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Performance, Objects, Participation Edited by Roberta Mock and Mary Paterson

Back to the Artwork of the Future: Transformation, Emotion and Participation in the Opera-Related Works of Joshua Sofaer Daniel Somerville

Who then will be the artist of the future? Without doubt the poet. But who will be the poet? Indisputably the performer. But again: who will be the performer? Necessarily the community of all artists. (Richard Wagner, ‘The Artwork of the Future’, 1849)

Joshua Sofaer is an artist who likes Opera. Though this statement is a simple one, it raises a number of questions relating to performance disciplines and how they might be described, how they might act upon the viewer and how they might interact with, and impact upon, each other. In both his approach to art-making and pedagogical advocacy, Sofaer is widely associated with the rise of Live Art as a recognisable cultural strategy in the UK. In a performance recorded on London’s busy Oxford Street in 2002, he asks us to consider how Live Art is a discipline in its nascency, continually coming into being from the margins of the art world, unstable and unfixed, democratised through its departure from the gallery and theatre.1 The video emphasises the importance of the live event as ephemeral, and foregrounds the art as occurring in the relation of artist and spectator. What could be further from this in the taxonomy of art forms than Opera, the epitome of high art, presented in specifically built theatres, adhering to immovable musical scores and poetic libretti: a form of performance that relies on artifice and powerful emotional manipulation to deliver its performances in budget-busting splendour? This characterisation of Opera, however, as inaccessible and irrelevant, may eclipse its other potentialities and deny the part that Opera and its associated theorists have played in the development of ideas that still have currency in contemporary art. The above quote from Wagner’s ‘The Artwork of the Future’ arises from his interpretation of Gesamtkunstwerk (total theatre) and predicts interdisciplinary artwork that not only combines the arts (Opera being the best example) but, unusually for Opera in Wagner’s time, situates authorship among a community of artists.2 Wagner, arguably the most influential theorist on the subject of Opera, is not only speaking of the auteuristic approach he practised, but paradoxically advocating for a communal and participatory approach that pre-figures contemporary collaborative theatre-making. Wagner’s description of the artwork of the future, characterised by collaboration and participation, can be seen in the work of


Sofaer as he navigates his relationship to Opera through the strategies of Live Art. This navigation involves reconciling these two, seemingly disparate performance forms, finding common ground and complementary ways of creating affect, and readdressing audience-performer interaction. The pursuit of a total artwork in the service of an artist’s singular vision, which persists in contemporary art practice, and which Wagner had proposed in relation to Opera in the nineteenth century, is one way to conceptually reconcile Opera and Live Art. Another is the peculiar power of the operatic, which also offers an analytical tool for considering Sofaer’s work with Opera. The operatic is an unfixed emergent property that is embodied in performance.3 It facilitates Opera’s ability, through kinaesthetic empathy – the sense of embodiment that unifies the production and observation of action – to affect, involve or impact upon the spectator.4 Characterising the operatic as an emergent property is perhaps best understood through comparison to sweetness; sweetness emerges in sugar when carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, which are not sweet, are combined in a particular and complex way.5 Similarly, and redolent of Gesamtkunstwerk according to Wagner, the operatic emerges at the intersection of the various creative disciplines involved in Opera (Music, Poetry, Scenography, and so on), resulting in a powerful live event that occurs in the relation of performance and audience member. Recognising the emergent liveness and ephemerality of the operatic is yet another way in which the conceptual distance between Opera and Live Art might be narrowed. In this chapter, I discuss three works by Joshua Sofaer, with a view to exploring the relationship between Live Art and Opera in his work. These are: Opera Helps (2012), Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix (2013), and his production of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (2014) for Folkoperan Sweden. On his personal relationship to Opera, Sofaer told me: I was the understudy for Miles in Scottish Opera’s production of Britten’s Turn of the Screw when I was a kid, [but] for most of my adult life opera as a genre was not something I saw directly connected to my professional practice as an artist. I would go to Opera as an audience member, because I enjoyed it, and more than that I felt affected by it. I find it the ultimate theatrical catharsis.6 Sofaer began to engage with Opera in his professional practice as a result of meeting the Artistic Director of Folkoperan, Mellika Melouani Melani, at a conference in Oslo in 2012. Folkoperan is a ‘small opera house for everyone’, with a mission to make Opera accessible through innovative productions that seek to renew opera as an art form.7 Sofaer remembers that the two ‘found an alignment’ in their creative visions and interest in Opera but also remembers telling Melani: ‘I would love to work with Opera, even if I don’t know quite what that would mean’. Opera in your home The first work to come out of the partnership with Folkoperan was Opera Helps, which was first performed in Sweden in 2012 and again in the UK in 2016. It is a collaboration between Sofaer and a number of singers using their skills as interpretive artists. Sofaer is not present in the space when


