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Opera Now provides a unique and all-encompassing perspective on the international opera scene through its lively and colourful mix of news, reviews, interviews, travel articles and commentary.

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Opera & Music Theatre Forum maps out the future of opera

15 November 2013, London, UK

Keynote speaker: Mark Ravenhill
Keynote speaker: Mark Ravenhill

A crowd of the UK’s most enterprising opera producers attended the 2013 Opera and Music Theatre Forum (OMTF) Conference at the Royal Opera House, London last November. The question tabled for the day was ‘Future Tense: What will the world be like in 2030?’ They had assembled to discuss the challenges of an uncertain future, shaped by funding cuts and shifting demographics.

Kasper Holten, head of opera at the ROH, introduced the event as a visitor from 2030, posing as the new boss of the Intergalactic Opera House on Mars. He gave us a rosy vision of a perfect future, with unlimited funding and universal support for opera, before bringing us back to reality with a bump, while reminding us that whatever innovations and upheavals lie in store, opera will always be, fundamentally, about life’s big emotions: love, jealousy, revenge, forgiveness, death, etc. Hence its enduring appeal.

Both Bill Renshaw, a former banker and government business adviser, and Phillida Cheetham, of Which? magazine, gave us a gloomy statistical prognosis, citing an aging population with 1.5 retired people to every working individual; low incomes with high borrowing; and a massive squeeze on resources – especially water and energy. On the up side, Cheetham offered, opera tends to appeal to an older population with more leisure time and disposable income, so perhaps this would play in opera’s favour?

Technology, too, was high on the list of factors that would influence our engagement with the arts in future. The internet and home entertainment were both challenges to the live performing arts, but also opportunities to hook in a new, broader audience.

Solutions to the knotty problems were not entirely obvious. Keynote speaker Mark Ravenhill urged that opera should look at the National Theatre as a role model for progress. The opera house should see itself as a cultural multiplex and a ‘living library’ of talent, presenting a range of work that isn’t compartmentalised into ‘new’ and ‘traditional’. ‘If we think of Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre,' Ravenhill said, ‘we see an organisation presenting new work not as something special, but just part of the offer. Thankfully, we’re at the end of a phase where an opera house’s job has been the preservation of a legacy, when you had to be a Sir to write a new opera for Covent Garden, when they cost at least £1m to stage.’

He added that opera needed to have a new pact with audiences to ensure that it doesn’t become a closed shop: ‘There’s no drying up of young talent in the making of the arts. But today’s composers need to understand the workings of the stage and value showbiz.’

Ravenhill also gave this piece of advice about the aging population: ‘Don’t stigmatise old people. They have more time, maybe more disposable income than the rest of us, and they want to keep their minds alive – and keep learning. They represent a broad range of political and cultural tastes and we as a sector should be interested in that and enjoy it.’

Bill Bankes-Jones, OMTF’s chair, summed up by saying, ‘The future may be scary, but also full of opportunity. There will be lots more old people wanting entertaining and lots more young people wanting to make things.’ How we square up these two sides of the equation is the key to success and survival.

Budapest's Erkel Theatre to reopen after refurbishment

9 October 2013, Budapest, Hungary

Dramatic facelift: the newly refurbished Erkel Theatre welcomes its first guests
Dramatic facelift: the newly refurbished Erkel Theatre welcomes its first guests(Photo: Attila Nagy)

Gábor Bretz, the star turn of HSO's opening productions at the Erkel Theatre
Gábor Bretz, the star turn of HSO's opening productions at the Erkel Theatre(Photo courtesy of IMG Artists)

The Erkel Theatre, Budapest’s second opera house, is reopening this month following a refurbishment project funded by the Hungarian government.

The Theatre closed in 2007 and its future remained uncertain until last year, when the Hungarian State Opera received a government grant for 1.7 billion Forints (£485,000) towards the cost of the improvements.

The official reopening will take place on 7 November, the birthday of Hungary’s national composer Ferenc Erkel, which from this year will also be known as the ‘Day of Hungarian Opera’. The first staged productions will open on 9 November with a double bill of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and János Vajda’s Mario and the Magician, featuring the internationally celebrated Hungarian bass Gábor Bretz leading the casts of both operas.

