“You need to suspend your disbelief just to accept that somebody’s singing on stage. Anything can be singing on stage; it could be a person called Tosca, or a positron.” – Daniel Blanco Albert
Daniel Blanco Albert is a Valencia-born composer currently working in Birmingham, and is the co-founder and co-artistic director of Infinite Opera. He is best known for his large-scale operatic and theatrical works centring on sociopolitics, philosophy and astrophysics, with his work having been performed in theatres and artistic installations across the UK and continental Europe. Daniel also co-runs Angry Margaret with Birmingham School of Art, and is currently pursuing a PhD at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Daniel spoke to PRXLUDES about his work within opera, theatre and technology, and the philosophies that underpin his compositions.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Daniel! Thanks so much for chatting to me — how are you doing? What have you been working on lately?
Daniel Blanco Albert: Heya! Not too bad. Thanks for inviting me. It’s great to chat with you!
I’ve been recently looking into the possibilities of live digital theatre on Zoom. I was lucky to participate in a project with the Brazilian company Os Satyros and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Performative Arts (Birmingham) working on the development of some soundscapes for a production of ‘Macbeth’ in this media. We’re talking about [how] it could be dream for a choreographer or a stage designer, you can really do so many things with just software like [the] Snap Camera or even with the Zoom virtual backgrounds. You can do so much. It changes completely the [process] of how things work, because now the actors need to be technicians as well, they need to be putting settings on [and] off on their computer; so we’re exploring that.
Now I have been working to see if I can incorporate it somehow in my work. For now, as part of my PhD, I was co-presenting another project in which I applied some of those ideas last Thursday [17th December] at the Conservatoire’s Study Day. We didn’t really know what to do for that presentation, so we decided to go for something a bit more theatrical, and we did a little performance and talked a bit about the process.
It’s really interesting to see the way different disciplines have adapted to COVID.
I have been working on very different versions of this ‘Macbeth’ project in the last couple of years. This situation became part of the process; part of a cycle in the development of it. We may end up with a definite production in two or three more versions… Performances are part of the process, just to know how the piece is developing, especially now working with this medium. We may keep developing it, trying to create something that at the end could be performed several times over a week, as a theatre would do, but in this case, over Zoom.
Would you see that happening both physically and virtually at some point?
It could happen virtually… physically, but virtually, because everything in Zoom theatre is performed live. You can see a video that is prepared, you can even record yourself on Zoom and edit it, and just present that video in streaming — that’s not [making] too much difference to what you are seeing, because at the end, you are seeing something on a screen.
However, it changes completely performing live, even if it’s on Zoom, it’s completely different. If you’re doing a video, you have the security of doing three, four shots, and then edit and adapt it, but live theatre has a different element, even if it’s on Zoom. We could say there’s also a little bit of a morbid pleasure of seeing somebody [who] may forget a line live, or have some technical issue… -laughs-
I want to say there’s no substitute for the real thing, but in a way, Zoom has become its own “real thing”.
Yeah, we were discussing that when we were doing this project. Many people, during the pandemic, were just like “let’s do normal theatre, but we just put a camera in front of us and it records what we’re doing live, streaming it” — but that’s a completely different language [to] devising something which is using and embracing the possibilities of Zoom. It’s a different language, I think; even once the COVID pandemic is finished, it’s maybe a way to really reach live theatre internationally. Someone was saying in a q&a after a performance that it’s some sort of a dream for theatre festivals, because you can have people performing from all around the world, and not having to pay any travel expenses. -laughs-
I can definitely see a lot of cross-disciplinary theatre happening post-COVID, combining both live theatre and the possibilities of technology. Has Infinite Opera done any work with Zoom during the pandemic?
We are thinking about that; [with] all the previous work we were preparing before COVID, due to its nature, I think it can be quite tricky, but we could go for it… There would be things that we’ll need to cut, things that we’ll need to change, the conception of how timing works — especially if you are doing anything digital, you need to embrace the latency, the lag. That’s something that we are doing with ‘Autohoodening’, the project from which we did a mini-performance last Thursday [17th December].
‘Autohoodening’ is a collaboration with a theatre company called PostWorkersTheatre and Goldsmiths, University of London. The project involved performing a live masquerade protest on the streets of Birmingham on Black Friday, but now all of that is postponed. We still want to do that, but we wanted to have something done for Christmas, at least. So we decided to do a short film presenting the project. For that, we’ve been [applying] some techniques of Zoom theatre, even if we’re recording it and editing a video; we [also] had to adapt the music for the rehearsals. What could we do [that] embraces singing, and embraces the latency of rehearsing on Zoom? For example, we were working devising ‘The Algorithm’ — a section that [represents] the algorithm of Amazon —and we decided to use layering, open scores, skeleton scores, things like that; all mixed together with the topics and the musical elements we chose for this part of the piece. It’s been a completely different way to work like this for me.
