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Article Published: 01 Jun 2019

World Opera Forum: Summary Remarks

It has been an extraordinary time, and I will share some my notes chronologically because I have not had a chance to pull apart the various themes and the way they interconnect.

On Thursday, we held a joint meeting of members of the boards of OPERA America, Opera Europa and Ópera Latinoamérica, and had organized the discussion to examine major business issues and major artistic issues separately. Immediately, we recognized the interconnection between the business model and the art we create, and the way that our revenue models and the productivity of our opera houses shape what art we can produce; and that if we want to change the art, we may need to change the business models and vice versa. We also considered how the forums we convene by specialty may be incorrectly structured and that we need to bring forums together so members can discuss larger issues across the traditional departmental divides. Our conference content and format also should be re-examined from the same perspective.

Our first meeting, as you know, was on heritage, and there’s a big question about “whose heritage?” Heritage varies from country to country and continent to continent, but there was an affirmation of the value of the inherited repertoire as a foundation for our shared operatic aesthetic and as a point of entry for many audiences who come to opera through the portal of the standard repertoire. The importance of connecting the pipelines of creativity with the pipelines of tradition in order to keep our art form grounded and vibrant was also confirmed.

We talked about the importance of the interpretation of the inherited repertoire and the importance of having more diverse artists interpreting the repertoire, whether that is directors, designers, conductors or singers. The repertoire itself can take on new meaning if new people are telling the stories and the themes that are embedded in those works. We also mentioned the importance of technology in producing the work, as well as transmitting the work to larger audiences. A nuanced understanding emerged that inheritance can be a good thing, but habits can be bad and some habits should be given up. Some traditions have real value, but the act of preservation may not be a way to keep an art form vibrant and moving forward.

There was significant discussion about how the traditional inherited repertoire invokes expectations of a social construct, of people arriving at opera as a socioeconomic point of achievement. There was a lot of discussion about new work as we talked about heritage, but I moved those notes into another section of this report.

Our willingness to reinterpret, to adjust, to trim, to re-treat the inherited repertoire — so that we remain apart from the bookishness or musicological approach to it — is important. Hopefully, we can take the media with us to support the exploration of the inherited repertoire in a new way.

We also spoke about ticket prices in this particular session, and how high ticket prices prevent people from becoming a part of our inheritance. There are more notes from the session, but these are highlights of how we discussed heritage while affirming its importance to what we do.

The next session was about new works, and we agreed that it is essential that the art form evolve in order to thrive, that we must explore operas that are new in terms of style, subject matter, scale and venue, and that we have to look for many more artists who tell the story of today — artists who may be new to opera, from different cultural traditions, who will tell new stories with new styles of composition and new styles of production. We need to embrace this in order to make opera a thriving cultural expression in the 21st century.

Lots of people quoted Yuval Sharon when he referred to “the pipeline to the periphery,” where so much of the creativity goes on. Our opera companies that are rooted in the inherited repertoire need to open that pipeline to the periphery.

Within the realm of new works, we talked about the need to create opportunities for composers and librettists to train, to learn, to practice, to master vocal composition; and to enable these creators to develop a body of work so they have chances to test and develop their craft. Lots of people referred to the great masters whose oeuvres frequently had works that were not successful as works, but were incredibly successful learning steps for the masterpieces they finally created.

We learned that there was no fixed way to develop a new work, that every work takes on a developmental life of its own and that our opera companies need to be supportive of the various ways that new works may be developed. And this underscores the conflict between the business model and the artistic process because we might need to change some of the business practices to encourage creativity to take on new forms.

The importance of dramaturgy was discussed. Mark Campbell brought up the idea that it is not only necessary to have dramaturgy for text, but also for the music.

Links to the educational system are essential — again a pipeline issue. There were a lot of points about pipelines, and how if we are linked to the conservatory and to the university, we can give more learning opportunities to artists who wish to express themselves through opera.

There was also a good discussion about the need to align our entire opera community around new work. Artist managers and agents can support artists in performing new works, and publishers can be helpful in the financial arrangements that are made to support the new work.

We talked about distinct funding streams for new work, and how those can be helpful in enabling people to invest in new creativity; about the importance of residencies as a training component; and about the importance of youth and family opera, either for young people or performed by young people, in order to develop the artists and the audiences of the future. Again, a lot more was discussed; this is just a quick distillation.

