Article Published: 01 Jun 2019

World Opera Forum: An Introduction

Opera reaches more people on our planet than ever before in its history. This curious hybrid of music and drama, song and dance, and spectacle, born 420 years ago in Renaissance Italy as a reimagination of ancient Greek theatre, has retained an unsurpassed power to communicate deep emotions and ideas which is now appreciated well beyond its European origins. It touches many millions of people every year.

Yet opera is suffering a crisis of confidence. It has never been a serious commercial proposition; but are the various funding models which have so far sustained it now broken beyond repair? Is it too slow and too long for today’s fast-moving world? Has it become unfashionable? Has it failed to renew itself as have theatre, dance, film, painting, sculpture, architecture? Can it be saved from terminal decline?

Such questions preoccupy some of the 300 or more companies represented by the professional associations Opera Europa, OPERA America and Ópera Latinoamérica. Together, we decided to pool resources to convene an event which would also include the rest of the opera world. Madrid presented itself as the ideal location, when Teatro Real offered to host us in celebration of its 200th anniversary in 2018. So the first World Opera Forum was born.

We have chosen to focus on four topics during the central two days and to subject them to intensive debate during half a day each. We have invited a mixture of composers and librettists, directors and performers, managers, and other stakeholders. Slightly under half of those active participants will be from Europe; about a third from North America; and the balance from South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. For each subject, we propose a question.

Cultural Heritage

Will the weight of its heritage kill opera?
In case you had not realised, 2018 has been designated the Year of European Cultural Heritage. It is a formidable and growing legacy. When I first went to opera, the repertory covered about 200 years from Gluck’s Orfeo to the then new works of Britten and Henze. Today, it extends over 400 years from Monteverdi’s Orfeo to the recent creations of Adams and Adès. We are enriched by many of the rediscoveries from past centuries, as well as by the enduring masterpieces of great composers, but they have exponentially transformed the opera house into a museum with limited space for the art of today. Should we become more selective? Can we reconcile legacy and life?

New Work

Can new work regain its place at the heart of opera, as in theatre or cinema?
That is the place it held during its “golden age” between Mozart and Strauss. For the impresarios of the 19th century, new operas were the main events. Mahler was considered unusual as director of the Vienna State Opera for programming new interpretations of Don Giovanni, Fidelio and Tristan to complement the new creations. After Salome was premiered in 1905, it was taken up in 50 theatres within two years. How many operas since Turandot have enjoyed that kind of immediate public impact? Nicholas Hytner, as director of the National Theatre in London, programmed 50 percent new work to 50 percent heritage. How many opera managers would dare emulate him?

Diversity

How may opera have a meaning for a diverse audience and reflect 21st - century society?
A successful theatre relates to the community within which it lives. That was the role of ancient Greek theatre. It was epitomised by Verdi in Risorgimento Italy. The growing popular success of opera in post-WWII social-democratic Europe captured the spirit of its time. Today’s predominantly white and aging audience does not reflect the multicultural cities in which many people live. Dance and spoken theatre have been more successful in attracting diverse audiences, because their performers reflect that diversity. Chineke!, the orchestra dedicated to “championing change and celebrating diversity in classical music” performs for us in Madrid. Will it set an example?

Advocacy

How will we build our capacity to advocate opera in our democracy?
Those of us who love opera may like to criticise this production or that singer, but we hardly need convincing that opera deserves support. We are a minority. Minorities matter, for few interests appeal to a majority of people, but politicians and business are influenced by voters. A majority consensus in favour will determine a course of action. That is democracy. By no means everyone appreciates fine art, but I believe that a majority of voters would favour continuing support for the Prado, or the British Museum, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Would similar numbers defend Teatro Real, or Covent Garden, or the Metropolitan Opera, if their existence was threatened?

Each half-day during the World Opera Forum will begin with a series of short “provocations,” each limited to 273 words, on the pithy precedent of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of 1863. They will be followed by a “fishbowl” debate animated by an inner circle of 12 invited participants and an expert moderator. Delegates will then divide into four break-out groups for more intimate discussions around the subject. Finally they will reassemble to hear conclusions presented by rapporteurs. Several of those, and three of the “provocateurs,” will be young delegates chosen from participants in Opera Europa’s Opera Management Course over the past five years.

Neither I nor my senior professional colleagues wish to predict what the conclusions of this World Opera Forum will be, but we are working toward publishing a series of action points which may help to chart a way forward for opera in today’s competitive, turbulent but invigorating world.


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