Renewing opera

The problem of opera

Opera is a problematic art. It’s not just the extravagant cost of producing it, or the elitist profile of its audiences; the problems are embedded in the form’s own hierarchies, and the stories that have become its canonical repertoire. The human relations they present are becoming less acceptable to society’s understanding of gender, race or class. Shakespeare’s lasting relevance lies in the ambiguity of his texts, which serve as a mirror for the changing preoccupations of different times and cultures. But opera’s stories, often subordinated to musical interests, tend to be cruder and resistant to new reading.  Myths and folk tales can derive resonance from simplicity, and their archetypes are often reinterpreted, but it has proved harder to rework the 19th century prejudices of AidaCarmen or Madama Butterfly.    

It’s not only opera’s repertoire that can be uncomfortable. The form itself presents barriers to new audiences and participation. People study and practice for years to be able to perform this highly sophisticated music. How can it be opened up to non-professional, untrained singers and musicians in community productions? Some opera producers recognise the need to renew links with changing societies, perhaps anxious of losing legitimacy, funding and audiences, or because they hope to reinvigorate the art. There have been successful productions with non-professional singers in the chorus, but they risk reinforcing the very social relations that community opera wants to change: the professionals have agency and attention in the principal roles, while the chorus of ‘ordinary people’ can only observe and comment. 

Learning about community opera

My experience of opera is very limited (as readers with more expertise may already have concluded). Opera has not been part of my work as a community artist, and it never much appealed to me as a spectator or a listener. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve given it much thought, after being asked to join Traction, a European consortium researching how digital technology could facilitate opera co-creation and social inclusion. Between June and October 2022, three very different operas will have their premières: in a youth prison in Portugal, in virtual reality headsets in Ireland, and in one of Europe’s largest opera houses in Barcelona. All are new works, co-created by professional and on-professional artists, and as I’ve followed (and sometimes guided) their progress, I’ve tried to learn about what others have been doing in the field. The arts can be a generous profession, and I’m very grateful to many people working in community opera for their time and advice. I’ve also taken the few opportunities available during the pandemic to see community opera in performance, and that has been enjoyable and thought-provoking. 

Among the performances I’ve seen recently are Her Day (Coventry, March 2022) and Take Care (Nottingham, April 2022). Both were beautiful and moving: successful as works of art in their own right, and impressive co-creations by professional and non-professional artists. They also had qualities in common that suggest that good answers are being found to some of opera’s problems of opera, but before turning to them, let me give some context about the operas themselves. 

Her Day and Take Care

Her Day was conceived and led by the composer Sayan Kent and playwright Vanessa Oakes, who have both worked with Royal Opera House, and been mentored by Richard Willacy of Birmingham Opera Company (and one of Traction’s international advisory team). Here’s how Sayan and Vanessa describe their project:

Inspired by conversations with women across Coventry, HER DAY shines a light on the lives of ordinary local women engaged in every day acts of peaceful protest. It celebrates the courage, survival and resilience of women who are so often the glue that holds our communities together. You will hear Grace sing ‘All we ever have is each other’. If HER DAY asks anything of us it is to stay hopeful and connected to one another.

It was performed in the round, in a venue more used to club nights and rock bands. The opera unfolded in a community venue during the weekly gathering of a women’s group, where people shared stories and problems while doing craft work. It turned on the relationships between four women, and the ways in which they could help one another through the kind of crises that some people face to often but rarely feature in drama. The four principal singers were professionals, and there was a chorus of non-professional singers, though in narrative terms, there was little difference between the characters on stage.

Take Care began in conversations between the composer, Douglas Finch, and a university researcher, Professor Justine Schneider, about how the language of opera might serve to communicate the findings of her study of good quality care for people living with dementia. Again, the piece was written from the lived experience of the people concerned, by librettist Cindy Oswin, but like Her Day, it was fiction. It followed a day in the life of a carer, Katie, and her responses to the needs and crises of four different clients. It was performed in the small Lakeside theatre at Nottingham University, and lasted a little over two hours with an interval. The five characters were played by professional singers (with a sixth represented by a life size puppet, and there was a chorus of people with experience of caring for people with dementia. The musicians and technical staff included several university students.

