Graham Vick: Opera must get closer to the people

From the Royal Philharmonic Society lecture given by the opera producer at St Luke's in London
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The Independent Online

Why do our opera companies exist? Because they're there? Because they have a payroll? Because they receive public subsidy? Or because they are the best way of serving this exciting art form and the taxpayer given the available money?

It is surely ironic that in such a climate it has taken the much-maligned Raymond Gubbay to offer London Mozart in a suitably sized theatre. We're locked in a performing time warp with London's two opera houses: both too large for classical and pre-classical repertoire, neither possessing the generous forestage appropriate for 19th century Italian repertoire. Moreover, both possess an essentially 19th century symphony orchestra and a chorus with the vocal training suitable for 19th century repertoire onwards. The vital continuing change and renewal which marked the art form's first 250 years is straining at the leash.

It's worth remembering that until Wagner, opera was always performed with the house lights on, and indeed in Italy this continued throughout the entire 19th century. In other words the performers thrust on a forestage in front of the proscenium arch shared space and light with their audience. The history of the art form is largely one of lively audience engagement and it was only in the hilltop temple of Bayreuth where the audiences were plunged into darkness and the orchestra hidden from view rather than being an essential bridge between stage and audience.

In creating his festival Wagner reduced his audience from celebrants to observers. His performance conditions, which are now how we perform the entire repertoire, have robbed the audience-stage interaction of an exciting vitality and have produced a culture of comfort, familiarity and judgement.