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Opera Houses Under Fire
a manifesto for a living lyric drama

Subject: Opera Houses Under Fire
To: Lukas Pairon@culturekiosque.com

Only a European could have written this piece. Let those who pay the bill vote whether new works are worth producing - and by that, I don't mean goverment officials, but rather donors who give, or withhold, contributions to opera companies according to their individual opinions. It appears that you wish other people to be compelled by state action to spend their money on your concept - I would suggest that if the works you wish to see have merit, money will be forthcoming. And if it is not - well, as a European you will believe that you know better than the people - and that is where we differ .

Incidentally, I am president of the board of a small regional opera company - and the idea of trading our independence for a goverment stipend is frightening.

James L. Johnston
Anchorage, Alaska

Date: 18 April 2001

Lukas Pairon replies:

Dear Mr Johnston,

Thank you very much for your reaction which is surely to the point... my statement is indeed written from a European perspective in which the bulk of the money for opera-houses comes from the taxpayers' money... that is exactly why we can demand that opera-houses go beyond only playing an infinite, small portion of the existing opera-repertoire...

From my perspective, it seems that it is because of the private financing system you have to live with in the States that your arts scene seems to European standards poor in invention...

Many Europeans - as myself - have the impression that your donors are too powerful in demanding non-disturbing, easygoing, entertaining productions only...

New forms of theatre, dance and opera hardly seems to exist in the States, at least in comparison with the creative scene in Europe, and this seems very much thanks to the financing-system you like so much...

You also make an interesting equation between 'the people' and 'the donors'...

I also find it strange that you experience your situation as an 'independent' one... I must say that most of my colleagues in Europe would not give a penny for your dependence to private financing of the arts, obliging you to endlessly beg for money and appeal to private sponsors/donors and having to heavily give in to their mostly conservative tastes...

It looks like we differ a lot indeed...

One point of concern I certainly do share with you, and that is that government-sponsored initiatives can indeed have within them the danger of supporting artistically uninteresting projects... the only way to counter this is to give a lot of attention to the director/devotee-role as I describe it in my statement...

I wish you all the best and thank you for taking the time to react to my article... I'd be always interested to go deeper into these matters if the occasion occurs... this is difficult through email...

Lukas Pairon
Director Ictus

Subject: Opera Houses Under Fire
To: Lukas Pairon@culturekiosque.com

I was forwarded your essay, Opera Houses Under Fire: a manifesto for a living lyric drama, this morning. Some very keen observations. I do take issue with your views regarding the orchestra and chorus. If an opera company fails to financially support it's orchestra and chorus, the best musicians will leave the company. In many companies throughout the world the orchestra is already "at risk".

"Quality opera is in the pit"....

Singers come and go. Even the smaller companies hire the same singers hired by the Met and equivalent European companies. The opera orchestra is where most of the top companies build the consistency, excellence and stake out their reputation in the genre. Even music directors come and go....and is often the case in the world today, half of any given season is conducted by guest conductors.

Without a secure job, the best musicians will find a better way to make a living. Your concept may save the company a dollar but will compromise the quality of the artistic effort. If opera companies want a top quality effort from the pit they must retain the best musicians and create a "real job". These core musicians are what every great opera house builds it's company around.

We have many people in Dallas, Texas, that will open their pocket books and purses to 'Grand Opera'....but would not put a dime into "contemporary" music efforts in the lyric theater. We have a strong culture in Dallas....just not a culture centric to the higher art forms. (Hee-haaaa) Our opera company is in a strong financial position. The management would love to hire and pay musicians strictly by "score" but is smart enough to know that if they did this that it would be impossible to retain quality musicians. It's difficult enough already. If the DO or any other company produced a contemporary opera with 10 musicians in the pit...they would have to pay the balance of the core opera orchestra musicians, simply to retain their services for the opera season.....or face the fact that the best musicians will not be available to their company. We are currently financing and building a $300 million dollar opera hall in Dallas. It will be one of the finest in the world.....

The Dallas Opera patron base (in general) will simply not pay for "contemporary" music. Perhaps it has to do with education...perhaps with culture. One thing is for certain, contemporary works will not pay the freight for this kind of project. My heart lies in 20th century literature but I (as well as most business managers) know which literature and from which century they can find financial security (and maintain the highest level of artistic integrity).


