Opera Houses Under Fire
a manifesto for a living lyric drama
by Lukas Pairon
Brussels, 17 April 2001
published on www.culturekioskque
"The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music; they should be taught to love it instead." - Igor Stravinsky
Considering the pioneering work of so many performers outside the established institutions in recent decades, the time is now ripe for major opera houses to become participants in this field. The opera house of the future must include the production of newly-written works as a substantial part of the programme. What follows is an invitation to join in the reflection on new organisational models for the opera house of the near future and to put this question at the top of the agenda. György Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre at the Flanders Opera and the success of Philippe Boesmans' Wintermärchen in Brussels, Lyon and Paris, alongside such other successful large-scale operatic productions as Peter Eötvos' Trois Soeurs and Helmut Lachenmann's Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern, all seem to indicate that the acceptance of new works by the opera houses cannot be halted. Appearances can, however, be deceptive. It is true that many opera directors shudder at the label "museum art" and for this reason sometimes take sound initiatives and opt to present world premieres or produce recent works once again, but this option remains extremely limited. Either the opera houses of the future will succeed in rejuvenating and restructuring themselves, or else we had better close them down, with a few fortunate exceptions that we can then cherish as museums of lyric drama. At present they are almost all museums. Despite the current debate, and contrary to appearances, most opera houses suffer from the same malaise.
1. Making a living art
Many of the contemporary operas performed in opera houses are not really "contemporary", though I do not want to open up a discussion as to what may or may not be called "avant-garde". If, however, devotees and critics had to judge these "contemporary" operas on their "contemporaneity" in terms of music, theatricality, production and so forth, it would soon become obvious that many of these "new" productions would not qualify at all. Why are the criteria for the evaluation and appreciation of new opera still different from those applied to new works of music, theatre, dance, the plastic arts, etc.?
The most important reason is that many intendants of opera houses are completely out of touch with what is going on in contemporary music and the visual arts, and present-day performing arts in general. It is precisely because of this lack of contact with current developments that many new operas are extremely dated in aesthetic and artistic terms and that to many people opera therefore remains a moribund art. But opera does have a future if we will pay more attention to a younger generation of worthwhile composers, writers and artists who propose new models for music theatre.
Opera houses that intend to produce and perform new works in the near future will also have to allow for a serious renewal and restructuring of their production methods. It is no longer sufficient to put the occasional new work on the bill, as now happens. We should be able to expect from each intendant a plan in which new creations occupy a central position. This is far from the present situation, where opera house directors are appointed or reappointed without complying with this condition. It is also difficult to enter into fundamental discussions with the present heads of opera houses precisely because too many interests and resources are involved. However, in several decades operatic institutions as we know them will no longer exist, and we must reflect on the best form an establishment for the production of the "music theatre of the future" should take. It is essential to launch as broad a social debate as possible on this topic in order to generate a well-thought-out new model in which we can in future offer lyric drama a place, without the repertoire of one particular period excluding all the rest, as is now the case. Considering the enormous investment society puts into it, we can and must no longer tolerate that wherever we go in Europe-and beyond-it is always the same repertoire that is performed, in different, sometimes more "modern" guises.
2. The intendant / devotee
In order to take a sound approach to new work, the intendant must himself be a devotee of contemporary music and performing arts. Only then will he wish, regularly and in the long term, to develop new works as an essential part of an opera season. Being in touch with these arts is the absolute precondition for persuading the public to discover and appreciate newly-created works. There is a substantial potential audience that is sufficiently interested to discover new forms of music theatre. It appears abundantly clear from the experience of the Nederlandse Opera that this sort of attitude can in the long run actually convince a broad audience. This company has invested more than any other in Europe in the creation of new works: its intendant and resident stage director, Pierre Audi, is one of the few opera house directors who is a real enthusiast of contemporary music, and thanks to his personal contacts with composers and writers he has succeeded in keeping abreast of the latest developments and thereby in creating in just a few years a dynamic which also draws in a substantial proportion of the Dutch public.
3. Rethinking structure and working methods.
It is only those intendants who are true devotees of the contemporary arts who will be able to change the structure and working methods of the opera houses. Although there are certainly interesting examples of collaboration between major operatic institutions and independent, performer-based ensembles and production centres, this sort of operational model is not ideal. The production methods in the respective organisations are so different that it becomes extremely complex to work smoothly together. It is therefore essential that in addition to such joint ventures, opera houses also start to play an independent and more active role in the field of creation.