the audience encounters the artwork, but his concept underpins their experience of it. To envisage the work, imagine that you have applied to receive it and have, as part of your application, agreed to talk about some issue or problem you are facing. Now imagine sitting at home: the doorbell rings and, answering the door, you invite an opera singer into your living room. You talk about the issue or problem in your life; they make eye-contact, silently hold your gaze, listening empathetically. Caroline Kennedy, one of the singers in the 2016 UK iteration of the work, explained that she would then feel for the moment when the story was complete and, ‘reflect the problem back to the person. Summarise it to be sure I had it right, and then make an appropriate choice of music in response to it, contextualising the choice for them’.8 Audience participants may have received a visit from a soprano, a mezzo-soprano or a baritone, who had prepared a few arias representing a range of emotions. Although their choices were limited to well-known works of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century repertoire, as these are the ones with available backing tracks, Sofaer points out that these also tend to be the works that ‘cut through to the emotional core’. The choice made by the singer, now imagine your living space is filled with the sound of Opera reverberating through your body and into the fabric of your home, after which, the singer will say their farewells and leave you to contemplate the experience. Opera Helps is ‘part of a body of work that considers what happens in the space of art meeting an audience’, Sofaer told journalist, Igor Gedilaghine, in 2012.9 So, although it constitutes his first professional artistic venture into Opera, Sofaer was interrogating a familiar topic and positioning the work in the sphere of Live Art, occurring in real time, outside the gallery or theatre, live and ephemeral. It is a one-to-one (although couples also applied) site-specific performance in a domestic setting. Sofaer stresses that it was not music therapy, although he is trained as a Relational Dynamics coach and did share some of his knowledge and experience in this field with the singers, in order to enable them to become active listeners and thereby aid them in the interaction. The participants are uniquely addressed in Opera Helps rather than experiencing the music as part of a larger audience with multiple subjective readings. The act of reception and interpretation is not, in this encounter with Opera, an individual and anonymous responsibility but is, rather, anchored within the interaction between a specific singer and listener. There is a genuine and deliberate exchange at play, one not possible in a conventional setting of the opera house or concert hall. ‘It is true that when you go to a concert you necessarily bring all your own problems and issues too and that going to a concert can be cathartic and life enriching, fulfilling a personal need’, Sofaer says before describing how Opera Helps ‘reverses the priority’. In a concert hall, the music has the priority and the issues and needs of the audience may or may not be addressed, but as Sofaer points out, in Opera Helps, ‘the individual problem has the priority and it is this that enlists the music’. Paradoxically, Sofaer found that in Opera Helps people tended to listen more carefully when the singing occurred, having been listened to first by the singer. In this way, the music reassumed significance and enabled the problem to slip away. Audience feedback supports this claim, with most responders highlighting how the process of being listened to and then listening gave them space and time to reflect.10 Around a third spoke of how the experience transformed the way they felt about the problem and the space in which Opera had briefly Opera Helps by Joshua Sofaer, 2012. Photograph by Markus Gårder.


