During my percussion studies, I realized that I am interested in something, which is more than just music. I had the urge to visualize my musical ideas, use my body and my voice, to tell stories and transmit outer musical messages. I started putting my ideas on stage and thought that ‘Music Theater’ would be the right label for what I was doing. I always had a rather clear idea of what I thought Music Theater was, and in this way, it was a logical decision to pursue my studies in this field.
It might seem a little bizarre that a student of a conservatory’s Music Theater program asks at the end of a two-year curriculum the questions:
But what is Music Theater in essence?
Can it be called a genre on its own?
Or is it merely a label for everything that does not fit under another label?
During the last two years, I slowly realized that ‘music theater’ is a term that seems to be too little defined and too vague in order to describe a particular performance genre. There seems to be no universal definition for what it is: neither in dictionaries nor in books nor in practice.
If one looks up the word ‘music theater’ in dictionaries, one will find:
• The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians:
“Music theatre. A term often used to characterize a kind of opera and opera production in which spectacle and dramatic impact are emphasized over purely musical factors. It was first used specifically in the 1960s to describe the small-scale musico-dramatic work by composers of the postwar generations that proliferated in western Europe and North America during that decade. [...]”1
• The Oxford Companion to Music:
“Music theatre. A term used since the 1960s to designate musical works (usually for restricted forces) which, though not staged in the conventional sense, incorporate such theatrical elements as costumes, gesture, and platform movement. […]”2
• The Oxford Dictionary of English:
“Music theater (noun) (mass noun): a combination of music and drama in modern form distinct from traditional opera, typically for a small group of performers.”3
• Bärenreiter, Metzler - MGG - Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart:
„Der Begriff ‚Musiktheater’ umfaßt im Bereich der Aufführung und Interpretation von musikalischen Bühnenwerken, also auf der theatralischen Rezeptionsebene, alle Versuche der letzten 100 Jahre, durch Inszenierung und Bühnenbild zu einer aktuellen Deutung der Stücke zu kommen. ‚Musiktheater, das war und ist die moderne Sicht auf die Opernstoffe’ (N. Eckert 1995, S.9, Von der Oper zum Musiktheater) Musiktheater [...] versteht sich so als programmatischerGegenbegriff zum bis dahin üblichen konventionellen Arrangement auf der Opernbühne. [...]“4
• Riemann Musik Lexikon:
„Musiktheater, auch musikalisches Theater, ein in Deutschland bereits seit den 1960er Jahren üblicher Begriff für die Vielheit der Verbindungen von Wort, Szene und Musik im 20. Jh., die durch die Gattungsbez. Oper nicht mehr zu erfassen ist. […]“5
• Der Brockhaus Musik:
„Musiktheater, in Deutschland im 20. Jh. aufgekommene Bezeichnung für die über die Gattung Oper hinausgehenden Verbindungen von gesprochenem und gesungenem Wort, Szene (Spiel, Tanz) und Musik seit 1918. [...]“6
• Duden - Deutsches Universal Wörterbuch:
„Musiktheater, das (o. Pl.): 1. Einheit aus Bühnendichtung u. Musik als Gattung. 2. dramatisch sinnvolle, darstellerisch glaubwürdige Inszenierung musikalisch-szenischer Werke.“7
• Brockhaus-Wahrig - Deutsches Wörterbuch:
„Musiktheater (n.; -s, -) theatralische Form, in der die Verbindung von Musik, Sprache u. Bühnen-handlung verwirklicht ist.“8
• Van Dale - Groot Woordenboek van de Nederlandse Taal:
“Muziektheater (o.): 1. theater voor muziekuitvoeringen; 2. muzikaal genre, waarin muziek, taal, gebaar en lichteffecten als gelijkwaardige elementen worden behandeld.”9
Although there are some coherencies in these definitions, there are also serious differences. Some definitions include, for example, modern opera productions and treat a multitude of musico-theatrical performance genres as music theater.These definitions use the word ‘music theater’ as an umbrella term.10 Other definitions explicitly exclude opera and refer to ‘Music Theater’ as one of the subgenres within the wide field of amalgamations of music and theater.11 Most of the latter definitions also claim that the subgenre ‘Music Theater’ was derived from the tradition and the definition of opera, and suggest that Music Theater is a derivative of opera or a reaction to opera.12
Departing from the assumption of the second sort of definitions that there is a subgenre called ‘Music Theater’, all these definitions are not coherent and especially not precise enough in order to define a specific phenomenon. The definitions describe a vast range of performance arts that combine music and theater. Performances that do not fit under another label seem to be put into one category in a superficial way according to their components – music and theater – instead of their inner characteristics: their impact on the audience. In other words, Music Theater has apparently not yet been defined as a distinct stream within art.
