Kathryn spoke of the opportunity to be part of an international consortium commissioning and presenting a new children’s opera, The Monster in the Maze. A three-way partnership came together to commission this piece and each partner would create their own production. The work was premiered in the Philharmonie by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and extracts from the performance were shown. The performance at the Barbican will also be staged on the concert hall stage but the third partner, Festival Aix-en-Provence will present a fully staged production as part of the Festival programme.
Composer & Librettist Approach
Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton spoke about their approach to the project. The brief came from Simon Rattle and Simon Halsey with a requirement for children to be involved and for the participation to be mainly singing.
Jonathan spoke about how this brief gave them some shape to begin with. For example, there couldn’t be solo parts for children in a large hall with an orchestra so it needed to work acoustically and the story needed to be told in groups. Using an actor to set the story at the very beginning helps an audience not familiar with opera. Given the piece would be performed in 3 different languages it was important to keep the writing simple. This needn’t mean lacking in complexity, by layering the vocal lines a high level of complexity can be achieved. It had to be scored flexibly for professionals and student performers and be able to hold its own with such large singing forces: a large brass section and only cellos and double basses and percussion.
Choral Training Approach
Simon Halsey, David Lawrence and Lucy Griffiths joined Jonathan and Alasdair to talk about the preparations for the piece. Jonathan visited the choirs and saw them rehearse so knew what the possibilities could be. David was pleased at how well the choirs took to the piece in the first rehearsal. The children were already familiar with the story and learnt the music quickly – more complex was teaching them the cues from the narrative and to learn how to move, act and sing at the same time. Focus can be tricky when there are many interesting distractions.
They all agreed that this experience would make each of the choirs better as a result. Participatory opera has given the LSO groups the chance to work together and to get to know each other. In Berlin the children’s and adult choruses were created for the project and the young people’s group came from a very challenging area of Berlin. In Aix there were no children’s choirs so considerable legacy there.
Staging in Berlin
Annechien Koerselman, stage director for the Berlin production joined the panel. She praised Jonathan’s writing for 100 adults, 90 teenagers and 50 children. This has been a life-changing project for Annechien herself as this was her first experience with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonie. It as a fast growing experience for everybody involved. How to address the challenge of creating the illusion of the labyrinth using black fabric moving around the children was just one such challenge.
Questions & Answer Session
- Was there a level of involvement from the participants in the creation of the piece? Was it considered?
Jonathan explained that he has used material with participants in the past but for this piece he wanted to write music that would transfer well between the three commissioners.Alasdair explained they might not have chosen this story had it not had to travel between the three commissioners – they specifically wanted a non-religious story.Simon Halsey wanted to commission a piece for ever, for the repertoire and for massed performance to develop audiences.
- Were there issues and concerns about the different stagings?
Simon H responded that the piece was created to be flexible – it can be achieved without lighting, costumes or a theatre and could be performed with 20 or 300 in the choir. Aix, for example has more teenagers singing.Alasdair spoke of the allegory of the story with modern society and the potential to explore that with recruitment for the choirs. Jonathan commented that you don’t have to look far to find children being sacrificed in the interests of powerful men. In Berlin there was an ambition to work with the wider community – Russians, Poles and Turks; it’s a different diverse community in the East End and different again in Aix.
- Who are the people who start and/or stop these ideas?
Jonathan Dove spoke of his experience with Tobias and The Angel where he was approached by a parish in Birmingham. Birmingham Opera Company and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group came on board to help bring the project to life. It must be important to partner organisations though so that it is shepherded well and not just tacked on – it has to be strategically important.
The value of a given project is not just the number of people we reach, but how we reach them, and the transformatory journey they go on. Most of us have neither the clout of the bigger organisations, nor the size of their fundraising teams, nor indeed the availability of the houses they exist in. It’s a crude equation but these days an important one to look at. The balance of process and product is a key one. If the participant is truly at the heart of the process the high end costs of multiple well-known soloists, large sets, lavish costumes, name conductor and orchestra are not only not needed, but in this context undesirable. Indeed the product can be more interesting, and more riveting for an audience. (A recent 6 month hands-on project for ETO in Wolverhampton involving 250 participants and 100+ workshops – with 3 sold-out performances at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre – cost £75,000. The one before that in Cornwall [RPS award-winner] was identical in scale and cost £60,000. These costs include travel and accommodation. All the money for these projects had to be found from scratch).
