The theatre critic Vlada Kalpokaitė and music critic Veronika Janatjeva met after the 6th NOA festival to discuss new tendencies and new developments in the previously launched activities of the New Opera Action (in conversation with Asta Pakarklytė who framed her questions, listened to the critics talk for hours and put this whole causerie in terse and coherent writing).
Vlada: Let us begin by reminding ourselves that the New Opera Action was forced to take a two-year break for the lack of financing. This might have led to radical consequences: for example, its creative crews could have disbanded, or its brand name faded into obscurity, etc. Fortunately, neither of these worst-case scenarios came true. However, when we come to think about the festival’s return to public life, its programming remains perhaps the most disputable topic. The current programme, we must admit, was not entirely chaotic, but it left one feeling as if the festival had lost or not yet found its true identity. This applies not so much to the festival itself as to its founding team of artists who seem to pass through a transitional phase in their careers, when one phase is over and another has not yet started.
Veronika: Indeed, especially taking into account the aforementioned financial hardship, the programme of this year’s festival appears to have been conceived as a nostalgia-laden retrospective: more than half of the presented projects (4 of 7) were repeat performances of productions that had been put on stage at previous editions of NOA. I must confess though, I found the premature statements by some 30-year-old artists that they had already outgrown their juvenile desire to shock and stun the audience with their experiments and the time has come to go in for ‘more serious matters’ quite amusing, at once being too clever by half.
Vlada: These ‘more serious matters’ – serious to the degree of being instantly contagious, spreading like a virus among audiences – was the thing that I missed sorely in the current programme. And what I mean by saying that is not so much connected with certain aural ideas, but rather with overall concepts behind generating contagious content for the stage works. It seems as if these young people still fail to determine relevant contents or to invent ways of sharing them with the audience; it is then that the infantine audacity comes into play. This particular trait is perceptible not only in the works by the participants of ‘opera action,’ but is also characteristic, to a similar degree, of young theatre artists’ forays into various ‘drama actions.’ Their only claim to fame may be phrased as “I want to become famous – a much coveted and commercially successful Artist,” without paying any attention to possibly the most pressing task on their professional agenda – to furnish their works with a governing idea and a truly stirring message.
Vlada: I agree, but the endeavours to expand the definition of opera ad infinitum entail a certain risk of it becoming nebulous. This being the case, it would not take long before the festival’s identity would have become disintegrated and its distinctive features quite faint. All in all, such faceless existence would not be the most conceptually challenging outcome. I am totally convinced that the festival, as an event with a certain focus and limited timespan, cannot exist without having its distinct identity and boundaries thereof. It is a must for every active festival arrange its events in a coherent and logical frame, like cartridges in the magazine, and then aim precisely at its target audience. While the latter attends these events willing to come into cognitive contact with certain processes, to conceptually enter the certain field of reflexivity. Maybe after all there is a causal relationship between NOA’s indistinct identity and its indefinite audience composition? For, the festival is alive only when it attracts people both from within and outside its professional ‘guild.’ But in case if it becomes largely neglected and passed over even among members of the same ‘guild,’ it is likely to be getting into trouble very soon. What I missed among the audiences at this festival was academic youth from across the artistic (and non-artistic!) disciplines, including, but not limited to, music, drama and other arts. This also applies to their teachers, whose attendance percentage was also very low. That being said, the decrease of attention from professional audiences seems to resonate with more general tendencies (artists from various generations no longer mix together as frequently as before and generally pay less attention to the work of their colleagues).
Veronika: I think that NOA nonetheless managed to build a loyal following, which does not have to be necessarily numerous or clearly defined as a target audience, depending, of course, on featured productions. The first editions of the festival attracted a community more or less composed of like-minded friends, acquaintances and strangers who share a penchant for experimental musical theatre. But later on it seemed to gain increasing support among people interested in interdisciplinary arts and cultural nomads who have no clear identification. In this group you would also occasionally spot snobs and hipsters with a knack for “artertainment,” who crave being seen attending some ‘arty’ event. In a way, this may warrant the current trendiness around such events.
