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WOS Assesses Opera in the Noughties

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Ten years ago, an operatic event of some import unfolded not in one of the UK houses but on the Olivier stage of the National Theatre. John Caird’s revival of Candide was significant because it heralded a decade of blurred boundaries. Caird’s was a thrillingly staged but conventional interpretation of Bernstein’s operetta-musical; yet within a few years another director, the Canadian Robert Carsen, would bring a razzmatazz version of the same work to English National Opera, by way of Paris and Milan, in a staging that was categorised as ‘opera’ simply because the companies chose to bill it as such.

The contrast between these two productions epitomises a decade in which London opera took on musical theatre and lost. The Royal Opera caught a cold with Sweeney Todd and ENO contracted something closer to scarlet fever with an ill-fated Kismet. In the rock world, meanwhile, Damon Albarn, Rufus Wainwright and Elvis Costello have all enjoyed opera commissions, yet among more conventional UK composers only David Sawer and Jonathan Dove seem to have caught the ear of the main houses with any regularity.

New Faces at Covent Garden

While the main houses were hosting musicals, Raymond Gubbay continued to bring grand opera to the masses with Royal Albert Hall epics. In 2000 Gubbay, ever the evangelical populist, applied for the vacant Executive Directorship of the Royal Opera House, and if he had been successful the decade would probably have felt very different.

In the event, the appointment of Tony Hall from BBC News & Current Affairs ensured that the recently reopened ROH entered its new era in a traditional though forward-looking frame of mind. The new team of Musical Director Antonio Pappano and Director of Opera Elaine Padmore brought excellence and enlightenment to opera programming, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation provided generous (though sporadic) access subsidies and there was a move towards a more adventurous range of existing repertoire to offset its sparse programming of new work on the main stage.

The new ROH Linbury Studio, though, has emerged as the focus for innovation, as well as being home to the Jette Parker Young Artists programme. This initiative followed the model established by Stéphane Lissner at Aix-en-Provence, where an ‘academy’ of young professionals pursues its own programme while bolstering main house casts.

The Old and the New

In a world more friendly than it has known for years, the most common complaint about the Royal Opera (apart from its propensity for hiring humdrum foreign singers over home-grown talent for secondary roles) is its reliance on a handful of antiquated productions. This month alone the euthanasia posse has been vociferous in targeting Der Rosenkavalier (25 years old) and La Bohème (35). A few weeks earlier, on the other hand, the traditional wing of the ROH terrorised Christof Loy’s austere new Tristan und Isolde with unbridled venom. Clearly, the softening of entrenched opinions is still a work in progress – in Covent Garden at any rate.

ENO has had an up-and-down ten years, with more Verismo melodrama happening offstage than on it for much of the time. Along the way the St Martin’s Lane house gave us the highs of Tim Albery’s War and Peace and David Alden’s Jenufa, not to mention a welter of well received Handel productions, alongside the lows of Chen-Shi Zheng’s sea-bed Coronation of Poppea and Sally Potter’s stillborn Carmen. They supped with the reality TV devil when they slotted the winners of Channel Four’s Operatunity into Jonathan Miller’s Rigoletto, but they got away with it. There were bold experiments too, and not necessarily disastrous ones. The Silver Tassie was an inspired commission from Mark-Anthony Turnage, while low-cost tickets to Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin and even a contentious foray into hip-hop, Gaddafi: A Living Myth, opened the doors to new audiences.

By the end of the decade, thanks to incumbent Artistic Director John Berry and Musical Director Edward Gardner, ENO had become a dynamic unit capable of producing world-beating productions like Alden’s Peter Grimes and Deborah Warner’s Death in Venice, to name but two from their Britten portfolio, and of embarking on a daring collaboration with the Young Vic whose first fruits point to an exciting future.

Off the Beaten Track

Over in Kensington, under Michael Volpe and James Clutton’s canny management, Opera Holland Park grew by stealth over the decade until, by 2009, it could reasonably lay claim to be London’s third opera house, at least during the summer months. Beneath its beguiling canopies there lurks a fully-fledged replica of a European festival, and the artistic successes of recent years (among them Fidelio, Kat’a Kabanova and a Richard Bonynge-led Roberto Devereux) have earned it an enviable credibility.

