Reviving The San Cassiano – Paul Atkin Discusses His Plan to Rebuild The World’s First Public Opera House (Part 3)By Alan Neilson
Rebuilding Venice’s San Cassiano theatre will be a formidable task in and of itself, yet behind the scenes there is a raft of other issues and initiatives which need considerable attention.
In this third and final part of OperaWire’s interview, Paul Atkin, the man behind the project, discusses some of these concerns, including what it means to be a public opera house in the 21st century, his ideas on how to embed the theatre within the community, the importance of educational projects and partnerships, as well as ongoing research into the links between musicology and performance and the uncovering of lost works.
It will be Atkin’s ability to attract investment and manage the financial side of the project that will ultimately determine whether or not San Cassiano will be built and the commercial success it will have to be as a profit-making enterprise. Most opera companies around Europe are supported by public funds, but in this case, it is not an option.
“When we started out, we called the project the Fondazione Teatro San Cassiano, but when assessed, the three publicly funded theatres in Venice – the Malibran, the Fenice, and the Goldoni – it soon became apparent that this option was not viable. Two things immediately became very clear. Firstly, that if we went down the public funding route, the project would die as Venice does not have the resources to fund four public theatres. It just wasn’t an option.
“Secondly, because it was literally impossible, no one was interested. The phrase we kept hearing was ‘come back when you have something concrete,'” Atkin continued. “Therefore, I realized at a very early stage that if we were to make this happen, I would have to put the money into the project and take the risk myself. I had to back my belief. If I fail it will cost me an awful lot, but I am fully convinced of its absolute necessity. Someone has to make this happen.”
Once he had accepted that public funds would not be available, Atkin quickly adapted to the idea of the project becoming an entirely private concern. Now he sees it as the preferred option.
“I am a businessman and the more I looked into this, the more I thought this is actually commercially viable. I thought that if we are building the theatre and performing the operas in an historically informed way, why don’t we run the theatre in an historically informed way? After all, the whole point of the San Cassiano is that it was a commercially viable theatre. It survived, despite occasional failures and disasters, from 1637 to 1812, albeit no operas were performed after 1798. That is a long period of success. We believe that by keeping the business small and commercial, we will have the flexibility which will allow us to embrace the future and to use modern ideas in a way that other opera houses cannot because they have bigger boards that prevent them from acting so freely or flexibly. This is the future, this is the way to go forward.
“If you look at The Globe and Glyndebourne, they both make £3 million profit a year from performances which they invest elsewhere, such as education. Why shouldn’t we adopt a similar philosophy? I have been attacked on social media for operating in this way, but why not? If I use the money to reinvest in the San Cassiano project and the community, then where is the harm? We seem to have a problem with even the idea of an opera company making a profit. In any other sector, if I invested £3 million, I would expect to earn at least enough to cover that amount, why wouldn’t I?”
Despite Atkin’s persuasive arguments, opera companies do have the reputation for swallowing up money with apparent ease, and it is not unusual to hear them complaining about the poor subsidies they receive from governments, often to the annoyance of an unsympathetic public. What, therefore, makes Atkin believe that he will be able to attract potential investors? On this matter, he is not only fully prepared but also very confident.
“I don’t come to potential investors with just a good idea, I come to them with a good idea plus practical examples, which proves that it can work. Rather than just inventing a business plan that I have simply put together in my head, my presentation takes two models: one sells our product, the opera at Versailles, and the other sells our location, that is Venice’s La Fenice. We have combined them. Take ticket pricing, for example, we will price tickets from €10 to €240 which is consistent with the prices charged by La Fenice and Versailles. This should generate €12.8 million over a 40-week season on ticket sales alone. I can run a theatre on that. If I couldn’t do that I would give up immediately.”
Clearly, he is expecting a larger revenue than this, given other possible revenue streams such as advertising, donations, and “sponsorships and naming rights where the future lies.” Furthermore, Atkin estimates the running costs for a full program of 40 weeks will amount to less than €10 million.
“The great thing about the theatre is that because the scene sets are painted on canvas and because we are talking about a low number of performers and a small orchestra our running costs are significantly reduced compared to modern operas.”
