The Odd Couple

François Matarasso – 5 October 2022

In Neil Simon’s Broadway play, The Odd Couple, two divorced men agree to share an apartment. They are, of course, wildly unsuited to living together. Uptight, neurotic Felix and carefree, untidy Oscar find each other intolerable. It’s a simple dramatic device, made memorable by great performances from Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau who starred in the 1968 film. And, like many simple stories, The Odd Couple has a gentle lesson, as Oscar and Felix both learn from the other to find a happier equilibrium in life.

But life is more complicated than plays, and when I first heard about the Liceu’s plan to co-create an opera with the people of Raval, I admit that I was doubtful about the outcome. Could there be a more unlikely pairing than this? On one side, the city’s historic temple of high culture with all its formal codes and traditions, on the other its liveliest and most diverse neighbourhood, loved and misunderstood in equal measure. What did they have in common? What did they have to say to each other‚ or to the city of Barcelona?

More than enough, it turns out. Enough to fill four long years of exploration, as each side discovered the other’s daily life and artistic creativity. Enough to keep them together through the pandemic and its immense problems. Enough to create a performance that celebrates the spirit of Raval with and through the spirit of opera. Enough to show that, as human beings, we always have more in common than separates us.

None of this was simple. None of it should be taken for granted. Today, as we finally reach the destination of this long journey, it is important to recognise some of the resources that made it possible. First and perhaps most important, has been a willingness on all sides to accept the good intentions of the other. Even when the idea of a community opera was vague and the process uncertain, people were ready to trust that it was being done for the right reasons. And the foundation of that was honest and mutual respect. The opera house approached the community with an open heart, willing to share its resources and talents and to welcome the community’s resources and talents. Raval responded in the same spirit, trusting the Liceu to navigate the ship it had launched to a safe harbour.

Also essential was the decision to create a new opera, a story of Raval, shaped by the people of the neighbourhood. In La Gata Perduda, the hero is not a duke or a princess; it is not even a person—it is Raval, everyone and everything that belongs to this rich, complex and spirited community, symbolised by its cat. In most operas, it is the soloists who matter: here, it is the chorus. Raval sings; it paints, it sews, it builds, it dances. It has always done so for itself, in the joy of creation. In La Gata Perduda, it does so for the whole city, amplified by the resources of the Liceu. Raval is the hero tonight.

None of this has been simple or easy (but it has often been a lot of fun).

Like Felix, the opera house has learned to relax, adapting its habits and expectations to the lived reality of Raval. The production process has been redesigned so that people can participate while working, going to school and meeting their existing obligations. Established ideas about art and aesthetics have been challenged and enriched. There are more ways for music to move us than we ever knew, and there are still more that we have not yet discovered.

And like Oscar, Raval has discovered how much higher it is possible to reach with experienced guides who know the mountains like others know their own streets. It is an extraordinary idea to stand on the stage of the Liceu and sing to more than two thousand people. It is an extraordinary achievement to guide people through the processes that allow them to do that for the first time. Together, that is what the Liceu and Raval do tonight, and it is a pure joy to hear and to see their co-creation.

It’s true that I was doubtful about this journey at the beginning. I have spent forty years helping professional and non-professional artists to create together, but I have never been involved in anything as ambitious as this project. I know how exciting and rewarding co-creation can be, but I know the big risks involved as well. It is easy to give the appearance of equality in co-creation while the professionals retain control. If La Gata Perduda has so successfully avoided that danger, it is because of the respect that everyone has given to each other’s experience, perspective and creative gifts.

Neither the Liceu nor the Raval will be the same after La Gata Perduda. Nor will the audience. And nor, I think, will be the art of opera.

La Gata Perduda community opera was co-created with members of the Raval neighbourhood in Barcelona and premieres tonight 5 October at Liceu opera house. A second performance will be held on 7 October.