2010 Opera Europa Conference May 29th Review

     Amongst the calamity of Rotterdam's eclectic architecture, in a city that is void of an actual opera house, a curious thing is happening.  Opera Europa, the European trade association for the opera industry, is holding its annual conference.  Here, over 150 delegates representing some of Europe's finest institutions have met to discuss the future of opera.  These individuals have much to discuss considering the fallout of the recession, the recent gain the dollar has had against the euro, and the undeniable fact that these and other factors clearly spell future budget cuts for most of Europe's cultural organizations.
     The conference commenced with a rather unstructured debate about the "artistic developments in opera and music theater today."  Guests included composer Michel van der Aa, Holland Festival's Pierre Audi, writer and journalist Ellen Segeren, Veenfabriek composer Paul Koek, Birmingham Opera Company's Graham Vick, and it was moderated by Opera Europa's Nicholas Payne and Lex Mohlmeijer.
     One of the particularly fascinating and hotly discussed topics of this panel revolved around developing racial diversity in the audience. The topic was breached when Mr. Vick asked all those in the audience who considered themselves minorities to please stand up—no one stood up.

     Opera Birmingham is unique in several ways. It is a site-specific opera company, meaning the productions take place in venues that are not your traditional opera house. Also, the company trains volunteer artists from its surrounding community. The surrounding community just so happens to be racially diverse. Because of these two influences minorities represent 30% of the audience.
     Mr. Vick stated, "change your audience and you change your art." As the the audience watched a video of Birmingham Opera’s recent production of Verdi’s Otello they began to realize that this was not opera—it was more. Somehow this company had found a formula that redefined what they did. They changed the core competencies of opera and redefined many aspects of the art. Unfortunately, the discussion that came forth after this devolved into a discussion about race that was filled with uncomfortable utterances of PC terms and a rather reductive view of the core issue—making opera on the whole more representative of the community.
     The highlight of the evening was the keynote speech given by the director of the Edinburgh Festival, Jonathan Mills, who spoke with tremendous eloquence about the cultural ownership of the operatic form. In summation, he argued that opera should not be viewed as proprietary European. He sighted numerous examples of international dramatic forms and justified them against Wagner's gesamtkunstwerk principal. He argued that the operatic form should be able to transcend these barriers and evolve into a trans-cultural art form. Why not a new Indian, Chinese, Japanese, African, etc. operatic form? Why not bring these and our existing repertoire not just in Europe, but the world? These are quite valid questions considering that Eastern economies are on the rise and the world powers will soon be entirely restructured.
     As the purveyors and keepers of opera we must anticipate the change of art and our audience both on a local and global level in a way that has never been done in the past. We must act preemptively for the benefit of our art and not go gently into that good night.

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