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Audiences will decide the future of opera

I have news: the audience will decide the future of opera.

When our season at Opera Holland Park comes to an end, I pore over spreadsheets trying to find reasons why our audience have behaved in the way that they have, and the most concentrated analysis tends to come after seasons during which our house has been full. The theory is this; if we have underperformed, we are programmed to find solutions, but if we have performed well, we are less likely to look for the gremlins that might lose us that ever-capricious audience in a trice – you are never more vulnerable than when you are successful.  Sometimes, though, one can miss the obvious, or perhaps ignore it.

In nearly three decades in opera, I have experienced one "boom" in the art form but an almost perpetual "crisis" of confidence, an alarmed perma-reflection on whether we remain relevant as an art form. This introspective brew is spiced by the occasional real crisis, like that recently at ENO, but we never really get to the bottom of why our business suffers these agonies—often self-inflicted or even imagined—and I have offered a few flatulent perorations of my own on the matter. Is it the economy and the price of tickets?  Sex and violence? Not enough sex and violence? People getting older? How about the populist media's caricature of the art form? All of the above, probably, and more besides. The reality is that not all of the people we anxiously discuss replacing with youthful converts are participating in the debate, and we ought to lavish a bit of care and attention on them, the audience we actually have.

Today, ill-informed toxicity and outrage frequently surround the issue of "director" interpretations, and they have sent many into conniptions – think Guillaume Tell at ROH as an example of a growing sensitivity, as well as our industry's ability to find violent weather patterns in the bone china. I think it's now time to accept that a significant number of regular opera-goers are older traditionalists who are just not prepared to take a risk any longer — by risk, I mean on production style — and the UK opera industry cannot afford to look askance at them.

At OHP we used to sell out long before shows were performed, but by 2016 we were selling 10% of seats overnight for some performances. I know who these people are: they are regulars who had clearly been waiting to hear what-was-what, and they were obviously happy with what they heard about productions. We ended up with a 98%-capacity season in 2016 – which is great for us overall, but unhelpful for planning (and what would have happened if we'd "got it wrong"?) When we asked our patrons in our end of season survey which factors informed their choice of opera, 53% said style of production, which came third behind composer and the name of the opera.

I am not entirely happy to have recognised the conundrum we face because caution can squish invention, and OHP's best work has usually been found in updated productions. Tosca from 2008, in which the action was set in the Italian political turmoil of 1968, springs to mind; many who would not have booked for that Tosca had they known its setting beforehand discovered how brilliant and revealing updates can be. Yet still people write to me demanding to know what the production of La traviata will look like in 2018. We don't feel the need to change how we do things, and, in any case, we should all embrace productions that can strip bare, with realism or radical shifts, the stories they are telling, but you can't threap it down the throats of people.

It would be silly to say all opera-goers take a hardline view; of course, most of our regulars approach opera with open minds and think not "update – bad!' but 'update – good or bad?" Yet therein lies an enormous difference. We may hate the idea that people have a fixed and apparently immovable preference for productions that look period or traditional (whether or not they are in the period originally set for them), yet there is an economically game-changing number who appear to want precisely that, and it may be time to pay a little more attention to a section of the audience we have been wary of – perhaps even dismissive of – for some time. They are a sizeable group, and we can't ignore the elephant in the room; nor should we feel as though we do it against our will.

It is interesting to ask what the person who once sat at the top of the British operatic tree thinks, because Kasper Holten, the former artistic director of the Royal Opera House, had been at the heart of one or two storms during his tenure in Covent Garden. He is determinedly upbeat about the operatic landscape, accepts the industry business model is in need of care, but isn't convinced that the often vocal proponents of "traditional" stagings are representative.

"I provided a real mix of productions at the house, but a house like ROH has a duty to stretch the art form and allow directors to explore ideas that may not always be popular. But even with the controversial productions, when we surveyed the audience we found many of them had actually enjoyed it," he says.

I ask if, in an increasingly difficult financial world, invention is under greater threat as ticket sales become more critical, and his answer shows that a residual sensitivity remains after his encounters with the opera commentariat, and the way in which collective opinion can turn quickly into mob outrage. In fact, so stung was he by the Tell fallout, the ROH issued warnings prior to Katie Mitchell's overtly visceral, yet ultimately not-terribly shocking Lucia di Lammermoor.