entered; half directly referred to how emotional it was, with a quarter of respondents admitting to shedding tears. The singers also found the encounter emotional, with Kennedy admitting that more than once she left the person’s home and ‘had a little sob’. Fellow singer, Lucinda Stuart-Grant, told me: ‘The Opera Helps experience has changed the way I think about the effect music can have on an individual. Opera speaks to people in so many different ways and can unlock very strong emotional responses. Opera Helps made me realise that this response can be immediate and very, very strong’.11 Sofaer says he believes passionately ‘in the power of art to change lives and to offer people the opportunity to see things differently, or to be given permission to behave in a new way’.12 Bringing his personal experience of being moved by Opera to this work, Sofaer finds a way to re-deploy that particular power of catharsis. This is not the commonly held interpretation of Aristotelian catharsis as purgation however, but rather a more nuanced reading of catharsis, which Joe Sachs describes as purification: ‘While purging something means getting rid of it, purifying something means getting rid of the worse or baser parts of it. It is possible that tragedy purifies the feelings themselves of fear and pity.’13 Audience participants speak of the experience as a haunting that occurs in the room, their space, after the singing has finished, which may last days or weeks. The space is purified, altered, able to host new layers of experience. We might consider the act of singing, in this context, as a scenographic act of ‘place orientation’ as discussed by Rachel Hann, whereby acts of orientation (bodies in relation to objects) might extend to ‘intangible atmospheric qualities’ from which a ‘scenography of feeling’ emerges.14 Hann argues that ‘scenographics are interventional acts of place orientation’.15 The music allows a new way of viewing the problem and has created a marker in the space; there is a before Opera Helps and an after, distinct chapters that close and open. Where catharsis in tragedy, for Aristotle, is linked to a textual narrative – we recognise events and the responses of characters – in Opera, part of the catharsis is also played out in the visceral experience. The human voice, which is both ‘elemental and highly trained’ as Sofaer points out, sends a vibration through the listener. Wayne Koestenbaum, enlisting a decidedly erotic connotation, refers to this experience as a penetration.16 In Opera Helps, this aspect of the performance is magnified. The voice of the singer, trained to reach the far corners of vast opera houses, is contained in a living room; the proxemics of singer and audience are reduced to within an arm’s reach and the physical vibration thereby intensified. Catharsis in this context is not a mental process, but rather a visceral, emotional engagement and re-orientation. The Opera Helps singer David Jones remembers that, ‘The proximity to the audience, and the foregrounding of the problems in their lives that they had shared, provoked a profound sense of empathy in almost all cases, sometimes to the point of making it difficult to perform, given the relationship between the arias I chose and the issues that they had just talked about’.17 Abi Cunliffe, an artist who encountered the work as a participant-spectator, describes her experience of Opera Helps: There were a combination of thoughts and feelings that I was struggling to define as an issue at the time, but discussing this with the singer I was able to decide on a theme. Opera Helps by Joshua Sofaer, 2016. Photograph by tbc