Forest Aten
Clarinet/bass clarinet
Dallas Opera

Date: 18 April 2001

Lukas Pairon replies:

Dear Mr Aten,

Thank you very much for your reaction to my statement concerning the lack of investment of opera-houses into newly written work...

I understand your argument to defend the opera-orchestra as it is, but hope to imagine a future status and functioning for the orchestra as a more flexible sum of musicians who would be invited to perform not only as part of the traditional opera-orchestra setting, but also as part of chamber music groups concentrating on different periods of the music theatre repertoire, including the old music as well as the contemporary music repertoire and everything in between...

Such experiments are going on in different places in the world already, such as in Brussels and in Rouen and other places...

This does not necessarily mean that the secure job status of musicians needs to be put into question...

The other topic of your concern is whether contemporary works make a chance to be sponsored, tells me about the very different background we both are working in: at one end Europe where the bulk of the money for opera comes from taxpayers and at the other end North America where opera-houses are mainly dependent on donors, ticketsales and private sponsors to make ends meet, which has a conservative impact on its programmation...

That is exactly why we in Europe can and should demand that opera-houses go beyond only playing an infinite small portion of the existing opera-repertoire, while you in America cannot...

From my perspective, it seems that it is because of the private financing system you have to live with in the States that your arts scene seems to European standards poor in invention...

Many Europeans - as myself - have the impression that your donors are too powerful in demanding non-disturbing easygoing entertaining productions only...

I thank you for taking the time to react to my article... I'd be always interested to go deeper into these matters if the occasion occurs... a discussion in detail is maybe a bit difficult through email...

Best regards,

Lukas Pairon
Director Ictus

Forrest Aten replies
To: Lukas Pairon@culturekiosque.com


Once again, very coherent observations.

I agree that the difference in the method of finance may effect the body of work presented by organizations. I will add that the private funding model has produced organizations of the highest artistic caliber, with musicians making a much better salary. I do perform often in Europe and have good experience comparing many aspects of the music business between Europe and America.

There is no lack of top quality contemporary literature or performance of this literature in the U.S. Most of this work is done at the college/university level. Many of the top professional ensembles performing leading edge composition are based at colleges or universities in this country.

I also feel strongly that there is an important place for what we would call "chamber opera" in the States. Funding has been good for such work these past 9 years. Unfortunately I see a new "dark age" coming with the Bush administration. In our private model of finance we see a more dramatic turn of fate when radical or extreme political doctrine emerges. Donors suddenly are careful and take a more self serving position. In your largely public funding models it always takes more time to make the legislated changes. Even the most efficient government take much time to enact law or policy that would dramatically change the position of the working professional musician.

I enjoy the dialog.

Best Regards,

Forest Aten
Clarinet/bass clarinet
Dallas Opera

Date: 19 April 2001

Lukas Pairon replies to Forrest Aten:

Dear Forrest,

Thank you for this continuing dialogue...

In our European public funded opera-houses changes can happen faster than you seem to believe... the governments who pay for the opera-houses do not as such decide on its programmation... that they leave to the director-intendant...

I neverless make this issue of contemporary work a public one and therefor take it out of the discussion with the opera-directors themselves, because I do believe that this matter has to be discussed on a public forum, so that more and more people get convinced of the necessity of changing existing habbits and become more courageous in demanding these changes...

If we get at the top of some of our opera-houses directors - who are as I describe shortly in my statement as "directors-devotees" - interested in and therefor knowledgable about the contemporary arts, then even radical changes can be imagined and convincingly make to work...

I am personally convinced that the opera-houses as they exist now do not have long to live...

We need to be inventing the opera-house of the near future, which will be one open to many different forms of music theatre... there will be place for some museums, but not every town or city can have one as it is now...

The alternatives can prove to be much more open to contemporary work as well as to different audiences... ..

I am very positive about the potentialities and think it will be easy to break through the defenses of those keeping the fortresses of today...

Sorry about this overly simplifying and pamphletist writing... what can one do else if one communicates through short messages such as these?... better get a discussion started then let things the way they are in most houses today...

I wish you all the best,


Subject: Opera Houses Under Fire
To: Lukas Pairon@culturekiosque.com

Dear Mr. Pairon,

As a relatively recent arrival in Brussels from the USA (3 years) and as a composer and educator, I am very familiar with the Ictus ensemble and its excellent work. (I even managed to squeeze some positive reviews into the Bulletin a while back).

