On Opera Europa

Opera is dead – Long live Opera!
Yo! Opera is an organisation that is dedicated to the development of opera for youngsters and children. Having worked for this organisation for about five years (doing artistic research on the projects we organise for and with youngsters) I was curious to visit the European forum of ‘Opera Europa’ that was held in Barcelona last February. As Yo! Opera is a member of RESEO (European Network for Opera and Dance Education) I had the opportunity to visit the conference together with some colleagues. The title of the Forum was ‘Creativity and Innovation’ that, as you can imagine, are central topics for Yo! Opera, working with youngsters and opera. How can this age-old art discipline be a challenging and rewarding form for the creative power of young people of today?
Curious to find out what high-profile directors and managers of the leading European Opera houses had to say about these topics, I arrived to Barcelona. What a conference it was! The theme ‘Creativity and Innovation’ was printed on large banners that decorated the beautiful Opera venue Liceu. All opera managers, directors, composers and educators present – in total more than 300 people from Europe but also from China and the US- were to choose from different sessions that focused on this promising theme.

The first session, chaired by the ever eloquent and informed Nicolas Payne (Director of Opera Europa), really hit the topic. Composer James McMillan, ons of the key note speakers, while asked about the phenomenon of youth opera, said that he found such a form ‘patronizing’. The RESEO members present -being familiar with recent insights on the importance of creativity in working with art and children- were absolutely startled by this idea. First Katie Tearle (Glyndebourne Opera) politely took a stand, defending the idea of youth opera and the value it can have for both young people and the operaform itself. Paul Reeve (Education Manager of Royal Opera House Covent Garden stood up and expressed the feelings most of the educationers had at this moment: ‘This is the most ridiculous remark I hope to hear in this conference’ and he eloborated on the fact that nobody ever would call youth literature, -film or –theatre ‘patronizing’. The tone was set. The educationers/RESEO members were flabbergasted about the remark of Mr James McMillan and the way with which Nicolas Payne did away with reactions in the hall.
I tried my best during the whole conference to hear anything about ‘creativity and innovation’ from the opera managers but alas,did not seem to have a clue what the word meant. Probably opera management has never heard of Richard Florida or any other recent investigation, report or book about this so important subject for our present society.
Luckily there was one session –typically organised by RESEO!- that did adress the conference theme in a satisfying way. Composers Luca Francesconi, Orlando Gough (from ‘The Shout’), Hanna Deneire and Maria Sundqvist provided an interesting look into their work. Interesting statements were made:‘pedagogic art is bad art, all good art is pedagogic’ (Maria Sundqvist, artistic director of Operaverkstan Malmö) and problems and challenges in relating the opera form to youngsters were adressed and discussed. Composer Luca Fransesconi elaborated on the consequences of the fact that the fysical world is gradually losing its importance in favour of a virtual world and what that means to art and opera especially. Orlando Gough stressed the fact that participation in art has always been there in earlier times but we gradually seemed to have lost that in favour of an art world that is completely dominated by professionals. Bernard Foucrolle of the Festival in Aix-en-Provence contributed, stating that in working with children and opera, complexity is not such an issue as long as ‘transparancy’ in this process is guaranteed. The session proved to be most rewarding for all present.

The innovative ideas that were transfered during the rest of conference (and I really tried my best to interpret it all very openly!) were: making a film of an opera (Verdi) and showing it (live, mind you!) on national TV and producing an opera-film especially for the cinema (which is, as we know, a very novel medium). None of the speakers and discussions brought forth anyhing about the way opera should be related to either creativity or innovation, except for the numerous instances where the opera audience was adressed. It gradually dawned on me that this was the real topic for the opera managers (to be identified by their blue suits): being creative or innovative is interpreted as being creative and innovative in finding new audiences! And this is were the real interest of the managers comes in: core reason for existence as directors of their so valued opera temples is audience. And opera audiences around the globe are not young (meaning under 40!), dying out quite rapidly and in many cases present because people think opera contributes to their socio-economic status.

This is exactly the point I want to make. Innovation in the terms of the managers is not related at all to the opera form but to finding new audiences so that the so valued opera tradition (ranging from let’s say Monteverdi to Ligeti) can survive even longer. As long as there are audiences for La Traviata, Die Zauberflöte or Tosca, there is no reason at all to change anything in the opera form! Singers can keep on doing what they do (singing loud and –most of the time- acting bad), composers can keep on fulfilling their boyish dreams of huge orchestras and big machinery and directors only have to find the contemporary context that seems to be the key in staging an old opera.
Educationers and producers of youth opera on the other hand know that in the world of today the opera tradition is less and less able to inspire new, let alone young audiences. The rapidly changing context of today’s Western culture is no longer interested in Madame Butterfly, Fidelio or Moses und Aaron, simply because there are so many other (art) forms that are truly comprehensible and engaging. Opera does not stand out as this extra-terristreal art form that in combining other art forms is totally unique and larger than life. In today’s culture, multidisciplinarity art is rule instead of exception; opera stands out only because it’s so bloody expensive. Another major difference is that producing art – be it music, visual art or theatre- is ‘easy’: the enormous development of music or drawing software, Photoshop or video editing has made it possible for everyone to make his or her own art.
These are the topics that should be adressed when talking about opera in relation to innovation and creativity! How can our art form stretch itself into the present so that it again incapsulates these new production means and new forms of art that really do reflect and communicate our cultural, social and other values? That is the real question to be posed and not the ones that were adressed in these sad three days in Barcelona. If the mindset of the opera managers present at the conference is the key to the surviving of opera, we’d better start looking for new jobs right away. Opera is dead, long live opera!

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