Twitterdammerung: The Future Of Opera Or Just A Bit Of A Laugh?

In today’s Toronto Star

It is a curious story — hear my tale,

Although my name was never Ishmael,

For this great epic will your souls ignite,

Your senses ravish and your hearts deloitte…

And so begins Twitterdämmerung, the new opera premiered at the Royal Opera House Saturday afternoon. What made this opera different to, say Rufus Wainwright’s recent opus, was that the libretto was created over three weeks by ROH twitter followers. According to ROH spokesperson Sara Parsons, the inspiration for creating an opera in this fashion was the party game Consequence where one person writes a line to a story, folds over the paper and hands it to the next person to write the following line. The result is then read aloud and hilarity ensues.

Mezzo-soprano Hannah Pedley was triple cast as Esmerelda/Helga (biochemist), Corbin (King of The Birds), while baritone Andrew Slater created the roles of William (nihilist), Hans (bird slayer) and Tobermory (cat). The Ringleader, a Sir Topham Hatt impersonator played by Philip Herbert, narrated.

Despite the predicable moaning by some British critics about it being an empty publicity stunt, the show turned out to be rather a lot of fun. The main reason for this was the editor. Whoever was in charge of paring down seven acts worth of willfully silly libretto into 15 minutes of something vaguely approaching a cohesive narrative deserves a payrise.

The plots of 19th-century comic operas or some of Hugo von Hoffmansthal’s late collaborations with Richard Strauss clearly show that making sense is not necessarily required, however modern tastes are not prone to suspending disbelief so willingly. In this case, the red-pen ninja kept the production on the right side of a send up.

The tone of the music, composed by Helen Porter and Marc Teitler, was also exactly right. It used many of the stock gestures from 19th century opera and supported the drama brilliantly but never descended into full on parody. Costumes were tails for the gentlemen and a generic opera dress for Porter.

Because each tweet is limited to 140 characters, the medium self-selects people who are adept with the sly reference and witty one-liner. The group approach also encourages contributors to out-clever each other. As such, there were a number of hat-tips to existing operas and other works of literature. The biggest laughs from the hundred or so people in the audience came courtesy of a reference to Mimi’s small, cold hands in La Boheme.

So, what’s the point of all this? Is Twitterdämmerung another example of opera pandering to low culture interests? A way to make opera less elitist? A PR grab for the Opera House? Innumerable pots of ink have been spilled discussing the future of the arts, with any effort at trying something new attracting conflicting and often unconstructive analyses. Perhaps it is naive of me to even suggest it but is it possible that sometimes an endeavour can be just plain old, no-strings-attached fun?

An early misunderstanding about how hashtags work made the stream difficult to follow at first but the wrinkles were ironed out and in the end over 700 people participated. What the ROH should be proud of is that they understood something many organizations miss when it comes to using new technology: it’s not the process but the result that matters. In other words, Twitterdämmerung isn’t noteworthy because it was carried out on Twitter but because the final product was genuinely entertaining.

What happens next? Our story’s course is run:

The opera’s over & or has it only just begun?

Will Hans be shot? Or maybe William hung?

In future tweets of … Twitterdämmerung!

Read the full libretto here.

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