"We have a culture that is about success – star ratings, bums on seats, Twitter opinion – and that threatens risk-taking for sure," he says. "But one customer said to me that it was only worth taking risks if they are successful. Of course, that doesn't make sense, does it? The one thing I noticed about being in the UK is that there seems to be a resistance to the idea of 'concept'."

Engaging with furious, critical patrons is something Holten clearly enjoys, and I concur with him that it is always pleasing to discuss, to learn from audiences and sometimes find a way to at least shift their thinking. The trouble is, I worry most about those who don't engage and just vote with their feet, creating volatility -- and I say this despite the fact that the ROH currently operates on occupancies of over 95% (but see my first paragraph) It will be interesting to see how his successor – the youthful Oliver Mears – does. Mears has had a meteoric rise in the opera world and takes up his post as the youngest ever in that role at the ROH. He said in an interview that he wants "all the productions to be really loved by audiences. If people have a very visceral, negative reaction to those productions, that's not what I would prefer." The new La boheme by Richard Jones bears him out, but has been met with a bit of a 'meh' response. Hugh Canning noted in the Sunday Times that "there will be sighs of relief all round that the public seems to have taken to Jones's new look for Puccini's most perfectly constructed opera at first sight. It doesn't, however, feel that new. Indeed, it looks as if the sometimes brilliant and controversial director has been instructed to play it safe with this opera-house "banker"rather than interpret it afresh for the 21st century."

Our approach to opera always requires intelligence, and nobody embarks on a long production process without having thought deeply about it, but times have changed with recent narratives surrounding opera forming into movements. The Against Modern Opera Productions Facebook page has over 50,000 likes, and they are a ferociously single-minded bunch who feel they are not being listened to, that the opera establishment believes they are mindless dinosaurs. The (unnamed) administrator of the page says "definitively yes, I have stopped going to productions without very careful research". It was noteworthy that he claimed to be 30 years old, which challenges the stereotype of fusty old traditionalists. "We love opera because it is old," he said. "We respect the opinions of others but expect the same from opera managers. Make operas for those who love it, and don't try to get 'younger audiences' with Regietheater, because it usually doesn't work." 

This issue of younger audiences is often misinterpreted by houses in my view. There is a tendency to assume that we have a 'problem' with older audiences inasmuch as we have to find replacements for them but we should bear in mind that older audiences, quite apart from their spending power, are often the people who introduce younger members of their family to the art-form. Furthermore, we believe younger audiences want edgy radical opera productions that are relevant to them, but it is my experience that equally as many are drawn to the spectacle and elegance of the archetypal opera production. We can be a little scared of our own product.

Those of us who work in the industry, who focus on, and obsess about, invention and imaginative stagings will sit and talk about productions, marvel at the concepts (or not) and find the references in direction and design to fine art, literature or history, but there is an amorphous mass of people who enjoy opera yet couldn't give a Pastor's teacake about all that, even when they "get" the ideas. Instead, they talk to their friends, sometimes read reviews and engage in a determined, truculent form of group-think, a Brexit-style fingers in the ears. Put simply, it would appear it is difficult to take them on, to encourage and challenge them to change their ways or force them to see "out there" productions. Further, there is a school of thought that suggests we should not try to proscribe cultural experiences or pleasures, but rather allow audiences to decide for themselves what it is they require from them, letting people find their own happiness. The truth – and thus good sense – is, I suspect, somewhere in the middle.

As the debate heats up, it becomes obvious that houses cannot afford to risk even a small section of the audience becoming radicalised. We may have to gently coax them into spreading their wings, because many judge a production on mere hearsay and audience perception can go downhill quickly in the post-factual, social media-obsessed age. This is the power of an alienated audience: the audience will always win.

