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More of the present?! Recent and New Opera Programming

In welcher Weise und in welchem Maße ist die zeitgenössische Oper heute Teil der Identität, des künstlerischen Kerns und des Images europäischer Opernhäuser? Was wird überhaupt als “zeitgenössisch” betrachtet und welche Parameter haben Einfluss auf die Programmierung zeitgenössischer Werke? Dieser Fragestellung widmet sich Leonora Scheib in diesem Artikel und fragte dafür die künstlerischen Leiter*innen zahlreicher Häuser – und erhielt dabei ehrliche Antworten und  überraschende Ergebnisse.

When looking at the season programs of Europe’s opera houses, you find it dominated by operas written in the 18th and 19th century. Most people may not even know that a great variety of contemporary operas exist, as these only tend to make up a miniscule percentage of programming. While this is not a new phenomenon, neither is it a given fact. The selection of works performed and artists involved in an opera house, constitutes to a large extent its artistic profile. So, in what ways and to what extent is contemporary opera a part of the identity, the artistic core and the image of European opera houses today?

This article is based on the results of a study created to investigate the intrinsic and contextual factors being taken into consideration by today’s decision-makers and to look out for potential support for the programming of contemporary opera.

Points of interest and research design

Artistic directors have to act within artistically and economically conflicting goals and under the gaze of diverse stakeholders. Their perception of the current state of contemporary opera programming and experiences with it influence their decisions, therefore shaping today’s season programs. Despite their major influence, studies on program conventionality often pay too little attention to artistic directors, investigating only their educational and professional backgrounds as the sole influential factors.[1] To include personal preferences and points of view significantly shaping today’s opera world, this study places artistic directors at the center of attention.

Figure 1: Geographical distribution of the quantitative sample
(n = 37)

To investigate the internal and external, personal and structural factors being taken into consideration by today’s decision-makers, I chose a mixed methods research design, including a quantitative as well as a qualitative approach. The quantitative study, in the form of an online survey, enables broad insights into the relationships between pre-existing structural and local conditions, and the attitudes of decision-makers spread across Europe. It was executed between March and June 2019 and achieved a sample of 37 completed questionnaires coming from 18 countries at a return rate of 37 %. The first results were presented at the Opera Europa Conference in spring 2019 and served as the basis for nine in-depth expert interviews conducted in Austria, Germany, Italy, France and Belgium between May and September 2019. Gathering the experiences of artistic directors and intendants who’ve worked in several countries and under different framework conditions, this qualitative approach enabled an explorative openness and deeper understanding of the deciding processes; it provided the possibility of questioning and exploring correlations that had appeared in the quantitative survey results.

Contemporary opera?

But what is contemporary opera, or better: what do we refer to when speaking of contemporary opera? To find out which understanding artistic directors have of the term today, they were asked for a temporal allocation. Knowing that choosing exact dates is to some extent arbitrary, the following figure still clearly shows a wide variety in the understanding of the term contemporary opera. The diagram depicts the frequency of chosen dates visually connected to the stated reasons for those chosen dates. While some decision-makers already associate the word contemporary to operas written at the beginning of the 20th century, a greater part of the respondents set the beginning for contemporary opera after the end of the Second World War. Some speak of a timeframe spanning the last twenty to thirty years, while others want to emphasize that contemporary opera should exclusively denote pieces being created today, and therefore chose 2019 – the year the survey was executed.

Figure 2: Temporal allocation of the term contemporary opera: frequencies and reasons
(n = 39; n [survey] = 34, n [interviews] = 5, the brackets above the word explanations span between the dates that participants used that explanation for)

Confronting interviewees with those results, some artistic directors were astounded about how far back some of their colleagues dated the term, as the following quote illustrates:
“Oh that is ridiculous! Come on, I was born in 1959 [and] I am almost 60 years old, that’s not contemporary! That is almost classical modernity […]. I’m sorry, but Einstein on the beach is history!“ [2]
The results of the study show that – in regard to music and opera – the terms contemporary, new and modern stand without clear distinction between or relationship to each other and are used in different ways; they are either positive or negative attributions, used as quality feature, for practical reasons, or are avoided to inhibit categorization. A tendency can be observed to appoint the term modern to pieces of the 20th century and speak of contemporary opera as a more recent term. But due to the missing clarity of the different terms and diverse attributions, there is still a dilemma between avoiding pigeonholing through the use of such definitions and terms, and the necessity to differentiate their varying implications.

