Tag 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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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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Filed under Architecture, Iconography