When the lovers Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann go to their deaths together in Andrea Chénier with “Viva la morte insiem!” or when Kristine Opolais as Rusalka kills her lover with a kiss, its impact is immediate, powerful and intense – especially if you happen to be sitting right in front of the stage. Now the word “live” can be seen in big letters on the facade of the Bayerische Staatsoper. It's time for some thoughts on 'liveness' in opera. 

Decorations on the pillars of the National Theatre during the Munich Opera Festival 2017
Decorations on the pillars of the National Theatre during the Munich Opera Festival 2017

These days we can distinguish between two forms of dissemination: live and mediatized. The concert and its edit; the football match and its live programme; the opera and its TV broadcast. But it hasn't always been this way. Before we had this counterpart – that is, the recorded version shown in various forms or, more generally, before we had film, television, radio and the internet - culture could only be experienced live. As such, there was no reason for the word 'live' to be part of our vocabulary, since this quality was never in any doubt, as media and culture expert Philip Auslander points out.

The fact that actors and spectators inhabit the same space has been essential to theatre - that is, the live experience – ever since ancient times, says eminent Theatre Studies specialist, Erika Fischer-Lichte. So, according to the basic definition:

person A plays role B while C watches. It is then possible for spectator C to interact with the singer or actor A.

A soprano may be uplifted by enthusiastic applause and sing with even more feeling for the rest of the evening, but if a scene is booed, this may also have an influence on the production's execution and the audience as a whole. Production and reception happen simultaneously. And so every performance is unique, because you can't rehearse an audience reaction. By contrast, a Youtube video doesn't change with hindsight depending on the viewers' responses. Music albums and films are even more static, since they can't be modified once they've been released. Then again, a recording can be played, potentially, an unlimited number of times and can therefore reach an audience of millions – the opera house only has seats for 2101 people at once. (Musical) theatre needs the performative moment, the presence of actors and audience members in the opera house. This way the event is exclusive to those present, and is influenced by the conditions of that particular evening.

Andrea Chénier: Jonas Kaufmann (Andrea Chénier), Anja Harteros (Maddalena di Coigny)
Andrea Chénier: Jonas Kaufmann (Andrea Chénier), Anja Harteros (Maddalena di Coigny)

Live can also mean authentic, in the moment, unrepeatable, exclusive and interactive

These days 'live' is a sign of quality because we're all familiar with the other side of the coin: no one will admit to only having heard a recording of the aria “Come un bel dì di Maggio”. Musicals – which use fewer musicians and more laptop recordings instead of an orchestra - as well as their stars, are often criticised for miming during a concert. Those visitors who've been looking forward to a direct and authentic experience are disappointed when they don't get what they want – the ambience of a live event is lost. “The future of theatre is ensured by liveness”, explains Theatre Studies expert Andreas Englhart. “Its atmosphere, the real-life presence of actors and spectators, the direct gaze of other people, is something very special that continues to assert itself against the shallow virtual reality of our media-based visual world.”

Yet today, with TV, radio and internet, the qualities of liveness have been expanded from the spatial to the temporal. After all, live-broadcasting and public screenings also take place during the opera or sporting event, not afterwards. As such, the excitement and atmosphere is, for the most part, retained. In any case, Auslander would disagree with Englhart's statement: as a result of technical innovations like film clips and electronic sound effects in theatre, productions are no longer purely live. Web 2.0 also offers new ways for audience members sitting in front of a PC or smartphone to interact. And some even experience culture more directly when they're watching it from the 'front row' of their TV, so to speak. The result is: the boundary between live and mediatized becomes increasingly blurred. The director of the Munich Institute for Theatre Studies, Christopher Balme, simply broadens the definition of audience to include the 'public'.

Over the next few weeks, we'll be inviting you to test out these boundaries between live and direct transmedia experiences. We'll be taking you backstage and showing highlights from the opera festival via Facebook live. So our Facebook fans around the world can take part in the festival too, even if they're not sitting right in front of the stage...

More information at

Texts for further reading:

Philip Auslander: Liveness – Performance in a mediatized culture. London/New York 1999
Erika Fischer-Lichte: Ästhetik des Performativen. Frankfurt am Main 2004
Erika Fischer-Lichte: Semiotik des Theaters. Das System der theatralischen Zeichen [Band 1]. Tübingen 1983
Andreas Englhart: Das Theater der Gegenwart. München 2013
Christopher Balme, Josef Bairlein (Hrsg.): Netzkulturen: kollektiv. kreativ. performativ. Intervisionen [Band 11]. München 2015


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