One of my favourite works you’ve done is the opera you composed for Digbrew Co, ‘Besse’ — it’s fantastic. Tell me a bit about the conception for that…
I just wanted to do something “fun”. Actually, ‘Besse’ is the first work I [composed] out of study, out of academia; we created Infinite Opera for the previous opera that we did — ‘Entanglement! An Entropic Tale’ — it was cool, of course, but once we finished the Masters [course], we were like “okay, what do we do?” So we applied for an artistic residency at the gallery Grand Union, in Minerva Works, in Digbeth. We started working there, organising a tour for ‘Entanglement’, trying to go to different universities and performing there. What happened then was that we got talking to the people in the gallery, and they said “you should [get to] know this guy, he’s called Oli [Webb], he runs Digbrew, this fantastic brewery”… In its very initial phases, we had a little performance of the ‘Macbeth’ project mentioned before in there, which was incredible because nobody came. -laughs- And nobody came because it was snowing crazily, yet we performed in there [to] like, three people. We were more performers than audience. -laughs-
So I [got to] know the space, it was great. One day, I had a couple of beers, I went to the bar, and without knowing it, I was talking to the owner. -laughs- I was like “oh, it would be so cool to do an opera here,” and he was like “yes!” We met in Grand Union, and we [discussed] how to do an opera that features beer. Kim [McAleese] — programme director at the gallery — was very interested in witchcraft, and we were discussing the connection between witchcraft and beer, how the beer-makers’ features — the broom, the cat, the top-hat — became the imaginary of the witch… it was very closely related to the times of the plague. So we decided to have fun with that; we set a story about a female brewer, a brewster, — like [the gender roles] were at that time…
It’s almost like since it went from a “women’s thing” to a “men’s thing”, writing about a woman brewer ends up feeling like a feminist statement… -laughs-
This is very misogynistic, in a way, because beer-making was considered a “household labour”. So, we took all those ideas as a starting point and then decided “okay, let’s set a story of a brewster during the time of the plague, and let’s have fun with it at the same time we make a feminist statement” (especially with Roxanne Korda’s libretto!). We just wanted to make a very fun opera. I think because it was the first project [I composed] out of college, I [realised] I could do whatever I want. -laughs- I didn’t care of trying to make something “super-quality”, I just wanted to have fun with it.
I think those are the best works, though. When you’re not trying to create some “grand statement in modern art”, you’re just trying to have a good time.
Yeah, exactly. I think the idea was also to make fun a bit of the genre. We decided it was gonna be three “mini-operas”, and each opera was mocking different [elements]. For example, the first part of the opera was mocking all the harpsichord-type little arias; we also had a drinking song — the character in the opera running the tavern was behaving like “oh, I’m the grand master of a circus”, being like that — and in the second part, everything started to become very dark. -laughs- Then the third [part] went even darker. So, in a way, while we started parodying opera itself, we ended up parodying ourselves.
We were parodying the stereotypes of opera, like, “what happens in opera, in a big tragedy? Everybody dies. Okay, can we just do that as many times as possible?” So, we had a massacre on the third scene already, then on the fourth scene we kill one of the main characters… then in the next scene, the result of the massacre is still there, and we have a plague doctor doing research, and being quite a necrophiliac. We thought it would be [great] to write the sweetest aria ever, and I couldn’t make anything cheesier… but at the same time, he’s examining corpses and licking them. -laughs-
That actually sounds incredible. -laughs-
Yeah, and of course, we had to have another massacre in the last scene. So, it’s actually a tragedy, because everybody dies — if we take the Shakespearian term. The thing is, the first time we had a massacre, we decided to put the eyes, the point of view of the action, on the owner of the brewery; in that moment, he was getting drugged, so there [were] people dying, but for him, there were people dancing, doing really crazy things. We see very clearly in the action that Besse is poisoning the beer, and people come [into] the brewery saying “your beer is poisoned” — when the beer they were drinking in the first scene was completely out of date and they were just infected with the plague. But the thing is, Besse poisons the beer that Camille (sic) is gonna drink, and Camille gets that glass and says “I’m gonna prove [to] you that beer is not poison” (“In this drink is the proof, my wife submits to no hoof!“), and in that moment he is poisoned. -laughs-
How do you feel about the work now, following all its performances? Do you have any plans with Digbrew in the future (COVID-willing, of course)?