Importantly, this applies mainly to the classic repertory, operas the audience believes it knows well and which we in the business rely upon to underwrite our more exploratory work. New operas or rarities are not prey to the same parameters that audiences draw furiously in the sand, so a house had better get its big "pop" works right or they have real problems. This issue profoundly affects houses or companies of a smaller size, who are not so well financially supported and who, like us, rely heavily on ticket income. Even the smallest adverse reaction that feeds quickly into the buying habits for a longer run can prove financially significant, even if it means just a few percentage points drop in occupancy – that can be real money.

It is possible and necessary to mount seasons that are imaginative, creative, challenging and "traditional" - most opera houses generally try to do just that - but the occasional stinker means that anything that isn't bang in-period or at least 'pretty', can become unacceptable, regardless of how good it may be. Opera managers who stridently bemoan the dangers of stagnation of the art form are unlikely to find audiences exploring the nuance of their arguments. I can recount many febrile exchanges with audience members, furious about a production, who use the most extraordinary language to vilify a director, a designer, or us in the management. Part of me is pleased to see how much people care, yet I remain astonished at times by the single-mindedness of the views. One patron complained bitterly that our version of Suor Angelica did not feature a 'vision' of the dying, self-poisoned nun's child. She insisted that Puccini's celestial choir clearly indicates that an otherworldly appearance is an absolute necessity as Angelica ascends to heaven to join her dead child.  I pointed out that the director – rightly in our view – had decided to portray the miserable, very real-world death of a much wronged young woman.  I could understand, I said, that the patron's religious views might mean she felt somewhat shortchanged but it was nevertheless a very powerful moment without the vision. 'I'm an atheist! That isn't the point", she roared.

Some directors find it easier to resort to fanciful, overarching spectacle and imagery than to draw the heart from a text via their singers, but the best of them can do both, whether that be in a conceptual or traditional context; it is the job of companies who present opera to the public to police this process so that concepts are coherent, add to the understanding and, in the very least, keep the audience engaged, even though they may dislike the message.  Barrie Kosky, head of Berlin's Komische Opera and a frequent radical, said in a Daily Telegraph interview: "There's too much reliance on design, too much that is merely decorative. I tell students that if they can't bring opera to life with nothing but the singers and a bare stage, then they should go and get another job." No doubt modern opera-haters will balk at his words, but the sentiment, at least, is a vital jumping off point and shows that even in his more vividly inventive productions, Kosky gives a reverence to the texts that traditionalists might claim is absent. Kosky, like most directors,  thinks deeply about the operas he presents but a portion of the audience simply don't – or won't – follow him to those depths and even if they 'get' the concept, they just don't like their opera messed with.

Universal satisfaction is unlikely, and the answer isn't just to do opera-by-numbers, or even in pretty frocks, but we won't change people's tastes or behaviour by trying to convince them with unfathomable productions, subverting texts or expecting them to respect the freedom of a director to interpret a work however they wish. As much as we may concur with that last principle – and have seen the wonderful results at times -- we are pissing into a force nine gale because so many complaints one receives from audiences feature the phrase "not what the composer intended" -- and that's the role of guardianship that audiences frequently assume and will, we ought to be aware, exercise. 

OHP hasn't ever been a 'radical' producing house in any case, even though that hugely successful Tosca was derided in a letter to me as "one of the worst productions of opera I have seen anywhere". We have always tried to keep focus on the veracity of updates, and by and large, we have succeeded, allowing directors to bring their talent and creativity to the work. There have also been occasions when criticism has come for what has been judged as 'playing it safe' productions so we'll never win them all, but it is the one or two where that ephemeral alignment of all the elements and ideas hasn't quite occurred that demonstrate in following seasons the dynamism of audience reaction. 

Over the years, we have learned something of the contradictions and oddities within audience opinion; for example we may update an opera by 900 years (L'amore dei tre Re) but if we stop at around 1950 the adverse reaction is muted and allows the director to introduce dramatic and visual ideas that hit home. Then again, we produced a very stark Rigoletto that met with universal approval, so the fine line we walk is at its most exquisitely honed when contemplating angular modernity; get it wrong and we receive the deepest wounds, but get it right and it is the audience who feel it.  It is a risk worth taking, indeed, we must take, but we have to keep an eye on what audiences want, as well as on what we want them to like.


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