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Opera and Architecture: Building a Home for the Art Form in the Modern World
Philip Kennicott
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Opera America Magazine9/1/2007

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Architecture is the older art, perhaps as old as civilization, but opera and architecture share a common history, and common obsessions. Look at 17thcentury stage designs for the first operas, and it seems as if opera was born to create ideal residents for the buildings of Palladio, who died less than 20 years before Jacopo Peri’s Dafne helped inaugurate the new musical form. Opera, understood not as a new art but a revival of classical sung drama, naturally reflected the order and balance that prevailed in the built world. Even when librettists called for scenes set in the sylvan landscape of Arcadia, the trees were as orderly as rows of Corinthian columns. The sets Giocomo Torelli designed for an opera called Bellerofonte are typical: Pilasters and columns are seen in strong, single point perspective, down the center of the stage, no matter whether they’re made from stone or trees.

Fast forward three and a half centuries, and often it seems that opera is no longer borrowing architectural visions, but fomenting them. Architects, aided by computer technology and spurred by a theoretical culture that prizes the speculative, the experimental and the preposterous, have developed fantasies that take them to the limits of what architecture (and engineering) can do. Yet, in many cases, opera (and by extension, theater design) got there first. What architects dream of, opera makes real — at least in the sense that a fantasy, on stage, is real.

Opera and architecture seem to circle each other, taking inspiration from each other indirectly. At times, each art form approaches the concerns and anxieties of the other, sometimes without even realizing how closely they shadow one another. The relationship might be described as fluid.

Five years ago, in the middle of a lake in Switzerland, the architecture firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro built what they call “the blur building.” It was a structure made of water vapor, a pavilion surrounded by a cloud of mist shot out of some 30,000 tiny nozzles. In renderings it looked like a blur; in reality, in photographs taken after it was built, it looked like a low-hanging, patchy and amorphous cloud. In July 2007, architects and engineers at MIT announced that they had designed a building defined by walls of digitally controlled water, walls that are not only a thin curtain of flowing water, but a curtain that can spell out messages and respond to the presence of a visitor by creating a dry “door.” According to one of the project’s leaders, “The dream of digital architecture has always been to create buildings that are responsive and reconfigurable.”

The dream of fluid architecture, of moving walls and structures of liquid insubstantiality, is a staple of stage design. Before there was a blur building, there was the fog machine (sometimes architectural fantasies seem so basic, even primitive, in their theatrical aspirations). Water — dripping, or in pools, or used along with lighting to cast wave patterns on backdrops — is a familiar presence in the opera house. And to be surrounded by water, to be in a place where water is the roof above and the walls on all sides, is a fantasy known to anyone who has listened to a low E-flat morph into the rushing torrent of the Rhine at the beginning of Wagner’s epic tetralogy.

At the beginning of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the architect-hero of her 1943 novel stands beside a lake and ponders his future. “The water seemed immovable, the stone flowing,” she wrote, capturing an architectural dream that has, perhaps, finally been realized by engineers at MIT. But a little more than 60 years before that, Wagner called for a world of flowing stone in Parsifal. Trees would give way to rocky gorges and tunnels of dark stone, before a vast, domed hall, lit from above, took shape on stage. It was the act of transition, the visualization of a building taking shape before one’s eyes, that prompted a line so cryptic you might expect it to have come from a radical architect overly steeped in theory: “See, my son, space here to time doth change.”

The two arts often seem radically different. One deals in substantial things, durable over centuries and essential to man’s daily survival. The other, more concerned with the fantastical, is temporal and impermanent in its very performance, and is something of a luxury. But a strange interrelationship is obvious from the critical language they borrow from each other. Among the highest praise for a piece of music is that it is architectural — that in its extended flow through time, one senses clear structure and balance. Architects, on the other hand, crave the idea that their work is musical, by which they mean either lyrical, or polyphonic, and perhaps both.

Each art aspires to the condition of the other. Look at the first, conceptual sketches contemporary architects are producing (and hanging in art museums), and you see a mix of impatience and pleasure, a reveling in the purely abstract or the vigorously gestural. The deconstructivist architects of today are making drawings that look a lot like Stockhausen scores or Earle Brown’s musical maps from a generation ago. Look at a score by Philip Glass or John Adams, and you see a density of carefully plotted information that feels almost schematic, like the product of engineering. It has become almost impossible to describe one form without borrowing metaphors, and even orthography, from the other.

Ask Jerome Sirlin, an architect who ended up in the theater and has done extensive design for opera. Almost 30 years ago, when he was an architect in upstate New York, Sirlin was asked to design sets for a very low-budget dance production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Invisible City of Kitezh. It is perhaps the perfect opera for an architect to design: A city under siege can be seen only in its reflection in a lake, then returns in brilliant new form, filled with a transformed people. Here is the architect’s grandest dream worked out in the form of a fable: The city is sick, the city must be remade, and it will in turn remake people. The opera was known as the Russian Parsifal; it might just as well have been a dream by Baron Haussmann, who destroyed Paris to make it better.

“The budget was about $250, for which I could hardly buy lumber,” said Sirlin. So instead he created an invisible city using projections, following in the path of the great Czech theater designer Josef Svoboda (another architect working in the theater), who used lighting and projections to create surreal worlds of psychic architecture. Sirlin has been working in the theater ever since — creating imaginary spaces that are fleeting, but somehow more satisfying to him than many of the real ones being built today.

Architecture, says Sirlin, often “lacks a big idea, a big story.”

The kind of work Sirlin and other designers do has advanced radically since the 1970s. Computer-aided design and editing programs have allowed theater artists to achieve what architects so far have only dreamed of: Fuse buildings with the organic world, change their shape with musical elasticity, dissolve them into the ether only to reconstitute them in the blink of an eye (or the click of a mouse). A recent production of Verdi’s Macbeth at Washington National Opera (with projections co-designed by Luca Dalco), allowed director Paolo Miccichè to suggest the moral decay essential to the opera’s libretto, the musical flow essential to Verdi’s score, and a compelling observation about architecture as well. The Gothic, so sturdy in its stone forms, is at its core one of the most naturalistic of architectures. So Verdi’s Shakespearean anti-hero occupied a world in which castles (and metaphorically, ambiti
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About the Author: Philip Kennicott is culture critic for The Washington Post.
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