If one reads or sees what artists, programmers and critics define as Music Theater, the term becomes even more vague and obscure.13 Multi- and interdisciplinarity are where the trend leads to nowadays, and one handy term to describe these multitudes seems to be the term ‘Music Theater’. The individual definitions of Music Theater are so different that it becomes hard to explain what the essence of this subgenre is. It stays an ungraspable phenomenon.
However, if it is possible to distill specific characteristics with which one can clearly define, for example, opera and musical, should it then not also be possible to distill the essence of the subgenre ‘Music Theater’?14
One can say that, in a wide sense, ‘music theater’ is first of all an umbrella term, which unifies all art forms that deal with music and theater simultaneously. Second, and in a narrow sense, Music Theater is the unclassifiable musico-theatrical performance genre that does not fit under another specified label or subgenre15 of the hypernym ‘music theater’.
Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi called the difference between hypernym and subgenre, inclusive and exclusive:
“In short, ‘music theater’ has come to have two opposing uses: one inclusive, the other particular and exclusive. The inclusive meaning of the term can encompass the entire universe of performance in which music and theater play complementary and potentially equal roles. In this sense, ‘opera’ can be viewed as a particular and historical form of music theater. [...] However, when we say ‘new music theater’ in this book, we use the term in a way that is almost always meant to exclude traditional opera, operetta, and musicals.”16
This statement and the fact that, over the last decades, many groups have emerged that specialized explicitly in Music Theater supports the assumption that Music Theater as a particular subgenre does exist.17 18
However, every group has its own definition of ‘Music Theater’. Some treat it as an offspring of opera. Others see it as a performance genre that is fundamentally different from opera or musical and more in alignment with traditional theater and performance art.19
Dictionaries and music encyclopedias define the phenomenon only vaguely,20 and it is often rather defined by negation21 and by listing its ingredients than as a stream in performance arts with an intrinsic language and impact.22
With this dissertation, I aim to put my ideas about the phenomenon Music Theater as a modern performance subgenre into words and in that way build a solid conceptual basis for my own performances.
Since background information and vocabulary in regard to Music Theater are still very limited, I have not been able to put the essence of Music Theater into words for a long time. I intuitively had an idea what Music Theater is but a clear focus in my attempts of explaining the phenomenon was missing.
Music Theater in a modern sense does not exist for a very long time, and therefore, it is still quite difficult to theorize the field and come up with generic, objective descriptions and definitions that are valuable for every single Music Theater production. This vagueness can be considered to be a problem, but it can also be seen as richness in variety that makes lots of different outcomes possible.
The theoretical approach will help me to structure my ideas that influence my Music Theater productions and performances. By analyzing the different aspects that play a significant role in Music Theater, I will have the choice of not only approaching Music Theater productions with intuitive means, but also with an analytical mindset.
Next to that, I will be able to reflect on certain choices that I make during the creation process with more background knowledge, and to a certain extent I will be able to foresee how the elements of the performance will act and interact. Moreover, the findings of this research can also be used as a reference manual to discover problematic aspects in the construction of a Music Theater production and evaluate possible solutions for the problems.
An important benefit of organizing my intentions in a structured and clear way is that, through better reasoning, I will be able to explain my ideas in a more understandable way, which will lead to a better communication with colleagues, the audience and potential programmers or funders.
As an audience member, I hope to be able to explain why certain works labeled as Music Theater do not feel like Music Theater to me, and why other performances then again not labeled as Music Theater I do experience as Music Theater.
My research is not an attempt to explain what Music Theater should be or should not be. It is an attempt to formulate my own concept – a sort of manifest – based on my own ideas and the history of this subgenre, which, nevertheless, will hopefully have more than just a personal value. I sincerely hope that by researching the history of music theater, analyzing the components and the interaction of the latter in Music Theater, I can also provide new insights for other Music Theater makers. I even hope that through putting my ideas into words and making a clear statement about my concept of Music Theater, a discussion can be initiated, which will lead to debates in the field of music theater and Music Theater. This might allow the phenomenon Music Theater to be further developed as a subgenre, following that, maybe one day, Music Theater will be defined as a clear stream of art with a history book and characteristics that are universally agreed upon.