Vlada: Getting back to the question about the conceptual framework behind NOA’s programme, I would like to put up a proposition that the key factor in its programming has always been the creative mixture of random circumstances and non-random group of artists. On the whole, I gather that creative collaborations between ‘operamaniacs’ should not be defined by genre but rather by the composition of this particular group of artists, who create art – individually and collaboratively – and present their accomplishments at this “New Buddies’ Action” that serves mainly as a platform for showcasing their own (individual or collective) SELF.
Veronika: Meanwhile, the initial team of core artists (self-styled as “operamaniacs”) responsible for the programming of the NOA festival seems to be falling apart lately. From its inception Operomanija operated as an incubator where new creative teams have emerged and firmed, along with the growing know-how in the field of arts management, which now acts as a catalyst in the derivation of new teams and concepts for its future productions. The fact is that in the past few years NOA and Operomanija have moved in slightly different directions, despite their still inextricable interconnectedness. The first evolved into a public platform for new stage productions, while the other retained its function as a breeding ground for new ideas and collaborations, where people meet and socialize, share their knowledge and develop concepts together, at the same time engaging in creative recreation. It is definitely not a reclusive ‘sectarian’ organization; it is rather an inclusive and interdisciplinary platform open to creative-minded individuals, regardless of their age, nationality and profession. All the more so since the initial core now occupies less room.
In NOA’s case, however, more attention should be paid to the specific demands of music theatre, and then one comes to wonder whether young composers know their fellow directors. Most probably, they do, but not so many. Hence it is not that often that a composer thinks of a director as a necessary partner in staging (!) his or her pieces of music; that it is not enough to arrange some ‘fancy’ seating (standing, laying, crawling or jumping) scheme for musicians on stage and play the video in the background to achieve coherence in conceptual development of the performance, where music, visuals, movement, and text (if any), or any other system of signs for that matter, would convey a certain content and intelligible message. To my mind, in its future editions, NOA should provide more opportunities for encounters and collaboration between the ‘distant’ worlds of music and drama (including action and dramaturgy, as well as choreography).
Veronika: True, communities of artists within different disciplines are quite secluded, while differences between musicians and theatre people are truly profound and basically epistemic in nature, because they involve a multitude of discrepant and hardly ever converging viewpoints, approaches, and perspectives, incommensurable psychological structures, different levels of education, specific vocabularies, codes of conduct, etc.
Vlada: Indeed, it would take serious scientific scrutiny if we were to define the (anti)correlations between these communities – not only in terms of discrepancies in the artistic mediums and methods, but also taking into account the psychosocial, institutional and political aspects thereof. That is why the existence of NOA and, particularly, the annual summer camp of the Operomanija group is vitally important in the development of a closer interaction and dialogue between different communities of artists, which do not usually mix together, but may find points of intersecting interests by experimenting, playing games and romping together. Naturally, dancers, players, set designers, writers, composers, and directors have no knowledge of each other, unless they attend each other’s performances, concerts or exhibitions. Therefore, it is very important to support such meeting places for informal interactions among artists at summer camps and workshops, because the festival alone is a focal event, a showcase, a one-off action.
Veronika: I can only add that a platform like this offers loads of exciting experiences and an adrenaline rush when one meets the Other, a stranger, with whom one needs to build new modes of creative collaboration.
Vlada: Yet, the question remains how many artists, if any, would engage in informal interactions, given that more such platforms were available? Take, for example, the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, which is also an academy of film and dance. Is there a relationship between the communities of students who pursue education in different disciplines at the same institution? Virtually none! You can think of any mixture, in which they might get along, but in reality they remain separated and layered, like oil and water. I would like to live to see the day when those disciplines will start mixing at an early stage in the artistic careers, thereby engendering a stream of fascinating, hybrid, (r)evolutionary art forms. For nothing can change for the better in stagnant water.
Vlada: In these two particular productions, we should lay a stronger emphasis on the total elimination of the visual aspect rather than on the novel relationship between visual and auditory perception. On the other hand, the auditory experience of these projects, when sight is fully covered, arouses strong visual impressions. After all, visual imagery originates as mental representations in the meninges of our brain [somewhat reminiscent of the brain-shaped cap of the gyromitra esculenta fungus, which was a recurrent motif in several productions and an emblem of the 6th NOA festival – ed.].