In balance

Season programs are compositions, created within a complex network of influencing factors and – between artistic goals and organizational necessities – they are designed to achieve balance. Artistic directors speak of finding the balance between the known and unknown (for the audience as much as for the musicians and cast), between innovation and organizational preconditions, in repertoire choices – this includes a piece’s position as either in or outside of the operatic canon – and a financial balance, which entails an estimation of audience interest. As this list shows, the different aspects depend upon and are related to each other. Combining the answers to two questions of the quantitative survey, the following graph shows the importance that artistic directors assign to factors for their decision processes in season planning. The different colors indicate which of those factors they see as advantageous or as difficult for the programming of contemporary opera.

Figure 3: Order of importance of influencing factors according to the sum of assigned points & attributed effect of programming contemporary opera on those factors
(n [influencing factors] = 35, n [attributed effect] = 36)

On the one hand the programming of contemporary opera supports artistic directors in creating a specific identity for their house and in earning attention of press and peers. World premieres are seen as prestige projects for opera houses and can build a reputation. Furthermore, contemporary pieces are often to the advantage of the balance and variety in season plans. On the other hand, artistic directors expect negative effects on both the total budget balance and seat occupancy rates when programming contemporary pieces.

The intertwined factors here described, plus the constant act of maintaining balances pose a difficult dilemma. The programming of new pieces does not usually come at the expense of popular and famous ones, but – precisely because of the need to cross-finance – rather at the expense of programming recent operas or rarities from earlier repertory. Jensen and Kim proved that conventional programming choices are being taken, in order to enable the unconventional.[3] World premieres have many advantages over other contemporary opera productions in terms of press attention, sponsorship attraction and prestige. Caused by the competition with each other rather than with other repertoire, commissioned new pieces can even inhibit other contemporary pieces from being performed or revived and given the chance to become part of the repertoire.

To find out which considerations are most prevalent, artistic directors were asked which thoughts and challenges come to their minds first when thinking about programming contemporary opera. The answers form a web of linked aspects, depicted in the following graph: it summarizes the statements by showing the number of named topics and their mentioned correlations, categorized into three thematic areas.

The following paragraphs will consider the three thematic areas more closely and describe the influence on, but also possibilities for the programming of contemporary opera.

The opera house

Figure 4: Web of challenges coming to mind first, when thinking of programming contemporary opera (n = 36)

“We have to ask ourselves: do we work for opera or for the opera houses.” [4]
Being the workplace and performance space for this personnel-intensive art from, opera houses as institutions entail many preconditioned structures. The quantitative as well as the qualitative study prove the enormous presence of these strong frameworks. Decision-makers operate within the existing system and under the premise of the identity of their respective cultural institution. In the previously portrayed open question, many artistic directors describe the difficulty to facilitate the development of the art form with artistic courage, originality and innovation whilst operating within the temporal possibilities, resources and institutional frameworks of opera houses.

Former studies on programming decisions have investigated the size of institutions as an influencing factor. The results indicate a duality of influence: on the one hand, bigger houses need to find larger audiences to fill their seating capacities, on the other hand, they often also have bigger budgets, enabling financial leeway and possibilities of cross-financing. [5] The artistic directors interviewed only mention this factor indirectly, but stress the importance of the amount and characteristics of available venues. Main stage pieces have to be able to fill not only a large number of seats but also big artistic spaces, whereas smaller venues give the chance for more risk and new formats.