I am writing to thank you for the words (which I am only now reading) on Culturekiosque.com in an article entitled Opera Houses Under Fire. As a composer who is currently planning an opera I can tell you that I hope many opera houses will soon heed your call and re-think the way they do what they do. I saw both the Boesman and Ligeti works to which you refer and found them to be some of the most exciting music-theater I have ever seen. This includes my stays in Boston and New York. Though it was the Ictus performances of Ligeti's Aventures which I remember with the greatest fondness.

You make excellent points in your article and as the Head of the Performing Arts Department here at the International School of Brussels, and as the Assistant Conductor of the Brussels Choral Society I can tell you that I hope to find some way to incorporate your words into my classroom and rehearsals - I share your sentiments.

Again, many thanks for your words and I hope to have the opportunity to speak with you at some point.


Eric Delson
Music Department
International School of Brussels
19 Kattenberg
1170 Brussels

Date: 19 April 2001

Lukas Pairon replies:

Dear Eric,

You are the fifth person today writing me about this article which only appeared on Culturekiosque since yesterday... I am happy I posted it there, since my main interest in writing this statement was to get a discussion going...

Not all reactions are as positive as yours...

Hope to be able to find an occasion to discuss this further in realtime...

Best regards,

Lukas Pairon
Director Ictus

Subject: Opera Houses Under Fire
To: Lukas Pairon@culturekiosque.com

Dear Pairon,

Read your Opera House cure April 17 .What nonsense !!

You go over the same over and over and have said nothing new . Nothing ages faster and becomes out dated than the avant-garde .I am well on in years and have heard and read these stupid and naive comments ad nauseam .The only obvious and true statement is , that opera houses have become museums .As for the rest you are like a doctor who has a cure but cannot find the disease to cure .The answer stares you right in the face and you cannot see it.If you have said all this nonsense to get attention you have succeeded , you did get mine , only briefly .


Date: 19 April 2001

Lukas Pairon replies:

Dear Sir,

Thank you for being so clear... I do not see what I could add to your reaction, since it is not really an invitation to discuss anything, something my article is proposing to be...

all the best anyway!

Lukas Pairon
Director Ictus

Ariel replies to Lukas Pairon

My dear Mr. Pairon,

I must apologize if I sounded rude - it is just that it is the same old story . Go to the Met in New York ,go to symphony hall Boston go any where you like -the answer is staring you right in the face, and for all your intelligence , you are missing the answer to your whole thesis.

I have lived long enough to have seen most operas in various opera houses of the world and cannot bring myself now to even think of going to one except perhaps hear a Mozart , forwhatever reason .I saw Donnerstag aus Licht in London 1985 ,I thought it was tremendous !!!!!!!!!!!!!! that was 1985 here I am 2001 and nothing since !! Before that it was Grotowski ..............

The debate is a waste of time ...;. believe me ! The answer is all around you Mr. Pairon , just pause , look , and the depressing answer will come to you .


Date: 19 April 2001

Lukas Pairon replies:

Dear Sir,

Thank for getting back to me anyway... I think that we are reflecting on these questions from very different backgrounds... I am director of the contemporary music ensemble Ictus and therefor traveling a lot internationally and seeing a lot of new music as well as new opera and music theatre and cannot say that we did not get anything interesting since Stockhausen's Donnerstag aus Licht... I am mentioning a few grand opera productions, but most new work was created outside of the opera-institutions... most people involved with opera are not following the contemporary arts scene very much and therefor not informed about all the interesting work which is developed... this is a pitty and in my article I express my wish to get a new generation of opera-directors devoted not only to the past...

It is very good though to stay critical and this discussion is therefor helpful...

