Saturday, 16 March 2013

Stage Notes with Sound And Music, Royal Opera House

Today I attended an event, Stage Notes, curated by the charitable foundation Sound And Music  and hosted by the Royal Opera, which gives those attending a chance to hear from leading professionals in the world of opera. The event had been successfully trailed earlier in the previous week on Twitter using the hashtag #soundingout, which seems as accurate a description of the nature of the event as anything else.

In three stages, the day gave us a panel discussion - that pictured above, with Judith Weir, Martin Crimp, Laura Bowler, Oliver Mears and Jonathan Reekie, chaired by Susanna Eastburn - followed by rather more practical presentations from John Fulljames and composer Jennifer Walshe, concluding with the creative trio of Huw Watkins, David Harsent and Julian Philips discussing the collaborative process.

In fact, the collaborative nature of opera was a theme almost from the start of the day. Judith Weir offered that part of the attraction for her of writing opera was the ability for the composer to break the invisible bounds of solitary work and create in tandem or more. The end of this opening discussion came full circle to this issue. Why do opera at all? To pursue the elusive experience of a number of art forms working simultaneously, seemed to be a popular answer to this tricky question.

Inbetween there were rather more prosaic tips from the panel. Martin Crimp warned against trying to write too much music into a text, as that was what the composer was there to do. For him, one should be prepared to write 'the forgotten novel' the anonymous, stand-alone text on which the aggregated artwork of an opera can be built and shine all the brighter. Jonathan Reekie agreed and was also in agreement with Laura Bowler's insistence that an opera composer should have spent plenty of time experiencing straight theatre.

I was a little concerned that there didn't seem to be a great deal of mention of singers and writing music that would be geared to getting the best from sung drama and storytelling (although Reekie did make the point that writing sundry work for the voice is a pre-requisite exercise). Similarly the opera audience wasn't addressed particularly and a Q&A question that asked about the future climate of opera was as hedged about the market for opera as it was about the direction and potential of creative talent currently in the ascendancy. Digital media and its impact on the nature of the creation of opera  was similarly raised but not particularly picked over, save for positive noises about accessibility.

After coffee John Fulljames gave a tricolon deconstruction of the important tenets of producing opera: Direction and the parallel role of the Dramaturg ('who works out how one could stage this opera, not how one could do this particular staging of this opera'); the audience - 'nothing puts off a commissioner more than failure to be prepared to engage with a potential audience'; and a reminder of the essential emotion of the artform, a welcome reminder that there's no shame in working with sentiment.

Fulljames handed over to the secret weapon of the afternoon, the energetic, entertaining but deadly serious composer Jennifer Walshe. Making no bones about being an auteur (citing the likes of Werner Herzog, the filmmaker, as a model or at least an analogy) she gave all sorts of examples of how she would simply get on and do lyric drama. On the face of it a lot of what she had to say directly contradicted the formal niceties of individuals and their experiences of collaborating (Martin Crimp's being drawn to the simultaneously sensuous and intellectual components in his collaborator George Benjamin's prior work, for example). For Walshe, tiny sparks of interest or problem-solving would fall on and flare from the bone-dry tinder of her company which she would encourage to offer ideas on a daily, experimental basis. The only formal structure seemed to be her executive responsibility. Thought this struck me as capricious, when I asked how this squared with what Fulljames had said about engaging with the potential audience, she gave the consistent meta-answer that she didn't see the audience as a demographic but as a body of humans. this may be unsatisfactory to a producer but it's honest, something that can be worked with.

The nature of events such a these is that they are rather general. One can take from them what one wants. I was there in a very general capacity, to gauge a sense of opera's climate and direction and to hear from the pragmatic and creative poles across which the electric current of live lyric drama sparks. There was very little aesthetic discussion (I left before the final quorum of contributors, so more may have been mentioned there). It seemed to me that not much has changed in the nature of the artform - nor in the content which it makes its subject. The question that many might have liked to have debated at greater length in this company, what is opera?, was wisely left segregated for another forum.

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