The singer assisted in the process adeptly, swiftly but with sensitivity. Like a tailor conducting a personal fitting, advising on a particular cut of cloth, fabric and design to suit the individual.18 Cunliffe admits to being taken aback by the experience: ‘the intensity I felt at having such a powerful piece of music performed at such close proximity and so directly, with the singer looking at me; singing only to me’. She held back tears but also expresses how she regrets doing so, wishing she could have allowed herself to be more present: ‘This is also tied up with my own ‘issue’ and draws attention to the relationship between the recipient and the singer; and the layers of connection that Opera Helps wove between the bearer of the opera and the participant.’ Confessing that she knows little about Opera and doesn’t understand Italian, she told me: The music itself rises above all that, the notes are a language of emotion that reach the corners of ourselves, that pierce the hard spots and lighten the dark. In that way, Opera Helps moved me. And what a wonderful thing, to be moved and lifted by art. What a true privilege to have had that experience right in my own front room. It made me feel humbled, that a huge gift … something so majestic was bestowed on me. Cunliffe was not alone in thinking of the experience in terms of ‘a gift’ or ‘privilege’; around a third of respondents described it in these terms. The enormous power of Opera, with all its associations of grandeur and high artistic practice, was harnessed in the service of bringing comfort to an individual in direct relation to their concerns. ‘The performative power of opera (in Austin’s sense of a “speech act”)’, Suzanne Aspen reminds us, is its ‘potential to participate in social transformation’.19 While she is referring to Opera’s participation in the creation of national identity, Opera Helps gestures towards a performative act at work in personal identity formation and transformation. Though the Opera Helps team had agreed to refer any issues they did not feel equipped to handle to suitable professionals, the problems that were addressed ranged from general unease, to serious loss through death or divorce. Couples became reconciled, sickness briefly put aside, old thought patterns were left behind, memories restored, new memories implanted. Opera did help. There were also those who commented on how it gave them a new appreciation of Opera itself. ‘Opera was also helped’, commented one respondent and certainly, even if unintentional, one result of the work may have been to introduce or re-introduce participants to Opera, and to present Opera afresh, with a new appreciation of its curative properties and transformational potential. Softly awakes the heart (and mind) Sofaer’s next work for Folkoperan was Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix, a performance lecture and recital that takes its name from the famous love duet in Saint-Saëns’ opera, Samson et Dalila. It was performed in 2013 in a Swedish translation by Magnus Lindman. The audience was presented with two singers, a small orchestra, a projection screen and a body-builder. The image of Samson was fractured, represented through the voice of the tenor, Fredik Strid, and an image of male strength Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix by Joshua Sofaer, 2013. Photograph by Markus Gårder.


in the form of bodybuilder Sammy Zabel. Mezzo-soprano, Jacqueline Miura, who sang Dalila, is a person of colour and was draped in the Swedish flag, a provocative image given the nationalist undertones of the opera and polarised discourses on ethnicity and immigration in Europe at the time. Miura also delivered Sofaer’s carefully researched text on the social, political and historical implications of this love duet and the biographical situation of its composer, a lecture illustrated by nearly a hundred images from art and cultural history. Sofaer explains that he intended to offer the audience layers of meaning before the lecture segued into a recital of the duet, in the hope that this would enhance the appreciation of the moment, underpinning their engagement. In the opera, it is a pivotal scene. Dalila is about to betray Samson but must first seduce him and convince him that his love is requited. Dalila is the central point of identification for the audience and so it is also an opportunity for the singer to summon their skills and artistry to place the audience in the position of knowing Dalila to be untrue, but somehow be willing to fall for the trap themselves and believe momentarily that she does perhaps love Samson. In Sofaer’s performance lecture and recital the audience is expected, then, to make the transition from a rational comprehension to emotional response and illogical identification. Sam Abel, when discussing identification in Opera, points out that while music in Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect) enables the audience to stay outside the narrative frame and contemplate with detached political judgement, by contrast Opera does not set up these boundaries; instead, through its music, Opera invites the viewer to freely identify with its characters through an excess of engagement.20 Abel argues that this seductive strategy is what makes Opera unlike the conventional theatre Brecht had railed against. Opera does not make us complacent in Brecht’s terms, as conventional theatre might; rather, it allows us to role-play within its narrative frame, and imagine behaving in ways we may not usually adopt.

feminine (emotional) – but wielded by male composers – and words, laid down in the libretto, are the masculine (intellectual). Music, she argues, causes us to forget words (and to forget women) and so obscure the terrors inflicted on female characters in the libretti of many operas. Here lies the power of music to obscure the horrors of disease and death and to present them as beautiful.22 Perhaps the success of Sofaer’s work lies in the levels at which this feminist critique resonates. In the fabric of the lecture issues of gender representation in the original opera are exposed. In addition, in Clément’s terms, the masculine/intellectual simultaneously strips away the obscuring power of the music that a male composer has deployed in the oppression of the central female character – the supreme femme fatale, Dalila. In the presentation of the duet in the recital section of the work, the fractured, disembodied and somewhat decorative Samson remains passive and ineffective while a woman takes centre stage in delivering the music, but without allowing us to forget what the music would otherwise obscure. The process of undoing women, as Clément would have it, is itself undone in Sofaer’s Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix. Ultimately, it is not the heart that opens to the sound of the voice, but the mind. Bach through the lens of Sofaer