Atkin is, therefore, confident of making a good profit on the performances, but he is also planning to use at least part of it to finance other activities, such as educational outreach projects, research, and community programs, as well as “recovering lost works that may flop.” It ultimately comes down to one big question – will he be able to retain enough profit to attract investors?
“We will be able to create a return for our investors, but it is not the driver here. If you are looking to make comparable business returns, then maybe this is not the project for you. Can I get you your money back, and a little more? Yes! But the motivation has to be the San Cassiano and the need to restore to Venice the world’s first public opera house: it is about legacy, history and making an impact. I admit that there are better investment opportunities out there, which we can’t compete with. What we do offer, however, is a legacy, one in which you can write your name into the history of opera. On this, no one can compete with us!”
As to the building costs, they are not as great as may be expected. The construction cost will clock in at about €46 million and the operational cost for the four years it will take to construct will be around €20 million. In sum, the total expenditure up until opening night will be €66 million.
“Today we are in a period of risk and investors are hesitant as to whether we can deliver the project, given the reputation of the city. This is normal,” Atkin conceded. “But the support we have received in Venice from the mayor and the authorities has been excellent. So, the key is to start building. Once we start, we move into a position of certainty, people will see that it is happening and things will start to move rapidly.”
A Public Opera House For The 21st Century
One aspect of the project to which Atkin has given considerable thought, both from a philosophical and a practical perspective, is to how a “public opera house” can be reimagined within a 21st-century context. His main goal is to place the theatre at the heart of the community with strong connections to the local economy, schools, universities, and the conservatory.
“It is commonly accepted that Venice is in a bit of trouble. The number of people living in the city is declining by a thousand a year, and presently has only a small population of somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000. This means the problem is immediate; the city doesn’t have much time to sort it out. So we have identified three areas in which we can make a contribution.”
“Firstly, there is regeneration. We will bring investment into the area in which the theatre is located,” he noted. “One key point I wish to return to is the profit motive which lies behind the enterprise. If we operated as a charitable foundation, Venice becomes dependent on gifts, on donations, on charity. If we have people investing in the city in a commercial enterprise Venice becomes a place of investment. If Venice becomes a place of investment, the city will thrive and the population outflows will change direction. If you make Venice dependent, a city looking for charity, then its decline will continue. Remember, profit and commerce are what made Venice; it is a mercantile city.”
Then comes health and education, something that Atkin holds close to his heart from his own first-hand experience from his days as a student when he was involved in a music therapy project and saw the benefits it could have on others.
“I want the San Cassiano to be directly involved in helping children with mental and physical health and social issues, so we will pay out of our budget for a number of music therapy specialists to go into schools and engage with the children. I am convinced that music has the means to make lives more tolerable, to bring relief and joy.”
He also has an interest in developing an education project about San Cassiano.
“Two weeks ago we made a video with a school, the Liceo Marco Polo, which is due to come out shortly,” Atkin revealed. “We held a seminar with the children in which we asked them to consider what they expect and will gain from what will be their theatre. This is something I am very serious about; eventually, I want to get to a point where we go into schools and re-enact scenes from an opera guided by five or six singers from the San Cassiano.
“When we get that to a certain level we will bring it into the theatre and will invite the families to come for free and watch their children on the stage and in the pit performing baroque opera. Those children who are not musically inclined will be involved front of house and backstage. It has to be a public theatre for Venetians, an open theatre that they feel belongs to them.”
Next up on his priority list is sustainability and a desire to move away from the “‘hit and run’ tourism” that he feels is “killing Venice.” Instead, Atkin wants to create tourism where people remain in Venice for a number of days and nights.
“We want to work in partnership with other tourist attractions to encourage longer-term stays,” he noted. “We have had conversations with the Goldoni theatre, for example, to sell tickets jointly for two nights, one night at the San Cassiano and one at the Goldoni. This idea is something we can extend to galleries and churches and museums.”
But ultimately, sustainability is about the people of Venice.
“Above all, we must put the Venetians first. We have already employed over 25 Venetian companies and we will employ 160 Venetians in our theatre when it is open. So this in itself creates a small cottage industry,” Atkin added. “If you have employment in Venice, this will help stop the population decline.”