‘The re-opening of the Erkel Theatre will allow the Hungarian State Opera to expand the range of its activities and cultivate new audiences across the board,’ explains the company’s general director Szilveszter Ókovács. ‘We need to provide our audience with the core classics as well as with new productions of works that are perhaps more of an acquired taste. The reopened Theatre will add to the mixture: along with the classic repertoire, such as Aida, Don Carlos, Don Giovanni and Cav & Pag, we would like to introduce future visitors more specialist works, including our national repertoire of Hungarian operas. It is not unusual for capital cities to have opera theatres that present national pieces – think of English National Opera and its presentation of works by Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten. We do not stick to the Hungarian language in our productions, but we find it extremely important to play this national repertoire and get new as well as regular audience members acquainted with it.’

Originally opened in 1910, the Erkel Theatre took on its current identity as a ‘People’s Opera’ after the Second World War. Its history is intertwined with the golden age of Hungarian opera, with international stars such as Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, Éva Marton and Grace Bumbry all having performed there. The theatre has a minimum capacity of 1,900 seats, which makes it the largest opera house in Central Europe. ‘Budapest’s historic State Opera House is a tourist attraction, and it has to have expensive seats and special repertoire featuring international stars,’ explains Ókovács. ‘But the Erkel Theatre will be the place for popular operas and ballets at more affordable prices – all with the same outstanding singers, dancers and musicians to ensure there is no step down in quality.’

Many of the recent refurbishments at the Erkel have taken place behind the scenes, including improvements to artist facilities, stage equipment and service systems, but audiences can also look forward to stepping into an auditorium with a completely new look that has retained its fantastic acoustic. With ticket prices ranging from 500 Forints (£1.40) to a maximum of 3,500 Forints (£10), Ókovács would the Erkel like to attract an audience of music lovers who might not otherwise be able to afford to see opera and dance: ‘At the Erkel Theatre, the emphasis is on atmosphere and comfort. The colour scheme and the very comfortable seats give the feeling of being in a cinema multiplex – it’s very cosy, and you can sit back and enjoy the wonderful sound quality.’


Opera Now's Montblanc competition winner

9 October 2013

Opera Now readers were invited to write a short account of an experience of opera that has made a lasting and inspirational impression on them. Opera Now’s judges were struck by Chris Berentson’s atmospheric account of how Puccini’s La bohème continues to influence his life and career. Mr Berentson wins our prize of a beautiful, precision-made Montblanc Meisterstück LeGrand Ball Point pen.


Winter Garret by Chris Berentson

The snap of dry twigs beneath our feet and the smell of eucalyptus: it was the wintery late-night prelude of a fellow student tenor and I approaching my flat. Inside, it was considerably warmer, especially once the whisky was found, and the promised favourite recording of all time featuring Robert Merrill, Victoria De Los Angeles and our idol, the incomparable Jussi Björling, was on the CD player. With the opening salvo of double-basses and trombones crashing through the speakers in mono, my mind went back four years to my first experience of the piece that was to change my life.

It was 1999, and I had stepped off the plane in Sydney from my native New Zealand, to find a job and learn to be a singer. I took lodgings in a backpackers’ hostel near the beach and worked in a department store unloading boxes. Ten minutes’ walk away was my singing teacher’s studio and after some days of singing on the beach, she gave me her keys so I could practise after work.

In the warm dusk one evening, having finished my scales and arias (and resisting the call of the watering-holes of my workmates), I wandered up the steps of the Sydney Opera House with the magnificent harbour glistening below; I stood under her sails to find a spur-of-the moment ticket for La bohème.

What struck most in the theatre that evening was the directness of the music, its endless striving to reconcile art and life, and the tragic story of ordinary people attempting the extraordinary. In that cold student garret, Puccini summed up all the real experiences of being a young artist: poetry, painting, wine, laughter, love, song. Of course, straight away you realise that this is a romantic account; being poor, ill-clothed and sick is a terrible existence. Yet as the young, impoverished poet Rodolfo sings, ‘E come vivo? Vivo!’ (How do I live? I live!), anything seems possible. Such was the singer’s conviction that night, I knew that I had finally found what I had to do with my life. His words still resound in my ears.

