We’ve spent the last few days at the Opera Europa conference, where a few hundred opera people get together to talk about current issues and future plans, and (of course) take in some performances. Opera Europa is held in a different location each year; this year’s event was split across three sites in London: the Coliseum, the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre. It’s a fascinating means of getting insight into how the opera world functions.

The conference has several specialist areas and a substantial youth programme; we attended the more general talks and panel debates. Predictably, the main strands of discussion stemmed from the economic climate: how can opera houses get their message across to politicians and public about the value of their work, how can opera houses find and develop new audiences, and how do opera houses decide on programming for their seasons.

For many, the real purpose of the conference lies outside the formal sessions. Opera people like nothing more than to go and see some opera and talk to each other about it, and this year’s hot item was the chance to see Anna Nicole and discuss it ‐ both before the show (we had long presentations from Elaine Padmore, Tony Pappano, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas) and at a party afterwards.

On my personal straw poll, the overwhelming majority of opera insiders loved Anna Nicole, and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t get performed a few times in coming years as a result. But there were some who didn’t, and it was interesting to hear their reactions. One French delegate I talked to thought it was a good enough show, but couldn’t see that a French audience would find the subject relevant ‐ she suggested that Lady Di would have made a better subject. It also became clear that the response split between parents and the childless: parents were most moved by Act II, which didn’t evoke anything like the same emotional response in those without children.

Some of the formal sessions were fascinating. One of the most eye-catching statements came from Valery Gergiev, who predicted that major symphony orchestras would struggle over the coming years, that this would result in mergers, that they would discover opera as an important means of survival, and that opera will welcome the arrival of top class symphony musicians into the orchestra pit. Gergiev also told authentic Russian jokes and demonstrated his boundless energy in discussing some of his audience development work.

Here is a flavour of the different threads of discussion - inevitably a partial one.

Why culture? Why Opera?

When asked to justify the importance of their art form, opera people like to hearken back to Greek tragedy. There’s a happy image of the dawn of democracy, with Athenian people getting together to hear music drama and departing with their senses opened and their humanity enhanced by the experience, with a resulting improvement in society at large.

It’s a powerful image, but it’s a difficult one to live up to. For a start, we don’t live in a small direct democracy with a giant theatre where everyone can show up to the opera (well, everyone who matters - we’ll draw a veil over the question of the slave classes in ancient Athens). It’s easy to buy the argument that when opera is highly humanist or political (like Tosca, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, or even Anna Nicole), it’s the strongest of art forms and enhances our humanity. It’s rather harder to make the same argument for some of the more trivial pieces in the repertoire, and harder still when the vast majority of the audience is the privileged and well-heeled. David Lan, Artistic Director of the Young Vic, put it succinctly: “if you start with £250 a ticket, you’ve already lost the game”.

Opera people are convincing about the value of art in society, and they’re convincing that at its best, opera is the most powerful art form - not least because it brings together and incorporates most of the others. They’re less convincing about their ability to consistently produce the best and freshest of that art and bring it to a wide audience.

How to reach wider audiences

For sure, everyone agrees that it’s important to reach a new audience. David Pickard from Glyndebourne pointed out that since the average age of their audience is 73 (I think I wrote that down correctly), they had literally no option but to find a new audience over the next decade. There’s far less general agreement over what to do about it. Some successful approaches seem impossibly risky: Pickard described Glyndebourne’s 2007 production of Macbeth, which was modern, edgy and thoroughly disliked by their core audience. Last year, they took a deep breath and revived it: the older core audience stayed firmly away, but they were very successful in getting in a new audience, who reacted very favourably.

For some, the expansion of electronic media is a great white hope: Elaine Padmore pointed out that with cinema, DVD and live relays, the Royal Opera reaches 3,000,000 people, nearly five times as many as their annual seat sales of 650,000. There were also many discussions about the use of social media, particularly as a way of reaching young people.

