The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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JUL-AUG 2020 Issue

BOTCH-ing Online Opera

BOTCH Zoom workshop, June 2020. Photo by the author.
BOTCH Zoom workshop, June 2020. Photo by the author.

We inhabit a swiftly expanding media-verse of voices, words, music, and images. So shouldn’t this be the time to propose some alternative organization of these elements into a revitalized form of opera? Granted, this seems a tall order at this precise moment when live performance venues have been shuttered indefinitely and many composers, performers, and audiences are settling for live-streaming as a stopgap until things return to normal. I would argue for a different attitude—one that seriously engages with the online streaming medium from the ground up.

I’d like to start by thinking in terms of architecture, and by recalling how we arrived at the traditional classical operatic voice. The distinctive vibrato, cutting resonance, and capacity for sheer volume of this singing technique evolved from historically specific architectural conditions; namely, to project over an orchestra to the back of a large opera house. This helps to explain why the worst place to hear a classical opera voice is a streaming online performance. The acoustic disparity between Lincoln Center and a lo-fi digital stream originating from a singer’s apartment is enough to turn a potentially sublime performance into an irritating alien encounter. It just doesn’t fit.

But architectural differences go beyond acoustics. Aside from the obvious lack of social proximity, there is the sheer embedded-ness in multiple layers of mega-corporate software. Performers collaborating remotely are likely using a videoconferencing platform like Zoom that was built for sharing spreadsheets in a meeting where office workers speak one at a time in the interests of efficiency. The audience views and hears the performance in one of many windows that have equivalent value as information. This interface, that makes anything and everything available, encourages either the attitude of scanning and quickly discarding what doesn’t line up with a predetermined notion, or succumbing to a YouTube vortex where we rarely experience an extended whole work on its own terms, but only as a way station taking us somewhere else.

None of this is compatible with the traditional experience of a live music or theatrical performance. But that doesn’t mean there are no possibilities. For myself, there were some unavoidable correspondences between these new architectural facts and the work that I have been doing for over 10 years with a group of vocalists/performers called BOTCH Ensemble (Christina Campanella, Michael Chinworth, John Rose, and Saori Tsukada). BOTCH appropriates all sorts of technical systems—everything from the logic of computer programming to protocols for customer service call centers—as raw material for a contemporary vocal technique I call “broken word opera.” The dramatic tension for me is always where the voice and body resist these processes, resulting in unpredictable errors (hence, BOTCH) that are really creative responses to the system.

And so we found ourselves on Zoom, developing ideas for a future opera, and starting with the question of what to do with our voices in this new venue. Here, there is no physical space, but there is one bizarre temporal space: the often-mentioned audio delay. This is generally taken to be one of the main problems when playing with other musicians because of the difficulty of staying in sync. Rather than view this as a compromise, we saw it as an architectural feature to exploit.

This also opened up a narrative question central to BOTCH: can we resist slotting ourselves into predetermined templates? On a non-musical Zoom call, when speakers are socializing, teaching, or conducting business, the delay is generally not an issue. The software appears to be adequate to at least verbal communication. But it is qualitatively different, and subtly guiding our habits in directions that conform to the technology. For one thing, social relations become more about exchanging information, ordered with one active speaker at a time. Occasionally though, the artificial nature of this communication is interrupted; for example, when someone’s connection slows down and we hear their voice delayed momentarily before it returns to normal—a crack in an otherwise smooth surface.

We developed a vocal technique inside this crack. Imagine the Telephone Game: the first person says a long sentence to someone, who then has to try to relay it to someone else, and so on down the line. By the time it reaches the last person, the sentence has become unrecognizable, though somehow connected to the original. In our version, one performer would vocalize a stream of words, while a second performer tried to trace this voice continuously as they were hearing it. On the one hand mimicking the incoming voice quickly results in pure entropy, as the words become flubbed and unintelligible, but on the other, the concrete particularities of speech—its melody, timbre, and rhythm—come to the fore.

Things got more interesting when the first person stopped speaking new words and started tracing the tracer, the two voices entering into a feedback loop. Though we have experimented with this idea a number of times over the years, the Zoom audio delay made it come alive by inserting a slice of time—about a tenth of a second—that was simultaneously before and after the combined vocal texture. The indeterminacy introduced in this tenth of a second was an engine for a vocal duet that was constantly energized and transforming in ways that could never be predicted, notated, or duplicated.

Added to this were other features, such as the audio glitches and gremlins that enter into the vocal stream, digital artifacts impossible to reproduce—trying to do so sends the singing in unexpected semi-human directions. The audio dropouts that often occur when multiple voices are sounding also gave a certain digital breath to the texture. Singing in this system demands just as much musicianship as classical singing in its precision, attention to dynamics and nuance, and an unrelenting aural focus and alertness. But it also constructs a different kind of vocalist, not an individual expressing a coherent dramatic character, but a sensitive agent in a collective arrangement of other voices and digital gestures. This seems to me a promising place to develop a voice for contemporary opera.

I readily admit this is an idiosyncratic project. However, the point I am making is broadly applicable to many other approaches. There is absolutely nothing transparent about the medium of online streaming, and to assume otherwise could lead to creative failure. I think it would be a mistake to view live-streaming as merely a compromised version of live performance, a shadow of the real thing that we will put up with until things go back to normal. This approach will result in a lot of performance documentation going online, but not a compelling form that actually offers art as something other than information. The mindset has to be how to make art in an information medium, rather than giving art over to it.

But perhaps all this begs the question: why search for a Zoom opera voice, or be so concerned with the specificity of streaming media? We will someday be back in theaters and concert venues, and then can’t we just chalk this whole Zoom thing up to a desperate and soon to be obsolete chapter in keeping performance alive? Actually, I am not advocating that operas should now be made for Zoom. I am honestly not sure what form BOTCH will now take, though I doubt we will stream it online as a self-sufficient new opera. We may put it in the form of shorter interventions that fully embrace their status as short YouTube videos. Or the work we do may end up being the basis of a full-length onstage performance in the future.

However, even if no meaningful online forms emerge from this period (though I’m sure they will), a deep engagement with the medium will be beneficial for anyone thinking about the future of contemporary opera in a live venue. It is an opportunity to break some ingrained habits that have long been out of touch with current architectural facts, such as the use of enormous classical voices in the small black-box theaters where many new operas are actually presented, and the accompanying lack of interest in developing a musically expressive microphone technique even now, a hundred years after the thing was invented.

More important is the question of what stories we are telling, and what kind of people roam our stages. So many recent self-proclaimed contemporary operas have been mired in 19th century conceptions of individual characters and narrative, of sentimental interior spaces and passions that have little to do with the positive and negative consequences of our increasingly collective and digitally mediated experiences. In this respect, engaging with online streaming can provide a much needed jolt into the 21st century. When we return to the live venues, the network will still be in our pocket, even if it gets silenced for a couple of hours.


Joe Diebes

combines sound, visual media, and the human voice in various ways. His operas and audiovisual installations have recently been presented by Roulette, Watermill Center, Experimental Intermedia, Harvestworks, HERE, and BRIC, among other performance spaces and art galleries.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

All Issues