Community opera in a pandemic

In February, I participated in the kick-off meeting of TRACTION, a Horizon 2020 project researching how digital technology can support community opera as a factor in social inclusion. About 30 of us travelled to San Sebastián from Dublin, Barcelona, Leiria, Amsterdam and Nottingham. It was the first, and so far, the only time we have met face-to face. Six weeks later we were all confined to our homes.

Fortunately, digital technology has made it possible for us to continue planning, talking, learning and sharing. It’s also enabled us to do some things we hadn’t anticipated, including commissioning some essays about community opera. The first of these, by the British composer Jonathan Dove, was published this week in three instalments on the TRACTION website, together with a piece by Irene Calvis (head of social engagement the Liceu Theatre in Barcelona), about a production of Dove’s community opera, The Monster in the Maze, that has been postponed because of the pandemic (see below for a short video about that project).

Jonathan’s essay is a rich and thoughtful account of more than three decades of making community opera, but it also raises some crucial questions about particularity and universalism in art making that resonate strongly for me. They are central to the three TRACTION community opera trials we are starting – with all the difficulties that entails during a pandemic. But they are relevant to every community art project, whatever its form, theory or approach, because they are about how people make art, why and for whom. Sometimes what speaks most powerfully at one time and place is also what makes it unable to transcend that specificity, but it is not always easy to find the local in the universal – and, in any case, that may not be the story that people need to tell or to hear.

The image at the top of this post was taken at the end of SAMP’s last prison opera project in 2018. Their TRACTION project began this week, and will, for the first time create a completely new opera involving inmates, relatives and the local community.