ROH's Oliver Mears: 'Our job is to generate an emotional reaction'

As the Royal Opera House reveal details of their 18-19 season, their new director of opera talks about driving Covent Garden forward with frugality and a fairy tale

‘One day all this will be yours,” I joke to Oliver Mears as we shake hands in the champagne bar at the Royal Opera House. It’s a stupid thing to say and I’m not quite sure what prompts it, except that Mears is so slight and vulnerable looking that you can’t quite believe he is already director of opera at this famous, glitzy, occasionally poisonous place.

His appointment in 2016 was greeted with surprise. He was just 37, the youngest head of opera in Covent Garden’s history, and he was jumping from the relative obscurity of Northern Ireland Opera, with a budget of £1m, to a house with a budget of more than £130m.

He insists the move never fazed him. “You have to have complete faith in your ability to do a job. The scale is different to Northern Ireland, but the principles of running an opera company are the same. Finding a story for an organisation, having a mission, driving it forward.” He was given a warm welcome, he says, with music director Antonio Pappano and head of casting Peter Katona (a fixture at Covent Garden for 35 years) helping to provide stability and continuity. Pappano’s current contract expires in 2020, but Mears suggests he is likely to continue in place beyond that date.

Mears has been in his new role for a year, and today launches the Royal Opera House’s 2018-19 season. Most of these plans will have been set years ago under his predecessor Kasper Holten, but some of his fingerprints are already visible, in particular a production of Billy Budd directed by Deborah Warner that he has bought in from the Teatro Real in Madrid, and a Hansel and Gretel for Christmas that he hopes will tempt parents to bring their children to Covent Garden. “It’s not going to be set in a gas chamber,” he says when I suggest that some productions of this fairytale can be very dark. “That’s not the kind of show we’re after.”

Oliver Mears, at the Royal Opera House.
Oliver Mears: ‘You have to have complete faith in your ability to do a job’. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera – one of the first of a series of shows conceived for young people and designed to counter “negative preconceptions” – has replaced another Holten production. Mears won’t say which, but it’s a fair bet it was seen as either too expensive or too likely to bomb at the box office. With Arts Council England, aware of accusations of being London-centric, reducing the ROH’s funding (cut by 6% in real terms in last year’s settlement), these are relatively straitened times. Covent Garden needs to be a little more frugal and, in these days of Brexit and Corbynism, a little more of the people.

That may be one reason behind Mears’s appointment. He showed both in Northern Ireland and with the opera company he founded in his mid-20s, Second Movement, that he could demystify opera, appeal to all ages and build a community of opera-goers. (That thinking may also underpin the recent announcement that Stuart Murphy, who has spent his career in television, is to be chief executive of English National Opera – a decision that bemused the opera cognoscenti.)

Covent Garden will stage only five new productions in 2018-19, and only two of those will be produced in-house: Katya Kabanova directed by ROH stalwart Richard Jones, and Hansel and Gretel. There are also three new international co-productions, with The Queen of Spades, directed by the much-vaunted Stefan Herheim, and a starry La Forza del Destino (Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann under the baton of Pappano) joining the Billy Budd.

Five new productions seems a bit thin, but Mears says the expense of reviving the Keith Warner production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle for its final outing means less money for everything else. In 2019-20 he promises eight new productions, and says in a typical season a third of all the productions staged will be new.

Full as it is with revivals of tried-and-trusted productions – Tosca, La Traviata, The Marriage of Figaro, La Fille du Régiment – the 2018-19 season feels a little conservative, with operas that will keep the box office where the opera house management likes it to be, at around 95% capacity. Mears demurs, aware of the dangers of being labelled a safe pair of hands. “I think some would say that Janáček is not necessarily completely core repertoire,” he argues, “nor The Queen of Spades, or Billy Budd.”

Barrie Kosky’s controversial new production of Carmen will return in the new season. “We actually had someone heckle last night,” says Mears. “They stood up and said: ‘This isn’t Carmen; this is a scandal.’ People who haven’t liked it say: ‘You’ve ruined Carmen.’ But what does that mean? We don’t know what Carmen is. Bizet never went to Spain. His opera was in itself a construct. What ‘You’ve ruined Carmen’ actually means is there is a disjunction between my interpretation of what Carmen should be and what’s on stage. What we can’t do as an artistic organisation is take these great, complex, pulsating masterpieces literally or at face value. Our job is to do something more than that – to dig deep and come up with work that generates an emotional reaction.”

Teatro Real Madrid production of Billy Budd directed by Deborah Warner.
Teatro Real’s production of Billy Budd directed by Deborah Warner, coming to Covent Garden for the 18-19 season. Photograph: Javier del Real

But he is wary of subversion for subversion’s sake. “You can lose the work if a production is completely conventional,” he says. “You can also lose the work if a production is too overly concerned with stodgy philosophy. What we need to find is the golden area in the middle where we have practitioners who are able to give life to these operas, which are often hundreds of years old, and make them live as if they’d been written yesterday.”

He echoes his predecessor’s view that opera must never become a museum and that new work is crucial – “commissions are the lifeblood of the art form,” he says – but adds that commissioning new work is also very expensive. “It’s very difficult in the current financial climate to commit to a brand-new commission every single season,” he says. More likely is that there will be a new commission every other year.

In 2013, Holten had announced to great fanfare four new commissions “inspired by the writings of philosopher Slavoj Žižek”. These new operas – by Kaija Saariaho, Jörg Widmann, Luca Francesconi and Mark-Anthony Turnage – were supposed to “challenge opera writers to write about their fears and hopes for the world now”, and the outgoing ROH chief executive Tony Hall said they would be staged by 2020. Oddly, they have never been heard of again, and there is no sign of them being programmed. I ask Mears what happened. “Two have fallen by the wayside for different reasons,” he says. “The other two – by Turnage and Saariaho – are still in our long-term schedules.”

Mears accepts that one of his tasks is to broaden the ethnic mix of the audience, but how will that age-old problem be tackled? “We will have more diversity on stage and in our workforce,” he says. “But it really comes back to how we can entice a wider range of young people to see our work.” Opera in cinemas is great, he says, but nothing can replace the live experience.

He will also address gender diversity. The new season features only one female director, Deborah Warner, and two female conductors, Keri-Lynn Wilson and Julia Jones in Carmen. “It’s a long-term project and it’s going to take time,” he says. The ROH will not follow the lead of the Proms and set quotas, but insists that the company does have firm targets and that a 50-50 gender split is the long-term aspiration.

Gender equality, audience diversity, countering negative preconceptions, putting opera back into the cultural mainstream – what an agenda. It will, as Mears says, all take time. But will he be given that time? Holten lasted just six years, barely long enough, given the five-year planning cycle for operatic seasons, to get your feet under the table. Mears is a young man with time on his side. Now he needs to get everyone else on his side, too.


Stephen Moss

The GuardianTramp

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