Composer Pamela Tan Nicholson urges opera world to evolve or risk alienating young audiences

Pamela Tan Nicholson Pamela Tan Nicholson
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Opera must evolve if it is to become relevant to young audiences, a leading composer has claimed.

Pamela Tan Nicholson, who co-founded the Singapore Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1990s, argued that composers are often “not daring enough” to rewrite classic operas because they are “so afraid of being criticised”.

The comments were made at an open forum at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London with the V&A’s Passion, Power and Politics opera exhibition and Nicholson’s latest production TriOperas, which is to run at the Peacock Theatre from May to July.

She told The Stage: “The medium of expressing emotions in hundreds-of-years-old opera is different from the emotions now.

“People fall in love on Tinder. In the old days we had time to write letters and to wait for weeks; the speed of emotional reaction and interaction is different.

“I’m not saying we dump opera – far from it – but we’ve got to let opera evolve.”

Nicholson, who is also an opera producer and director, argued that ideas of modernising opera often involved “putting the performers in Armani suits”.

“That’s not enough: the music, the presentation, the styling, the dramatisation is still the same. We’ve got to make the emotions and narrative faster to engage a modern audience,” she added.

Nicholson said she hoped to engage people in a “real understanding” of the art form, and was not afraid to “take a punt on rewriting it”, as she has done with TriOperas – a trio of famous operas that have been rewritten into three 35 minute pieces.

TriOperas, which includes rewritings of Turandot, Butterfly and Carmen, merges classical opera with other musical styles including punk and rap as well as other performance forms including acrobatics, breakdancing, ballet and parkour.

Nicholson’s comments come as TriOperas announces a partnership with the Brit School in Croydon, which will see 12 students take part in a gala performance at London’s Peacock Theatre on May 23.

Brit School principal Stuart Worden the scheme would “open new doors to students who may not have experienced opera before” and that the involvement of young people would help to “fire up the art form”.

The principal added that it was heartbreaking that school budgets did not allow for children to go to the theatre, and opera would often be the last thing on a schools’ radars.

“Schools have got very limited budget. We are in a really challenging time, and even the Brit School finds itself unable to fund the opportunities for these students, so this is fantastic. Whether that’s organisations, government or schools, we have all got to back the importance of the arts in a young person’s life,” he said.