A Conversation with Eric Salzman, Co-Author of The New Music Theater

  • PLUS: Read an excerpt from Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi’s book, The New Music Theater: Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body.

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    Frank J. Oteri: Tracing the lineage of both opera and musical theatre and everything in between in a book that’s less than 400 pages, as you’ve attempted to do, seems like an impossible task. And it seems even more impossible given your geographic inclusivity as well as how broadly you have defined this idiom. What ultimately prompted your decisions about what to include and what not to include? E.g. You describe the Steve Reich-Beryl Korot collaborations at length which I find fascinating given Reich’s statements prior to these works in which he said he had absolutely no interest in music theatre of any kind.

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    Eric Salzman

    Eric Salzman: It was never our intention to write a ‘historical’ or musicological study so we had the luxury of being able to pick and choose what interested us or what we thought was important. Our geographic range was basically Western Europe and the active creative centers in North America. And, although we occasionally indulged in time travel to earlier periods (and other places), we mostly restricted ourselves to the past half century. This range was decided by the authors’ own experience—the times and places and works that we know best—but also because we thought that would give us what we needed to give a sense of what the new music theater is and where it might be going. Some of the decisions were made on a case to case basis. Steve Reich is a striking example for me because, in the 1980s, I tried to interest him in creating something for the American Music Theater Festival and he said he was not interested in working in this field. But then later he developed his own interpretation of the old multi-media or mixed-media genre.

    FJO: Part of me wishes that you would have had more space to be able to address Asian music theatre traditions as well as other non-Western forms (African, Middle Eastern, even Native American) since these seem to have had a profound impact on many people who have worked in new music theater idioms in the West including some key figures that you do write about, like Harry Partch.

    ES: I understand that desire, but then it would have been an entirely different book and one that would undoubtedly have been better entrusted to some other authors. Our decision was to give a single example of a traditional form of Asian music theater in an ‘Entr’acte’ (the ‘Entr’actes’ perform the function of touching on some areas that we otherwise neglect).

    FJO: Also, since the question of auteur-ship has played such an important role in the history of these idioms, as you’ve addressed them, bouncing back and forth through the ages between the composer, the librettist, the stage director and the performers, it might have been interesting to address the rise in popularity of the “juke box musical” on the commercial Broadway stage in recent decades. Of course, the idea of creating a new storyline out of a pastiche of pre-existing music has its antecedents in a libretto-driven work like The Beggar’s Opera (which you do write about and which has been called the very first musical) and works like Oscar Hammerstein II’s Carmen Jones (a trope on the Bizet opera), or Song of Norway (in which lyricists Wright and Forrest turned pre-existing classical melodies by Edvard Grieg into pop songs). I can’t really think of parallels to this phenomenon in Western opera (which is interesting given that this very question was raised re opera in the Q&A period following the panel discussion at this year’s NY City Opera VOX showcase). However, this way of constructing a score has been the traditional practice throughout the history of opera in China (music used in Peking opera, Cantonese opera, etc. is all music that has been recontextualized from other sources).

    ES: Again, we made a decision that the ‘music theater’ we wanted to deal with was drawn from the wide area between (but not including) opera and the popular musical. There are gray areas on each end of this spectrum and we ended up touching on opera (particularly where there seemed to be a music-theater connection) and on the post-Sondheim musical. But I’m afraid we let the jukebox musical, MTV, rock concerts and other notable phenomena fall outside our already crowded agenda. However, the idea of using pre-existing material does pop up in a few places, especially since some of Thomas Desi’s work falls into this category.

    FJO: It’s interesting that once upon a time many important American operas debuted on Broadway (Four Saints in Three Acts, several Menotti works, etc.) but almost never has anyone from Broadway invaded the “sacred high art space” of the opera house. Nowadays, it seems like the reverse is true. Musicals are frequently on operatic stages and music theatre composers also get commissioned to write operas (the most recent example I can think of being Stephen Schwartz). But no one from an operatic compositional background is doing stuff on Broadway. Your book talks quite a bit about Kurt Weill who was able to float in both of these works and created work that is consistent in being ultimately defiantly neither. Could such a composer exist in today’s climate?