The rehearsal processes for contemporary opera productions are often more time-consuming than those for well-known operas. Companies working under the repertoire-system, the stagione-system, or as festivals, have different preconditions to enable these. Especially the creation of a world premiere confronts houses with unusual processes. According to an interview partner, who has worked in the USA for many years, there is still a lot of potential in ameliorating the support structures for opera creations in Europe. Several artistic directors emphasize that a person with real know-how on contemporary music theatre can be of substantial benefit to a company during the process of creating new pieces. The capability to actively support creation processes “comes from a great amount of experience, which most houses do not have, because they do not invest enough.”[6]

By collaborating with other houses and venues, artistic directors see the chance to give new pieces the possibility to endure, develop and be seen by different audiences. Even though artistic directors mention several difficulties connected to co-creations, there is still a great desire to not produce solitarily, but within a small group of opera companies. Especially for small-scale formats, artistic directors see additional potential in working with independent producers, to whom they attribute a great potential of creativity and a healthy distance from rigid structures. Hereby opera houses can serve as docking stations, outsourcing the creation process and providing financial or infrastructural resources.

As mostly non-profit organizations dependent on various income sources and – in many European countries – mainly subsidized by the public sector, the opera houses’ financial aim is to keep their budget in balance.[7]  Programming contemporary opera is commonly seen as financially risky and often entails a double financial burden. On the one hand, opera houses are confronted with higher costs in terms of copyright, specific casting or instruments, electronics or potential commissioning fees. On the other hand, they also face a lower demand, which results in lower seat occupancy rates and therefore lower income.

Several studies have investigated the connection between the composition of the budget and the possibility of unconventional programming. The financial autonomy rate is usually seen as a key figure, describing at which percentage an opera house achieves its budget by income, primarily through ticket sales. According to the international comparative study by Agid and Tarondeau, houses with less financial autonomy tend to have a more innovative program, whereas the most conventionally programmed opera houses record the highest financial autonomy rate. [8]

Investigating a connected ratio, previous studies have also proven that greater financial support from the public sector encourages unconventional and brave programming. [9] Since decision-makers at more heavily subsidized opera houses are less dependent on the company’s income, they have greater freedom in their programming choices. Interestingly, funding by local politics was sometimes found to create the opposite.[10] In terms of specific financial backing, more than half of the opera houses in the online-survey sample receive specified financial support from sponsors, donors or philanthropists wanting to promote innovation and cultural development. In order to find partners and collaborators in that sector, congruent values and intentions are of special importance.

Many houses apply price discrimination to contemporary opera performances in an attempt to help stimulate the low demand, altering price structures according to productions’ estimated demand rather than costs. In contrary to the prejudice of contemporary opera having too little audience, my interview partners mainly talk about examples supposedly providing evidence to challenge that common assumption. The studies that have investigated a suspected correlation between a high seat occupancy rate and conventional programming in former studies have brought contradictory findings: whereas some find a significant correlation[11], others state that the most- as well as the least-filled theatres have the least presentations of the classics, and the highest percentage of contemporary opera.[12]

Copyright payments to publishing houses and authors (and their heirs) are an important and present factor in making the programming of contemporary opera possible. “It is like a blood draw from our body, but the blood is thrown away and taken from our circulation”[13], explains one of the interview partners metaphorically. While no one questions that artists creating pieces should be properly paid and able to live off of their work, those payments result in an ongoing disadvantage for contemporary pieces in comparison to older works. Changes can only be put forward in conjunction with several decision makers. One could develop ways of compensating that drawback by creating extra financial support taking on that specific financial burden, by inventing a reciprocal financing model or rethinking payment models in times of digitalization with the aim of revolutionizing a system working to the detriment of contemporary non-profit art.

Society

Society is where art is being created, in which it is taking place, and out of which it arises; it is audience, target group and point-of-interest. Therefore, the local society plays a central role for opera houses and festivals. Some aspects linked to programming matters are being discussed in the following paragraphs.

