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Figures Pointing to an End: Operatic Analysis and Modern Sound Design

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In a 2003 production of Jean Racine’s Phèdre, the director Patrice Chéreau introduces into the play a bevy of sound effects. The sounds range from solo cello accompaniment to electronically produced crackling noises. This use of sound bears a resemblance to the way music functions in operas of Jean-Philippe Rameau and Richard Wagner. By interpreting these sounds according to models in recent work in operatic analysis, this paper shows how Chéreau’s sound effects achieve new significance as leitmotifs and as commentary on the events of the play. The study of theatre semiotics also provides a pathway for interpreting these sounds as symbols of fate and indications of Hippolyte’s death at the climax of Phèdre. Chéreau highlights the relationships among the tragedy’s characters by surrounding certain words and phrases with specific sound effects, or by inserting sound effects at particular moments of turmoil and at the dramatic climax. In particular, Chéreau emphasizes the themes of forbidden love and deceit in connecting these moments throughout the play. This analysis provides a way for expanding research in sound design by incorporating methods traditionally used for analysing opera.


Theatre Semiotics, Sound Design, Phèdre, Opera, Rameau, Wagner

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