    ES: There have been many examples over the years of composers from both sides who tried to cross over and we began to at least touch on this phenomenon in the book. Many, if not most, successful theater composers have classical backgrounds and some of them have tried to write operas with varying success in what you (rightly) call the sacred high art space. Jazz and pop composers—who tend to create music about themselves and their own feelings—have always had problems putting characters “up there” on the stage in both the theater and the opera. Ironically, the same is true of the many “classical” composers who have tried their hand at writing musicals, almost always with very limited success. I could give many examples (some are in the book). A recent case in point is the Sellars/Adams/Jordan I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky. The small list of “classical” composers who wrote successful concert works, musicals, and operas would include Mozart, Weill and Gershwin but hardly anyone since. The current climate in Europe is not particularly conducive to the crossover (see the discussion about Black Rider, a “serious” musical which had a big success in Europe but was created by three Americans). In theory, there are more possibilities in this country (where Weill’s influence is still around and composers still write tonal music) but most “classical” composers anywhere have limited experience in the theater. In my opinion, the revival of the off- or off-off-Broadway theater would offer the best chance (as it did in the earlier Depression)!

    FJO: Another thing that you address quite a bit in the book is how technology has changed not only the way music theatre is created and presented, but also how it is disseminated. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how recent and emerging technologies (e.g. virtual reality, the internet, YouTube, social networking, etc.) might reshape and redefine music theatre in the coming decades.

    ES: I personally believe that the most interesting uses of new technology in music theater will be in live performance. While it is true that various forms of media can be used to disseminate new works, this has not proven until now to be much of a substitute for the social activity of live performance. However new music and new music theater have always been open to technological developments since the invention of the bone flute and this will, no doubt, continue to be the case—always depending, of course, on the invention and ingenuity of composers, directors, etc. (Some of these issues are discussed in the book in various places, notably Chapter 18).

    FJO: You have been an extremely important figure in the development of new music theater possibilities for decades in a variety of role, composer, arranger, librettist, producer, etc. I’ve long treasured the Nonesuch LP recording of your own Nude Paper Sermon and I was completely in awe of the Center for Contemporary Opera’s American premiere stage production of the Morton Feldman-Samuel Beckett opera Neither which you and your co-author Thomas Desi were both involved with earlier this month. One of the things that is always extremely complicated for people who write about subjects who also have a significant role as practitioners in those subjects is how to talk about their own contributions: Do you leave your work out entirely? Do you write about them in first person? Or do you write about yourself in the third person to give it more of an air of objectivity? I know that for this book you chose the third option. I’m curious to know how you came to decide to do it that way.

    ES: The fact that there are two authors to this book made it imperative to distinguish between us and that led naturally to the third-party reference style. I don’t want to speak for the publisher, but we had the impression that Oxford preferred this approach as well. I believe that in most scholarly work, the third person style is used when authors refer to their own work so it seemed appropriate to use it here. I should point out that the hesitation of authors to refer to their own work is quaintly American and essentially non-operative in Europe where creators are expected to intellectualize about themselves and their work!

    FJO: One of the things I find most remarkable about this book is how naturally the whole narrative flows together despite how disparate the history is and the fact that you co-wrote it with someone else, Thomas Desi, an Austrian composer/director who is also a part of this history. How did you carve up the assignment? How did you maintain a consistent voice throughout?

    ES: In a very rough way, the European parts were written by Desi and the American bits by me while the general and theoretical sections were created by both of us in a back-and-forth process. Thomas wrote in English, I did any necessary revisions and we tried hard to avoid formulations that sounded too much like translations from the German. We worked together in the same city (Paris as it happened) for a couple of fairly intense months. For the rest of the time, everything was passed back and forth by e-mail so that both of us had a crack at commenting on or re-writing the other’s work. At this point, I probably couldn’t tell you whose work was by whom in half the book or more.