Why place specially created participatory work at the heart of our artistic programme?
What’s the particular value of placing this work on the main stage?
There are a number of assumptions in these questions which I think help us to understand why we are meeting today and which I would like to unpack.
1. the heart of our artistic programme is a strange place to put participatory work, and it shouldn’t be there
2. That participatory work in artistic programmes should not be specially created
3. that the ‘main’ stage is the place to be and drives how we value something
So let’s explore those three assumptions:
Firstly – participatory work should not be part of our artistic programmes. This uncovers the lack of status that participatory work has with the opera world. This work is generally carried out by education departments or community organisations who do not have high status, who believe in a more person-centred approach to making work, and who value the instrumental use of the arts in equal measure with the intrinsic approach.
For instance, in my time at Welsh National Opera we worked in many very deprived communities because we believed that by creating opera with them we could raise aspirations, contribute to improving the quality of life, and give people new skills. The connection with opera as an artform was particularly potent in these contexts for two reasons: because it was seen as something strange and exotic; and because it actually wasn’t and was able to connect with people in a very immediate and affecting way.
So participatory opera doesn’t seek status, and can embrace other roles within a community. But this doesn’t make it NOT art. At the heart of all the work we do is an artist with a practice and a passion for their artform – and having experienced both process and final products across all the opera companies and many orchestras in the UK, I can say with confidence that we have superb artists, who completely understand how to balance the artform and the need for excellence with an inclusive and generous approach. This is ART – we must not apologise for it or let anyone else call it anything different.
Second – participatory work in artistic programmes should not be specially created. In opera we have a particular millstone around our necks – the repertoire. The reverence and status of the repertoire is everything in the opera world, and it dictates the artistic planning of our national companies. Very little of the repertoire is contemporary, and so when we present it to an audience there is a feeling that it must be mediated and explained. Participatory opera is a great way to do this, as it puts people at the heart of the opera and gives them ownership and understanding. And we have great examples of how this can work brilliantly with existing repertoire.
However, there is even more power in bringing people together to create something new that they have made a contribution to. In this instance, rather than just understanding the repertoire and feeling ownership over it, they now own the artform. Opera is theirs to explore and play with. And everyone should have the chance to do this.
Last week Operasonic was working with a primary school in Newport docks creating an opera with composer Stephen Deazley and writer Martin Riley and a class of Year 5 pupils. The pupils we were working with were all from British minority backgrounds and none of them had any opera experience when we began. At the end of the project I asked them ‘do you know what opera is now?’ They replied ‘Yes, we just made some’. I think we have all seen this happen. The power of creating the work in the room and handing over the mantle of the artist to the participants is undeniable. And each context and group demands something bespoke – specially created work is the powerful work.
Third – the main stage is the place to be and drives how we value the work. So clearly there is a value issue at the heart of this. For our big companies, the main stage is the place to be. And so if we want to value participatory opera this is where we should put it. And this is right, it should be there and is entitled to a place there. If the main stage means alongside the repertoire, seal of approval, part of the artistic programme – then, yes, participatory opera as part of our artistic programmes needs to be there.
But often getting it there is a fight. It took a number of internal battles to get Welsh National Youth Opera’s production of Paul Bunyan on to the Donald Gordon Stage in the WMC. The resulting production raised the status of the Youth Opera and was nominated for two awards, and changed mind sets within the company. And I think this shows us something about value – we have to play the value game to a certain extent. By being on the big stages and creating big celebratory events, with the well-known conductors and singers, then we can raise awareness of valuable work that is often hidden.
But I think we also need to be mindful that sometimes the work isn’t right for the ‘main’ stage. Sometimes participatory work has more impact, power and resonance when it is created at the heart of the community you want to work with. We also need to value these projects equally, and make sure that the right work and the right participants are in the right contexts.
