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The burning need for new opera
New operas and the audiences for them do not appear by themselves; they must be stringently planned for. Such is one of the messages in Europera, named after John Cage’s series of theatrical works which started with a commission from the Frankfurt Opera in 1987 to produce an ‘irreversible negation of the opera as such’. Cage did not quite succeed in negating all of opera. Instead, Lübbe, a stage director, points to imaginative, budget-conscious venues in Germany such as Opera Halle’s Heterotopia festivals, featuring two weeks of space-shifting, unexpected performance opportunities and productions.

With social and contemporary relevance as keywords, opera is seen as a constantly evolving art form by juxtaposing it simultaneously with ballet, drama, and concerts. At Halle, the first Heterotopia festival’s slogan was ‘Everything Burns’, which might strike the non- German ear as a bit macabre, but merely echoes Alles brennt, a hit song from 2015 by the Teutonic popstar Johannes Oerding. Trendy ‘conflicts and social heresies’ motivate creative statements.

Developments were not as happy at the Wuppertal Opera, victim of a devastating municipal fiscal crisis. After the 2020/2021 season, funding for opera in Wuppertal may vanish entirely. Between these two examples of innovation and decimation, Lübbe cites the Opéra Bastille in Paris. Despite a fraught atmosphere due to regular labour disputes, the Bastille manages to eke out a minimal schedule of new commissions as a gesture toward renovating the repertory. Funding remains primordial, but Lübbe adds that open- mindedness and outreach can renew popular understanding of opera as an essential art.

In Germany’s 80 opera houses, subsidies are declining; but there is more commitment to local culture than in France’s centralised, Paris-obsessed dealings with 27 opera houses. What place is there for new works? The opera director Michael von zur Mühlen is quoted as saying that an ‘art form whose repertoire is at most 15 percent contemporary has lost its liveliness’. Lübbe further cites on contemporaneity the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, that a contemporary ‘does not let himself be dazzled by the splendor of his century, but manages to perceive its dark side, its deepest darkness’.

Perhaps as proof, on a random day in May 2019, five operas were staged in France, the only rarity being Nicolas Isouard’s Cinderella (1810) at Saint-Etienne. By contrast, in Germany, many more productions were available, with novelties including Philip Venables’ 2016 adaptation of 4.48 Psychosis at the Semperoper in Dresden, John Adams’ Nixon in China at the Staatsoper Stuttgart, and Detlev Glanert’s Oceane (2016-2018) based on a story by Theodor Fontane, at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Older rarities performed on that day included César Franck’s Hulda at the Theater Freiburg and Eduard Künneke’s operetta The Cousin from Nowhere at the Landesbühnen Sachsen in Radebeul. In Germany, an appetite for artistic daring is combined with a view of opera as a living, breathing art form.

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Opera Now, 2019 - ©Rhinegold Publishing