Opera in the Time of Pandemic

Merlin Gable talks to the new General Director of Welsh National Opera, Aidan Lang, and finds him excited at the potential for reexamining the role of performing arts in difficult times.

This article first appeared in the print copy of the Welsh agenda. You can get your copy today by joining us.

There are probably few things further from the tender majesty that opera can conjure – bodies and voices manifesting stories and emotions, bolstered by the clout of a large orchestra – than a video call on Microsoft Teams.

And yet, in these times, and as with so many encounters nowadays, meeting Aidan Lang, the general director of the Welsh National Opera, was replaced with this ghost of the real thing.

Very quickly though this doesn’t feel like a limitation. Even through a screen, Lang is energetic and engaged – conspiratorial even at times. Nobody though, I think, expects their first major crisis after taking the helm of a national organisation to be a global pandemic. Certainly Lang is conscious of this. Early in the conversation we hit upon the elephant in the room: how exactly, does one offer anything approaching WNO’s normal output during lockdown?

‘We don’t have the stock of recorded performances [that other companies do]’, Lang remarks, ‘and, honestly … [although] there’s a sort of sympathy and appreciation for the efforts for all the digital stuff coming out… the lack of that liveness has caused people to understand that it’s the liveness which is the USP of what we do’. 

Opera is not an art form known for its brevity, which makes its transfer to the virtual world yet more challenging. ‘It actually behoves us not to put on Parsifal and expect people to sit in their Zoom chairs for five hours but actually do something which is very manageable, very deft, and makes its mark that way rather than attempting to recreate a full length opera… if we were to capture something I think we would send it out in ten minute chunks like it’s a soap opera. To deal to the media, to the delivery mechanism – YouTube or whatever – that people would be experiencing it on. So it’s forcing us to think differently.’

Lang took over the lead role in WNO from the double act of David Pountney and Leo Thomson just over a year ago. Pountney’s artistic premiership, lasting nearly ten years, was a period of significant growth and multiple successes for the company.

For many, although by no means all, his departure was considered a serious loss. A tough act to follow, perhaps, but by no means is Lang’s back catalogue the weaker: a staff director at WNO in the 1980s, his most recent role as general director of Seattle Opera saw significant increases in ticket sales amongst young Seattleites – and he has previous experience leading a national company, as general director of New Zealand Opera, before that.

“Long gone is the idea that we… turn people [into] lifelong Mozart fans. It’s not the point at all.”

The coronavirus pandemic has forced almost everyone to think differently but perhaps the industry most challenged is performing arts which, as Lang observed throughout our conversation, is characterised by lots of people close together – both audience and performers – long preparation times and often a complex, delicate income stream comprising ticket sales, grant income, and donations. 

Opinions expressed on the COVID-19 crisis tend to fall into one of two camps. There are those who wish for everything, as soon as safely possible, to return to normal: many venues, and particularly the West End, who were served very well by the performing arts world of six months ago, surely must number amongst these.

For others, coronavirus has made apparent the longstanding structural issues in the sector and the difficulties grassroots and less profitable art forms have long experienced. Is this, I ask him, a moment for WNO to think differently under new leadership?

‘The simple answer is firmly the latter… and that’s probably why I got the job! We’ve just finished crafting a very different mission statement built on the thought … [that] art is a fusion of emotion and thought. Opera has emotion in spades, but if it doesn’t have a parallel level of idea and thought it is just the old cliché of large Italian gentlemen sweating profusely and bawling. But actually when it does, that’s when it’s potent.

‘You hear the statement that art can transform lives and you go yeah, it sounds great, but how? and actually I think it’s very simple if you understand that the opera experience isn’t the doing it, the opera experience is actually that meeting, that Michelangelo charge between the audience receiving and the performance giving. Somewhere in the middle, in the space between the stage and the audience or the classroom – wherever it’s happening – that’s the moment of connection.’

Opera is a long game, with productions often commissioned years in advance, and it would normally take several years before Lang’s leadership would begin to show in WNO’s programming choices.

Speaking to Aidan Lang it also became clear there are opportunities and some light in the darkness for a different sort of art to come out of this time.”

But of course, these are not normal times. The pandemic has shuttered the Wales Millennium Centre, WNO’s home theatre, and all its other normal touring venues. Two seasons have been cancelled entirely, and Spring 2021 must surely be in the balance.

This presents an opportunity, Lang thinks, to bring together the main scale operatic work WNO is largely known for and its youth and community engagement work. It’s all too easy, Aidan agrees, to do ‘shallow’ engagement work, where no lasting relationship with a community is built.

The aim instead, as he describes, is to structure engagement activities firmly ‘around productions and in that way I think you begin to lift the discussion to being beyond just the sort of intellectual discussion about the content, but actually open it up to far more people. And that is the way in time an arts organisation can really embed itself.’ 

