Marc A. Scorca: Thank you so much, Nicholas Payne for being with me today, to talk a little bit about your really incredible career and achievements in opera and for opera. You are the first citizen of the UK I've interviewed for our oral history project, but I think you've had such a global impact that it's really important we capture some of your story. So again, Nicholas Payne, thanks for being with us.
Nicholas Payne: It's a privilege to be with you.
Marc A. Scorca: Even though you're not a US citizen, but a citizen in the UK, I'm not gonna spare you. Who brought you to your first opera?
Nicholas Payne: My parents. When I was 11 and my brother was nine, they took us to Don Giovanni.
Marc A. Scorca: To Don Giovanni?
Nicholas Payne: And it converted us both for life.
Marc A. Scorca: Had you been prepared for it? Was the music of opera in your family home so that you were ready to see it in person and be really transformed by it?
Nicholas Payne: We'd been to the theatre: a lot of Shakespeare at the Old Vic; ballet at Covent Garden, and yeah, there was music on the radio. My father was not musical at all. My mother liked dancing, but neither my brother nor I were very clever at music, but whatever it was, it grabbed us.
Marc A. Scorca: Wow. And that was, if read correctly, at Glyndebourne?
Nicholas Payne: It was at Glyndebourne.
Marc A. Scorca: Oh, how wonderful.
Nicholas Payne: And what was wonderful about it was, they bought us tickets in the front row of the stalls, because we were so small, we wouldn't have seen properly otherwise.
Marc A. Scorca: Wow.
Nicholas Payne: So whenever I go to Glyndebourne, even now as I'm very old, I always insist on sitting in the front row of the stalls.
Marc A. Scorca: Oh, what a wonderful story. Now I'll know why you're there. That's fantastic. But being really swept away as an 11 year old doesn't necessarily lead to a career choice. So how did you decide that opera was going to become your life's work?
Nicholas Payne: I was obsessed with it through my teenage years, without thinking at all about career, to be honest. And, when I went on to university, I had a good time, but I was incapable of holding down a job; I was kind of growing up. My first job was with a concert agency and I suppose that was kind of a way in, and I then had the very good fortune to go on the first ever Arts Council arts administration course, the predecessor of what you and I have been doing in later years. And it first of all taught me an awful lot about accountancy and marketing and industrial relations and stuff that I was utterly ignorant of, but secondly led to a two month secondment at Covent Garden, at the end of which they offered me the least important and lowest paid job in the organization, and I stayed there doing that for two years, in which I probably learnt more than I've ever learnt in any subsequent job.
Marc A. Scorca: Isn't it astonishing how those first jobs, when you know very little, but are in a great location, how much you can absorb?
Nicholas Payne: Yeah. It's discovery, isn't it? And you look back and you think of the terrible mistakes you make, but you keep alert and you learn.
Marc A. Scorca: So two years at Covent Garden before you then started to explore other opera companies in Britain.
Nicholas Payne: What I was very lucky about was that they were the last two years of David Webster as administration. He was like Rudolf Bing, he did it for 25 years. And John Tooley was already working towards taking over, which he then did for another 18 years or something like that - extraordinary longevity, if you think of it today, or maybe not in the terms of some American companies, but for Europe. And what was great was they found time for me. These two important guys, and I was so unimportant. But they talked things through with me and probably the most remarkable, concentrated learning I ever had was spending two or three days in the office of the legendary Joan Ingpen, who was controller of planning and casting. And I think that in those 72 hours, I learned more about how you put together opera, than it would be possible otherwise to learn.
Marc A. Scorca: Joan Ingpen is legendary in our industry on both sides of the Atlantic. What was it about those 72 hours that made them so instructive to you?
Nicholas Payne: She didn't talk down to me at all. She just assumed I must be interested in opera, otherwise why would they have wasted her time with me being there? And she just talked through her day of how you put together a schedule; how you put the pieces together: these availabilities, those things; would these artists work well together? This conductor we're trying to develop, so we are giving him Flying Dutchman this season and we're going to try him out on Fidelio next season, because we want him to become Music Director when Solti retires. His name was Colin Davis. And this was completely secret planning. I don't think even Davis knew. Certainly his rivals didn't. And she just talked it through, and I suppose she realized I wouldn't talk to anyone else about this. I didn't. I just soaked it in like a sponge - how you put it together.
