The Unimaginable Liberation Of The Singer - The Nice and the Radical
At a the latest Devoted and Disgruntled conference, I called a session asking for ideas for a utopian opera festival.
One thing that emerged was the idea of a more equal sharing of power, but in terms of the ideas that emerged, most of them were very… nice. Pragmatic steps within the current frame, rather than truly radical ideas about power in opera.
Since then, I had reason to revisit Brecht’s essay on Mahagonny, including its wonderful call for “for innovation - against renovation!” I also started Priyamvada Gopal’s Insurgent Empire, which articulates the way that societies treat things that fall outside certain frames as unimaginable - if our frame is that the British Empire benevolently taught people how to be members of liberal democracy, the thought ‘maybe the idea that people should be free was also created by colonial subjects resisting the empire’ is near-impossible (I paraphrase, hugely and with apologies).
Amid all the recent discussions of how to change opera in the light of the immediate crises of Brexit and COVID-19, and long standing issues around abuses of power, and equity, diversity, and inclusion, there have been things that are easy imagine (changing the performed repertoire to something that people outside the usual crowd want to see, proactively hiring to address historic imbalances in the workforce, including - admittedly basic - safeguarding measures and workplace protections for singers). These are nice, if frustratingly difficult to achieve within the current system.
What cannot be imagined? What is so outside opera’s systems that it would require fundamental changes? What happens when we move beyond nice to the unimaginable liberation of the singer?
Where is the power?
In one of my favourite quotes, the Oldest Living Bolshevik tells the children of the coming millennium “we must change, only show me the Theory, and I will be at the barricades, show me the book of the next Beautiful Theory, and I promise you these blind eyes will see again, just to read it, to devour that text. Show me the words that will reorder the world, or else keep silent.”
Now, the Oldest Bolshevik isn’t entirely right, though it’s a cracking quote. It’s very easy to build a framework for ideas that is self-consistent, but does not in fact make sense as a whole. When one area is challenged, we slip to another to defend it. However, the flaw is with the overall whole, and it is hard to understand that from within the system, as a medieval monk might struggle to accept why modern thinkers would dismiss much of their self-contained system of thought. In an ultra-textual age, where the Book of the Theory is mostly people on Twitter or conversations with colleagues one needs to both impress and keep on good terms, and reading recommendations are rarely followed up, it’s possible to create uncodified, thus hard-to-critique, ideological frames (Again, I paraphrase - this time from Weber on rationalities, with apologies).
My theory is, in essence, this: that power is the important thing to follow if we want to reform opera. To change opera means changing where the power sits.
What actors are involved? On an average production, singers, instrumentalists, technicians, a director, a music director/conductor, a composer (alive or dead), an audience, a funder/patron.
Just in terms of fundamental questions: who is in control of what is performed, what you do while performing it, and who gets paid?
Who controls what is performed? OR: who decides which operas get on stage, and what the criteria are for deciding merit?
Singers: For small artist-led companies, maybe. For international stars who want a chance to sing a role they’d never be offered otherwise, maybe. Otherwise, singers rarely seem to get asked about programming when decisions are being made.
Instrumentalists: As above, but doubled.
Director: As artistic director, definitely. As freelancer, there’s a chance an exciting director might be asked what they wanted to direct, but they might equally be approached for a specific production.
Conductor/Music Director: Largely as for directors, though in canon repertoire the centrality of the music can lead to the conductor having greater textual authority than the director, who rarely has recourse to the authority of the ultimate dead superior. While on the subject of power, I recently learnt that batons evolved from staffs given to church choir-leaders as a symbol office, and that early operas had the keyboard player lead the singers, and the principal violinist leading the orchestra - an interesting split of power.
Composer: In a deep, fundamental sense of ‘what notes get sung’, composers have almost all the power. If Mozart’s opera is getting sung, it’s rare that someone’s going to change many of the notes. Living composers generally either self-produce, or negotiate commissions. Librettists exist, though even as a librettist I think it’s fair to say that they are less revered.
Audience: This is the million-dollar question. Do audiences come to endless La Bohemes because they control programming, and want to attend that opera once every few years, or could they - with skilled marketing and a change in conversations around opera - be persuaded to attend different repertoire? As a mass, they have a lot of control of programming - nobody will programme an opera that nobody attended at its first run. Individually, they tend not to.
Funder/Patron: Ye gods, yes. Even at smaller scales, philanthropic support is vital - even when working unpaid, there are still overheads. For a large scale opera, that syndicate of backers being willing to fund that, not this, makes all the difference. That financial support is often traded for something else - a position on the board, advertising space, entertainment at various soirees… For a less smoky backroom version: does anyone think that outreach and education would be a central part of most UK opera companies’ offering if Arts Council England didn’t require it for funding?
Who controls what you do while performing it, and who gets paid?