Veronika: In Confessions, visual perception was disengaged, thereby opening the way to mental associations, other sensory perceptions and interpretations. Furthermore, it had a sketchy story line based on the seven cardinal sins, which enabled the blindfolded audience to perceive and grasp the meaning of what was going on around. In terms of sonic experience it was a gripping, a many-layered mix of electro-acoustic music, live vocals, violin playing and sounds produced on various objects. Certain odours were also used to enhance perception and give cues in this wordless narration.
Vlada: Obviously, the element of theatrical performativity was present only in the productions from previous editions of the festival, while, for example, the newly produced Consolium 3000 (2015) was simply a performance of video game music, without any theatrical dimension. Musicians were allotted a kind of absolutely neutral, ‘silent-screen’ era role on stage, and thus had no personal rapport with the action on screen and overall concept of the work. But as paradox would have it, the project, devised especially for the screen, appeared essentially anti-visual because visuals had no conceptual correlation with other elements of the performance. As a result, despite being picturesque and brilliantly made, this piece of video art glided past somewhere to the ceiling of the planetarium, without touching a chord…
Veronika: But why not? You see, innocuous pranks and parodies, unruly capering and light (to the point of becoming nano) provocations have always had a place at this festival. The latter tendency was embraced arguably to its fullest in the Dress Code: Opera (2012), a nano-opus with a running time of just about two minutes and forty seconds, which might seriously bid for entering the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s shortest opera. The same applies to the new audio-visual gaming project Consolium 3000. Although it did not actually stretch beyond the format of the now popular video game music concert, it nonetheless did entail a game of interpretation, which appears to have taken place in the minds of two composers (Mykolas Natalevičius and Tadas Dailyda). What they did was quite simple (even though they would perhaps object to such qualification), yet splendid: they orchestrated some crude chiptunes that used to accompany early arcade video games, gaming consoles and home computer games, thereby transforming this poorly synthesized material into a luxurious score that pleases the ear with exquisite timbral effects. After all, I would classify Consolium 3000 as a prank, with just a tincture of nostalgia creeping into the minds of aging video gamers.
Veronika: Too bad, since the opening scene of Consolium 3000 promised something more perceptive or conceptual in kind than sheer illustrations of video games, accompanied with stylistic transformations of the game tunes. When a solitary cellist entered the stage and spent a while doing something indefinite, one could surmise that he was struggling with his addiction and trying to muster his dormant sense of duty and, finally, get on with practicing. But soon after, it all ended up at a standard concert situation, albeit conducted splendidly by Martynas Stakionis.
Vlada: Well, he might have conducted splendidly, but the musicians wore deadpan expressions throughout. No kidding! They did not seem to show much awareness of the fact that they perform not in an orchestra pit or in a recording studio, but on the actual stage, where performers must assume a certain poise. And I am not speaking here about developing a scenic persona or any sort of role, yet every musician should think about creating his or her stage presence – a certain degree of intensity in the expression of certain moods and emotional fluctuations.
Veronika: But this was not the expression of boredom, either. Quite the contrary: it fits perfectly into the standard code of scenic behaviour observed by most academic musicians.
Vlada: I cannot but retort that such aloofness is instantly contagious with the audience. All action on stage emits very strong sensory signals, and you do not have to be very alert or keenly perceptive to respond to them. The impassivity of musicians and their plain instrumentality aggravated the feeling of maladjustment within the conceptual framework, stage action and artistic crew. Ultimately, if NOA productions no longer necessitate a theatre stage and no human presence on it, or the scenic presence of this human being were confined to merely fulfilling technical tasks, then such productions would lose all performativity, all particularity as opera or theatre productions, and simply become categorized as concerts.