Best regards,

Lukas Pairon

Ariel replies to Lukas Pairon

Dear Mr. Pairon,

Having looked up Ictus I understand better the road you are travelling . Our backgrounds I now see are not that different , I was down this road 40 years ago ........Your road now in a fashion is more difficult , mainly because your audience is much more ignorant musically . They want only novelty and then on to the next ..and most composers to-day are just reinventing the wheel .I believe you are wrong in thinking opera directors are devoted to the past and are not aware of contemporary work ,they are running a business and be it Stockhausen or the second rate Reich they do not fill the hall .,no matter how wonderful a review they get. The night I attended Covent Garden for the Stockhausen work the usher told me they had about 75 people....at interrmission we where down to about 25....what opera company could afford that ..? Opera is not just music ,it is also about money. The composers on your list of course get first performances as a duty to contemporary music , but as Stokowski used to say it's the 5,6,7, that count.I can barely sit through a first by Reich never mind 5,6,7. In the past "serious " composers wrote for an audience ,to day composers write theories for each other .You have "followers" but not an audience . Therein lies the problem ,much insight and little communication. More important than a new generation of opera directors ,we need a new generation of composers who know how to communicate with an audience .


Date: 19 April 2001

Lukas Pairon replies to Ariel:

Dear Mr Lenjanr,

It is good to discuss a little further... I might give you some courage telling you that the situation you are describing is surely less bleak in some European cities such as Amsterdam or Brussels, the cities I am most often, although I continue to complain indeed...

New work is often even 'good news' for ticket-sales at opera-houses!...

The situation you describe with 'followers' and 'believers' is one which is not typical for some opera-houses, something which gives me the courage to write about it and hope that what happens at certain places could happen at other places as well...

I cannot believe that audiences would necessarily react so differently in the States than in Europe... the conservative impact of private sponsors is enormous though, as well as the conservative reflex of many opera-directors who are not really interested in following the contemporary performing arts at all and therefor cannot possibly like or defend, let stand programme artists developing new work...

I maintain that a lot of really interesting artists are out there developing wonderful work outside of the opera-houses, without the opera-houses opening themselves to today's world of the arts for the simple fact that they do not even know about it...

All the best,

Lukas Pairon

Subject: Opera Houses Under Fire
To: Lukas Pairon@culturekiosque.com


It is wonderful to see some dialogue generated over your significant essay, Opera Houses under Fire. As a witness to its first incarnation at NewOp 9 in Brussels, and revision and posting on the c-opera listserv and American Music Center NewMusicBox site, I believe this essay deserves as much attention as it can get.

Many of your respondents raise the issue of the differences between the American patron and European government funding scene, an issue I made clear in my own article for NewMusicBox, The Form Without A Name: American Music Theater, to wit:

"What's hot in big opera houses today has nothing to do with new work, and everything to do with being big: sophisticated stage pyrotechnics, surtitles and sound enhancement, and traveling "lawn concert" equipment. New grand opera in the United States is a very recent phenomenon, but conservative chamber opera dates back quite a few years.... Unfortunately, the singers in those smaller houses are eager to beef up their resumes with performances in the aging standard repertoire, and the patrons (and matrons) there are in agreement."

and later,

"The enormous time and effort involved in creating works of music-theater this way is what prompted Lukas Pairon and Dragan Klaic to form what are now known as the NewOp meetings, which were initially annual meetings of international music-theater artistic directors trying to figure out how to enable co-productions. But the assumed underlying political structure, whereby government funding is routed through institutions to creators, is a hot-button issue in the United States, which is one reason why a NewOp meeting has never been held here. The NEA did not fund Robert Mapplethorpe directly, it funded a museum which chose to display works by him. Private funding organizations such as Meet the Composer and the Carlyle Fund are starting to recognize that the emergence of the composer-performer as entrepeneur challenges the assumed preeminence of the institution as arbiter of the form."

Through separate dialogue on the c-opera listserv, it is clear that you consider your views to be an idealization that may be approached by individual intendants but may never be fully realizable by all. As such, those who respond with practical arguments have somehow missed the point.

As to American vs. European approaches to the arts, it is clear that, in the short run, many American creators are rushing to Europe as expatriates, where the music theater scene is more vital and well-funded. On the other hand, there is a fear in Europe that many political leaders are looking to America for guidance and inspiration, and that the Republicanization of American politics may infect Europe as well. This is where the ideal meets the practical, and it is manifestos such as yours which will provide direction.

Thank you for your continued leadership.