Glyndebourne continues to do what it does best. Its motto might be ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment now serves Baroque duty in the pit, allowing a few nights off for the eternal LPO, while productions continue to be marked by the familiar house hallmarks of refinement, beauty and pristine good taste. Proving that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the stock of both Grange Park and Garsington Operas has risen in recent years as more and more audiences clamour for their own bit of Glyndebourne. These days, it seems, find a nice little estate beginning with G, organise some good weather and you’re away.

Welsh National Opera has thumped a good tub in the noughties. With a sumptuous new home in the Wales Millennium Centre, it wears its international credentials with the pride we expect of the Land of Song. In the pit, the stalwart Carlo Rizzi dominated proceedings for much of the decade, with the brief rein of Tugan Sokhiev sandwiched between his two tenures. Now that Rizzi has been replaced by Lothar Koenigs, we shall see what we shall see. Opera North, meanwhile, rang plenty of bells with a celebrated Peter Grimes and has had the audacity to announce a full Ring cycle starting in 2011. They have the confidence of Colgate in Leeds.

Scottish Opera knows all about the Ring. Chamber music it isn’t, and the Glasgow-based outfit has had a decade-long mare after throwing money it didn’t possess at Wagner’s big’un. The result was Vainglory 1, Hubris 0, which is why SO is now hunkering down with a community focus and a chastened esprit de corps.

The kings of touring opera in England are the imaginatively named English Touring Opera. Unlike its Cardiff, Leeds and Lewes-based fellow travellers, ETO does not operate from a home base; but that has not prevented it from thriving so strongly that by 2009 it was able to trump every other UK company and present an anniversary Handelfest. Rather than dramatising Messiah (or ‘Let’s Fake an Opera’), artistic director James Conway took five outstanding Handel works of lesser currency and toured the lot simultaneously, drawing on a combination of revivals and new work to cope with the logistics. Awards beckon.

Ways Forward

My tip for the next ten years: keep an eye on Birmingham Opera Company. They are already a voice to be reckoned with, but you’ll search in vain for the ornate Rococo pile where they hold court. For this is the company founded 20 years by Graham Vick ago to bring opera to the people – and to do so in a literal sense. Working in found spaces and performing in promenade, BOC shows are nothing less than operatic happenings. Vick has discovered a way to do what others claim they’d love to do but somehow can’t quite manage: he has broken down barriers and introduced opera, genuinely and for real, to the masses. Now it looks as though Vick’s ideas have rubbed off in the capital, for it can be no coincidence that in 2010 ENO plans to team up with immersive theatre experts Punchdrunk and attempt their own piece à la Birmingham.

As the decade closed, Whatsonstage.com chose Rupert Goold’s controversial ‘Chinese restaurant’ Turandot at ENO for its very first group opera outing. That was some baptism of fire for any opera novices who went along, and their experience begs the question: is there any future left for conventional productions? More to the point, what opportunities will there be for audiences of tomorrow to see operas performed ‘as written’? At the extreme end, some stage directors out there are falling over themselves to be seen as auteurs, egged on by managements to push the creative envelope, even while their colleagues in the pit go on respecting every last hairpin of the composer’s intentions.

Yet the booers should beware lest they get what they wish for. Do they really want every new production to be a safe retread of the old and familiar? Are their minds, presumably intelligent and receptive in other spheres, closed to new experiences and unable to accept the occasional failure as part and parcel of the quest for success? The operatic repertoire is extremely limited and mostly quite ancient, so when the same titles reappear for the umpteenth time, fresh approaches can both illuminate and excite.

The only thing we have a right to demand of a creative artist is integrity, and that is a quality exclusive to neither radicals nor conservatives. All of us, audience as well as players, need to experiment in order to evolve, and to do that we should continue to embrace tradition but also learn from it, build on it and explore beyond it. Open minds are the thing; the alternative is stagnation, and I say boo to that.

- Mark Valencia


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