Last but not least, the importance of theorizing my ideas about Music Theater as an artist could possibly best be explained by the shift from the rather desperate state of the Beckett’s quote
What are we doing here? That is the question.23
to a more hopeful and determined quote by Hans Bruneel:
“Let’s not forget that new developments are only real and leave a permanent trace once they have been put into words.”24
Performance art forms are grouped under the umbrella term ‘music theater’ if they include musical and theatrical elements. They form a pool of subgenres within the hypernym ‘music theater’, and all subgenres have proper characteristics through which they can be distinguished.
Music Theater is one of these subgenres. Consequently, it cannot only be defined by components or other features that are common to all the subgenres of music theater. These collective traits cannot serve as a basis for a clear distinction between Music Theater and all other subgenres.
If all subgenres of the hypernym ‘music theater’ can be clearly defined by pointing out their essences instead of only their components, then it should also be possible to distill the distinct characteristics of the subgenre Music Theater.25
If these characteristics are pointed out, Music Theater will be defined by the interaction of its elements, its outcome and its impact on the audience and not only as a simple addition of art forms. It will be a phenomenon that is fundamentally different from other subgenres within the field of musico-theatrical works. Therefore, it will be recognized as a specific art form instead of merely an addition of music and theater.
As such, it should be also possible to prove that Music Theater can exist without music and without theater. Consequently, many performances that do not include music or theater could belong to the subgenre of ‘Music Theater’.
Research question and subquestions
The main research question of this dissertation is:
What is the difference between Music Theater – the modern performance art form and subgenre of music theater – and other hybrid art forms that include musical and theatrical elements grouped under the hypernym ‘music theater’?
Is it possible to construct a definition for Music Theater?
The subquestions will be:
1. What are the characteristics of the major components of Music Theater and what is their role in Music Theater?
2. How can the components be used in order to achieve a Music Theater performance?
3. What are the main characteristics of the six works analyzed as Music Theater case studies?
The aim of the main research question is to construct a definition of Music Theater. This will certainly be a definition that is strongly influenced by my background as a musician and percussionist. I approach Music Theater in a musical way. May it be music or sound, may it be present or absent in the final product, musical notions will always be leading my artistic process. Taking the term ‘Music Theater’ very literal, one could say that my approach is ‘music + theater’ and not ‘theater + music’.
Along with the music, my work as a photographer significantly influences my ideas about Music Theater and, therefore, visual concepts and elements play a major role too. Thus, the literal equation of my Music Theater approach can be expanded to ‘music + visuals + theater’.
Due to my musical background and interest, I decided not to discuss most precedent developments in theater in detail, but to focus the historical overview mainly on musical precursors.
As an initial and temporary foundation for my thesis and since not much source material exists that could serve as a basis, I used my own definition of Music Theater that I wrote in the beginning of my two-year study as a point of reference. This definition, though written in a rather intuitive manner, is still relevant and serves as a guideline and temporary definition. However, this research is also supposed to examine it in more detail, to elaborate it and, if necessary, to correct it.
In order to be able to construct a well-founded description and definition (including explanations of reasoning) for my theory of Music Theater, I first had to undertake research about the history and the evolution of the tendencies in music theater as hypernym genre. I included all kinds of music theater forms, even if they considerably differ from the subgenre ‘Music Theater’ and the concept I would like to accentuate in this research. However, taking different ideas into consideration is essential for comparison and distilling differences between Music Theater and all other subgenres of music theater. The historical overview from the beginning of music theater up until the emergence of the subgenre ‘Music Theater’ gives insights on where the inspiration for Music Theater came from in the early days.26
As a next step, after I had researched the history of music theater, I focused on the development of Music Theater as a subgenre. Unfortunately, the literature on the subject is very scarce. There are practically no history books on Music Theater, apart from Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi’s The New Music Theater – Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body (Oxford University Press, 2008).Therefore, I had to collect information from multiple sources, and I had to decide which influences I consider being most important.
In order to find out what the essence of Music Theater is, I analyzed the three major components of Music Theater. I took a close look at their characteristics, and developed a theory to explain the interaction of the components, mediums, elements and languages in Music Theater. My experience as a creator and as an audience member served here as an initiator of thoughts.
