Category Archives: Architecture

The opera house as architectural space

While the term “opera house”, as a designation of a specific architecturally and institutionally consolidated venue for musical theater works, differs in content rather strictly from the genre-oriented term “opera”–both terms, at least in the European and American language areas, have been closely linked. Part of this is due to an overlap in everyday language and administrative terms where the word “opera” has been used in the official naming of musical theater institutions since the 19th century. Even today, terms such as “state opera”, “state theater”, “music theater”, and “opera” indicate the complex history of the opera house and its relationship to theater construction, urban planning, the opera genre, music theater composition, and the direction of state and city institutions.

Conversely, a convergence of the two terms can also be seen in the social and cultural science-oriented historiography of musical theater, which subsumes under opera not only aspects of composition history but also the institutional and architectural developments of opera houses. This is first and foremost due to the epoch-changing and distinctive social contours of the opera as a courtly or bourgeois institution, whose practical norms and aesthetic innovations can be linked to the architecturally fixed spatial layout of opera houses.

Additionally, comprehensive aesthetic reconceptions of musical theater such as Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk also represent important impulses for greater consideration of the opera house as an architectural space. While more recent scientific emphasis on the symbolism and practical theatrical relevance of opera house architecture can be explained via the turn to cultural studies and praxeology, the reorientation of popular opera, evident since the post-war period, was based on individual venues or with a strong concentration on opera as a spatially bound artistic practice due to the reconstruction of opera houses after World War II.

Read the entire article on the opera house as part of the brand new Free Article feature on MGG Online. New free articles will be updated regularly.

Below is a video on the architectural and cultural history of the Teatro alla Scala (pictured above), a well-known opera house in Milan, Italy. If you don’t speak Italian, turn on the captions function for an English translation.

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Shaker dance spaces

Shakers

The Shakers built their first framed meetinghouse near New Lebanon, New York, along the Massachusetts border, in 1785; this structure assumed the central authority over the Shaker domain and became the architectural prototype for eleven other late–18th-century meetinghouses in New England.

The design of these structures had several distinctive elements, including a heavy timber frame, a sturdy wood-plank floor, double façade doors for separate male and female entry, leadership apartments above the private gable-end door and stairs, carefully gendered spaces throughout, a gambrel roof, and a singular unobstructed ground-floor space to accommodate dynamic communal dancing during worship.

The dance ritual influenced Shaker meetinghouse design and construction in two key ways: it required the adaptation of a mascular timber-frame technology that allowed a broad, uninterrupted floor space; and it necessitated substantial reinforcement of the flooring to safely meet the demands of the large, live weight loads of many worshipers moving rhythmically in unison.

In the floor are noticeable inserted cues, suggesting the arrangements of Shaker dance movements for a maximal dramatic exposure of the dancers’ bodies and faces to public visitors, as Shaker Sabbath performances were attended by large crowds of visitors and were a critical outreach to potential converts. The presence of triangular or fanlike cue patterns opening from the center area of the rear wall outward toward the front double doors in meetinghouses of the Mount Lebanon, Watervliet, Canterbury, Hancock/Shirley, and Harvard buildings demonstrate a level of consistency at villages across at least three states.

Shakers floor plan

(click to enlarge)

It appears plausible that the Shakers’ use of pins specifically placed for dance formations originated at Mount Lebanon, but the idea may have had been even older and implemented already in Dutch barns near Watervliet. The use of dance-floor cues provided greater precision and coordination for public dance performances similar to that provided for marching bands by yardage marks on athletic fields.

This according to “‘Leap and shout, ye living building!’: Ritual performance and architectural collaboration in early Shaker meetinghouses” by Arthur E. McLendon (Buildings & landscapes: Journal of the vernacular architecture forum XX/3 [fall 2013] pp. 48–76; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2013-14581).

Below, dancers at Hancock Shaker Village.

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Acoustics

In 2019 Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI) launched Acoustics (ISSN 2624-599X), a peer-reviewed journal of acoustic science and engineering.

Being open-access and available online, it is able to offer excellent visibility and a fast processing time from submission to publication. The journal aims to provide an interdisciplinary forum to showcase state-of-the-art research challenges.

There is no restriction on the length of papers or charge for extra colors, etc. Electronic files supplying details of calculations and experimental procedures as well as sound files can be deposited as supplementary materials.

Above, the cover of the inaugural number; below, Paphos theater, one of the acoustical environments discussed in the issue (RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2019-5509).

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Iraqi dreams

During 1957 and 1958 Frank Lloyd Wright was working on what might have become his magnum opus: beginning with a commission for an opera house in Baġdād, he developed a far-reaching Plan for Greater Baghdad.

Wright arrived in Iraq in May 1957, just one month short of his 90th birthday, and after two audiences with King Faisal II he left with permission to build an opera house and incorporate it into development of a vast site in the middle of the Tigris River—an uninhabited area that Wright believed was the site of the Garden of Eden.

In July 1957, in a speech back in the U.S., he said “I happen to be doing a cultural center for the place where civilization was invented—that is, Iraq. Before Iraq was destroyed it was a beautiful circular city built by Harun al-Rashid, but the Mongols came from the north and practically destroyed it. Now what is left of the city has struck oil and they have immense sums of money. They can bring back the city of Harun al-Rashid today.”

Unfortunately, following the military coup of July 1958 the project was rejected; it was too extravagant for the military leadership, and too closely identified with the old monarchy.