I think it’s a quite honest piece. Not trying to “pretend” anything or try to give it any more value than what it has. We just wanted to have fun and make something nice; it’s not pretentious. I think the idea is just to keep doing more work in [Digbrew], and probably get a bit crazier in the future, more experimental. We want to do mini-operas that are fully devised in the space… maybe do operas about the beer — not about beer as a topic, but about the names they are using for the beers. They’re quite amazing; I really like some of them. They’re great names for operas. -laughs-
Let’s talk about the opera you composed for your masters — ‘Entanglement! An Entropic Tale’. What was your approach composing that work — was it similar or different to how you approached ‘Besse’?
I think it’s, again, taking the piss a bit of opera, in a way. Opera can be quite ridiculous; it’s not “ridiculous”, but people consider it [so]. We were thinking, it’s so exaggerated that when someone goes [onto] a stage and starts singing, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a person or it’s a concept. “I’m happiness, and I’m singing”… I mean, it worked with Inside Out. -laughs- When you accept something that isn’t real and you just buy it — suspension of disbelief — that works very well in opera. You need to suspend your disbelief just to accept that somebody’s singing on stage. Anything can be singing on stage; it could be a person called Tosca, or a positron.
It’s genius. An opera about quantum physics…
How dramatic is physics? Just imagine the love story between an electron and a positron, that love each other, but they cannot touch, because if they touch, they would annihilate themselves. That’s [a] super operatic tragedy, it’s just great. It tackles again this thing of the gods, the myths, stuff like that; you can have them as representations of stuff. [If] I have Jupiter in a scene, or Wotan1 — gods and powerful entities — why not gravity? I think that gravity’s more real than Wotan. We’re not being so “unreal”; we created a very dramatic story which makes sense as a narration, and more or less [is] faithful to the laws of physics — I think we break them a couple of times, but…
It’s opera, man. Rules are made to be broken.
I mean, I don’t know how we did it, but we added black holes, Hawking radiation, gravitational waves… I think the biggest license we took was surfing on gravitational waves to travel to the future. However, it’s my favourite bit; it sounds amazing.
But then you can really give it a very dark twist to the plot— you can always give it a dark twist if you want — because the electron and positron come from the same photon. So basically, they are sisters (Electron – soprano, Positron – mezzo). We are then in this opera having an incestuous asexual, or non-sexualised, quantum physics relationship… -both of us break down laughing for a few seconds-
And then they both die at the end?
Of course. But we make it in a way, like, “oh, they can’t find the graviton, the one particle that would solve everything”, and they decide to annihilate themselves. That [links] to the one-electron universe2 theory — that everything is made out of one electron — so in the end, if they annihilate, they restart the whole universe again. I don’t think there’s any [opera] that has so many references to physics; every single scene tackles [something]: entropy, quantum physics, particle physics, astrophysics, proven [and] unproven theories… we have references for everybody.
That sounds like an incredible gallimaufry of ideas. What was performing ‘Entanglement’ like? I’m interested to see how you’d even start putting together a project like that… -laughs-
Well, normally, what we would be doing was first having a little introduction by a physicist. We had one in Nottingham by prof. Gerardo Adesso, and it was really good; he was talking about art and science, maths, quantum physics, how they relate. We’re still [in] development on how to [best] present the piece; for that we are doing different cycles, we take elements from one performance to another and keep developing. I don’t think we’ve definitely reached a final version of how to stage it, because there’s so much potential, so many things that could be done.
There’s almost an infinite number of possibilities there; I guess you’d need to tailor it a bit more to the space you get?
I mean, we’ve made performances that made sense, that more or less worked in the space. We did the first one in The Lab [Birmingham Conservatoire] — it was brand new, so [we were] discovering what we could do — we had projections on one side, we had a TV that sometimes was working, we had a live feed [on] that TV as well. When we performed [it] in King’s College [London], we were performing in a chapel. We had to adapt to the chapel, but the person in charge didn’t let us do anything, not even moving the benches — we didn’t even have space to put [the] ensemble together. So that was a tricky one.
Then in Nottingham, we had a proper theatre to work with. They were such amazing people, they helped us quite a lot; they even helped us design the lighting — we have their lighting design saved, as well, completely programmed. So for that, we built a black hole on stage, we also had [some sort of] office for Entropy with a big backdrop. We even had parallel universes created with different fabrics falling from the ceiling. That performance created a nice atmosphere.
