Agile Opera eBook introduction

In 2016, the year a reality television star was elected president of the United States of America, the integration of human society with digital technology seems complete. Performance by digital-corporeal means has become a daily task for global citizens. Zealously we produce and distribute images that amplify our desirability and seek to affect the political and economic climates we are caught in.

For performing artists this situation both expands and depletes the potential of our art/work. Expands because opportunities to perform become immense in number, and the necessity of performance to life seems undeniable; depletes because the ubiquity of performance and its many agendas unsettles the significance of performance as art. If we are to hold a place for performance as an artform in which cultural complexities can be thought and shared, then performance companies­—especially those not shielded by major cultural institution status, or charged with the task of protecting cultural heritage—must be thoughtful and agile in their approach to art making in the new normal.

Chamber Made Opera, as both a performance company and a practice, stands poised between critical historical and contemporary developments. As a practice, chamber opera traces a lineage of innovation and experimentation back to the 1600s. Its longevity in part due to its communicative power, for at its core lies the rare quality of public intimacy. Chamber opera demonstrates what is possible when a human with the capacity for nuanced expression performs within the spatial scale of a chamber. Through the intimacy of human contact those present enter an immersive togetherness and emotional release predicated on this shared intimacy. Through the central devices of opera—recitative, aria, chorus—we are transported. Fundamental human emotions are invoked as the performed voice realizes a humanist heritage at the scale of human form.

The challenge faced by makers of chamber opera today is to remain true to the potentials of intimate communication in a world where the staging of intimacy is undergoing massive transformation, and to bring expertise to bear on the digitally augmented performativity of now.

Agile Opera is a cooperative project investigating how a small chamber opera company can engage in present day socio-technological conditions to sustain its own flourishing and the flourishing of its art. Funded by the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Programme, it is a partnership between RMIT University and Chamber Made Opera, based at RMIT’s Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory (SIAL) in Melbourne, Australia.

Artistic Director Douglas Horton and General Manager Stephen Armstrong founded Chamber Made Opera in 1988. The company has commissioned more than 40 original works of chamber opera and presented over 90 performance seasons across Australia and overseas. It has been steered by two artistic directors, Horton (1988 to 2009) and David Young (2009 to 2014), and since 2014 by Creative Director and CEO Tim Stitz in collaboration with Artistic Associates Sarah Kreigler, Tamara Saulwick, Christie Stott and Erkki Veltheim.

The company’s work has been consistently ambitious, experimental and destabilising. As Stephen Armstrong has said, ‘finding a space to present [is] “the chamber” [of Chamber Made Opera]. The chamber isn’t an extant space, the chamber is a concept, it’s an idea.’[1] Which is to say, the work of the company is determined by a concept restlessly seeking to present itself. The product is mutable, its repeating process of production never once repeated.

For example, the Living Room Operas were a series of ten performance works produced over 2010–2014 under the directorship of David Young.[2] Each was privately commissioned and performed in a domestic living room. Many went on to re-produce, with future versions presented in both live and digital spaces. These nomadic artworks were conceived as a pragmatic response to hard times—following the company losing half of its funding in 2009—but were also an opportunity to take risks which are impossible when working at a larger scale. The result was a collection of critically acclaimed works that re-established Chamber Made Opera as a significant feature of Australia’s music theatre landscape.[3]

This style of innovation, applied across layers of creative, economic and logistical operation is detailed by Young in his essay in this publication, ‘Desperate Measures’, In this piece he interweaves artistic and managerial methods such that business is rendered a compositional problem, and performance-making a solution to financial and organisational complexities. It is precisely this interconnected approach to arts management and art making that the Agile Opera project aims to map, articulate and develop through exploring the uses of digital technology for art.

Conceiving, funding and producing new artistic work sits within a wider business-consumer-technological milieu. Thus, the Agile in Agile Opera is no coincidence. Agile and lean are terms and methodologies used to advance products and services that involve people, technology and adaption of goals in changing business landscapes. The ‘disruptive innovation’[4] of Uber and Airbnb is by now well known: start up companies that have unseated established businesses through software-driven innovation relying little on owning physical facilities or things, but rather providing customers new forms of engaging with what and how they want.

Although the disruption experienced by small arts organisations in the Australian context is more commonly top-down triggered change, as when Federal Government and State funding cuts cause them to adapt, merge, or cease to operate. Nevertheless new bottom-up models of disruption driven by software innovation and mobile technologies are making their effects felt. If we think of customers as audiences, we can see how digital layers of engagement may attract new audiences, or more deeply engage existing ones. From crowdfunding to the sharing economy, the digitisation of services is changing both how services are produced, and audience/consumer expectations of engagement. It is in this light that arts organisations are required to adapt to a changing socio-technological landscape that blends business models, audience expectations and creative production of works. In ‘Rhythm of a Year’ in this publication, Lawrence Harvey details these layered relationships, and considers the time and energy that Chamber Made Opera spends sustaining them (abstract only), and in ‘The digital ecology of arts and academic workers’, Harvey and Tracy Nguyen map an existing ecology of individuals’ workflows, towards illuminating the minutiae of this landscape and our evolving methods of managing it (abstract only).

