In the summer of 2019, I attended a performance of the Romantic opera Salome with a star-studded cast at a world-famous opera festival, and I was - once again - delighted by the outstanding quality of the performance and the artists. When I walked down the stairs of the opera house after the performance, I saw about 200 young people drinking beer and wine along the steps, enjoying the nice evening; I was very saddened they could not also enjoy this wonderful performance. Why didn't these young people also go into the opera house? It wasn't just the entrance fees, for sure. This made me think: what are young people missing in opera - and how can we win them over with this unique art form? Despite all of the outreach to young people, good marketing, and a rising number of opera-goers in Germany, the current youth attendance situation is undesirable.
Opera and reality of life
In the opera Salome, a king is forced to order the murder of a human being so as to not break a promise he makes to a beautiful dancer. The tragic plot of the opera is heightened to grandiose extremes by Strauss's music. Content and form complement each other to form the highest level of art.
But do young people want to see such a plot? Are they able to see this connection between music and drama? Or does it bother them that the main conflict depicted in the opera is so far removed from the reality of their lives?
Certainly, a portion of the audience attends the opera precisely because it seeks a distance from everyday life; they find enjoyment in the musical interpretation of a biblical or literary legend. Certainly another percentage of the audience - including us artists - value the opera as an opportunity to cultivate our unique and great, artistic heritage. This is precisely why I would like to see an opera that does not forget the young generation, that focuses on the questions of their time, an opera that includes and challenges the next generation, and in so doing, all others. The goal needs to be towards giving young people a voice, but also listening to them, without degrading a contemporary work as a "youth opera.”
Care of Early Music
A brief insight into the history of Early Music performances: Since the founding of the Academy of Ancient Music in London in the mid-1780s, when only music older than 20 years was allowed to be performed, Early Music was introduced into the concert life. The aim at that time was to cultivate the music of Georg Friedrich Händel. Early Music greats, such as Haydn suffered from these restricting regulations. The “20-year rule” was later extended to 30 years in London, etc. - the overriding goal was to give Handel's music a presence. Composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy brought this concept to Germany and in the 1820s, as music director of the Gewandhaus, programmed several four-to six-week concert series in which Early Music was to be performed (this was where the attention and care of Bach’s music first began). These concerts were accepted only half-heartedly by the audience; low attendance in concert halls and harsh critiques from the press resulted from this change. How could one play Early Music for weeks and not program works by living composers?
Change in the last 200 years
As we all know, the situation has changed completely since then. Today, Early Music (here: music composed more than 20-30 years ago) is part of the current, classical repertoire; world premieres and, especially, revivals of contemporary works are rare. But, the situation in the concert world is on the right track: numerous composers are commissioned with composition requests, some previous-premiered works are getting re-performed, and, thanks to brilliant concert programming by Sir Simon Rattle during his tenure as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, a contemporary work is programmed in almost every concert if an institution wants to stay innovative.
Contemporary opera - too expensive?
Unfortunately, this is not the case in opera. Some large opera houses commission a composer to write a world premiere every two to three years; the plot, however, is usually a libretto with an outdated, socially irrelevant content. Why is that? Opera houses justify this with costs that are sometimes very high when world premieres are scheduled in the Grand Opera; or the contemporary opera is shifted into chamber opera format in order to have fewer expenses and take a lower financial risk. There, the possibilities of a larger outreach or a star cast are usually extremely limited. The work’s potential socio-political consequences for the inhabitants of a city and its surrounding area are often slim to none.
The successful times of the opera genre
Why aren’t operas conceived today that represent our society and point out the problems of our time? What do we artists leave to our descendants: deleted e-mails, Sibelius files as autographs, contemporary operas about Karl V, modern productions of our standard operas that are often deliberately modernized (and rarely really fit)? In the successful times of art (including opera), society and its problems have always been addressed: Mozart cleverly criticized his rulers with wit and charm, Beethoven's Fidelio depicted the French Revolution and the thirst for freedom, Hänsel and Gretel represented the time of the burgeoning nationalistic ideas, and Arnold Schönberg made the machines of industrialization sound in his music... what do we do today to continue this tradition?
Into the middle of society
It is my goal to bring opera back to the core of society. The opera house should be a place where, in addition to fairy tales and the important care of the repertoire, people can discuss, exchange ideas, and gain a stronger awareness of an open and multi-layered world-view. A place where we artists have an opportunity to express our opinions on social politics, social justice, and current events in our musical and theatrical language. A place where people do not get new impulses from politicians in talk shows, but from artists of the opera house and experience different views and ways of thinking in order to reevaluate their convictions and, as a result, be able to articulate them better. A place where contemporary music can be laughed at again; where satirical, ironic or, under certain circumstances, coarse humor can be enjoyed- the problems of our time are usually serious enough. So how about a revival of the operetta (with the objective of attracting new opera-goers)?
Climate operetta in Hamburg
Last May, the General Manager of the Hamburg State Opera courageously funded and endorsed a chamber opera that addressed current, relevant themes. In doing so, he engaged an artists’ collective- including myself.
Inspired by these actions, I am proud to premiere a chamber operetta in collaboration with director Maike Schuster in December (13.-15.12., Hamburg, Theater in der Marzipanfabrik) that deals with climate change and its disastrous effects. Through the programming of relevant thematic material, I would like to communicate with the next generation, inspire them to pursue and support the operatic art form, and in return, open a channel for appreciating the older repertoire. Every effort to revive opera’s long tradition inspires me. Through a peaceful exchange of opinions we all grow in our views and values, which are the cornerstones for a harmonious coexistence in our society. Opera can make a significant contribution to this!
Ingmar Beck, 19.09.2019 (English translation: Alexandra Urquiola)