Furthermore, I collected theoretical insights and ideas from other fields – such as of course music and theater, but also other art forms and perception theories – which through their application and probation elsewhere were to clarify the inner processes of the phenomenon ‘Music Theater’. My sources included books and encyclopedias on these subjects, but also documentaries since a lot of the documentation can only be found digitally and not yet in books.
As mentioned before, a lot of my ideas about Music Theater are based on experiences I had during the creation processes of my own Music Theater productions and performances I had visited in the past. During the last two years and before, I tried to see as many performances as possible, which in the widest sense could be considered to be Music Theater, in order to get a wide overview of present-day streams. These performances served as a practical source of inspiration to understand how the components in Music Theater can be used in order to achieve a Music Theater performance and to be able to formulate my ideas about Music Theater.
In this paper, I chose six performances that in my opinion are perfect examples to illustrate my concept of Music Theater, and analyzed the various components of these works (such as music, visuals and text) in detail, in order to find similarities and differences, and finally an indication for the most important features of Music Theater based on existing works.27
In my experience, shifting the construction and the perception of the audience from an accumulation of art forms towards a Music Theater performance does not always succeed equally well. Many issues can stand in the way of a performance that prevent the performance from being a Music Theater performance or having a ‘Music Theater effect’. Therefore, I made an overview of challenges that a creator faces in Music Theater and proposed several solutions, which are based on reasoning and existing performances.28
A confusing issue in this thesis – and also in everyday life of a Music Theater maker – is that the word ‘music theater’ is used to describe the hypernym ‘music theater’ and the subgenre ‘Music Theater’. In order to make clear differentiations, I will use the simple writing – music theater – to refer to the hypernym, and the capitalized writing – Music Theater – to refer to the subgenre and the actual topic of this dissertation. To talk about the semantic meaning of the word ‘music theater’, I will either use ‘music theater’ as a general reference or ‘Music Theater’ to speak about the semantic meaning of the description of the subgenre in particular.
1 Clements, Andrew: Music theatre. In: The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2nd edition. Vol. 17. p. 534. Grove, 2001.
2 Wilson, Charles: Music theatre. In: The Oxford Companion to Music. Editor: Alison Latham. p. 818. Oxford University Press, 2002.
3 The Oxford Dictionary of English. 2nd edition, revised. Oxford University Press, 2005.
4 Konold, Wulf. Ruf, Wolfgang: Musiktheater. In: Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. 2nd edition. Sachteil, Vol. 6. p. 1670-1671. Bärenreiter Metzler, 1997.
“In the field of interpretation and performance of musical stage works, i.e. on the theatrical level, the term ‘music theater’ includes all the attempts of the past 100 years to achieve a modern interpretation of works through staging and scenery. ‘Music theater was and is the modern view on opera material’ (N. Eckert 1995, p. 9, Von der Oper zum Musiktheater) Music theater [...] is the programmatic antonym to the conventional opera stage arrangement. [...]” (CH)
5 Riemann Musik Lexikon. Vol.53. 13th edition. Schott, 2012.
“Music theater, also musical theater, is since the 1960s a common term in Germany to describe the multitude of amalgamations of word, scene and music of the 20th Century that can no longer be covered by the generic name opera. [...]” (CH)
6 Der Brockhaus Musik. 2nd edition. Editor: Lexikonredaktion des Verlags F.A. Brockhaus, Mannheim. Brockhaus, 2001.
“Music theater, a name that appeared in the 20th century in Germany to describe the amalgamations of spoken and sung text, scene (play, dance) and music since 1918, which go beyond the opera genre. [...]” (CH)
7 Duden, Deutsches Universalwörterbuch. 3rd edition. Dudenverlag, 1996.
“Music theater: 1. unity of stage action and music as a genre. 2. dramatically meaningful, theatrically credible staging of musico-theatrical works.” (CH)
8 Brockhaus-Wahrig, Deutsches Wörterbuch. Brockhaus, 1982.
“Musical theater. theatrical form in which the amalgamation of music, language and theatrical action is realized.” (CH)
9 Van Dale, Groot Woordenboek der Nederlandse Taal. 12th edition. Van Dale Lexicografie, 1992.
“Music Theater: 1. theater for music performances; 2. musical genre in which music, language, gesture and light effects are treated as equal elements.” (CH)
10 New Grove, MGG, (Duden, Brockhaus-Wahrig, Van Dale)
11 Riemann, Brockhaus Musik, Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford Companion to Music
12 In practice, this assumption might not always be true though. As will be seen later, Music Theater can also be in line with traditional theater and performance art instead of opera.