Marc A. Scorca: And this is one of those lessons for young people who may be watching it. What qualities do you think you displayed to John Tooley or Mr. Webster or Joan Ingpen that made them give you this time and attention?
Nicholas Payne: I honestly don't know. I think I was just terribly lucky. I just sort of fell in the right space. I suppose I was very interested in it. I had spent the years where I should have been studying serious subjects absorbing opera, so I knew the basic repertory pretty well. I knew the Mozart operas by heart. I'd immersed myself in Wagner, as you do when you're a teenager; gone to Bayreuth and those sort of things. So, the language of it was with me and perhaps that was a little bit precocious and unusual for a 23 year old, or whatever, but I'm not sure it is. I meet people today in their early twenties who know a hell of a lot about opera, and the beauty is that when you are that young, you really can memorize stuff.
Marc A. Scorca: Yes. It is so true.
Nicholas Payne: Because there's less rubbish in your head, I suppose, so there's more space for new information to enter.
Marc A. Scorca: I find, even in my own office, that those younger people who really know the repertoire; who know the singers, they call forth from me stories and lessons that I might not otherwise share, but their knowledge of opera awakens my enthusiasm all over again, and the stories flow. It's very interesting how that's the case.
Nicholas Payne: What you just said is just like Tooley or Ingpen were with me. They found themselves willingly sharing information, which we all quite enjoy doing, don't we?
Marc A. Scorca: The older we get, the more we enjoy sharing. It is so true. So those incredible formative years at The Royal Opera, and then you worked at Welsh National Opera, Opera North, so really experiencing companies that were their own landmark companies in Wales, or touring company as Opera North was, and is. But then, of course, you led opera at the The Royal Opera before going to head up English National Opera. And when I reflected on that, if we roll the clocks back, that's not unlike running The Metropolitan Opera and then going and running the New York City Opera, two such different companies. And in London, both still so active. There must have been an enormous difference between the operating culture of The Royal Opera and English National Opera. How different were they, when you led them?
Nicholas Payne: Call me old-fashioned, but I think the definition of a world city is that it has two good opera companies: Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Munich, London. I know that there is an enormous amount of lively, innovative opera in New York City, but I still think there is a loss in...
Marc A. Scorca: Absolutely. Give us the budget of the British Council and we'd have two companies.
Nicholas Payne: Yeah. I say that not because one can't reinvent the past, but simply that, that kind of competition and jostling for attention and so on, is good for artists, and it's good for the public. Now there are other ways of doing it, and I'm being deliberately a little bit provocative in saying that. Look, I retain a love from very early childhood for Covent Garden, more than any other opera theater in the world, because it's where I learnt my opera, up there in the highest reaches of the gallery over thousands of performances. And it's a theater like The Met and others where you, the public, expect to hear the best artists, the best singers, conductors, directors in the world, on an international level. I saw my task when I took over running the company in the 1990's, as matching that with proper rehearsed productions, and somehow compelling those wonderful international singers, who maybe think they didn't need to rehearse quite so long, to do a real proper rehearsal period. And those who weren't prepared to do that, I eased out, but you'd be surprised how many chose to do it. And, of course, the secret was I didn't waste their time. I made sure they worked with the very best conductors and directors. They're serious people; that's what they want to do. They get annoyed if their time is wasted, and stupid, repetitive rehearsals, but if they're learning something, that's their life. And that was for me an incredibly important (aspect). I didn't succeed the whole time, but we brought it a kind of seriousness, which was important. In contrast, English National Opera is more democratic. It's more about company ethos. It's not to say there wasn't a fine company at Covent Garden - as at The Met, great orchestra, chorus, but the camaraderie of the singers, whether they were on (as in the old days) weekly or monthly contracts, or whether they were the kind of people you had on a loose (arrangement)..."Yes, we'll give you a couple of roles this season. What about this, next?" There was that kind of ensemble, which you wanted to foster, and in a way, it was less about the greatest singers in the world. It was the best English speaking singers, a lot of whom, I'm fortunate to say, lived in the UK, but I have to say we really relied on good Americans, as well, because the unique selling point of English National Opera, was that it performed in the language of the majority of the audience, a much rarer thing nowadays than it used to be. Opera Theatre of St. Louis...
