A Swedish star stages opera without subsidy or sponsors

A Swedish star stages opera without subsidy or sponsors


norman lebrecht

September 02, 2014

She is one of the county’s most outspoken stage personalities, never afraid to speak out in defence of embattled minorities.

Now, she’s taking on the opera establishment with her own production of Handel’s Xerxes – without state funds or private sponsorship, relying just as the composer did on the money she takes at the door.

Malena Ernman will sing the title role and organise the production, thereby saving two big expenses. But there’s still a cast and orchestra to pay. How will she do that? we asked Malena.

Here’s what she tells Slipped Disc:



The project is a part of a long work process that really started when I participated in the Swedish qualification competition for the Eurovision Song Contest 2009.

These qualifications are by far the biggest TV event in the Nordic region, lasting 6 weeks with an average TV audience of 4million viewers. As it turned out I won:) And that gave classical music in Sweden a unique opportunity to really embrace and conquer the famous ”new” audience.

But since no one really came forward to initiate that work I decided to start it by myself. It went well. Really well. Over the last 6 years I have toured Sweden with an (all-female) string ensemble and a few other classical musicians such as Martin Fröst and guitarist Mas Bergström, and we have succeeded in being self financed and reaching a yearly audience of 20-40 000 people. The idea has always been to give first class classical music and opera in a package entertaining enough to attract basically anyone.

After 2-3 years I approached some of the musical institutions to see whether they wanted to take part. Or to see if they were interested in what we had learnt. Or to find a way to cooperate…. But no.
malena ernman3

I’m sure you are aware that the world of classical music and opera is not wide open to change or innovative ideas. I thought if we could fill up concert houses with a non-traditional classical audience, playing anything from Monteverdi to Pärt we had found way that could be useful for the classical community. But my only conclusion was that they really were not interested! Sadly enough.

So I went on… In Europe I was an opera singer and in Sweden I was a performing artist. Even though I was pretty much doing the same thing. That made me think… and over the years I found there were some huge differences between the various artforms:

In opera, to make budget, we do as few performances as possible. And in all other art forms, you do as many as possible…Having spent most of my life entertaining people from stage I know that the one and only thing that make you develop is time on stage… And so naturally opera falls behind. Then I thought why not bring the ”theatre” in music-theatre back as an equal part of music theatre; opera. Specially since most of our potential new audience comes from theatre…

So now we are making Xerxes in that spirit. No funding, no grants, no donations, no sponsors… just tickets to be sold. (At a cheaper price than at the Stockholm Royal Opera). It is a bit of wild experiment of course.

My first and last ambition is to try to bring opera a tiny bit closer to the non traditional opera audience. AND!!! This is by no means meant as a ”art can finance itself” project!!! I believe that all art need and should receive a much larger public budget than today. Xerxes is just a way of showing the potential of opera; and what we are able to do if we only open up to our surrounding world and try to reach the broader stage-art audience.

I also think we need to put an end to the ”bigger and louder and grander” era in opera. The industrial size ”one-huge-operahouse-per-city” is not performing miracles on our artform anymore. I think we need to divide our “one-major-house-funding-per-city” to a number of smaller and more flexible companies; opening up for multiplicity, experimenting and competition. 

We bring the orchestra + conductor from France. (Sweden’s all-Wagner tradition does not develop great conditions for baroque orchestras). Ensemble Matheus and J C Spinosi whom I’ve worked with many times. They come straight from 2 Bartoli-productions in Salzburg.

Director is Swedish, Lars Rudolfsson who has directed and co-written the last three Björn and Benny from Abba musicals, Chess, Kristina from Dufvemåla and Hjälp sökes. The cast include Kerstin Avemo, Loa Falkman and Australian counter tenor David Hansen.

Our Xerxes will be part of the Opera Royal in Versailles, Paris  season 2014/15 opening June 3 2015.


  • Sven Olavsson says:

    Malena Ernman is known for supporting the acclaimed Swedish journalist and historian Henrik Arnstad, who wants to forbid the Swedish political party SD (currently supported 1 of 6 Swedes) and to give “berufsverbot” to teacher who supports this party.

    In this respect, there is nothing positive to be said about Malena Ernman.

    • Martin says:

      Might want to add that the Sweden Democrats is a racsist party deriviate from a nazi party just 15-10 years ago.

      • Sven Olavsson says:

        Dear Martin, SD have people from Africa/Asia/The Middle East on their lists for the forthcoming parliament election. Please inform these people that they represent a party that looks upon them as subspecies, will you? So they can change their mind before it’s too late.

        Wanting immigration restrictions and being racist is not the same.

        • Martin says:

          It’s not only about restrictions of immigration.

          “Den moderna demokratin har vuxit fram i intim symbios med nationalstaten. Demokrati betyder folkstyre och Sverigedemokraternas uppfattning är att man inte helt kan förbigå ordet ”folk” i begreppet folkstyre och att folkstyret i längden riskerar att bli mycket problematiskt att upprätthålla i en stat som bebos av flera folk, där det inte råder konsensus kring vilka som skall räknas till folket och där det kanske inte ens förekommer en gemensam arena för debatt eftersom invånarna i staten inte talar samma språk. Vi ser således förekomsten av en gemensam nationell och kulturell identitet bland befolkningen i staten som en av de mest grundläggande hörnstenarna i en stark och väl fungerande demokrati.” – SD Party program.