An opera house’s location has great implications on season planning. Former studies on programming conventionality have determined the size of cities to be the most influential factor.[14] A greater amount of potential audience and competition between cultural institutions evoke specialization and differentiation and therefore lower the conformity of season programs. Within the conducted studies, decision makers speak of several additional local characteristics, that influence programming possibilities: the history and identity of a city and its population, the presence of other forms of contemporary art, the previous programmatic orientation of the opera house and local taste and energy, which is hard to determine and make fast.
“One can only really find out, once you’re there. Those who make theatre, have to make theatre for the place they are. You can never transfer, that is the whole joy of it!”[15]
The statements open up an interesting field of questions around the internationality of the opera business, the alleged universality of dealt-with themes and the local preconditions in preferences, understanding and taste.

The study gives evidence on how many decision-makers are engaged with finding audiences, especially when it comes to contemporary opera. Artistic directors place particular emphasis on the choice of presented topics, wanting to find themes that are socially relevant and enable identification: not having to commission “yet another Hamlet or Orest”[16], one can reach out to people with subjects that they do not expect to see discussed on an opera stage. Some interview partners also stress opera’s narrative potential, which they see as a central characteristic of the art form and important anchor point for the audience: “Storytelling is part of opera when we choose the pieces. That’s totally clear!” [17] With different stylish locations, unusual formats, diverse music theatre makers and artists and meaningful topics artistic directors hope to reach out to new audiences. It is not only a matter of filling the seats, but of making an opera house relevant for the local people – for a greater part of a society that is constantly changing.

Figure 5: Mind-map of important aspects in reaching (new) audiences
(n = 33)

In order to reach out to the people of a city – including audiences one has not yet won for music theatre and its institutions – opera companies try to create numerous collaborations with other local cultural, educational and social institutions and associations. Projects are created to include local people at an earlier level and to break down the supposed boundaries between the “silent lambs on the one side and the knowledgeable ones on the other”[18]. It is an ongoing process to break down the barriers that make people feel like they have a deficit from the start, that make them feel excluded.
“We have to create free and easy contact with contemporary music – no matter if concert or opera – and make clear that visiting these performances is an enormous enrichment. And that it is not about ‘understanding’, whatever that means. Do we understand Gesualdo? Do we understand the late Beethoven? We don’t! The only thing that makes it easier, is something [..] that I call empirical memory […] and that is somehow not there.”[19]
In various and imaginative ways, opera houses want to overcome prejudices, minimize social borders, encourage openness and expand listening habits, rethink the classic roles of audience, and develop the art form further, including the society in their respective city.

Innovation and creative development are set goals in numerous cultural policy objectives. Whereas some interview partners deny the influence of politics on programming possibilities, some artistic leaders, mostly in small cities, see strong political backing as essential support for innovative program choices.
“Often there is fear, that such wouldn’t be accepted, but as soon as you explain precisely why it is sensible to program innovative projects in your town, you get positive feedback.”[20]
The following graph depicts given answers to a question asking about the significance of different forms of support by external stakeholders. Although the attention of press and media is clearly seen as the most important measure of support, many artistic directors endorse the possibility of obliging opera houses to play contemporary works, by linking it to the amount of received public subsidy. Several artistic directors state that artists are not only an important partner in reaching audiences but can – in the cases with a high profile – also influence in asking for and promoting contemporary pieces.

Figure 6: attributed importance to potential measures by external stakeholders (n = 36, the figure shows the number of times certain measures were attributed the degrees of importance, of high, and of very high importance)

Decision-makers

Decisions are taken under the influence of multiple factors and within a strong network of stakeholder interests. Besides all these parameters, artistic leaders have a great amount of freedom in their choices, a strong influence on the artistic vision and corporate identity of an opera house. The quantitative study proves great differences between different artistic directors in the understanding of – and approach to – contemporary opera and commissioning. The qualitative study further shows how artistic directors themselves are convinced of the importance of their own preferences and perspectives. Several artistic directors criticize some of their colleagues for their disinterest, missing knowledge and a too generalized handling of contemporary art forms:
“I think that really is a problem with some colleagues, that they are not at heart interested and don’t occupy themselves with [contemporary art]. I mean, I don’t know what to do then. You cannot lead a museum of modern art and not ever really look at it. I think with some colleagues it is horrendous how little they know and how superficial that knowledge is. I find it embarrassing.”[21]

