Bringing down the house

The Royal Opera and ENO have ceased to be the only centres of operatic power in Britain, writes Nicholas Payne. And he should know - he's run both companies
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The Independent Culture

Sadler's Wells, where Lilian Baylis founded her native opera company in 1931, is today better known as London's dance house. The rebuilt theatre has, since Alistair Spalding assumed its leadership two years ago, become the place where the most innovative dance happens. Both artists and audiences have sensed that, and have been drawn to fill its programme and its seats. There is not so much room left for opera.

While the balance of programming is not going to change, Sadler's Wells has been quietly reviewing how best it can contribute to London's operatic ecology and weaving a lyric strand into its planning. There is no point in duplicating what can be delivered to a larger audience in WC2. Instead, the programme should offer shows that the big permanent companies might find hard to pull together: operas that expand the boundaries of what opera can do; collaborations between choreographers and opera directors; commissions and partnerships. And there is a whole raft of operas that play better in a more intimate setting, such as Mozart and most of the baroque repertory.

Over the next month, Sadler's Wells is hosting a not-so-mini festival of opera: six operas by five different composers, directed by some of the top names working in theatre today. They are presented by Opera North and Glyndebourne, the two companies internationally regarded as the most adventurous in Britain today.

The most significant event in British operatic history was the premiere of Peter Grimes at Sadler's Wells on 7 June 1945. Yet Britten's groundbreaking opera has not been heard at its birthplace since the Sixties. It returns on 23 and 25 November in Phyllida Lloyd's new production, which opened in Leeds last month to critical superlatives. Opera North's chorus and orchestra inspired one normally beady reviewer to write: "They found a primordial wildness in this score that I never thought existed. My blood is still curdled." Those of us old enough to remember the impact of the manhunt in the confines of Sadler's Wells are not so surprised.

The rarity of the season is Poulenc's searing monodrama of a woman abandoned by her lover, La Voix Humaine, to be performed on 22 and 24 November. It marks Deborah Warner's return to the company where she first directed opera, but it represents a new departure for her. Fresh from her success with Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at the Vienna Festival, she is enthused by the possibilities of short operas, opened up by Opera North's pioneering season of Eight Little Greats. It also reunites her with Joan Rodgers, who played the Governess in her production of The Turn of the Screw for the Royal Opera.

Lloyd's and Warner's work in opera holds a special interest for me, since I introduced them both to what was then alien territory in the early Nineties, when they were still emerging as theatre directors and I was working at Opera North. Lloyd was attracted by Mozart, but I had some difficulty in persuading her that she should first try her hand with Chabrier's frothy L'étoile. She rewarded us with a deliciously funny staging, before progressing to La Bohème and Britten's Gloriana, whose against-the-odds triumph made her the obvious choice for the new Peter Grimes.

Convincing Warner that Berg's Wozzeck added a new dimension to Büchner's play was a still longer task, but once she took it on, she applied herself with relentless diligence. She can be a demanding colleague, as I found during long drawn-out casting processes at Covent Garden and the Coliseum, but her quest for truthful performance brings its reward. Working with her a second or third time, as Rodgers will have done with the Poulenc, is always another step on the journey of discovery.

What I admire about both these directors is that, while they may have been partially seduced by the emotional potential of opera, they have not totally succumbed to it. Viewing it a little from the outside, they bring precious insights. As such, they are exactly who we are seeking to give a new dimension to opera at Sadler's Wells.

Glyndebourne's programme in early December adds a further dimension. All three conductors for the week at Sadler's Wells are in their 20s or early 30s and have all started their careers as assistants at Glyndebourne. Rory Macdonald, who will conduct Cosi fan tutte, now has a position with the Hallé; Edward Gardner, who directs The Turn of the Screw, is about to become music director of English National Opera; and 23-year-old Robin Ticciati, who leads Die Fledermaus, will be the Glyndebourne on Tour music director from next year. Such musicians are the future of opera in this country, and it is greatly to Glyndebourne's credit that it is investing in that future.

Glyndebourne also has a matchless record in nurturing young singers. Its latest star is Kate Royal, who plays the Governess in the new staging of The Turn of the Screw by Jonathan Kent, a first from the festival where Britten's two previous chamber operas were created. Judging by advance sales, Glyndebourne's return to Sadler's Wells was overdue.

There are already plans for both companies to return, and Sadler's Wells will be a co-commissioner of Jonathan Dove's new opera for Opera North in 2008. Next year will bring back Welsh National Opera with a newly created opera from James MacMillan. The time will surely come when Scottish Opera demands to be seen again in London.

Meanwhile, next March, the Berlin State Opera will bring choreographer Sasha Waltz's extraordinary interpretation of Dido and Aeneas, the most thorough integration of singers and dancers attempted in an opera since the 18th century. The marriage of crackling period musicians and defiantly modern staging both evokes the joyous song-and-dance extravaganzas of Purcell's time and epitomises the future of musical theatre to which Sadler's Wells aspires.

In April, Helena Kaut-Howson will direct and Martin André will conduct Pegasus Opera's new production of Koanga, the first professional staging here of Delius's opera set in a Louisiana slave plantation since the 1972 revival at Sadler's Wells. This hauntingly lovely piece, advocated by Sir Thomas Beecham, is timed to celebrate the bicentenary of Wilberforce's bill to abolish slavery.

Does this programme reflect nostalgia for a past when Sadler's Wells was home to its own opera company? Not at all. We always need to be a little bit dissatisfied with what we did yesterday. The aim at Sadler's Wells today and tomorrow is to help create the opera of the future with the values of the past.

Nicholas Payne is director of Opera Europa and opera advisor to Sadler's Wells; Opera North will be bringing 'Rigoletto', 'La Voix Humaine' and 'Peter Grimes' to Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (08707 377 737) from 21 to 25 November