This according to “Arabian opera nights” by John Allison (Opera LIX/1 [January 2008] pp. 26–30).

Today is Wright’s 150th birthday! Inset, a drawing of the full cultural center (click image to enlarge); below, a computerized 3-D rendition of the opera house.

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Louis Sullivan and the Chicago Auditorium

Holloway detail

Louis Sullivan’s interior designs for the theater of the Chicago Auditorium Building (1889) reflect the ideas of Wagner and of the transcendentalist and music critic John Sullivan Dwight.

Especially significant are the murals, supervised by Sullivan, which allude to multiple art forms and to the democratic ideal of the opera house as a social institution.

Albert Fleury designed the murals on the side walls using themes drawn from Sullivan’s prose-poem Inspiration: An essay, which is full of musical imagery. The proscenium frieze, designed by Charles Holloway, depicts a central winged figure holding a lyre, flanked by several other figures and by the words “The utterance of life is a song: the symphony of nature”.

This according to “Louis Sullivan, J.S. Dwight, and Wagnerian aesthetics in the Chicago Auditorium Building” by Stephen Thursby, an essay included in Music in architecture, architecture in music (Austin: University of Texas, 2014, pp. 42 –53 ).

Above, the central figures in Holloway’s frieze (click images to enlarge); below, the frieze in the full proscenium; further below, one of Fleury’s murals, with the quotation from Sullivan’s text “O, soft, melodious spring time! First-born of life and love”.

Holloway proscenium frieze

Fleury spring song

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The first Bach monument

 

On 23 April 1843 Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy made a ceremonial presentation of a monument to Bach in the courtyard of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach served as cantor and where his remains now lie.

Mendelssohn Bartholdy worked tirelessly to make the monument a reality. He offered suggestions about its details, gave concerts to raise the necessary funds, and handled much of the project’s organization. His many letters provide information about his commitment to it.

Now known as the Altes Bach-Denkmal, it may be the only example of a monument built by a composer to honor another.

This according to Ein Denkstein für den alten Prachtkerl: Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy und das alte Bach-Denkmal in Leipzig by Peter Wollny (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2004). Above, a woodcut depiction from around 1850.

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Elton John’s décor

When Elton John returned to London in 1991 after six weeks in an addiction recovery center it was essential to establish a new home that was free of associations with his former compulsive behavior. He rented Queensdale Place, fell in love with it, and bought and completely redecorated it with Biedermeier furniture and Regency and Neoclassical artwork.

Over the years Sir Elton’s passion turned to collecting photography and contemporary art, and in 2003 he decided that Queensdale would be the perfect context for exhibiting and enjoying his new collection. The auction of his former collection is documented in Elton John and his London lifestyle: London, Tuesday, 30 September 2003 (London: Sotheby’s, 2003).

Related article: Liberace’s taste

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Liberace’s taste

Władziu Valentino Liberace’s Las Vegas home represented the democratization of aristocracy, a do-it-yourself coronation, the people’s palace. It is the apotheosis of décor as persona and persona as décor.

The Moroccan Room (above, click to enlarge) is a tile-and-glass atrium with Tivoli lights made from a sundeck that Liberace had always found either too hot or too cold. The large convex sofa in flame-stitch upholstery (foreground) sounds a proper note of sloe-eyed languor, while pairs of Italian-Baroque-style blackamoors—referred to by Liberace’s lover Scott Thorson as “harem boys”—support the fireplace mantel (left) and the candelabras that flank the bar (rear).

This according to “Liberace’s taste” by Grant Mudford and Susan Yalevich (Nest 10 [2002] pp. 588–590). Below, Liberace plays Tiger rag in 1969, when he was the highest-paid entertainer in the world.

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Architectural modulations

The Western tonal system is founded on specific procedures for modulating from one key to another; the harmonic relationships involved have parallels in Western architecture’s classic proportional relationships, suggesting the idea of architectural modulation.

In the above examples, the floor plan on the left shows the width-to-length ratios of the principal spaces in a project from I Quattro libri dell’architettura by Andrea Palladio (1508–1580). The unexpected and somewhat disturbing angled wall of the rear courtyard space could function like a pivot chord, leading to the hypothetical addition shown on the right.

This according to “Modulation in music and architecture” by Radoslav Zuk, an essay included in Systems research in the arts. IV: Music, environmental design, and the choreography of space (Windsor: International Institute for Advanced Studies in Systems Research and Cybernetics, 2003, pp. 1–8).

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Early muzak

In 1760 the Swedish diplomat Count Ulrich zu Lynar reported on an ingenious system for Tafelmusik at the court of Ludwig VIII, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt (above, 1691–1768):

“Next [to the palace] is a small garden and in it a Lusthaus where the Landgravial family dines during the summer, and in the middle of which, where the table is set up, there is a small round hole that leads to a basement, out of which music is meant to sound very beautifully. To that end, in each of the four corners there is also an opening from which the sound can come.”

This pavillion, built in the early eighteenth century and apparently used during Ludwig’s reign as a special entertainment for visitors, was demolished in the nineteenth century. A surviving architectural plan, however, indicates an underground passageway to it from the palace’s main building, presumably intended for the serenading musicians.

This according to “The court of Hesse-Darmstadt” by Ursula Kramer, an essay included in Music at German courts, 1715–1760: Changing artistic priorities (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2001, pp. 333–363).

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