So I’ve banged on a lot about the importance of valuing participatory opera. It something I care passionately about. It’s the reason I left WNO last year – increasingly I didn’t feel they were in a position to value the participatory work in the way that I needed it to be valued. I decided to strike out on my own. Who knows if I will be able to raise the status of the work, but I do know that all the work I will make will through operasonic be participatory. It isn’t a case of putting it at the heart of the artistic programme – it is the artistic programme.
But there is something else that is also important in terms of valuing the work: days like these – sharing practice, hearing about each other’s work, and celebrating our growing participatory repertoire. So I’m thrilled to be here and I really hope there’ll be another one soon.
As audiences we assume our right to have a response to the arts, why do we constantly have to evaluate what participants in projects have got out of the work? Participants to use social media to tell locals politicians about the transformative nature of the work. If 200 people wrote about this, it might have an effect. Why are we more obsessed by cost than value?
The language we use should help us to change attitudes. Why do we make a distinction between communities and audiences? In French it is ‘public’. Perhaps we should just say ‘engage people’ and use the word ‘participation’ for participation.
The growth of participatory opera has been incredible with so many examples of projects which have had positive impacts on those involved. Perhaps more surprising is that many of these projects are proving to be artistically excellent as well as socially positive. Participatory productions have proved time and again to be on a par artistically with more mainstream, professional productions.
Why then does participatory opera continue to be segregated from the main programming in most opera companies? Companies which programme participatory productions on the mainstage as part of the season e.g. Glynedbourne are few and far between. But for me, Glynedbourne’s staggering achievement should be the minimum. Even more exciting are productions which integrate participation into a mainstage production like ROH’s Carmelites in 2014. This halts the ghettoising of participatory work where even the best projects are too often labelled as ‘just community work’.
Wouldn’t it be exciting if opera companies themselves were more integrated so that participatory producers were part of artistic planning teams and opera seasons were constructed with the on going question, ‘What element of participation would make this opera even stronger?’
In 2008 we made a crazy decision to use the commissioning of an opera to signal a change in the way that we were working as an organisation and to cement the mission and vision of Spitalfields Music.
That journey was the creation of the extraordinary artistic achievement of Hazel Gould, John Barber with participants young and old from Tower Hamlets, a two year project leading to an RPS award and a five star review in the Guardian – one star more than Beyonce – the production was We are Shadows.
As you’re probably aware, my organisation has a wonderful history of nearly 40 years (we’ll be 40 next year) of celebrating a sense of place and communities through exceptional music making, working through our year round Learning & Participation programme and two festivals with composers such as Jonathan Dove and Judith Weir, both passionate advocates for community participation and coming in after the brilliant success of On Spitalfields.
When I was invited to come to this event, there were a number of things that crossed my mind – should I speak about the role of a creative producer in the development of participatory arts projects…in particular, why is it that I have to keep finding ways of underpinning ambitions of other artistic directors who seem to think this work is simple and short term, to…when will this work be recognised by the rest of the music sector as worthy of nomination in the RPS large-scale commissions or new opera categories, rather than being confined to education and engagement…to me participatory arts/music is of considerably more impact than this.
However, what I’d like to suggest to you that to make an exceptional participatory arts project it should be disruptive. At the recent Arts Foundation awards, the writer, Jeanette Winterson gave a brilliant speech, reminding the artists, producers and arts managers of the central importance of artists to take risks and be disruptive – the power of the artist to create change and transform lives. For me, this has never been more important than at this particular moment in time. How can we as managers support our artists to make the best work possible, take risks with ever decreasing resources.
So, what do I mean by disruptive in this instance?
- An ability to see life from different perspectives…
- Complete faith in participants…
- Level playing field of contribution to the whole
- A respect for the individual creative contributions
- Demand to extend your own capabilties
Some of these don’t sound disruptive, but if you consider the participants involved, many of whom are used to being treated in a certain way, or never thought their opinions might be of value, or un-used to a level of respect afforded – many of our
participants in the opera process…this disrupts their own perception of their place within their community and peers.