Performers who wish to put together a new work should not be saddled with a large orchestra, chorus, a fixed rehearsal and production schedule, classically-trained singers who have little experience of contemporary practice in acting and/or movement or of contemporary music, etc. The makers of new music theatre will not always want performers with the musical and educational backgrounds (singers, musicians, actors, dancers) with whom opera houses are accustomed to work. One characteristic of much new music theatre is that those who create the works do not necessarily follow the standard production schedules of most opera houses (neither the composition of the production team, the timing and planning, nor the type of working spaces and theatres). By nonetheless accepting such conditions, the result is in fact often far removed from the original vision or concept. Those who reject the restrictions imposed are unfortunately rare. The appeal of working for a major organisation and the respect and recognition it brings are often too attractive to refuse.
4. In anticipation: a "special task force"
"Opera" means "the works". So it should involve more than one sort of music theatre. We have to abandon the methods of the 19th and 20th-century opera house as soon as possible so that there is space to create works that do not fit into the present very limited production and artistic "corset" of the majority of opera houses. Every opera house director who wants to take up the challenge of adapting the existing operatic institution, so that a greater variety of new projects can be carried out, should in the transitional period at least make a start by forming a special team responsible for keeping track of the special needs of the new works being created. This team should definitely not function as an independent unit, but must be fully integrated into the organisational structure of the operatic institution. It is no solution to attach laboratory-like units to the major institutions, because of the danger of ghettoization and the possible disappearance of this sort of unit when times are hard. We should see it rather as a "special task force" in a transitional stage to a situation where the "art of the repertoire" is in less of a majority and there is more openness to differences of intention and approach shown by artists of the past and present.
5. New infrastructure.
The opera houses are themselves a matter for discussion (stage infrastructure, audience areas, electronics, multimedia, etc.). Theoretical work has been going on for some time among architects and music and theatre artists. Most existing opera houses date from the 19th or early 20th centuries, or earlier, and are suited to the performance, in ideal circumstances, of just one particular repertoire. On the other hand, not everyone feels at ease in the velvety surroundings in which the middle classes-past and present-like to be. If we want to bring music theatre to a broader, but not necessarily "larger" audience, it would be a good thing to make the theatres more accommodating not only to those who work in them, but also to the public. Instead of building enormous auditoria where more people can see more of the same, it would be better to work on theatres better suited to showing a variety of art forms. It is after all well known that good theatre is not well served by the distance necessarily created between stage and audience in big theatres. Question Peter Brook about this. Huge spectaculars can be put on in sports halls and similar large spaces, as they already are. For the other theatrical and musical works, a different, not necessarily very large infrastructure must be considered.
6. Chorus and orchestra.
The future of the chorus and orchestra is also open to discussion. A recurring argument against reshaping the opera from the inside is the need to keep the orchestra and chorus in work. Yet here too a great deal of fascinating thinking and experimentation has been going on in various parts of the world. A recent example is the project at the Opéra de Rouen, which now, under its new name of "Leonardo da Vinci", presents a programme in which fewer works from the standard repertoire will be seen and heard and where the doors will be opened to the other arts, while the orchestra and chorus will be employed in completely different fields than simply accompanying opera productions, and will even serve several other establishments and festivals. Another example is the programme of the Nederlandse Opera, where such chamber music ensembles as ASKO and the Schönberg Ensemble, which concentrate on first performances of new music, will make regular appearances.
7. Invitation to reflection and dialogue.
Artists and producers who work on new opera and music theatre outside the major institutions should be able to participate in this reflection. At the moment they do this too little or not at all. They often adopt a subservient attitude, with a hand outstretched to the opera houses in the hope of catching a few crumbs or leftovers from the well-laden table. Another common attitude is the utter rejection of everything to do with the operatic institutions, as if the "outsider experiment" was above it all. It is here that we encounter the sterile discussion about the "avant-garde". Does this intransigent refusal by certain artists and producers to enter into dialogue with their colleagues in the opera houses have something to do with maintaining a sort of "protected environment" of so-called experimental, new or avant-garde art? What is going on outside the opera houses is not all trouble and affliction, but it would be equally untrue to claim the opposite. But what is much more important is the discussion that should be carried on with the broader public, and also with the politicians who at present prefer to keep everything as it was by granting billions to institutions that will thereby be able to continue almost exclusively to show art from the past, with a paper-thin coat of modern varnish.
Although I have here spoken only of the creation of new works, it is by no means my intention to argue for an artificial and superficial division between "old" and "new". Although I am surrounded at all times by new music and contemporary forms in the performing arts, I am also a great fan of much that is beautiful in the operatic repertoire. But what I am pursuing is dialogue, with the emphasis on a future for newly-written works, with the clout of the opera houses being employed to produce genuinely new operas.