Devoted and Disgruntled
How can we change opera for the better?
On 9 10 April I attended a two-day workshop sponsored by English National Opera and held in their rehearsal rooms in Lilian Bayliss Hall in Kilburn. This was one of a series of Open Space events entitled Devoted and Disgruntled. This posed the question ‘How can we change opera for the better?’. The Open Space format is becoming an established tool whereby large groups of people, such as members of an organisation or just with a common interest, can be brought together to discuss, in depth and, hopefully, in a constructive fashion, questions of mutual concern. Devoted and Disgruntled events are organised and run by the theatre company Improbable whose director Phelim McDermott has created several ENO productions.
On this occasion the subject was Opera and I found myself there as a devoted and disgruntled Welsh National Opera Friend though expecting to represent generally the interests of audiences. The proceedings opened with about eighty of us, out of the hundred and twenty who attended during the weekend, sitting in a large circle. We were invited to propose subjects for discussion by wring them down and reading them out. These were then sorted into six time slots of seventy-five minutes each and allotted floor space. Participants were able to stay with one subject or to wander freely between them. The convenor of each session was invited to produce a report. These reports can be found on the website www.devotedanddisgruntled.com.
The participants came from every aspect of involvement with opera. Given the timing and sponsorship of the event English National Opera was strongly represented, from the beleaguered Chief Executive Cressida Pollock, to a sole technician. (This reminded of Joseph Volpe who rose from one to the other at the New York Metropolitan.) Singers and audiences were under represented while there were strong voices from small opera companies.
Apart from an inconclusive session on the role of the Management Boards, I tried to avoid the inevitable ENO navel-gazing. To give a feel for the range of the discussion I list the sessions I did attend: how to attract new younger audiences, sex and violence, the Opera and Music Theatre Forum (an umbrella mentoring group for small companies), is booing acceptable and how do we afford opera. Symptomatically, no one turned up to discuss my proposed question ‘should opera management listen to the audience?’. The convener of the session on booing, who had recently directed WNO’s production of The Barber of Seville, appeared to be genuinely surprised to learn that the director had it in his power to completely ruin the enjoyment of an evening at the opera.
The meeting ended with us all sitting in a large circle again. Proceedings opened with a microphone passed round for everyone’s summation. Most just thanked the organisers; few addressed the question of improving opera for the better. Finally, we were entertained by the performance of an improvised opera The Dentist of Cairo from a session on improvisation. This ended with a dance drawing in most of the participants. It was clear that all had had a good time, had met many interesting people and had the opportunity to sound off about their disgruntlements. However, all went away with a much clearer idea of what needed improving and what contribution they might make to do something about it.
20 April 2016