Today we talked about diversity, and what was universally agreed was that people didn’t really like the word diversity, although there were no universal substitutes that seemed to resonate. We talked about diversity as a reflection of differences, and how we want to embrace differences in order to have the benefit of more talent and more points of view.

Of course, diversity takes on many dimensions: gender, age, race, ethnicity, differently abled people. And of course, different countries have different demographic issues and different histories that make diversity mean something different in each of these countries. Nonetheless, there was general agreement that when it comes to diversity, opera doesn’t have the best image and hasn’t had the best track record. There’s a lot of work to do, and everyone agreed it’s important to take action — and action rooted in metrics and accountability. We should set goals to understand the composition of our communities, of our cities, of our countries; goals to have the diversity of our artists and work force to some degree meet or exceed the metrics of our cities and countries. If we don’t have metrics and goals, it will be very difficult to measure our progress and hold ourselves to account.

We need to make room, at the top and in the middle, for people who are new to opera, or people who have entered the field but need to advance. We have to listen to and learn from the others who we wish will feel like they have a home here in opera. We can’t have discussion about diversity with just white people in the room. Diversity is linked closely to new works and what stories are being told, who’s telling those stories, and who is performing them. But we can also think about diversity in casting in our traditional repertoire, and think about where those pieces, the traditional repertoire pieces, are performed. It may not be appropriate to do everything in the opera house in order to reach a broader audience.

There was lot of discussion about inclusivity and participatory practices, where people get to join in the co-creation of work, and how that will change our aesthetic.

We spoke about the importance of education for artists who are new to opera and the challenges in education related to the socioeconomic pressures that make extended learning very difficult.

We need to train our staff and our boards, and to rehearse the concepts and become facile with the vocabulary, so that we can actually talk about these issues without stumbling and offending. There was a great deal of discussion that was rich, but a real commitment emerged to take action based on accountability linked to metrics.

So we saved the most difficult one for last: advocacy. Of course the question came up: advocacy to whom? To audiences, to government agencies, to sponsors, to the public? And then we divided into two distinct sets of discussions: advocacy as a kind of advanced PR effort, and advocacy that is built on doing different work. Is it a PR effort, or is it a moral obligation to bring different work to the stage and to the community so that what we are talking about is different? Do we need to inflect our work differently in order to speak differently on behalf of the art form?

We quickly went from there to the idea of building networks, in delivering value in different spheres: the educational sphere, social service, for children, for the elderly. We talked about focusing on the local community, understanding what community priorities are, and deconstructing opera’s assets in order to reallocate them to address community priorities in ways that are valuable to the community outside the walls of the opera house.

We talked about the importance of participation, not just presentation. We don’t want to impose our values or our product, but we want to get to the point of co-creating value and co- creating product so that everyone feels an ownership stake in the vibrancy of the opera company. This may change not only what we are doing outside of the opera house but it might change what we are doing inside the opera house, too.

And part of the advocacy is to move this work, move this community work out of the basement, to move it out of the sub-department of the education department so that everyone in the opera company is talking proudly about the work that the company is doing in the community and not just in the theater.

Do we bring it to social media, to TV, to the newspapers, to the streets? What is the right platform?

We also talked about the intersection of this community work and local and national politics, and how complicated it becomes when we are dealing with controversial issues.

How do we measure it? Bernard Foccroulle said so brilliantly in the fish-bowl: How do we measure dignity? How do we measure the comfort people have, and if they feel they belong to the community? That they belong to our art form? How do we measure the impact of making people feel they belong in our row of seats in the theater? It’s hard to measure, but it’s worth doing.

By the end of this time together, we have lots of interest in continuing our discussion. A few weeks ago in New York, Ignacio Belenguer and Borja Ezcurra Vacas visited me for lunch and I asked how we would know this forum was successful. Ignacio said: “We’ll know it’s successful if people want to do it again.” I heard conversation during the coffee breaks about how much people want to see this conversation continue, whether we have international working groups on some of these topics or whether we have another World Opera Forum in a couple of years. My sense is that people would like to continue the discussion about opera on a global basis. Whether we break it up or do it all together, we will find a way. But the way was shown to us by Ignacio and his colleagues here. The conversation has been rich, and I thank you all for your participation in it.

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