Saint-Saëns’ music is indeed persuasive, and the audience is invited to participate in Samson’s seduction and downfall. One strategy Saint-Saëns employs to aid in the entry of the audience into the fantasy is to imbue the music with ‘oriental’ flavour, typical of French nineteenth-century Opera’s obsession with the exotic other. The work is problematic in other ways for contemporary audiences. Although Dalila is, unusually for nineteenth-century representations of women in Opera, an active agent in the narrative and the opera’s driving force, it is also a work that is chauvinistic and exaggeratedly nationalistic, very much a product of its time.

Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is, admittedly, not an opera – it is an oratorio – but the porous boundaries between Opera, Musical Theatre, Recital and Oratorio are analogous to those between Live Art, Performance Art, Happenings and Installation; works can be one and the other, can be adapted or can exist in the territory in between genres. In Sofaer’s production of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion for Folkoperan, there is a shift in his relationship to Opera. Where the previous two examples were Sofaer’s works which contained Opera, here part of his responsibility as director is to bring another artist’s work to life. It is Bach through the lens of Sofaer, an opportunity for us to consider the original work and the production alongside each other and witness how the composer and director share interests around audience experience. Robert Marshall describes Bach, in his later works, as a progressive, with the St. Matthew Passion marking the beginning of his more experimental inclination.23 This, perhaps, acts as an invitation for Sofaer to continue to experiment. Sofaer takes his cue from Bach in other ways. Karl Geiringer tells us, ‘The composer wanted this Passion to be of general appeal, and indeed there is in this work a simplicity and directness not often found in Bach’s larger compositions’.24 Furthermore, Bach insisted upon its performance in German, the language of the people, making a Swedish translation (by Magnus Lindman) essential for this production in Sweden.

Sofaer feels that, as a whole, Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix did not achieve what he had set out to achieve. Instead of offering context to underpin the understanding of the duet and support the emotional engagement when it was sung (as context had done in Opera Helps), in this case the emotional aspect of the music was overwhelmed by the wealth of intellectual engagement that the lecture had elicited. Here the problematic binary of words and music in Opera had impacted on reception. The binary of words and music is one of the fundamental points of debate for Opera scholars and theorists. Friedrich Nietzsche compares it to the Apollonian and Dionysian.21 Catherine Clément employs a similar binary in critiquing Opera from a feminist perspective. Music, captured in the score, is the

The aim to achieve simplicity and directness in a staged production requires some consideration of what staging means in relation to oratorio. The usual mode of presentation would involve singers in concert dress, standing to sing in front of an orchestra, with the chorus behind them or to the sides. It is static, formal and foregrounds the music as the medium of the message. Tim Dowley reminds us that most people who saw the manuscript of St. Matthew Passion after Bach’s death ‘considered the work unperformable’. It was left unpublished and unheard until 1829, around a hundred years after it was first performed, when it was given in an abridged version by a young Mendelssohn.25 What makes it unperformable are both musical and dramatic considerations, some of which might be