Honestly, this seems so similar to the above it almost seems not-worth-doing. That same food chain appears of singers get a limited degree of control (depending on the company), but conductors and directors generally have more power (hence power to abuse, even on such routine business as only sending schedules out the Friday so nobody can plan their lives), and are themselves beholden to those who hold the purse strings.
And as for who gets paid - everyone in an insecure financial position is painfully aware of the need to get the next job; there’s always someone else who’ll do it. For singers, that usually involves paying for the right to even audition, and to get the coaching needed to do well in a role. Everyone has a horror story of accepting something they weren’t comfortable with to climb the ladder, from laughing at a tasteless joke to the industry’s endemic abuses of power.
How to move the power?
Yes, we need to fix rehearsal rooms. Abuses of power by conductors, directors, and companies during casting, rehearsals, and the rest of the industry need to be exposed and ended through clear and secure whistleblowing procedures.
Yes, we need to give power to singers. I think a part of this is a middle-class discomfort with collective action/unions. If you’re joining a lobbying group that doesn’t have collective bargaining power to strike, a good question is whether it’s just trying to reinvent a slightly less effective wheel with… fewer… teeth… (yes, this metaphor got mixed). Righteous principles and statements are nice; teeth mean those who currently have power might have to listen (and can be held to account when the initial outrage dies down, and polite reassurances broken). Some campaigning organisations might have new, effective methods - but others seem to divert energy from where it’s needed most to reinvention.
Yes, we need to reorientate the sector to think more about equity, diversity, and inclusion. Remove artists’ precarious financial situation with multi-show contracts, if you can, and they’ll have more power to stand up for themselves rather than constantly seeking to please. You might even find they’re more creative when they’re not constantly keeping an eye on the next job. Heck, give them representation and a vote on your programming so that they are invested; maybe they'll choose to tell stories that weren't approved by the censors of deeply hierarchical societies for reinforcing 'acceptable' values. Though if they programme something/someone the funding-sources don’t like…
That’s the thing reforms focused on the day-to-day experience of working in opera don’t fix. If you want to fix opera, we need to sort out control of the means of making productions.
The Means Of Making Productions (Yes, I love this joke)
Ultimately, the means of making productions (and then getting to make more productions next month) is money (shocking, I know).
If you want to make opera for everyone, you probably need to stop it being funded by a powerful few. No matter how lovely they might be individually, no matter how philanthropic their goals. If 30% of your income comes from your audience, and 70% from your backers, odds on you’re going to need to make a show for those backers, not the mass of your audience.
If you want to make opera for marginalised people, do you really want to be beholden to someone who can write a cheque that big? Are they going to be interested in radical change of society, or even of the operatic sector? Presumably, someone giving a company lots of money is more or less OK with things as they stand. (Obviously, there are deeper discussions around intersectional privilege, but I’m trying to keep this to 2,000 words).
If the funding source is governmental or quasi-governmental, how much do you trust their goals? As the current government puts increasing pressure on charities to be ‘apolitical’ as though their work were entirely separate from social reality, and similarly pressurises other parts of the culture and heritage sector, other sources of means of making productions will become increasingly important.
If we’re not funded by them, where does the money come from? That’s the big question, but a few ideas are below.
Most of the canon’s out the window - Mozart wrote to be funded by the Emperor, Wagner by the industrial elite, Puccini that of Paris. You can cut it down, kick it out as unaffordable without such hierarchs’ support, or find a way to change it into something you can sell to a mass audience.
You’re still beholden to your audience, but my money says that if [major London company] was solely reliant on ticket revenue, their top team would be more worried about getting the 40% of non-white Londoners in. You might have to make stuff they like. And if they like your artists, not the besuited people mingling with funders, that’s more power to the artists.
To go further, what about making opera as a collective, pooling resources to make work, finding tools for devising work together? Can that stand against the old school? Can it give performers more power over the notes and roles they sing/play?
We can go small, changing the means needed to make productions altogether. As so many people have found, not requiring a million-pound production bestows much more than creative freedom; it offers the freedom to do things justly. Consuming less resources also makes it better for the planet. It’s hard to imagine justifying the extravagance of opera to someone in a future world amid a climate crisis caused by resource overconsumption. Small means nimble - your work can serve your whole audience-community, not just the tiny percentage who paid for it.
My instinctive response to some these ideas is ‘impossible!’ But I can’t explain why; I’ve just been told that things can’t change.
I don’t expect this to change the world. I’m certainly guilty of some of the things I think are unhealthy in the ecosystem. But hopefully, some of its ideas are unimaginable enough to offer something useful to the conversation.
P.S. I realised after writing that the thesis "maybe the reason opera isn't as progressive as theatre is related to its financial-cultural setup" is something that anyone outside the operatic bubble probably took for granted after about five seconds in the bubble. Sorry.