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Is opera policy now dictated by Twitter?

December 19, 2017 by norman lebrecht

36 comments.


Michael Volpe, head of Holland Park Opera, has written a useful reflection on how opera houses and festivals are influenced by social media in their decisions on future production. Some of them are running scared of a Twitter storm.

Here’s what Kasper Holten, former head of opera at Covent Garden tells him: ‘We have a culture that is about success – star ratings, bums on seats, Twitter opinion – and that threatens risk-taking for sure. But one customer said to me that it was only worth taking risks if they are successful. Of course, that doesn’t make sense, does it? The one thing I noticed about being in the UK is that there seems to be a resistance to the idea of ‘concept’.’

Michael Volpe continues: Engaging with furious, critical patrons is something Holten clearly enjoys, and I concur with him that it is always pleasing to discuss, to learn from audiences and sometimes find a way to at least shift their thinking. The trouble is, I worry most about those who don’t engage and just vote with their feet, creating volatility — and I say this despite the fact that the ROH currently operates on occupancies of over 95%…

Read on here.

pic: Holland Park Opera


Comments (36)

  1. Mike Schachter says:

    Quite a lot of the “furious” would not have gone anyway, they are just attention seeking. Organisations who defer to Twittertrash deserve to fail.

    1. Michael Volpe says:

      They don’t “defer”. But should they ignore opinions expressed in that forum along with others? Don’t allow Norman’s headline to become fact!

  2. Anonymouse says:

    Britain has a resistance to the idea of concept? Really? The country that produces perhaps the largest number of leading theatre directors of any country in the world?

    Tell me, does Simon McBurney not understand concept? Tim Supple? Sam Brown? Jude Kelly? Deborah Warner? Did not, before them, Jonathan Miller and Peter Brook, or Joan Littlewood? Or 20 years before them, Tyrone Guthrie?

    What we have lately are some concepts produced that are not anchored in the subject matter, particularly not the text. A rape scene in an opera based on a mistranslation of the French verb ‘enlever’, for example.

    There is a new production of Lucio Silla in a German theatre that wants to make Sulla young and handsome.

    Sulla was in his late 50s when he was appointed Dictator of Rome…

    1. Mike Schachter says:

      Opera does attract directors who are wilfully ignorant of music, opera and probably everything else. A couple of years ago the ENO had a whole string of these, at a time when they had over 20 productions in a season. But triumphs like Handel’s Julius Caesar set in the Wild West and a wholly incomprehensible and badly sung Rigoletto (immediately replaced by the Miller production) seemed effective in deterring the public. Blame the management for hiring these clowns.

      1. martain smith says:

        Exactly – and so often wasting taxpayers’ money!

  3. Elizabeth owen says:

    You’ve got to have the opportunity to fail, otherwise you just do the same old same old like the Met has done for years. But that doesn’t mean that you allow directors who are desparate to make a name for themselves by doing something ridiculous i.e. cast sitting on toilets etc. etc. Who would have heard of Sellars or Biexto if they hadn’t been outrageous?

    1. Mr. Schwa says:

      Posts such as yours restore my faith!! Thank you for labeling these fraud-directors for what they are. Recently I have started to think that the tide might be turning slightly, What with so many opera lovers voicing their disgust with such Euro-trash and Ameri-trash productions. It is too bad that the opera companies have to suffer declining attendance in order for the General Damagers to start to wake up.

      1. Michael Volpe says:

        Important to make the point that I speak as the Genersl Director of a festival where our audience has been consistently in the high nineties percent for twenty years. My point is that even we have to consider audience opinion. And always have.

    2. martain smith says:

      Agree again!

  4. Stephen Moore says:

    I’m not on Twitter and came off Facebook in the summer. I couldn’t be happier. Opera producers in the UK should either ignore ‘Twitter storms’ or fight back: I would suggest the latter. The outrage directed at Mr Holten by traditionalist was pathetic – a sort of UKIP goes to the opera mob. They are sad little people, who probably voted Leave. It is a fact of life in Britain that the ignorant and reactionary shout loudest; it is changing though.

