By Dr. Olga Kolokytha
Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, University of Vienna
Networks and synergies in the cultural sector. A case study in opera
The European Opera Centre, based at Liverpool Hope University, but wholly independent from it legally, was launched at the end of 1997 after extensive consultation with European institutions, which provided consistent support for some twenty years. The main aims of the Centre were to assist Europeans to make the transition from education to the opera profession, and to develop audiences for opera.
The Centre has initiated and led a series of successful projects through the years, with major performance projects taking place in 17 countries, among them, the animated version of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen – the first of its kind producing an hour-long animated treatment of an opera, reaching around 3 million people around the world to date. People from 37 European countries have participated in its projects – opera productions, recordings, intensive masterclasses and workshops. Auditions have been held in 50 cities, attracting candidates from more than 70 countries. The Centre has been supported through the years by funding agencies, private individuals, commercial sponsors and trusts. It also works in partnership with other cultural organisations, sharing resources effectively, developing projects aimed at a wide variety of audiences, such as young people, families, opera lovers, young and established professionals. It has recently developed a programme in partnership with primary schools in Greater Liverpool.
This case study discusses the European Opera Centre, examining the development of the organisation and the transformations it has gone through during the past 21 years, in relation to the changing cultural landscape, the challenges it has faced, and the role and importance of networks and synergies throughout its course.
The European Opera Centre was launched in 1997, after extensive consultation in particular with the European Parliament and the European Commission, about the need for an advanced training project of this type in Europe. Since the beginning, the Centre’s aims were twofold: to provide support to Europeans of high talent and potential, from the end of their education to starting a career in opera; and to develop audiences in opera. From its launch and up to 2015, the Centre considered only European citizens for its projects. More recently, it has extended its offer to include artists not only from Europe, but also from the rest of the world. Artists from 37 different European countries attended one or more projects when the Centre was only focused on Europe. The Centre has undertaken performance projects in 17 countries, with singers being auditioned and assisted in 50 cities. Its most recent auditions have attracted applicants from 77 countries.
Originally, the Centre was based in Manchester but moved to Liverpool in 2004. This city is among the areas with the largest proportions of deprived neighbourhoods, according to UK statistics, and Merseyside is considered a transition region in EU regional policy. The Centre contributed to Liverpool’s successful application as a European Capital of Culture and opened the 2008 Liverpool European Capital of Culture with a new production of Donizetti’s Emilia di Liverpool (1824 version) – in a new edition commissioned by the Centre. Since 2004, the Centre has been based at Liverpool Hope University’s Creative Campus – a hub for its artistic and cultural academic departments, as well as for public engagement – hence contributing to the life of the Campus and the University.
A range of activities
The European Opera Centre provides opportunities for those wishing to pursue careers in opera, and who are selected through open audition or through interview to take part in opera projects. These can be staged or semi-staged performances, recordings, masterclasses, tours and short-term residencies. During projects, but also afterwards, the Centre provides guidance, experience and support to those starting careers in many different disciplines in opera, mostly singers but also assistant conductors, repetiteurs, stage directors, administrators, stage and production managers.
Over the years, the Centre has brought together in its projects established artists of international calibre, to collaborate with early career artists, enhancing their artistic and professional experience at a key stage in their development. With its recordings, the Centre has made its work known and experienced internationally, achieving not only a wide visibility for its projects, but also developing audiences for opera, bringing it closer to those who are not able to experience it for a variety of reasons, as well as it has assisted artists to acquire audio material that they could use to advance and develop their careers.
Liverpool is unusual for a major city, which is former European Capital of Culture, in that it has no resident opera company. The European Opera Centre has had a continuous collaboration with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Vasily Petrenko. Its Chief Conductor has undertaken eleven opera projects with the orchestra up to now, most of which have also led to high-quality recordings and CD releases of the works performed. These collaborative projects have given the opportunity to the selected singers to perform with one of the major orchestras in the UK, and the opportunity for professionals in other sectors of the arts to engage with an organisation of international reputation – hence advancing their career and professional development.