I think the main issue to create a big performance on a big stage [is that] in a sense, you can create really good things without any money, but the more money you have, the more amazing things you can do. We didn’t have a proper projector to do a whole projection on the floor; we wanted to do a matrix, and to have faces on the floor; but for them to work properly, we needed a projector that was [too] expensive. Sometimes you really depend on what you have; you can have an amazing idea, like, “I’m gonna go to a theatre and this is gonna work” — and maybe in a state-of-the-art theatre, [it] could work — but most often [you] need to do what you can with the space.
Yeah, of course — it’s great to have these ideas, but you need to know what you can do within your budget.
At the end, it worked — we made it work, especially thanks to the team of technicians, they were amazing, they were really helpful — but we do what we can with what we have. We were thinking of performing ‘Entanglement’ in Digbrew, as well; we were thinking of creating the performance as an installation, in which we had different performances in different parts of the brewery. We were [also] co-operating with artists from the School of Art [in Birmingham]. Infinite Opera is currently a provider for the School of Art, because we run the Protest Choir elective there. Because of that, we were able to join their placement program; so some of the artists were gonna work with us this year — and they started working with us this year, to create a new version of ‘Entanglement’ — but, of course, with the pandemic and everything, everything went [to] bollocks. In fact, we still have the money of the Arts Council there, pending, we need to spend it on the performance and we don’t know how to do it yet. -laughs-
What was this new version of ‘Entanglement’ planned to look like?
It was looking really amazing. We had such amazing ideas for the parallel universes; we had massive hula hoops, insanely massive hula hoops that you [would] pull, and the hoops were gonna create a sphere. We were gonna also rotate the way that we performed in the space; the opposite as in ‘Besse’, we would have the performers looking from the kitchen to the entrance (giving us more space and different possibilities). We were thinking of having a black box, as well, [to represent] the black hole, for the Singularity; we were gonna reference [Samuel] Beckett’s piece with just a mouth… We had many ideas.
Is there any sort of guiding philosophy that drives your work, especially with large-scale and interdisciplinary projects?
I think if I can say anything about that, it’s just being humble and very empathetic. That’s the key. First of all, if you’re collaborating with somebody, you need to put yourself on the side of the other [person] and try to understand where they’re coming from, what they want to achieve as well. Everyone has their own agenda, but I think it’s a matter of understanding what everybody wants, and find a point in which everybody is happy to keep collaborating to make things happen. It’s a matter of bringing energy and really giving a direction that things are going forward, that you really believe in [your] project and you are gonna work for it, you’re not gonna just leave it there. All of this comes from [the fact that] I did so many theatre productions, and music for them; working in those situations really humbles you, [because] you are not the main element, you are working as part of a whole team, a whole crew. They need you, but you need them as well. That works really well to loosen up the ego that everyone has.
At the end, everyone has a common goal, [which is] making the performance or art happen, to create [the] environment for that to happen. You also need to be flexible, not just as a person but also as a composers, to be able to do many things [and] not create barriers for yourself; opening your mind to do many things. I think we are really lucky — with all the developments in composition that happened over the past hundred years — that right now we can do whatever we want, we can learn from any single vision, from many different perspectives, and create something new by mixing these things. We’ve opened the spectrum so much that by just mixing things that seem to not work together initially, [we] can create something new.
I completely agree. Our access to all this information has really broadened the way we’re able to innovate.
Exactly. And now collaboration is also the key, because we’ve reached a point in which the innovations reached by an individual are limited. Most of the innovations [that] could’ve been done individually have been achieved already. So now innovation comes through collaboration, through [mixing] your work with the work of other people, embedding it with other ideas, opening your mind. I mean, you can always create something which is completely unique and new, but so unique that only you can understand — “I’ll just create a composition system which depends on the times I get up from the chair, and go to my bedroom and lay down, and go the bathroom…” — it’s so personal that it only refers to you, composition systems that no-one can understand but yourself. -laughs-
But then what’s the fun if you can’t share it with others? Unless you’re a total solipsist…
I don’t know. -laughs-
This is the best thing [about] growing up. The more time passes, the more things you [learn], the more stupid you feel, the humbler you become. I think we can apply even bigger ideas into that… the Cosmological Principle3. Even humans, as a concept, [are] so little and so worthless when we think about our universe … we are just nothing, we are not special. If humanity is relatively nothing in the universe, what are we as individuals?
Daniel and Infinite Opera’s works can be found at the links below:
- 1. Wotan: a principal character in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.
- 2. One-electron universe: a hypothesis that all electrons and positrons are a single entity, proposed by John Wheeler to Richard Feynman in 1940.
- 3. Cosmological Principle: the notion that the spatial distribution of matter in the universe is homogenous when viewed on a large enough scale.