Barry Drogin, composer
Not Nice Music, publisher
American moderator, c-opera listserv
New York, NY

Date: 20 April 2001

Subject: Opera Houses Under Fire
To: Lukas Pairon@culturekiosque.com

Dear Lukas Pairon,

The simple fact that you started a more public discussion on the general shortcomings of opera houses and their artistic policies is not only important enough in itself but also important enough for the sake of opera. In my opinion for the art form opera it is necessary to innovate and create new works. New works that have to be disseminated to a (new?) public and by doing so, new ideas and new concepts can be shared with the community as a counter balance for backwardness or decadency.

The difference of opinion, in how to reach this important goal, between those intellectuals / artists living and working in the Atlantic Region and those intellectuals / artists living and working in the European Region are not new in fact. In the Atlantic Region there is more emphasis on free riding than in the European Region. Europeans believe in government generally.

I believe that it is important to innovate. By studying history and collecting knowledge, taking in account all relevant developments, and in the same time taking time for reflection. Creation of new works: therefore you need good and fresh ideas, a balanced window of opportunity, know-how and confidence, and last but not least money.

In the mean time I believe that any system that is bad will work when good or professional people will serve. I tend to believe that any system that is good will not work when bad or unprofessional people will serve. As a European a would say that, moreover since the Bush administration took over power, the Atlantic Region will probably take the lead with innovations and the creation of new works / opera. But is this true in reality?

So far my contribution to this discussion.

Yours truly,

Ruud Lammers
Administrator and producer
The Netherlands

Date: 21 April 2001

Lukas Pairon replies to Ruud Lammers:

Dear Rund,

Thank you for your personal thoughts contributing to the discussion on the future of opera-houses...

I fully agree with the point you make on the importance of who's in charge... without a "devotee" at the top, we should just forget about all this...

I do not understand though what you mean with your reference to the Bush administration and the creation of new opera... I do not see any link at all, but I am sure that you will be able to explain...

IAll the best,

Lukas Pairon

Subject: Opera Houses Under Fire
To: Lukas Pairon@culturekiosque.com

Dear Mr. Pairon,

Another difference between the European and American musical scenes is that the Unied States seems to be much more orchestra-centric. I would think that the obvious solution to the problem Mr. Atem points out of maintaining a good opera orchestra, at least for companies outside the big cities like those of Dallas or Rouen which don't perform continuously for a season of seven or eight months, would be to use the local symphony orchestra as the pit band for the opera company when a full-sized orchestra is needed. (Isn't that to some extent the case even in Dresden & Vienna?) But in the United States, the local symphony orchestra, being the central musical institution, has so much social prestige in itself that lowering itself to serve as a mere pit band might be almost unthinkable.

I think you're on the right track, though, in calling for a more flexible organizational structure, with more collaboration with pre-existing ensembles from the outside (including, as I hinted above, the local symphony orchestra!) rather than expecting the opera house to provide everything. (Incidentally, this model might also prove helpful for earlier opera; why not bring in a period-instrument orchestra or dance company when needed?)

I also think you're on the right track in calling for more chamber opera, that is opera as artistically substantial as anything you'd find in a big house except it doesn't need so many people to make it. The less people you have involved in making it, the more flexibility you have to make a success of it (or dump it entirely if it turns out to be a lost cause). And opera companies, particularly with the demise of the repertory-house system in which even the leading singers were for the most part on contract throughout the season rather than free agents as they are today, have become exceedingly inflexible. When one's entire season is mapped out two or three years in advance, as is the case for nearly all the major opera companies worldwide, taking advantage of the initial buzz a successful world premiere elsewhere creates is well-nigh impossible.

In that light, the whole question of musical accessibility becomes pretty much immaterial. Even a new opera composed in the most audience-friendly idiom imaginable is not a guaranteed success. Otherwise, Benjamin Britten wouldn't have composed so many chamber operas.

Brian Newhouse
Princeton, New Jersey

Date: 22 April 2001

Subject: Opera Houses Under Fire
To: Lukas Pairon@culturekiosque.com

Dear Mr. Lukas Pairon,

I have enjoyed reading the lively discussion concerning our burning houses. It is interesting, entertaining and educational. Granted, some points I found rather irksome, but nonetheless I've enjoyed reading. .

