‘In a climate like this, to play safe is the greatest risk of all’

In the world of opera, a 10-year diary is an essential accessory. Kasper Holten, who took over as director of the Royal Opera in autumn 2011, will only be expecting to see the first season for which he is wholly responsible as his five-year contract is coming to an end. Artists are booked so far in advance now that running an opera company has become a job with a positively Wagnerian timescale.

As the Royal Opera unveils its 2013/2014 season, Holten explains that much of the programme had already been drawn up by his predecessor. “Despite that, I do feel I’ve had enough time to be involved with the major projects. And in any case the Royal Opera’s artistic policy is always a collaborative effort with Tony Pappano [music director] and Peter Katona [director of casting]. This is a house with a great tradition and my job is more about gently steering it in the right direction.”

The image of the ship’s captain giving a nudge on the tiller is an attractive one, and Holten himself – cool-headed, affable, the embodiment of Danish accessibility – is easy to imagine as the person one might want to have in charge. But what of the stormy waters ahead? There is hardly any country where opera companies have been immune from the financial crisis. Although the cutbacks hit earliest in the United States, where private sources of funding quickly faltered, Europe has now overtaken it as the main source of concern. In opera houses from Barcelona to Duisberg, Milan to Amsterdam, austerity is the tune that is playing.

The UK has not been immune from these problems (the cancellation of two new productions the winter before left the Royal Opera with a long run of revivals of Rigoletto and La traviata). But the 2013/4 season looks surprisingly healthy: there are five new productions, including major challenges such as Wagner’s Parsifal and Verdi’s four-hour French grand opera Les Vêpres siciliennes with its integral ballet, plus productions new to the UK of two relative rarities, Strauss’s Die Frau one Schatten and Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. A dearth of new operas in the main house is compensated to some degree by a run of premieres at the smaller Linbury Studio Theatre, including works by Julian Philips, Luke Bedford and Luca Francesconi.

“In a climate like this, it is important not just to play safe,” says Holten. “That is the greatest risk of all. You lose your brand, become less able to attract interesting artists, and then your audiences will start to diminish. We will have to look at ways of using our money more efficiently, because if you take on very few new productions, you will also be less willing to be adventurous. I used to say to my staff at the Royal Danish Opera, ‘If we don’t fail sometimes, we’re probably not trying hard enough’. That is how opera works. Don’t forget that while Mozart was writing one masterpiece, dozens of other operas were being rejected and forgotten.”

What, then, is the course that he wants to steer? Holten says his priority is a greater emphasis on new work. The Royal Opera has recently announced a programme of commissions stretching as far as 2020 and much of this has his stamp on it. The line-up of composers, including Mark-Anthony Turnage, Kaija Saariaho, Unsuk Chin and Jörg Widmann, is notable for looking beyond the UK.

In dispensing these artistic favours, it must be tempting to see oneself as a Diaghilev or one of the Medici. “For the main stage we need composers of proven ability,” he says, “and, just as important, an appetite for opera. You have to listen to a composer’s music and ask yourself, ‘Am I excited? Can I feel it in my stomach?’ Tony [Pappano] has a very strong sense of what ignites his interest, so sitting down with him is very revealing – for example, when we listened to Georg Friedrich Haas, a German composer who is hardly known in the UK, we immediately thought, ‘Here is a voice with something to say’.”

More immediately, though, there is one production in the 2013/4 season that sticks out. This is the new Don Giovanni, to be produced by Holten himself. From his days in Copenhagen, Holten has been known as much as an opera director as an administrator (his production of Wagner’s Ring has been an award-winner on DVD), but it was only last month that he made his Royal Opera debut in the role of director with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin – and that was given quite a roasting in some quarters.

Did he feel some of those reviews had a bit of a bite? “I should say so!” he says, a wry smile flashing across his face. “I am vain enough to want to be a success, so it’s nice when you get good reviews. But I’ve done 65 productions and you win some, you lose some. A few days before the opening night I was afraid this Onegin might be judged too conventional, but the reaction was the opposite. What did surprise me was that some of the critics saw the idea of the Doppelgängers [the principal singers were doubled by dancers playing their younger selves], didn’t like it and didn’t review the rest of the show. That is where reviews now tend to be more of a consumer verdict than a dialogue, which is something I regret.”

The idea of an opera administrator who is also a working director is a novelty in London, but it is one the public will need to get used to, as Holten has further productions planned. “I’ve been told that London audiences are very conservative, but I’m not so sure about that now,” he says. “It feels to me that they are quite curious, but people here are insistent on narrative. If you create a production of the kind you could in Germany, where you just show the context and don’t tell a story, they will find that annoying. But if they feel seduced by the story, then they go with it.”

Looking at the bigger picture, Holten will be hoping that London audiences will also be seduced by his programming more generally. With seasons being booked so many years in advance, the productions he is putting in place now will be with us well into the future.


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