The article below was written by Megan Steigerwald Ille, a 2018 Paul R. Judy Center Grantee.
What does it mean to perform opera outside of the opera house? This question has driven my research and writing in opera studies since 2015. To answer this question, I have relied on methods familiar to traditional musicology, such as archival research, reception and performance studies. I have also incorporated methods less frequently applied to opera studies, namely, ethnographic research. My 2018 dissertation, “Bringing Down the House: Situating and Mediating Operatic Performance in the Twenty-First Century” represents the first full-length contribution by a musicologist or ethnomusicologist to operatic ethnography.
My dissertation examined multiple site-specific and digitally-mediated productions across the United States, and my current book project focuses specifically on L.A-based experimental opera company The Industry. The Industry was founded in 2012 by 2017 MacArthur Fellow Yuval Sharon, and is a self-described “independent, artist-driven company creating experimental productions that expand the definition of opera.”
With this short essay, I’d like to provide a mid-project “snapshot” of my current work. I give a brief overview of what ethnographic fieldwork looks like in the context of my research and suggest two ways ethnography informs my writing. These observations are by no means unique to this project; rather, they demonstrate the ways a research methodology familiar to ethnomusicologists may offer new insights on the genre of U.S-American opera. This commentary is drawn from my recent fieldwork trip to Los Angeles in May of 2019, funded by the Paul R. Judy Center for Applied Research. I hope these observations will encourage researchers, musicians, and others to consider the rehearsal and performance process from new angles.
Sweet Land, The Industry’s fourth independently-produced opera, engages with themes of oppression and restitution in a violent settler-colonialist narrative. Sweet Land will be performed in February and March 2020. The opera uses iterations and repetitions of two central American myths: the first Thanksgiving, and westward expansion, as a way to critique hegemonic narratives of progress and domination. I attended rehearsals and performances of a workshop performance of Sweet Land in May 2019, upon which the conclusions which make up this essay are based.
Ethnography, Oral History, Interviews?
May 1, 2019: I arrive at the LA Dance Project Studios in downtown L.A. at 8 PM on a Wednesday evening. My flight has been delayed, and I’ve come straight to rehearsal. I try to roll my suitcase into the space as quietly as possible, but it doesn’t matter because the performers are on a break. I get to run over and sneak in a few hugs with old friends before everyone starts again. I try to capitalize on the free time to quickly introduce myself to a few new performers who I haven’t met before. Because this is only the second rehearsal, singers, staff, and instrumentalists assume I’m another production person, and they greet me warmly, with jokes about the abundance of snacks available on the break table. After the break is over, I sit on the risers with Cannupa Hanska Luger, the co-director for this production, and have a whispered conversation about his involvement with the project.
Scholars of both historical and contemporary music use techniques like interviews and oral histories as a way to learn more about compositional process, reception, and performance. These research methods have much in common with some of the ethnographic methods I use in this project. The biggest difference, however, has to do with the depth of engagement and the process of participation that takes place in ethnographic research versus these other methods, in what is typically described as a process of participant-observation.
While I don’t perform with The Industry, I participate in the productions as an audience member and spend time with the company during the rehearsal process, absorbing the moments of stasis, waiting, and workshopping that often take place during rehearsal. I am an observer in these moments, but so are the other performers and production staff waiting for the rehearsal to continue or the composers to make a decision about a cut to the music. Each time I make a visit to the “field site” of The Industry, be it in a rehearsal, performance, production meeting, or chatting with instrumentalists at a coffee shop, I deepen my relationship with this group of people and better understand how they interpret and frame their work.
Takeaway #1: Ethnography offers new insights into artistic priorities in operatic composition and rehearsal.
May 2, 2019: Baritone Fahad Siadat moves up one level of the risers where I am perched with my notebook. “Have you noticed what they are doing?” he says, gesturing to music director Marc Lowenstein. “This would never happen in a traditional company.” Lowenstein is patiently rehearsing a passage of music with a performer of Indigenous descent who is an experienced musician, but less so in a contemporary operatic idiom, and is struggling with the difficulty of a passage. They have been working together on the phrase for about ten minutes. “What?” I say, unsure of to what he is referring. Siadat explains that Lowenstein is taking rehearsal time to meet the performer where she is musically, because it matters that Indigenous voices are (literally) heard in this production.
