Why is it such a struggle for new voices to be heard in the old world of English opera? | Erica Jeal

Many think of it as people singing loudly over a huge orchestra, but opera can be so much more

Who’d be the boss of a big UK opera company? Daniel Kramer’s early departure from the English National Opera (ENO), announced in April, has left the company once again in search of an artistic director, a job many see as a poisoned chalice given the company’s reputation for managerial infighting and its on-off relationship with Arts Council England. Yet at any major opera company, especially one with public funding, the artistic leadership involves an almost impossible balancing act.

On one hand, you have the resources and indeed the responsibility to propel opera forward, showcasing new work and new perspectives. On the other, there has to be Verdi and Wagner and Puccini for audiences to return to and for newcomers to fall in love with. Nobody wants the classics to seem moribund on their watch.

Yet the classics are expensive. Generally, the great operas of the 19th and 20th centuries require huge forces – a big chorus, an even bigger orchestra and soloists able to make themselves heard, unamplified, over them. It wasn’t always this way – opera’s roots are in a far more intimate, small-scale style of performance. But the works grew, and the theatres grew to accommodate them. When people hear the word opera they think of people singing loudly over a huge orchestra from behind a gilded proscenium. The opera houses have become part of the art form’s identity in a not entirely helpful way; the buildings, you might say, control the budgets.

When Gustav Mahler – a legendary opera conductor as well as a composer – observed that “what the theatre people call tradition is nothing but laziness and sloppiness” – he might have added “and misplaced fiscal prudence”. It is received wisdom that traditional productions of 19th-century repertoire are the safest box office bets – and yet two of ENO’s biggest sellers this season have been Porgy and Bess and Satyagraha – both from the 20th century, the latter a 1979 opera with a text in Sanskrit. There has been a genuine buzz around the Royal Opera’s new works by George Benjamin and Thomas Adès in recent seasons. Yet for every man who is writing for the main stage of a big opera house – and the big commissions are still going predominantly to men, though that’s another story – there are dozens of creators writing new work on a smaller scale, work that invites a more innovative form of staging, which might fruitfully find its way to the larger venues too.

Thinking outside the box sometimes requires thinking outside the building. It’s no coincidence that some of ENO’s best recent work has been away from the Coliseum. The most talked about new works in New York and Los Angeles this past year have been in “found” venues, indoors and out. This is not news in the UK, where fringe companies have long been doing exciting work in unexpected places and developing the means to do so – such as Daisy Evans’s Silent Opera, whose audiences have the orchestra relayed to them via headphones so that they can mingle close-up among the singers. And then there’s Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company, which has for years been creating exhilarating productions such as the recent Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Edgbaston’s derelict Tower Ballroom. Vick has taken the trademark features of a BOC production – the army of amateur extras, the audience on its feet, following the action around the room – elsewhere, sometimes reconfiguring the theatres themselves. In Lisbon his Ring cycle had seats taken out to make an in-the-round setup.

A scene from La Traviata by English National Opera at the London Coliseum
‘Daniel Kramer’s own production of La Traviata may have been arrestingly blingy but was deeply traditional at heart.’ Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Yet at the big UK companies the action remains stubbornly on the stage, the singers distant – understandable, perhaps, for Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera and Opera North, who spend much of their time on tour, but unadventurous still. Innovations do find their way in, but if they don’t work first time they often disappear, like the 3D digital scenery that was the distinguishing feature of Michel van der Aa’s ill-fated Sunken Garden. Is it time to try something like that again?

Otherwise, management often looks to directors from outside the opera world for new ideas. But opera has its own rules. The pace is dictated by the composer and, to a lesser extent, the conductor; directors willing and able to do their best work within these restrictive parameters are rare indeed.

Kramer understood the need for renewal at ENO, and he was certainly good at talking the talk. On stage, though, things were different: his own production of La Traviata, for example, may have been arrestingly blingy but was deeply traditional at heart. Not that it shouldn’t have been. Providing a home where the classics can be experienced in traditional format, sung by thrilling voices and brilliantly played – that is, surely, a large part of what the national companies are for. But opera is much more than that.

ENO and the Royal Opera have both recently boasted of “opening their doors”, encouraging the public inside during the day in the hope they will return for a performance. With operatic innovation happening largely elsewhere, perhaps the doors need to swing open from the other side too.

Erica Jeal is a Guardian music critic

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Erica Jeal

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