Who is Responsible?

Last weekend the Royal Opera House hosted an open space forum discussion about the future of opera. Phelim McDermott, Artistic Director of Improbable Theatre Company and Director of the memorable ENO production of Satyagraha, has been running these events for 8 years and has wanted to ask this very question to the opera world for almost as long. In many ways the reason it has taken this long is indicative of the inherent problems that lie in the heart of the industry. As evidenced at the weekend, there is no shortage of good will – there were representatives from companies small and large (with some notable exceptions), singers, directors, stage practitioners, audience members, composers and librettists. However the more we talked, the more we seemed to get caught up in an increasingly tangled web of problems that circled round and through each other until it seemed impossible to tackle one thing without addressing the whole.

Where to begin?

To me it seems clear that what we are experiencing is a crisis of RESPONSIBILITY. Whose job is it to ensure opera has a future at all? Is it up to the Royal Opera and the big name singers? Or should we be looking to composers and librettists to create work that people actually want to hear? Or is it down to the funders to ensure there is enough money available to make the entire industry viable? Each of those answers is too simplistic because in the end IT IS UP TO ALL OF US.

A theme that continually resurfaced was the shortcomings of training. Every year hundreds of young singers emerge into the industry only to find the vision they had been given in their colleges and conservatoires did not match the reality they were about to discover. An opera career is not what it was 20 years ago and yet many training programmes are encouraging young singers to aspire to solo stardom as if the number of opportunities that the great names of last century enjoyed were still available. They are not. Recession and funding cuts mean that those companies that survived now put on a fraction of the number of performances they used to and pay a fraction of the fee.

Why is it that young singers are not equipped to deal with this?

Singers in general are notoriously bad at taking responsibility for themselves. We sing because its a passion and then wander into the profession without really considering what else we want out of life. I know only too well, because that is exactly what I myself did 15 years ago. College can be an infantilising experience – you’re told where to go at what time and what to sing for what performance. Armies of coaches dissect your every note and phrase and every moment of the day is catered for. No wonder we don’t know what to do with ourselves when we leave. Part of the shock of leaving college was having to plan (and pay for) role preparation – it was not something I’d ever had to think about for myself.

And yet this is part of the reality of having a career. Any freelance career for that matter. Reality is different from the dream, and annoyingly keeps changing as the circumstances change in the world around us. Most other industries understand the value of continual professional development (CPD) to keep them up to speed as the work environment evolves. For some reason singers rarely think beyond the odd singing lesson or language coaching, and then only to cater to the needs of the current job where we hope someone will provide a crash course in missing skills for us. That’s pretty limiting because it means YOU’RE ONLY EVER PREPARED FOR WHAT’S IMMEDIATELY IN FRONT OF YOU.

One young singer this weekend reeled off a huge list of skills she realised she needs one year out of college but doesn’t have. It included such diverse subjects as dance, drama, book keeping, piano skills and project management to name a few. As the industry changes this list will change – we cannot afford to stand still watching our employment opportunities contract as our skills fail to keep up. Not to mention the vast array of other meaningful and lucrative things we could do alongside our singing to support us when the work dries up.

To rectify this doesn’t take a miracle. It just takes a shift in mindset. If we were less reliant on college, more questioning of what we are paying for and more willing to accept that we don’t know it all, we could take better charge of our careers and our lives. Perhaps we could even empower ourselves to tackle the future of opera head on and make a difference. Singers are remarkable people, trained in multi level thinking, adaptable, capable and robust.

Who knows what we might accomplish if we learned to take a little more RESPONSIBILITY for ourselves.

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