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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.

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