How will opera be presented in the future? This fundamental question ran through Opera Europa’s autumn conference like a red thread. The venue might have been a pointer: For the first time, the conference took place in two cities either side of the Rhine, Karlsruhe and Strasbourg. Opera is in demand – across the globe. In Asia, ever more new opera houses are being built while in Europe there is barely an old theatre that has not been – or isn’t scheduled to be – renovated.
Conference participants from all over the world looked ahead with confidence and contributed stimulating ideas.
The conference opened in Strasbourg’s opera house, the main site of the Opéra national du Rhin. It was dedicated to Eva Kleinitz, Opera Europa’s president who sadly passed away in the summer. She had arrived in Strasbourg from the Stuttgart Opera just one year previously and immediately set about preparing the conference, which in the end she did not live to see. But for three days, participants honoured her memory by engaging in enthusiastic discussions on the topic of “Building Bridges”, just as she had envisaged. The Opéra national du Rhin, an amalgamation of the opera houses of Strasbourg, Mulhouse and Colmar, is renowned for its innovative programme and was recently voted Opera House of the Year by the magazine Opernwelt. The Strasbourg site is an opulent theatre built in 1821, which guests could take in during evening performances of the opera “Rusalka”. The conference itself was held in a large rehearsal theatre with adjoining rooms available for smaller association events.
A completely different setting awaited the conference guests in Karlsruhe. The Badische Staatstheater, a large complex with an opera and two theatres, built in 1975, is currently awaiting conversion and renovation. This is scheduled to start in 2022 and take place in three phases stretching over ten years. The venue’s technical director, Ivica Fulir, explained the theatre’s ambitious plans. Director Peter Spuhler, a long-time board member of Opera Europa, is retiring and organized the event in Karlsruhe as a kind of farewell gift. During the day, the Badische Staatstheater was open for talks while in the evening it hosted an inventive production of Leoš Janáček’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” and on the second evening, a visually stunning production of Weber’s “Der Freischütz”. The touring exhibition “Alles Theater” by the Frankfurt Museum of Architecture was presented in the foyer, linking up with this year’s central theme: building and renovating operas to accommodate a changing society and new audiences.
Taking arts to the people
A panel discussion led by David Staples, who has just finished work on the book “Modern Theatres 1950 to 2020”, ran under the title “Opening theatre”. The panel consisted of speakers with experience of focusing on the needs of artists and audiences as well as construction in their projects. A prime example is the Factory Manchester, home of the International Manchester Festival. This institution has developed an ambitious arts programme aimed at an international public. To achieve this, a highly flexible building is planned that can accommodate up to 8500 audience members at live concerts but also be divided into smaller spaces for other uses. The design is based on artist requirements – from rock to opera. The building will be located right in the city centre and is hoped to bring fresh impetus to the arts in the area.
Architect Prof. Jörg Friedrich also sees location as a crucial factor in ensuring the social survival of opera and theatre. Drawing on his own experience of over 30 planned arts venues, he argued in favour of making theatre buildings open public places to attract non-theatregoers and arouse their curiosity about theatre and opera. Dresden’s Kraftwerk Mitte (BTR 1/2017), for instance, is a former industrial site that now effectively propels cultural life in the city.
In Italy, where subsidies are minimal, arts workers have long been resourceful when it comes to enticing the public. Barbara Minghetti, artistic director of the Macerata summer festival and dedicated “inventor” of new opera formats, described her approach of changing the performance rather than the theatre. The Macerata festival hosts not only opera performances but also music events that give the public the chance to dance or co-perform on the stage. The recent Verdi Festival in Parma organized an aria sing-along evening on the market square. The famous baroque theatre Teatro Farnese invites the public to join in performing and dancing.
Making a venerable old building accessible to the public was also a task undertaken by the historical Theater Donizetti in Bergamo, which is now under renovation. To foster the public’s attachment to the theatre, many non-opera events were held before it closed for renovation, as press spokesperson Floriana Tessitore reported: There was a sleep-over for children and the young-at-heart, enabling them to stay the night on the stage, and a marathon with the finishing line in the foyer, as well as talks and music events in the vacated house and a festival celebrating various aspects of the theatre.
Marketing opera, finding new formats
In other countries, marketing plays a far larger role in opera than it does in Germany. Still, it is important here, too, to attract new audiences – though more for reasons of an aging demographic than of economic necessity. Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, spoke about a survey conducted by the Pittsburgh Opera, inquiring into the attendance habits of potential operagoers. The survey showed that the opera is incompatible with popular leisure habits. 93 percent of opera-goers value it as a family activity rather than as a chance to appreciate art. More popular pastimes are restaurant visits where entertainment is also offered, or film showings where you can sit in groups and simultaneously eat and drink. Here in Germany it is hard to imagine placing opera on the same level as these kinds of entertainment. But Scorca, for one, advises opera houses to adapt to popular habits.
Where will the opera of the future take place? Demographic trends and diverging cultural habits mean that western nations need to rethink culture in different ways. In Canada, for example, the public is “naturally” more inclined to enter an opera because most opera houses are incorporated into multipurpose venues or arts centres. Ever more cafés, restaurants and other attractions are boosted by arts events to attract a broad public.
The opera in Philadelphia has made an especially radical change. Here, recession and a flagging economy had caused audiences to stay away, and revenue to drop by 30 percent. What did the opera do? It vacated its premises (which were rented), drastically reduced its expenditure and started performing in various other types of venue. The artistic potential generated by abandoning the stage was and is incredible. But opera houses with permanent ensembles can rarely get away with it. Laura Berman, new artistic director at Hanover Opera since the start of the current season, pointed out the dilemma of successfully running a house that needs to be filled while also conducting outside appearances, which can take a lot of time and effort.
How can modern opera be integrated into society? Perhaps by downscaling. Composer Aleš Brezina, for example, received a commission for a studio with an audience of 80. The piece he composed expressly to be performed in an intimate format would never work in a large house with an orchestra pit. If opera is to have a future, it must stray from the well-trodden paths of tradition when it comes to planning renovations and building new venues. And it must stand up to the competition from the internet. Virtual opera, as a way of extending audiences and getting the public interested in opera as “The Real Big Thing” will be one challenge in the future. These were just some of the suggestions for creating modern opera, in terms of architecture and operations, that were put forward at the Opera Europa congress.