Chris Berentson is a New Zealand-based tenor who has performed a wide variety of roles in opera and oratorio.


Final curtain falls on New York City Opera

1 October 2013, New York, US

NYCO's general director George Steel
NYCO's general director George Steel(Photo: René Perez)

New York City Opera has announced it is to close and file for bankruptcy in its 70th anniversary year, after failing to find the US$7m (£4.3m) needed to deliver its planned season for the year ahead.

The decision to cease operating was taken when an emergency appeal for a total of $20m (£12.3m) to continue the 2013/14 season and plan for future years produced just one-tenth of its target by the end of September.

In an email to subscribers, artistic director and general manager George Steel said: ‘New York City Opera did not achieve the goal of its emergency appeal, and the board and management will begin the necessary financial and operational steps to wind down the company.’

The company’s demise follows a long series of setbacks, including a substantial loss of revenue in 2008-09 during the refurbishment of the David H. Koch Theater (formerly the New York State Theater), where the company had been resident since 1966. This arrangement ended in 2011, when a review of NYCO’s business model concluded that the company should move out of its Lincoln Center home altogether.

This decision worked in the short term, allowing NYCO to continue producing some critically acclaimed work as an itinerant troupe; yet without a permanent home the company’s number of performances fell drastically, resulting in a loss of ticket revenue. Combined with a sharp fall in investment income from the company’s endowment (down from US$3m per year at its peak to less than US$200,000 today), reliance on fundraising became greater than ever.

Early in September, in a last-ditch attempt to save the company from immediate closure, an online crowd-sourcing campaign was launched to raise $1m, but only brought in just over $300,000.

Founded in 1943 to provide ‘cultural entertainment at popular prices’, New York City Opera had staged 29 world premieres and 62 US and New York premieres by the end of its 2012/13 season. The company’s ethos of making opera affordable to the city’s residents had earned it the nickname ‘The People’s Opera’.

Julius Rudel, 92, the maestro who helped to build and lead NYCO in its heyday, told the New York Times, ‘I would not have thought in my wildest dreams that I would outlive the opera company.’ He added: ‘I think it’s a real operatic tragedy.’


Regime change at Madrid's Teatro Real

26 September 2013, Madrid, Spain

Gerard Mortier (above) will stay on as an artistic advisor to his successor Joan Matabosch (below)
Gerard Mortier (above) will stay on as an artistic advisor to his successor Joan Matabosch (below)

(Photos: Javier del Real)

Madrid’s Teatro Real has announced the immediate appointment of Joan Matabosch as the company’s new artistic director, ousting Gerard Mortier three years before his current contract was due to expire.

The decision followed hot on the heels of a row sparked by the Belgian-born Mortier, who suggested in a published interview that no Spaniard would be good enough to succeed him. He further warned that if the government imposed a candidate of whom he disapproved, he wouldn't see out his term.

Mortier, 69, told El País: ‘The government wants a Spaniard. That's no problem for me, so long as they're a good candidate. The important thing is not their nationality, but their quality … [but] I don't see any good candidates in Spain … this country has a number of extraordinary museum directors. But it's not the same in opera. There is no tradition here.’

Mortier took charge of Madrid’s opera house in 2010 after resigning early from his previous post at the New York City Opera. Known for shaking things up wherever he goes, his artistic agenda in Madrid has been characteristically bold, including staging Messiaen’s Saint François d'Assise and commissioning world premieres such as Glass’s The Perfect Amercian and (coming up in January) Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain.

Matabosch, who has held the post of artistic director at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu since 1997, said his goal at the Teatro Real would be ‘not to copy literally what Mortier has done, but it will be a project of continuity rather than trying to do the opposite and undermine the extraordinary legacy that he has left in Madrid.’

Matabosch will combine his existing role in Barcelona with his new role in Madrid for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Mortier has been named as an artistic advisor to the Teatro Real, though the exact nature of his future involvement with the company remains unclear – a situation further complicated by the recent revelation that he is undergoing treatment for cancer.


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