David Levine: Habit [Levine’s 2012 performance/installation] was the same kind of experiment where you have one constant and everything else is a variable. The constant in this project is the sequence of the lyrics. The lip-syncing dancers playing Rob and Fab and the singers all know the sequence of the lyrics. The musicians get a signal one bar ahead if the music is going to loop or change, but the basic constant is the lyrics. So the musicians get a heads-up if a change is coming but the one thing that doesn’t change is the sequence.
Joe Diebes: The show wasn’t constructed in a linear fashion. There’s definitely a relation to object oriented, programmatic logic. That’s definitely the entire principle of everything we’ve done so far, not in terms of it just being recombinant, but in terms of how modular everything actually is, how we’ve been able to place, remove and move things around.
In a traditional, linearly composed opera the notion that you could just kind of shuffle things around and make them work would be unthinkable. But WOW is very much adaptable and modular, the way everything works – the streaming on the monitors, for instance – it’s all a kind of “just in time” logic. We can really change our mind instantaneously. We have to have some sense of what we’re doing for the performers, so we have to have some very fixed things, but there’s a lot that can be very, very different on a moment’s notice. I’ve structured it in such a way that, at least in terms of the music, the opera can change its course entirely one second before.
David Levine: The other day we were doing the first scene and because of how the algorithms turned out, it was fine. But the next time it was an extremely dark and melancholic opening – even though the lip syncers were doing the same thing – and Christian was like, “Can we make it more cheerful? It’s too melancholic.” Now, Joe can do that and we talked about it. But we decided that since the show is partially controlled by the algorithm, that however it starts off, that’s just going to be how it starts, and that’s going to be the emotional tone of the evening. So you’re going to get a different piece every time and the mood of the audience is set in motion by the generation of the thing, which is awesome.
David Levine: Right, the music is always going to be algorithmic, and for this iteration we’ve picked eight or nine texts from Christian’s database and we’re sticking to them, but each version of this project is context-specific. The next version might tell the story differently. If we’re in an opera house, we may decide that a totally different eight texts are appropriate to telling the version there.
So if Christian was making a database of many various textual sources for the text, how did you come to use Wagner’s Die Meistersinger as the single musical source text?
Joe Diebes: Well, I’m only using the orchestral part of Die Meistersinger. There are a few reasons for it. One is that the opera Die Meistersinger is itself about what’s the formula for the best song …
David Levine: And not a high art song. It’s about finding the formula for the best piece of popular music – or what passed for popular music in the 19th century.
Joe Diebes: Right, so it’s already an algorithmic concept – how to algorithmically generate a pop song….
Christian Hawkey: And how to sing it too. This opera is really the first singing contest. Okay, maybe no the first, but it’s like American Idol or The Voice.
Joe Diebes: Also, Wagner is, you know opera. He’s the one reference point that looms above any experiment in Opera, anyone that’s really trying to create a new form – which is what we’re interested in. He was striving for the gesamtkunstwerk. I’m not saying I’m a Wagnerite but it’s an interesting pivot point to work against and play with. It’s also interesting because he didn’t even call his works operas he calls them music drama. He thought opera was for sissies …