Of course, business methodologies are not the only models that can guide us. In 1969 R. Murray Schafer introduced the term schizophonia ‘to refer to the split between an original sound and its electroacoustic reproduction in a soundscape’.[5] While sounds originate from the mechanisms that produce them, electroacoustic means such as radio or recording mean sound can travel through space (radio) or through time (recording). Schafer’s notion elegantly describes the split between situated experience and the digital versions of any event, and provides a different frame for thinking the condition of a small performance company in the 21st century Australian context.

Performance companies by necessity must document, record, provide examples and be present in online digital spaces, and so have a schizophonic relationship to their original productions. In Chamber Made Opera’s case, works are now intended to exist both as live events and ‘digiworks’ or digital versions that align with the themes and content of the original, but can be consumed and understood independently of it.[6] In addition, each production, whether live or digiwork, is attended by a range of asynchronous digital layers: from organising teams, sharing information, making scores, video and audio drafts, marketing, audience surveys, and so on. The schizophonic splits between live and digital versions of materials and information are multiple and crisscross between, business/administrative, and communicative territories.

At the other end of the communicative vector is the audience, these days also fluent in techniques of schizophonic reception. Gone are the days when we had no choice but to travel through real space to experience art. Now online venues and artistic experiences flood the digital landscape, seeking out and vying for our attention. Indeed, for the individual citizen audience member sophisticated and well resourced media conglomerates and whole business sectors ruthlessly track our digital footprints and compete for our hits. Our awareness is a commodity, and it is now part of the work of the small performance company to be active in this socio-technological landscape that both exploits and responds to the awareness and expectations of its audiences.

This schizophonic situation, in which situated experience is routinely reproduced reinvented and redistributed across a vast virtual terrain, is now the texture of everyday life. Indeed we might say schizophonia is normalised as a new fundamental social condition. It is useful to acknowledge that Schafer coined his term to dramatize what he saw as the aberrational effects of recording and broadcast technologies on our relationships to situated sounds,[7] and while in the 21st century the schizophonic horse may have well and truly bolted, the critique of our entwined, digital-corporeal relationships continues. This is another important aspect of Agile Opera, which seeks not only to investigate digital techniques and methods drawn from the marketplace, but to participate in critical consideration of their invention and application as well.

Towards developing a more nuanced language that crosses digital and live domains Sam Mcgilp, Agile Opera’s PhD Research candidate, traces terminology of ‘the platform’, in his podcast, ‘At sea in language: a platform glossary for the arts’, and Greg Hooper considers differences between the reception of digital vs. live performance in his paper, ‘Some brief notes toward a developmental perspective on the experience of performance in the arts’.

Digital sociologist Alexia Maddox views the texture and structure of the schizophonic-now through a social science lens in her essay, ‘A social science reflection on the built environments of the Chamber Made Opera: from physical place to code’. Rejecting any distinction between offline and online space, she describes the emergent and living socio-technical system we now inhabit, with its new intimacies, forms of social control and ‘potential for experimentation and disruption.’ Maddox speculates about ways micro-opera might inhabit Temporary Autonomous Zones in these unstable territories, effectively replacing Schafer’s nervousness with a pioneering vision. Then composer Juliana Hodkinson, in ‘Distributed Opera: new stagings, new roles’ gives that vision concrete form, discussing experiments made by pioneering opera-makers using digital technologies, and reflecting on how these experiments signal new forms of embodied possibility for performance and for life.

For Chamber Made Opera the challenges of the contemporary socio-technical landscape may be immense, but so are its potentials. A company connected to traditions of performance that value public intimacy and situated experience, and also chamber opera’s lineage of radical experimentalism. It approaches the interpenetration of the live and the digitally saturated with curiosity and artistic ambition. It approaches its position as a co-effect of top-down funding constraints, bottom-up market transformations and changing audience expectations with determination to flourish. Agile Opera is a cooperative environment in which Chamber Made Opera can examine itself within this complex world-picture. Facilitating new artistic, intellectual and economic partnerships, investigating and applying the potentials of digital technologies to the creation and audience-reception of future chamber opera.


[1] Troup C., Burns, J., Stott, C., 2013, Video interview with Stephen Armstrong in 25 Years: our first quarter century, <>

[2] The Itch, 2010; Another Lament, 10; Minotaur The Island, 2011-2012; Dwelling Structure, 2011, Ophelia Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, 2011; PM: an accidental video opera, 2012; The Box, 2012; Between Lands and Longings, 2013; Turbulence, 2013, Wake, 2014.

[3] Gallasch, K., Young, D., 2012, ‘from the living room into the world’ Realtime issue #108, April-May 2012 <>

[4] Bower J.L., Christensen, C.M., 1995, ‘Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave’ Harvard Business Review, January–February 1995 <>.




Cite this

Copy to clipboard