was second in importance, amongst the arts, only to cinema).

As Gary Tomlinson points out, "No artistic genre... has more often called for purgation," no genre has so frequently called for its own transformation and reformation, no genre has spoken so much and so consistently about its own future. One of the major vectors of this permanent revolution is its relation to the notion of the human - principally in terms of the voice as the medium of operatic truth. From the Florentine Camerata's development of monody to emphasise the solo melodic line of the individual subject, through the successive reforms of Gluck, Cherubini and Spontini in France, placing greater emphasis on the massed singing of the chorus and away from the virtuoso soloist, and on into the twentieth century.

Over the last century, from Berg's Wozzeck to Birtwistle's Minotaur, the operatic voice has become increasingly monstrous and inhuman. In the midst of which we find Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry's musique concrète opera, Orphée 53. The only fragment of this last I have been able to find is Henry's Le Voile d'Orphée, which was later used standalone as the music to a Maurice Bejart ballet. In this fragment, the voice emerges only at the end, painfully rupturing the already fraught texture of Alan Splet-esque electronic ululations, barking the Greek Orphic hymn like Marinetti, only transfigured and distorted by concrète tape manipulation techniques. Orpheus, the emblematic figure of the opera, moves from voice as transcendence to voice as trauma.

The roots of the new anti- and/or post-humanism of twentieth century opera are to be found in the music-dramas of Richard Wagner, where for the first time, the orchestra itself becomes a privileged vehicle of the truth, in competition with the voice. It may be no coincidence that, today, the most recognisable element of the Ring Cycle is the so-called Wurm-Motiv that accompanies Alberich's transformation into a dragon with slow menacing tritones. From Max Steiner's (1933) music for King Kong to the alien invasion cycles of the 50s and 60s, various subtle transformations of this Wurm-Motiv became the go-to riff for virtually all movie monsters.