I remember reading this article last year and being quite taken with it – like the views expressed by Kosky, the sentiments of Garrick are ones that I can relate to, though in contrast with Kosky, Garrick is optimistically resisting by actively and successfully making Operas that fill that are uncompromising and successful. His company the Sydney Chamber Opera is doing wonderful things and since coming across their company 2 years ago I’ve been stalking their programs and waiting for one to align with my travels to Sydney so that I can see one because the concept of this company and the operas it produces is so much what I crave. New Music. New Productions. Turning the hierarchy on its head. It must be the punk in me that loves these things, and it’s the classical musician in me who demands them in opera. This year all 3 of their productions are new and I’ll be trying my hardest to make my way there for the December show ‘The Io Passion’.
Making Opera Now
by Louis Garrick
Not a month goes by without a story breaking somewhere around the world about an opera company in crisis. Everywhere they contend with dwindling and ageing audiences, worsening bottom lines and intense pressure from media, audiences and government to make their content more relevant to contemporary society. Opera company administrators have devised countless imaginative and elaborate schemes that attempt to solve these problems, asking themselves questions like “How can we expose more people to our product?” and “How can we strengthen the company’s brand during tough economic times?”. Examples of such schemes include high-definition cinema broadcasts, outdoor events, improving the company’s online presence and so on.
While these audience development schemes do no harm, they skirt the central issue, which is much deeper. The real problem is that the overall model on which opera companies were based in the 20th-century is itself becoming outdated. This model involves a creative hierarchy in which the voice, singers and roles are placed at the top, followed by repertoire and composers, with the production and directors coming last. This hierarchy leads to a curatorial priority of choosing operas that show off singers. Repertoire choices are often made according to what suits the next famous singer flying into town. Whether the opera chosen is an excellent piece of music and a compelling piece of theatre are secondary concerns.
To succeed in the 21st century, an opera company must turn this hierarchy on its head. Composers and repertoire must come first, followed closely by the production; the role of the singer is to execute the conception of the composer, librettist, conductor and director. In this model, the voice and the singing are not the ultimate point of the performance. Instead of being “all about the singing”, the point is quality repertoire that is musically and dramatically coherent, and storytelling that is sophisticated and provocative.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean singers are not important. Quite the contrary: realising quality repertoire demands exemplary singing. But the idea of going to the opera to see a famous (or not famous) singer belt out some obscure and faceless bel canto repertoire with a mindnumbingly trivial plot and wooden acting is something from an older era of opera and unlikely to resonate with a younger generation.
A 21st-century opera program that does attract a younger generation involves a carefully balanced combination of canonical repertoire, significant 20th-century operas we don’t hear enough of (eg. those by Berg, Schoenberg, Janácek, Prokofiev, Szymanowski, Britten, Messiaen, Henze, Birtwistle, Glass, and many others), recent operas from around the world (such as those by John Adams, George Benjamin, Kaija Saariaho and Pascal Dusapin, to name just a few), and new work by local composers. The classics, like Mozart, Verdi and Puccini, absolutely have their place but instead of forming 95 per cent of a program, they might form 25 or 30 per cent. This reflects the kind of programming one might see from a theatre company or an arts festival – and look how successful they can be at attracting and maintaining a diverse audience base and sustaining a healthy bottom line.
This curatorial thinking isn’t just theory: there are companies around the world that have bravely adopted this model, with resounding success. Two prime examples are the English National Opera and the Komische Oper Berlin – both, incidentally, companies that regularly feature Australian artists. In both cases, ambitious programming, based on the curatorial balance described above, is getting results. Critics and audiences alike praise how imaginative and rigorous the performances are; administrators celebrate the financial success. And, importantly, younger audiences flock to them. The 21st-century model for an opera company works, and it’s time for 20th-centurystyle companies around the world to evolve.