Report by Kara McKechnie, 7 June 2015

Opera and its local arts landscape

Convenor: Dr Kara McKechnie

Participants: Daniel Sommerville, Ralph Bridle, Irina Brown, Jane Williams, Charlotte Valon, Lila Palmer

The term ‘Arts Ecology’ was mentioned a lot in this discussion, reflecting the recognition that we need an arts landscape with different-sized organisations.

Leading question - What would the ideal relationship be between an opera company & those companies and artists in its local environment?

Access – what do we mean by access? Make a company’s work accessible to others? Allow access to interact with programming and making?


Define access as not just at an audience level, but think about giving smaller companies access to skills, spaces, collaborative relationships. Access beyond audiences, at the level of other/ smaller companies; the same place in common


There is sharing (skills, expertise, pedagogy, space, resources), but it is based on goodwill and initiative. Sharing space, resources & expertise should be mandatory, and large arts organisations need to function as exchange hubs.

Issue: some opera companies don’t own their buildings (WNO, ON), rigidity is also created by the buildings’ specifications for opera work.

Tension between the practical needs of an opera company and the inflexibility it creates

Q: Why are theatre companies getting better at sharing space and collaborations with independent companies and not opera companies are not necessarily?

Be quite forceful about making companies collaborate in the first instance; invariably the enrichment created will mean they will want to do so again. Example: subsidised

German companies – recent intercultural shift has opened their work up to community production and collaborations with other companies. (Example Gorki Theater, Berlin)

Philanthropy can strengthen the influence of people who hold the purse strings and over time make their sphere of influence more dominant, decreasing opportunities for the organisations to work for everyone. BUT don’t underestimate funders’ and corporations’ willingness to support new work.

Issue: do opera companies think locally? They compete with each other, don’t embed locally – national remit, global market place, sense of the international, sense of hierarchy. Where is the centre of funding? Opera companies are generally funded on a national level

Issue: difficult balance for touring company (i.e. WNO, ON, SO, ETO to an extend) – local roots and regional remit

Issue: Opera already combines many art forms – how can other companies/ artist add to the interdisciplinarity of the work?

Question: how can opera companies and smaller companies access Grants for the Arts together and create interdisciplinary work?

Question: how can certain areas (development, marketing, administration) be shared without companies losing artistic identity?

Is D&D at ROH an in-kind collaboration of sorts? Who is paying for the event? What are the possible benefits for the ROH?

Q: Can one stage a production with an equal power relationship, despite different sizes – respected relationships in collaboration?

Examples: Improbable & ENO (&Met) - Satyagraha – diversity, age and background, expectation – Improbable’s success with operatic collaboration

The Wrong Crowd – Swanhunter (Opera North)

Danger: innovative or collaborative work either stops short at developmental level because of funding structures or simply ticks the ‘credibility’ box (Examples: opera companies appearing at music festivals Glastonbury & Latitude)

Examples for work embedded in local community/ reciprocity/ skills sharing

Birmingham Opera Company, no theatre, no fixed model

Fulham Opera, local council and Crisis (charity), space provision and in-kind support through exchange of skills. Arts Festival developed around diverse local arts provision


Mirror collaborative work through packaged or linked cultural offers - why stop at pre-theatre menus?

Address measures to balance the tension between the local and the global/ international; both important forces within opera

Reflect local commitment in the ‘localism’ of some of the programming

Investigate formulas for making work for opera companies with community interactions (often seen as being easier for theatre projects) (Example: Holland Park – Playlist scheme, music memories – show created from playlist, model for devising! Jonathan Dove’s Monster Maze, new opera. Streetwise. Opera companies need to value their own staff and maybe see them in a different light, in order to make them catalysts for creative collaborations.

Use Education Departments for ideas surrounding greater community involvement, models for making work – a kind of osmosis between education depts. and the main company, not driven by main house repertoire)

Conversations could and should be hosted by large arts organisations, who would gain a stronger sense of what smaller organisations have to offer, and what they could offer them in return.

Encourage altruism (if necessary prescribe it!) to improve artistic work

Finally - ``

We want it all – our opera companies to be funded to a standard that does not put them in the straitjacket of top-ten programming and greater support for local companies of all sizes

NB: We want communities to want this, but they often don’t necessarily.

Large arts organisations are an essential part of the ecology. They cost a lot, but they return a lot of value. Not just through the work they show, but in terms of enriching the cultural landscape around them. Sixty musicians permanently employed do not just sit in the orchestra pit: they run their own orchestras and concert series, work in schools, teach and interact with the community in many ways. All the different skillsets under one roof continually spread out to be applied elsehere.

NB: Lots of interesting additional discussion via the twitter stream – go to #DDOpera from about 2pm onwards on 7th June!

DrKMcK, 7 June 2015


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