A Composer's Adventures

The Performer and Technology


Two Rheinmaidens in Robert Lepage’s production of Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold.’ Photo: Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera.

I recently saw two high-tech theatre works, Phil Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach” and Robert Lepage’s “Spades.” Both were remarkable for their complex staging technology, especially “Spades,” which blended the live performer seamlessly with ever-changing wizardry.

This got me thinking about a shift in new theatre and opera. Just like movies, they are using technology as the featured performer. Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message — but what is the message from technology in the arts? Has our taste been so changed by a the rich possibilities of pulling every visual trick out of the hat, that performers aren’t interesting enough on their own any longer? Has the live performer been upstaged, or is technology just an enhancement to human performance?

In “Einstein,” director-designer Robert Wilson didn’t need to elicit much emotion from the performers. They were more like symbols than fleshed-out characters. A 12-voice chorus represented them with coolly repeated phrases that seemed removed from any real emotional turmoil or intensity. The actors in “Spades,” though, did convey emotions and were fully expressive even without any outside help from sets and special effects. So, you ask, why did director-writer Lepage feel the need to expand his human dramas with fluidly changing scenery — from expensive Jacuzzi to bedroom to bar room and casino gambling tables? I felt that the words and song blended with the visual effects into a condensed art form that was more like poetry. I wonder if it was so powerful because it all came from the mind of one person.

With such great new technology a danger always lurks: Will it overwhelm the performance and upstage the performer? That question was brought up several times in Lepage’s complex set for the MET’s production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, where the singers sometimes appeared frightened of the moving part of the giant set.

While I love innovation and make an effort to see the most experimental performances, I also relish the productions that are pared down to a bare stage with the performer alone. That’s the ultimate test for an artist. I will never forget actor John Gielgud on an empty stage in New York, reciting Shakespeare so clearly and persuasively that I stayed in a trance for the longest time.

It is a privilege to live in an era that makes technology a major part of art. But like all powerful elements, it can burn down the house or it can warm your heart, like Lepage warmed mine with “Spades.”

Michael Colgrass


  1. Although I am very interested in technology in that I play a modern synthesizer I also agree that staging and production have gone ‘over the top’. A friend, an NLP practitioner in Johannesburg, said something very interesting to me – I paraphrase: “No entertainment presentation can be successful these days without a visual component”. Right or not I found it a fascinating statement.

    When I came back to Toronto after two decades away I stopped by the Rex Hotel to hear Rob McConnell’s band. The doorman said to me after taking my money: “Enjoy the show”. I was taken aback – I was going to hear Rob’s band, his writing and playing style. Sure enough though, people expect a show. It seems that music is not enough, you must provide entertainment.

    Perhaps this change, if it is one, is a product of information overload. We have seen, or can see, everything. The whole world is a stage and everyone is on it at once and it takes something spectacular to ‘stand out’.

    I am certainly with you about the beauty of a simple artful performance. A well delivered solo in any medium can be transporting. I wouldn’t need any ‘backing’ to appreciate a Clifford Brown trumpet solo. His every note and turn of phrase oozing warmth and beauty.

    There is no doubt too that when different art forms are combined and the writers, producers, performers and audience are all in sync then there can be the miracle of ‘liftoff and it can happen in the most unlikely situations.

  2. Wow … can’t let this one getaway! My answer ‘’good music with good visuals” are together a joy to the senses. Either alone leave enough room for the mind to wander into clear white thought … we can so enjoy a great piece of music, or marvel over a piece of art and even invite it into our home.

    When combined a new level of sensory pleasure is reached … if done right it can be a near narcotic effect.

    Sure it can be abused and quite easily plain awful … the two forms must be complimentary and interactive … each inspiring the other.

    Ray Ferris
    Digital Artist, TEA
    Technology Enhanced Art

    • Ray—I’m with you on this, but you’re talking about inanimate art. My concern is when combining technology with the live performer, a much trickier proposition where the living being can be easily obscured. Also the creative artist putting it together can come to depend on the technology to carry the day and forget to utilize the living voice and image for all of its potential…

  3. Good point Michael. I share your concern. Last year however I saw a magnificent work by Tod Machover, Death and the Powers, a robotic opera in which live singers interacted with robotic characters and a robotic (dynamic!) scenery. The remarkable thing was that all the technological wonders did NOT diminish the dramatic impact and the power of the music but rather enhanced it. That is perhaps the acid test any technological stage work with music should be put to. Would you listen to the music on the radio, and would it have the kind of impact that Wagner from the Met has, without the visuals?

  4. Peter,

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, technology can indeed enhance, but great care must be taken by a very sensitive director to see that a perfect marriage of technology and live performance takes place. I have found too often that the tech people tend to get carried away by their toys and begin to think they are the central action.

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