Can opera change its tune?


Recent experience proves that if opera wants to connect with a wider audience in Ireland, it needs to forget the obsession with tuxedos and the cultivation of operatic snobbery, argues Michael Dervan

OPERA IN IRELAND is at a major crossroads. It’s a cliche, I know, but it’s true. Opera Theatre Company’s tour of Grigory Frid’s Diary of Anne Frankwas its last. Opera Ireland will cease operations after its upcoming Gaiety Theatre production of Puccini’s Tosca.

Castleward Opera and the Opera Fringe Festival in Northern Ireland have already shut up shop, and the newly formed Opera Company NI has appointed Oliver Mears as its founding artistic director. Applications for the post of general director of the new Irish National Opera company (which will subsume the roles of Opera Theatre Company and Opera Ireland from next year) closed at the end of last month. Mears has announced a raft of new developments for Northern Ireland. But it’s rather scary that no one I’ve managed to speak to has any clear idea what the future will bring elsewhere in Ireland. One thing is certain – for most of next year both opera in Dublin and touring opera are going to be very thin on the ground.

The Wexford Festival has changed, too. It’s seeking to become Europe’s major outlet for work by living US composers. But that’s another day’s work that we’ll know more about when Peter Ash’s The Golden Ticket, premiered in St Louis in July, hits Wexford on Sunday.

The changes that are underway are hugely challenging, but they also present new opportunities, especially when you take into account the 2,100-seat Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin, which opened last March. It’s no opera house – it’s a commercial receiving venue, with acoustic limitations that make it far from ideal for opera. But it’s got a decently proportioned and equipped stage and orchestra pit, and a range of creature comforts that the Gaiety Theatre cannot expect to rival. And Scottish Opera’s La Bohème, with Celine Byrne as Mimì, which was presented there in June, provided a lot to mull over.

Firstly, in spite of ticket prices that went up to €125, it was a popular success. And secondly, it felt like it was open to everyone, and that everyone who was there knew that. That’s never been the feeling I’ve got from either Opera Ireland or the Wexford Festival. In fact, both organisations have on a number of occasions taken me aside for firm talkings-to about the matter of wearing evening dress. I kid you not. Monkey suits are a more important part of the ethos at Wexford than they are at Glyndebourne. And rather than let me deal with the potential shame of turning up in normal clothes, sob, sob, both Wexford and Opera Ireland have chosen at different times to try and twist my arm, and make sure their proprieties were observed.

You may have wondered why the outcry about the demise of OTC has been so much greater than any mourning for Opera Ireland. Well, OTC, of course, has toured the length and breadth of the land, and brought opera to communities where it’s never been seen before. I, for one, had never expected to find myself in Carrigallen for the opening night of a new production of Tom Johnson’s witty, minimalist classic, The Four-Note Operaback in 1998. And OTC has also concentrated on opera in English translation. Opera Ireland was late in introducing supertitles, and Wexford dug itself into an ideological stronghold about them, before caving in and discovering that their audiences loved them. OTC has also distinguished itself by eschewing the kind of operatic snobbery that Wexford and Opera Ireland have so assiduously continued to cultivate.

By curious coincidence, it was in the same year that I saw The Four-Note Operain Carrigallen that I went to Scottish Opera’s Tristan und Isoldein Glasgow. Wagner’s Tristanis such a long work – four hours of music – that it has to begin early, 5pm in Glasgow, if I remember correctly. There wasn’t a dress suit in sight. And when it came to interval time, quite a number of opera-goers sat around the place eating the sandwiches they had prepared in advance. Glyndebourne may have a reputation for snobbery, and, yes, I did see people who seemed to have brought their butlers with them for their picnics in the long interval. But I also saw people carrying Marks & Spencer bags from their cars to the lawns, and a far higher proportion of everyday attire than I’ve ever seen at Wexford. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against anyone dressing up if they want to, I just don’t think it should be imposed.

The Bohèmeat the Grand Canal Theatre in June was like a breath of fresh air blown as a message to the stuffy end of the world of opera in Ireland. Old hands have remarked to me how it clearly reached out to an audience that doesn’t – or won’t? – go to Opera Ireland or to Wexford. After all, opera is historically a popular artform. It’s not for nothing that it was a sliver of opera, Puccini’s Nessun dorma, that became the anthem of the 1990 World Cup. And it’s no accident either, that in Vienna’s world-renowned Staatsoper, the ticket prices start at €3. Yes, that’s not a misprint – €3. Sure, for that price you have to stand. The Staatsoper has 567 standing places, each with its own multilingual display of what’s being sung, along with 1,709 seats. It’s a totally non-Irish approach to accessibility.

Whenever opera with a popular slant has been presented in Dublin, there’s been an audience willing to try it out. When Aida was presented at the O2 last December, by an Italian company nobody had ever heard of, there was an audience for it, and one that became very vocal about the shortcomings of the production. When the same work was done for two nights at the same venue, then known as the Point, in 1994, it sold out.

Further back, in 1991, the year Dublin was European City of Culture, I was able to begin my wrap-up of the year with some astonishing statistics: “1991 was a remarkable year for opera in Ireland,” I wrote. “There were 71 nights of full-scale opera, 43 nights of opera with a reduced orchestra or piano, eight nights of original chamber opera, and a concert performance of Balfe’s Bohemian Girl. In fact, it seems that in 1991 professional opera performances easily outnumbered professional piano recitals.”

The year’s operatic offerings had included six nights of the Sofia National Opera at the Simmonscourt RDS with seating for 6,500, and five nights by Glyndebourne Touring Opera at the Point. Even though they didn’t sell out, these two companies more than doubled Dublin’s attendances at opera over the previous year. 1991 also saw the Wexford Festival extend its offerings by 20 per cent, to achieve for the first time a run of 18 nights of opera in a row. Luciano Pavarotti (grossing about €900,000 for one night) and Plácido Domingo also gave arena-style concerts that year. Even in those pre-Celtic Tiger days, people were clearly prepared to put their hands in their pockets for opera and its stars.

I have no idea where opera in Ireland is actually headed at the moment. Responsibility for its future in Dublin has shifted from the Arts Council to the Department of Culture under Mary Hanafin. That seems to me to be no bad thing. The Arts Council had set its heart on creating a national opera company to be based in Wexford. This would have been about as sensible as most of the rest of the governmental decentralisation that’s taken place, except that the council somehow expected to make cost-savings in the process.

The Arts Council strategy was devised in the face of impending government cutbacks. But difficult times have been no barrier to the development of opera in the past. All of our existing major companies came into being in straitened times; Opera Ireland, originally the Dublin Grand Opera Society, in the war-torn world of 1941; the Wexford Festival during the post-war rationing of 1951; and Opera Theatre Company in 1986, a time of high emigration and a major property slump.

It was Hanafin’s opera-loving predecessor, Martin Cullen, who upset the Arts Council’s apple cart, and set in train the process that’s led to the demise of OTC and OI, and the creation of a new company. It’s not yet clear that Hanafin has fully taken on board the nature of the issues involved. But I did see her at the opening night of Bohèmeat the Grand Canal Theatre.

And opera lovers can but hope that she picked up the many positive messages of that particular occasion. She certainly can’t help but relate them to the priority the government is attaching to cultural tourism and the compelling case that was so strongly made at the Farmleigh economic forum last year about the importance of investment in the arts. A real national opera company would be a major employer. And the evidence is that when the right opportunities have presented themselves – or at least apparently attractive ones, such as last year’s Aida– the wider public’s appetite for opera has proved to be very real indeed.