Open stage for noise and drama

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Right across Europe, it promises to be a noisy weekend. In Madrid there will be giant screens playing opera. Cafés in Lille are offering karaoke opera evenings. At English National Opera, would-be prima donnas can roll up to view a singing lesson and the Opéra national de Bordeaux is going one better with an open invitation to perform in full costume and make-up.

At the last count, 96 of Europe’s opera companies in 24 countries – from the Icelandic Opera in Reykjavik to Georgia’s Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre– have signed up to take part in this weekend’s European Opera Days. The majority will be opening their doors to the public and many are putting on special events, such as open rehearsals, workshops or educational projects. The programme has a celebratory look to it, but that hides a deeper concern. Where will the opera audiences of the future come from? Who will pay for this exorbitant art form?

These are the questions up for debate at the European Opera Days – a joint initiative of Opera Europa, Fedora, RESEO and the Opéra national de Paris. The heart of the weekend is a three-day conference in Paris at which 800 delegates will be getting out their opera glasses to peer nervously into the future. José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, leads the opening debate on Friday and the host will be Gerard Mortier, director of the Opéra national de Paris. As a past head of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels and the Salzburg Festival, Mortier is a man of wide experience and from his office at the Opéra Bastille he is in the right position to indulge in some imaginative thinking.

Given that there seems little prospect for immediate change, why hold this event now? “Opera – even if the theatres are full – is at a dangerous point in its history,” Mortier says. “The repertoire isn’t being renewed any more. Of course, there are still long-forgotten works from the past being revived, but new operas find it very difficult to get accepted. This doesn’t mean that opera is dead, but it tells us that the repertoire has stopped growing. I believe that opera as an art form belongs to a particular period of western culture. It has been exported to America and will now be exported to China and the far east, just as the Greeks exported their culture to Rome in the ancient world, so performances will go on – but as far as new creation is concerned, it is effectively a closed chapter.”

The provocative tone should not come as a surprise. Opera administrators come in many guises: the sly, wheeler-dealer kind, the old-school arty types, the ex-private sector managers. Then there is Mortier. Softly spoken, he turns into somebody rather different when he dons his opera champion’s hat. Hat? No, it is a Wagnerian helmet, and it comes with spear and war-cry to match, for Mortier is renowned as a man who likes to pick a fight.

It suits his argument to stress the lack of new operas – in fact, Mortier’s regime in Paris has put on its fair share – because then he can argue that the only way to attract young audiences is by reinventing the great works of the past. Mortier’s passion is for controversial productions, as scandalised regulars at the Salzburg Festival in the 1990s will remember. That was the era of the drug-crazed Die Fledermaus far from Johann Strauss and a Così fan tutte that set Mozart’s opera in a giant psychedelic flower garden.

I suggest that some people might actually prefer productions in a traditional style. But Mortier is dismissive. “We live at a time when everything has to be easy. Politicians want to make opera easy, too – but why? When you read the sonnets of Shakespeare you don’t expect to understand every emotion the first time. Maybe it sounds naive, but I believe that winning an audience for opera doesn’t mean simply bringing it down to a popular level.”

He pauses for thought. “If opera doesn’t survive as a living art form, the world will go on. There are a lot of things we don’t need. We don’t build cathedrals any more, but we still admire them. Fifty years from now maybe people won’t be composing operas any more, but opera will still be performed – great works like Don Giovanni, Parsifal and Wozzeck, I hope, rather than La Bohème. What would be dangerous is if I, as an opera administrator, were to deliver a programme based solely on what is popular, which is what has happened in television. I have to fight for a more difficult programme and then work on selling it to the public.”

I ask Mortier if he has fights in Paris. “Yes!” he exclaims vigorously – with newspapers such as Le Monde, which do not appreciate what he is trying to do; with the inhabitants of the 16ème (the “old money” district of Paris) who want more star singers and less radicalism; and with the French television stations, which have declined to broadcast his production of the ballet Giselle. The media are trounced as philistines.

So what battles does Mortier hope to win this weekend? “I would like to think that Europeans will start to acknowledge that opera forms an essential part of their culture. I am a big believer in Europe – the politics of Europe, too – and I want people who meet at the European Opera Days to appreciate how opera can be part of a network of mutual understanding. If you go to see the Mozart/Da Ponte comedies, you understand more about society at the end of the 18th century. If you want to know about nationalism in the 19th century, it helps to see Verdi’s Nabucco and Wagner’s Die Meister-singer and understand how nationalism was exploited by certain extremists. Opera can tell us a great deal about our civilisation.”

Does he not see it as a problem if Europe is symbolised by an art form rooted in the past? “No – a lot of people throughout the world already come to European culture through opera. Look at the US, where opera is flourishing in a way that was unforeseen 50 years ago. I am about to go to Moscow to see the first performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at the Bolshoi and I’ve just met a director from Krasnoyarsk in Siberia who wants to put on Strauss’s Elektra. Don’t ask me how the Chinese get into Carmen – it seems so far removed from their culture – but they do! Nobody will be talking about a futuristic film like Godzilla in 50 years’ time, but look how the last Olympics prompted a worldwide rediscovery of the culture of ancient Greece, and that is already centuries old.”

Although Mortier’s departure from the Opéra national de Paris has recently been announced, it seems unlikely he is ready to retire. Although he will be 65 by then, he says he is still in a “fighting mood” and, “like any soldier, I have to be out there on the battlefield”. If Mortier wants to keep his hand in, the opera house in Nuremberg is offering free courses at its martial arts workshop this weekend.

European Opera Days, February 16-18. Details from www.operadays.eu and www.opera-europa.org.

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