Madrid: Not just a conference….

Teatro Real and Teatro de la Zarzuela generously welcomed the 325 Opera Europa participants in Madrid from 6 to 8 May, with performances of Clementina, La traviata and El retablo de Maese Pedro.
Henry Little, who has submitted this report on our recent Madrid conference, is the Chair of the UK’s National Opera Co-ordinating Committee and the Chief Executive of Orchestras Live.

In his welcoming remarks, Nicholas Payne shared a concern that scheduling the Madrid conference within a day of the latest edition of the European Opera Days weekend, might mean that nobody would turn up. Instead, he feared, members would all be at home finalising their contribution to the imminent celebrations to the theme of opera alive and online. As it turned out, Nicholas needn’t have worried. 325 delegates from 140 companies across 35 countries came to Madrid for three days of discussion and debate about the main issues and biggest challenges they face for the future.

Nicholas told members that the Madrid event was one of the most ambitious of any that Opera Europa had undertaken to date. It was he said ‘not just a conference’ and perhaps it was the launch of the new Opera Platform that encouraged such a high turnout of the Opera Europa membership. Alongside the formal press launch of this innovative and high profile partnership, the varying approaches of opera houses to reaching a wider audience through digital distribution were extensively discussed throughout the three days in Madrid. Peter Maniura of the BBC and IMZ talked about the challenge of ‘how to shout louder in an already amplified world’ and his solution was to promote an extended culture of sharing, which he described as the ‘big idea’ of the digital age which should find fertile common currency with that same culture of partnership and collaboration that is an essential ingredient to working practices among Opera Europa members.

A common theme which emerged from the many accounts of how opera houses might approach the digital streaming of their work was the need for a compelling mix of short (behind the scenes interviews and documentary) and long form (full staged opera) material to engage new audiences. Peter Maniura advised that a relay of an entire opera isn’t in and of itself enough and there needs to be a range of contextual material around it in order to inspire and retain online viewers. Remarking that the priorities of an opera house and a digital broadcaster can be very different, Nicholas also identified some of the main outcomes that would determine the future success of the new platform. Chief among them were tangible progress on affordable and sustainable Rights negotiation with artists and publishers. He was also keen to emphasise that The Opera Platform is a resource for all the Opera Europa member companies, and not just an exclusive club for the 15 partners who have each committed to stream two operas throughout the next three years. He also recognised that the new platform will live or die according to the quality and range of its content. I would add that some of the critical success factors might be how the platform can accurately measure new and existing audience engagement in both qualitative and quantitative terms. And since one of the unanimous conclusions of the discussions was to confirm the primacy of the live opera experience, how can the platform promote that outcome in a way that an opera house becomes an exciting and dynamic part of contemporary society?

Andreas Homoki from Zürich was sceptical about whether a digital platform does indeed create a new audience for live opera. He stressed the need for a theatre to be anchored to its community in order to be accessible to its audience. He warned against jumping on to the superficial bandwagon of streaming opera across the world because in his view there is a danger of a compromise in artistic quality. His predecessor, now in Milan, Alexander Pereira underlined the link between state and corporate investment, the former being a powerful catalyst to attract the latter. Encouraging his peers to conquer their embarrassment in approaching sponsors for investment, he described how large corporates view culture (and opera) as part of an attractive working and living environment for their employees. He strongly advocated a new approach to sharing resources, citing how the five houses across the Regione Lombardia including La Scala were now regularly working together using shared technical and workshop facilities.

The session on production budgeting and cost efficiency was anything but a dry account that its title might have suggested. The new financial database launched by Opera Europa has the exciting potential to be a comprehensive survey of the relative cost of professional opera activity throughout Europe. It is currently limited to just fifteen members, who have exclusive access to comparative data on their work. We heard how those participating in the database can benchmark the cost of their work as well as compare their outputs in a way that can only promote positive sharing of examples of best practise. Hopefully their positive reports on their collaboration in this initiative will incentivise greater sign-up from other members. An eventual 100% buy-in across the membership to this database could be an invaluable advocacy tool to sustain local investment as well as promoting the work of the membership internationally to European stakeholders.

For me, one of the most stimulating discussions that took place was the one that dispensed with the usual format of a predetermined invited panel presenting their case(s), followed by questions from the floor. In a packed room where we all sat informally, Nicholas Payne invited four company leaders from Munich, Cardiff, Oslo and Torino to present their two top current issues as well as their biggest future challenges. Common to all four contributions from Messrs Ruhe, Pountney, Hansen and Fournier-Facio was the need for a unique and compelling artistic and operational local identity and the courage to follow an individual path to confront the danger of a kind of opera globalisation where all productions seem the same regardless of where you live. The discovery and development of a dynamic and engaging artistic context for an opera house was, according to David Pountney, a high-minded but necessary ambition. Of equal importance, said Gaston Fournier-Facio, was the need to combat the constant threat of elimination of statutory music teaching in schools since this was agreed to be a recipe for disaster in engaging audiences of the future. Nicholas stated that the purpose of this session was to identify and agree relevant themes for future Opera Europa conferences. In those terms this was one of the most successful discussions of any among the three days in Madrid.

Finally, one contribution that still resonates with me came at the end of that session from Marc de Mauny from Perm who warned that political censorship remains a real danger for the cultural community, including opera houses. Describing the chasm that exists in Russia between politicians and the cultural sector, he urged members to lobby for artistic freedom. Citing the Metropolitan Opera’s recent cancellation of the relay of The Death of Klinghoffer in response to pressure from sponsors, David Pountney reminded members that such censorship isn’t confined to the State. As Nicholas and Andreas Homoki agreed, anything should be permissible on an opera house stage as long as it is done with artistic integrity. Several members suggested that a concerted response to the threat of censorship is necessary; after all, in the words of Alexander Pereira, there is no future without solidarity.