solved through cutting, abridging or re-ordering parts of the music and others through imaginative theatrical interventions of directors. Peter Conrad, in discussing Bach’s original work, acknowledges a rivalry between Opera and Oratorio in the baroque age, pointing out that Bach, as a Lutheran, would not have written for the theatre. Conrad goes on to cite examples of staged productions of St. Matthew Passion that show that Bach had created a work that nonetheless allowed Oratorio to have ‘its revenge on those who deny it, enticing sacred works back into the profane arena of the theatre’.26 In the cases Conrad cites, and in many subsequent productions, staging meant employing the tools of the theatre and treating the work as if it were an opera. Joseph Kerman argues that St. Matthew Passion is suited to being staged precisely because, while Bach’s work has no characters or events, the manner in which it unfolds in the minds of the congregation, and singers, is dramatic rather than liturgical.27 It is clear how a work that manifests in the minds of the audience resonates with Sofaer’s appeal to relational and subjective understanding, especially when considered alongside Jacques Rancière’s description of the ‘emancipated spectator’.28 Speaking of the chorales and arias in Bach’s original work, Dowley comments: ‘In these meditations, the singers do not depict characters in the narrative, but comment on the meaning of events, often inviting the listener to become involved in the unfolding drama, react to it and be changed by it’.29 This description resonates with Sofaer’s interest in participation and transformation, appealing to an active audience, or ‘a community of narrators and translators’.30 To conquer the challenge of unperformability, Sofaer makes the radical move of cutting all the Biblical text and replacing it with videoed interviews with selected members of the cast and instrumentalists. These interviews concern subjects that are closely linked to the themes in the musical numbers (or ‘meditations’, as Dowley describes them): forgiveness, guilt, pain, fear, loneliness, love and passion. They stand in for the Biblical texts, intimate and personal, but relatable stories. The chorales and arias now comment on the admissions of those who sing them and this is reflected back to the audience. What Geiringer calls Bach’s ‘predilection for mingling stylistic elements’,31 echoes in the ease with which baroque music played on period instruments sits alongside contemporary acapella singers, The Real Group, and video screens playing interviews with the cast. Furthermore, how these elements work together in Sofaer’s production allow the emergence of a live performance that both respects the past but brings the work freshly to life in the present. The pre-recorded video interviews were conducted with the interviewees sitting in the seats of the auditorium, generating a sense of equality between performers and spectators; they are in the space of the other. Breaking down the barriers between audience and performer is achieved in other ways as well in the work. The singers and instrumentalists are dressed in everyday clothes, indistinguishable from the audience, and they mingle, chatting with the audience in the foyer prior to the performance. They all enter the auditorium together and the performers gradually and casually make their way to the stage, still chatting and greeting each other. The importance of the audience as a participant, as a player and as an equal partner in the creation of the moment is established from the outset. The positioning of singers, so as to address each other and/or the audience, is carefully choreographed Mateuspassionen by J S Bach, directed by Joshua Sofaer, 2014. Photograph by Markus Gårder.


throughout the performance in order to maintain a sense of the text within the work being delivered directly between and among all those present in the space. A performance text and cue sheet, written by Sofaer, outlines the relation of Bach’s music to the videos, and also contains instructions on how the performers should dress, interact with the audience and move about the space. The document is telling of Sofaer’s collaborative and explorative method of working. Many of the entries in the performance text are phrased as questions, or offered as options. He is asking performers, technicians and stage managers to try out ideas. It is not a didactic set of instructions but an invitation to explore the work and participate in its development. The success or otherwise of these ideas is measured against the artist’s intention to create a production that goes to the core of Bach’s original message but which utilises contemporary methods recognisable from his artistic practice. Not all the suggestions that appear in the document make it into the final performance. For example, a decidedly theatrical idea of having the tenor in death mask make-up for the second half, which may have had the effect of underpinning the authenticity of the other moments in the piece, was reduced to him wearing black. Authenticity of interaction was thereby maintained throughout, not highlighted through juxtaposition. There is another interesting suggestion in the performance text where, during ‘Mache dich mein Herze rein’ (Make thyself clean my heart), the audience was to be invited onto the stage and, along with members of the cast, asked to write down commitments, messages of thanks and resolutions. These were to be projected onto the screens for others to see. The unpredictable nature of possible responses and logistics of such an action, which would need to fit the timing of the musical number, meant that in the event only members of the ensemble participated in the action, but many of their contributions related directly to known members of the audience and aspects of the video interviews. This interchange of authentic and revelatory, confessional and autobiographical information between performer and audience, reflected in the sung text, invites the audience to put themselves in the place of the performers as much as other strategies position the performers as equal to the audience. In a video connected to the concept of guilt, Amanda Dahl, an alto with Hägerstens Youth Choir, speaks of a school trip to Uganda where she witnessed a community ravaged by AIDS, lack of education, rape and stigma. She speaks of how she is paralysed to help upon her return to Sweden, any attempt to be charitable seeming to be concerned with alleviating her guilt rather than helping those in need. The video is followed by the chorale ‘Was mein Gott will’ (What my God wills). The video by founder member of The Real Group, Katarina Henryson, refers to the fear of losing one you love and is positioned alongside a particularly tense moment in the score where Christ is condemned.

