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Visitors to the Royal Opera House are used to picking up promotional fliers in the foyer advertising forthcoming events and seasons. In recent weeks, they will have seen one that had a vaguely discomfiting look to it: a young man in a vest, ripped jeans and trainers clambering up a wall that bears the ROH crest. If you wanted to depict the invasion of one of Britain’s bastions of high culture by the disreputable masses, you couldn’t get much better than this.
But wait: there is a twist. The young man has a tattoo of the very same ROH crest on his arm. If this is an invasion, it is from within; a mutiny, perhaps. Whatever it is, the image is a long way from the scarlet and gold heraldry that most opera and dance lovers associate with the house.
That is precisely the point of ROH2, the-company-within-a-company whose “Firsts” initiative is being advertised by this vivid picture of irreverence. The season consists of six evenings of mixed, short performances at the Linbury Studio Theatre by up-and-coming talents in the opera and dance worlds. All tickets to the performances – and this is perhaps the most vivid contrast with the main house – are just £5 (€7; $10).
Deborah Bull, television favourite, BBC governor, and for 20 years a dancer with the Royal Ballet (10 of them as principal), is the artistic director of ROH2, and, in spite of the implication of its title, sees its activities – commissioning, workshopping, providing space and support to small companies of artists – as central to what the house is trying to do. Its objectives, she says with disarming ease, are “to increase the range and diversity of the art, artists and audience, and to act as a laboratory for the art forms – somewhere you can come with your mad idea and try it out.”
“The opera house is a pretty big name,” she understates. “It is hard to keep a low profile. Artists need a platform where they can start off, and be criticised for their work but not shot down in flames. They need a place to fail.”
This week’s Firsts programme is typical of ROH2’s innovative approach: it includes “Avatar”, an improvised performance between dancer, animator and sound designer; “Dalston Songs”, a song cycle based on people’s lives in the East End of London; and “Every Action…”, in which “four strangers come together before 25 metres of rope looped over two pulleys”. It is the kind of experimental work seen in every major cultural capital, of course, but rarely performed in its premier opera house.
Yet Bull thinks the link between traditional repertoire and its experimental offshoots is crucial. “If you don’t have that happening at the opera house, then the work is going to become more and more bland. Some people are challenged by the idea that work is sometimes risky. But if we can’t do it here, with our loyal support and reputation, where can you?”
She says there is a tendency today to look back at a perceived golden age with a nostalgic squint. “People believe this myth that [Frederick] Ashton and [Kenneth] MacMillan only ever produced masterpieces – of course they didn’t. They were artists. Manon is a really good example. It is rightly considered a masterpiece, but when it was premiered it was an hour longer, the critics didn’t like it, and it was adjusted and shaped until they got it right.”
Bull says that, in spite of the greater eclecticism of the current age, audiences were somehow more tolerant back then.
“We get a bit embarrassed when things aren’t good. We want to sweep it all under the carpet. But actually, people don’t fail because they are being lazy, or are trying to pull the wool over our eyes. If we accept that their intentions are good and honourable, then when they don’t succeed, we can talk about the work quite differently.
“We need to get away from the idea that everything has to be a hit at the box office, and a hit with the critics.”
Pugnacious words; but does she really court failure? “I have said it before – if everything we do succeeds, then we are failing, because it means we are not taking enough risks.”
The cheapness of the tickets for Firsts means that near-capacity audiences are willing to take those risks, she says, and still feel they received value for money.
Bull’s ambition in programming is also to break apart the art forms of opera and dance into their constituent parts – poetry, composition, design, mime – and see them performed separately: “A sort of tapestry that covers everything we do,” she says. “There are more and more people that are not concerned by those boundaries any more, and much less rigid about what they go and see. They just want to know: is it entertaining? Is it worth an hour of my time?”
I ask if she has gone
completely native, and turned her back on the classical repertoire in which she starred with such distinction.
“I think that creativity and innovation flourish best on a bedrock of classicism,” she replies. “Heritage and tradition is what we are moving away from, but unless you know what it is, your innovation is random. If I have never read e.e. cummings, I might think it is very clever suddenly to start writing without using capital letters, but it has been done before.”
Does all that heritage not occasionally intimidate newcomers, and mute their radical intentions? “It does happen. We had one experience where we didn’t get what we expected at all – the work turned out much duller, its edges less spiky, because [its creators] were cowed. But it is my job to ensure that this is a space where people do what they want to do.”
I cannot resist the temptation, given the attire of the clambering man with the tattoo, of bringing up that famous remark eight years ago by Sir Colin Southgate, then ROH chairman, about not wanting to sit next to people wearing smelly running shoes when he was in the audience. We seem to have come a long way since then.
“I feel very sorry for anyone who has to get up and speak at a press conference,” she sympathises diplomatically. “But I don’t know anyone here who has any kind of elitist or exclusive views. Some of our audience may have their own views on that, I don’t know.”
But Bull goes on to tell me proudly of the current poster campaign for Firsts, which is for the first time sited in residential parts of London – Brixton, Portobello Road – rather than in traditional spots such as underground stations. “They are next to posters advertising the Kasabian album. That is a big shift. We have moved a long way.”
The Firsts 2006 season continues on November 24 and 25, Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House. Tel +44 20 7304 4000