A night at the opera

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, readers of the UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph 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 rather than Bohemian Rhapsody, but we’ll leave that for another article!

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”. 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 business lessons can businesses learn from a night at the opera?

Size matters – It may be easy to jam in a small group where the task is simple, but 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. I’ve discussed these ideas before via the Music – Business mix:

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.

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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 Glyndebourne, 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 1960s. 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. A conversation with Nigel Kennedy confirms these observations and there is more to learn from Kennedy’s genius in the book “The Music of Business”.  In terms of successful transformation, the need for planning and structure is just as relevant if disruption is to turn into the mainstream.


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This extract comes from my book “The Music of Business”.  The examines business leadership through the twin lenses of MBA thinking augmented by insights from the field of music.  We offer live events on topics such as this via our Business and Music masterclasses on a worldwide basis for full immersion in the topic. A limited-edition of The Music of Business is available direct from the author’s basement studio with some added extras … just contact me.

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