But for WNO, Europe’s largest touring opera company, this is not so simple a task. The company, based in Cardiff Bay, tours to eight locations across Wales and England. WNO is Butetown’s opera company, Cardiff’s opera company, Wales’s opera company, and the opera company of all its touring locations.

The company’s ‘hub’ structure aims to address this by focusing on a continuous engaged programme of activity in Cardiff, north Wales, Birmingham and now Plymouth.

‘At least we can begin that work as well to find those connections. But I think that is the way forward: to programme to a fusion of thoughtful work but also supplement that with a whole range of other work which is equally valid and for the people who attend that, that is their experience of WNO. Long gone is the idea that we do that in order to turn people to become lifelong Mozart fans. It’s not the point at all.’

I bring into the picture the second elephant in the room. At the time Lang and I spoke, the USA and the UK were being rocked by rolling protests under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement. Cardiff saw its largest demonstration in years.

Although the protests have largely subsided, they have placed issues of representation, staff diversity and precarity in the performing arts industry front and centre, and many are suddenly posing much more fundamental questions too.

Discussions and debates that drive Wales forward.
Join Wales’ leading independent think tank.

Who are performing arts organisations working for? Who is their audience and what is their community? How do these organisations work and who is included or excluded?

Lang is certainly conscious of these issues, and of opera’s long and chequered history with regard to both race and class. To him, it’s an issue that the sort of thoughtful, thought-provoking programming he described above may help address.

‘That’s exactly the sort of stuff we were doing in Seattle. It wasn’t just a performance. Take Madame Butterfly, which certainly in America now is a difficult piece. We went to the Japanese–American community – on the west coast, of course, there is a very large Japanese community – and opened up the forum to the experience of Asian performers. We didn’t moderate; we weren’t even on the platform. We gave a platform to that community to speak and we just listened and won huge respect… And in that way I think you begin to lift it beyond the aesthetic or intellectual discussion about the content but actually open it up to far more people and that is the way that in time an arts organisation can really embed itself within a community.’

All this, Lang asserts, can still be achieved in the case of WNO with its many different communities.

It can, he thinks, also begin to shift the notoriously older demographic of opera audiences: ‘[in Seattle] the word went around that we were an organisation with a social conscience rather than just chucking out productions of Wagner… It was much more about an awareness that the company wanted to be part of the dialogue within the city, rather than being slightly aloof from it.’

Lang’s main focus here is on diversity as a question of audience, programme and image, but he explains to me that WNO also has a diversity action group in place before he arrived which aims to raise diversity and access issues in the organisation. The company’s senior management team and board of directors is largely white, however, in common with many other arts organisations.

I observe that Migrations, it’s upcoming new opera by Will Todd ‘exploring the theme of migration’ also has a white senior creative team, with ‘writers from diverse backgrounds’ brought in to contribute to specific stories in the narrative.

We would be very foolish not to use this moment to re-examine ourselves – and actually we are doing it.”

I ask Lang if WNO’s responsibilities go further here, not just to presenting diverse stories but also working to bring people from different backgrounds further up its management structure and into more senior roles in its creative teams.

‘I just add a rider that the skill level to put on a… when you see Migrations you’ll realize what a large scale work it is. And actually you don’t entrust that to someone who has never done an opera before. But we’ve set up – and we’ve got funding for it – a programme where we bring on some young diverse directors… to work with them, to help them find a voice through the medium of opera.

‘And again, not just drop them, but to develop a team of directors who we can work with over time in order to bring them up to the level where they have the nerve to put on a large opera. And it’s important to remember there is a skill level to do that, in order to have the tools to bring across what you want to say… It’s important to understand from a professional point of view that if you want to make a statement you want to make sure you have people who technically know how to make clear what they want to say.’

‘So really our job is to make sure we consciously bring on a generation of directors. And it doesn’t take long; it’s not like being a singer… you can learn a hell of a lot over one production if you’re smart. Providing those entry points is, I think, the first step we have to undertake.’

Looking now towards the coming autumn and winter we have at once a degree of certainty regarding what won’t be possible – packed theatres and business-as-usual touring. Yet although the futures of portfolio organisations like Welsh National Opera have been assured by the Arts Council of Wales, it remains a time of great uncertainty in the arts.

We do not know when and how performances will return, nor what they will look like once they do.

Speaking to Aidan Lang it also became clear there are opportunities and some light in the darkness for a different sort of art to come out of this time. ‘We would be very foolish not to use this moment to re-examine ourselves – and actually we are doing it.’

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

This article first appeared in the print copy of the Welsh agenda. You can get your copy today by joining us.

Merlin Gable is Culture Editor of the welsh agenda.

Also within Culture