Both productions were beautifully produced and performed. I liked the music, staging and narrative very much, though of course there were things I might have done differently. But I’m not a music critic and my reflections are concerned only with how the productions resolved the challenge of making community opera. My response is that of an audience member—in some ways, the kind of person the productions aim to reach because I don’t go to opera. In that context, the one comment I would make is how important I find surtitles. Take Care provided them, Her Day did not, which limited my ability to follow some of its action. When the singer faced my side of the auditorium, I could usually make out the words, but when they didn’t, which was inevitably often since the audience was on three sides, I mostly couldn’t. 

Waiting for Her Day, HMV Empire, Coventry 12 March 2022

Towards some solutions?

Her Day and Take Care are entirely separate projects, and yet I was struck by how much common ground there was between them. Crucially, they both root themselves in the lived experience of women, so often undervalued and disregarded, in policy and in art. Four years ago, Graeae’s excellent community opera, This Is Not For You, also drew on lived experience, but it was the obviously dramatic experience of war, injury and trauma. Both of these operas took as their subject experience that is not only marginalised (which was true of This Is Not For You) but seemingly lacking in the dramatic incident and emotion that has been the core of opera.  

It is telling, I think, that Her Day was co-created and performed entirely by women, and that four of the five characters of Take Care were women. Both were, in a profound way, feminist operas, and all the more valuable for bringing marginalised lives to the centre of the stage. There are many things to admire in both productions, but none more than the way they create real drama, in the true meaning of that art, from situations and experiences that I don’t imagine any opera has featured before, including dementia, seeking asylum, benefits, difficult parents, calling an ambulance, losing funding, and loneliness. When death occurs in Take Care, it is not the violence or tragedy that fuels conventional opera, it is natural and all the more moving because it is so close to what many of us have experienced. 

It is striking that the language of both libretti is the language of everyday life. Where there is poetry, it comes from repetition or the distillation of small phrases so that they have almost the power that Samuel Beckett can find in monosyllables. This is very dangerous. A scene in which a fallen old man sings ‘I need a wee’ repeatedly through the dialogue of two women about how he fell and what to do now risks bathos but is actually very affecting. And it is the music that makes it so. 

I’ve written before about the difference between community theatre in Britain and in other European countries, arguing that the weakness of British work has often been an over-reliance on text and a realism that often falls into literalism. Continental artists, in my experience at least, are much more comfortable with poetry in their performances, making work that relies less on narrative, and rarely on realism. I could imagine Her Dayand Take Care as stage plays, and in that form they would still be worthwhile, but I wonder if they would take flight. I think they might fall into that kind of worthy literalism that is so often the death of art. It is impossible to give a realistic performance as a care worker if you are singing it as a soprano. An argument about the future of a women’s group cannot seem unimportant when it is sung. The music and the act of singing it transform what could be banal into something elemental. It shows us that these moments are the human condition at its most urgent and important, and that this can be understood without recourse to heroes, gods or murder. 

In the programme for Take Care the producers write: 

Through the rich medium of opera we aim to share a heightened representation of day-to-day care for people with dementia, thereby elevating the status of carers and shining a light on their emotional labour.

If this means, as it could, that the status of opera as the most privileged artform can drop stardust on undervalued lives, I think it would be misguided, both in principle and because such stardust never lasts. If it means that the aim is to use the artistic power to reveal the true human value that exists in lives and situations that are widely ignored or dismissed, then I think it is on to something of real importance. In my view, both operas are major achievements, in their own terms as works of art, and because they show how opera can become truly important in many people’s lives as it has been in the past. Even if it continues in the opera house, there is another world of co-creation for opera, on a smaller scale but with much bigger ambitions. 

Curtain Call, Take Care, Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham 2 April 2022