A European opera co-creation project (2020-2022)
Does opera still matter? What could be its future?
Traction started from the idea that opera is extraordinary, so we—a consortium of artists, technologists and researchers—set out to show why, and what co-creation can offer for its future. Between 2020 and 2022, we worked with communities in Barcelona, Portugal and Ireland to co-create three exploratory operas. This page describes what we did, what we learnt and what it might mean for opera. The full results of the project will be published on a new website in late February 2023.
Opera can look out of place in today’s world. Its stories, style and language seem remote. Our lives are shaped by diversity, globalisation and technology. We worry about climate change, war and inequality. Opera may have timeless qualities but they need to breathe and connect with today’s concerns. Traction was a partnership of opera companies, research institutes and universities established to explore how opera might tell new stories in new ways that resonate with today’s European societies.
The foundation of our work was co-creation—a process in which professional artists work on an equal basis with non-professional artists to create new art. Everyone involved is an artist, just as everyone in a marathon is a runner, though some are going for a world record while others are just trying to beat their own time. But they bring different resources to the creative process. Professional artists have skills, knowledge, experience and judgement. Non-professionals have fresh ideas, things to say and a need to say it. Together, they can co-create something that neither could have made alone—and they tell unheard stories, in new ways, stories that can energise the oldest of art forms.
El Gata Perduda (The Lost Cat) – Liceu, Barcelona
That’s what happened when one of our partners, the Liceu Opera House in Barcelona, invited people from Raval to co-create a new opera about their own dynamic, diverse but often misjudged neighbourhood. La Gata Perduda is the story of a community’s self-defence against exploitation by those who would sell it off and enrich themselves. The opera drew on interviews with residents to shape a joyful story of resistance. Three hundred and fifty local people sang, danced and acted with professional opera artists, while hundreds more co-created the costumes, stage set and posters. So many people wanted to see the performances that a thousand were invited to the dress rehearsal—no one wanted to miss the Liceu takeover by Raval.
O Tempo. Somos Nós (Time. It’s Us) — SAMP, Portugal
In Portugal, the SAMP music school has been producing Mozart with inmates of Leiria Youth Prison for several years, but Traction gave them the chance and the resources to co-create a new opera based on the lives of the participants and their relatives. The production used a Traction digital tool called Co-Creation Stage to link performers in the hall with others in the music pavilion at the prison, as well as people involved in the operas in Barcelona and Dublin. The opera reimagined the myth of Ulysses and Penelope, separated by their own decisions, to create a moving and original work that was performed twice inside the prison and twice in a Lisbon concert hall. This work involves long-term change, for the people who take part and for the prison service that has been an invaluable supporter of the opera project.
Out of the Ordinary / As an nGnách – Irish National Opera
The Irish opera was original in a different way—it is the first virtual reality opera, co-created by professional and non-professional artists. Like the other Traction operas, it was developed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Irish National Opera used Co-Creation Space – a new digital tool developed by Traction – to enable people in different parts of the country to co-create the opera’s music, visual imagery and narrative. The 20-minute piece, experienced only through a VR headset, recasts Irish myths into a story of climate destruction and moral choices with alternate endings, according to the viewer’s responses. About a hundred non-professionals contributed to the process, including some who played or sang in the opera’s score.
Digital tools developed by Traction supported the co-creation process, in the performances and in enabling people to work together in co-creation. That proved invaluable during the lockdowns that constrained work during much of the three year project. Crucially, we found ways of using new technology to support and enrich the opera co-creation process. We are still learning how digital technology is changing our lives, but in opera, it can serve the needs of artists, professional and non-professional alike.
We have not found the Holy Grail or El Dorado. Opera still faces many questions and challenges if it is to matter in the 21stcentury. But we have shown that this demanding and glorious art can open itself to the world. We’ve shown that co-creation, far from reducing standards, can enlarge opera’s language and meaning. A living art must change, if it hopes to stay the same.
For more about Traction, go to the project website: https://www.traction-project.eu