Podium: Wanted: popular new operas

Podium: From the third annual Royal Philharmonic Society lecture, given by the opera director and producer in London
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The Independent Culture
BECAUSE OF the compelling power of the basic idea of opera, and because of the richness of repertoire handed down to us, I take it as guaranteed that simply on the basis of its tradition alone opera will trundle on well into the future. Those who do nothing more than live like parasites off the past, I cast into a particularly unpleasant circle of hell. There is no greater betrayal of custodianship than that.

Therefore, the future of opera for me is not about how many more performances of La Boheme there will be in the next century and nor about whether this Boheme is dressed up as something else, performed on the Internet, recycled in car parks, made accessible to millions by being projected on to turf at football matches or howsoever manhandled and manipulated.

It is about which stories we should like to tell in our new century, and what music we will tell them with, and which audience we shall find to listen to our stories. When we have answered those questions, we can go back to La Boheme and relish its genius in the proud knowledge that we have earned our right to the fruits of the past by our diligent pursuit of the needs of the present. And God forbid that the needs of the present should be fobbed off for the next century with the idea that it is sufficient to relocate La Boheme in Brixton to answer this point. I am talking about new work. I am talking about a hard and rigorous truth that unless you are feeding the new, you have no right to live off the old. Sadly, there are very few opera houses anywhere in the world that could hold up their hands and claim to fulfil that condition. So let me say again, loud and clear: what we inherit is an incredible cornucopia. Those who exploit it without adding to it are betraying the heritage of which they purport to be custodians, and should be cast out!

New opera has a lousy image. Most sensible punters wouldn't touch it with a bargepole, and with good reason, because most of it has been produced by people with very little understanding of the medium in which they were working, virtually no practice in that medium, and a very unhealthy contempt for simple theatrical craftsmanship, a contempt that, of course, implies an equally unhealthy contempt for the public that is so slow to understand and appreciate their work.

Opera has lost a huge swath of its natural audience because it has forgotten how occupy its natural bridgehead in the commercial sector - a sector that is, in reality, only just round the corner, not a million miles away. Of course, opera houses do do Show Boat, West Side Story and Sondheim, especially away from the highly specialised commercial sector that we have in London. And our two National Theatre companies have made a mint from ventures into musicals.

But I am not talking about revivals. I am no more interested in arguing that opera houses should be mounting revivals of musical gems of the past, than I am in pushing for a Hindemith cycle at Covent Garden. What interests me for the future of opera is that people can still write successful new musicals - and lots of bad ones, too - but nobody writes successful new operas, except perhaps Mr Adams and Mr Glass. Why not? Fundamentally, I suspect, because they are not really trying to. People who write musicals are governed by a harsh discipline: failure is very expensive; success is a bonanza. And the ultimate judge is the public.

In the arid landscape of new opera, there is no such discipline save the composer's conscience, and no judges save the tiny circle of his peers. Far from the public being the ultimate judge, the public in this case gets the blame for being "conservative" or "lazy" when a new opera is a worthy failure.

So who should be telling composers to work harder for real public success? The management! That is their job, but it is one which, in the face of a completely out-of-date, romantic concept of the inalienable rights of the artist, the management has by and large abdicated. It would be a far healthier situation if managements would make the decision that a new opera should be much more like a new musical than a new opera.

There will always be a place for difficult new works. But the era when to be difficult was the first precondition of being acceptable has passed, and had better be swept away rapidly in time for the new century. Opera has seen the musical walk off with many of the best bits in its wardrobe; get them back. Find the stories that speak to people, and find the music that makes them want to listen. That is the real meaning of that horrible word "accessibility"; never forget Coward's famous line: "Ah, the power of cheap music!"