          This is basically to in a very pretty way say “ein volk, ein reich”. The state does not function or will face severe issues when different groups of people are to govern alongside each others. That’s what they mean. Every day SD politicians are busted with WAY more controversial quotes than to prevent/prohibit immigration (mainly fugitives from the middle-east). The party is clearly racist, borderline nazi, wrapped up neatly by the millions spent on advertisement.

          You as a voter (I suppose) on the Sweden Democrats might not be racist but don’t get yourself fooled. The party is.

          • Sven Olavsson says:

            Hi Martin,

            but they’re right: The Swedish state DOESN’T function like it is now! The upper class sitting with their rawfood in Södermalm telling the parents in Rinkeby that a school with 98% foreign pupils is just good for their kids and will “enrich” Sweden in the future. Nevermind they would never set foot in these areas themselves. Unemployment is rising, 25 percent amoung young people, who flee the country and go to Denmark and Norway to find work because they can’t get any in Sweden (I’m wondering where all the 100000 asylum seekers this year are going to work?)

            The ghettos is many Swedish cities, Malmö being the most prominent, clearly shows that Sweden welcomed a bunch of people with no intentions to adjust to the Swedish society. What SD say is for me is that future immigration should see the arrival of people who will easily adjust to Sweden. Germans, Americans, Dutch, etc. If agreeing with them is racist, well, then I’m a racist – together with more and more governments across Europe who also realize this.

            Your “ein Volk, ein Reich” is playing the guilt-by-association card, which is a very primitive not to forgot overused tactic. I’m sure you can do better than this.

            That being said: I’m not a Swedish citizen and can’t vote this month.

            And second: A racist party can’t, in my view, have Arabs and Africans on their list.

  • Kate Flowers says:

    This is what we – Co-Opera Co. – have been doing since we started back in 2009 – no subsidies, no grants, no sponsors – just bums on seats. We have our own orchestra and we pay everyone a guaranteed fee – not enormous but we also pay travel and Hotel expenses.
    Why do we do this? Because we believe that emerging artists need as much paid stage experience as possible at the aprentceship stage of their career AND we want to give our audiences a wonderful experience of opera at very reasonable prices.
    How long we can carry on without financial backing I don’t know – but we have no plans to stop just yet – so far we have toured 9 new productions to over 30 venues around the UK in numerous performances and to great acclaiam – helping to launch the careers of several notable artists and helping over 700 aspiring artists in the process.

    Perhaps we need to shout more loudly from the rooftops about what it is we are doing here at Co-Opera Co. for singers, directors, designers, conductors, reps, stage management etc etc etc AND audiences in the UK?

    • MWnyc says:

      Sounds terrific, Kate.

      But how loudly can you shout by yourselves?

      What you need is for the press to shout for you – which means doing a couple of things to get their attention.

      You could try a flash mob, I guess, though that’s been done an awful lot by now.
      But if you really want to get the attention of the national papers, you’ll probably need to stage an opera with a nude scene.

    • Jonathan says:

      The last time I checked an artist had to pay to sing with Co Opera….

  • Wiebke Göetjes says:

    This is also exactly what I am doing in the Netherlands….
    Very hard, but fulfilling!

    I wish Malena Ernman all the best with her production!

    Wiebke Göetjes

  • Theodore McGuiver says:

    I’m not sure getting Spinosi on board is a great idea…

  • Doug says:

    “Speaks out in defense of embattled minorities” In Sweden, that means the Swedish.

  • Neil McGowan says:

    who has directed and co-written the last three Björn and Benny from Abba musicals

    Coming immediately after her remark that Sweden’s orchestras “can’t play baroque music”, the above deserves to be printed-out and framed.

    What a pity – Serse (not “Xerxes”) is a fine work.

    • MWnyc says:

      If Ernman’s going to the trouble of bringing Ensemble Matheus over from France, it means she wants a Baroque orchestra (meaning period hardware), a decision I can only agree with. How many of those are there in Sweden, I wonder, and are they available when she needs them?

      As for Xerxes versus Serse – well, if you’re trying to survive on box office receipts, and you’re performing a piece about a historical figure (even if the story itself is fiction), you should probably use the name by which your audience will have heard of that figure. I don’t know what name the Persian king Xšayārša I is usually known by in Swedish, but I bet it isn’t “Serse”.

  • Lini says:

    Don’t worry, Mr Sneer, this stage director is known to make extraordinarily beautiful and poetic productions. He knows music. He has his owm theatre. Ernman just uses the ABBA word to stir some Swedish fame into her project.

  • pim valborgsdotter says:

    I am sure it will be A Very Specially Production of Serxes, as always when Mezzosopranos Erman goes on stage! Her great actress and intuitaitions are in full when Shes there on stage – in heart and voice – NOT HER TALKING,; I TOUGTH IT WAS THE OPERA SERXES WE SHOULD TALK ABOUT HERE, NOT HER HUMAN-POLITICAL MIND!!! OOD LUK – RYGOD LUCKAND BESSINGSITH THIS WUDERFUL WORK YOU DO FOR US!!!

  • […] “My first and last ambition is to try to bring opera a tiny bit closer to the non traditional opera audience. AND!!! This is by no means meant as a ”art can finance itself” project!!! I believe that all art need and should receive a much larger public budget than today. Xerxes is just a way of showing the potential of opera; and what we are able to do if we only open up to our surrounding world and try to reach the broader stage-art audience.” Read more on Slipped Disc […]