Marc A. Scorca: ...still there performing in English.
Nicholas Payne: Does it? A lot at the Volksopera in Vienna, Gärtnerplatz in Munich, less than they used to be in Komische Oper, Berlin and so on. And what it means is that you're treating opera as a play, in a way. And the message it is conveying and the ability to follow the comedy and the recitative in Mozart, or Rossini, or whatever is give and take. And that creates a bond between artists and audience, which is also very special. And I would not criticize one or the other (Covent Garden or English National Opera) or any of these other things. They both have their place. And I thought it was important - and I was terribly lucky to do both jobs - to maintain clear blue water between them, and it wasn't always easy, because when I was at Covent Garden, I wanted to encourage some, you know, innovative directors who might normally in the past have been thought of as ENO- type directors. And when I was at the Coliseum, I wanted to tempt, this really up and coming American mezzo-soprano, Susan Graham, who might have gone to ...they've just done it with Kate Lindsay...the same thing - you find a role that is great for them, and exciting, and you know they're going to go on and have an international career, but it's part of the ecology. One is not more interesting than the other, but you have to throw yourself into the ethos of whichever one it is.
Marc A. Scorca: In an article I read from 2002, Richard Jones said that under your leadership, ENO had a personality, and I wonder what that means to you. What does it mean for an opera company to have a personality?
Nicholas Payne: Well look, first of all, the personality is not of its managing director, it's of the artists who inhabited stage, isn't it? I think that's the most important thing that gives you the personality. Opera Theatre of St. Louis has a personality, doesn't it? It's not necessarily always the best or whatever, but it has a personality. Chicago Lyric under Ardis Krainik had a personality. That probably was partly Ardis, but it was also the 'these are the singers I like; this is my priority', and whatever. But although I talk about it as being people, and I think the people are the most important, it is partly also the building. The Coliseum (ENO's home) is not a grand opera house. It's a very big theater in European terms - it's 2,400 people, which is very large for Europe. Bastille is bigger, but not many more. It's rather wide - too wide - ideally for acoustics, but very good for sightlines, better sightlines than Covent Garden. But there's something about this 100 year old music hall, not totally appropriate for opera, which says to the public "Come in, and be part of me". And I think that was an important aspect. Soon after I went to English National Opera, we had an absolutely wonderful first season when The Royal Opera House was closed. And we were really on top of the world. Then the wretched thing reopened with wonderful new facilities and stuff. And we realized that our old music hall was looking pretty tacky, and so we raised a lot of money, but never enough money of course, to give it a bit of an overhaul. And while we were doing that, we had a wonderful season where we turned the whole thing into a kind of scaffolding workshop to hold the place up, and did eight new productions, just one fall, one after the other, on this same basic thing, but much changed. And it was, in a way, a sort of symbol of wrapping people into the performance.
Marc A. Scorca: It sounds wonderful. What a great challenge and a great solution. One of my colleagues who works on this oral history project with me has noted that the person no longer with us, who is cited most frequently, is Ardis Krainik. And here, you also cite her and her work in Chicago. Could you say a couple of words about Ardis and working with Ardis as a colleague producer?
Nicholas Payne: Well, I didn't actually work with Ardis as a colleague producer. I worked with Bill Mason, who was a marvelous colleague, I have to say, and look indeed with other great American people, but Ardis was in charge when I first visited Chicago, which I did in order to see a production of The Mikado, directed by the 23 year old Peter Sellars, and Peter and I had breakfast the following morning, in one of those grand old hotels, which were inhabited by all the mafioso politicians of Chicago at the time. It was a fantastic experience. Well, we were looking round this thing, and I was trying to tempt him to come to the UK, which he hadn't at that stage. And I remember thinking - I didn't know her that well. She was very friendly and welcomed me and just was nice. I didn't know her that well, but I thought here is a big personality with strong views, but also welcoming of talent. Isn't that what's important?
