Criticism on Fridays: The Promising Little Headlines

The Flat Structure and Independent Ideas Promise a New Turn in the Development of Post-Covid Opera

By Polina Lyapustina

Every Friday, Polina Lyapustina delivers an essay on some of the most sensitive topics in the industry with the intent of establishing a dialogue about the opera world and its future.

Every year, Spring reminds us that it’s time to throw off all the heavy thoughts collected during the cold winter months. And now, we need it like never before, since this winter was made up of only bad news, broken negotiations, re-planning, and other uninspiring events.

I guess, I saw and dug into too many of them in the last months, but when I re-read the “The End of the Year” issue where I promised to report on how we survived the winter, I suddenly found that I had another viewpoint before. And reverting back to that, without being tied to showdowns in the upper echelons, brings significant relief.

If we observe the landscape of what was happening in the opera industry during the last three months, we will clearly notice two axes: X would be creative activity, while Y would represent power and money. And while the horizontal (flat) development of the industry went amazingly well and productive during the hard times, the vertical peaks only brought trouble.

All those bold headlines. Top management unilaterally decides on the activity or musicians’ rights. New laws and restrictions affect the work of the whole industry. All the money was spent on maintaining a heavyweight institution. You get the point.

But if we lower the level and look at the very heart of the activity, the picture differs markedly.

The opera world always had four important components: artists, institutions, spectators, and the artform itself. And while the fourth part always seemed somewhat weightless, it recently showed its independence and stability. We were all so scared to lose it due to the crisis.

“Opera won’t survive,” we said. Without open theatres, then without the audience, and definitely without musicians.

But I see the opposite — the institutions might be losing money, musicians might be losing jobs, and the audience misses the performances, but the art-form will remain, even if this crisis lasts.

Opera as an art-form requires nothing for its survival. Today, it is contained in scores, various recordings, and lessons opened for the masses. It also lives in the minds of the creators, even if we don’t see them. For years, this knowledge will be available for everyone to revive operatic activity. To restart it or even to start it from scratch. And this knowledge is (and should be) accessible for all.

This availability triggers the audience, who miss the live shows badly but never lose their connection with the art-form. Unsatisfied with the online performances at first, they adapted and learned to explore and enjoy the new experience. This winter broke the records in opera views online in Italy, on OperaVision, Arte, and even the compromised MET showed good results. And that’s without mentioning a wide range of unique independent experiences produced by artists on their own. And while these (mostly free) views don’t support the industry financially, they maintain the culture and push development further.

And here we see new approaches, so needed for the opera world (for decades), but never supported in the era of institutionalism. But in 2021, the premiere of the film version of “Soldier Songs” has replaced the major reiterations from big companies. And for the remainder of the year, opera as a cinematic vision will be led by several directors, most notably James Darrah who is set to spearhead a number of opera-related projects.

This marks the moment when opera becomes idea- and creativity-driven for the first time not in decades, but centuries.

While opera houses are not making many new major commissions, smaller competitions provide new opportunities for women and people of color. I hope opera won’t remain the same with these new authors. Without the support (and influence) of big money, the field of topics grows larger. More uncomfortable, maybe, but that is how the art becomes truly reflective.

Am I ready to sacrifice another masterpiece by Phillip Glass (whom I deeply respect) to that? I am. With no regrets.

New unexpected repertoire, approaches, and collaborations. People supporting artists, not institutions. Bottom-up decision-making in workers’ rights in Europe. And the total availability of high art. These tiny headlines inspire. Meanwhile, all these various small steps have the same value at their core — independence.

When we all became separated, there was no doubt that most people were left in horrid situations. Yet others also saw an opportunity for limitless possibility and found a way to empower themselves. It’s this example that is worth highlighting. It will protect us all from clinging to sinking boats.

You won’t stop being a musician without a theatre. Or an opera lover without weekly live performances. And opera will survive even if we won’t support it for decades. Yes, everything will be different, but we saw too many disasters of this pandemic to be afraid of changes.

When I see the stages in both Europe and States preparing to re-open, I notice that the more humanist they were in their approach, the less they raised along the vertical axis and the more independent they felt. And ultimately, this made it easier for them to revive. Technically, the process is identical for everyone, the only difference being whether the institution either respected or harmed its workers or the freelancers during the winter lockdown. #ArtIsPeople will turn into a very uncomfortable experience for those theaters that refused to listen to their people.

But then, it’s the workers’ turn again to play new rules. When we work, when we are back in the theatres, it’s us who decide to follow the rules, to fight them, or to create new ones. Inside or outside the walls, everyone decides for themselves. But it’s always on us.

In the end, I want to add another dimension, a third axis: time. Scared to lose our jobs, money, positions, we started with another shoutout last spring here in Europe. #ArtIsWork, we insisted. What a long way we have come to understand that following a simple math equation, being ourselves an art which is also a work, we can provide work to each other.

Art means so many things in the world, and being art opens millions of possibilities and empowers us to act, create, and decide on our own. Don’t allow the situations that have happened to the UK artists, Met musicians, Russian dissidents, German freelancers, SA singers to limit you — you’re capable of so much more than this. So…

Let’s make some real art?