Friday 11 January 2013

At the core of what we do - new opera at Covent Garden

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has announced plans for the next seven years aimed at increasing the company's involvement with contemporary opera. Sensibly, many of the plans involve the Linbury Studio Theatre, a space which is far more suitable to trying out new work than the main house. The company will be developing collaborations, both continuing existing relationships and creating new ones with companies for co-commissions and collaborations; sometimes the only way that a large-scale new commission can be made affordable. They are also investing in nurturing talent, developing a relationship with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, as well as having composers in residence. The Royal Opera's track record on contemporary opera over the last decade or so has been rather patchy, but putting on new opera is rather like falling off a horse, the important thing is to get on again and continue.

The company is working with the Guildhall School of Music to offer training opportunities for emerging composers, writers and directors. This new relationship starts with a conference about libretto writing at the Guildhall in April 2013; a subject which is all too often ignored in contemporary opera (I have a theory that some of the problems that I've witness with contemporary operas could have been solved via a decent libretto). There are also plans to continue the programme of opera development including workshops and readings; essentially this represents a continuation of the ROH2/Genesis Opera strand, but now brought into the main house so to speak. Composers David Bruce and Elspeth Brooke will be composers in residence during the 2012/13 season. This, of course, means that they will be working on participatory opera and opera for young people, but it is a useful route into the genre.

By having, on average, just one contemporary opera per year the Royal Opera rather put a lot of pressure on the work, and the artists, in question. Their new plans involve far more new work, a rolling programme which will enable works to be produced without quite that degree of pressure. Both Kasper Holten and Antonio Pappano seem to be admirably committed to the idea of new work, and to integrating more into the way the Royal Opera House works. As I have said before, opera composers can only learn by doing and working in and around a great house like Covent Garden is an ideal start, if handled correctly.

For the 2012/13 season, in addition to The Minotaur and George Benjamin's new work Written on Skin, there will be the UK stage premiere of Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest in the Linbury Studio Theatre, directed by Ramin Gray and conducted by Tim Murray with Alan Ewing reprising his role as Lady Bracknell.

For the 2013/14 season there is a whole range of contemporary opera being planned for the Linbury Studio Theatre. Australian composer Ben Frost is adapting Iain Banks's novel The Wasp Factory, in a production which the composer is directing. It will be interesting to see whether Frost, who has worked in dance with Wayne McGregor and collaborated with German playwright Falk Richter, can manage the problem of translating a novel into an opera. The dramatic pace of the two genres is so vastly different, that you either end up with something which resembles 'scenes from', or you have a number of 'oh my god, all this plot to get through' moments.

Julian Philips is writing a new opera for family audiences. The British electronic composer and sound artist is working on a piece inspired by the Faust story which will run in parallel to the Royal Opera's revival of Gounod's Faust. Also in parallel to Faust, Luke Bedford (composer of Seven Angels) and Scottish playwright David Harrower will be creating a different version of the Faust legend.

Still in 2013/14, Italian composer Luca Francesconi's Quartett will receive its UK premiere. The opera, based on Heiner Muller's play inspired by characters from Les Liaisons dangereuses, was premiered in La Scala, Milan in 2010. It was commissioned by La Scala and the Wiener Festwochen in collaboration with IRCAM. It will be shown in London in a new version, a co-production with the London Sinfonietta and Opera de Rouen and will be directed by John Fulljames.

During 2013/14 the Royal Opera starts a collaboration with Aldeburgh Music and Opera North to commission first operas from composers 'who have a flair for operatic creativity that, with careful nurturing, could develop into the composition of major operatic works'. Sounds very positive, lets just hope that the weight of expectation doesn't drag the young composers down.

2014/15 opens with a revival of Mark Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole in the main auditorium (forgive me if I sit this one out and don't applaud). In the Linbury, Music Theatre Wales will bring a new opera from Philip Glass based on Kafka's The Trial. German/Danish composer Soren Nils Eichberg has been commissioned for a new opera (for the Linbury) which is promised to be a taut thriller.

Further ahead, Mark Anthony Turnage is writing an opera for children to be directed by Katie Mitchell (now this I must see!). Judith Weir is working on an operatic adaptation of Max Frisch's play Count Oederland. Thankfully this is going in the Linbury, and is a collaboration with Scottish Opera and Opera Frankfurt.

On the main stage, Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas is writing a piece based on Jon Fosse's novel Morning and Evening. The production is a collaboration with the Deustche Opera Berlin, with London seeing the world premiere. Haas' style recalls that of György Ligeti in its use of micropolyphony, microintervals and the exploitation of the overtone series; he has written a number of operas and large-scale theatre pieces, the most recent Die schöne Wunde, after Franz Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe and others which was produced in 2003 at Bregenz.

Also on the main stage, Thomas Ades is writing a new opera based on Bunuel's film The Exterminating Angel with a libretto by Tom Cairns, though we have to wait until 2017 for this! Even further ahead, Unsuk Chin will be producing Alice Through the Looking Glass a follow up to the enormously successful Alice in Wonderland.

Finally, in 2012 four leading composers are writing large scale opera inspired by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek 'What preoccupies us today? How can we today stage ourselves? What are the collective myths of our present and future? What? Excuse me? Still, if the four composers involved (Kaija Saariaho, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Luca Francesconi and Jorg Widmann) can produce something operatically interesting, then what the hell!

The important thing is to keep the new work coming and to hope that something, somewhere inspires the composer.  Success in contemporary opera can come in many different forms, and with some degree of surprise and wonder. Let us hope that some of these new works can not only inspire the composers, but inspire the audience as well.

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