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Working on Contemporary opera and music theatre in Austria and the UK – a difference?

Bregenz Festspiele KAZ Made in Britain Programme Book 2007

Sitting in a vocal master class as a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London, the eminent international soprano, Elizabeth Soderstrom, declaimed that you “should sing every performance as if it is your last. There are no guarantees in this business. Every operatic role and the challenges of every opera house must be given full thought and full commitment. It is a hard craft but with rewards far beyond riches”.

I have been so far in my career been very fortunate to be involved in many interesting and indeed inspiring operatic projects in some of the most exciting venues in the world and the Elizabeth Soderstrom’s words still hold a resonance for me today.

My experiences of contemporary music theatre in Austria and in the UK have been wide-ranging and very mixed. Large pieces in Austria and in the UK well attended and some smaller scale works not so well attended. Some works even delivered without an audience ( well actually in that particular case an audience of 8 witnessed a performance given by Music Theatre Wales of Andrew Toovey’s opera “Ubu” in 1992 as part of its regional touring programme).

My first experience of working on contemporary music theatre in Austria was singing in the world premiere of Olga Neuwirth’s music theatre piece “Bahlamms Fest”. This masterful work with a devastating production by Nicholas Broadhurst to designs by the Brother’s Quay accompanied by Austria’s leading contemporary music ensemble Klangforum thrilled audiences in Vienna at its premiere in 1999 as part of the Wienerfestwochen. Audiences queued around the Sofiensalle in order to either beg, borrow or steal a ticket for this “must see” event. Further performances of other works in Austria (Ligeti’s “Le Grand Macabre” and the world premiere of Neuwirth’s latest musical theatre offering “Lost Highway” have also been met with the same reaction.

In the UK performances of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s “Gawain” at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden or David Sawer’s “From Morning to Midnight” at English National Opera and Thomas Ades’s “Powder Her Face” for Aldeburgh and Almeida Opera has attracted the same audience reaction.

In each case the public reaction was the same but often the artistic vision was very different.

For me as a performer the real goal is to make the work of the highest standard regardless of the venue.

The job of presenting contemporary opera and music theatre is made more difficult by the challenges of private funding not to mention the challenges of government funding. With many companies trying to make budgets balance it sometimes becomes a case that external politics control the way in which contemporary opera and music theatre is sanctioned and performed. On a funding level it is evident that contemporary opera and music theatre is given far greater core funding through government subsidies in Austria than in the UK and indeed there is a greater entrepreneurial feel amongst the companies I have worked for in Austria with people really feeling that they own a right to make the case for contemporary opera and music theatre. I am amazed by this fact.
There is a culture of actually going to see things in Austria which we seem to have lost in the UK. In the UK it seems to be the same core people who attend each contemporary musical event and I am only too glad that they keep coming. Long may that continue.

In order for contemporary opera and music theatre to survive there is a need to create a culture of “must see” events. Austria is ahead on this at the moment. Presenting new works and getting an audience to see them and then allowing the audience to make the decision as to whether the piece will stand or fall by its own merits is paramount for this art form to survive. Too often in the main stream operatic arena contemporary opera and music theatre is often presented grudgingly to fulfil government funding requirements and placed between countless performances of the more traditional works as if no one would notice that they are there at all.

Yes, there are differences between working on contemporary opera and music theatre in Austria and the UK, in both language and culture. These are not major differences and I suppose it’s the differences that makes the work challenging, exciting and very rewarding.

Andrew Watts
Artistic Director of London Contemporary Opera

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