Paranoid about androids: MIDI in Opera

A few weeks ago the New York Times published an article on a Connecticut opera company opting to replace its musicians with MIDI recordings. I don’t have a problem with a radical retake on a classic. It’s usually interesting whether I love it or despise it. I don’t mind if someone wants to try out electronic timbres on Wagner’s music. After all, what work could be so sacred as to be untouchable? And, if so, that would seem like a dead art form to me. At best a monument, at worst a tomb. I am interested in life. MIDI itself is not the issue here.

Many are outraged at the loss of jobs for performers and rightfully so. However, there’s even more at stake here than jobs: interpretation. There are many reasons why live music is irreplaceable by a recording. A live work is fresh, spontaneous, and present. Even the most excellent recording is “fixed.” It’s static. Once recorded,the conductor will never make any changes, nor the performers new nuances. The repertoire in question, canonical opera, is not fixed: it exists via the act of experiencing performing or listening to it. Wagner’s Ring is reborn with each new realization, and, like Shakespeare, there can be many competing rich and exciting interpretations. That’s also why it is worthwhile to hear a repeat performance of Beethoven 5 by a different orchestra and conductor (although I would prefer a newly commissioned work but that beyond this discussion). For the same reason, I invite performers to make my pieces their own and have only ever been rewarded by their brilliant, artistic insights.

Art is like a mirror: each new generation reflects itself, willingly or unwillingly, through its interpretations. Art is an open project.

I sympathize with working musicians and want to hear NEW live performances. I understand many arts organizations are struggling, but let’s not yield interpretation. When organizations use recorded music in lieu of live musicians, regardless of their motivations, they present a static musical product. Some may get their dogs fixed, but let’s not do the same with our music.


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