Login failed. Please try again.

Article Published: 02 Feb 2021

Survival of the Fittest

"Covid’s had winners and losers and in the arts the people that reinvent themselves, in a sort of Charles Darwin mindset, will be the winners." 

That recent assessment by banker and philanthropist John Studzinski was expressed even more starkly last August by businessman Ed Warner: "Whatever the future holds, it’s the businesses that gave it a crack while the competition dithered that will be rewarded by their customers and clients – the pub that opened on 4 July while others stayed dark, the adviser who kept in touch regularly through lockdown, the sports that found their way back on to your screen while others wrote off the summer.  Reputations are being made and others irreparably broken."

The performing arts were especially vulnerable to the ban on public gatherings last spring, but most were resilient enough, with goodwill and support from stakeholders, to weather closures of limited duration.  For those which worked so hard to re-open with reconfigured programmes for the new season, the second lockdown has been doubly dispiriting.  Still more so for the artists deprived of their livelihoods.  As Simon Rattle said, "The most important thing is not just to support the freelancers, but to actually give them real work."

Opera companies have been inventive in devising programmes to maintain contact with audiences.  Constantly changing conditions have forced them to be adaptable, and that consumes both money and time.  Yet it remains necessary to look beyond immediate obstacles and plan for a future in which the world will have changed.  Some may argue that the discovery of vaccines and the herd immunity they may eventually engender will enable former habits to resume.  In some places that may happen, but for many the shock of 2020 will act as a rude awakening or fast-forward to the realities which will prevail during the second quarter of the 21st century.

Opera has to justify its legitimate place in modern society.  The broadly social-democratic consensus which has ruled Europe during the peace which followed World War Two has fractured.  Democratically elected Governments, struggling to repay debt amassed during the onslaught of the pandemic, will question the proportions and parameters of public subsidy and respond to shifts in the social perception and purpose of opera.  Instead of defending its right to survive, opera must demonstrate the value it brings to society.

How sustainable is opera?  The question may be applied to its fragile economic model, now weakened by the erosion of ticket sales.  But it also has environmental implications.  An industry dependent on international co-productions, the touring of large ensembles and globe-trotting artists is hardly contributing to the green agenda.  Large theatres should be actively seeking to transition to the post-carbon economy before being compelled by law to do so.  How many materials are discarded rather than recycled, adding to the waste which is despoiling the planet?  Opera should shift its weight to the front foot by anticipating developments instead of reacting to them.

Paradoxically, the solution lies in simultaneously becoming more local and more global.  On the one hand, we need to nurture and recycle home-grown resources; on the other, to use technology to share the results with the world.

Among the discoveries of World Opera Day 2020 were the richness of young talent and the appreciation of opera across six continents.  Yet, looking at the composition of most orchestras and at those who work on or behind the stage, let alone in management or the board room, we must recognise that opera has a way to go before it achieves a balance on equality.  The irony is that the only worthwhile currencies for an artist are talent and hard work, regardless of gender, ethnicity or socio-economic background.  Recent years have seen notable growth in appointments of female conductors and directors and managers, but opportunities to enter the profession are far too scarce for large sections of society.  While a true balance cannot be created overnight, the process towards it must be intensified.  Examples of inclusive efforts by Birmingham Opera Company and the orchestra Chineke! show that it can be done.

The relationship between live performance and digital recording has changed.  How may it be exploited for the benefit or both artists and audiences?  Digital transformation involves more than streaming performances to those unable to visit them live in a theatre. OperaVision and other platforms have provided a lifeline during lockdown, but they neither replicate the live experience nor generate significant revenue.  The Netflix subscription model is tempting but cannot simply be transplanted to opera; though producers will continue to explore options to monetarise streaming, both for their own commercial purposes and as a potential payback for the secondary rights of authors and performers.  Such an incremental system is unlikely to yield worthwhile rewards, in an environment dominated by YouTube and other sites sustained by advertising revenue.  Better to acknowledge that we live in a pluralistic world, in which a performance is not a one-off, but an event which may be repackaged in myriad ways during and after its specific time-slot.  The artists of tomorrow will be obliged, alongside musical and technical training, to become more tech- savvy, which will contribute to educational and promotional purposes.  It is the debt they owe to a society which helps to underwrite their training and employment.

