A New Urgency

OPERA 2018, at Estabelecimento Prisional de Leiria – Jovens (Prision)
© SAMP used by permission

For thirty years, Jonathan Dove has been composing community operas with and for non-professional performers. His reflective essay on his experience – which is now available as a downloadable PDF – offers rich insights into changing practice and his own evolving ideas. The tension he identifies, between local specificities and universal themes, is at the heart of many community art projects and, in different ways, the three Traction trials.

In 1988, inspired by his experience with Opera North in Bradford, Jonathan challenged Glyndebourne to help him make an opera with a whole town. This was a high point for community theatre in the UK, with at least 128 productions between 1985 and 1995, most of them telling the story of a place. This approach is effective because, as he says, it is clear and attractive to local people, and flexible enough to include the particular talents and cultures of everyone who wants to take part. Getting a community to speak to itself can be energising and powerful. Bringing common experiences centre stage (literally) can have lasting effects on how a place sees itself, its social interactions and its confidence, as well as changing individual lives.

At the same time, the very particularity that makes the story so compelling to those involved risks shutting out everyone else. References to people, places and events held in collective memory are central to such productions, but they confuse outsiders or simply pass them by. Such community plays and operas are never performed elsewhere and rarely performed again: they are, literally, of their time and place. Jonathan describes his gradual realisation of that truth after a series of very successful productions, and speaks of his consequent search for more universal stories. That culminated in The Monster in the Maze, inspired by the legend of the Minotaur, which was first produced in 2015 and has already become one of his most successful creations, with new productions in many countries. Each one can become particular to its place and the people involved, as Irene Calvis explains in her account of El Monstre al laberint. Paco Azorín’s production of the opera connected the ancient Mediterranean myth with the modern trauma of migration that has touched Barcelona so profoundly.

The Monster in the Maze, 2015 production by the Berlin Philharmonic, photograph by Monika Rittershaus, courtesy of Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker.

In February 2020, when the Traction partnership held its first meeting in San Sebastián, these were the type of issues that we hoped to explore. How could digital technology help reconnect Europe’s iconic performing art with local people, and especially with those at risk of or experiencing social exclusion? Opera is a powerful art. It inspires passionate enthusiasm in millions and creates experiences they remember their whole lives. But it leaves many more feeling indifferent or even excluded. For some, opera’s cost and status make it a symbol of Europe’s growing and contested inequalities. The Traction project cannot change all that, but it does aim to identify new pathways through which opera artists might renew their relationship with communities. That involves testing how digital technologies can open the process of artistic creation, enrich the experience of existing audiences, and make opera accessible to new ones. Innovation in technology and its application is one strand of work; the other is innovation in the processes of co-creation on which community opera relies. In three very different trials, Irish National Opera, the Gran Teatre del Liceu, and the Sociedade Artística Musical dos Pousos are working to bridge the chasms between people at risk of exclusion, digital technology and the high art of opera. It is a daunting task, but the partnership gathers a range and depth of expertise: we are hopeful that trials will produce results of lasting value in artistic, technological and social terms.

SAMP Opera representation

OPERA 2018, at Estabelecimento Prisional de Leiria – Jovens (Prision)
© SAMP used by permission

Then, a few weeks after we began work on Traction, the world changed. The public health measures taken to protect people from the Covid-19 pandemic have been as unforeseeable as they have been unprecedented. For two or three months, the world as we knew it was suspended. It is now reviving, but slowly, carefully and unevenly. Few sectors have suffered as hard as the performing arts. Social distancing makes it impossible to fill theatres, concert halls or opera houses, or for musicians and actors to perform as they used to do. The economic consequences are catastrophic. Great institutions like London’s Royal Opera House are making staff redundant, despite governmental aid packages. The loss of livelihood in a sector that depends so heavily on freelance and self-employed artists will hurt millions and may end many promising careers.

One casualty, among so many, was El Monstre al laberint, which had been due to open at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in March 2020. Months of work lost; hundreds of children and adults halted in mid-stride. As Irene Calvis says, plans are underway to present the work in a new form, but the future is, to say the least of it, uncertain. It will happen one day, but it may be a long time before we are able – before we are willing – to sit in rows with a thousand other people to watch an opera again. Suddenly, the questions Traction is grappling with have acquired a whole new urgency because, if we need to find other ways to create, share and enjoy opera, then working with communities and using new technology are two of the most promising territories available.

Jonathan Dove’s essay should remind us, among other things, of the long history of experiment and innovation associated with community opera. Indeed, reading about his experience in this field, I’m struck by the creativity that professionals and non-professionals bring to solving the artistic and practical demands of working together. The pandemic has touched the Traction partners like everyone else, as we have been unable to leave our homes, cities or countries. But technology – especially videoconferencing – has enabled us to adapt and continue our work, even if it’s not what we anticipated. The need for new solutions is greater than ever – but so is our commitment to creating them. Jonathan Dove concludes with these words:

It’s hard to say who needs community opera most: the organisations, the writers, the participants or the audience. But if you’ve ever witnessed the curtain-calls after a community opera, you’ll know that everyone needs it.

SAMP Opera representation

OPERA 2018, at Estabelecimento Prisional de Leiria – Jovens (Prision)
© SAMP used by permission

Our task is now to secure that curtain-call experience, and all that goes into achieving it, in new ways, until the old ones are available again.