Marketing is my big concern. I feel that if American opera is to survive, they need to revamp their marketing campaigns. Opera needs to target the younger audiences in a youthful way, through radio and print. (Pardon the bad grammar.) A rock radio station in the DC area, where I live, played a commercial for the Baltimore Opera once. It was a slick, feisty, self depreciating ad. The DJ's and callers had a field day with it. I was surprised at the DJ's depth of opera knowledge. All of sudden those Red Hot Chili Peper fans were discussing the pros and con's of ENO vs.The MET. The three biggest complaints were price, short seasons and the fact that you couldn't get good dope at the opera compared to a rock concert. It was a bit surreal. There is a huge untapped market out there and it's being ignored. MTV has raised a generation of people on visual music! These folks are primed and ready for the opera experience.

I don't remember the name of the performance, but I instantly became a HUGE fan of the Baltimore Opera.

Eeek Gad...I fear that my post to you has absolutly nothing to do with "Burning Houses".


Laska Hurley
Washington, D.C.

Date: 26 April 2001

Sujet: Haro sur les Opéras
A: Lukas Pairon@culturekiosque.com

Quelques remarques sur le répertoire que devraient avoir les maisons d'opéra aujourd'hui:

1) Le répertoire contemporain : on ne peut, a priori, qu'être favorable à la création d'oeuvres nouvelles. Mais mon expérience de spectateur parisien assidu aux oeuvres contemporaines n'a pas toujours été positive : entre le Salammbo banal et sinistre de Fénelon, la mixture Berg-Strauss-Wagner-vieux rock du récent et très surévalué Wintermärchen de P. Boesmans et le livret piteux de 60e parallèle de Manoury, il n'y a pas grand-chose à sauver. Les compositeurs d'opéra, qui passent des années sur leurs oeuvres, semblent avoir perdu toute spontanéité et composent des oeuvres qui paraissent au spectateur d'aujourd'hui souvent surannées dès leur naissance (sans parler des compositeurs américains et de leurs oeuvres populistes). Un autre problème, évidemment, est le manque de reprises d'oeuvres qui une fois créées ne sont plus jamais données.

2) On reproche souvent aux opéras d'être des musées. Certes, mais le rôle de musée a aussi son intérêt ; les Noces de Figaro restent un chef-d'oeuvre et doivent rester au programme des maisons d'opéra du XXIe siècle, et pas seulement pour flatter le goût du public.

3) En revanche, leur rôle de musée n'est pas suffisamment bien exercé sur l'ensemble du répertoire : il faudrait admettre enfin que Monteverdi vaut bien Verdi et que Puccini fait pâle figure face aux opéras de Rameau ou Haendel (qui du reste, au moins en Europe, ont au moins autant les faveurs du public). Les directeurs d'opéra ne sont en la matière pas assez réceptifs aux désirs du public : la vraie routine est peut-être là.

4) ... et peut-être le fait de "revenir en arrière" du point de vue du répertoire ranimerait-il l'inspiration fatiguée de nos amis compositeurs.

5) Enfin, je voudrais dire que les subventions publiques sont un élément fondamental de la vie d'un opéra, que les dons d'un mécène plus ou moins inculte (cf. l'interview d'Alberto Vilar dans Culturekiosque !) ne peuvent remplacer la liberté d'une subvention régulière et anonyme, qui en outre permet aux moins riches d'accéder à l'opéra (places de 1ère catégorie à l'Opéra de Paris : moins de $100 ; au Met : jusqu'à $250)...

Dominique Adrian

Date: 25 May 2001

Lukas Pairon répond à Dominique Adrian

Chère / Cher Dominique,

merci pour cette réaction sur mon texte... je peux comprendre vos déceptions... moi-aussi je suis souvent très déçu d'oeuvres écrites par de compositeurs que je peux apprécier par ailleurs (en dehors de l'opéra)... je pense que vous avez raison de penser que l'influence des lourdeurs de fonctionnement de la plupart des maisons d'opéra enlève beaucoup de la spontanéité et de leur originalité... la plus grande ouverture et flexibilité pour laquelle je plaide dans mon texte pourrait je pense remédier à cela et permettre aux compositeurs et aux autres artistes impliqués dans la création de nouvelles oeuvres de réaliser des pièces qui se rapprochent plus au projet personnelle qu'ils peuvent avoir.

Question: connaissiez-vous la musique de Philippe Boesmans ou Philippe Manoury avant de découvrir leurs opéras?

Meilleures salutations,

Lukas Pairon

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