13 There are some other examples, which show that ‘music theater’ is sometimes used as an umbrella term and sometimes as a name for a subgenre. The opera and ballet house in Amsterdam, for example, has been called Muziektheater. Also, many opera and musical houses in Germany are called Musiktheater. In addition, there are a lot of academic programs around the world called music theater, muziektheater or Musiktheater. Some of them deal with opera, some with musical and some with modern hybrid forms of music and theater or Music Theater. The same counts for research institutes and festivals.
14 I chose to use the American English spelling ‘Music Theater’. However, one could also use the British English spelling ‘Music Theatre’, which would not change the meaning.
15 for example: opera, operetta, musical, musical theater, instrumentales theater, theatrical concerts, theater plays with music, etc.
16 Salzman, Eric. Desi, Thomas: The New Music Theater – Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body. p. 5. Oxford University Press, 2008.
17 cf. idem
18 cf. Theatermaker, Oktober 2013, Jaargang 17, Nr. 7. Stichting ter bevordering van de podiumkunst in Nederland, 2013.
19 cf. the differences, for example, in the Netherlands and Belgium between Veenfabriek, Orkater, Muziektheater Transparant, etc.
20 Also the book of Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi – which is a very interesting book and one of the only books that exist on Music Theater as a subgenre – defines Music Theater (or as they say ‘new music theater’) in very broad terms.
21 for example: it is different from opera, or it is different from musical for certain reasons.
22 Categorizations in respect to the impact of an art stream are made in most other art fields. In painting, for example, subgenres or art movements are not only defined by brush strokes, tones of colors and other techniques that were used during the creation process, but works are mainly grouped into categories by the impact the paintings have on their viewer in the end. Impressionism and expressionism, for example, are two very different streams in visuals arts. A composition with little brush strokes is very common in impressionism (cf. Claude Monet: Water Lilies, 1916), but little brush strokes have also been used in expressionistic paintings (Paula Modersohn-Becker: Kopf eines kleinen Mädchens (Elsbeth), 1902). The essential difference, or the fact, which makes categorization in art forms possible, is that the intention and the conveyed message of the paintings of two distinct streams in art are completely different. The techniques and components of these paintings have certainly to be taken into account, but their real essence lies in the final communication and their impact on people.
23 Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot. 2nd edition, reset. p. 72. Faber and Faber, 2006.
24 Bruneel, Hans: Een kritische liefde voor de kunsten: Kunst- en muziektheaterkritiek in Vlaanderen. In: Courant. Muziektheater in Vlaanderen. Perspectieven op het landschap, Mei-Juli 2009, No. 89. p. 72-73. Vlaams Theater Instituut, 2009.
“Laten we niet vergeten dat nieuwe ontwikkelingen er pas echt zijn en een blijvende afdruk nalaten, zodra er woorden voor zijn gevonden.”
25 If this is impossible, then it might become superfluous to use the term. In that case, Music Theater as a subgenre would not exist, and the performances in question, which have been grouped under this label, only because they do not fit under another label, could better be described with crossover terms instead of a term that cannot be explained.
26 I chose not to make an overview of all Music Theater performances that have been created since the 1970s since the sources are too unreliable and too incomplete in order to succeed in making a complete list. It would have been necessary that I would have experienced the performances myself – or at least that I would have seen a recording of all the performances – in order to make a valuable overview. However, documentation is by far not complete. Furthermore, since there is no universal definition of Music Theater yet, it would have been a subjective overview because I would have taken decisions based on my own concept about Music Theater as to which performances would have to be mentioned in a historical overview – a list that should be scientifically grounded. Since the universally accepted definition of Music Theater is still lacking, making a historical overview might not yet be useful and will only become possible once Music Theater has been settled as a clear subgenre. The Music Theater performances that are discussed in this dissertation should serve as examples for the multitudes of Music Theater productions that have been made during the last decades.
27 I chose not to use my own Music Theater creations as examples in order to exclude subjectively influenced references.
28 In the beginning of my studies, I was planning on creating a lot of Music Theater performances in which I could experiment with the challenges and find solutions in a practical way. However, it quickly became obvious that there are simply too many challenges that need to explored and that this pursuit was financially, logistically and time-wise not possible. Therefore, I chose to elaborate the solutions theoretically and to apply and further develop them in the coming years.