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Article Published: 01 Jun 2019

An International Focus: The First World Opera Forum

“Ask not what the world owes opera, but what opera owes the world,” said Nicholas Payne, director of Opera Europa, at the opening session of the first-ever World Opera Forum. A collaboration between OPERA America, Opera Europa and Ópera Latinoamérica, the forum, held in Madrid in April 2018, brought together more than 100 opera executives, artists and thinkers for an intensive three-day discussion of the art form and its role in 21st-century society. The WOF served in part as a 200th anniversary celebration for the host company, Madrid’s fabled Teatro Real. But it was also a culmination of an idea that Nicholas Payne, director of Opera Europa, and Marc A. Scorca, OA’s president/CEO, had been considering for years: a convocation of the field’s thought leaders from diverse disciplines and from all over the planet.

The WOF was not an orthodox conference, in which paying attendees attend a variegated slate of panel discussions and meetings. Instead, delegates were invited, on an all-expenses-paid basis, to take part in a focused series of shared discussions. Each had a specific role in one of the four general sessions: as moderators, provocateurs, facilitators and rapporteurs. (The present writer attended in order to document the event.) The participants included administrators and pundits, composers and librettists, and performers and directors, arriving not just from Europe, the U.S. and Latin America, but also Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. The Teatro Real and its general director, Ignacio García-Belenguer, brought in a number of government agencies and corporate sponsors to provide the considerable funds needed to transport, house and feed the participants.

Considering the plethora of shared interests among the delegates, the forum gave rise to spirited informal discussions at meals, receptions and arts events scattered throughout. On the afternoon of April 12, the day before the general sessions for all delegates, board members from the three partner organizations — OPERA America, Opera Europa and Ópera Latinoamérica — met to discuss the business issues and artistic issues facing the field. It soon became clear that it was impossible to separate the two categories: The business of opera so thoroughly shapes the making of opera that you can’t talk about one without the other. The core of the WOF was a series of four general sessions, held April 13 to 14, that gathered all the delegates together to discuss opera’s past, present and future. Each session was broken into three segments:

  • “Provocations,” held in the Teatro Real ballroom, with an eight-person panel addressing a “prompt” in the form of a question. Each was given three minutes to make a statement — and many of them were indeed provocative.
  • A moderated “Fishbowl Debate” of 15 respondents, sitting across from the “provocateurs” at the main table.
  • “Breakout Discussions,” in which all forum participants divided into “teams” — coded red, blue, green and pink — headed into smaller rooms for facilitated discussions of the issues that had been raised in the “Provocations” and “Fishbowl Debates.”

Although the four session topics ––“Cultural Heritage,” “New Work,” “Diversity and Audiences” and “Advocacy and Public Value” –– each defined a separate territory, in practice the subjects tended to bleed into each other, since it is hardly possible to examine any aspect of today’s opera world in isolation. You can’t discuss the rich heritage of opera without considering the role that new works play in enhancing or even challenging that heritage. Is the real or perceived elitism of opera part of its heritage? If so, how do you go about diversifying both the opera house’s offerings, and the audiences that attend? Unless opera’s audiences represent the community as a whole, how can you advocate for the public value of the art form? The fact that the discussions spilled out of their defined territories demonstrated both the interrelation of the topics at hand, and the passionate engagement of delegates in all aspects of opera and its cultural role.

Cultural Heritage

Will the richness and weight of its heritage kill opera? Can we reconcile legacy and life?
The inherited repertoire also engenders potentially troubling social connotations. Opera attendance might represent a moment of socioeconomic achievement — an attitude that risks conjuring a sense of elitism and creating invisible barriers. Ticket prices play some role in this: How can we reconcile the need to generate revenue through ticket sales while making opera more accessible?

One way of addressing the perceived elitism of opera is through expanding the pool of directors, designers, conductors and singers who bring the repertoire to life, letting the professional face of opera reflect the diversity that organizations hope to find in their audiences. Fresh, even radical approaches can engender new vitality. Innovation, not historicity, is essential in making the canon speak to new, younger, more diverse audiences. And technology will play an ever-increasing role, both in bringing the work to larger audiences, and in providing its producers with new staging possibilities.