Finally, he noted that the environment is also a major consideration when it comes to sustainability and the theater will be built in a carbon-negative manner.
Accessibility & Research
Above all, Atkin wants to make the San Cassiano accessible to all, not just to tourists or those who can afford the price of a ticket. To achieve this he plans to make use of evolving technology, including streaming, which he believes everyone is approaching from the wrong angle.
“There isn’t enough consideration being given to the experience itself,” he emphasized. “Although the technology is not yet there, we plan for people to be able to choose a seat in the theatre from where they wish to watch the performance. Each position will, therefore, give the viewer a different angle from which to watch the stage. You will even be allowed to change your seat during the interval to get a different perspective.”
He also noted that streams miss out on the audience experience, which he will look to recreate.
“So, we want to create it so that if you turn to your right or left you will be able to see a person sitting next to you. At the moment we are moving very slowly, like walking with a red flag in front of a car, but we have the potential to go to the moon.”
Atkin is also keen to make the San Cassiano a world-renowned center for research, positioning it as a direct link between performance and research, with the results of the research ultimately staged.
“One of my great frustrations is the gap between musicology and music performance. When I was a student I worked on the score of ‘L’ingresso alla gioventù di Claudio Nerone’ and made an edition of it, and I remember asking Tim Carter for advice and he said ‘don’t start, you will never finish,'” Atkin narrated. “Twenty years later I managed to get it staged. That is too long! There are over 300 manuscripts in Venice’s Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, so we need to have researchers in there finding the best operas, preparing editions where necessary, getting them onto the stage, and recording them.
“We can be so much more than just a theatre. We need to bring theses operas, these poets, and composers back to life.”
He also noted that he already has several young students working on research and will announce PhD courses once funding is received.
“We also plan is to provide Masterclasses, and to work in conjunction with the Conservatory in providing a Masters degree, using our theatre. We will be uniquely positioned in being able to allow students into a theatre for which these works were written. We can give them the time and facilities, to examine the works in their original context, and enable them to bring them to the stage,” he elaborated. “I am not talking just about singers. I mean directors, managers, and everyone working behind the scenes. They will be learning the trade but in a unique setting. We will be helping to create people who will be able to stage opera in the future. And we will be using the theater infrastructure to do that. Of course, if run properly, such courses can also be profitable, both for the Conservatory and for us. So this will also be a commercial activity, but one which will be for the greater good of the community.”
The idea of reviving lost or neglected works on a regular basis is certainly a mouthwatering one, but what exactly does Atkin expect to find?
“When I say lost I mean pieces we feel we can recover, pieces that have fallen out of vogue. There is going to be stuff out there we can rediscover. I had never heard of Giannettini when I started my PhD, and this turned out to be real gem. When we performed extracts from ‘L’ingresso…’ in Venice the Venetian public stood to applaud the final duet and demanded it to be played again. It is our duty to bring such works to life! Also, I have a dream that one day, somewhere in Italy I will come across Monteverdi’s ‘Arianna’ in a private collection. Who knows? It may well be out there somewhere.”
This does make one wonder, how far will Atkin go in his efforts to return such works to the stage? Often operas are discovered, but with pages, maybe a scene or even an act missing. Is he prepared to have the missing parts rewritten, and would that go against his ideas on authenticity?
“The first opera to be performed at the San Cassiano was ‘L’Andromeda.’ We have Ferrari’s libretto, but we don’t have Manelli’s musical manuscript. Should we treat it as a sacred piece of work, and dare not to touch it? I think if we handle it carefully, with the right people at the right time it would be fun to try to revisit it. Why shouldn’t we? If we don’t then such works will never see the light of day. We should also remember that in the 17th century it was the poet who was considered the author of the opera, not the composer. If we do not recompose the music we will never hear their words, never see the drama set to music. What is there to lose?”
This answer tells us a lot about Atkin’s vision for the San Cassiano. He is not envisaging it to be a sort of museum, a shrine where baroque enthusiasts can come to pay homage to the composers of the 17th and 18th centuries, and to watch a pure representation of their operas in a refined and elevated atmosphere.
In fact, this could not be further from the truth as detailed by his closing remark: “This will be a living legacy, not just a historical oddity.”