Marc A. Scorca: Yes. So well said.
Nicholas Payne: We're all trying to employ people who are more talented than we are.
Marc A. Scorca: I hope so. And frankly, they're easy to find. You've already mentioned several people, Joan Ingpen, John Tooley, others. As your career developed, were there other role models? People you thought about and their achievement, and a kind of parallel achievement you wish to attain in your own life?
Nicholas Payne: I worked very closely with Brian McMaster when I was in Wales. I couldn't say he was so much a role model, as, in a way, we operated as a sort of Mutt and Jeff. If he was being busy, chatting up some director who wanted to spend a little large amount of money, he'd put me into action to crack down on the budget. And he often used me to say the unpalatable thing to people, and I suppose that was, in a way, quite a good lesson. I suppose Peter Hall, the way he created the Royal Shakespeare Company, not when he became famous and less good as a director, but in his early years when he was wanting to change the world - that was interesting, in theater. Peter Brook, because he made you think about what theater could be; what was needed to create his sense; what wasn't needed.
Marc A. Scorca: If we turn the clock forward...recalling of course that you talk about the front row in the stalls at Glyndebourne, and your innumerable performances in the gallery at Covent Garden, you are someone who clearly adores, thrives in the live theater experience. And yet recently in the last five, 10 years, you have developed at Opera Europa, an extraordinary platform in OperaVision. So here you are a true theater person, also creating an opportunity for digital access to performances around the world. And I'm wondering how you connect your love of the in-person experience with your commitment to the digital access.
Nicholas Payne: Last month, I went to the premier of a new opera, and was introduced beforehand to the librettist, who I didn't know. And I was introduced as director of Opera Europa, and she said, "Oh yes, that wonderful streaming program. I have learnt so much from watching things I never thought I would watch, from places I know I will never visit. It's become an essential adjunct to my life, as a live creator". And it made me think that a streaming platform is actually a learning tool, isn't it? And if I then think back to my own experience: I grew up in the glory days of the long playing gramophone record, and that's how I learnt my opera. You know, when I went up there in the gallery at Covent Garden, I was well prepared. I went to hear Moses and Aron - difficult piece in those days, but I'd done my homework. I went to hear Wozzeck as a 15 year old, and I'd managed to get hold of the old Dimitri Mitropoulos recording with Mack Harrell and Eileen Farrell, and I knew the piece bloody well backwards by the time I sat down in front of it. And I listen to much less record or CD...I like them, listen to them sometimes. And I would always choose the live experience over the recorded or streamed experience for myself. But I think that we are missing a trick if we ignore those ways of discovering more about it, don't we?
Marc A. Scorca: Certainly, this room is lined with my old LP's. I mean, that's how I learned the repertoire, and how I learned the different interpretations and different points of view about a piece. I agree.
Nicholas Payne: I think therefore it's complementary; it does not attempt to be the replacement.
Marc A. Scorca: And for those who may not live near an opera company, may not be able to afford tickets on a regular basis, may not be able to go in person, it is an extraordinary opportunity to know and love the art form, for those who don't have ready access or ability to be there.
Nicholas Payne: Yeah. Polish opera, for example. One of our partner members is Polish National Opera in Warsaw, and we, of course, try to do Moniuszko with them, and Szymanowski and Paderewski and so on, which you're very unlikely to hear in your local opera house, and it is an insight. I mean, how much Ukrainian opera do you know? You know, we talk a lot about Ukraine nowadays. The answer is none of us know anything. And our thing for OperaVision this year, as part of World Opera Day is going to be piecing together a hundred year old Ukrainian opera with excerpts from it put on by six different companies around the world, including San Francisco Opera.
Marc A. Scorca: Oh, that sounds fantastic, absolutely fantastic. But you're right. That in the European context, where there are literatures that are unique to particular countries, where you would not hear those titles in Italy, that you would hear in Warsaw. It's an opportunity to really learn of the national compositions of works that you would never hear in person. Very interesting.
Nicholas Payne: Rather than making the rather simple judgment. "Oh, that wine won't travel, you know"?
Marc A. Scorca: Absolutely, absolutely.
Nicholas Payne: Easy to say, but it's not necessarily true.
