Opera far and wide

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Last week’s report from Telemarksforskning emerged as a fierce and thorough piece evaluation of opera funded by Norway’s Culture Ministry, exploring district and regional organisations outside Oslo. Ten companies! – the number in itself is startling and surely confounds the thinking that only the capital cities can be centres of excellence. Norway should be proud – of the music, the singers, the hard work and above all, the variety. And so we are – from Tromsø to Kristiansand, the clear message is one of passion for an art form which sears both eyes and ears, which tells often improbably stories through amazing music and which transports us to worlds of romance, fantasy, hard realism, violence and sometimes magic.

The researchers had been clear about their process. Provided in advance with extensive rafts of material from each opera company, in the course of systematic meetings they met each management and worked through a hefty pile of enquiry. They quizzed groups assembled by the companies themselves: stakeholders, politicians, collaborators, board members, representatives of the respective city´s cultural community.

So in general, it’s good to know that the researchers’ findings are uniformly healthy and the conclusions thoughtful. Unsurprisingly, there is recognition of a collision between the market which wants what it knows and can measure financially: top ten operas, with Carmen unassailable at the very top – and the need for Norway as a country to develop the new, to take risk with the lesser known. No-one, for sure grows from stagnation. And importantly, the report celebrates the diversity of the opera offer available – from the annual historical epic performed each year outside Trondheim, to the introduction of European classics little known in Norway which contribute significantly to Bergen National Opera’s overall vision, to the enthusiastic local participation at Nordfjordeid.

There is much talk about quality – and much valuable discussion about the balance of professional and amateur activity, and how this relates to values and standards. For democratic Norway, this is uneasy territory. We love equal opportunity, all kids having a chance, the trees growing to the same height. There is, though, nothing democratic about art. We cannot all be brilliantly talented as singers or designers, any more that we can all excel as distinguished doctors or flyers on football´s left wing. Leif Øve Andsnes and Martin Ødegaard are stars because of sensational ability and hard work, not because a national ethic.

Thus our approach to opera manifests a considerable split: opera as an ‘activity’ i.e. involving enthusiastic participation from amateurs, often along with chosen professionals, or opera as a fully professionally curated process with highly trained personnel. The report, remarkably, addresses this without flinching. There´s comment from a variety of interlocutors about how being professional would ‘change things’ – as though quality is somehow corrupting. Hints, too, that professionalism is somehow less worthy than the honest joy of the amateur. It’s a curious fact: when an amateur or semi-amateur company puts on an opera, quality is routinely celebrated and applauded; when a professional company creates a fine show, it is assumed to be elitist, and only for an exclusive audience. In truth, almost all professional arts organisations prioritise accessibility and strive to take their work to as wide an audience as possible. Admirably, the report´s conclusions do fairly address the measurement, in terms of quality, of the two strands and are clear that evaluation must be appropriate to the type or organization.

We are, all of us working culture, a little thin-skinned. Talking to researchers is a curious business. They haven’t, generally, seen the work on which they are reporting – although to be fair to our Telemark colleagues, they had been to various productions in Bodø and Halden. It’s famously hard to talk about art and its effect – one is talking about how opera makes people feel, and emotions are impossible to show on a flow chart or PowerPoint. Streams of words like passion or colour or erotic symbolism really don’t do the trick. Each company´s panel, assembled to talk on its behalf, was assumed to present a balanced body of opinion. The researchers also talked to various ‘experts’ and to others whose names were not disclosed to those us being scrutinized – a fact which not unreasonably caused us some raising of eyebrows. Some odd opinions emerged from this overall scan, which ultimately provoked another disturbing overall conclusion: how little we seem to know about each other. Surely the national Opera Norge network should be a forum for common causes and shared experience? We simply don’t have a grasp of the details of each other’s production and we seem, as both management and associated commentators, to talk a great deal of nonsense about the principals by which each of one of us creates. So it is important, in digesting the document, that we separate stated opinions from reported facts.

One can imagine that last weekend all those whose operation have been scrutinised were unified by a very human response – what did “they” get wrong? What sentences have misrepresented the beating heart of what we do, what we fight for, what we so desperately want to communicate to our audiences? In truth, very positive and constructive things were said about Bergen National Opera – and the criticisms are ones which we will do well to consider. The report drew favourable attention to the multiple activities BNO produces outside Grieghallen’s grey walls – the diverse programmes and events which develop new audience, inspire children and develop young voices. But our development work with innumerable emerging singers – nine of whom will be featured at our up-coming Mimi Goes Glamping festival seemed to slip under the radar, and it is endlessly depressing to read that we primarily rent in foreign productions – can we please knock this on the head? BNO has created 11 new productions in 5 years, and in fact has a further five in the up-coming 2016/17 season. How is it that we communicate this so badly? Nor was there any specific mention of BNO´s formidable track record of collaboration at home and abroad.

