The decade in opera

  • From Times Online
  • December 22, 2009

  • There has been a sea change: the new divas and divos are now stage animals as much as vocal technicians

Anna Netrebko

Anna Netrebko

  • Neil Fisher

Who owns opera and who is it for? Back in 2000 it was impossible for opera companies to escape the sort of questioning that began with A for “access” and usually ended with Z for “zzz”, as increasingly stale arguments on subsidy, snootiness and the cost of a glass of bubbly gradually stewed their way to a weary stalemate.

At the start of the decade the focus for this rhetoric was the newly refurbished but underperforming Royal Opera House. Fast-forward ten years and it is the ROH’s current chief executive, Tony Hall, who represents the modern face of the modern opera house. His recent push for a “Royal Opera House North” in Manchester is the perfect example of his soft diplomacy, winning the ROH buckets of PR points without costing it a penny. The project surely won’t survive the next government.

Yet it would be a pity if that were the end of the conversation about how to make opera more available. Look beyond Welsh National Opera’s usual clutch of hits and misses and you’ll notice that the company has drastically cut back on its touring, particularly in England. Instead of dissecting the regimes that have moved in and out of the Coliseum in the past ten years, we should start worrying about just how few performances a year English National Opera actually schedules in the theatre it owns.

But the good news is that opera has also leapt out of its traditional homes. The Metropolitan Opera in New York now beams out its Saturday matinees in live high-definition relays that have proved phenomenally successful in British cinemas. UK companies haven’t cracked the formula as successfully, but the acquisition of the DVD label OpusArte by the ROH demonstrated an astute recognition of the capabilities that new technology represents. Coming next: live opera downloaded straight into your television?

New opera in the Noughties also extended its boundaries. The pop artists Damon Albarn and Rufus Wainwright produced stage works — Monkey and Prima Donna respectively, both at the Manchester International Festival — that wore their operatic clothes affectionately rather than pretentiously. Thomas Adès’s The Tempest proved that a more traditional template could still produce a hauntingly original new work. And Jonathan Dove’s several joyous pieces practically invented a genre of their own — the family opera that anyone in your family could enjoy.

Perhaps most significant, however, is that all these new ventures have subtly brought in a sea change: opera is now theatre. The stand-and-deliver singers and stagings of yore are almost entirely relegated to the fustiest American and Italian houses; the new divas and divos are stage animals as much as vocal technicians. Now, can we find a talented clutch of directors who know what to do with them?

  • Face of the decade: Anna Netrebko

The diva of the DVD age. Glamorous but unpretentious, daring and unpredictable, the Russian soprano comes into her own only in live performance, as her revelatory appearances in La traviata at the ROH in 2008 testify.

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