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Graham Vick: Opera needs radical overhaul to survive

Birmingham Opera Company’s Khovanskygate: A National Enquiry, in 2014. Birmingham Opera Company’s Khovanskygate: A National Enquiry, in 2014.Photo: Donald Cooper
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So much is encouraging about opera just now, most of it found in the sense of adventure of performances in pub theatres, supermarkets and car parks. Some of it is happening with small orchestras. Some of it is even happening without orchestras, with choruses of volunteers, without a chorus. Some of it is even amplified.

All of it is keeping opera alive and kicking. These are shows that reach out by reaching an audience – they are local, accessible, trimming away all possible costs, yet believing in the essential power of the sung word, of singing stories.

Making this expensive art form accessible does sometimes mean finding less costly ways of presenting it. I’m talking about redistributing the available money – lowering seat prices by lowering performance costs.

But trapped between tyrannical, unyielding musical values and a theatrical inferiority complex, artists and programmers, artistic directors and marketing departments cling on to outmoded models by the fingernails (or do I mean by co-productions?). They fear the implications of radical change. But we need to bend – there’s no use pretending something’s not broken.

Opera is theatre. A production of La Boheme in a pub theatre in English with a piano is closer to Puccini’s masterpiece than any starry concert performance could possibly be.

In Birmingham, we have been experimenting for nearly 30 years with alternative ways of sharing great opera. Reacting to an expert TV screening of Wagner’s Ring from Bayreuth, we made a touring version – The Ring Saga, orchestrated by Jonathan Dove for 18 players and presented as two, five-hour evenings. These live performances thrilled in a way no screen or concert performance could. To speak to everyone, opera needs its spit and sawdust, the sweat, the raw power and piercing beauty. So yes – I’m saying Wagner with cuts, re-orchestrated and a cast of 12 (Brynhild sang Second Rhinemaiden) and, crucially, in English. It won new audiences for the company, for opera and for Wagner.

Last year there were national tours of our version in Portugal and France. During the past 16 years, we have involved tens of thousands of people as participants and audience, bringing a diversity and level of social inclusion seen in no other opera company (and I’ve worked in 67 of them) to challenging masterpieces by Mussorgsky, Berg and Stockhausen. Horizons are broadening. But who is going to pay for it?

Yes, there’s a third modern concert hall for London on the way and a rapidly expanding country house opera industry, but our elected government prioritises business profits over children’s health and the valiant Arts Council struggles to implement a laudable policy without the means to pay for it.

Meanwhile, regionally – thanks again, central government – Birmingham City Council arts grants are midway through a 50% cut and who knows if it will stop there.

So, is it all bleak? People are dying waiting for treatment and beds, there is an ugly isolationist uprising to be fought and government values to be challenged, but perhaps we too need to find a way of rebalancing the opera economy. After all, maybe culture – like charity, and perhaps thrift – has to begin at home. Those who love can share, can financially contribute, not just consume, and those who make can be aware of the values they are touting around an art form that, as I’ve said before, we already own, is already in each of us and has effectively been deprived of its natural immediacy by the clouds of commerce and ever bigger, better and more sectarian – elite not universal – ‘excellence’.

Somehow we need to separate what we do. We need to change the debate. To shout louder about the meaning of the work; about values not manners; the what not the how. And as for those column inches covering booing, picnics, waistlines and industrial infighting – let’s treat them with all the seriousness they deserve. If you want to write an outraged letter, please enclose a cheque, or at least send a coach party as my auntie did when we needed to sell 12,000 tickets for La Traviata. Culture’s great challenge is the wellbeing of our society – so let’s take discussion away from ‘the opera’ and on to opera.

We must stop believing that, if we work really hard, we might be almost as good as the legitimate theatre. Our agonising nostalgia for class (Downton Abbey only the most recent example) perpetuates philistine values. Crippled with self-doubt and privilege, the art form can hardly be heard in the wider society. A charge often levelled against it is that it is ‘owned by the few’. It is this sense of possession and superiority that is its greatest enemy.

The existence of education departments proclaims that opera is only for the educated or, worse, the initiated. Their statistics adorn annual reports without making any visible difference to audiences or performers; the more the outreach work, the more hermetically sealed the inner sanctum. It’s a form of protectionism.

Our charge is not opera itself but the experience opera can give. What is the difference? Well, when we talk with someone we adapt ourselves to be as communicative as possible to that person – we may even try to speak in their language or use terms that will carry meaning for them. I sometimes think performing opera in imperialistic opera houses sung in foreign languages by artists who patently do not have a command of them betrays all the effort to communicate of the Englishman abroad stubbornly speaking his own language louder and louder, expecting to be understood. The way we present our work should itself reach out and educate. Isn’t that what the guys who wrote them were trying to do?

Operas have something to say. It is more than legitimate theatre – it is sublime. Words are limited in what they can express, but when sung and given a harmonic context the expression is extended to a deeper, profounder state. Opera takes on where spoken theatre leaves off, vibrating at a frequency that penetrates our inner being. It is this mystery that makes the British suspicious, insecure. But it is this same mystery that unites all the peoples of Birmingham from every social background. Hear an operatic voice at close quarters and you’ll be impressed. Hear that voice mean something and you’ll be touched to the depths of your soul.

If we all invest well, locally and individually in that universal voice, perhaps we can together create and support a new life for opera in the UK. And in a generation or two, we can repair the horrible events of the summer and nurture a generation who feel less disenfranchised through our neglect of their education and our culture.

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