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Spreading your repertory wings

I have been doing a lot of moaning recently (I hear you groan).
The world of opera has been busily peeing on its own shoes for the past few months and I have found cause to groan variously about social media, sexing up and the objectification of singers, booing, the obsession with digital, body-shaming and whether or not the art form is a class-based private members club.  We spend too much time talking about opera and not just "doing" opera. We seem to be the pariah art form, frightening to, and caricatured by, the narrow-minded, ill-informed media to which our response is often to become strident, cocksure and full of braggadocio, but we still anxiously check ourselves in the mirror, only to dissolve into self-doubt again. Frankly, we are all over the place,  focused on new audiences but not necessarily concerning ourselves with the audience we already have.

The latter is occupying me more right now; the changing behaviour and conservatism of existing opera audiences in the theatre, as opposed to the never-ending search for new ones. I am wary of generalising here because there is a variety of audience segments who are motivated by a myriad desires and preferences. Dedicated opera goers are still adventurous, flexible, knowledgeable and utterly committed to their art form and as a festival, we can rely upon such people as core support for the repertoire excursions that we at OHP are renowned for. But it is an issue of scale and my main concern falls upon the large swathe of occasional opera audiences upon whom the industry really does depend, who go two or three times a season, love opera but whose frame of reference is relatively narrow.  How this group makes choices can make or break a company or festival, and the operatic firmament, its health and vitality from employment to the advancement of emergent talent, requires them to start flying further from the nest. 

OHP has been producing rare operas from an idiomatically accessible period known loosely as "verismo" since 1996. The list of such operas is endless and some of our best work has been given in this repertoire. When, in 2007, we produced  Italo Montemezzi's  L'amore dei tre Re, the demand for tickets was so great and rapid that we only decided against an additional performance because of scheduling difficulties. In 2014 Adriana Lecouvreur, an opera we last produced in 2002 and which enjoyed  later exposure at the ROH, is busy but not packed to the rafters as it once may have been at OHP, so it is a fair assumption, whether correct or not, to think audiences are going back into their shells.

Indications that this is partially related to price and the economic situation cannot be ignored but culturally speaking, it is depressing that choices based on financial prudence feature only the well-known. You wouldn't expect me to deride or diminish the great works by Puccini, Verdi, Donizetti etc al and I won't; they still form the core of our work and this season, Bellini's Norma has even had a performance added. But I go back to that occasional audience, many of whom are not especially affected by accumulative cost, who seem to ignore an opera whose name they may never have heard, by a similarly "mysterious" composer. It is that old, lazy assumption that if one doesn't know it, it can't be any good. The recent story of people outside of our theatre listening to Adriana rehearsals and, thrilled by its mellifluousness,  assumed it was "the Puccini opera" tells its own tale.

As an adjunct, when I discuss this, I often experience quite a reaction from people who bemoan "modern" updates of opera, claiming that such indulgences are driving people from the opera house and it is true to say there is a strange and vehement operatic uniqueness to this issue (Shakespeare doesn't seem to have the problem). Yes, of course there is some codswallop, as there is in lots of interpretive art forms, but head-down-fingers-in-your-ears refusal to countenance adaptation of any kind is self-defeating.  Equally, we shouldn't go mad trying to find new, younger audiences by diminishing our art form and nor should we pander to the kind of theorising expressed by commentator Paul Morely who, in a recent Radio 3 debate, suggested that "the way opera singers sing can be alienating".  I thought his fellow panellist and interlocutor, Sir John Tomlinson, did remarkably well not to reach across the table and choke the life out of him.

In order for us to expand the repertoire, people have to think more imaginatively about their potential to enjoy something that is new to them. We can encourage people to listen to recordings of rarer works before making a choice; we used to sell quite a lot of discounted CDs in the past for this purpose and some of the money being spent on audience development should maybe go into providing free recordings of rarer works to ticket buyers, delivered by the much vaunted digital platforms we currently think will increase our theatrical audience but actually don't. Ironically, I often think that rare and delicious operas like Adriana are just as useful in new audience recruitment as anything else.

Instinctively, some of you may read this and suggest we should just stick to the classics but that is an apocalyptic, thoughtless prognosis; musicians, performers and most importantly, audiences, will only thrive when the canon of works that currently languish in libraries, beautiful, but pathetically neglected, are given life on our stages. As important as new works are, not many festivals or houses can afford publicity-hungry, mega-productions of newly commissioned operas which tend to concentrate the relatively small audience for them when they happen, so that leaves us with the rest of the vast, existing repertoire.

Look, I don't want to over-egg this pudding; we will still run at an occupancy of over 90% for the season with sell out runs of Fanciulla, Norma, Barbiere and some chocca-block performances of the others. But we, like all other houses, have a responsibility to extend and develop the repertoire for the sake of our artists, our audiences and for the art-form as a whole. We need patrons to spread their wings a bit more and meet us half-way. So, if you are an opera fan who mentally edits out the title of an unfamiliar opera,  I suggest you try to approach it differently. Look it up, read opinion, search out clips in the digital ether. You will rarely be disappointed and if you take that seemingly prodigious leap you may just find an extraordinary new world has opened up to you. 


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