A European composer asked John Cage while he was living in Los Angeles: “Isn’t it difficult for you writing serious music so far from the center?” (meaning, presumably, Europe). Cage replied: “Isn’t it difficult for you writing serious music so close to the center?”

What Cage invokes is the notion of the periphery — the periphery is not the established canon, it is the fringe, the works that, presumably, aspire to make it to the center. But as we all know, things have shifted from the time when opera houses and churches constituted the anchors of both the geographic and cultural identity of a city.

I, for one, share Cage’s delight in working on the periphery — for most innovations in all other fields begin from an outlier position. If you look at opera in America, it is on the peripheries where you find radical change brewing. Composers aren’t waiting to be commissioned by one of the major opera houses; instead, you see them behaving like entrepreneurs, starting ensembles to perform their own music. This industriousness is a hallmark of the most experimental of American composers — I think of Robert Ashley, Meredith Monk, Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, Philip Glass, to name just a few who either created their own ensembles or their own instruments to realize ideas that had never before been attempted. Of those names, several are indeed making inroads into the center — and this is what happens to those on the periphery. Over time, they become tradition.

— Yuval Sharon, Founding Artistic Director, The Industry

There’s a danger that opera will become increasingly irrelevant unless it finds a stronger public voice. It currently sits on the perimeter of the wider arts debate. Opera is struggling to be heard alongside the excitement of shows like Hamilton, movies like Moonlight and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and television shows like Homeland. The weight of our cultural heritage will work against us all if we just keep talking to ourselves.

— John Berry, Artistic Director, Opera Ventures

The concept of legacy has to do with the range of expectations for an art that has been constantly shaping its identity for the last 420 years. That identity has always ultimately been shaped on the basis of changes to the accepted conventions and aesthetic codes for each era. Those changes have often been traumatic and have always encountered resistance, even if the process might seem to have been fluid and calm when viewed from the distance of the present day. That was certainly not the case.

The fact is that challenging status quo is always one of the basic aspects of any “aesthetic information.” That’s the main legacy of tradition: a range of accepted aesthetic codes that can be altered in a way that achieves new possibilities, new meanings. That’s why legacy is an incredibly valuable asset. Obviously it must be an “asset,” never a strict agenda for a theater. Legacy should be the springboard that impels us to conquer the “art of today,” never a set of rules.

— Joan Matabosch, Artistic Director, Teatro Real

In the words of the theater director in Capriccio by Richard Strauss: “Where are the masterpieces that touch the heart of the people, that reflect their souls?” Where are they? I cannot find them, hard though I search. Only cold-blooded scholars stare at me: They ridicule tradition yet bring nothing new.

— Anna-Christina Hanousek, Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe

“Heritage” is an exercise of power by one social group versus another.

— Daniela Bouret, General Director, Teatro Solís, Montevideo

Over the last 50+ years, our relentless pursuit for excellence and perfection in opera performance has unintentionally created calcified institutions. These focus largely on existing repertoire, using strict performance practices and systems. Approximately 90 percent of our existing resources are used to create existing repertory. That leaves only 10 percent for new forms of expression.

To survive, we need healthy enterprises placing equal effort into honoring and preserving core values, heritage and tradition, while simultaneously stimulating creative and innovative progress focused on wholly new outputs. To be relevant in today’s world, I believe we have to devote 50 percent of our output to work by living artists, artists from within and outside opera. Artists empowered to be fully creative in representing our period of history. Artists making use of different performance practices, spaces, theatrical construction, musical production and contemporary practices from other forms. If we can’t or won’t commit to something on this scale, then yes, the richness and weight of this heritage will kill opera.

— David Devan, General Director and President, Opera Philadelphia

We are talking about a canon that is 420 years of white men. The definition of “opera” needs to be expanded to include a larger definition of music theater.

