An endangered art fights back

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It’s a postmodern problem: how do you stimulate creativity? The question itself is suspect, because it assumes the artistic gene is common to everyone and only needs the right conditions to be activated. It never used to be seen in that way. Before technology made mass communication possible, creativity was more a specialised craft than a universal calling – one you spent years honing under the eye of a master. If the creative force existed, it would blossom of itself. It wasn’t something you could teach.

Things are different today. Art classes, writing courses, composer workshops – all proclaim that creativity is our birthright. And nowhere is there a greater need for it than opera. A 400-year tradition, starting with Monteverdi’s Orfeo in 1607, seems to be grinding to a halt. Since Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice 34 years ago, no opera has established a place in the repertory. The genre is destined to resemble a museum unless it can find new ways – or reactivate old ways – of expressing itself.

That’s a challenge the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme has begun to address. Last week’s inaugural foundation course at Aldeburgh in Suffolk, attended by 10 composers, seven writers and three directors, is the latest of several attempts to tackle the problem of why so few new operas make the grade. Most contemporary operas are either a musical overlay of existing books or plays, to which the music adds little, or they are so experimental that they lie beyond the scope of the traditional opera house.

The postwar avant-garde has much to answer for: it proclaimed that opera was dead. That hiatus has passed – composers are falling over themselves to write operas – but essential components have gone missing along the way. Many composers don’t know how to write for classically trained voices. Some have no idea how musical time works in the theatre. Others are frustrated by opera’s apparent unwillingness to embrace new media. The art of libretto-writing, too, has been lost. The biggest problem may be that, unlike their predecessors, few of today’s composers are performing musicians with experience of the theatre.

Ready-made opera composers can still fast-track to the top, remoulding the genre in their own image, as John Adams and Thomas Adès have done. But Aldeburgh’s Jerwood programme works on the premise that basic techniques have to be studied and developed – techniques that increasingly hard-pressed opera companies have neither time nor money to teach. Building on the experience of Genesis Opera, a short-lived experiment that brought together fledgling composers and librettists in London, Aldeburgh is hosting two programmes, funded by a mixture of public and private finance. The foundation course is aimed at teaching basic skills. Later, a series of fellowships will give the most promising composer/writer partnerships a chance to develop their ideas with a view to possible performance.

And where better to focus on creativity than the Snape Maltings, the performance centre built by Britten and Peter Pears amid the peace of rural Suffolk? Now administered by Aldeburgh Music, it has a remit to support what Britten and Pears believed in – the encouragement of new work and the development of young artists.

The inaugural week included talks by a wide variety of specialists, including three composers whose operas have enjoyed success – Richard Ayres, David Sawer and Giorgio Battistelli. The 20 participants represented extremes of experience – from Jonathan Lloyd, a 58-year-old composer with an excellent record in symphonic music, to 23-year-old Jack Underwood, a poet who plays in a rock band but has never stepped inside an opera house.

Those extremes became glaringly obvious in the opening sessions. As a starter, everyone was handed the same short poem and given an afternoon to develop it into their own two-minute spoken/sung playlet, to be performed the following morning by up to three singers/speakers and a pianist, with comments by assessors. I heard some of the results. Three showed a quick understanding of what was required; most were shapeless recitations.

The assessors clearly did not want to dent confidence at such an early stage, but the critic in me felt brutal. Why had some of these people not even bothered to study their operatic history or bone up on basic dramatic technique? How did they think they could reinvent a form that has served so well for four centuries without some prior attempt to gain experience? It felt like an operatic kindergarten, such as you might expect at music college – except that most music colleges still don’t have an opera-writing course. That underlines why a programme such as this is necessary.

The 20 debutants, some from as far afield as Amsterdam and Seattle, will return to Suffolk in July and October for further workshops, during which they will be encouraged to form composer/writer partnerships. But unlike Genesis Opera, Aldeburgh’s Jerwood programme has acknowledged from the start that those creative roles are not equal: it’s the composer who must have the core vision.

That suggests Aldeburgh is learning from previous mistakes elsewhere. However rudimentary its groundwork last week, what distinguishes the Jerwood programme is its faith in the future – an optimism shared by Battistelli, a 53-year-old Italian who flirted with the avant-garde but now has a string of successful operas to his name.

“Yes, I believe it’s possible to write an opera again,” he says. “But today the perimeter is larger, because technology has changed, our perceptions have changed. You have so many more possibilities in sound, light and space. That makes it difficult for us: we have to find new codes, a new language to communicate emotion.”

Battistelli’s own operas range from the experimental – Teorema has no singing voices – to more traditionally structured works such as Riccardo III, premiered last year in Antwerp. His love for tradition has manifested itself most recently in his appointment as artistic director of the Arena di Verona.

He says the most important lesson the Jerwood debutants can learn is the role of narrative. “Life today is so fast-moving that there is no time to tell stories, but when we go into the theatre we find the old dimension of the ‘ritual space’. That’s how our imagination works. It’s not just about creating a beautiful new form, or having the most fantastic technique. Unless you have the energy of the imagination, you have no power to transport the listener from the here-and-now.”

What is important is the composer’s role as a “translator of the world”, Battistelli says. “In Italian there’s a close relationship between tradure, to translate, and tradire, to betray,” he adds. “Both are a shaking up of reality: this is what you should be doing as an artist. You can’t only have music for comfort and consolation. It must raise questions in your mind. That’s the power of emotion in the theatre – as relevant to Monteverdi 400 years ago as it is to Birtwistle and these younger composers today.”

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