The best participatory arts work that I’ve seen is when the individual elements of the project:
..become more than the sum of their individual parts – through an apparent alchemy, the artists draw their creative ingredients together and through taking risks and pushing all of those involved generates an unstoppable momentum – with We are Shadows.
I mean that when starting out on the labour and resource intensive (emotionally and financially) you’d better have a clear idea of what your idea of success and impact you hope from the commission. These projects take up considerable energy within an organisation and so it’s the job of the organisation to maximise the increasingly scant resources.
So for me, I fundamentally believe that the best practice for participatory operas…as Joseph Beuys describes, “Arts work as democracy, civic engagement….” This doesn’t mean a bland mish mash and lack of artistic coherence, it means the creation of radical new work that celebrates our participants as agents for change and sustains the impact of the work far beyond the final curtain call.
Participatory Arts for me is transformational for:
- The Organisation – joining all of the functions of the organisation together, marketing, communications, boards and ‘artistic’
- The Participant – making new connections, exceeding personal expectations, developing new skills, respect
- The Artist – new ways of creating work, new connections, developing skills and ways of working
- and if we’re lucky our Partners and Funders who will be challenged by the impact of the work to look at new ways of approaching their support of communities and artists through resources.
A successful new piece of work bears fruit for an organisation for years to come and should not be undertaken lightly. It does this by placing the transformational and disruptive power of exceptional art and artists at the very heart of the project.
- What do we do next, the converted, to influence those who are not? Who should we be talking to (rather than ourselves)?
- What influence can we have on our organisations? What are the intelligent conversations to have, rather than the railing against lack of understanding?
- How can we build this new repertoire and approach, and embed its ethos at the heart of our organisation’s mission?
- What can be done to inspire the next generation of composers to value this work, and the sound worlds it creates, as important artistic expression that can shape and define part of their future career?
- What will we do in response to further funding cuts? How can this work help connect the arts better to the people we are here to serve?
Personally, I think it is of paramount importance that the argument does not become polarized. In my provocation, I wanted to emphasize the importance of supporting contemporary opera across the board, whether it is main house work, chamber opera or participatory projects. They are now mutually reliant (opera has enough detractors, without a rift opening up within the opera world itself), and I don’t think participatory opera can hope to flourish as a separatist movement, without any engagement with the repertoire, and, as I highlighted in my provocation, without a fundamental understanding of its dramaturgy.
Significantly, also, there was no discussion of the culture of ‘the voice’ at the conference (this is not a criticism, but an observation), which is an enormous issue within operatic culture, and for some (not me) the only issue. This is a large factor in the stratification of work into professional and amateur. There will always be a demand to hear the best voices in fully professional productions, with the best orchestras, conductors, directors etc, and this will absorb the lion’s share of the resources. But this should inspire and not block participatory work. Opera organizations need to make provision for both. The sport analogy that was raised at the conference is a good one – and there is no sense of competing cultures there.
I believe that what we need is a co-operative approach. Beginning with Britten, the progress of participatory work within mainstream opera, has been gradual over the last seventy years, accelerating in the last thirty. The work has moved higher and higher up the agenda for opera houses and for funders, but it doesn’t need to seek to replace fully professional work, rather to exist alongside it. Both ‘cultures’ can continue to learn from each other and cross-pollinate in terms of theatrical ideas, repertoire, audiences, and performers.
We should celebrate how far we have come, and the conference was itself testament to this coming of age.
PUT TIME ASIDE – artists, companies, participants, put time aside to be part of this important work. The director Graham Vick has, since his involvement with the first education department established in the UK, by Scottish Opera in 1971, devoted at least two months a year to this kind of work. So put time and resources aside.
