Van Gogh: A Synaesthetic Approach to Performance

van gogh painting detail as background, with oranges and blues (unknown subject)

Project Lead:

Hannah Schneider (St John's College)

Partner Organisations:

The Ashmolean Museum

Oxford Alternative Orchestra at St John’s College

What is it like to taste blue? To see D major? Through an innovative staging of a contemporary opera, this project explores the connections between the senses, and the connections between our senses and our understanding of reality. 

Van Gogh is a work of contemporary art music by composer Michael Gordon, which draws on the letters of the artist Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo for its inspiration and direction. Over the course of sixty-three minutes, the musicians trace Van Gogh’s development as an artist and ultimately his descent into madness.

Our staging principles will be largely founded on the theory of “(syn)aesthetics”. This term, coined by Josephine Machon, uses synaesthesia to understand the power of sensory perception in performance. Expanding beyond the relationships between senses, (syn)aesthetics explores connections between sensation and interpretation/sense-making, exploiting the audience’s sensory experience to enhance their understanding of an artistic work. Whilst this is most strongly present through sight and sound, other senses such as smell, taste and touch are also essential. This disposes itself towards a style of staging that heavily relies on an innovative use of technology and design to complement the music and live action.

We plan to stage this work in a way which teases out the multiple strains and sources of meaning: musical, narrative, psychological, sensual, and emotional. Van Gogh is neither opera nor theatre – instead, it combines the sharpest tools of both genres to contemplate Vincent’s life. Each movement, through complex rhythm and harmony, creates a distinct soundworld which evokes not only the city in which it is set, but also Van Gogh’s state of mind at that point in time.



Hannah Schneider:


Part of the Humanities Cultural Programme, one of the founding stones for the

future Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities.