given on Saturday 13 February 2000
at The Royal Over-Seas League, London, UK

Il curatore di questa web site ringrazia di cuore la ROYAL PHILHARMONIC SOCIETY per il permesso di pubblicazione della conferenza IL FUTURO DELL'OPERA di David Pountney, insigne regista in questo periodo impegnato a Zurigo nell'allestimento dell'opera di Hector Berlioz Benvenuto Cellini.

First of all the good news: there is a future for opera! Despite all the financial, social and political gremlins that should perhaps make the future of opera questionable, its future is assured by simple artistic truth: a story told on a stage through music remains a compellingly attractive experience.
For some people, the term “opera” is so emotive, so bound up with particular political and cultural prejudices, that they must either possess or destroy it: they want to argue the pointless question of what is and what isn’t opera. Avant Garde composers in the 60s and 70s who felt the compulsion of story telling with music but were embarrassed by the implications of the term opera called it “Music-theatre”; their polar opposites on Broadway and Shaftesbury Avenue call the commercialised version “Musical Theatre”. Spot the difference! But Opera simply means “work” and a quick trawl through its history reveals the immense range of entertainments which have fallen into the ragbag of this meaningless name: in the beginning we had plays lightly and deftly set to music - music that extended but never obscured the text. We had spectacles combining the slightest of dramas with expensive scenic effects, comic interludes and dancing side by side with moments of sublime feeling. We had highly formalised court dramas in which the text receded under a welter of elaborate music, and the action became a set of ritualised poses. Then we had the rediscovery of character and plot, and the reinvention of integrated music and drama. And we are still only at the end of the 18th century.
Thank God not all of it has been serious: we have had buffo comedy derived from Commedia del’Arte, political satire, vulgar knockabout, realist comedies, surrealist comedies, sentimental romance, comedies of high idealism, comedies of national destiny and domestic impropriety, and quite lot of comedies that are not funny at all. We have had melodramas with plots like thrillers, philosophical tragedies, kitchen sink squalor, rural idyll, romantic isolation, urban realism, historical operas, contemporary operas, fantastical operas, and quite a lot of opera with no plots at all.
But all of this immense richness of invention and variety comes down to the same simple formula: a story is told, on a stage, through music.
Well, that is the past. What is the future?
One thing that the diversity of the past tells us is that the future will almost certainly be a variation on something that has gone before. So many possibilities of combining music, text, action and image have been rehearsed over the centuries that we are not likely to find anything totally new. On the other hand, we are equally likely to find that almost any model of opera in the past will prove a fertile starting off point for opera of the future. Can we attempt to control this development, or is this the inevitable function of the Zeitgeist and we can only run to keep up? To some extent that is obviously true: we can only go in the directions which are predestined by the wider fluctuations of culture, politics, social and historical development. But I believe there is an immense responsibility for all of us who in one way or other curate the tradition of opera to look at what history has left us, perceive how it has been influenced and steered in the past, and make our minds up in a passionate and committed way about the where we should like to steer the ship into the future. All kinds of currents and tides may blow in opposite directions, but dogged tacking will still produce results.
Because of the compelling power of the basic idea of opera, and because of the richness of repertoire handed down to us, I take it as guaranteed that simply on the basis of its tradition alone opera will trundle on well into the future. Those who do nothing more than live like parasites off the past I cast into a particularly unpleasant circle of hell. There is no greater betrayal of custodianship than that. Therefore, the future of opera for me is not about how many more performances of La Bohème there will be in the next century and nor about whether this Bohème is dressed up as something else, performed on the Internet, recycled in Car Parks, made accessible to millions by being projected onto turf at football matches or howsoever manhandled and manipulated.
It is about which stories we would like to tell in our new century, and what music we will tell them with, and which audience will we find to listen to our stories. When we have answered those questions, we can go back to La Bohème and relish its genius in the proud knowledge that we have earned our right to the fruits of the past by our diligent pursuit of the needs of the present. And God forbid that the needs of the present should be fobbed off for the next century with the idea that it is sufficient to re-locate La Bohème in Brixton to answer this point. I am talking about new work. I am talking about a hard and rigorous truth that unless you are feeding the new, you have no right to live off the old. Sadly, there are very few opera houses anywhere in the world who could hold up their hands and claim to fulfil that condition. So let me say it again, loud and clear: what we inherit is an incredible cornucopia. Those who exploit it without adding to it are betraying the heritage of which they purport to be the custodians, and they should be cast out!!
Millennium fever has one - only one - advantage, and it certainly isn’t dome shaped. It gives us the easy sense of being able to look back over an arbitrarily defined period of history, and feel we can get a grasp of it. Discussing the period 1822-1913 just doesn't have the same feel. What the historical perspective of this century tells us is that it is not my insistence that we must renew the repertoire that is out of line or radical: that was the norm in Europe before the war. It is the gradual tendency since the war to do fewer and fewer new pieces, and rely more and more on the old which is the break with tradition. This is the aberration, in terms of opera’s long history, and we need to know why this has happened in order to discover how best to buck the trend.
The common sense answer is that new operas were popular then: they were called things like Turandot and Rosencavalier. As so often with common sense, it isn’t quite true. What is true is that the flood of creativity which supplied an incredible tally of new works ran undiminished, especially in Germany, right up to the war. Within this rush of works, some of which have been recently unearthed by the illuminating Entartete Music series, there were difficult and problematic works, like Wozzeck, which had nonetheless a considerable succes d’estime, and the works of Janacek - ironically the most important body of work to be written this century - which were not really to receive any sustained success for another sixty years. There were also a plethora of works which filled the bill at the time, but were destined to vanish without trace. These are in many ways the ones which should interest us now, not because we want to revive them - God forbid - but for the lesson they teach about the balance of new repertory. No-one can expect to fill a season with new masterpieces. On the other hand, an ordinary, well made film can tempt one to go to the cinema even though one may never want to see it again: it fulfils the proper need of the audience to be told a new story, and it keeps the balance between works which are stimulating just because they are new, and works which are stimulating because they are ultimately profound. There was a place then for difficult and ambitious works which stretched the boundaries of people’s understanding and appreciation, as there should always be, but these difficult works were balanced by others which had a more work-a-day approach to entertaining their audience. This balance allowed the public to preserve its expectation that it could still approach new work with the anticipation of enjoyment and understanding. This expectation has entirely vanished, except amongst a tiny coterie of enthusiasts, critics and specialists. It has been replaced by the dead hand of worthiness, the weary assumption that one is doing one’s duty by attending yet another evening doomed to failure. The sharpest evidence of this is that before the war, new works would almost simultaneously appear in several different houses: now, this is unheard of. New work is assumed to be a flop before it even starts, and opera houses only want the worthy kudos of mounting the world premiere, which might better be known as the world dernière.
New opera has a lousy image. Most sensible punters wouldn’t touch it with a barge poll, and with good reason, because most of it has been produced by people with very little understanding of the medium in which they were working, virtually no practice in that medium, and a very unhealthy contempt for simple theatrical craftsmanship, a contempt that of course implies an equally unhealthy contempt for the public that is so slow to understand and appreciate their work.
Another important reason for this lousy image is that about sixty or seventy years ago, the branch of opera that was dedicated to entertaining the public in the most light hearted and immediate way quietly packed it’s bags and walked out the door. It smelt a rat. These people didn’t want entertainment, wit, communication, gaiety, or even the poignant breath of sadness that keeps company with such things. The Viennese operetta closed its shop, crossed the Atlantic, and re-opened as Show Boat, the defining American Musical. Think about that work for a moment: it handles the terrifyingly difficult and important theme of race; it makes an epic sweep through the formative years of the American century; it is certainly as much an opera about the United States of America as the Bartered Bride is about Bohemia. Lets look a bit closer to our own time. What is it about West Side Story that makes it not an opera? In what way is West Side Story in a different genre from Carmen? I used to use a spurious definition of the difference between an opera and a musical: that an opera is a story told through music, a musical is a story accompanied by music. I don’t believe it any more. There is more music in Carmen, and some of it is more sophisticated than anything Bernstein attempts, but in essence the music and the drama do the same jobs in both pieces. Why should one be thought appropriate for the opera house and the other not? In what way is Sondheim not an opera composer? Because his music is sometimes rather thin? Meyerbeer made a great operatic career with the thinnest music! Is not the Phantom of the Opera a phantom of an opera? Of course I dare not mention that composer here....but why not? Go and see that show, which is an excellent entertainment, and you will hear that some of the time the composer is striving to write opera, even if you feel he does not succeed. Why is Miss Saigon padded out with hours of insufferably tedious and ill-composed recitatives? Because they want it to be like an opera - which of course means that the the audience wants it to be like an opera -because people who put on shows like that don’t do anything the audience doesn’t want. What the audience in that case clearly does want is the sense of permanently hightened emotion which is the central home territory of opera. But don’t tell them it’s opera - it would close the show!
In other words, opera has lost a huge swathe of its natural audience because it has forgotten how occupy its natural bridgehead in the commercial sector - a sector which is in reality only just round the corner, not a million miles away. Of course opera houses do do Show Boat, West Side Story and Sondheim, especially away from the highly specialised and expert commercial sector that we have in London. And our two National Theatre companies have made a mint from skillful ventures into musicals.
But I am not talking about revivals. I am no more interested in arguing that opera houses should be mounting revivals of musical gems of the past, than I am in pushing for a Hindemith cycle at Covent Garden. That’s just further exploitation of the past, though if you can do it as well as Carousel and Oklahoma at the National Theatre, good luck to you. What interests me for the future of opera is that people can still write successful new musicals - and lots of bad ones too - but nobody writes successful new operas, except perhaps Mr Adams and Mr Glass. Why not? Fundamentally, I suspect because they are not really trying to. People who write musicals are governed by a harsh discipline: failure is very expensive; success is a bonanza. And the ultimate judge is the public. In the arid landscape of new opera, there is no such discipline save the composer’s conscience, and no judges save the tiny circle of his peers. Far from the public being the ultimate judge, the public in this case gets the blame for being “conservative” or “lazy” when the latest new opera is a worthy failure.
So who should be telling composers to work harder for real public success? The management! That is their job, but it is one which, in the face of a completely out of date romantic concept of the inalienable rights of the artist, the management has by and large abdicated. It would be a far healthier situation if managements would make the decision that a new opera should be much more like a new musical than a new opera. It should be subjected to the same kind of ruthless commercial discipline, the same relentless re-working, the same shameless search for success as a great classic musical of the past.... like... Gounod’s Faust. Exactly! That classic 19th century pot boiler is no more and no less than a superbly well written and crafted musical, shamelessly playing to all the hot spots of the time, and bringing it off with impeccable skill and tasteful tastelessness. And it was produced of course by the Cameron Mackintoshes of the day, the ruthless husband and wife team of Carvalho. It’s very instructive to read modern critics on Gounod and Carvalho. Where, they cry, shall we ever find all those lost bits of Faust that this brutal and predatory manager caused to be cut? How can we re-discover the masterpiece that Gounod really meant to write? Faust is brilliantly written - but Carvalho had a theatre to run, and he MADE SURE it would be the most successful opera of all time. He gets no thanks for it now, but I don’t suppose that bothers him.
He may well have been an appalling bounder, but he was not the helpless creature than modern opera management - in which I have played my share - has become in the face of new opera. Partly, of course, new opera has driven itself into a creative cul-de-sac because that is where historical and cultural forces were leading it. But equally, partly because the driver let go of the wheel, and partly because there were people who actually wanted opera to be like that. Important arbiters of taste worked hard to ensure that only very particular musical and dramatic ambitions commanded respect, and therefore performances; driving the public away from new opera was a minor casualty in that campaign. Luckily, the arrogant phase of modernism has past. There are many young composers in Britain who are more than prepared to work at the idea of new opera as a vital and communicative art form, not a worthy tribute to pseudo-intellectual obscurities. But it is now up to managements to regain control of this process in the interests of rebalancing the perception of what new opera is. Composers need the occasional injection of managerial realism, just like authors need editors. Some cigar-chewing realist could have mentioned to dear Mr. Birtwistle, as he paced round his lawn figuring out the march of the seasons, that if he passed the dahlias more than twice the audience might be excruciatingly bored. There will always be a place for difficult new works. But the era when to be difficult was the first precondition of being acceptable has passed, and had better be swept away very rapidly in time for the new century. Opera has seen the musical walk off with many of the best bits in its wardrobe: get them back. They were an integral part of opera long ago. Find the stories that speak to people, and find the music that makes them want to listen. That is the real meaning of that horrible word "accessibility": never forget Cowards famous line: “Ah, the power of cheap music!” The future of opera is not about institutions, managements, boards, administrators: it is first and foremost about new works. That is the only context in which it will remain interesting to revisit the gems of the past.
