By Lukas Pairon
17 April 2001
trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught
to have too much respect for music; they should be taught to love it
- Igor Stravinsky
pioneering work of so many performers outside the established
institutions in recent decades, the time is now ripe for major opera
houses to become participants in this field. The opera house of the
future must include the production of newly-written works as a
substantial part of the programme. What follows is an invitation to
join in the reflection on new organisational models for the opera
house of the near future and to put this question at the top of the
agenda. György Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre at the Flanders
Opera and the success of Philippe Boesmans' Wintermärchen
in Brussels, Lyon and Paris, alongside such other successful
large-scale operatic productions as Peter Eötvos' Trois
Soeurs and Helmut Lachenmann's Das Mädchen mit den
Schwefelhölzern, all seem to indicate that the acceptance of
new works by the opera houses cannot be halted. Appearances can,
however, be deceptive. It is true that many opera directors shudder at
the label "museum art" and for this reason sometimes take
sound initiatives and opt to present world premieres or produce recent
works once again, but this option remains extremely limited. Either
the opera houses of the future will succeed in rejuvenating and
restructuring themselves, or else we had better close them down, with
a few fortunate exceptions that we can then cherish as museums of
lyric drama. At present they are almost all museums. Despite the
current debate, and contrary to appearances, most opera houses suffer
from the same malaise.
NewOp is an annual
international meeting of performers and producers of contemporary opera
and music theatre. Lukas Pairon has been a producer of new music and
music theatre for more than ten years, first at the Walpurgis
contemporary opera production company and currently as the director of
Ictus, the contemporary music ensemble based in Brussels. Mr. Pairon's
e-mail address is email@example.com
1. Making a living art
of the contemporary operas performed in opera houses are not really "contemporary",
though I do not want to open up a discussion as to what may or may not
be called "avant-garde". If, however, devotees and critics
had to judge these "contemporary" operas on their "contemporaneity"
in terms of music, theatricality, production and so forth, it would
soon become obvious that many of these "new" productions
would not qualify at all. Why are the criteria for the evaluation and
appreciation of new opera still different from those applied to new
works of music, theatre, dance, the plastic arts, etc.?
most important reason is that many intendants of opera houses are
completely out of touch with what is going on in contemporary music
and the visual arts, and present-day performing arts in general. It is
precisely because of this lack of contact with current developments
that many new operas are extremely dated in aesthetic and artistic
terms and that to many people opera therefore remains a moribund art.
But opera does have a future if we will pay more attention to a
younger generation of worthwhile composers, writers and artists who
propose new models for music theatre.
Opera houses that
intend to produce and perform new works in the near future will also
have to allow for a serious renewal and restructuring of their
production methods. It is no longer sufficient to put the occasional
new work on the bill, as now happens. We should be able to expect from
each intendant a plan in which new creations occupy a central
position. This is far from the present situation, where opera house
directors are appointed or reappointed without complying with this
condition. It is also difficult to enter into fundamental discussions
with the present heads of opera houses precisely because too many
interests and resources are involved. However, in several decades
operatic institutions as we know them will no longer exist, and we
must reflect on the best form an establishment for the production of
the "music theatre of the future" should take. It is
essential to launch as broad a social debate as possible on this topic
in order to generate a well-thought-out new model in which we can in
future offer lyric drama a place, without the repertoire of one
particular period excluding all the rest, as is now the case.
Considering the enormous investment society puts into it, we can and
must no longer tolerate that wherever we go in Europe-and beyond-it is
always the same repertoire that is performed, in different, sometimes
more "modern" guises.
2. The intendant /
In order to take a sound approach to new
work, the intendant must himself be a devotee of contemporary music
and performing arts. Only then will he wish, regularly and in the long
term, to develop new works as an essential part of an opera season.
Being in touch with these arts is the absolute precondition for
persuading the public to discover and appreciate newly-created works.
There is a substantial potential audience that is sufficiently
interested to discover new forms of music theatre. It appears
abundantly clear from the experience of the Nederlandse Opera that
this sort of attitude can in the long run actually convince a broad
audience. This company has invested more than any other in Europe in
the creation of new works: its intendant and resident stage director,
Pierre Audi, is one of the few opera house directors who is a real
enthusiast of contemporary music, and thanks to his personal contacts
with composers and writers he has succeeded in keeping abreast of the
latest developments and thereby in creating in just a few years a
dynamic which also draws in a substantial proportion of the Dutch
3. Rethinking structure and working methods.
is only those intendants who are true devotees of the contemporary
arts who will be able to change the structure and working methods of
the opera houses. Although there are certainly interesting examples of
collaboration between major operatic institutions and independent,
performer-based ensembles and production centres, this sort of
operational model is not ideal. The production methods in the
respective organisations are so different that it becomes extremely
complex to work smoothly together. It is therefore essential that in
addition to such joint ventures, opera houses also start to play an
independent and more active role in the field of creation.