Marc A. Scorca: Now, I've also read, and you touched on this already, that, of course recently in the past 10, 20 years, we've opened up the entire 400 year repertoire of opera, going back to Monteverdi and Cavalli and exploring baroque opera and French baroque opera, and that the very richness and the amount that should be explored in our history crowds out the space for new work, or limits the space for new work. Do you wish there were more new work at more companies across Europe?
Nicholas Payne: Yes, absolutely. And I very much admire those American companies, who've forced it into the center of what they're doing. And actually, I admire the American audiences who have formed an appetite for it, perhaps at the expense of some minor Donizetti or whatever it is that they might have been offered in the past. I think that any art needs that tension between the contemporary and the heritage, don't they? You know, Mozart was fascinated by Handel; Berlioz by Gluck - whatever it is, and it feeds into what is happening. I had a really interesting conversation, and he came and talked to one of our conferences in London, with Nicholas Hytner, the then-director of the National Theatre. And he said, "I've made it my business to make the program here, 50% heritage and 50% new". And I thought it was a good challenge, and they've kept to it even after he's gone. And there are not so many opera houses who do that, and I think opera is the weaker for it. And look, I've done a little bit, but not enough. When I was at Covent Garden and knowing that the theatre was going to be renovated and reopened, with the new millennium, I commissioned operas from Harrison Birtwistle, Nicholas Maw and Thomas Adès for the first three seasons of the theater. Needless to say, they didn't all happen in the first three seasons, because the composers were a bit late in producing them, and in one case - Nick Maw's opera was ready, but I wanted to make sure that I gave it the best thing by getting it Simon Rattle as conductor and Trevor Nunn as director. But it was, to me, a very important thing to say this opera house is opening in the new century, and we believe in the work of composers. And I think it's quite interesting that a number of American houses and most recently at The Met have been changing the mix of it. They're not throwing out Rigoletto, nor should they, because it's a very good opera.
Marc A. Scorca: Right. But you're absolutely right that American companies are looking at some of the most well known titles, and combining those in a season with new work, or recently composed work. And it is in fact, the unknown Donizetti, or the rarely performed Rossini that is falling off the repertoire here in the States, because honestly it is difficult to relate to those pieces. It's difficult to tell the stories, connect them to the world we live in. So the very popular works and new works are the combination of an American opera season.
Nicholas Payne: But going back to what we were saying in the past, you can see those unknown Rossinis in Pesaro, and you can see the unknown Donizettis in Bergamo done to a very good standard, and through something like OperaVision, we can make them available to you. Yeah. I mean, the Bergamo Fille du Régiment they did in conjunction with Havana, Cuba - it's a wonderful production. It's currently available on OperaVision, and we've just introduced Viaggio a Reims from Pesaro. We're sort saying to you, you don't have to do these pieces, but they're there at the touch of a (button).
Marc A. Scorca: Nicholas, you also are constantly traveling the world as a judge in vocal competitions. You hear young rising singers constantly in countries around the world. And, of course, you learned opera off the LP's that had Golden Age singers, and your career started in the '60's and progressed through years of extraordinary singing. So today in the 2020's, as you hear competitions and young singers, are you happy with the quality and the preparation and the readiness of the singers you hear?
Nicholas Payne: In the main, yes. I think probably the preparation of singers is better now than it was in the past, across the board. Look, you've got to be honest. When you go to a singing competition, and hear a hundred singers, the majority of them won't make a career. And however kind you might feel towards them, you have to be pretty ruthless and say the truth, and even then, although you hope to find good prize winners and so on, it's even rarer that you strike real gold, isn't it? Sometimes a Karita Mattila will appear, or Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Or most recently, the last Neue Stimmen I went to in Germany, Elsa Dreisig, and you say, "Yeah, this one's gonna make it". And others are very good, valuable singers; some are not quite ready, and you think if they put them into an ensemble here, they could grow.
Marc A. Scorca: Well, I delight at your optimism, and also note that in some of your interviews that you talk about, the fact that we can mount more authentic high quality productions of Handel, of Rossini, of Mozart - certainly of works from the 17th century, than ever we were able to do in the golden age of the LP vinyl.