My conversation with Siadat foregrounds a key ideological theme made obvious during rehearsals of Sweet Land. The Industry is working to not only challenge narratives of whitewashing and systemic inequality in the narrative of this production, but also during the rehearsal process itself. In order to meet this goal, the company must be willing to abandon traditional rehearsal norms, perhaps even the expectation that all performers will perfectly execute the music during initial rehearsals.
This process of collaboration is not just limited to the interaction Siadat and I discuss. Sweet Land is built upon collaboration. The work is written by a team of librettists, Aja Couchois Duncan and Douglas Kearney, composed by a pair of composers, Raven Chacon and Du Yun, and directed by two directors, Yuval Sharon and Cannupa Hanska Luger. While librettists and composers have shown up with a template of what they’d like to hear during the workshop performance of Sweet Land, our rehearsals include constant changes to the already-established text and music as a result of playful collaboration and sustained practice. The instrumentalists and singers are equally adept at responding to suggestions made by Chacon and Yun, while the process itself is often initiated and led by Lowenstein. This communal approach is not new to The Industry; however, performers explain they feel a responsibility towards one another in the creation of this production specifically. “There is a kind of kinship that comes from being a non-western background and doing classical music,” Siadat explains to me, and I can see cast members responding to this idea in their interactions during rehearsals. One cast member, Joanna, is disappointed that she is given what she deems a “settler” role to play as she sings the role of “Rifle.” “Imagine yourself firing back on that rifle then,” librettist Douglas Kearney suggests in solidarity. Joanna seems encouraged, fiercely enunciating consonants in our next run through.
Takeaway #2: Ethnography foregrounds performer and audience voices.
May 4, 2019: The workshop performance of Sweet Land has just concluded and I am mingling with other audience members at a post-show reception. Longtime The Industry fans John and Jill X explain to me their experience of seeing the 2015 production Hopscotch while we munch on crudités. Just behind me, another audience member describes how much she liked the music of the Sweet Land workshop. “Compelling, disturbing” she says. “Not child-like, like Galileo,” says her companion, referencing a 2017 workshop performance also put on by The Industry.
These audience comments make an interesting statement about patronage and The Industry. While the company is celebrated for the ways the productions connect with a younger audience, my conversations at the post-show, ticketed reception highlight the ways the company continues to draw an older, moneyed audience that plays a significant role in supporting productions. These observations align with a conversation I had with Elizabeth Cline, who serves as executive director of the company, earlier in the week. Cline emphasized the ways in which the company still deals with financial challenges familiar with older and more traditional companies: namely, the fraught intersection of patronage and operatic production costs in the contemporary United States.
While companies like The Industry may signal a new approach to operatic funding and the far-off dream that ticket sales might play a growing role in covering production costs—this suggestion of funding innovations is far from the entire story. Like most contemporary opera companies, The Industry is primarily funded by grants and private donations, as perhaps demonstrated by the comments at the post-performance reception.
A follow-up conversation with another audience member, Molly X, however, suggests a different kind of audience interaction with the traditional norms of opera. In her words, Molly has never attended a “traditional” full-length opera, although she has listened to operatic recordings. Molly explains that she “believes opera should be used to act out fictional stories . . .Sweet Land does just that, giving us an honest account of the experiences of Indigenous peoples.” This quote, in contrast with my earlier accounts of moneyed patrons who represent traditional opera, gives a completely different picture of how contemporary operatic performance might be defined.
If I had only spoken to people at the post-performance reception, I would have gotten a very different picture of the “typical” The Industry audience. Molly’s observations point to the importance of repeated site-visits and interactions with as many people as possible during ethnographic research.
In Progress/In Process: The Next Step
Operatic ethnography constitutes one more methodology at the disposal of the researcher in opera studies. When analyzing contemporary music practices, this approach offers an unprecedented opportunity to learn from performers, composers, and production staff about how they take part in and define the complexities of the contemporary U.S. opera industry.
I plan to return to Los Angeles in late 2019 for a run-through of Sweet Land. The collaborators will have increased, and likely, some of the performers will be different. I will roll my suitcase into the rehearsal space, perch on the risers, whisper hellos to my friends and interlocutors, and hopefully, learn a little bit more about operatic performance outside of the opera house.