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Theatre, Opera and Consciousness, History and Current Debates

by Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe
Rodopi Press, Amsterdam/New York, 2013
241 pp., illus. b/w.  $68.00
ISBN: 978-90-420-3663-5.

by Martha Blassnigg
University of Plymouth


martha.blassnigg@plymouth.ac.uk

Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe’s book Theatre, Opera and Consciousness, History and Current Debates marks a significant extension and further development of his previously published Theatre and Consciousness: Explanatory Scope and Future Potential (Intellect, 2005) and in many references directly draws from the earlier presented approach of understanding the relationship between consciousness and theatre particularly through the filter of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s reassessment of Indian Vedanta philosophy as Vedic Science. [1]

Theatre, Opera and Consciousness, History and Current Debates opens in its first part with reflections on the history of theatre in relation to consciousness and the consequent theoretical and ethical implications. What might be synthesised as an approach to historiography ‘beyond the text and beyond matter’, is reminiscent of a cognate starting point to Shyrock and Smail’s Deep History (2011), in its recognition of the shortcomings of history in its disciplinary traditional reliance on documented evidence. Meyer-Dinkgräfe, however, addresses human consciousness as qualitative activity beyond or before materialised expression and as such ventures into a treatment of processes of consciousness that include experiences that are commonly referred to as the ‘spiritual’ or the ‘extra-ordinary’ nature of ‘higher’ level consciousness. In this way it is concerned with a practice of historiography that includes references to first person accounts, anecdotes and speculation, in order to address experienced aspects of consciousness that do not leave a materially tangible trace and pertain purely to the domain of consciousness. This approach follows thinkers, such as Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana, in recognising the importance of first-person accounts for the study of human consciousness, accounts that go beyond the immediate observable and yet constitute most profound dimensions of human experience.

Reminiscent of the rather skillful ability to synthesise as well as the openness for transdisciplinary encounters in Aby Warburg’s treatment of affective diagrams that persist throughout periodic formalism and aesthetics, Meyer-Dinkgräfe poses the question why certain periods might have followed one another. He opens the first part of the book with a brief overview on key movements in the context of the European theatrical tradition. By extending the current scientific framework he puts the Vedanta model of consciousness to test with its sequential stages of aspirational, intentional and underlying drivers of expressive activity as an explanatory model for the succession of intrinsic processes that mark the Zeitgeist and tendency of these historically defined periods. In this way he seeks to determine the traceable movements of conscious evolutionary dynamics as manifest in art (theatre and opera specifically) through the Vedanta classification system of qualitative states of consciousness that ultimately lead to moksha (enlightenment). The following chapters depart from this conceptual framework and present extensive materials for discussion comprising an examination of biographical theatrical plays during the last 40 years, synaesthesia as a neurological and spiritual phenomenon, the significance of the warming-up and cooling down processes and an insightful reflection on ethics. This is contextualised by the ‘performative turn’ in theatre studies and the self-reflexive focus in academia revealing a similar tendency in recent theatre productions increasingly characterised by self-reflective historiographical treatments and aesthetics (such as Stefan Herheim’s Wagner productions).

