Thursday 14 November 2013

Future Tense - Challenge or Problem?

Royal Opera House facade
Yesterday (13 November 2013) the Opera and Music Theatre Forum held its conference at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Administrators from opera companies across the UK plus a selection of other opera professionals met to consider what opera was going to be like in 2030. Under the title Future Tense? the conference considered what 2030 might be like and how opera companies might respond.

After a funny and inspiring speech from Kasper Holten (director of opera at the Royal Opera House), we heard from three people who helped project what 2030 might be like. Holten's speech, though heavily laced with humour, was a distinct call to arms for opera professionals to co-operate more and to talk about opera with confidence, to celebrate opera and the importance of the arts. That we might need to do so was apparent in the talks that followed.

Bill Winters, CBE, was head of Europe and Asia for JP Morgan and is now CEO of Renshaw Bay. He talked global economic trends, pointing out that the financial crisis was not a blip, it is going to last a long time. Essentially, opera companies are going to be strapped for cash for the lifetime of all those currently working in the business. Patrons too will be feeling the pinch (higher taxes and lower growth), plus an ageing population (1.5 workers for every retired person in 2030). To increase corporate support companies need to move away from opera being seen as the plaything of the rich, and to build on existing community and education projects.

Phillida Cheetham, from the consumer insight team at Which? talked consumer trends. The result, taken in combination with the information from Winter, was rather scary. A low growth economy, high commodity prices, resources scarce, 4.9 billion middle class people, spending on recreation and culture down, with less disposable income. 65% of spending on essential goods, and a high income inequality. As Winters had said, there will be significant demographic change, the number of people over 60 will rocket, and in 2030 there will be four time the number of people over 95 that there are at the moment. Also with immigration, those in the younger age groups will be from a significant cultural mix, interested in different cultural media.

That this could be seen as a challenge rather than a problem was emphasised by both Cheetham and by Marcus Romer, Artistic Director of Pilot Theatre. Both talked about the role of technology and innovation, and the wonderful possibilities that we might harness. Romer's theatre company has already been using technology at the cutting edge in its projects.

After lunch Bill Bankes-Jones (Tete a Tete Opera Company) and playwright Mark Ravenhill discussed how artists can respond to the economic challenges. Bankes-Jones mentionned how at Tete a Tete they had responded to the problems of financing large scale productions by taking a different model and developing their opera festival, making as many shows as possible rather than striving for the single perfect show.

Ravenhill talked about the changes that had come over theatre, how even 20 years ago there was a sense that there was a canon to be performed, which stretched back to Renaissance theatre and the Greeks. In straight theatre, this has broken down with a greater emphasis on the new. The operatic canon seems have have got frozen in the 1920's and 1930's, with new work being done from a sense of duty.

Bankes-Jones talked about the importance, in new opera, of valuing showbiz as much as cleverness and academic music. Both agreed that there was a sense that opera companies were developing new work  in exciting ways.

The attendees then split up into groups to discuss how they and their company would respond to the challenges ahead. After half an hour, each group reported and the fascinating thing was how much commonality there was between the responses. Themes which cropped up regularly were the need for collaboration, sharing resources, open engagement, wider audiences, younger audiences, subsidies, and community activity. One particular area was the relation with the live cinema relays, and the feeling that we should emphasise the importance and joy of live theatre. Another area of concern highlighted by groups was the importance education, a theme which kept on recurring throughout the day.

Finally a panel discussion with Nicholas Cleobury (Mid-Wales Opera),  James Clutton (Opera Holland Park), Peter Puskas (Arts Council England), Frederic Wake-Walker (The Opera Group and Mahogany Opera), chaired by Abigail Pogson (Spitalfields Music).

Frederic Wake-Walker commented on the similarity of the groups' responses. His aspirations included collaborating more with other art-forms and genres, and he felt that community participation should be at the centre of what companies do, not on the side. He also noted that touring was hugely important and though a challenge it helped artistic quality as well extending reach.

James Clutton also felt collaboration was important, both on artistic and practical matters (even extending to buying power) as well as sharing advice. He felt that it was important to make education fun, something Opera Holland Park did this year with Alice in Wonderland taking the long view of catching the attention of the children when young. Clutton also talked about the trouble getting into schools, partly because so many London arts groups were competing for this. Clutton also mentioned the importance of new work, and the desire that people would come and see it and enjoy it.

Nicholas Cleobury emphasised the importance of live opera, pointing out that even a cinema streamed performance had been live at some point. Cleobury's aspirations included what he called the Heineken effect, reaching parts others don't reach both geographical and in terms of older people and young people. Collaboration was also important, as Mid-Wales Opera tends to do a series of one night stands making it difficult to get a foot print. Cleobury also brought up the importance of touring, and how it trains young singers as they learn its rigours. He also talked about the need for training composers and librettists, and the need to do something about the short-temr-ness of funding.

Peter Puskas felt that education was important, if you don't have education then there will be no opera audience. Also collaboration, with Puskas talking about how in other sectors people were doing things in new ways and that opera could emulate this. Puskas also wanted to bring down the barriers.

It was remarkable quite how much agreement there was between everyone. What was impressive about the conference was the sheer amount of information we got through, with certainly no hanging around in the presentations. It was a very focussed day, and very heartening in the way there seemed to be a degree of consensus. Certainly on this showing the future is a challenge not a problem.

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