— Daniel Kramer, Artistic Director, English National Opera

In an increasingly diverse world, new work is essential, but I do not think we necessarily need to abandon the core repertoire. What is the existing narrative about the standard repertoire, and how do we change it?

— Lidiya Yankovskaya, Music Director, Chicago Opera Theater

New Work

Can new work regain its place at the heart of opera, as in theater or cinema?
The participants in the “New Work” discussion were in agreement on one comprehensive idea: In order for opera to continue to assert itself as a 21st-century art form, new works must play an ever-increasing role. But there’s no single formula for developing new operas, and during the session, creators and impresarios shared thoughts about the processes they follow.

Often works are developed in workshops, especially in the U.S. By taking new works off of the page and into the studio, these workshops help creators gauge the effects of their efforts, and discover the elements of their works that succeed as they intended — and those that do not. A dramaturg can play an essential role in helping composers and librettists shape the final product.

Much of the discussion involved “stories” –– the topics that new works should address in order to argue for opera’s contemporary relevancy. A general consensus emerged that, first and foremost, the “stories” should address the issues of today, letting opera enter into the general cultural conversation of our time.

Other areas of interest included the institutional backup needed to foster new work. Education in universities and conservatories is key to developing new generations of opera creators. Discussion also centered on the business practices needed to foster new work: Where will the funding for new operas come from? Who will perform, produce and publish them?

Stop making excuses. It is every opera company’s obligation to present new work. It is our obligation to audiences and the art form. Our emphasis on established repertoire has created an enormous obstacle to opera’s long-term vibrancy. When we plan seasons where revivals significantly outnumber premieres, we are telling our audiences that new opera doesn’t matter; that new operas aren’t as good as older works; and that we are preparing opera for its extinction.

— Lawrence Edelson, Founder, American Lyric Theater

Too many operas are full of brilliant instrumental invention, with nothing particularly memorable, musical, brilliant or thrilling to sing. It’s not enough to commission the most exciting composers in the world if they’re not also great opera composers.

— Jonathan Dove, Composer

After developing many operas I can say: Not one collaboration was alike; not one team was alike; not one process was alike.

— Robin Guarino, Co-Artistic Director, Opera Fusion: New Works

That which doesn’t change will die, and any company that does not invest significantly in new work is not doing its job.

— Jonathan Mills, Composer

To be new is to be revolutionary: To be in dialogue with the past but not to repeat the past. To embrace new work, opera companies might look to the film world and the Safdie brothers, filmmakers who work in what they call “the hyper-now.” The hyper-now isn’t 19th-century dramaturgy. The hyper-now isn’t a reworking of the same narratives. Art that doesn’t address formal inventiveness cannot move us forward.

— Donna Di Novelli, Librettist

I would advise composers to be open to other forms of contemporary art. If more composers were to collaborate with the librettists, choreographers and visual artists of our time, the broad audience of contemporary art, literature and dance might well find an avenue into opera.

— Jan Vandenhouwe, Director-Designate, Opera Vlaanderen

The surest sign of a healthy musical art form is a close connection between composers and performers. In many forms of music, the composer-performer distinction simply doesn’t exist. A jazz musician who can’t improvise isn’t a jazz musician at all. And in rock music, if your band only performs music written by others, you’re merely a “cover band,” and nobody takes cover bands very seriously. From the composer’s perspective, most of the world’s opera houses are primarily “cover bands.” We need a new model: an opera company that is really a company, a group of artists — composers and performers — who work together to develop a shared artistic language over time.

— Matthew Aucoin, Composer

Those of us who love opera know that our emotional response to music has the power to connect us deeply to the characters we see onstage. But, particularly for younger audiences who are not familiar with the form, this connection can be tenuous if these stories don’t actually reflect the values of our current age. We tell stories in order to both understand and to create who we are, both as individuals and as a culture. Inevitably, we have evolved over the course of history. Slavery was common and accepted in the time of Mozart. Women could not vote in the time of Verdi. And Jim Crow was in full effect during Puccini’s career. We have changed as a global culture, and thus our stories must also change. This is not to say that we should not perform the older work, but we can no longer perform a Così or a Carmen without asking what we are really saying.

