The first notes of opera that Nicholas Payne ever heard were the D minor chord that opens Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne: his parents had bought seats in the front row of the stalls to ensure that the 11-year old boy would be able to see the stage without tall adults blocking his view. Payne was besotted and immediately set about obsessively learning every Mozart opera he could lay his hands on. When the career decision had to be made between love and money, he chose his love of opera, thus starting a career which led him through roles at the Arts Council, Welsh National Opera, Opera North and The Royal Opera and a successful leadership of English National Opera. For the last 20 years, he has been Director of Opera Europa, a trade body whose membership has grown in that time from 36 to 220. That role and an extensive knowledge of opera history have given Payne a unique platform from which to view and understand the opera world today.

Nicholas Payne
© Opera Europa

DK: in your 20 years at Opera Europa, how has the opera world changed?

NP: What I remember from working in opera in the UK is that although we purported to be courteous to each other, we were actually highly competitive and always hoping that our show would be more interesting than the one in the next town. One of the pleasant things about Opera Europa is that although healthy rivalry still exists, there is an overriding urge for people to share good information, good practice, productions, ideas. Which is stronger than the rivalry, I think.

Has that good practice moved on?

I think co-production has become more creative, less cynical. Probably, thirty years ago, it was very much a case of “how can I earn a few bucks by flogging on this production to somebody not terribly appropriate?”. General directors were agreeing co-productions over cognac and a cigar and when the news reached their technical departments, hands were thrown up in horror. I think we’ve made that much more professional, partly by involving the technical and production people in a more equal conversation.

Speaking of finance: opera has always been a money sink. Is that worse now? Are finances tighter than they once were?

That’s what everyone says, and I’m not sure that I believe it. Monteverdi was entirely dependent on a paymaster, and when the Duke of Mantua was replaced by another Duke, he lost his job. Because Orfeo was a success, he overreached himself with his next opera, Arianna, and it made a big loss – and that was the end of Opera Mantova! Opera has always made a loss – it's not, in that sense, a business. The question is, who picks up the tab?

Nicholas Payne
© Opera Europa

There was a brief period after Monteverdi in Venice where people like Cavalli definitely didn’t make a loss – they were successful theatrical entrepreneurs...

It required investors. The big breakthrough event, in 1737, was when opera was opened to the paying public rather than something just paid for by a rich duke. And there was a price war in the many Venetian theatres. Some charged more and hired more expensive singers which attracted people; others cut their costs and rehearsal periods and had cheaper singers, so they were able to bring down the price of tickets. So what’s changed?

They used to have syndicates. It’s interesting, isn’t it? Now, when one of our companies in the UK puts together a production, they form a syndicate of donors, not just one big corporate firm or very rich person. Welsh National Opera, for example, asks 30 people to put in £5,000 each. That’s the Italian model and it’s a good model. We have to remember that the model of the state picking up the tab is very recent – it’s an invention of post-World War 2.

One narrative doing the rounds is that opera is a dying art for elderly toffs; another is that opera has never been more vibrant. Do either of these narratives impress you?

Both do, in a way, but the latter one more so. It’s interesting that every time that something new is invented, the long playing record or television or, more recently, streaming, people say “Oh, this is the end of live theatre.” And it’s not; it’s the opposite; it’s actually a way of making it available to more people.

But there’s this idea that opera is not supposed to be for everybody, as when Angela Rayner got lambasted for going to The Marriage of Figaro...

You know that’s nonsense. Why shouldn’t Angela Rayner go to that or anything else if she wants to. It's quite interesting that Michael Gove escaped to go to Cav and Pag at Covent Garden during the recent Tory leadership shenanigans. These people are human beings.

But think back to Mozart. What Mozart inherited was a kind of toff’s type opera in which operas were about emperors and kings and rich people. And what he and Da Ponte chose with The Marriage of Figaro was the most revolutionary play at the time, which had been banned in Vienna, and he got away with setting it because he put some music to it. What is fascinating about those Da Ponte operas is that they were all set in the present day and that was a breakthrough. People are constantly trying to find ways of making opera about today. It's interesting, I think, that in my lifetime, American opera has shifted from being a colonialist enterprise of importing European composers and singers into something where the buzz is about the new works.

Jörg Widmann's Babylon at Staatstheater Wiesbaden
© Karl + Monika Forster

Everybody worries about the greying audience. Are companies doing the right things to broaden the audience?

They certainly try. I would say that some of the efforts have been more successful than others and it was a big topic of our recent conference in Prague. Because the fact is that not all the audiences have come back. And it differs between Madrid, where most of them seem to have come back, and other places where there’s a serious deficit. If you take the average across all the companies we surveyed recently, the audience is probably 75% of what it was in 2019 and that’s a significant number. For some of them, the priority was “First, we must get those audiences back”. For others, it was “We accept that some of those grey audiences have died of Covid or are frightened to go out. So we need to look for new audiences”. If you were looking for the opportunity out of a crisis, as I try to, you would say “this is a fantastic opportunity to renew audiences”. If you've got 25% seats not being filled, how do you fill them with audience? And you don't just want younger audiences: you want diverse audiences, audiences that better reflect the society in which we live.

And it’s hard work. One of the things you learn about marketing is that the most cost effective way of bettering audiences is to make somebody who buys one ticket buy two tickets, and make a four opera subscriber become a six opera subscriber. Trying to find the new ones takes more time and more effort. But I will say on behalf of my member companies that almost all of them are working their socks off trying to find those people.

