Search this site

Ideas for an Environmental Opera

In the spring of 1998 the environmental photographer, Mark Edwards, and I had a number of meetings in London to discuss the idea of an opera based on environmental themes. This notion evolved out of the ideas presented in the two essays Art and the Environment in Britain and Art and the Environment.

Such an opera should be a collaborative idea and would require funding. Mark and I welcome expressions of interest and support.

Why an opera? Opera, by tradition, deals in big themes. It has the capacity to reach across cultures and can appeal to the heart and mind alike. In fact we are thinking along the lines of a semi-opera. This is an early form of opera and was used by Henry Purcell in such works as The Fairy Queen. Semi opera can combine all the forces of conventional with spoken dialogue and narration as well as dance. Our idea was for a multimedia opera, part play, part opera lyrica, part modern dance, part film, video or slide show.

The work word presents our basic human predicament in the face of environmental threat. It is set in a world that's growing increasingly small and cross-cultural: A world in which values are being questioned, relationships are changing and issues are no longer black and white. The positions of the various protagonists will be explored and even subverted as the work proceeds. For example, environmentalists sometimes paint their issues in terms of stark alternatives. The opera could take a Shavian position and debate the issues from both sides, showing how things are not always so clear cut and by questioning motives and so on.

Such an opera could be planned for Environment 2000. Ie. But rather than a finished polished work its existence could be as work-in-progress, a musical drama that evolves and transforms though the cooperation of many peoples, points of view and cultures, towards that particular date. Should such an opera be a small, reflective chamber work? Yes, it's possible that in the early stages it could have such a form. To make a large scale opera could be critiqued that it is big, expensive and makes a circus out of serious issues. On the other hand the world also needs a party and our opera could end by turning into a carnival that spills out into the audience and the community.

Another element could be to borrow from the sculptor Anthony Gormley's series of works called Field, in which local communities were responsible for making large numbers of terracotta figures which fill a gallery and create their own space. In terms of our opera it would then exist as a potential - an idea, blue print, visual image or physical artifact that is used in different countries to create a work that grows out of the attitudes, traditions and culture of those particular people. The final work could then take place on a particular date at locations all over the world. Or it could be a work lasting through several days and performed in one location.

Type of Music: The nature of the material - individuals, society, cultures and the environment calls for a "world music" approach. I.e. music and samplings that range from the "classical" music of various culture though techno-industrial sound, minimalism, folk-song and indigenous music. Chants, spirituals and third world songs would also be a powerful way of using the chorus and encouraging the audience to participate.

Chorus: A chorus is a vital component of opera, ancient drama and ritual. It can be used to comment and question, to slow down or distance the action where required, to underline the drama, to give a voice to ordinary people who may feel powerless, and to express that moment when the entire audience becomes part of the opera. The chorus in Verdi was given "singable songs" that everyone would then whistle in the street! This community sense should be part of the Environmental opera.

Plot: The plot should touch deep human myths. One aspect of the environmental movement is tied to dire predictions about the end of the world. The underlying psychological fears about such disasters, and earlier fears of a nuclear war, are often associated with fantasies about the survival of a small core group of believers and a subsequent return to a golden age. In many ways our preoccupation with these notions comes back to our collective sense of original sin and a fall from grace.

The environmentalist must confront governments and impersonal corporations. This contains an element of the young hero's journey and a fight against the father/God/dragons. At some point a sacrifice must be made. Somewhere along the line someone has to die in order for the earth to be reborn. The issue is that of hubris. There is a penalty to be paid for ignoring the warnings of the earth goddess and her associated gods. There is also the issue of the heroic figure who becomes inflated by the notion of his own journey and thereby looses sight of the path.

The Pop Star: The pop star has becomes larger than life, someone who transcends culture, class, racism and colonialism. The pop star is the modern hero god, or goddess, who now campaigns on behalf of indigenous people and the environment. Yet there is also the myth of Orpheus, in which the singer is finally torn to pieces by the wild beasts. Anyone who takes on an heroic role will become psychically magnified and their ego distorted by the media. In the grip of their own inflation they loose touch with the earth and their origins. The hero then becomes scapegoat and makes the sacrifice that brings balance and fertility back to earth. The opera ends with a death and then a rebirth and carnival.

Comedy: Heroes, plots, deaths and so on could well be yet another case of the old way of thinking that keeps us bound to the wheel. All such issues run deep and there can be no convenient resolution, no tying up of plots and sub plots, and no closure. The opera must, in the end, dissolve and be subverted by, Comedy and Carnival. It must transform into an energetic eruption of song, dance, music and color that disrupts our logic and replaces it by paradox, ambiguity, mask, exchange of roles, subversion of authority, breaking of rules. It is a creative chaos in which cast and audience, opera and street life can no longer be distinguished It will be a chaos out of which new forms and orders can be born.

Contact F. David Peat