News and Features

The future of opera

Reaping tomorrow what we sow today.

Does opera have a future? It seems barely a week goes by without another media story announcing the imminent or actual demise of opera as an art form.

To misquote Mark Twain: ‘reports of opera’s death have been greatly exaggerated’ but, this is not to deny the challenges it currently faces. Opera has always been an expensive undertaking and revenue and funding for many companies is under greater pressure than ever before. At the same time, the output of the world’s opera houses suggests that the operatic canon is contracting: statistics show the works of three composers – Verdi, Puccini and Mozart – dominate to an ever-increasing extent, pushing other composers and works out of the mainstream.

But, as anyone who loves opera knows, there is always more than one side to any story – in the best operas maybe four or five! Can an art form really be said to be dying with 42 world premieres produced by major opera houses worldwide in 2019 so far? And although the big three composers dominate, a reassuring number of living composers appear in the top 100 most performed composers in the last decade (in this time there have been 112 productions of works by Philip Glass alone).

Glyndebourne takes a resolutely optimistic outlook on the future of opera. This is partly because we have been investing in it for the last ten years. Our New Generation Programme (NGP) was established in 2009 to raise funds to support the key initiatives that lay the groundwork for the future. Sir Martin Smith, who chaired the NGP board for much of this period, reflected that: ‘I have always felt that to thrive, arts organisations – and opera companies in particular – need to continually invest in their own talent, their future audiences and the communities in which they exist’. Thanks to the generous support of donors, trusts and foundations through the NGP we have been able to do all of this and more.

Glyndebourne is justly renowned for its record in developing singing talent, with many legends of the opera stage getting an early break in Festival or Tour productions. In addition to casting the stars of tomorrow today, a range of initiatives have been developed to support young singers from the very earliest stages to entering the profession: Glyndebourne Junior Performers are a group of talented local young singers, aged 14 – 19, exploring what it takes to enter full-time training. Glyndebourne Academy works with singers from across the UK, up to the age of 26, who have exceptional vocal potential but face barriers to developing a professional career. Glyndebourne’s Jerwood Young Artists nurtures the most promising young choristers with additional development opportunities alongside their chorus engagement. The Glyndebourne Opera Cup, our most recent talent development initiative, is a search for the most exciting young singers worldwide, with a guaranteed role at a major opera house for the overall winner.

Developing the audiences of the future is essential for the viability of the art form and the business of opera. Glyndebourne recently built on the great success of its Under 30s scheme, which offers discounted Festival and Tour tickets on selected nights to younger audiences, to launch Fortissimo; extending similar benefits to audiences under the age of 40. The Glyndebourne Tour has been a major part of the company’s activity since 1968, bringing world-class opera to audiences around the UK and launching many exciting careers along the way. In 2019 we return to Liverpool for the first time in 40 years launching Opera Liverpool, a pioneering new partnership bringing together Glyndebourne, Welsh National Opera, Opera North and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic to develop the audience for opera in the city all year round. Also embedded within the Tour are Performances for Schools which, since 2006, have given over 30,000 young people access to fully staged full-length opera performances, many experiencing opera for the very first time.

New work is the absolute life-blood of a truly vital art form, and Glyndebourne continues to play midwife to all sorts of operatic offspring. Since Brett Dean’s landmark Hamlet premiered in Festival 2017 we have commissioned and produced two more operas on our stage: Belongings, a piece reflecting on refugee crises past and present by our last Young Composer in Residence Lewis Murphy, was performed in November 2017 by Glyndebourne Youth Opera (GYO) and will be revived in a new production by Minnesota Opera in February 2020. Agreed by Howard Moody was premiered at Glyndebourne in March this year. It featured a chorus of some 85 local people aged between 12 and 74 and went on to win the Young Audiences Music (YAM) Award for Best Participatory Project. In this time we have also launched Balancing the Score, a new residency scheme for four established female composers seeking to develop their careers in opera. All four are working together to create an exciting new work to be performed by GYO in November 2020.

Which brings us back to Sir Martin’s point about investing in communities as a way of safeguarding the future of opera. Glyndebourne’s Artistic Director Stephen Langridge sees opera as a ‘naturally communal art form, which allows us to imagine situations that reflect our own political and emotional landscapes through music and theatre’. Reflecting on his own career he has said: ‘Underlying all my work is the belief that opera is a natural and dynamic form of human expression, to which everybody should have access, both as a participant and audience’. Looking at opera this way, not as a grand tradition or a cultural luxury, but as an artistic essential, deeply rooted in shared humanity and belonging to everyone, gives all of us who care about the future of opera a clear mission. The future of opera will be shaped by what we choose to make of it now, but if we keep reaching out and enriching as many lives as possible through this important art form, that future could be even brighter than the past.

Image credits: Junior Performers, 2019. Photo by James Bellorini |  Agreed, 2019. Photo by Robert Workman.

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