Nothing Is Original
I recently saw a tee-shirt on a friend of a friend on Facebook. Very simple “Nothing Is Original” with “#RipItOff” hashtag below.
Simple statement. So very, very true.
The challenge, for us in opera, is to appear original. Most of us know this is not possible and it’s only an illusion. The score is someone else’s (oftentimes many else’s – composer, librettist, editor(s), performance traditions by long-ago dead singers), the staging is derivative of all previous stagings every seen on the stage (even if updated, characters must still tell a story with lights, costumes, and sets), the singers’ ornaments are from the past directly, or heavily borrowed, and the tempi of any conductor is well within most ballparks of what’s come before.
What gives us originality is the ever-new collaborations that are put into place for each new production. New singers, a new design, new ideas on these old ideas, a new venue, new players, new approaches, etc.
To think that many young singers don’t want to listen to recordings, or watch older singers perform to research their repertoire or a new role, is – for me – the height of hubris.
And the height of denying the fact that Nothing Is Original.
All operas are not original. All Art is simply not original.
Opera – all of it – springs from something else. All contain elements found in previous pieces. There’d be no opera without the camerata from Florence’s renaissance, but even those guys were looking way back into time to Greek drama. We have the original castratis to thank for the later 19th century bel canto renaissance. Mozart begat Rossini who begat Donizetti who begat Verdi who begat Puccini who begat Menotti who begat Heggie. The ties that bind, the degrees of separation, are so tight between all of the operas we work on every year. The dance that happens is a dance between the past and the future. To find the future, one does need knowledge of the past.
When we see or hear something new – say an amazing Robert Wilson production or new ornaments previously not thought of by Bartoli or a conductor flex time in a Mozart ensemble or a new opera by a young composer – we get excited. Wow! Now THIS is original.
No. Nothing Is Original
So: RIP IT OFF! Do it with aplomb and acknowledgement for what’s come before. Dare others to find your “inspirations”. But please, please, do not pretend you’re being original. You are combining the same ingredients into a new dish to be served, albeit in hopefully a creative, fresh, and tasty manner that seems beyond brilliant.
And the flip side to that is, dare to be derivative. Learn from all the others who’ve come before you. Working on a Carmen? Have you listened to every single recording that’s out there? Learning a Mozart aria for the first time? Have you watched a video of your aria sung by the great ones?
Technique is an individual thing, but it is the derivative tool that powers opera. You take other’s technical ideas and make them your own. Do the same with your artistic choices.
Basically, own your own originality.