The second part of the book is concerned with a discussion of consciousness in relation to so-called spiritual experiences in the context of opera performance. By reflecting on interviews and biographical contexts of individual singers (Klaus Florian Vogt) and conductors (Peter Schneider, Karen Kamensek, Roger Norrington) it offers intimate and moving insights into the experience of conducting, singing, training and performing, which otherwise remain locked within the individual experience with some traces translated via external expression and interaction. In this way Meyer-Dinkgräfe treats the ‘event’ in its pluralistic happenings including a recognition of its heterogeneous audiences, as a form of Gesamtkunstwerk, as Wagner might have envisaged, where all conscious players contribute with their awareness, expectations and conscious attention, and not least with the elaborated skills to make and coordinate sound into music in its intrinsic relationship with listening, mental projection and aesthetic perception. The chapter ‘Spiritual aspects of operatic singing: Klaus Florian Vogt’, for example, touches upon a fascinating discussion in relation to the question of pure resonance — with reference to pure consciousness, “a state of consciousness that is devoid of any contents” (p. 22), an awareness of nothing other than consciousness itself. This is described as a transformative process from a ‘manifest sound’ Ahata Nada (as through instruments or the singer’s bodily activity) to a tendency towards perfection that removes the vibration from the individual characteristics of the performer and approaches ‘pure resonance’ Anahata Nada, the primordial quality of pure sound. This altered state carries the principle of Nada, “the combination of infinite life force prana and pure intelligence of eternal dynamics of consciousness Agni as the ultimate source of all existence” (p. 174). — An intriguing approach that invites further research around questions on the quality of sound, sound as consciousness and whether music is purely a medium or carries pure consciousness in its very organisational principles and techniques. In this section, Meyer-Dinkgräfe addresses spirituality in theatre and opera head-on — “as a sound, reliable and verifiable category of experience that must be understood beyond its conventional use in the context of religion” (p. 213). It is a stepping stone for further research in this area, in addition to existing academic thinking around the mental, emotional, mnemonic and physical engagement of the spectator during performance that reach out into more intangible concepts and experiences of what traditionally might have been termed the ‘sublime’, ‘extra-ordinary’ or ‘divine’ — as something that ultimately appears as a rather ordinary and common dimension of life. More than two hundred years have passed since Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart revealed esoteric masonic knowledge that was supposed to be kept secret in his ‘Magic Flute’; today, Meyer-Dinkgräfe suggests, so-called spiritual experiences are understood more immanently and therefore becoming more common and increasingly so outside established religious systems. In this way, and in this sense similar to Warburg, he situates the arts, and music in particular, as significant alternative for momentary exaltation, one of many recognised pathways to expand the reach of consciousness as part of a conscious individual choice and intrinsic process of human evolution.

Some readers might find the application of an existing conceptual model such as the Vedanta model of consciousness somewhat inductive and explanatory-biased, this is, however, balanced through the exploratory and open exposition of the studied materials which provide rich opportunity for further research. In this way, how exactly the Vedanta model of consciousness might connect in each of the presented cases is to a large extent left to the reader’s engagement, and therefore opens up the rich exposition for other scholars to engage with the resources from additional or possibly other perspectives. In this way Theatre, Opera and Consciousness is intrinsically transdisciplinary, in the sense that it mobilizes a range of theoretical perspectives and practical methodologies (Nowotny et al. 2003) in order to identify new topics and concerns (Punt 2013) for consciousness studies. Hence quite independent of the fact whether one agrees with the clearly defined positioning of consciousness as an ongoing, dynamic and contingent evolutionary process with its key tendency oriented toward enlightenment, the methodological and epistemological approach and the presented material, extensive in scope and depth, form a significant stepping-stone in raising important questions for further research trajectories. This concerns especially new directions for research into internal processes and relationships that involve the spectators as active participants in the collaborative, dynamic conscious experience of the performance. It demonstrates that taking consciousness into the centre of the discussion impacts on important questions around ethics and wellbeing and ultimately touches upon profoundly political dimensions.

Finally, Theatre, Opera and Consciousness gives hope that after a century of, in their own right quite important saecular and materially focused developments, the time seems ripe again to start rigorously engaging with the ancient philosophical question: ‘where are we going’? The recently enlarged historiographical scope of the question ‘where are we coming from’? through deep history, object ontological and new materialist archaeological approaches appears to catalyse a similar expansion into philosophically and anthropologically based inquiries for tentative outlooks into the future. In this sense Meyer-Dinkgräfe contributes to the core of the Humanities as they are understood as practice that proceeds from the human as intentional and reflective being [2] concerned with studies of attitudes, aspirations and the creative potentialities of the mind in the fullest sense. More space is needed to take this up and develop cognate conceptual, methodological and epistemological frameworks as they pertain to ontology and the development of ‘humanism’ as ethically, social-cultural but also ontologically based foundation for a spiritually and culturally rich quality of life and wellbeing that gives all actants agency of choice and conscious recognition of each individual’s own evolutionary path within the larger interconnected relations.

Note/References:

[1] As such it constitutes a further contribution to an ongoing debate that the author leads through a range of platforms; the Rodopi book series Consciousness, Literature and the Arts (of which this book is part), the Journal Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, the book series Theatre and Consciousness (Intellect), as well as the biannual International Conference on Consciousness, Theatre, Literature and the Arts since 2005.

[2] Repko, Allen F. Los Angeles, CA:  Sage Publications, 2012. Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory. 111.


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