For others, the most powerful initiatives for widening audiences come from greater contact. Bernard Foccrouille from the Aix-en-Provence Festival explained that “Often, opera houses are full, so what’s the problem? The problem isn’t who’s there in the audience but who isn’t.” He talked about sending members of the opera company out into schools and into the community, or bringing the audience into the opera house into open rehearsals and open days. Also mentioned were special programmes to provide highly subsidised seats for young people. Netherlands Opera’s “Opera Flirt” programme, now in its third year, continues to impress: they bring together young first time opera goers, making opera a social event and involving the cast.

The Royal Opera was conspicuously absent from many of these sessions. Their presentations point to a fair quantity of outreach work (examples are the ROH2 programme of experimental work, or efforts based around their technical site in Thurrock), but I felt a strange disconnect between all this and the work in the main house. I get the sense of there being “an outreach department” which does its bit, leaving the main company to get on with the real job of bringing in international opera stars. And my jaw dropped when Pappano declared proudly that he’d personally “never asked anyone for a penny,” when his Royal Opera House salary is reported to be £630,000.

Overall, perhaps the most worrying session was when delegates were asked to work in groups to answer the question "if the xyz foundation gave you £3,000,000 tomorrow, what would you do with it?" Everyone came back with answers about the extra productions they would create: only the moderator, Marc Scorca from Opera America, suggested that the money would be better spent on audience development.

Programming

There was a clear division of attitudes between those houses who relied heavily on public subsidy and those who did not. For the (largely unsubsidised) Glyndebourne, David Pickard listed a dozen constraints on his programming, ranging from the desire to achieve a balance of musical periods and the right balance of familiar and unfamiliar work to the need to sometimes choose a piece that might attract a particular conductor or director, by way of more practical details like the scheduling of space for chorus rehearsals.

For La Monnaie, Peter de Caluwe took an uncompromising view. “We are subsidised, we are NOT in the entertainment business. We are there to build community and tell a story. We do too much to please the public... Entertainment is not enough, it’s not what the subsidy is for.” He also pointed out that works commonly considered to be populist are not necessarily the ones the ones that young people like, and that they prefer works like Le Grand Macabre or the Janáček operas.

For Karlsruhe, Peter Spuhler agreed thoroughly. “With a 90% subsidy, we must not give the public what they want, we must do something educational.” Although he felt the need to behave in keeping with the traditions of the institution (in his case, this means a quantity of Wagner and Handel), he tries to do 2/3 of material that his audience doesn’t know, and to create a five year plan with a thread of artistic integrity running through it.

In the final session entitled "How do we convey the message about what we do," Caroline Bailey of the Royal Opera took a similar view of her organisation's mission, stating that they thoroughly understood their brand and the segmentation of her audience and that “we stand for excellence without arrogance.”

But the elephant in the room was the question of the composers - where is tomorrow’s Verdi or Puccini to come from? Of the main speakers, only Valery Gergiev took the bull by the horns and asked where Russia would find the next Prokofiev or Stravinsky, stating that he felt the opera world did not invest sufficiently in its young composers, tending to throw them out if there was a single failure. If that judgement had been applied to Verdi’s Oberto or Puccini’s Edgardo, the careers of two of the most enduringly successful opera composers would have been extinguished very early.

But all in all...

It’s been a fascinating three days. Some of the most interesting things have been the smaller ones - discovering opera companies in Jamaica and Mauritius, or the tiny husband-and-wife company “Opera do Castelo” that’s based in Lisbon and puts on opera in castles. I’m disappointed that I didn’t manage to fit in the session on site-specific opera, but I was wowed by speaking to one producer/director who has staged Fidelio in the site of a Soviet gulag in Perm, and will stage Boris Godunov at the Kremlin. And finally, we had an exciting look at a collection of new pieces and works in progress from “OperaShots”, the Royal Opera’s programme of experimental work at their Linbury theatre. I was particularly taken by a fabulous piece of intricate vocal writing by Welsh composer Elfyn Jones in a quartet from a new work about the later life of author Jean Rhys. If the work reaches full production, I’ll be first in the ticket queue.

As ever, hats off to Opera Europa's Nicholas Payne for bringing together a great selection of people.

6th March, 2011