Meanwhile, I fear most of you can’t wait for me to get on to boards, managements, administrators, and talk about opera houses rather than operas. I thought that for once, we might discuss the art first. Perhaps some of you think that there won’t be opera houses: that the future lies on television, or the internet. And I am sure a little bit of the future does, but I do hope that the next century sees far more intelligent uses of these media. Like the gramophone record and the CD, they can only help to stimulate interest in the real thing. There is absolutely nothing to be afraid of, and everything to be gained by being much more imaginative and less reverential in the way we adapt opera for mechanical media. I hope for instance that we have seen the back of that excruciatingly tedious and inappropriate thing: the televised opera relay. I have an uncomfortable feeling that someone in some government department thinks that this is the way to persuade people that opera is accessible. Actually, it is a way guaranteed to persuade people that opera is a crashing bore. The televised opera relay is terrible opera, and unspeakable television. If you are going to put opera on television - and why not? - then it should first and foremost be good television. Staged opera is too big, too long, and, in close up, too ugly to be bearable on television. What television needs is something short, brilliantly edited and full of visual imagination. Like a pop video in fact. The thirty minute Rigoletto, directed by Brian de Palma, the thirty minute Wozzeck, directed by Ken Loach. That’s opera on television. And that’s what would lure people into the theatre, not stuff you switch off to go and make dinner.
And the internet: surely a superb tool for opera to create specific material for use in education; surely a superb opportunity to devise witty, stimulating and specific material appropriate for the internet’s strange blend of jewels and junk, fascination and tedium. But as with television, something to be approached imaginatively and for itself, and nothing to do with timidly recreating material which really belongs live, on a stage.
That, in the future will remain opera’s home: the dimension of real people bravely exhibiting their talents and their flaws in the hushed companionship of the theatre. What a powerful place the opera house can have in the new century of enforced leisure! But how will this opera house be run? Above all, who will pay for it?
I have argued that an element of commercialism is a vital component in the creation of new operas in the future. In doing so I am reaffirming the tradition that operatic music has always been essentially popular, vulgar in the best sense. Does that mean that I see the institutional future of opera also as commercial? If Faust was a musical, why cannot opera function within the disciplines of commercial theatre? Principally, because we have refined and developed our ideas of democracy, and its social implications. We have now a far more inclusive and democratic notion of what society is than was the case in Gounod’s time: then the gems of artistic perception were only available to those who could afford a ticket. Now we should hope that most members of our society could have financial access to the arts if they wished to make the effort. That is why I am happy to insist on commercial discipline in the running of an opera house, but I would simultaneously like to see the vigorous reassertion of the principles and ideals of public subsidy, which I believe should have an ever more important role in the provision of the arts in the next century.
As I say that, I can almost feel someone write the words: “whingeing luvvie.” But to whinge is to complain, and to beg. On the contrary, I wish to assert a fundamental principle of which I am proud: the arts are a vital component of the health of a democracy. Power without imagination is a curse, and the arts are the lungs of the imagination. Of course everyone’s imagination is their own private property, and they may feed it and nurture it in private without any assistance from the state. But the democratic state should also recognise that the freedom of thought which is the guarantee of its democratic probity is uniquely stimulated by the contact with the imaginative world which the arts supplies; and that this nurture of the imaginative world also has a public dimension as well as a private one. The state depends on the free choices of its electorate; therefore it should publicly honour the means by which the communal imagination is stimulated, provoked, kept awake, massaged, made healthy.
