Opera – By Other Means (A Column)

News has it that, once more, disagreements between a conductor and a stage director have put a great opera house on the spot, forcing it to rework its season.

We are not aiming here at questioning this incident’s protagonists’ good will, but rather lamenting a harmful and tenacious situation that continues to deteriorate in the opera world. Indeed, most opera houses rely on short-​sighted programming principles that consist in fabricating shows by associating names (those of conductors, stage directors and performers) according to a logic that focuses mainly, however artistically motivated it can sometimes be, on finding a balance between a financial investment and the hope of profitability (profit being, in this context, rather a matter of prestige than of box-​office). If resources are insufficient, hiring a few ‘lower rated’ (and thus, less ‘expensive’) artists will make it possible to invite an acclaimed star –and if finances make it possible, the ‘triple winning ticket’ of a famed conductor, a fashionable stage director, and the performer of the moment will make for a good poster.

What can become, in such a lottery, of a performance’s adventure –whether it is a creation by living authors or, more often, the ambitious project of reviving a work of the repertory, burdened by a lengthy performance tradition? The artistic stakes are, in both cases, as huge as the material and human resources called upon to contribute. Sometimes these ‘arranged marriages’ do work out. Sometimes the intelligence of artistic direction does allow to create and prolong fruitful collaborations: after all, the idea that combining a few excellent individualities should result in an excellent outcome –as naïve as it is on the subject of an alchemy as peculiar as the birth of a performance– statistically cannot be without generating a few successes from time to time.

But in most cases, artists pressured into the institutional mold’s logic of subdivision must learn how to put up with it, each and every one doing his job on his own, separately. The performances fathered by this procedure can well be pleasurable in many respects, but they are mere artifacts, whose relative success covers an undercurrent of individual frustrations. In fact, seldom do stage directors and conductors declare themselves happy at the opera: they do not feel as artistically free as in the spaces where an unequivocal power is bestowed upon them, as in their respective theatres and concert halls. Their collaborations usually end in domination of one over the other, in spineless consensus, or –and this is perhaps the most frequent case– in a jaded form of mutual indifference.

Means, however, do exist for a drastic change of this so often negative performance situation. The way is to stop partitioning the crafts, to refuse to ‘sanitize’ the rehearsal process shared by the conductor and the stage director from its interactions and frictions. It is not reasonable, today, to think that one or the other can be the sole ‘project manager’, that one can be of bigger importance than the other. Eitherway: the opera is not just a musical sub-​gender ruled by a conductor-​kinglet and merely spiced up by images, and it is not a ‘wealthy suburb’ of theatre serving as a playground for an omnipotent director, inebriated by his scenography budget or his conviction that he will, masterfully and alone against all odds, resurrect a bourgeois and dead art form from its ashes.

Rather, this is about recognizing the status of each production as a unique and special ‘project’, conceived, conducted and realized from its beginnings to its achievement by a genuine artistic team, led by the pair of a conductor and a stage director who know and respect each other and work in close collaboration. And who are thus able, four-​handedly, to produce and guide this peculiar object that is a performance, from its origins to its premiere and beyond.

For this process to be meaningful, all the symptoms of the current opera world’s ‘lottery’ have to disappear: these leading pairs have to be an active creative force, as in independent theatre companies, and have to be closely involved in the repertory choices. This involvement includes a joint choice, made together with the opera house’s chief administrator, of all collaborators that are invited to participate, starting with the singers. Instead of developing as mere construction games made up with interchangeable pieces, where a conductor and a singer can be indifferently replaced during a production’s tour or revival, an opera project should from the first consist of protagonists who have an actual desire to work together, of a team which at least has, as in any artistic project, a desire to try things out, to take risks, and to give life to a vision catalyzed by collective energy.

Such a work process would not mean diminishing everyone’s individual ‘power’; on the contrary, it could encourage the free circulation of the ideas and desires of each one involved. An opera manager thinks that a specific set of artists should collaborate? That a specific work would ‘suit’ them particularly well? So much the better! He is in an ideal position to initiate encounters and collaborations as well as to receive projects offered by pairs and include them (or not) in his season. A conductor does not appreciate a stage director’s work, or is eager to share his opinions on a work he knows deeply? A director wishes to apply dramaturgical ideas, or try a specific rehearsal system, or doesn’t know how to translate his ideas musically? In this system of joint involvement, they will then have the possibility to communicate openly with each other and, if need be, be free to find other partners if they cannot give life to their respective intents together.

Such a thawing of the institutional structures of collaboration would relieve the tensions built up over decades of corporatism and lack of dialogue, with its symptoms of ego quarrels and diva/​divo attitudes that have become the rule rather than the exception amongst conductors, directors and singers who have spent too much time within the operatic milieu.

And a last, but not least, advantage of such a reform: with the end of speculation on ‘prestige’ value, could come a devaluation of the artists’ fees, fees that have reached, however demanding and difficult their crafts happen to be, exuberant and outrageous proportions for the pick of the bunch. One must stop believing that this speculation has been justified by the public’s pleasure; rather, it has been more often to the public’s detriment, and at the cost of projects that could have actually stimulated and interested the audience.

The opera world’s various protagonists must learn how to work together. As craftsmen and ‑women they must learn how to put at the core of their practice their desire and mission of transmitting culture. It is not a case of artistic utopia, but of an actual, important and pressing need to reform an institution trapped in a stiff financial (and therefore artistic) model. If opera does not rise to this challenge, it will not simply be doomed to die from the slow bleed of its audience, but it will self-​implode, having forgotten its own calling: to be a place where arts collaborate on an equal level in order to give everyone their best.

Aleksi Barrière, stage directorClément Mao-​Takacs, conductor
Artistic directors of the company La Chambre aux échos

September 2014

Let’s create together.

Are you looking to program a music/theatre performance, a musical event?