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The video by baritone, Morten Vinther, describes the loneliness he feels after he has performed on stage and then returns to his hotel room alone. It was his dream to be a singer with an international career but the reality is alienating and isolating. In this moment the audience is faced in real time with the ramifications of their enjoyment in the theatre; they are complicit in his hardship. Janna Vettergren, an alto, offers perhaps one of the most moving moments in the work. Her video is a meditation on pain as she reveals her long journey to getting pregnant. It culminates in footage of


her giving birth. The longed-for child is lifted up for the mother to see for the first time as one of Bach’s most familiar tunes, ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’ (Have mercy, Lord on me), issues forth. At the centre of this Passion, is hope. In this moment, Sofaer has taken a very contemporary set of tools and combined them with such precision that the operatic emerges through a new combination of elements. Baroque music may underpin the experience, but the mediated image of the baby is at the heart of it, and the reality and liveness of the connection between audience and performer is where the art happens. The final video by soprano, Hannah Holgersson, acts as a moment of dialogue between Sofaer’s modes of working and Bach’s work, and a new appreciation of the meaning of the Passion arises from that dialogue, one that emphasises the need to allow others to carry us in our times of need. In the video she says: I guess I’m afraid of not being loved if I show someone my entire self. So, it’s easier to be alone in that. It’s harder to have the courage to interact with someone on equal terms but it’s also in that interaction, if you dare, where love is strongest. So, in some way it’s an encouragement to have the courage to be vulnerable and exposed to someone. Because that’s where the truest human interactions occur. And where you really forge the closest bonds. Gesamtkunstwerk is realised through a community of artists and a participatory active audience thereby fulfilling Bach’s ambition to communicate directly, drawing spectators into the work, therein reflecting on their lives. Audience members told flautist, Åsa Karlberg, whose video was on forgiveness, that they had never before been to a performance where they felt so ‘involved and touched’.32 In both Bach’s work and Sofaer’s staging there is a sense of participation, democratisation and yet also a sense in which music is the vehicle for identification and emotional engagement – that is, what Geiringer describes as a ‘heart-stirring blend of bliss and grief’ in Bach’s original score.33 These are areas of interrogation to which Sofaer returns repeatedly, seeking ways to offer his audiences the catharsis he so enjoys when encountering Opera but through means other than those conventionally employed in the opera house. Engagement, affect and transformation In Sofaer’s opera-related works, musicians are often affected along with audiences. In Opera Helps, where audience-performer relation was so intimate, several singers spoke of gaining new understandings of the works and their approach to performance. David Jones recalls how the imperative to share emotionally helped him move past a pre-occupation with technical accuracy and focus on communicating the work. The production of St. Matthew Passion impacted on more personal levels. For instance, Åsa Karlberg’s son came to one of the performances and witnessed his mother’s video on forgiveness, which pertained to their relationship. By her account they maintained eye contact throughout and understood in that moment that forgiveness had happened and was part of their history. Mateuspassionen by J S Bach, directed by Joshua Sofaer, 2014. Photograph by Markus Gårder.


