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Why opera's future is more diverse than its past

Opera is reinventing itself and creating a more relevant, inclusive and dynamic art-form in the process.

By John Fulljames (Associate Director of Opera, The Royal Opera)

21 September 2015 at 2.16pm | 2 Comments

It was interesting to read Edward Qualtrough’s recent blog about gender in opera. He highlights a very important issue. I agree that there is intrinsic creative value in greater diversity of ideas, artists and approaches in opera. Inclusivity of outlook and practice will help create a better, richer, more relevant and more dynamic art-form which is better equipped to reflect on and engage the society within which we live.

As one of the world’s most diverse cities, London is almost uniquely well placed as a site for renewal and innovation in opera. Here at The Royal Opera we believe that increasing the diversity of our art and our artists is an essential part of making our programme of work both excellent and transformational.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that opera has a history, practices and critical debates which are far from diverse. In an art-form which is currently defined by its reinterpretation of a body of existing works, this is potentially a life-threatening issue. We need to re-examine the repertory, unpick its prejudices and uncover the unconscious biases within it. This is both about how we stage productions and also about how we contextualize and critique them.

When it comes to creating brand new operas we have a cleaner sheet of paper and must strive to better reflect the society in which we live. In so doing we should be proud that opera now comes in all shapes and sizes and celebrate this work as being at the heart of our companies. For The Royal Opera, the work we are doing in the Linbury or at the Roundhouse is as important for the development of the art-form and the Company’s identity as the work on our main-stage. As we work with more diverse artists, so the sites, scales and forms of opera will diversify.

We have a very long way to go and are really just embarking on what will be a sustained process of change, but it is important that we recognize and celebrate diversity as it grows. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, male-dominated for most of its history, has an ever-increasing proportion of women in its ranks; approximately half the designers working at the Royal Opera House are now female. As discussed in a brilliant blog, Alice Farnham is doing much to open up the possibility of conducting to a new generation of young female musicians and we are pleased to be working with her programme at Morley College this Season as she develops a group of emerging female opera conductors.

Audiences too are powerful drivers of change. While programmers choose what to put on, audiences make choices about what to see and hear. Qualtrough notes that he hasn’t been to an opera by a female composer. Off the top of my head, I have seen at least five major operas in London by female composers since 2010, featuring brilliant scores by Elspeth BrookeUnsuk Chin, Tansy Davies, Elena Langer and Judith Weir. I am sure there have been many more and that there will be even more in the next five years; we’ve already announced main-stage commissions for The Royal Opera from composers Unsuk Chin and Kaaija Saariaho, both are great composers who happen to be female. If you believe more women should be writing operas, come and support their work.

This article has 2 comments

  1. I applaud the ROH's efforts on diversity. However; I always feel it is a fine line to walk. I've seen many companies put on poor productions just in the name of diversity, and trying to pander to an issue. If the story is good put it on, doesn't matter who came up with it. Story and staging must come first, then find the best people to make it regardless of sex, gender or anything. Like you said "great composers who happen to be female"

  2. Cat Cohen responded on 22 September 2016 at 6:38pm Reply

    I feel diversity should be natural, never forced, and nor should it ever mean "less white people" as far too many other organisations translate it. Europe already has a natural diversity, so I hope the ROH doesn't disrespect the history and culture that already surrounds this art form. Political ideology over art will only destroy that art.

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