We have such an opportunity, as storytellers and empathy-makers, to contribute to the shared sense of story. In our current world, characterized by polarization, disconnection and feelings of isolation, this becomes increasingly important. Let us embrace our role by creating work that reflects the stories we believe in, the world that we believe in and the world we want to see.

— Kamala Sankaram, Composer

New work is tolerated as long it stays somewhere at the edge of our seasons, to intellectually adorn them. Let’s face it, creativity and opera do not go together today anymore.

— Sofia Surgutschowa, Artist Manager

We have dramaturgs for text; we need dramaturgs for music.

— Mark Campbell, Librettist

Diversity & Audiences

The “Diversity” segment, leading off the second day of general sessions, started with a change of pace. In place of a “Provocations” session, we attended a performance by a chamber ensemble from Chineke!, the London orchestra made up of musicians of color. In the ensuing fishbowl session, Chi-chi Nwanoku, the orchestra’s founder, explained that the organization grew out of the lack of opportunity that the musicians had found with London’s established orchestras. The program at the morning concert was inspiring: Grieg’s Holberg Suite and the Concerto Grosso of Belize-born Errollyn Wallen, with the composer herself at the piano. The pairing of a classic European work with a recent piece incorporating jazz and Latin American influences, both of them played beautifully by musicians of mostly African heritage, made a stronger statement about diversity than words ever could have.

The ensuing discussions examined ways to bring an increasing level of diversity — in gender, age, race and ethnicity — both to the professional world of opera and to its audiences. The context, inevitably, was opera’s unfortunate track record in its image and its practices. The speakers were in agreement about two essential matters: 1) it is imperative to encourage diversity in the field, and 2) nobody is yet doing enough. The intention of effecting change is no longer enough: Change has to happen, and it must be measured against well-defined metrics and goals, geared to the composition of each company’s community and nation.

Again, new work played a significant role in the discourse, especially in regard to people of color, historically underrepresented in opera. If new, more diverse audiences are to be drawn to opera, they need to be able to see people who look like themselves onstage. Opera must find ways to be more diverse in its casting, its administrative personnel and its creators.

Diversity is; it’s not something you do. To say “We’re going to do diversity” is like saying “We’re going to do breathing.” What we mean is racial and cultural equity.

— Keryl McCord, Diversity/Community Arts Consultant

Change has to come from the top. But a lot of people — women, persons of color –– don’t move to the top.

— Odaline De La Martinez, Composer/Conductor

For too long, music from different cultures has been called “world music” or “ethnic music.” When you do that, you’re on top of the mountain and then you look around. Everything else is a flavor.

— Huang Ruo, Composer

It is not enough to invite a couple of people of color to serve on your board; you have to make space for their voices. You can’t invite people to stay in your space and then say “Shhh!”

— Nadege Souvenir, Trustee, Minnesota Opera

Minority groups need to be given room to move up, and that will require others to step aside and make space.

— Chi-Chi Nwanoku, Founder, Chineke!

If you want to change, you will. You have to roll up your sleeves and say, “This is what should happen.” But if anyone in this room thinks they’re doing well enough, then they’re wasting their time.

— Graham Vick, Artistic Director, Birmingham Opera

That [Chineke!] concert showed me that we aren’t even close to where we should be, because
we still have to get a whole bunch of people together who look like us to make our own orchestra in order to survive.

— Carlos Vicente, Marketing Director, Sarasota Opera

We have a socioeconomic crisis [in the U.S.]. Literacy rates are dropping dramatically. If children aren’t educated, they will not attend the opera.

— Mark Kent, Board Member, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

I was born in Cape Town in the distant years of apartheid. I saw my first opera, The Magic Flute, when I was six, and I was too young to understand that everybody onstage was white, even Monostatos. When I was in high school, Nelson Mandela had been freed, and within those 10 years, about 80 percent of the people on stage were black.