who wish to put together a new work should not be saddled with a large
orchestra, chorus, a fixed rehearsal and production schedule,
classically-trained singers who have little experience of contemporary
practice in acting and/or movement or of contemporary music, etc. The
makers of new music theatre will not always want performers with the
musical and educational backgrounds (singers, musicians, actors,
dancers) with whom opera houses are accustomed to work. One
characteristic of much new music theatre is that those who create the
works do not necessarily follow the standard production schedules of
most opera houses (neither the composition of the production team, the
timing and planning, nor the type of working spaces and theatres). By
nonetheless accepting such conditions, the result is in fact often far
removed from the original vision or concept. Those who reject the
restrictions imposed are unfortunately rare. The appeal of working for
a major organisation and the respect and recognition it brings are
often too attractive to refuse.
4. In anticipation:
a "special task force"
means "the works". So it should involve more than one sort
of music theatre. We have to abandon the methods of the 19th and
20th-century opera house as soon as possible so that there is space to
create works that do not fit into the present very limited production
and artistic "corset" of the majority of opera houses. Every
opera house director who wants to take up the challenge of adapting
the existing operatic institution, so that a greater variety of new
projects can be carried out, should in the transitional period at
least make a start by forming a special team responsible for keeping
track of the special needs of the new works being created. This team
should definitely not function as an independent unit, but must be
fully integrated into the organisational structure of the operatic
institution. It is no solution to attach laboratory-like units to the
major institutions, because of the danger of ghettoization and the
possible disappearance of this sort of unit when times are hard. We
should see it rather as a "special task force" in a
transitional stage to a situation where the "art of the
repertoire" is in less of a majority and there is more openness
to differences of intention and approach shown by artists of the past
5. New infrastructure.
opera houses are themselves a matter for discussion (stage
infrastructure, audience areas, electronics, multimedia, etc.).
Theoretical work has been going on for some time among architects and
music and theatre artists. Most existing opera houses date from the
19th or early 20th centuries, or earlier, and are suited to the
performance, in ideal circumstances, of just one particular
repertoire. On the other hand, not everyone feels at ease in the
velvety surroundings in which the middle classes-past and present-like
to be. If we want to bring music theatre to a broader, but not
necessarily "larger" audience, it would be a good thing to
make the theatres more accommodating not only to those who work in
them, but also to the public. Instead of building enormous auditoria
where more people can see more of the same, it would be better to work
on theatres better suited to showing a variety of art forms. It is
after all well known that good theatre is not well served by the
distance necessarily created between stage and audience in big
theatres. Question Peter Brook about this. Huge spectaculars can be
put on in sports halls and similar large spaces, as they already are.
For the other theatrical and musical works, a different, not
necessarily very large infrastructure must be considered.
Chorus and orchestra.
The future of the chorus and
orchestra is also open to discussion. A recurring argument against
reshaping the opera from the inside is the need to keep the orchestra
and chorus in work. Yet here too a great deal of fascinating thinking
and experimentation has been going on in various parts of the world. A
recent example is the project at the Opéra de Rouen, which now,
under its new name of "Leonardo da Vinci", presents a
programme in which fewer works from the standard repertoire will be
seen and heard and where the doors will be opened to the other arts,
while the orchestra and chorus will be employed in completely
different fields than simply accompanying opera productions, and will
even serve several other establishments and festivals. Another example
is the programme of the Nederlandse Opera, where such chamber music
ensembles as ASKO and the Schönberg Ensemble, which concentrate
on first performances of new music, will make regular appearances.
7. Invitation to reflection and dialogue.
and producers who work on new opera and music theatre outside the
major institutions should be able to participate in this reflection.
At the moment they do this too little or not at all. They often adopt
a subservient attitude, with a hand outstretched to the opera houses
in the hope of catching a few crumbs or leftovers from the well-laden
table. Another common attitude is the utter rejection of everything to
do with the operatic institutions, as if the "outsider experiment"
was above it all. It is here that we encounter the sterile discussion
about the "avant-garde". Does this intransigent refusal by
certain artists and producers to enter into dialogue with their
colleagues in the opera houses have something to do with maintaining a
sort of "protected environment" of so-called experimental,
new or avant-garde art? What is going on outside the opera houses is
not all trouble and affliction, but it would be equally untrue to
claim the opposite. But what is much more important is the discussion
that should be carried on with the broader public, and also with the
politicians who at present prefer to keep everything as it was by
granting billions to institutions that will thereby be able to
continue almost exclusively to show art from the past, with a
paper-thin coat of modern varnish.
Although I have here
spoken only of the creation of new works, it is by no means my
intention to argue for an artificial and superficial division between
"old" and "new". Although I am surrounded at all
times by new music and contemporary forms in the performing arts, I am
also a great fan of much that is beautiful in the operatic repertoire.
But what I am pursuing is dialogue, with the emphasis on a future for
newly-written works, with the clout of the opera houses being employed
to produce genuinely new operas.
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