Opera gives Welsh voice to world stories

Welsh National Opera’s mission is to set the enjoyment of opera within an exciting and stimulating intellectual context, says David Pountney

The telling of stories through music and dance is a fundamental human instinct. At Welsh National Opera we are custodians and creators of artworks which embody this instinct in some of the most sophisticated and complex expressions of European culture. Our primary task is clear: to realise these spectacular and technically demanding artworks to the highest possible standard, and to make the results accessible to everyone in our society.

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Telling stories can be an intimate process – in a small group around a fire or one-to-one at bedtime – but a society also needs stories to illuminate its collective existence. We are not just a random selection of people thrown together by economic necessity, but a collective culture that has worked out a common strategy of compromise and rule-making that makes our collective life possible. Language, landscape and the historic pressure of one group against another define the way that these compromises are arranged, and these are embodied in the collective stories we tell and the means used to tell them.

Opera is the European form which explicitly seeks to tell stories to society as a whole – stories which sometimes elevate individual experiences to universal truths, and sometimes seek to discuss the nation itself. Politics, in its broadest sense, (the destiny of the collective, the Polis) is the proper subject of opera, and is frequently intertwined with individual bliss or tragedy, just as our personal lives are irrevocably bound up in our collective existence.

The definition and rediscovery of national identity was expressed through opera across the whole of Europe throughout the 19th Century. Opera was the forum in which the ancient stories that affirmed the subtle differences between different groups were re-told. It was also a forum through which the rediscovered language of nationhood was a primary means of defining that nationhood.

Through the operas of Smetana and Dvorak the Czechs rebuilt their national identity in the face of overwhelming German linguistic and cultural domination, as did the Poles with Moniusko. The operas of Mussorgsky, Rimsky Korsakov and Glinka forged the iconography of the Russian State against a background of aristocratic Francophile tradition. Interestingly, the result of this potentially narrow nationalistic ambition has been works of universal power and relevance. The need for society to find and define a collective voice gives rise to song that all can appreciate and be moved by. And that is why for us, this fabulous treasure of communal utterance can function so powerfully as a collective voice of Wales.

The realisation of these large-scale works explicitly addressed to a wide audience requires the maintenance of significant groups of skills. Society is represented on stage by the chorus. This idea goes back to the Greeks where, incidentally, a “Sponsor” was the individual who paid for the Chorus and thus determined the scale of work to be written. As with the Choir, a significant element of Welsh culture, the Chorus is central to the expressive message of opera. The orchestra is the collective that gives these stories, through its emotional power, universal significance. The maintenance of these two fundamental pillars is the heart of an opera company, backed up by all the essential technical and administrative skills.

In addition, as in all other areas of European culture, there is a huge requirement for technical excellence. In opera, the expressive possibilities of singing are pushed to their limits. Stretching technical possibility is one of the elements of a live opera performance that defines its knife-edge sense of occasion. However, finding, training, or acquiring on the open market, artists with these highly developed technical skills, combined with artistic maturity and depth of perception, is neither simple nor cheap.

If we realise all this with success, it will be clear that we have created an élite object that aspires to represent the highest technical and artistic achievements of European culture. I am not afraid to use this bogey word – indeed, creating an élite object is something of which we can be proud. This is also because following the achievement of ‘realisation’, our second task is to make this élite object accessible. In turn, this can only be done through a combination of price and communication. Price is already in place. Welsh National Opera is cheap – possibly even too cheap. But clearly communication has a way to go.

Recently a group of young men involved in the ‘cultural industries’ told me that they still had the perception of opera as something for which they “needed to dress up”. This is, in reality, so ludicrous it is laughable. It is at least 50 years since people actually “dressed up” to go to normal opera performances – I am not talking about Glyndebourne or Salzburg here. In fact, the word to describe the average British audience at an opera performance would be nearer to ‘scruffy’ than ‘dressed up’! Those young men, I am sure, spend more money on fashionable ‘down dressing’ than the average opera goer on ‘dressing up’. Nonetheless, as we know, perception, or prejudice, has nothing to do with reality. This represents a big communication gap. It cannot be that prejudice and out-of-date perceptions should still be the barrier between people and this high point of cultural and emotional expression.

Another essential act of communication is to re-affirm our core role as providing a live artistic experience. We may hope that the burgeoning presence of opera in cinemas and on the net will attract people’s interest and encourage them to seek out the live experience. It is important that we communicate that whatever the excellence of the ‘condensed milk’ variety, the live event is a unique occasion.

In defining our artistic programme for the next five years, we are seeking to set the enjoyment of opera within an exciting and stimulating intellectual context. Opera is a forum of ideas about collective identity, and this will be born out by repertoire chosen to represent important thematic ideas. For example, in the spring of 2013 we feature ‘Free Spirits’ via two works from the 1920s – Alban Berg’s Lulu and Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen. Both works examine the then incipient threat of erotically and socially liberated women but from very opposite perspectives. Berg writes from the neurotic, urban pessimistic viewpoint of Vienna, Janacek from the optimistic standpoint of a man at one with nature. Together they make a wonderfully enjoyable pair of operas that are as stimulating for their ideas as for their vibrant eroticism.

We shall also make a bold attempt to show that opera remains an intensely fertile medium in the 21st Century. Right across Europe there is a surge of creativity in the medium, but much of this does not reach Great Britain. We will change that, for instance bringing Jonathan Harvey’s magical electronic score for ‘Wagner Dream’ to play alongside our new Lohengrin.  And as the representatives of the land of song, we shall also carry out an in-depth examination of the Italian tradition of Bel Canto (beautiful singing) starting with the three Donizetti operas that deal with our Tudor monarchs – after all they were a Welsh family!

Our aim is to be bold without being reckless, since an artistic institution stranded on the sandbank of mere survival is a sorry sight. All art is about vision. We trust that our vision will make the role of operatic story telling an essential part of our cultural life.

David Pountney is Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Welsh National Opera.

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