With regards to repertoire, the Centre believes in engaging in projects that bring to attention operatic works that are not part of the mainstream standard repertoire. These can be either relatively unknown works by major composers, or pieces by relatively unknown composers, which are of substantial music and artistic merit and deserve wider attention. This philosophy is reflected in the choice of the pieces for each project, with examples ranging from Rameau’s Dardanus (in a new edition based on the versions of 1744 and 1760) to Shostakovich’s incomplete opera The Gamblers. Project repertoire to date has included Fleischman’s Rothschild’s Violin, Liszt’s Don Sanche, Mendelssohn’s Die Hochzeit des Camacho, Offenbach’s Un mari à la porte and Wolf Ferrari’s Il segreto di Susanna and I quatro rusteghi. In the Britten centenary year, the Centre was one of only two companies worldwide to present Britten’s realisation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.
The Centre has also been active in touring and bringing opera to places and audiences that do not have the opportunity to experience it, either for purely geographical reasons, such as places that are isolated from main cultural production centres, or for financial (being unable to afford a ticket for an opera performance) or social reasons (believing that opera is an elite art form, aimed only at connoisseurs). In November 2006, the Centre undertook a major tour of Ravel’s opera L’enfant et les Sortilèges to Greece and Cyprus, before returning to the UK for school performances. The tour was presented in collaboration with a variety of local cultural organisations, ranging from Thessaloniki Opera, to the Municipality of Trikala (a city in mainland Greece), to a small theatre in the city of Chania, in the western part of the island of Crete, The English School and Cyprus College in Nicosia and Foley School in Limassol. It was notable that the production – the first staged performances of opera in Greece and Cyprus – went to cities other than Athens. It opened in Thessaloniki, then went to Giannitsa, Trikala, Chania, Heraklion and Cyprus (Nicosia and Limassol). In Chania, the production marked the first opera production ever to take place in the city, which was reviewed by Opera magazine there, attracting international attention and promoting the city to a new audience. There was a total of five performances in the city, all full, receiving ravishing audience reactions. VIP guests (members of the national and regional government, Greek arts community and major companies and foundations) attended the Thessaloniki and Chania premieres. The estimated audience number for the whole tour was over 6300 people. Some performances were aimed particularly at schools and young people; but there were also performances for the general public.
Keeping up with developments in technology and the digital world, the European Opera Centre has developed the concept of online coaching, which has been identified to be of great benefit to artists who are otherwise physically unable to attend individual coaching sessions. Online coaching is carried out in individual sessions with Laurent Pillot, the Centre’s Head of Singer Development and Artistic Advisor. The Centre has applied similar principles from face to face coaching to online coaching, placing emphasis on matters such as the particularities of French repertoire of the 19th and 20th centuries, development of musicianship, technique and presentational skills for auditions.
During the 2016/2017 academic year, the European Opera Centre extended its outreach activities by creating links with the primary education sector, developing a multi-disciplinary programme for pupils in collaboration with Barlows Primary School, situated in the north of Liverpool. The school itself has been assessed as delivering outstanding work and plays a role in training teachers. The additional aim of this project, which has already been very positively evaluated at University level, was also to develop a model that would help deliver the curriculum across many different subjects. The project involved artists who wanted to develop a career in the arts and included training in working with young people. The Centre is now rolling out this model to other schools in Greater Liverpool – there is no other similar provision. It is also working with visiting opera companies to expand the audience for opera in the sub-region and to add to the understanding of the art form.
Benefits of creating synergies and working in partnerships
Since its launch, the European Opera Centre has been very effective in using its resources by creating synergies and collaborating with a wide variety of organisations, but also in bringing together artists and other creative staff in creative ways to ensure the maximum benefit for individuals and the organisation. The Centre’s projects are invariably developed in partnership with other organisations, hence making partnership the norm – rather than the exception – in its philosophical approach and working culture. Partnerships and collaborations can take different forms, such as developing a programme for young people and masterclasses in different countries, or creating and developing further an animated opera film.
This last example is one of the major, high-profile international projects the Centre has created. The animated version of The Cunning Little Vixen was commissioned by BBC Television and co-produced with Opus Arte and Los Angeles Opera in co-operation with the European Opera Centre. The project involves the development of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen opera into an hour-long animated version of the piece, with language versions produced in English, