Simply put – Opera is in trouble. Yes, yes, I know you’ve read such leaders before, but these latest infographics from Bachtrack (go to the downloadable link at the bottom of the Bachtrack page) are, in all respects, damning.
Whereas, we are all familiar with the disparaging quotes about statistics such as, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” commonly attributed to either Mark Twain or Disraeli, it’s hard to refute these simple numbers to show that a significant statistical percentage of opera companies are complicit in hastening the demise of this artform.
You cannot skirt around the fact; irrespective of the protestations and excuses commonly offered up by General Directors (or their equivalent in different countries) that a diet of only Verdi, Puccini and Mozart – accounting for 33% of all Opera presented – is untenable in 2019!
These infographics from Bachtrack would have been equally enlightening if they had showed the 20 least operas performed in 2018, as statistics on these would probably point to companies and works that are deserved of more attention.
Cases to highlight the current paucity of innovation in Opera production choices would be Conrad Osborne’s recent article about the demise in productions of Gounod’s Faust in the latter half of the 20th-Century (at least at the MET). In no respects is Gounod’s masterpiece a curio to be heard once in a blue-moon. It is simply a case that it has, for whatever reason, fallen out of favour in New York. But, more importantly, why does the inexplicable demise of a ‘Faust’ consequently subject audiences to yet another ‘Bohème’ or ‘Traviata’ as probable (although not exclusively so) production alternatives?
Conversely, innovation in opera production in Europe is omnipresent. Let’s take the offerings available on Operavision as one example. In January alone you could delve into the incredible Káta Kabanová by Janácek; Libuše by Smetana or Korngold’s sublime Die tote Stadt as just a small selection of operas free to watch on-demand. None of these three operas made Bachtrack’s Top 20 list. Why, when all of these operas embody qualities that make them utterly producible on any given day?
Osborne implies in his informative blog that much of the repetitive offerings of the same Top 20 operas can be ascribed to a decline of mature voices with the power, resonance and depth to undertake heavier roles often required in less performed operas. Although this lack of talent depth is indisputable at the meta-level of the industry; with an increasing reliance upon, and abundance of, young singers eager for opportunities, it is too facile to suggest this is the major cause of decline in a vast number of operas being overlooked for production.
Of course the perennial argument being that if some combination of the usual top 20 suspects in any season, year-on-year, are not rolled out the likelihood of company insolvency (or some concomitant form of financial collapse) will inevitably ensue. But this is not a reason to maintain the status quo.
From a pragmatic perspective, the alternative to putting the top 20 operas aside without notice; without a very well conceived plan to offset their absence, or without an aesthetic disposition toward experimenting with the artform envisaged by the Prototype festival for example, opera companies would be fiducially irresponsible by any applied standards.
Without negating the opportunity to retain the so-called ‘top 20’ core repertoire operas as the bases of an opera company’s business, why do we never see any well-conceived innovation strategies to complement this repertoire with projects that wean audiences from a reliance on them? This is not about commissioning new operas, or doing operas as spectaculars, or any other practice that avoids hard-core innovation design – it is entirely about conceptualising a new design-peformance paradigm to drive uptake for the artform and, hopefully in doing so, capture the hearts and minds of a quickly disappearing audience.
Here are my fundamental conclusions why we never see this:
- General managers and artistic directors of opera houses are neither informed nor immersed in innovation design theory and therefore fail to see its relevance or importance;
- Programmng decisions are entirely divorced from conceptualising alternative modes of production practice, delivery mechanisms and reception models;
- Opera companies do not understand how to reach the 99.93% of potential audience within their capture area who care not one jot about the artistic work they do;
- Opera companies make erroneous assumptions about this same audience, resulting in further erroneous inferences about what might attract their attention – like dumbing-down the entire operatic framework to make it more immediately attractive or, worse still, segmenting it into smaller chunks to make it more palatable (this is one of the worst decisions seen freqently);
- Opera companies fail to understand that it is not the music, the libretto or even conventional production practices that are the problem, but a complete dissociation from what the artform is able to conjure in the hearts and minds of audiences irrespective of their background with Opera. (‘Regie’ theatre-director practice compounds this alienation by further fracturing the connectivity of the operatic production elements). In other words, they make no case for their own relevancy (or even necessity) in contemporary culture;
- Opera companies do not see audience connection ideas outside of the work itself, i.e., the opera ‘work’ is only representational of its derivation, and, whatever derivation is applicable furthermore has no connectivity to what audiences can authenticate within their own lives.
So what should opera companies do – as it is far easier to criticize than to offer apposite solutions?
- Like most theatre companies, start the design innovation process of choosing and producing opera with a dramaturg or dramaturgical team of researchers. In other words, do not let a stage director distil a vision for a production that everyone has to buy into as the point of departure in production development;
- Establish a storyworld taxonomy for all works under consideration for production, and align the storyworld elements with all disemmination channels in the digital domain;
- Move a large portion of marketing dollars away from traditional promotion and publicity into creating hubs of engagement design with stakeholder shareholders (must be outsiders to the organization) – i.e., people who don’t think like marketing people – and who can inform the business about how non-Opera people make decisions about entertainment interaction;
- Make the creative team’s delivered vision accountable to the same engagement design shareholders for approval, i.e., get sign-off for defining the strategy that will result in the largest segment of audiences being reached to convert them to participants.
Ultimately this type of approach turns the accountability and hierarchy of opera companies on its head by movtivating the people opera companies want to reach into being actively engaged in both the process and the decision making.
If you really still don’t believe me, then watch this TedX video. If you are short of time, just start at about 9’30” in and listen to the speaker (Nina Simon) talk about how ‘outsiders’ become an organization’s biggest asset to reach all the people who are not already converts – and how courageous organizations need to be to actually do it (and, to note, for the Australian Arts Industry executives who read this blog – it is an Australian example that Nina is talking about!)