A Night at the Opera

I spent a night at the opera recently, when we went to see Rusalka, by Dvorak.  In brief Rusalka develops the fairy story of a mermaid, who longs to leave her underwater kingdom.  She falls in love with a handsome prince but must pay the price of losing her voice.  Of course the opera ends in tragedy.   Sounds innocent enough?  Well, Daily Telegraph readers were outraged due to the modern adaptation, which recasts the mermaid as a hooker and the wicked witch as a brothel madam – pretty much Sex, Opera and Rock’n’Roll!  Telegraph readers wrote in to complain of “girls running around in their scanties”.

Sex, Opera and Rock’n’Roll

Sex, Opera and Rock’n’Roll aside, I was fascinated to watch the workings of the orchestra during the three hour performance.  There’s no room for free improvisation in such a setting, with up to 40 people performing together, alongside a similar number of people on stage.   The role of the orchestra conductor is pivotal as the main communication medium between stage and orchestra pit.  It’s an idea I have drawn parallels about in the book “Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll” and am developing with “The Music of Business”.  Quite by chance, I ended up having a conversation with Andy Wooler, an orchestral brass player, big band jazz fiend, conductor, music fanatic and Academy Technology Manager at Hitachi Data Systems.

What parallel lessons can businesses learn from this?

Size matters – It may be easy to jam in a small group where the task is simple.  Once group size gets beyond a certain number and the task becomes complex, co-ordination of tasks is required if the music is to come out to the same quality standard on a consistent basis.  In an orchestra this is accomplished by the use of sheet music and a conductor.  In business, this may be achieved through procedures, standards and / or supervision and guidance.

Beauty and the Beast – What is often heard in an opera are the highlights / melodies.  Yet, these rest on what my PhD music teacher friend calls the ‘boring bits’.  Without a number of pieces of substructure music does not always have grace and beauty.  In the pop music world, take a listen to some of the hidden arrangements in The Beatles work circa Sargent Pepper or Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen to hear what I mean.

Innovation and the Opera – Andy points out that, despite what conventional wisdom might suggest, there is room for innovation in the opera.   Specifically, innovation manifests itself in two ways:

  • The choice of conductor – For example, Leonard Bernstein transformed the music of many works such as Romeo and Juliet, where he changed the story and added music.  Bernstein was regarded as an eclectic composer, fusing jazz, Jewish music, and the work of other classical composers, such as Stravinsky.  A kind of Jimi Hendrix of the classics
  • The storyline / staging – The other area where innovation occurs in opera is in the storyline.  Andy recalls seeing “The Last Supper’ at Glyndbourne, where Judas was included in the guest list at a Last Supper reunion.  Another example is the recasting of “The Marriage of Figaro” in the 1960’s.  The transformation of Rusalka towards a more modern interpretation is just such an example of changing the setting to engage a new audience, even if Daily Telegraph readers were not amused!

In conclusion, superb performance often rests on a number of invisible substructures.  Structure is not the enemy of creativity.   Graceful performance in any field is often the product of a great deal of structure, some of which is non-obvious.  More on this in the forthcoming book “The Music of Business“.   Andy Wooler may be contacted at http://www.andywooler.info/wordpress or at Twitter @awooler

To finish, let’s hear the finale from Rusalka:


About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk


6 responses to “A Night at the Opera

  1. Splendid! I am doing a talk on “What can we learn from Christmas Dinner” on Friday at Nicki Davey’s place down in Somerset. I will mention your analogies as part of my intro – is that OK?




  2. Howdy very nice blog!! Guy .. Excellent .. Wonderful .. I will bookmark your blog and take the feeds additionally…I’m glad to search out numerous useful information here within the post, we need work out more strategies on this regard, thank you for sharing. . . . . .


  3. This from Linkedin from Roger Delves:

    Roger Delves • Great article, Peter! I knew nothing about classical music or opera but ended up marrying an expert, who herself went on among other things to create and make Maestro, Maestro at the Opera for BBC. I met lots of conductors and one in particular, Peter Stark, has what I found to be a really interesting view about conductors and leadership which resonates with me at least. He asked me to consider what conductors were for – after all, professional musicians dont need a waving stick to keep time, can read music, turn pages and so on. I had assumed, thoughtlessly, that conductors were co-ordinators. But Peter’s informed view is that they bring the unique vision and the sense of shared culture that any joint enterprise needs – they aren’t there to play or co-ordinate playing, but to offer a vision of what the music is saying and how the music should sound which the orchestra then needs to accept and agree to deliver. Perhaps that’s why, for example, in the final of the original Maestro, the two celebrities (Sue Perkins and Goldie) both conducted the same piece but made it sound very different. I’ve used this fact of orchestral life as an allegory for the work of leaders running complex, highly skilled and diverse teams: don’t be a task undertaker, be a vision provider and culture creator.

    Peter Cook MBA MRSC C Chem • Thank you for stopping by and your excellent comment Roger. I must say that I took this information from a conversation with Andy Wooler and that the credit goes to him on this.

    I shall post your comment on the blog so he gets to see it.



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