New Directions for Opera in France?

Many years ago, my French wife was surprised when I explained that America does not have a Minister of Culture. “Who supports the arts?” she asked and I explained what donors contribute to performing arts functions. “Then the rich control the orchestras and operas?” “Ahhhh…. yes…” I admitted. And, since the rich do not necessarily promote diversity or change, this must affect our performing arts structure.

On the contrary, this is what is happening in France today. Roselyne Bachelot, the French Minister of Culture, has initiated a discussion by declaring five priority goals for “Opera in the 21st Century.” These goals follow from a mission entrusted to Caroline Sonrier, director of the Lille Opera, in October of last year and “proposes a frame of reference for lyrical practice in France.” Among them: widening audiences and providing more support for creation.

Five “priority areas” will define the contours of the opera of tomorrow. Bachelot received representatives of the sector on October 5 to present the conclusions of Ms Sonrier’s report and the mission to form a policy for the lyric arts in France.

The report mentions the positive efforts of lyric arts establishments on a certain number of points, but also underlines flaws, shortcomings and therefore the possible areas of progress for a sometimes stiff sector. The Ministry suggests that we can do better in terms of openness, diversity, and even creation – issues that are essential to the construction of a “unified and renewed framework for the opera of the 21st century.” The Ministry of Culture, on the basis of the conclusions delivered by the mission, proposes a broad reflection on five priority points.

A permanent observation system of the lyrical world is suggested by the Ministry and also by Ms Sonrier’s study. “A development of the means of expertise in connection with the opera houses and a “qualitative observation with a committee of experts brought together for three years.” The Ministry of Culture is also planning “a simplification of the labeling system” with the aim of “making the lyrical policy of the State more readable and more coherent.”

Second priority for the ministry: “supporting the careers of artists, which are less and less linear, is a necessity.” The report highlights in particular that “the longevity of careers for singers is uneven, and there are hardly any retraining plans, with strong inequalities between the public and private sectors.” It thus seems “essential to take better account of the plurality of statuses of permanent artists under public status”, to “put an end to the inequality of access to training, to improve support for artists” and “the establishment of a support structure at the level of the lyric sector” and the creation of a “legal framework allowing houses who wish to relaunch troupes of singers.”

The third priority for the Ministry is to attack one of the most crucial issues of opera: “the openness and accessibility of lyrical arts” to the greatest number, both with regard to the question of the larger public but also with forming links between opera houses and their region. While nearly 20% of the audience is under 30, social, cultural and geographic diversity must be further developed.” For this, “increasing the number of performances per production is a challenge which seems to constitute the best tool for widening the public, unlike the multiplication of productions per season which always attract the same spectators.” Other suggestions: stay open during weekends, school holidays and vary the repertoires more.

For the fourth priority, the Ministry of Culture calls for “the development of support for creation, in particular by strengthening residences.” Creation, “despite the success of several productions in the last thirty years, remains largely absent from opera houses,” observes Ms Sonrier’s report. “This position reinforces the image of opera houses which promote an art of the past frozen in the ‘golden age’.” The “obligations regarding creation” could be relaxed, recommends the report, and this could make it more possible to promote co-productions of new work. Opera teams are often “insufficiently prepared for the challenges of contemporary creation” and also have “the ‘fear of the empty room’.” This seems to be the main explanation for the absence of new opera creation.” However, asserts the report, ”creation can ‘make a splash’ and garner media attention if it is well planned.”

The fifth and final priority set out by the Ministry of Culture is a recommendation to act “in favor of diversity, equal treatment between women and men and the fight against all forms of discrimination.” There is some slow progress but even “if the situation tends to improve, the opera sector is not the image of French society, from the point of view of its geographical, social and cultural representation,” observes Sonrier and those consulted for the report. Also important, the creation of an “observatory to measure the diversity of the performing arts” and “encouraging the emergence of women, in particular in the management of opera houses and as composers.” Also, there should be programs to “promote diversity, and this from an early age. Developing choral singing in school helps foster this lasting link to lyrical art from childhood.” Also, “developing mechanisms to integrate higher education and professional integration.”

This report is expected to have an impact on future opera growth and diversity in France.

Comments are closed.