Sjaron Minailo Directing (detail) View full image

Keep music live

As the world tunes in to opera online, director Sjaron Minailo worries that audiences might get used to the experience, which can – and should – never replicate the energy of being in a hall

In one way, the outpouring of music happening online at the moment is beautiful. In another, it annihilates the key element of the performing arts, which is that you have to see them live. I don’t enjoy recordings of operas or plays – even of my own productions. Seventy per cent of the essence of the show is gone and the energy that is the magic of theatre is missing.

This energy is the one thing you can’t capture on screen. If you’re going to adapt a production for television or film, you have to find cinematic ways of replacing that energy. If you just make a registration of the show, it’s only the shell of the performance. What makes opera different to concert music is the combination of theatricality and music. Otherwise we might as well just offer concert performances, which would be cheaper.

‘We should try to avoid our audiences getting too used to seeing only a fraction of the show’

I worry that by promoting operas and concerts online, we’re also saying to the audience that going to the theatre is more hassle than just sitting at home watching. We should try to avoid our audiences getting too used to seeing only a fraction of the show when they watch on screen.

There are some recordings of opera performances that work, but these are usually where at least four different shows are edited into one presentation, which is expensive. You also need a visionary director who is specialised in translating performance into film, which is a profession in itself.

I started thinking about this as a student, writing my dissertation on ‘(Why) I Want My MTV Opera’ (a play on MTV’s famous slogan ‘I Want My MTV’). As part of my research I studied various opera registrations and realised that opera works best on film when it’s not made for stage. Film has many possibilities that the stage doesn’t offer, and you can compensate for the loss of the performance energy with cinematic energy.

My research was about how we can apply to live performance the dramaturgy of the music video, which aims to translate the sound into an image rather than story or dramatics. In much of what I read, the analysis of theatre and opera on film was seen through the lens of narrative or character and I found that unsatisfying. I’m child of the 90s and I grew up with MTV, when music video was seen as an art form – with Björk and Radiohead, and video makers such as Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham.

‘Pop videos force us to watch with our ears and listen with our eyes and it’s interesting to apply that dramaturgy to opera’

What makes their videos special is that the focus isn’t primarily on the narrative or dramatics but on the relationship between the filmed image and music. Pop videos force us to watch with our ears and listen with our eyes and it’s interesting to apply that dramaturgy to opera, whether stage or film.

One exercise I do with new students is to play them Björk’s All is Full of Love, which is a beautiful song. None of them know it – most of them are in their 20s and don’t even know Björk. We brainstorm what kind of colours, imagery, atmosphere and texture you would expect from a video of this song. It’s full of love and romance and they often suggest natural textures, warm colours and a cosy atmosphere. Then I show them Chris Cunningham’s video, which is about two robots and completely milky white – the complete opposite of what they expect. The way they hear the song is completely different after that.

Cunningham’s image manipulates the way you experience Björk’s music, which is for me what opera – whether on stage or film – should do. It should offer a new way of understanding the music. Even if you’ve heard Carmen a hundred times on recordings, the way it’s brought into sight on stage should make it sound completely different. That happens when you go beyond illustration and get into interpretation. That’s my main role as a director – it’s not only about telling new stories but also offering the audience a new way to experience the music that they may already have heard many times.

As a film director, you shouldn’t try to mimic the theatrical experience. You say, ‘Now I’m working on film and it will never be a live performance so I’m not going to pretend.’ I’m a Modernist in that sense: when film and television became very strong in the 20th century, many Modernist playwrights and theatre makers realised that photography and film capture reality so well that we shouldn’t try to do that on stage – we should do the opposite. They already knew that more people would go to the cinema than the so instead of trying to compete with that you should try to create something totally contrasting.

‘Film should celebrate its own medium and not try to look too much like theatre’

That’s still the way I think. I love television and film, but when I make or visit a show, I expect something completely different. On stage, we should take the elements a film doesn’t have, examine them, try all their possibilities and evolve them as we go along. And vice versa, film should celebrate its own medium and not try to look too much like theatre.

Music is a language without signifiers. When I use the word ‘chair’ it has a meaning, but a short melody doesn’t signify anything. By attaching images to music, you can force a meaning on it that is not necessarily there, and you should be careful not to be too concrete or specific when choosing your image, because that would take away its essential musical quality. Unless it’s programmatic, most music doesn’t try to be concrete.

The process is particularly interesting with composers such as Morton Feldman, whose music is not meant to be staged or visualised at all, as concert music. In The Transmigration of Morton F. I used three pieces by Feldman and a new piece by Anat Spiegel. Each work is very different, so the question was how to bring them into the same world. That was the departure point – how can you connect different musical genres through image? The challenge was to find a narrative but at the same time not force it on the music or give the music a fixed meaning.

EXERCISE

If you’re experimenting with video and music during this period, my advice is, rather than just thinking how to make a nice visual ornamentation to a song, aria or instrumental piece, think about how you can manipulate that music through images.

Break the music down to colours, movement, structure. Start to think, ‘Oh, this first part is warm and soft – do I want warm images, or cold, loud images, or do I play with the shift between these two?’ You can film your surroundings, use stock material or try animation – as long as you try to understand what happens when we translate music to image. If you’re already doing that, go into depth and try to understand what happens to people when they look at music. It’s a completely different experience to just listening to it, and there are so many possibilities.