There is another way

Richard Willacy – Birmingham Opera Company

I’m arriving at a foyer buzzing with excitement; youth, experience, love, pride, selfies, chat, insta, a full house. Hundreds thrill thousands.

I’m placing my mobile phone in a small locker in a ranchlike entrance before I walk through a metal detector flanked by guards ahead of 150 guests.

I’m standing sock footed on a round mat in an upstairs room wearing a virtual reality headset alongside another 10 or so people.

Where am I? It’s 2022 and I’m at the opera of course.

More specifically, three operas in three spaces, all part of La Gata Perduda/The Lost Cat, the first Catalan language opera on the stage of Liceu, Barcelona, one of the world’s largest opera auditoriums; O TEMPO (Somos Nós)/Time (As We Are), a new work made with inmates, professional artists and families in a youth prison facility in Leiria, Portugal; and Out of the Ordinary / As an Gnách, the world’s first virtual reality opera co-created with residents in Éire, Tallaght and South Dublin.

These diverse experiences share one thing – their creation was a shared process. Traction instigated and developed work with the communities they aimed to engage rather than the usual co-production products developed through “co-creating” work with another far flung city house. As an opera insider, in each case, I was now also the outsider. I could feel the tangible presence of the creators’ wish to be open, to be fresh, and to have something to say to and with their audience.

In early September 2018, an email arrived in our info@inbox. Irene Calvis from Liceu wanted to have a chat. Liceu were interested to create a new opera with communities in Barcelona. Four years later, both me and many others are richer for the invitation to be involved.

Large operatic institutions are industrial in scale with their separate departments. Predominant business models allow little risk to be taken with new, unknown or indeed local work. There’s usually a separate department, programme and value system for dealing with communities, and these infrastructures can widen the gap to the main stage.

Opera can sometimes be almost afraid to use its name to newcomers, lest it distances people. Is the problem the artform, the artists, the managers, the policymakers or the audiences? Or is it just that the world has moved on? Has opera lost, shall we say…. traction? These Traction works endeavour to go to the heart of the opera industry’s definitions of excellence, challenging its very own protected characteristics, institutional architectures and organisational behaviours.

I’ll drop a few lines here on La Gata Perduda –the one with the buzzing foyer and onstage spectacle which I’ve found myself re-telling many times since– and which I’ll remember for many years.

The main stage of Liceu had not only its largest cast ever –with over 300 residents from the district immediately behind the opera house onstage– but it also had a sold out auditorium. Local businesses and social enterprises had been commissioned as suppliers and the whole theatre had found a new way to have an opening night. There were no cordoned areas or champagne, but you could get crisps and mineral water for an egalitarian 2 euros. Crucially, ticket prices were also at really accessible levels. Of course, an opera house operating full time in this way would need a new business model, and I’m not suggesting that houses should only do such work. But it does demonstrate that there are choices; choices which engage new publics, choices which feed the form, the artists and the wider society to which they belong.

La Gata Perduda premiere @ Liceu Opera Barcelona, October 2022

I was recently at an opera conference and chairing a panel on diversity and inclusion. I asked the question, “How many of your companies can say that the creative teams who produce work have a direct relationship with the communities they serve?”. A resounding silence followed other than from one company. Some education and special projects are the domain of audience development but at least in the UK, much of this work takes place with children in schools rather than adults. We see little change in the demographic of artists and audiences coming through although it is often cited as a goal. They rarely deliver the audience I experienced that night at Liceu, and more to the point, an adult audience that doesn’t usually get to experience opera. The thinking, values and approaches often found in such special projects can address this apparent impasse. Creating shared spaces as a basic principle dissolves the knotty issue often shunted to departments of diversity and inclusion. Traction demonstrates that there are perhaps radically different choices on offer for us all.

Speaking recently at the international conference Building Capabilities: Rethinking the Social Value of Culture at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, I made an off-the-cuff remark that these Traction interventions were not acts of rebellion, they were just keeping up; that the freedom they exhibit could be seen in stark contrast to an art born free but in chains everywhere else. Whether it is easier to deliver a co-created opera in a youth offender facility or on the main stage of an opera house is perhaps a moot point. Both provide distinct challenges and each infrastructure requires much navigation.

Education and Special Projects departments have much to explore beyond school workshops and youth operas, yet there is also much for the Main Stage to gain from an exploration of a co-creation process. There is a myriad of opportunity and method by which artists, citizens, communities could gather to make great opera. When allotted investment and time, a truly shared institutional and community approach is more than ready to challenge the product and presumptions of the main stage and its protected characteristics.

Co-creation in some form is a necessity to launch a production; yet social, financial and artistic hierarchies can obfuscate the shared endeavour of artistic achievement. To draw on a Traction analogy, if we were once again standing sock footed with our VR headset, speculating “Opera….What if?” we’d see that there is another way. Let’s get to it.

Richard Willacy is General Director of Birmingham Opera Company. Both with BOC and as an independent stage director, producer and facilitator, he has a track record in delivering large scale and outward facing projects; actively encouraging new forms and engaging new audiences for Opera, Experimental Music Theatre, New Writing, Site Specific Work, Digital, Theatre, Dance and participatory projects.

More about the three Traction community operas:

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