Devoted and Disgruntled is the ideal platform from for meaningful conversations about the issues that affect us as artists. There are no name-tags, no hierarchies, and no pre-organised sessions. Anyone can convene a session at any time. All are free to come and go at leisure. This year, Devoted and Disgruntled was supported by the English National Opera, and entitled ‘How Can We Change Opera For The Better?’. As expected, the beginning of the first period signalled the first of many debates about the future of the ENO. To me, this communicated the difficulty of maintaining the sustainability and integrity of a major arts organisation in an age of austerity and increasing social division. There are no heroes or villains, just a clamour of conflicting responses to a radically changing cultural climate.
Like many young practitioners at the conference, I didn’t attend the ENO debate. Instead, I participated in a fruitful session nearby, called ’How Can We Reach Young Audiences?’. There were at least twenty-five of us present, three of whom were over 35. I decided, in response, to draw conclusions from each session as to how my generation of opera-makers can rejuvenate the medium and diversify its audiences. I have tried to summarise what I learned in as concise a way as possible:
We need to communicate. Young opera-makers have immediate access to the audiences that opera needs. The ‘young audiences’ discussed in board meetings are our siblings, partners, and friends. We can take them with us to Covent Garden, or The Arcola, or The Kings Head. Opera can be expensive, so we need to share our knowledge of cheap seats, fringe performances, and live streams. At the same time, we can attract new audiences in diverse performance contexts by developing work for pubs, schools, squats, hospitals, and prisons.
We need to collaborate. Opera is ostensibly a collaborative medium, but composers and directors frequently create in isolation while librettists and singers assume the roles of initiator and interpreter respectively. We need to retain opera’s vitality by harnessing the creative agency of all of its participants. This means that we need to workshop, to experiment, to make mistakes. The only resources we need for this are a room, some chairs and a piano. If opportunities are scarce, we don’t need to wait for the help of major institutions to get our projects off the ground: we can take the initiative to cross-promote, co-produce and share resources. We can reach out to like-minded partners in theatre, dance, and the visual arts.
We need to innovate. Many of us began working in opera through platforms like Tête à Tête and Grimeborn, which give emerging artists space to explore and take risks. Many of us have produced and staged our own productions. We needn’t make pretensions towards perfection nor be afraid of failure. We can channel the breadth of influence that our technological privilege gives us access to: film and popular music can combine music and theatre in fascinating ways. We can learn from Mozart, Verdi and Berg alongside Samuel Beckett, David Lynch and Kendrick Lamar. All of the above indicates that we can dismember and disembowel the medium without fearing the consequences.
65 million years ago a meteor struck the earth, annihilating the dinosaurs. The tiny mammals that had once scurried unnoticed beneath their feet adapted and survived to constitute an entirely new diversity of fauna. Like our shrew-like ancestors, my generation of opera-makers are adapting to a cultural environment undergoing rapid and seismic change. We recognise that large-scale proscenium-arch opera is no longer the paradigm for making innovative, engaging and relevant work. Most of us are disillusioned with mainstream opera in its current form, frustrated by its deference to tradition, its over-dependence on financial excess, and its public perception as elitist and out-of-reach. I and many others are indebted to the support of the UK’s great opera institutions, which tirelessly nurture and promote young talent. But in today’s climate the onus is on us – emerging companies, composers, writers, performers and directors – to harness our strengths and repopulate the medium with strange, exciting new life-forms.