Veronika: In contrast, the opera Have a Good Day! can be mentioned as a notable example of an auspicious synthesis, or even symbiosis, in which it is no longer possible to distinguish the respective functions and ideas of individual artists. The robotical chanting of ten cashiers, lyric monologues and duets that concisely portray distinct psychological types of the heroines, the postminimalist aesthetic of electro-acoustic music, which resonates with the antiseptic cleanliness of the setting, and what is more, gently ironic and “quietly subversive” (according to The New York Times) message seem to fit together like pieces of the puzzle. Such coherence intrinsic in the overall structure of this opera is still being polished on extensive tours, which have taken the company from Shanghai to New York to Moscow over the past few years and consolidated the team spirit among the performers and members of the production crew.
Veronika: Speaking about Audiokaukas, I would like to remind you that this particular project has emerged as a natural sequel to Bumšteinas’ recent contributions to the genre of radio art. Because of its extravagant length it came close to a large-scale electro-acoustic composition cast in the mould of ‘radio theatre,’ spoofing the stereotyped conventions of the Soviet era genre. I do not agree with the qualification of this production as ‘individualistic,’ even though it might have appeared so in the performance situation. In fact, Bumšteinas has always engaged as many collaborators as he could to develop his ideas and projects. As a composer and performer, he is very keen on in-person networking with most diverse people anytime and anyplace. Of course, in Audiokaukas, their collaboration was all but limited to taking part in Bumšteinas’ play, and in effect that was contrary to the co-creative approach – congruous collaboration between three artists – in the opera Have a Good Day! I guess that Bumšteinas prefers to be in charge of the entire creative process and delegate particular tasks to his collaborators, just like a director would do.
Vlada: Again, I would like to stress that the term ‘theatre’ is too outdated for NOA and hardly applicable to its current programme, since music was in fact the driving force behind most of the festival’s productions. The sole production that can still fit in the definition of ‘theatre’ was The Most Excellent and Lamentable Plan B (2013). Certainly, to some extent the theatrical element is also retained in the opera Skylė (2009), which exemplifies the typical postmodern theatre aesthetic – not so fresh anymore, but not yet anachronistic. Let us note, for instance, desperate attempts to eradicate the traditional understanding of the plot and narration. Nevertheless, the storyline did transpire though the indirect interplay between the three main characters and the effective use of video fragments from the first production of the opera. When the male character, Jonas, appears on stage in his actual physicality, while the video shows him acting the same role six years ago, this juxtaposition triggers an inner dialogue between past and present, unlocking manifold interpretations of the artist and change, time and relationship, among many other things. This contemporary opera requires a viewer who would be willing to engage in the theatre of imagination, fully aware of his or her active role in the construction of alternative narratives, for which plenty of material is given.
Veronika: Indeed, the formal design of Skylė leaves lots of room for improvisation, depending on the individual judgement and intuition of each performer. What they actually demonstrated on stage seemed so natural and at the same time quite remarkable because these musicians (and nonmusicians) have no professional background as actors and dancers. Even so, their scenic presence was distinguished by compelling fluidity and ingenuity. This particular production may prove your point that there is always an opportunity for creative and productive interaction even in cases where there is not so much happening on stage; that it is possible to find performers versatile enough to cope with more functions than merely striking the right chords. It also shows that such a co-creative strategy can yield gratifying results. On the whole, Skylė stands out for bold expression, sometimes even shocking imagery, the active movement of all the performers, and the bewildering variety of visual design. The previous production of this experimental opera also featured a trumpeter somewhat reminiscent of Stockhausen’s Michael in his mystic cycle of seven operas called Licht...
Vlada: Can’t you see that when you only grasp these productions as a musician, focusing all your attention on sounds and timbres, all other contexts fade from your mind. This was exactly my point when we discussed Consolium 3000. Therefore I affirm that it is vitally important for NOA to build its distinctive identity and make a deliberate choice between the two options – to start organizing a music festival with a programme of concerts, or maintain a platform for new music theatre productions. If we would take a critical look at Skylė, for example, it is neither an exemplary masterpiece, nor a bellwether for progressive art, but it may well be taken as a signpost for the future development of NOA’s productions.
