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Is There No Opera Without an Audience in the Concert Hall? Robert Ashley’s “Perfect Lives” (1984) and Potential Operatic Forms in Digital Age

Paper Presentation
25 August 2020
09:30 - 10:00 hrs (GMT+7)

Seok-young Kim, Speaker


In the late 20th century, television operas emerged and gained popularity as television became the dominant form of digital media consumption in the United States. With the ability to be pre-recorded, television opera introduced a new way to present opera in contrast to performing in an opera house. In line with these times, Robert Ashley (1930-2014) released the opera “Perfect Lives” for television in 1984. However, this type of television opera declined over the years due to overly expensive production costs, and as a result, the live broadcast of the opera house began to regain its popularity. Moreover, the “Live in HD” of the New York Metropolitan Opera, which began in December 2006, continues to debate the opera in the digital age. Besides, as the physically distanced situation has become prevalent due to COVID-19, there are circumstances in which operas without audiences were performed and musicians were forced to use online platforms. At this point, I would like to consider Robert Ashley’s “Perfect Lives” as a new possibility for operatic forms in the digital age.

Robert Ashley’s “Perfect Lives” depicts the story of a bank robbery, and was once described by Ashley as a “comic opera about reincarnation”. In this article, I will look at “Perfect Lives” in three aspects: suitability of the opera to the digital age, qualities of the performers-characters, and potential operatic forms. The opera consists of seven episodes (25 minutes each) and was broadcasted on television, but it was more comparable to current video sharing platforms like YouTube. The composer plays the narrator as well as the main character Raoul, who is a singer, and also presents a visual recitative in place of the traditional opera’s. As a ‘performer- character’, “Blue” Gene Tyranny takes on the role of Buddy and jazz piano performer, who can recover the reality of virtual character Buddy with the real character himself as a pianist. Lastly, Ashley also considered the audience’s daily music environment, which means that they listen to music partially from recordings or media rather than concert halls. After his television version, there were adaptations of “Perfect Lives” as live performances from other performers. At this point, I think focusing on the translatable operatic forms of this. That is, the flow of daily channel-surfing life was respected at the time. As far as I am concerned, Ashley’s “Perfect Lives” is a pioneering work that inspires the creation of new opera in today’s digital age.

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