Let’s for a moment take a sentimental trip through the last 50 years of British operatic history. The war ends. There is that fervent spirit of idealistic rebuilding: the extraordinary music and drama of Peter Grimes bursts into life at Sadlers Wells. The Arts Council is founded. The Royal Opera becomes, for the first time in its history, a permanent company. The Welsh National Opera is built up around a maverick garage owner and bus-loads of amateur choristers. The dashing young Alexander Gibson - flash haggis they called him - gives up his metropolitan career and goes back to Glasgow to found Scottish Opera. Stephen Arlen cons the Arts Council into letting him move Sadlers Wells to the Coliseum without ever quite knowing how it would be paid for: ENO is founded, but not funded! There is the constant mirage of an opera company in Manchester, but in the end it is Lord Harewood’s sleight of hand which leads to the establishment of Opera North in Leeds. A mixture of pragmatism, cunning, idealism and improvisation lays down the basic structure of a national operatic tradition. The result of this, fifty years on, is that the British regional companies are some of the most serious places of operatic endeavour in Europe - and I have good standards of comparison - and that British singers, directors, conductors are renowned all over Europe for their professionalism and quality. It is a brilliant achievement and an inspiring story and yet we are strangely confused and unable to celebrate or even defend it. A politician, possibly well meaning, is five minutes into his job and with one flippant remark - springing fully formed from the back of a cigarette packet - shakes the whole foundations. The aberrations of the board of the Royal Opera are seen as sufficient grounds to contemplate demolishing what has taken half a century to build up. The Welsh National Opera is the most significant cultural institution that that country has ever had; it will shortly have a new home by the water in Cardiff docks. But it is not allowed to call it an opera house - indeed it has to avoid at every turn mentioning the word opera in case the whole project collapses! The very existence of opera is brought into question, as though the activities of a buffoon like Lord Chadlington could vitiate performances of Mozart and Verdi conducted by Bernard Haitink. The British have caught cultural cringe! Why are we not more robust in defending the things we have so painstakingly created? The future of opera will need people who are able to stand up and proudly reassert the value of the thing itself and its central part in a civilised society.
Once upon a time, societies needed people who could ride horses or sail ships in case there was a war. Now, society needs people who can think in case there is an election. Even more important, society needs forums which celebrate the communal imagination. A society is a mechanism of shared power and should understand the feeling of shared emotion. This is increasingly important in an era when media is more and more private: a lonely dialogue with a synthetic screen. Of course millions of people watch the same television programmes, but they can only share the experience the following day, examining the contents of last night’s ashtray. The simultaneous roar of laughter or of amazement is a powerful experience - possibly frightening - possibly deeply creative. A football team can express a city’s communal identity and the highly emotional participation of the spectators gives them access and ownership of joys and disappointments apparently out of proportion to a mere game. Likewise, a theatre can express and touch a city’s communal soul. In the theatre, a society gathers together in the darkness and in the company of strangers submits itself to a vigorous massage of the emotions. Like football, the play may be light, the matter ephemeral, but the feelings generated and shared in the audience are real. This is vital and health giving: the sharing of such feelings is ennobling not just for the individuals but for the society of which they are a part.
The audience which enters the theatre must no longer be nobles but should be, in however slender a sense, ennobled when they leave even, or perhaps especially, if they have only been made to laugh together. This is the answer to the constantly parroted charge of “elitism”. The arts are the creative responses of exceptional human beings who were able to compose, paint and write down perceptions which were clear to their highly developed imaginations whereas they might be obscure to the rest of us. These perceptions encapsulate some of the most refined and profound and joyous recorded responses to the human condition and opera, in particular, is one of the highest expressions of that culture. Such perceptions are clearly created by an “elite” group, those whose imaginative antennae receive messages dim to others, although these people as individuals are often lowly and impoverished. The question is: who then owns these perceptions?