Vlada: The next thing I felt was missing in the creative processes behind the festival’s productions was the figure and function of a director. Looking back, directors used to have a more active role in the performances shown previously at NOA (Agnius Jankevičius, Yana Ross, Marija Simona Šimulynaitė and a few other names may be mentioned among such figures). For the time being, composers seem to assume a central role and take on as many functions as they can, including planning and supervising of the stage action, visual setting and its practical implementation, as if they would no longer require a competing interpreter of their own work. That is not to say that I do not think that productions could not evolve according to this scenario.
Vlada: Exactly. We must admit, though, that theatre directors have their own understanding about the role of a composer in theatre. Generally, there is a prevalent conviction in the field of theatre that a director is at the very top of the pyramid, while the rest of the artists involved in the pre-production are just part of the ‘creative crew,’ who eventually develop their own pecking order. And even in cases when a director shows a willingness to engage in interdisciplinary performances, social actions and music theatre productions, his or her experience and professional habits oblige him or her to be in command of the whole process – from beginning to end. This includes work planning, appointments, decision making, task allocation, and assuming overall responsibility for the production; in such a case there is no point in discussing the possibilities for interdisciplinary approach or collaboration between coequal partners.
Veronika: In other words, are you saying that changes in psychosocial, institutional, and even ‘ecosystemic’ conditions within such artistic communities are required to initiate a shift towards a more co-creative approach?
Vlada: Yes, indeed. For now the one, who considers himself (or herself for that matter) a director, takes it as a do-or-die necessity to jostle to the top of the hierarchy, while other members of the team accept such stereotyped behaviour as just and efficient. On the other hand, are there many directors in Lithuania specializing in the field of opera? As a matter of fact, Dalia Ibelhauptaitė and her pupil Gediminas Šeduikis do stage classical operas. But they do not produce short, experimental, interdisciplinary projects. Where then should one find a director for such productions in Lithuania? In the realm of drama theatre, of course. That is what NOA does, inviting more open-minded theatre directors to stage its productions, despite the fact that they had become inured, in one way or another, to the role of a domineering boss. Yet, a somewhat different understanding of the creative process has lately been hatching in the field of theatre. For example, the No Theatre company builds its creative process on a more liberal exchange of ideas between its members. But even in this case, the director Vidas Bareikis remains its chief administrator, coordinator and mastermind behind its PR campaigns. To tell the truth, I do not believe that the psychosocial weakness or passivity of a director can be conducive to a good performance. After all, the most outstanding theatre productions in Lithuania would not have been accomplished without the ‘strong-willed’ and ‘strong-fisted’ directors. If the psychological type of a director has no inclination towards despotic conduct and tends to surrender to somebody else’s influence, is excessively concerned about creating a positive psychological climate within the company and always sticks to the principles of professional ethic, without shocking anyone, never raising his or her voice, etc., the resulting production is doomed to be week, hollow, lacking vitality and excitement. In the end, all the participants in this process will experience failure, no matter how great and comfortable they felt at the rehearsals.
Veronika: However, as outsiders we cannot plausibly ascertain the distribution of responsibilities and authority within particular production teams. But I generally think that platforms like Operomanija or the NOA festival might offer fertile ground for non-hierarchical or horizontally organized creative collaborations between coequal individuals, all the more so because the dominance of the director’s role continues to decline here.
Vlada: Music, performance art and all contemporary varieties of artistic synthesis provide an auspicious context for abolishing the established theatrical conventions. It is difficult to have a postdramatic turn in the context of theatre alone because it takes an act of ‘organized crime’ to do away with the written text, while the abstract language of music is very suitable for postdramatic stage works. The theory of postdramatic theatre suggests that various contexts and disciplines should be interrelated in such a way that it would be no longer possible to distinguish between them. However, these distinctions remain quite prominent in Lithuanian theatre.
Veronika: ‘Operamaniacs’ are the first in our country to try out new things, which they had absorbed in various educational, social, cultural and artistic environments. Naturally, these new elements become somewhat transformed in the process of adoption, just like postdramatic tendencies mutate according to the local context. But to my mind, of much more consequence for further development of this movement is the fact that these young artists are free from whatever inferiority complexes, they migrate freely and adopt kindred ideas, experiment and cooperate with each other.
Translated by Veronika Janatjeva
STYLES & SCENES | Lithuanian Music Link No. 18