    1. DESR says:

      Horrors! Leave voters, my darling.

      Holten rightly got a bucket of shit poured over him because he did not live up to billing as a director himself (he got the job on the strength of his excellent Copenhagen Ring); he did not pick enough winners (and I do not mean simple crowd pleasers but artistic successes); and because he did not exercise enough care about the absurd and meaningless provocations of some directors on his watch, notoriously including Guillaume Tell. I have never seen anything like the reaction of that first night audience anywhere. He and Pappano were shaken by this, and soon after Holten was ‘not discouraged from leaving’.

      There is a problem about play-it-safe conservatism that challenges no one, but there is a clearer and more present danger with useless provocateurs, whose reaction to their own musical insecurity is to lash out at a caricature of their audiences.

      1. Mr. Schwa says:

        Another problem is that the blame for Euro-Trash and Ameri-Trash always falls squarely on the shoulders of the stage directors. Whereas it is true that they are the enforcers of these productions, we must also recognize, admit and remind ourselves and the public that quite often, the music directors and general directors are let off the hook somewhat. Pappano should have known from the get-go, years before opening night, when these
        concepts are discussed, that such a production ‘style’ was to be realized and staged. There are models of the set, drawings, all sorts of indicators. So why was he ‘shaken’? He has been watching such productions for over a decade, often from the best view in the house: the podium. I suggest these people cease trying to one-up other companies via attention-grabbing productions and the hiring of ignorant, opera-ignorant directors, and simply mount illuminating, classy productions. I have witnessed, and taken part in preparing/rehearsing, a number of productions by big-name directors, such as Carsen, for example, where the ‘take’ on the opera was absolutely NOT traditional, and yet the results of which were stunningly insightful, original and in fact brilliant. I have come to agree with those who think that we cannot simply ALWAYS mount traditional stagings. It is so sad that today’s opera singers are afraid to challenge or resist stagings created by directors who don’t understand a word of the libretto’s language, who have quite often never even seen/attended a production of the opera in question (or any opera??), and the reason is a simple one: no singer wants to be black-listed for standing up to such things. It is interesting that these same singers, even big names/stars, roll their eyes, shake their heads, etc., when in a one-on-one coaching preparing their role, as they reflect on how embarrassing such and such production was. I sometimes entertain visions of watching a Vickers, a Nilsson, so many others, tell off one of these directors, but of course that is a daydream, a fantasy, because we live in a different world. Oh well. There is always the fabulous, divine music, and the wonderful singing. Perhaps those two factors are the reason that the butchers who ride roughshod over these masterpieces cannot quite seem to kill this unique art form off once and for all.

        Footnote: I recently worked with a conductor who had just led a Cenerentola in a major French opera house. I asked how he liked the production: he replied that the Act I scene i set was a train station. And he also said that, once he had seen this, he didn’t bother watching the rest of the production. Just conducted,cued, made music.

        1. SC says:

          The reason today’s singers don’t “challenge” productions is that their performance contracts do not allow them to. They can leave without pay, or put up and shut up. This depressing fact is not as widely known as it should be.

  5. John Borstlap says:

    I taste in the background of Holten’s and Volpe’s remarks the idea that provoking or shocking opera audiences (= ‘taking risks’) would be, somehow, an indication of artistic quality of the production. While ‘merely routinely repeating’ production style which is ‘playing safe’ (= normal and in line with the work in hand) may be less exciting for the producer and stage director, this at least demonstrates respect for the work, and audiences are intelligent enough to experience the work if production style is not intervening with the work itself.