— Matthew Wild, Artistic Director, Cape Town Opera

I keep hearing at this forum about opera’s “450 years of heritage.” I think that’s an obstacle. Look at what Ryan Coogler did with Black Panther, or Bill T. Jones with Fela! on Broadway. We need new stars like these to take a 450-year-old art form and reimagine it from a different perspective.

— Keryl McCord, Diversity/Community Arts Consultant

Advocacy & Public Value

How will we build our capacity to advocate opera in our democracy and make the case for its public value?

The “Advocacy” segment drew the most disparate set of responses of the entire forum. The word means different things to different people, responding to different political and cultural circumstances. The focus of the delegates’ advocacy varied: These efforts can be directed toward government agencies, toward sponsors, toward audiences. To the extent that the field’s activities are governed by its advocacy efforts, is it a matter of simple public relations? Or a moral obligation?

But it emerged that in order for the field to advocate for itself, it must strive to build networks, seeking further integration into individual communities and greater levels of community participation. Above all, the work of opera companies, both in what they put on stage and their work in their communities, must serve as the field’s chief form of advocacy. Michel Magnier, the European Union’s director of education and culture, talked about his organization’s OperaVision streaming-video initiative as a means of democratizing the art form. Umberto Fanni, intendant of the Royal Opera House, Muscat, spoke of his company’s successful efforts to attract Arab audiences to a historically European genre. Soprano Kiri Te Kanawa described her efforts, through her eponymous foundation, to provide the opportunities to emerging artists from New Zealand that she found as a young singer.

With such a variegated set of responses, it was no surprise that no single set of criteria emerged for measuring effective advocacy. But as Bernard Foccroulle, outgoing general director of the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence put it: “How do you measure dignity?” In the final analysis, the PR advantages and the moral imperative of effective advocacy may be one and the same.

To advocate for opera and make the case for its public value, we have to let go of the notion that it holds inherent value for everyone. Some people will never value opera. That’s okay. But there are many people who aren’t currently part of our audiences, boards or funders who could be, and whose participation we desperately need. ... To advocate for opera, take action and earn public value.

— Cayenne Harris, Vice-President, Lyric Unlimited, Lyric Opera of Chicago

Opera is one of the most versatile forms of art. It illustrates the increasing convergence between heritage and creation. Opera is rejuvenated by the digital revolution, which creates enormous opportunities for a form of art that some people consider elitist, obsolete, unable to survive without public support or disconnected with our societies.

— Michel Magnier, Director of Education and Culture, European Union

Can we imagine opera as so appealing to general audiences that it’s as normal as going to a ball game or out to dinner? Or is opera too special for everyday use?

— Tracy Wilson, Director of Education and Engagement, Cincinnati Opera

Our programming must be topical, resonant, human and culturally sensitive in representing all walks of life. Which stories we tell, who we choose to write and perform them, and how we then tell those stories are the most critical factors in the survival of our art form.

— Anh Le, Brand Manager, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

To know something, to trust something, you have to have access to education. That’s why I think education is the best advocacy for opera.

— George Isaakyan, Intendant, Moscow Children’s Theater

Some people don’t come not because they don’t like opera, but because they don’t know it. We have a children’s opera in Cologne, and I’ve never heard the question “Why are we here?”

— Birgit Meyer, Intendant, Oper Köln

Opera is an engine for empathy, a way to invite us to feel what other people are feeling. At Three Decembers, we had very conservative patrons, deeply opposed to gay marriage, who were brought to tears by a man weeping for his dead lover. That’s something opera does better than any other art form.

— Ned Canty, General Director, Opera Memphis

I don’t like the question “Why does opera matter?” Nobody asks this about other art forms.

— Renata Borowska, General Director, Poznań Opera

This essay appeared in the report, World Opera Forum 2018: A Summary, published by OPERA America and Opera Europa.