Workshop 2016/2017

Sound and Story

28. - 29. Juni 2017

Workshop on the Conflict between Narration (Representation of Stories) and Presence (Autonomy of Sound, Image and Movement) in Contemporary Opera.

Central to the operatic art form is the opposition created through the autonomy of sound and the necessity of telling stories by way of music. From its inception the genre oscillated between these two poles. On the one hand, as early as Monteverdi, music had established a position that lent it an autonomy which went far beyond illustrative onomatopoeia and musical rhetoric; while on the other, it followed the onstage stories in its rhetoric, stylistic idiom and dramaturgy – for instance the melodic leaps of Fiordiligi in Come Scoglio are more than just abstract intervals since they give expression to the extreme psychological situation in which the protagonist finds herself.

In the postwar period this conflict only intensified with New Music and its renunciation of a musical language that entailed a binding tonality. It seemed that the insistence on autonomous sound in newer works would render impossible the kind of expressive or narrative music that the operatic genre demanded. From direct expression of the body in Sciarinno (the beating heart or breathing in Lohengrin and Infinito Nero) or in Lachenmann (the trembling lips in Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern) to the speechlessness that befalls one when confronting the Holocaust in Czernowin’s Pnima – it was in such important works of the avant-garde that the search for expression became an operatic theme in itself. Luigi Nono’s Prometeo (which he termed a “tragedy of listening”) might mark an endpoint to this development, in its rejection of any and all representation as traditionally rendered by means of image, scene, or story.

The workshop is designed to create a space where the conflicting agendas of autonomous sound and image can be more precisely described and where discussion can unfold on various aspects and approaches contrived to tackle this conflict. The first part of the workshop will focus on conceptions of contemporary composers – how do they tell their stories and what musical vocabulary and forms do they employ? The workshop’s second part will be devoted to analyzing how stage directors and other theatrical artists come to grips with the issue – what are the consequences for an operatic scene when the aesthetic applied is one that rejects a simple narrative style? The third section of the workshop will be given over to discussion of that medium which is at center of the dichotomy arising between sound and expression – the human voice.  What is the significance of singing within the framework of an art form where the relationship between sound and expression is constantly being thrown into question?

The conference attempts to bring artistic concepts together with musicological and theatrical positions. On the first day the lectures and discussions will be supplemented by an evening concert which presents new vocal music focuses on the issues broached by the workshop.



Hans Thomalla
Fellow 2014/2015
Northwestern University


 Corina Pertschi

Corina Pertschi


Tel. +49 30 89001 158