Those places which have been very dependent on tourism have taken a big hit – Vienna, Prague, Milan. Visitors from the Far East have temporarily deserted, because when they hear about the war in Ukraine, they take a look at the map and it looks next door to Vienna.

One of the big arguments I have with my members is that it seems to me they're not thinking enough about different segments of the audience. I think this is happening more in spoken theatre. I was recently at the National Theatre and saw a play called The Father and the Assassin by an Indian writer, British-born Sri Lankan director, mainly UK Indian cast. And surprise, surprise, the audience didn't look like me. And it was full – that was in the big Olivier Theatre. I remember Nick Hytner saying to me “why do we never get any of the Bangladeshi community into the National Theatre – why don’t we put on a Bangladeshi play and market it?” and sure enough, they came. I also remember him making a very conscious decision to do 50% heritage and 50% new work – and he turned around box office takings. I think that as often, opera has been slow.

For a good example, you can talk about the way Komische Oper has taken on board the fact that Berlin has a big Turkish population. You get titles in Turkish and they’ve done projects with the Turkish community in which they’ve taught them The Magic Flute and the Turks have taught them how to sing in Turkish and, sure enough, they built a relationship.

Samson et Dalila at The Royal Opera: SeokJeong Baek and Elīna Garanča
© ROH 2022 | Clive Barda

Speaking about heritage pieces, are performances of standard repertoire improving or are people pining for Pavarotti?

I think it’s dangerous to say that the quality of singing has declined. For goodness sake, there’s a joke about it in The Barber of Seville, when Rosina sings a terribly boring lesson aria, and Bartolo pooh-poohs it and says “Ah, it was much better in my day – Caffarelli was there”. My wife and I were at Samson et Dalila the other day and I have to say that when you learned the piece with Vickers and Verrett, or Domingo and Borodina, it’s difficult to get them out of your head. But actually, the people who sang it at Covent Garden were very good. I mean, Garanča has a slimmer voice, but she’s a wonderful singer and she gave a very subtly nuanced performance. SeokJong Baek, who jumped in as Samson, was a real find. And probably, the attention to detail in the orchestra, the colours that Pappano got, the precision of Richard Jones’ direction and choreography were superior to what we dimly remember from 1970.

You have to accept that maybe we lack those grand Italian voices – Corelli, Bergonzi, Del Monaco, but on the other hand, the singing of Rossini, let alone the Baroque stuff, is so much better now: what's happened with the early music groups has completely revitalised two centuries of repertory. The danger is that we have so much heritage that there’s not so much room for the new. Maybe, as impresarios, we have to more selective.

How much damage has Covid done? And how much of that damage is permanent, or at least very long-lasting?

I'm surprised it has not done more damage. If we are being optimistic for a moment, the reason that the opera sector has been more or less preserved is that governments around most of Europe have thought it was worth preserving, with the combination of bailout subsidies and Kurzarbeit schemes and so on. In the longer term, though, I am concerned, particularly in Germany. Frankfurt, a really successful company, well run over many years by Bernd Loebe, has been told to budget next year for a 10 million euro cut, and that’s a lot of money. I think what is worrying about it is that the consensus that certainly existed in my generation, that really you have to have a decent opera company in Frankfurt, is not there to the same extent among the next generation of politicians. 

Oper Frankfurt A Midsummer Night's Dream: Cameron Shahbazi, Kateryna Kasper, Children's Chorus
© 2022 Monika Rittershaus

Coming out of the pandemic, there are companies who are desperate to get back to the way things were before and companies who feel they need to re-invent. To what extent have you seen reinvention?

People are doing it both ways. One company told me “we did that boring online streaming stuff during lockdown because it was the only way of keeping in touch with the audience, but we’re cutting that out altogether now and going back to the normal subscription audience.” Whereas in Amsterdam, for example, they were already doing their Opera Forward festival and they did a number of online things, some of which were more successful than others. They have learned from it and I think it will affect the way they programme next year.

The companies with foresight were the ones who were starting to reinvent before the pandemic struck. Opera Philadelphia is a good example. It decided that having a subscription season in the big theatre with declining interest in colonial European opera was not the way of the future. It didn't get rid of Rigoletto entirely, but it’s doing more segmented things in different parts of town. So it was already more agile when the pandemic struck.

When I asked the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen what they were doing about audiences, they said “well our business plan has been to grow the audience, and last year, we attracted an extra 100,000”. That’s pretty impressive, coming out of a pandemic. And they said “We’ve been planning for it for three years.” They had an oversupply problem when Mærsk Mc-Kinney built this wonderful new opera house and they were expected to keep going the previous theatre. So they set about finding enough people to fill those houses, which has meant changes in programming, with more musical theatre. Some less popular titles get fewer performances while others have been double cast. There has been a quantum leap in the audiences because they’ve been thinking about it.

When you go to a new opera, typically, are you thrilled by the music? Are you alienated by it?

So long as I’m either thrilled or alienated, I’m happy. What I don’t like is being bored. We’ve all sat through those pieces where they are careful not to have an interval because they know they wouldn’t have an audience if they had a second half. Of course, not everything works, but I heard Jörg Widmann’s Babylon a month or two ago in Wiesbaden and it was a terrific production. It’s a pretty relentless battery of sound, but it really creates an immersive world which draws you in.

Look, I think opera went through a sticky time, with all that Darmstadt stuff where people were deliberately writing music that people couldn’t understand, as a badge of honour, really, and I don’t think composers are trying to do that now. It doesn't mean they're always successful, but I do think a healthy contemporary element is pretty essential to any art form.