Sofaer’s journey into Opera in his professional practice as an artist has involved a degree of experimentation that has enabled him to create new modes of representation that are focussed on the experience of a wide range of participants. His desire to reinvent ways to allow people to access Opera’s peculiar power of catharsis, and to allow them to participate in the creation of the moment, represent a balancing act between engaging the emotions in ways that are familiar to Opera and in communicating with the audience in ways familiar to Live Art practice. This body of work operates in several directions – an interplay between Opera and its composers, Sofaer and his audiences – and in such an interplay he and his collaborators are also subject to the emotional and transformational properties in the work.

22. Catherine Clément, Opera: The Undoing of Women, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), pp. 2-23. 23. Robert Marshall, The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach The Sources, the Style, the Significance (New York: Schirmer Books, 1989), p. 11. 24. Karl Geiringer, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Culmination of an Era (London and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 198. 25. Tim Dowley, Johann Sebastian Bach (New York: Omnibus Press, 2014), p. 102. 26. Peter Conrad, A Song of Love and Death: The Meaning of Opera (London: The Hogarth Press, 1987), p. 78. 27. Joseph Kerman, Opera as Drama (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 51. 28. Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2011), p. 17. 29. Dowley, Johann Sebastian Bach, p. 100. 30. Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, p. 23. 31. Geiringer, Johann Sebastian Bach, p. 198. 32. Åsa Karlberg, email to Joshua Sofaer, 3 May 2014.


33. Geiringer, Johann Sebastian Bach, p. 199.

1. Joshua Sofaer, What is Live Art?, filmed 28 August 2002, (accessed 1 March 2019). 2. Richard Wagner, ‘The Artwork of the Future’, trans. Emma Warner, The Wagner Journal, Special Issue, 2013, pp. 13-86. 3. I write about the operatic in relation to the movement of opera singers in my PhD thesis: Daniel Somerville, Body Opera: In Search of the Operatic in the Performance of the Body, University of Wolverhampton, 2014. Available at http://wlv.openrepository. com/wlv/handle/2436/558800. 4. See Matthew Reason and Dee Reynolds, Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices (Bristol: Intellect, 2012), pp. 18-19. 5. Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life (London: Harper Collins, 1996), p. 28. 6. Joshua Sofaer interviewed by the author in London, July 2018. Any non-attributed quotations by Sofaer in this chapter arise from either this interview or else subsequent email correspondence up to November 2018. 7. ‘About Folkopean’, (accessed 25 February 2019). 8. Caroline Kennedy, email to the author, 19 November 2018. Other non-attributed quotations by Kennedy in this chapter arise from the same interview. 9. ‘Journalist Igor Gedilaghine from APF news agency asks Joshua Sofaer some questions about Operahjälpen’, https://www. (accessed 15 July 2018). 10. Anonymized feedback collected by Joshua Sofaer after the performances was shared with the author for analysis in this chapter; some direct quotes from anonymous respondents are included. 11. Lucinda Stuart-Grant, email to the author, 19 November 2018. 12. Quoted in ‘Journalist Igor Gedilaghine from APF news agency asks Joshua Sofaer some questions about Operahjälpen’. 13. Joe Sachs, ‘Aristotle: Poetics’, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (accessed 2 November 2018). 14. Rachel Hann, Beyond Scenography (New York: Routledge, 2019), p. 19. 15. Ibid., p. 28. 16. Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1996), pp. 42-43. 17. David Jones, email to the author, 19 November 2018. Other non-attributed quotations by Jones in this chapter arise from the same email interview. 18. Abi Cunliffe, email to the author, 28 November 2018. Other non-attributed quotations by Cunliffe in this chapter arise from the same email interview. 19. Suzanne Aspen, ‘Opera and National Identity’, in Nicholas Till (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Opera Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 283. 20. Sam Abel, Opera in the Flesh (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), p. 330. 21. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (1872), trans. Ian Johnston, Nietzsche/tragedy_all.htm (accessed 29 November 2018).



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