Coming as we do from City and technology backgrounds, it's fascinating to get an industry insider’s view of the world of opera. It’s also been unusual to see a conference including so many diverse disciplines, where you could find anything from heads of opera companies to creative directors, marketing people, administrators, media and broadcast folk, back-of-house technical crew and the occasional conductor and composer. We were pleasantly surprised by how open and co-operative people are, given that opera companies compete ferociously for audience: you wouldn’t get this kind of genuine friendship between rivals in the city or tech worlds.

It’s all helped by the highly civilised surroundings, of course. As well as at the Liceu itself, whose Saló dels Miralls is pictured on the right, we were treated like royalty (literally) in the Friday evening reception, hosted by the mayor of Barcelona at the spectacular Palauet Albéniz. The venue is the “little palace” used by the King of Spain when he visits Barcelona, and is named after Isaac Albéniz, the enfant terrible turned grand old man of Spanish music.

Here are a few thoughts about the undercurrents at the conference.

Particularly in these credit-crunched times, opera companies are painfully conscious of their dependence on public subsidy, and the need to provide good cultural value for the taxpayer’s money. Everyone is unanimous about the need to provide opera of the highest quality and to reach new audiences, and everyone wants to encourage new work while retaining performances of the classics. However, there’s far less agreement about what “providing cultural value” should mean.

The two extremes of the argument (and there’s plenty of room for grey areas in between) are between the purists and the populists. The purists place maximum emphasis on developing the art form and creating the best possible productions. They want to advance opera to provide the most powerful, transcendent effect on its audiences, enhancing our understanding of the human condition. The populists, on the other hand, emphasise bringing the medium to the widest possible audience, particularly to people who would not have considered opera at all. They are happy to try all sorts of innovations to do this: putting opera into cinemas, creating special operas for children, doing community work, or creating crossover works designed to attract those who would be uncomfortable with full length traditional pieces. As well as the two extremes, there's also room for the uncommitted (“of course, we must do all of these things”) and the fiscally irresponsible (“we have to explain to the politicians why they should spend more on us, even at this difficult time”).

The most interesting of the innovators, I thought, were the Dutch (De Nederlandse Opera), with two particularly eye-catching programmes. In their “Marco Polo in Amsterdam” project, 150 students from the theatre and drama school went into the restaurants and bars of Amsterdam’s Chinatown, and composed and performed 21 individual small-scale operatic works: each work was based on the story of the family of the owner of the restaurant or bar, and was performed on the premises, using the premises themselves as scenery and props. The effect was quite electric in making operatic styles seem fresh, exciting and relevant to thousands of people who would never have expected to be interested in anything like it. The other programme they showed, OperaFlirt, brings together a bunch of young people to be taken in a group to a suitable production (Così fan Tutte was chosen, for obvious reasons). Subsequently, they attend social events where they meet the cast, the musicians and “young friends” of the opera company and keep in touch through Facebook etc. The idea is to take away the “it’s weird to like opera” objection, and it seems to be a very successful programme. DNO also showed a spectacular clip of the 17th century Cavalli opera “Ercole amante” (Hercules in love), written for the wedding of Louis XIV. Take a look at the clip: the Dutch costume designers have gone magnificently over the top.

It seems to me that both the purists and populists have tough questions to answer.

The purists have to face the fact that staging live grand opera on the scale of Covent Garden or the Opéra de Paris costs an enormous amount of money per person who sees it. Even with substantial public subsidy, good Covent Garden seats can cost from £150 to £200. As a result, if these institutions wish to provide good cultural value to anything more than a tiny number of taxpayers, they have to rely either on broadcast or film (anathema to the purists), or on some sort of cultural trickle-down effect – a concept which is dubious enough in economics and more so in culture.

The populists, on the other hand, have to explain how they can succeed in widely disseminating a highly developed culture without losing its essence. They must bring a broad range of people into opera rather than allowing opera to dissolve away into the popular culture which surrounds it (a process which might be of considerable interest, bearing in mind Porgy and Bess or Die Dreigroschenoper, but which doesn’t meet the objective).

Neither of these objections is easy to answer, and this debate is going to run and run. Perhaps the most inspiring note was sounded in the mayor’s speech: “Music doesn't know about borders or about classes. Music joins people together. That's why I encourage you to work hard in order to give more people the opportunity to love opera. Loving music makes us be better people and helps us build better societies and better cities.”

21st April 2009