Opera Europa, alongside the philanthropic association FEDORA, is working on an ambitious initiative to attract investment towards kick-starting opera companies across Europe to effect change during the next five years in these areas: sustainability; equality; and digital transformation.

The producers of opera may commit to reforming themselves, but what about the consumers?  No amount of repositioning or rebranding will be worth it, if the appetite is lacking.  What if the impact of the pandemic has caused artists to abandon their careers and audiences to shrink from attending performances?  How much may we extrapolate from what is happening now; and how reliable are predictions for the future?

Human beings will spend more and more time on leisure rather than at work.  That was predicted by John Maynard Keynes in 1930 in his Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, 15 years before he helped to found the Arts Council of Great Britain.  The reduction of statutory working hours; shorter working weeks; the shift towards the gig economy and job-shares; the development of Artificial Intelligence; all are factors in the growth of the amount of discretionary time which Keynes’s grandchildren will have.  But there will be strong competition for a share of that time.  How does opera position itself in the marketplace?

Let us try to imagine what will be the tastes of future generations, less accustomed to spending three hours in a darkened theatre.  Why should those with the time, money and inclination choose opera from the cultural menu?  It may look like a formidable proposition to those brought up with the attention spans of social media.  Does that mean that they will want to absorb opera in bite-sized chunks before risking total immersion?  The trend in spoken drama and modern dance has already moved towards shorter programmes lasting 70 to 90 minutes.  Recent Corona-proof opera performances without a break for refreshment have offered one-act operas or abridged versions.

At what stage will opera embrace Virtual Reality?  The technical possibilities are being rapidly developed and at some point are likely to find a mass market.  When will be the optimum time for opera companies to invest: early, or after waiting for others to make mistakes first?  The Dutch composer and filmmaker Michel van der Aa is a European pioneer, and his next opera Upload is programmed for the Opera Forward Festival in Amsterdam this spring.  Dutch National Opera’s venture, shared with Cologne, Bregenz and the Armoury in New York, is to be welcomed.  The danger of sticking doggedly to traditional forms is that it leaves an opening for an entrepreneur with no opera knowledge to jump in and take advantage of a gap in the market.

While technology may supplant some jobs, it is unlikely that performers will be replaced by Artificial Intelligence.  But they may need to become more versatile.  Big institutions exist to bind together opera and ballet companies occupying two or more theatres in great capital cities, but can engender restrictive practices and hinder change.  It may be easier to restructure smaller or medium-scale companies on more flexible lines.  Bernard Foccroulle advocates the appointment of a diverse selection of Artists-in-Residence for periods of 3 years, to act as drivers of innovative ideas within the organisation.

Already a counterculture is developing of people discarding their smartphones to spend quality time with communities.  This encourages a breakdown of barriers between amateur and professional.  Participatory opera has the power to engage those who might never have expected to enjoy simply watching or listening to opera.  It fosters both aspiration and ownership.

Opera will not survive if it pulls up the drawbridge.  Without compromising standards, it must be open to partnerships with broadcasters, film producers and other digital media.  If I had my time again as an opera manager, I would choose to invest in a core team of perhaps a dozen young singers, plus adaptable musicians and creative artists, to form a flexible ensemble to perform a mixture of historical and contemporary pieces anywhere within a designated geographical area.  And I would pursue alliances with television, radio, cinemas and streaming services; with schools, colleges, leisure centres and local authorities; all with a joint purpose of diffusing the work to a wider and more plural constituency.

Others will have different ambitions.  Some of my predictions will be proved false.  In any case, better that there be multiple attempts.  But I am fairly certain that opera will have to reinvent itself if the species is to survive in the digital age.

This piece was commissioned by Opera Magazine and is republished by permission of its editor.