Nicholas Payne: God, if you think back to some of those tenors in the Rossini that you bought when you were young, they were terrible, weren't they?
Marc A. Scorca: Yeah. So that as the repertoire changes, so does the ability of the singers to perform them.
Nicholas Payne: At our last conference...after Prague, we went and spent a day in Litomyšl, which is a little rural village where Smetana was born, and they really wanted us to go there, and it was a beautiful day, but in the evening they gave us not a performance of Smetana, but Handel's Messiah, and the guy sitting next to me said, "You've a come a long way to hear Handel's Messiah". It was the most thrilling performance of Messiah I have ever heard. And it was with a fantastic Czech period band called the 1704 Orchestra, and the conductor was called Václav Luks. He was fantastic, and it was thrilling to hear, so I don't discount heritage. You talk about optimism, and in that sense, I think there was a hell of a lot of talent around - you know there's a lot of talent around - probably not enough opportunities for it, but then that was always maybe the case. But I think we also must temper optimism with realism, and be clear in our minds about dwindling opportunities where they are; audiences that need engaging, who haven't been engaged. It's a big task for people running opera companies today.
Marc A. Scorca: For sure. And it's funny, you've jumped on to another question I wanted to ask you - and I say this as a disclaimer - that I don't believe in generalizations, because they generally describe nothing at all, except some mythical average, and at the same time, I'm gonna ask you to generalize. Americans tend to look at Europe as one entity, not as a cluster of more than 20 countries, all of which have their own aesthetic sensibilities, and funding systems and socio-cultural habits. But, just now, you were invoking, in a way generalizations about the challenges of fewer productions, fewer performances, of audiences that are more challenging than ever in terms of their behaviors and patterns of attendance. So, Nicholas from your perch at Opera Europa, are there some generalizations that occupy your attention that you really want to address these days?
Nicholas Payne: Yes, there are. And as you know, only too well, it's not always easy to get people to focus on the things that really matter, and which will really make a difference, and to make our associations, and therefore our curated conferences something that will challenge our members (without putting them off so much that they withdraw their membership). You have to use a little bit of gentleness, but I think you have to stir a bit as well. And talking about realism against optimism, I don't think there is any point in pretending that audience levels have regained the level they were in 2019. And those in 2019 were probably below what they were in 2009, and so on. Now, is that a trend which leads to oblivion? Or is it something we can do something about? And how much is it about giving back the courage to older audiences who may have been deterred by health reasons or travel reasons? There's a lot of reasons not to go out in the evening now. Or must we say, "Actually there's a lot of people in the world for whom this kind of entertainment could strike a thing. Why is it that we're not reaching them properly?" The Prague conference was about regenerating audiences, and inevitably there was a certain amount of platitudes and the usual old stuff, but I was agreeably surprised by how many people were actually thinking seriously about it. In a way, the most impressive reaction came from Danish Opera in Copenhagen, and they said, "Oh, 2023, we expect an extra hundred thousand people to come through our doors than before the pandemic, and that's because we have worked out a business plan, before the pandemic struck, which was to say, how're we going to increase our audiences?" So they've been thinking about it. It's not a sort of knee-jerk 'Oh my God, we now have 50% empty seats, how are we going to fill them with people on $10 a throw?' It's actually looking at the demographic; looking at segmented approaches and all the things that you Americans are better at than we are. And you alluded to the thing that's quite difficult about doing it in Europe, because the solution that's appropriate in the Czech Republic is not necessarily the one that'll go down best in Portugal. So, in a way you have to be reasonably flexible about it. In this coming conference in Budapest, we're talking about integration and inclusion, and they're not the same thing, as you know better than I do. And anyway, we probably define inclusion differently, either side of the Atlantic. But the integration element is very much...we all have wonderful education programs, but is it actually integrated into the mission of what the opera company does? Is it what makes you choose this opera rather than that opera? And this interpretation, rather than that interpretation, and so on? And weirdly enough, Budapest is rather a good place to do it, 'cause they've just spent hundreds of millions on a big new Eiffel Art Studios, which incorporates rehearsal rooms, production center, studio theatre and their education program, and if you visit it, particularly at a weekend, you are overwhelmed by masses of kids coming in and enjoying the place. You in the States are ahead of us in Europe, on the whole inclusivity thing. But what I'm saying to my people is "You may think it doesn't matter to you". Look, of course, in London or Amsterdam or Brussels or Paris, it's on your doorstep, just as it is in Philadelphia, Baltimore or New York, but I'm saying to them "You have got to be planning for it now". And it's about who do you employ? Who do you have in your audience? And you have to be proactive of it, don't you?