    There still widely circulates, among opera producers and stage directors, the misunderstanding that there must be a ‘concept’ injected into the work which brings it into ‘contemporary times’ as to ‘make it accessible to contemporary audiences’. So, getting TV sets, machine guns,, planes or pornography on stage will wake-up audiences who otherwise would sink into comatoze slumber, is the assumption, and recognizing contemporary atrocities would help them to understand works from an otherwise ‘irrelevant’ past. This stems from history: in narrow-minded, bourgeois times, great operas were boo’d by shocked audiences (Carmen, Tristan, Pelléas etc.) so, the ‘logic’ goes, if we can get the audience angry and booing, we have created a cultural quality feat. But many good operas were successful already at their first performances (all of Mozart’s, Wagner’s Lohengrin, Wallküre, Meistersinger and Parsifal, all Puccini’s operas), and the provocations that accompanied Carmen, Tristan and Pelléas, when they were repeated, quickly changed into audience successes. In contrast, the ‘provocative’ productions of today hardly ever have a progeny.

    This misunderstanding is the result of naive myth making and falsification of history, all under the influence of postwar modernist ideas that audiences consist per definition of bourgeois nitwits who cannot understand any subject from the past, and that there is something like ‘progress’ in art, to which we all have to succumb if we don’t want to miss the only train towards Utopia.

    (Meanwhile, nobody has ever come-up with some description of this utopia. for the simple reason that it does not exist.)

  6. Stephen Gould says:

    What Michael Volpe does not say is that Regietheater is easier than finding something new to say when putting on a traditional production – just as writing free verse is easier than composing a really good sonnet. Often enough, “concept” is merely an excuse for laziness, therefore. Any clown can deploy motorbikes and long leather coats, prostitutes, etc.

    And audiences can tell.

  7. Bruce says:

    “I tell students that if they can’t bring opera to life with nothing but the singers and a bare stage, then they should go and get another job.”

    That was, I think, the only acknowledgment, in the whole article, of the importance of singing in opera (and even that didn’t acknowledge the importance of the quality of the singing).

    1. Michael Volpe says:

      My piece was about production style, but it is often my experience that those who are most averse to updates are rarely assuaged by the wuality of the singing. In the cintext of the piece, the quality of the singing is a given.

      1. Leo says:

        The quality of the singing cannot be a given, as it is a live performance.

        And as long as what’s going inside the singer’a head is “let me do all this staging and miraculously get the notes in place”, a superb quality of singing becomes impossible – as achieving it requires the singers to do exactly the opposite of what conceptual staging demands of them: making all the connections of text (plot) and music come together, and music isn’t the notes. That would be the aim of a successful “traditional” staging, which is impossible when a concept foreign to the work is introduced.

        1. Michael Volpe says:

          I repeat, in the cintext of my piece and the issue I was addressing, the quality of the singing was a given. I could of course write a different piece about how stagings affect singers etc. This wasn’t it.

          1. Michael Volpe says:

            “Context”

      2. Bruce says:

        Fair point.

  8. Una says:

    Social media has its place, but not only is opera companies et al have to deal with it, singers are also running scared and forever cancelling as they are getting more and more scared to be pulled over the internet, note by note, by so-called armchair ‘experts’ who don’t sing themselves but know everything there is to know about the art of singing. In my day, you only had to deal with a newspaper review, good or bad, and that critic’s opinion, rightly or wrongly, about the performance, and get onto the next. It’s awful for them, and then their told if you can’t stand the heat – by the same experts – then get out of the fire! I’m glad not to be on the receiving end of any of that anymore but particularly the vicious lot on FB and social media who expect perfection from imperfect and vulnerable human beings. Let’s hope some people make some New Year’s resolutions to be a bit kinder and make their criticisms in a more constructive way.

    1. AndyB says:

      Very well expressed. Another easy outlet for the arm chair critics is you tube where some people find it only too easy to persistently ‘dive bomb’ their singer targets. It is great to have access to so many performances on line, but some of the comments are as appalling / insulting as they are untrue.
      Social media can be great for career promotion and for ‘meeting’ and sharing with a wide section of the public , but there are certainly risks. Oh for the days when trolls were just mythical beings rather than an internet reality!

  9. Michael Volpe says:

    I am not saying that twitter is dictating opera policy. Tiwtter and other social media is a crucible for opinion and it affects wider audience behaviour and views. But it is a leap to say we or other companies design productions based on what twitter says. It might help us understand what people think of the work afterwards but it isn’t predictive! Most opinion comes via word of mouth or letters sent to me directly. We have to listen to our audience one way or the other.

