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OBERTO conference

Throughout this summer, there have been many debates and flare-ups in the press and on social media surrounding opera. The controversies and resulting soul-searching and argument fluctuated wildly between those who felt a sense of doom and gloom and those eager to be optimistic - sometimes, in my view, with a touch of delusion - about the future and what was good about the developments occurring in the industry.

It was interesting, then, to attend the OBERTO conference at Oxford Brookes University yesterday, where an impressive collection of academics and opera professionals delivered papers on a variety of issues and subjects based around the issue of accessibility, access and the age old matter of opera's reputation. You can be sure that the word "elitism" came up quite a bit. Throughout the day, the well constructed programme tried to encapsulate and rationalise the varying pillars of the operatic firmament that occupy all of us ceaselessly. These included crossover artists, the concept of elitism (both of the art form itself and its accoutrements), the history of opera in this country, the modernism debate, marketing and social media. Even Britain's Got Talent and its habit of throwing up "opera acts" got a look in (and a very fascinating dissection it was too!) Education and reassessing audiences was there and it was in this section I gave a paper (which wasn't terribly optimistic, if I am honest). You can see the full programme here

I'm not going to give a full summary of what everybody said in what was without exception a set of papers that gave much insight and revealed some extremely interesting facts and ideas for consideration. It was difficult not to reflect on my own educational shortcomings in a room full of such clever people but that's a purely personal impression. Discussion was lively and heartfelt and surprisingly didn't descend into the sort of whining we are all guilty of from time to time. Undeniably, there was a sense of an industry under attack, misunderstood, caricatured and overly scrutinised with delegates offering lots of stories that we could all identify with. It takes time to absorb and consider everything we heard but I have certainly come away with a few ideas to work with. But despite the unquestionable angst that exists within our industry, it wasn't in the least lacking in constructive dialogue or intelligent examination of the issues. I was also struck by how many capable and dedicated young people are working in both the industry and related academia.

Not everybody agreed at all times of course and I am sure we all came away with different impressions of where the business is and where it is going. Indeed, one strong theme for me was that in fact, we are not quite sure where we are going yet and that opera is in a form of transition. Reassuringly, it appears we are all at least aware of a) that fact b) what the unresolved issues are (digital, education, access) and that the talent exists to react as and when necessary.

I may publish my paper on these pages but of all the discussions, I probably delivered the most pessimistic but, paradoxically, what I think is the greatest problem is possibly the simplest concept of them all; exposure to the art form at a young age. It became evident that I am turning into a bit of a Luddite as well. One writes these papers before hearing those before yours and as mine was the very last paper, I was conscious of how I was essentially telling all before me that they were wasting their time! But I didn't mean it to sound that way, even though I feel there is something of the truth in it.

In the final open discussion session, when topics began to narrow down into how irritated we can get with the way in which the world sees us, it fell to Rupert Christiansen to issue a rallying call, to pull us up short on what was starting to feel like overpowering negativity. The opera world in the UK is in a pretty decent place, he proposed. Perhaps, he suggested, we are not on the edge of an abyss and we should celebrate how strong the art form is here. It was difficult to disagree, despite the various reservations and worries we may individually have; since Rupert has a powerful medium in which to express such a view (he probably has already) it may well be a good starting point.

Congratulations to Alexandra Wilson and her colleagues for pulling together such an interesting and constructive gathering.


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