The function of subsidy is to make these “elite” perceptions the property of the electorate in a democratic society. Relying on private or corporate donation to make these purchases “on our behalf” does not at all convey the same message. Society should take pride in this ownership as a thing of value in itself even when each individual will not necessarily wish to experience them directly. The government of that society should take pride in funding and guaranteeing that ownership because of the respect that implies for the electorate which chooses it. It is no surprise that governments which wish to suppress liberty almost always move rapidly to restrict and control access to the arts: we may feel that no British government could be a threat to our liberty but we have all the more reason to demand that our government shows respect for the freedom of thought which is uniquely nurtured and developed by access to the imaginative world embodied in the arts. For New Labour to reform the constitution in the name of democracy without acknowledging its responsibility to the wider intelligence and sophistication of its electorate would be an act of dishonesty. The Government has taken some steps in this direction, but tentatively. It is pussyfooting around, and trying to get the credit for supporting the arts without actually committing itself wholeheartedly either in principle or in money. Opera may be luxurious but it is not a luxury; it is an invaluable tool in the health of a democracy.
Subsidy might seem like a comfortable option for an opera house, but it carries with it awesome responsibilities. The private or corporate donor may be a difficult character to handle, but they cannot bring with them the moral imperatives that are implied by the state subsidy. These have for me primarily artistic implications. I take it for granted that the opera house will be efficiently and prudently run. This might seem like a rash assumption, but the majority of opera companies in this country are extremely well run, and deliver almost impossible value for money. Since the point of the subsidy is to express the public ownership of culture, exorbitant prices are anathema - or rather a swindle, since the public pays twice. The subsidy must be adequate, and the prices reasonable. Both parties must keep their sides of that bargain. And no doubt there is an important role for sponsorship to top up that subsidy, but only if it is recognised that there is an inherent conflict of interest here which must be constantly addressed and worked at. A sponsor wants reward for his gift, and that usually means he wants his gift to be conspicuous. But if the point of subsidy is to symbolise that art belongs to the public, it cannot at the same time appear to have been sold to a corporate entertainment outfit. If government expects private money to do too much work, it is at the same time weakening the argument of principle in support of subsidy; and the opera house must be constantly vigilant to avoid the perception that business barons have walked off with public property.
The artistic implications are much more important, and much harder to quantify. They start out with the sense that artistic policy is based on an intimate dialogue with a specific audience. An opera house must seem like a an endearing but unpredictable and provocative friend. Above all it must have personality - it must be something you can argue with and about, and it must pay its audience and friends the compliment of looking them in the eyes, and not staring into the far horizon. Opera is an international art form and music an international language. But the function of each opera house is to modulate that language with a specific reference to this city, this audience, this year, on this particular evening. Only then will the public have that sense of particular ownership which justifies the expenditure of their hard earned money. This individual sense of artistic policy must not be compromised and diluted by productions which roam aimlessly from one city to another, reflecting nothing in particular except financial convenience. This is airport culture - “duty-free opera” - in every sense.
But the profoundest artistic implication of subsidy is in the creation of new work, for that is the deepest compliment which the arts can pay to the society which supports them. I have argued for more commercial disciplines in the generation of new opera. I have argued for a highly idealistic vision of the role of opera in society. Are these two standpoints necessarily contradictory? I think not.
The most brilliant expressions of truth are those which are so transparent that they seem obvious to everyone. There is nothing dumb about communication, so I am not talking about dumbing down. In fact, to be obscure is as dumb as it is to be banal. No opera house could justify one penny of subsidy by being either. If opera is to have a role in society and justify its subsidy, it can only do so by ruthless adherence to the ideal of expressing and communicating the world of the imagination to the widest possible cross section of society. The creation of communicative new work is a vital part of that duty. People have an immense respect and love for music; but we are beginning to create the perception that so-called classical music can only relate to human beings of the past. This is untrue and a horrible distortion. It should be the highest aim of every opera house in the future to show that music is latent in the lives and stories of ordinary modern people - that music is not part of the heritage industry - that it’s power and emotional depth relate to our lives, not just to costume dramas of the past - that its audience has access not just to the music of the past, but to the music that is within modern life. That is the true way to repay the debt of subsidy. It is the true way for opera in the future.!

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