  10. Leo says:

    “Sometimes, though, one can miss the obvious, or perhaps ignore it.”

    Well, finally. And the obvious is: Regietheater is a mistake based on ignorance – on lack of musical knowledge or capacity, and lack of understanding of the fine intricacies between music and text which have defined opera in different ways ever since its beginnings. Understanding these fine details would leave very little space, if at all, for innovative “updating” – getting such details right is more than enough work (for which nobody has time today – musical rehearsals for a 4 hour long opera lasting in total 3 hours is considered “professionalism”). Making the staging alone the emphasis of a production is demonstratively missing the point.

    The musical level of performances, both of singing and conducting, has continuously deteriorated ever since Regietheater became the norm. The audience seems aware, yet the opera managements still don’t hear it.

    If something is to be done, coming back to tradition superficially won’t suffice; a lot of lost knowledge has to be rediscovered and relearned, if we want to recreate the magical experiences which a good opera production is.
    That requires no less than an artistic paradigm shift.

    Regietheater has been largely rejected by audiences ever since the beginning. It has been rejected by all significant singers and conductors of the day, yet with time they had to become more and more complacent – if they wanted to keep making a living.

    The infuriated responses of audience members, and their “single minded rejection” of “concept” – reflect a simple thing, which is the basis of all conservatism: love.
    They simply love opera (in its pre “Regietheater” form), and they love it so much, it indeed infuriates them to see it “defiled”.

    It’s all quite simple.

  11. Charles Fischbein,Phd says:

    While social media should not dictate policy decisions of opera companies, at a Time when so many houses like the Met et al are playing to half empty seats it may be useful for director’s and general managers to be aware if audience preferences.
    While updated Euro Trash productions may work across the pond the majority of American audiences seem to prefer more traditional interpretation close as possible to composers stated desires.
    Let’s face it the Mets recent productions of Tosca and The Ring did not seem to overwhelm audiences.
    The staging of Rigoletto in a 50s Vegas casino was pure insanity

    1. Michael Volpe says:

      It doesn’t dictate. It merely provides part of the tapestry of audience reaction we all need to listen to. Norman has somewhat overstated that element of the piece.
      What I argue is that certain cinceots ARE valuable and we have seen wonderful interpretations of core works. Audiences need to have an open mind, but as I say, we cannot force them to like it. It must be more measured and gentle. We cannot do the same Traviata time and again.

      1. Charles Fischbein says:

        Michael, if you follow the logic of your statement saying. We cannot do the same Traviata time and again, would you suggest changing the 1812 Overture to the 2012 Overture with a new score and perhaps a sub machine gun replacing the canon
        Remember the meaning if the word CLASSIC

        1. Michael Volpe says:

          Sorry, but yours is not a reasonable analogy. These are dramatic works, not orchestral pieces. My article argues for a balance between unthinking, deliberately provocative relocations or updates and traditional dot-to-dot stagings, not that we must always update or always do it in period. I recognise that a section of the audience likes no change whatsoever to their operas and I also recognise that you do not HAVE to update to make a production successful, revealing, insightful etc.

          I want audiences to have open minds. Has everybody on this thread actually taken the time to read my piece?

      2. Leo says:

        There is indeed a problem with “doing Traviata again and again”, yet concept alone won’t be the solution, as it is too superficial a solution.

        The problem, which is the reason why opera houses are bound to repeat mostly ever older core repertoire, is that since the last 70 years there are hardly any new meaningful additions to this repertoire. As long as composers are bound to write unlistenable nonsense in order to be considered “contemporary” (and thus: relevant), this problem won’t go anywhere. And no amount of conceptualization of the staging will help in the long run.