It is a motivation as much as a responsibility to support the development of the art form, to enable an ongoing afterlife to great new pieces and to promote interesting artists.
“Every art form somehow has to develop and renew itself. Otherwise it would be a museum-art-form and I think that that per se does not serve the art form of opera.”[22]
It is a responsibility that outlasts the time of one’s own contract and poses questions about the role of opera houses in future society. Thoughts about the necessity, function and aims contain further questions about the direction in which the art form itself should develop. Artistic directors hereby pose very different questions, have diverse interests and therefore choose different sonic and visual stiles, creators, artists, and topics. Personal preferences do not only influence the number of contemporary pieces, but also what kind of music theatre is being put on display.

It is an expressed concern to present an opera house in itself as being part of social life today. This does not only include playing contemporary pieces, but also the presented attitude towards the repertoire. If older pieces are being reviewed in regard to their contemporary implications and interpretations, if the appearance of an opera house addresses the present rather than the past, then including new opera can succeed more organically. When aspiring to program a greater amount of contemporary opera, it is not solely important to convey one’s artistic goals outside of the opera house. Artistic directors can be confronted with in-house resistance, often founded in anxieties concerning the artistic requirements of contemporary music or an assumed lack of audience interest. It is of great importance to communicate and explain the aspired artistic aims, to address concerns and allay potential fears. As a result artistic leaders describe both the desire of artists to get new impulses, and the habit growing out of performing more contemporary music. The accomplishment of a realized world premiere in particular creates an “incredible feeling of togetherness”.[23]

In determining the artistic focus of an opera house, artistic directors – via their preferences, perceptions and perspectives – have a great influence on the amount and kind of contemporary opera being performed. They demand of themselves and their colleagues to aim for profound knowledge and a continuous investigation of contemporary art forms. In order to successfully promote contemporary pieces, a strong commitment and authentic interest of the decision-makers are essential.

Outlook and conclusion

Whilst the conducted surveys point towards possibilities, the research also opens up a broad field of further questions and possible investigations. The chosen perspective – by artistic directors of opera houses and festivals – could be broadened by including many more points of views in and outside of opera houses. Investigating similar questions in the independent art scene would bring different results and compliment the findings. Putting the audience at the center of attention opens up another field of questions: how can we enable openness and expand listening habits? What can we learn from former innovative projects, that have attracted audiences? Which support structures have been developed in the US that recently led to a very active scene of new operas. Questions arise concerning the current copyright regulations and how one could ameliorate the system, so that it works in favour of contemporary art forms. And last but not least, it is the art form itself that should be placed at the center of attention. What is opera today and what could it be? What is the core of the genre and how can it further develop in the 21st century? What are the artistic and social merits for a society that invests in the creation of music theatre today? And – to come back to the central concern of this article – how can we actively enable creation, innovation and give space to the wide variety and diversity of contemporary opera.

The study results both consolidate and broaden the narrative surrounding significance of reaching audiences, the implications of the requirement of opera houses and the importance of artistic visions. Programming decisions are characterized by multiple balancing acts, taking into consideration the available resources, financial implications, anticipated reactions and artistic goals. The results suggest that a strong authentic interest on the part of decision-makers, the awareness of multiple previously implemented strategies and the advancement of hitherto unused possibilities and ideas can support and enable the realization of contemporary opera.

