Is opera in rude, vibrant health? Or taking arms against a sea of troubles? Or merely navigating shark-infested waters... With nearly 400 opera executives gathered in Copenhagen last week for the Opera Europa autumn conference, the Danish capital was the ideal place to take the temperature of the industry. I was able to speak to many Intendants and directors from all over Europe to gain a broad view of the varied challenges they face as well as the trends that are in common.

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Royal Danish Opera House, Copenhagen
© David Karlin

The conference programme was tagged with the theme of “troubled waters” and there’s no doubt that the opera industry needs all the navigation skills it can muster right now, with plenty of storms to be weathered and sandbanks to be avoided. Still, there was underlying good news from virtually everyone I spoke to: audiences are coming back. The most optimistic was the Liceu’s Valentí Oviedo, who told me that both subscriber numbers and general audience numbers had now exceeded their pre-Covid highs. For many houses, people are booking at shorter notice, which poses a particular headache for marketing and box office teams, but the existential fear that audiences would not return after the pandemic has all but dissipated.

That might be a prerequisite for success, but it’s not enough to allay the industry’s many worries. The danger of the death spiral is ever-present, whereby a company responds to funding cuts by staging fewer performances, which in turn diminishes its legitimacy and degrades its ability to raise further funds – whether from audiences, donors or government. 

That death spiral was described graphically in a barnstorming keynote by Kasper Holten, who is the big cheese in these parts (we’re talking 40 kg Parmesan wheel) since he’s in charge of the Royal Danish Theatre, encompassing opera, ballet, musical and spoken theatre in its three houses. Holten implored the industry to stop playing the eternal victim, all too ready to blame anyone but itself: politicians, press, audiences. He reeled off a list of fresh attitudes that opera houses could embrace and activities they could undertake to be confident and proactive in promoting their future. Listening to the buzz of conversations throughout the following day, he had undoubtedly energised his audience.

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Kasper Holten delivering speech
© Opera Europa

What became clear, however, was that “troubled waters” means different things to different people. The problems at the top of CEOs’ minds are very different in one country from the next – even houses within the same country could feel themselves to be in completely different landscapes.

For most European houses, government funding accounts for between 70% and 90% of their revenue (many UK houses are a long way below this: for one UK house present, Garsington Opera, the figure is zero). Therefore, the question of how to deal with the politicians can be the number one concern. But the split between central, regional and municipal funding varies considerably and the detailed political issues can be wildly different. At one end of the scale, Oper Leipzig’s Tobias Wolff and Deutsche Oper am Rhein’s Alexandra Stampler-Brown are in a political environment where opera is embedded into local culture, its value unquestioned. But Deutsche Oper am Rhein faces intense competition: they perform in Düsseldorf and Duisburg, in a region where there are seven other opera houses within an hour’s drive. For Stampler-Brown, the politics revolve around the impact of inflation, immigration and the proposed new opera house, Duett Düsseldorf.

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Düsseldorf’s Deutsche Oper am Rhein, and Strasbourg’s Opéra national du Rhin
© Wiegels | Stefano Merli | Wikimedia Commons

On the opposite bank of the Rhine, Opéra national du Rhin’s Alain Perroux has more existential concerns: opera’s very raison d’être, he says, is being called into question by people with loud voices and little knowledge. He points at a July article by Michel Guerrin in Le Monde which promises “a slow death to opera in France”, and trots out a selection of the standard clichés about shrinking audiences, the art form having no appeal to young people, and so on. Sadly, the fact that Opéra national du Rhin’s performances are often sold out doesn’t necessarily avert the impact of this kind of article in the country’s most influential newspaper, which will be listened to by the politicians who pull the purse strings. At the Opera National de Bordeaux, Emmanuel Hondré faced a new Green government whose first thought was to put the kibosh on opera: his response was to stage more productions, not fewer. Any new project, Hondré says, can give a new perspective to politicians (for example, a new opera which involved zero purchasing of new materials) and can be easier to fund from outside sponsorship.

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From left: Christoph Ladstätter, Iva Hraste-Sočo, Michaela Orizu, Emmanuel Hondré
© Opera Europa

Even if politicians actively embrace opera, there may be stumbling blocks. In Iceland, Culture Minister Lilja Alfreðsdóttir has announced the founding of a new state-funded national opera company. The snag is that the proposal involves total de-funding in 2025 of the existing Icelandic Opera, a non-profit organisation which is not part of the Icelandic state and has been in existence since 1980. CEO Steinunn Ragnarsdóttir’s negotiations with Alfreðsdóttir have been, to put it mildly, challenging. And politicians can be unpredictable and inconsistent: Aidan Lang, outgoing General Director of Welsh National Opera, still has no understanding as to why Arts Council England defunded the touring operations of WNO and Glyndebourne while simultaneously announcing that arts funding was being transferred from London to other regions in England.

Outside the political arena, the big topic of conversation is inflation, with the biggest impact coming from the energy price shock brought about by the Ukraine war. (Norway, Iceland and Sweden are exceptions here, with their high levels of home-grown hydroelectric power.) Opera houses don’t typically control their own energy contracts – if they’re lucky, like Oper Leipzig, their state funders provide cushioning to lessen the impact; if they’re not, it can be a big hit to finances. Wage inflation is another problem that can be out of the company’s control: for Deutsche Oper am Rhein, the 8% wage inflation has been set by government negotiations with trade unions in which Stampler-Brown had no voice, but whose financial consequences must be absorbed by her organisation.

The energy price shock has combined with the increasing groundswell of concern over climate change to bring carbon footprint – and sustainability in general – to the front of CEOs’ minds. The Theatre Green Book is an all-encompassing set of standards covering every aspect of sustainability in theatrical productions. The first of its three volumes was published in 2021 and it has become a major topic of conversation and, increasingly, of action: Opera North’s recent Masque of Might and Falstaff have followed the Green Book’s methodology, as did the Royal Danish Theatre’s The Turn of the Screw which I attended together with many other conference-goers. 

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Anthony Almeida’s staging of The Turn of the Screw at Royal Danish Opera
© MIklos Szabo

The most compelling presentation on sustainability came from Dutch National Opera’s Technical Director Bob Brandsen, demonstrating how his company was exploring every aspect of the subject and instilling the requisite priorities into all parties involved: Brandsen’s expectation is that in future years, a CO2 budget will become as critical a consideration for opera CEOs as the financial one. It was encouraging that major houses are beginning to take climate issues seriously rather than as something to pay lip service to.

While this article has focused on the economic and political discussions, there were plenty of artistic discussions, with sessions on creativity, young artists, competitions, ensemble management and more – not to mention the conference’s regular “Co-production marketplace”. But I suspect that the ideas that will be found most memorable will be those from Holten’s speech: how we regain confidence, how we break down the “traps” that deter people from trying out opera for the first time, how we engage children. Opera may be facing troubled waters, but we have some skilled pilots to help us through.

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