The panel discussion follow up to the presentation I described in an earlier post took place yesterday afternoon. It was an interesting panel; a dramaturg, a lighting designer, a couple of directors, a singer, the head of a small regional opera company etc. They were all interesting, thoughtful and well, nice, people but what was clearly missing was anyone who had ever held a position of influence in a major North American opera company or even anyone of contrarian views so the discussion did feel a bit tame.
Most of the time the panelists were elaborating on their agreement with Bernard Foccroulle’s introductory presentation but I thought a couple of interesting new or rather differently presented perspectives came up.
- The “conservative” part of the audience isn’t just there for (not too thought provoking) entertainment. They are also there as a marker of their socio-economic status. This resonated. When I worked for a famous management consulting company many (perhaps most) of the partners had subscriptions to the opera and the symphony though many of them never went! It wasn’t discussed as such yesterday but if that’s true for a section of the audience how much more is it the case for board members? And, again, not made explicit there’s nothing to make me believe that arts philanthropy is the sole domain of people of broadly progressive views. There’s a Koch Theatre at Lincoln Centre after all.
- There was a debate about what to do with the inherited problem pieces such as Madama Butterfly. Aria Umezawa made the interesting point that presenting works like this”uninterrogated” actually causes trauma to some people. Is that really what we want? I think the broad consensus was that we really needed reimagined, “interrogated” productions of those works. But we know how a very noisy section of the audience and the commentariat will react to that.
- It wasn’t sufficient to dabble with new, engaged works on second stages while the big house continued to present the standard stuff. The new work belongs on the big stage too. Otherwise it’s branded as “secondary”. (and, let’s face it, there’s been a lot of tokenism!)
So to summarize where we seemed to be at:
- More new works tellling the stories that haven’t been told, created by artistic teams more representative of our communities; and given equality of treatment with the inherited rep.
- “Problem works” only to be presented in “interrogated” form.
- Much more effort to fully engage the existing and potential audience to create an engaged, thinking audience that can play a critical (in every sense) role in the evolution of the art form.
So in principle I can buy into all this but I don’t actually believe it will happen. Sure, the industry has been given a jolt by #metoo, BLM and Covid and there’s been some house cleaning. But, North America, especially the US, is a deeply conservative place; politically and culturally. I wonder how many of the board of the Metropolitan Opera would come out openly in support of BLM? There’s also a question of economics. The opera business is not in a healthy place and selling seats, schmoozing donors and managing production costs are a reality. I don’t think the issue of production costs, in particular, has really been thought through in this context. Traditional production values (as opposed to traditional productions) are expensive and that drives companies to co-produce to share costs. That implies a certain degree of shared vision of the end product up front and also leads to consensus decision making on the make up of the creative team. I have trouble squaring that with the idea of much more broadly participatory creative process. I don’t think it’s absolutely impossible. The way Opera on the Avalon and Tapestry worked together on Shanawdithit might in fact provide some kind of model but it’s not going to be easy.
So, bottom line, I just don’t believe that companies with 3000 seat houses to fill are going to give up two or three slots per season to new work or that they will scrap popular “uninterrogated” productions of inherited works. I rather fancy if we want to create a new opera it will be “off Broadway” or “off, off, off Broadway”. Whether funders; public or private, can be persuaded to reallocate their moolah from the Palaces of Puccini to those new ventures remains to be seen.
Full discussion here.