Marc A. Scorca: Oh, for sure. And I made some notes here just to learn what some of our colleagues are doing in these other cities. The huge value of Opera Europa and the OPERA America relationship is the number of laboratories going on across our regions of people, testing new ideas, new strategies for audience building or education programs. Yes, and we can learn so much from one another.
Nicholas Payne: And balance the programming, and all those things. But we have, in a way, to dig and stir and provoke people. And it's not because they're mindless, terrible, old traditional people. They're busy.
Marc A. Scorca: Absolutely.
Nicholas Payne: They're trying to get the show on.
Marc A. Scorca: I always say to colleagues that they implicitly - if not explicitly - they implicitly delegate to us the responsibility to make them think about things they wouldn't think about on their own, or in the same way, so I agree with you. I will say that in your extraordinary tenure as head of Opera Europa, I would credit you as the energy behind the wonderful World Opera Forum that took place Madrid in 2018, which forum we hope to do again, and again and again, but the next one we're hoping for is 2024. But nonetheless, it was a remarkable, remarkable achievement to bring together 100 leaders from around the world, from every continent except Antarctica, because there isn't an Opera Antarctica yet. What were some of the most important takeaways Nicholas, for you from the World Opera Forum?
Nicholas Payne: Well, I wouldn't say we got everything right, but I think it genuinely did bring together voices from different parts of the world. And you shouldn't move away from your own role in making sure that the North American contingent (because I'm including Canada) was highly articulate, and really entered into the spirit of the thing. I don't think we managed to get as many Asians, or Africans, as I would ideally have liked to scratch the surface, and I think in 2024, one can probably do better, particularly if you do it west coast, and therefore nearer to some of these other countries. I suppose the biggest takeaway is that we were able to do what we could do, because we got the Spanish government to underwrite those hundred invitations. We had 250 people there, but to make it work needed to have the right mixture from the different continents of articulate people, didn't it? And what is particularly difficult about it is, of course you want the buzziest managers, but you also want the composers and the directors and the librettists and the singers and so on, for whom the idea of attending a three day event is: "What on earth do you want me to do that for?" But you really want those voices. So it seems to me that one of the essential things in planning for another one, which of course should be different from the first one - different themes, different structure, whatever is...it's a bit like putting together an opera season. It's persuading the right people to come and work for you, and then enabling them to interact and have the conversation. And you can do something by curating a more rather than less interesting program.
Marc A. Scorca: But I was fascinated by, in a way how universal the headline topics were, and how absolutely different the national interpretation of those topics was region by region, country by country.
Nicholas Payne: Yeah. Well, some more than others, but yeah, sure.
Marc A. Scorca: 'Cause the global similarity and the local differences. It was really fascinating.
Nicholas Payne: But this is, in a way, the very interesting paradox, I think, that makes our jobs interesting - that on the face of it, our associations are to share good practice and so on, and turn out the perfect homogenized opera company. Now we know that that's neither what we want, nor what the opera companies want, but actually the differences are the grist to the mill, aren't they? It's healthy. And okay, there's a lot of individualism and "No, this is my idea, and I'm not gonna share that", and "How dare you steal our best music director", or whatever it is. But as we know, or at least in our part of the world, competition is healthy, and wanting to do better than your rival, (or whatever the thing is) is...Going back to your earlier conversation about Covent Garden and English National Opera, I didn't wish the other one bad, but I just wanted to do better to whichever one I was in, and I'm sure my counterpart felt the same, and that was a sort of healthy situation.
