A few weeks ago I wrote about how the success of a company is founded on everybody who is engaged with delivering its product, the rewards and praise cascading to its roots. ENO has found itself at the heart of a storm recently, posting annual losses that started the gun on a feverish debate about opera subsidy, offering fuel for detractors and food for thought for those reviewing, on behalf of ACE, the opera funding landscape.
The problem for large companies, here and throughout Europe, is that they often appoint artistic directors, single, supposedly visionary individuals who then embark on a period of shaping a company to a formula of their choosing. The actual role of an artistic director varies from house to house and so do their abilities. But there is an argument for dispensing with the single, all powerful AD who can often do much to alienate audiences, have favourite directors, singers, designers et al. We hear frequent stories of disenfranchised artists who have fallen foul of a house, often for trivial things with one individual barring the way for those not in his or her circle or clique. Any artistic director should, if they are to call themselves that, at least have the skills in the pit, or the stage, in directing maybe. Then, perhaps, we can credit them with an artistic vision that includes the skill of creation and imagination. Musical directors can have a profound effect on the quality of a house of course.
This is all, indeed, why at OHP we don't, nor ever have had, an artistic director. Repertoire is a collective choice between key people and then artists, musicians, directors, designers are formed into teams to deliver the magic on stage. We give them the framework; in essence, we have, throughout a season, several artistic directors if you like, who create and develop their productions. That is not to say that there is no artistic thread or vision for the company because the opposite is true when you consider our strong themes through recent years, particularly in one area of the repertoire. But what our system gives us is a variety of works both in genre and style that have a wide audience appeal. There are few obsessions with single production style, period or one particular composer; these obsessions have sometimes proved fruitful and enlightening elsewhere but just as often disastrous. I suppose you could call my faithfulness to the late Italian repertoire a dedication beyond reason (to some) but it has at least become an artistic thread for which our audiences have developed a taste.
Perhaps more companies should work this way? Perhaps a more generalised, less doctrinaire approach to programming and production, shorn of ego and pretension, is how opera can ensure it maintains a strong, enthusiastic and understanding audience in years to come? Variety is key. Quality is paramount.
It all comes back to the collective effort; we should all attempt to take our audience on a journey, we should encourage adventure and discovery. But we should always look at our work through their eyes too, not forcing things upon them, nor threaping down their throats our cleverness and even, it is inescapably evident, disdain.
It would be silly to argue that an artistic director is always a bad thing, because it isn't. But too many claim for themselves the rewards of success and rarely the brickbats of failure. Guiding, experienced hands can help those who create to do so with a purpose and with regard to their audience, enable different approaches to thrive and flourish, for talent to have its day. But I don't know many individual artistic directors who haven't pissed off half of their audience at least!
We can lead a horse to water but we should be more gentle when trying to get it to drink.
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