Article by Leonora Scheib

References

  • [1] Castañer and Campos, 42-43.
  • [2] Quotation from a personal interview lead and translated by the author, Germany, 16.9.2019.
  • [3] Jensen & Kim, 2014, pp. 119, 123.
  • [4] Quotation from a personal interview lead and translated by the author, Austria, 3.7.2019.
  • [5] Castañer & Campos, 2002, p. 44 f.; DiMaggio & Stenberg, 1985, pp. 113, 118; O’Hagan & Neligan, 2005, pp. 39 f., 48; Pierce, 2000, p. 49), A&T, 50-54.
  • [6] Quotation from a personal interview lead and translated by the author, Austria, 3.7.2019.
  • [7] Agid & Tarondeau, 2010, pp. 10 f., 156.
  • [8] Agid & Tarondeau, 2010, pp. 33, 51.
  • [9] Cancellieri & Turrini, 2016, p. 28; Jensen & Kim, 2014, p. 111; O’Hagan & Neligan, 2005, pp. 37, 49.
  • [10] Cancellieri & Turrini, 2016, pp. 28 f., 34; Pierce, 2000, p. 59.
  • [11] Cancellieri & Turrini, 2016, p. 33 f.
  • [12] Agid & Tarondeau, 2010, p. 32.
  • [13] Quotation from a personal interview lead and translated by the author, Austria, 27.5.2019.
  • [14] Quotation from a personal interview lead and translated by the author, Austria, 27.5.2019.
  • [15] Quotation from a personal interview lead and translated by the author, Germany, 16.9.2019.
  • [16] Quotation from a personal interview lead and translated by the author, Belgium, 15.5.2019.
  • [17] Quotation from a personal interview lead and translated by the author, Italy, 16.7.2019.
  • [18] Quotation from a personal interview lead and translated by the author, Austria, 14.8.2019.
  • [19] Quotation from a personal interview lead and translated by the author, Austria, 4.7.2019.
  • [20] Quotation from a personal interview lead and translated by the author, Italy, 16.7.2019.
  • [21] Quotation from a personal interview lead and translated by the author, Germany, 16.9.2019.
  • [22] Quotation from a personal interview lead and translated by the author, Austria, 3.7.2019.
  • [23] Quotation from a personal interview lead and translated by the author, Germany, 8.5.2019.

Literature

Agid, P., & Tarondeau, J.-C. (2010). The management of opera: an international comparative study. Basingstoke [u.a.]: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cancellieri, G., & Turrini, A. (2016). The Phantom of Modern Opera: How Economics and Politics Affect the Programming Strategies of Opera Houses. International Journal of Arts Management, 18(3), 25-36.

Castañer, X., & Campos, L. (2002). The Determinants of Artistic Innovation: Bringing in the Role of Organizations. Journal of Cultural Economics, 26(1), 29-52.

DiMaggio, P., & Stenberg, K. (1985). Why do some theatres innovate more than others? An empirical analysis. Poetics, 14(1-2), 107-122.

Jensen, M., & Kim, B. (2014). Great, Madama Butterfly Again! How Robust Market Identity Shapes Opera Repertoires. Organization Science, 25(1), 109-126.

Neligan, A. (2006). Public funding and repertoire conventionality in the German public theatre sector: an econometric analysis. Applied Economics, 38(10), 1111-1121.

O’Hagan, J., & Neligan, A. (2005). State Subsidies and Repertoire Conventionality in the Non-Profit English Theatre Sector: An Econometric Analysis. Journal of Cultural Economics, 29(1), 35-57.

Pierce, J. (2000). Programmatic Risk-Taking by American Opera Companies. Journal of Cultural Economics, 24(1), 45-63.

Leonora Scheib
Leonora Scheib has worked as an assistant director and revival director at renowned opera houses such as Theater an der Wien, the Bregenzer Festspiele and the Danish Royal Opera, where she has assisted distinguished directors including Keith Warner, 
Moshe Leiser & Patrice Courier, and Kasper Holten. Additionally, she has worked as a dramaturg, cultural manager, and in the creation process of opera world premieres. She completed self-designed bachelor and master of arts programmes of music-theatre and opera sciences at the University of Vienna and Vienna’s University for Music and Performing Arts, concluding her studies with a thesis on programming and producing contemporary opera. From 2018 to 2021 she is a fellow of the Akademie Musiktheater Heute programme, designed to foster and connect future talent in the music theatre world.