Marc A. Scorca: Oh, absolutely. It forces you to sharpen the edge of your own identity, to really know what it is you stand for in contradistinction to what other people stand for. And that self definition, I think, is extremely healthy. In terms of all of these different countries interpreting the global themes in their own way, I do think of them all as laboratories. Here are these hypotheses about audience, these hypotheses about programming, and we have several hundreds of companies experimenting differently with those hypotheses to see what works. I think the way we accelerate progress is to have all of these organizations working independently, creatively, and specifically in their own cities, and our conferences are where they all come together and share their findings.
Nicholas Payne: And it's why I still remain defiantly in favor of live conferences, accepting that the great use of Zoom and everything else for a lot of encounters and so on. Because, in the end, what binds together these people with their different cultural backgrounds, their rivalries, their competitiveness and so on is a kind of overarching purpose, which works when people trust each other. And it's the being together over a glass of wine or a meal in an unusual place with food that you don't normally have, that creates that sense of trust, isn't it? I remember one of my great lessons when I worked at Covent Garden - this was in the '90's - the early days of all this kind of co-production nonsense, and so on. And I was desperately trying to flog some of my stuff around the world, 'cause I needed to pay for it. And I had quite a lot of visits to Italy. And when I first went there, I couldn't understand why they would invite me out to dinner and we would sit down and we would choose the antipasto, and then there'd be the fish, and we'd never get onto the subject at all. And it wasn't until you reached the coffee that you came up, and you dealt with the deal over about 12 minutes at the coffee stage, but it was the earlier stage where you'd established the trust and they thought, "Yes, I can do business with this guy".
Marc A. Scorca: That's a great lesson. And you're so right, trust happens, when no one can figure out what the menu says - you take a big risk on what you're ordering.
Nicholas Payne: And you say, "Okay, I'm in Sicily, I think I know a lot about wine, but I'm gonna let you choose the wine".
Marc A. Scorca: Absolutely. Now, Nicholas, you are looking at retirement, and you have traveled the world. You've traveled for decades. You have endured the rigors of production under the hottest of spotlights. What do you look forward to, in retirement?
Nicholas Payne: I'm not easily bored, so there are always books to read and music to listen to and other places to visit, although I can't say that I will regret spending fewer hours in departure lounges and that sort of stuff. Many things in our lifetime have got better. Travel's not one of them, is it? So, I won't be so sorry to lose that. I still find the whole process of building a production exciting. And sometimes when one of my members says, "We'd like to involve you in decision making on this?" or "Can you advise on that?" "Would you listen to this rehearsal?" The thrill of creating the show comes back to me, but not in the sense of, "Oh, I wish I was still doing it". As you pointed out, I've been doing this for quite a long time. I've heard a lot of singers. I'm not sure I need to hear another Tosca, having heard Callas. And I'm sure there are very good ones and it's a wonderful opera. I like it a lot, but I would rather see a new piece, to be quite honest. But I've still got complete curiosity for seeing a new piece. I still love those Mozart operas (that) introduced me, but when you've heard - what? - A hundred Magic Flutes, and have been responsible for four or five productions, it's time for somebody else to invent the next one, I think. And next week, our first grandchild will be one years old.
Marc A. Scorca: Oh my goodness. How fabulous.
Nicholas Payne: So, you know, as Janáček would say 'Life continues'.
Marc A. Scorca: Which means that soon, you're gonna have to book first row stalls at Glyndebourne to bring your grandchild to the opera.
Nicholas Payne: Exactly. Funny you should say that. A friend of mine was wanting to take a niece and her husband to their first opera, and they were going in Vienna, and wanted my advice about whether to go Millöcker's Dubarry at the Volksoper. I said, "Just book it, just book it". And I gave them a little rundown of the piece, which is a wonderful Viennese operetta, with a brand new production. The first thing of the new Lotte de Beers regime; Annette Dasch as Dubarry, wonderful singer. I said, "Just go for it".
Marc A. Scorca: Oh, how marvelous. Well, Nicholas, I will say that when you let me know of your plan to retire, I was deeply moved. You have been an incredible colleague.
Nicholas Payne: You may remember that when I was first appointed in this job, I came to visit you in Washington, DC, where you were then then based, and you basically taught me the rudiments of it. So I guess I owe my survival in many ways to my tutelage from OPERA America.