        1. Mr. Schwa says:

          So true!! People want to hear great music, and singable music at that. Based on the poor level of contemporary opera composers, the art form does not appear to have much of a future. Of course, it is quite possible that the second-rate crap being written now will be considered good in hundreds of years. So one never knows for sure. But between the fraud-directors and the composers, I don’t think things are looking up.

        2. Michael Volpe says:

          I said “the SAME Traviata”, not Traviata itself. If all you want is the music, then why bother with the theatre? You seem to think I propose we should always interpret it in a radical, conceptual way. Again, I ask if you have read the piece?

          1. Leo says:

            Yes I read your piece, and I enjoyed it as well.

            The impossibility of doing the same Traviata production again and again stems from the necessity to endlessly do Traviata in the first place – that was what I meant.

            My opinion is that by changing the staging to differ from the original intentions, the music unavoidabley change as well. One has to depart from recording oriented thinking about music as “being there”, and understand its meanings as a live performance.
            The music, which isn’t the notes, is unavoidably connected to what is happening on stage. There are endless ways to play any given musical instructions, and the most fitting ones are found in the music’s relation to the text, just as the best dramatic motivations for any event on the stage are to be found in the text’s relation to the music.

            It is precisely because I wouldn’t want just the music that I make this argument. It seems to me that in the base of the thinking concentrating on the staging, there is overapplication of interpretation to the literary text and underapplication of it to the musical text.

          2. Michael Volpe says:

            Leo
            I take your point about musi driving the drama. I wouldn’t disagree. The Traviatas, Bohemes et al of the repertoire are great works and this is why they are popular. This whole issue is not a simple one, especially when, like me, you spend time examining the behaviour of audiences – and of course, trying to determine their behaviour, too! An opera company/festival has, I think, a role to play in educating and expandign an audience’s knowledge, tastes, experience. We have managed this over two decades with respect to the late Italian repertiore. We know that there is a significant number of patrons who will go for the rarities first and only consider another Traviata etc if it has particular interest.

            My piece really addresses a group (and some responses here and elsewhere have confirmed my thinking) who are forcefully of the opinion that opera should only be done in a particular way. Some, who discuss or think about this in any depth, will also say that they are protecting the work’s integrity etc. I make clear in my piece that most directors, even the radicsl ones, do understand and appreciate the texts and how it relates to the music.

            Essentially, my point is that rather than continue to have these arguments endlessly, we should as an industry accept that there is a section of the audience who just won’t buy the arguments and find a way to honour the lines in the sand they draw, but give them some of what they want whilst coaxing them to consider the better examples of updating that exist. My piece wasn’t really focused in the merits or otherwise of each side’s case; the argument has become THE thing and the effect that divide is havign on the industry. For me there is one certainty and that is that the best updatings or re-interpretations reveal new things about operas I thought I knew intimately. I also accept that I have seen very traditional stagings do the very same thing, or amplify an emotion just by a directorial gesture, a wave of the hand, a particular embrace. So nothing is fixed in my mind. Setting Tosca in 1968 Rome added an anxiety to the piece because I am aware of the febrile political atmosphere at the time, for example. Open minds is what we all need, too.

  12. Tom Brooks says:

    Everyone who works with audiences will know the importance of social media.Nesrly 60% of the UK population is on Facebook now.it is simply common sense to know what people are saying about you.
    In my view the problem with modern opera productions is not the concept its rubbish Directors.Send me Peter Sellers and Barry Kosky but I never want to see a Kasper Holten production again

  13. Dominic Stafford says:

    I remember my father having a long discussion with Jonathan Miller about whether Otello should be able to reach out and take Desdemona’s hand as he dies. Elijah Moshinsky had allowed it in his Covent Garden production; but Jonathan Miller thought it betrayed the spirit of the text and allowed the opera a ‘completion’ that the text did not warrant.

    Someone mentioned Robert Carsen above. Robert’s the same. There are all these little touches that show he’s paying great attention to the source material.

    The comments above remind me of the old story, perhaps apocryphal, about Robert Merrill. On being given some stage direction by a staff director at the Met, he replied ‘Son, I either act or I sing. I don’t do both at the same time’!…


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