Music: How Much Does it Matter?


As most people know, it is typical of Western classical music to primarily perform old works by dead composers in different ways, sometimes, to the point where the music ceases to shape the aesthetic world of the work and functions as a separate entity from the music. In an effort to give audiences a new experience of old operas like Die Zaubeflöte, La Traviata, or Carmen, artistic directors sometimes change the setting or time period; some productions utilize immensely detailed sets, props, and costumes, while others could hardly utilize anything of the sort. While reviving old operas is not inherently bad, it does take away opportunity for new works to form a repertory of their own. In addition, it restricts the music’s role of shaping the overall aesthetic of the show. I once saw a production of Die Zaubeflöte, set in a 1920’s-esque comic book at the LA Opera, with an enormous, white wall that served as a screen on which all of the sets were projected; while interesting, I felt that the music held little importance and the focus was on the screen and not what the performers were doing. It was disorienting seeing so much technology used with the acoustic orchestra and non-mic’d singers. I am not in a place to claim how Mozart might have felt about his production being performed as such, but it does raise a question in my mind about how much the music shapes (or should shape) the aesthetic world of an opera. How much does the music matter if it is disregarded in favor of another aesthetic preference?

When thinking about Kaija Saariaho and how much energy she puts into developing the atmosphere, or “dreamscapes” of her works, it seems like it would be a great disservice to her to take a work like L’Amour de loinout of the context which it was written. While the plot of the opera closely resembles that of a traditional Romantic opera, the music is much more involved in creating the overall aesthetic world of the opera. In contrast with the clearer harmonies and more concise rhythm that utilize traditional musical structure to enhance the action and drama on stage, Saariaho’s music is much more fluid and centered around presenting a color or feeling, making it much more abstract than traditional opera. For that reason, it is served well with equally ambiguous or poetic, symbolic staging and set design, like the Metropolitan Opera’s 2016 production. When looking at the short excerpted scene of “Si tu t’appelle, Amour,” it is easy to see that the music, set, and staging work well together in creating a unified acoustic, visual, and dramatic world.

Much of L’Amour de loinhas that dream-like quality that is characteristic of Saariaho. It’s an outer expression of an inner world that seems, at times, incomprehensible, but also beautiful. In the final scene of the opera, just afer Jaufré has died, Clémence sings an aria at the bottom of a hydraulic staircase in the middle of the stage, amidst a literal sea of shimmering, white lights. The orchestra plays a continual pedal throughout the aria, sliding between different dissonant and eerie harmonies. The twinkling of the sea of lights on the stage reflect the shimmery stillness of the orchestra as Clémence wails in lamentation to either her far-away God, or her newly deceased, far-away lover. The orchestra’s dissonant stillness and the soprano’s slow, but grand, arching melodic line, invokes the cold chill of death; the shimmering lights present the image of the moon shining on the water and work in combination with the music to further immerse the audience into Clémence’s grief of, not just, Jaufré’s death, but also of her emotional and spiritual self. Because of the marriage of sonic and visual aesthetic (due to the composer’s presence), the Met’s production of L’Amour de loinis a highly effective rendition of what Saariaho might have had in mind when it came to achieving the overall feeling of the work.

In the past, when this work has been performed, similar symbolic and poetic stage images have been used to create an effective rendition of the show, and I am inclined to say that it was largely due to the involvement of the composer. With the primary practice of performing works by dead composers, it is more difficult for new works to enter into the normal repertoire. In addition, performers and audiences miss out on this kind of cohesive mis en scène. While there are varying degrees of cohesion between a composer’s music and their view of how much control the music has over the aesthetic of the production, it is safe to say that Saariaho’s staged works would not be as characteristically “hers” if the staging and set design was not aligned with the overall aesthetic of the show.


By Jacque Hale





“L’Amour de Loin: “Si tu t’appelles Amour,”” YouTube video, 1:45, posted by “Metropolitan Opera.” December 8, 2016.

Howell, Tim. “Meet the Compser,” in Kaija Saariaho: Visions, Narratives, Dialogues.Farnham, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2011.

Tommasini, Anthony. “Review: A Newly Relevant ‘L’Amour de Loin’ at the Met.” The New York Times. December 2, 2016.

“Synopsis: L’Amour de loin.” The Metropolitan Opera. Accessed Apr 18 2018.


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