Monday, 17 March 2008

Melodrama on Stage, 13 March 2008

In this workshop and discussion afternoon we set out to explore melodrama as a performance process. We chose Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery (Covent Garden, 1802) because it was the first English melodrama (based on Pixérécourt’s Coelina, 1800) and it has an extant score (by Thomas Busby) and detailed cues in the published text and score. We focused on the scene in which the mute Francisco relates his past through gestures and writing. Communication takes place on several levels – Fiammetta ‘translates’ Francisco's gestures, Stephano reads his written explanations out loud, other onstage characters react to the unfolding story.

We were not intending to produce an ‘authentic’ early nineteenth-century performance – we are not actors, nor do we have the gestural vocabulary or sensibility of the period. However, the opportunity to work from the inside of a melodrama helped to raise important issues about the relationship between music, gesture and movement (in terms of practical stagecraft and effect)and to stimulate thinking about nineteenth-century opera and silent film.

  • music has a flexible relationship with gesture and movement: sometimes it provides the impetus for action, and sometimes it flows from movement. David Mayer offered the metaphor of water – variously supporting, propelling and resisting the body.
  • our inexperience highlighted a fundamental quality of melodrama: that music, gesture, movement and speech should be experienced as an organic process, rather than as individual, component blocks.
  • music and gestures often suggest very different things, and do not merely support or duplicate each other.

Some questions I am interested in pursuing include:

  • should ‘hurry’ music always be accompanied by physical movement, or may it be understood as the purely emotional frenzy of one or more characters? Mary Ann Smart has traced the legacy of melodramatic gesture in nineteenth-century opera from close mirroring of gesture in the music (eg Auber’s La Muette de Portici) to internalised movement (eg Wagner) – but was it perhaps already being internalised in melodrama? This might also have implications for the ways in which we think about tableaux.
  • to what extent does the music suggest (rather than merely confirm) meaning to a) the actors, b) the audience?
  • does the music help the audience to engage with the rather stylised and self-conscious, even comic, speech and gestures?
  • does the tempo, dynamic and texture of the music have a significant impact on the meaning or mood of a scene? (In practice, were certain types of music generally played in the same way, by the same instruments, or was there variety and elasticity of approach?)

The afternoon suggested avenues for further exploration, and I would welcome comments from participants and observers – either responding to the above, or to aspects of the day itself. I shall post some further thoughts, and suggest questions we might want to consider at our forthcoming workshops/study days. Video clips of the afternoon will be mounted on the project website in due course.

Sarah Hibberd, Cynthia Marsh (stage director), Jo Robinson
Tamara Dollin (pianist)
Jan Butler, Heather Caddick, Olivia McCall, Abbey Whittle (actors)
Guests: David Mayer, Ann Featherstone, Nanette Nielsen

NB an important inspiration for this workshop was an AHRB-funded Innovations Project directed by Gilli Bush-Bailey and Jacky Bratton at Royal Holloway: Working it Out (2002). This project explored the rehearsal process of two early nineteenth-century plays by Jane Scott, and focused on the physical aspect of the works – gesture, stage movement, dancing, fighting. Music was employed, but the complex nature of its relationship with the other elements was not really explored.


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March 30, 2008  
Anonymous David Mayer said...

In response to your query about hurry music, i.e., the circumstances in which it might be used. The first rule of thumb (a necessary generalisation) for all of this work is to avoid generalisations: when we speak of melodrama, we speak of the particular, rarely rules in general because what orchestras and conductors do from theatre to theatre is their own way of working. Thus, my reply, this time, is about The Bells (cf D. Mayer, _Henry Irving and "The Bells"_ (Manchester University Press 1982), which includes Irving's text, notes, and, crucially the score). If you look at the score in this book (or if you listen to the tape of The Bells narrated by Eric Jones Evans and accompanied by the Solent Symphonia), you'll hear hurries played for entrances (especially Mathias, act 1) which build, not so much to emotional climaxes as key moments. Music keys audience expectation and applause. My experience of hurry music is that it's used 1) at key moments, 2) in scene changes, 3) to cover action. None of these exclusively, all of these frequently but unpredictably.

March 30, 2008  
Anonymous Sarah Hibberd said...

Many thanks for this. I know that we should not try to generalise, and that practices varied both between theatres (and countries) and through the century. What was behind my question was really whether there was a precedent for 'hurry' music being internalised (ie not accompanied by physical movement) - in her book Smart suggests that such internalisation in the 1870s was an example of Wagner shaking off the shackles of melodrama, but my impression (though I don't know, which is why I pose the question) is that such internalisation was already there (on occasion) in melodrama, and perhaps in other operas, particularly in France.

Part of my interest in this concerns the evolution of tableaux in French operas in the first half of the century, in which a type of 'hurry' music tends to be accompanied by different sorts of movement (individuals, crowds, scenic effects), and appears to be derived from melodrama. A good example is the conclusion of Meyerbeer's _Le Prophete_ (1849), which has much in common with Pixerecourt's _La Citerne_ (1809, I think): the (pantomime) activities of various groups of people as the building collapses around them is accompanied by 'hurry' music of a sort, but the whole effect is of a static 'moment'. I'm interested in exploring the nature of the relationship between opera and melodrama at this time, and the static/kinetic elements of such tableaux. From what you say, it seems that in _The Bells_ hurry music is not used at such moments - ie climax of the drama.

March 30, 2008  
Anonymous David Mayer said...

I wonder if, in your research into opera's links with melodrama, you've encountered Basil Dean and his work on what he termed "escape opera". He certainly wrote on the subject. I haven't listened to recordings of Cherubini's operas, but I wonder whether there wasn't some sort of a connection between collapsing prisons, towers, etc. and loud hurried music. I have a photocopy of the piano score to Isaac Pocock's The Miller and His Men and have hired music students to play it for me. My recollection is that, as the burning powder train hurriedly burns toward the bandits' lair in Grindoff's mill, the music gets faster and faster and, eventually, louder and louder. There may have been some copying or borrowing from escape opera to achieve this effect.

March 30, 2008  
Anonymous Sarah Hibberd said...

Many thanks. Yes, there has been some work on the escape/rescue operas of the 1790s and early 1800s, and I think there is a clear (mutual) influence between opera and melodrama at that time (cf David Charlton, Michael Fend) that continues with the emergence of grand opera (in the 1820s and 30s).

March 30, 2008  
Anonymous Tamara Dollin said...

There were a lot of interesting points that were brought up over the 2-day workshop/presentation; especially that of the relationship between the music and the speech/movement. With regard to the 'hurry' question, I feel that it could be perfectly justified not to have frantic movement accompanying the music but to simply allow the music to 'speak' the character's thoughts for itself. If we look back to the days of silent film, frantic thoughts and gestures were not accompanied by music so I think that it could work equally well the other way round i.e.having 'hurry' music that isn't accompanied by frantic movement.

In relation to the role of the music within the melodrama: it became evident over the 2-day workshop that the relationship and communication between actor and musician was of great importance and an integral part to the smooth flow of the scene. Many of the actors felt that the music led the gesture but as the pianist, I beg to differ. On a number of occasions it became clear that it was imperative that I watched the actor intently and waited for my 'cue' before continuing with the next excerpt of music; especially if there was a gesture that we decided to 'play' silently; there was then a need for me to follow the actor's movements closely before proceeding. Overall, it was a thoroughly enjoyable and informative project and I look forward to hearing more about people's ideas in the future!

April 19, 2008  

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