EVERYONE OWN IT – many projects, especially large-scale operas on the main stage or concert hall involving participants can be very complicated on many levels. Everyone gives a lot of themselves, artists, participants, everyone, to make it happen and it works best when everyone owns it – every single member of the organisation. And to make it work you need to plan, plan, and plan, so start planning years in advance as you would for any production. When Glyndebourne produced Knight Crew by Julian Philips and Nicky Singer in 2010 we asked Richard Ings to evaluate the project. He looked at the well being of participants, which he did using the evidence based criteria proposed by the New Economics Foundation. He found participation ticked every single box,
- building supportive and lasting social relationships
- physical activity
- trying something new
- co-operative behaviour
And I would argue that we all benefit from this kind of work, as artists and managers, we are all participants.
CARE – care about artists, audiences and participants – again we are all participants, we all contribute. Care about the barriers to participation and how we can support this (childcare, transport etc.), care about the outcomes and care about the legacy. Even as publishers (Peters Edition published the three versions of the The Monster in the Maze) we took great care in how the material would be presented.
CELEBRATE – we are good at this type of work and we need to celebrate this in all its diversity. When I was still at Glyndebourne in about 2004, the director Peter Sellars took me aside for what I now see was an intervention – he essentially told me to grow up and not act as if I’d only just got to Glyndebourne (I think I was projecting that I wasn’t confident to ask more of the organisation as there were still barriers in some areas of the organisation to this type of participatory work and I was somehow still asking people to do things as a favour, or if they had time). He said it was THE MOST INTERESTING WORK that Glyndebourne was doing and the world needed to know. So I thought lots about what he said and became more confident in myself and the work. When we planned the most ambitious participatory work to date, Knight Crew, I did a two week Clore Leadership Course with the planning and implementation of this work in mind and I used every single thing I learnt to make it the best that it could be – we put time and resources aside, everyone owned it and our local project had national and international significance (helped in part by a BBC television documentary with Gareth Malone).
So be confident, it works and the benefits for everyone are incredible.
We must use language carefully and accurately. We live in an age where terminology defines your tribe, your profession, your group – it can alienate those not of the group and offer coded communication between those in the know. What do we mean by Animateur? Who is the Participant?
What comes next? After the high point of the production, what happens then? Are we good at signposting other opportunities or places to go for more activities/training/development? Do we document and evaluate well enough to use the data, experiences and anecdotes to advocate on our own behalf with good data and well-presented visual materials?
Are we too pre-occupied with the process versus product argument? Between what is perceived as professional and amateur? Every Premier League football club has a big education and outreach department and top players are expected to play a part in the delivery of those programmes. Similarly, every Sunday I see groups of people kicking a ball around – some competitively and some just as a social activity – FOR FUN. Why don’t we do this? Is there enough fun in our professional lives and could participatory work help to put some of that back? Some key figures do get involved – Graham Vick, Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars are notable figures but we could do with some more of their calibre working in participatory arts sharing their extraordinary skill, artistic excellence and stardust.
I was very struck by Peter Sellars’s comment to Katie Tearle – GROW UP. Stop grovelling for resources and demand them. The work is increasingly important – particularly for Arts Council England funding. Use the leverage with your masters! You deliver the wider social reach and diversity by which the whole organisation is judged.
Ephemeral or Canon:
Some work is specific to a place, a group of participants, a time and a place. Some work has the potential for future productions. Education Departments are one of the principal sources of commissions from composers and librettists in opera. There is an extensive body of work and RESEO has a database with over 400 titles in it. Work commissioned by Education Departments is important in the development of composers and librettists – it’s important work.
We need to rethink what we mean by excellence. We think in terms of artistic skill, finesse, elite performers. There is excellence in diversity and inclusivity and we should celebrate it as Katie said. We need our sense of excellence to be more diverse and to encourage our organisations to embrace our excellence.
Who’s got the skills? There’s often a sense that the large organisations can share their know-how with smaller ones but what about the other way round? Some of the most radical and successful participatory projects have been done by smaller organisations like Streetwise Opera, Tête à Tête and Birmingham Opera Company. Looking around this room today we see a richness of talent almost beyond imagination. We don’t get together often enough. We should – to celebrate our achievements, to share good practice and to spread the word. Let’s do it again.
(roles and organisations correct at July 2015)