Other findings: for sure, our leadership of Norway’s AdOpera collective (companies outside Oslo who have established collaborations with their local symphony orchestras) must further drive development amongst new Norwegian composers and librettists. We need to be sure, nationwide, that young Norwegian singers get appropriate chances and support: I´d underline the word appropriate as huge municipal venues are no place for a fragile young voice. We need to work more together – across international borders as well as within our own national networks. I´d also add a personal plea that we need to be more outward-looking, and routinely to put our work into the widest European context to ensure continuous learning.

It’s all possible, and nearly all of it is good news. The message is clear – variety really does spice our lives. So hurrah for risk. And thanks to a government with the guts to encourages its proliferation.

Foto: Magnus Skrede. Mimi Goes Glamping 2016 – Singers from Unge Stemmer.

Two co-production premieres in one week

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It´s a mystery to me why Opera Vlaanderen use the strange Hotel Lindner in Antwerp as its go-to accommodation for guests. It’s one of those hotels where you are jolted awake at dawn by over-zealous housekeeping hoovering the corridor, with no clues about what city you are in and your chin mildly chafed by super-scrubbed sheets. Emerging into Antwerp´s diamond quarter, elderly Jewish men in huge hats are poking each other in the chest and squabbling gently in the street while smiling police are silently removing a protesting drunk.

Premiere 1: Private View – an opera born in Bergen

The opera house is hosting the world premiere of composer Annelies Van Parys and poet Jen Hadfield´s first collaboration Private View – an opera which began when the two were introduced by Bergen National Opera at one of the development academies which the organisation runs for Norway´s AdOpera network, aimed at enhancing all aspects of creation and production.

Based on Hitchcock´s Rear Window, the work has made a considerable journey. Irish director Tom Creed came on board early, followed by the Dutch video collective 33 1/3. With Hadfield, a T. S. Eliot prizewinner, based in the Shetland Isles and Van Parys in Belgium, the video team in Amsterdam and the ’midwives’ BNO and Musiektheater Transparant in Bergen and Antwerp respectively, nothing was simple.

But the premiere, attended by the great and good from Opera Europa and all six co-producing cities including Berlin and Luxembourg, was a startling success. Three singers manipulate three large boxes, each of which presents an individual video screen. These then periodically combine to create one large surface. The film shows clips of Rear Window, but also multiple voyeuristic images of scenes framed in New York windows: couples arguing, a solitary anxious figure; a frustrated wife.

The music is exquisitely scored, with wonderful sounds from the ensemble (the pristine Asko Schönberg ensemble) and marvellous characterful singing from three singers from Stuttgart´s Neue Vocalsolisten. It is mysterious, dark, funny and elegant.

At the reception, as champagne circulates, Opera Europa´s Nicholas Payne tells me a terrible story about a well-known singer who has just had to murder her children onstage in a performance of Cherubini´s Medea. What, he had asked her, did she think about when having to enact such a scene? She had replied, looking at him icily, ”I think about my children´s father”.

Premiere 2: Beethoven´s Fidelio in Vilnius

Leaving these various murders behind, I head to Vilnius, where the production which Oskaras Korsunovas created for Bergen National Opera in 2013 is to premiere with our co-producers at Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre. It’s a formidable occasion. Black ties and ball gowns in the crowded auditorium. Vicious green and pink cocktails on the bar, along with tiny cups of thick hot chocolate – the kind which guarantees long nights of insomnia.

I sit next to the Prime Minister, who has a smile of dazed brilliance. Behind sit two armed bodyguards and the Culture Minister. Oskaras has worked intensely on the production adding video and tightening the dramaturgy. Our Leonore from Bergen, English soprano Rachel Nicholls sings astoundingly. The Prisoners´ Chorus is heartbreaking, and the finale, where it seems that the whole world has erupted onto the stage in all its myriad diversity, is made profoundly moving by the addition of monochrome film of Vilnius´s all too recent liberation from Russian oppression. The audience is silent and stunned. Then exultant.

Mozart and the Eurovision Song Contest

On then to Vienna, for auditions and to listen to Theater an der Wien´s accomplished young ensemble. At the airport, there appears to be an infestation of strange green elves, before I clock that the Eurovision Song Contest opens next weekend. The hoppy-skippy elves are distributing information and seem mildly embarrassed and (correctly) are not entirely convinced that those stumbling off dawn flights will appreciate the intended irony. A group of jolly students is gurgling through Thank you for the Music at the baggage carousel.

But I´m off to listen to Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Britten, Massenet and to talk to much respected colleagues. Vienna, most songful of cities, is bathed in sunshine and ready to sing. Coffee, then I´m more than happy to listen.

Mary Miller

18th May, 2015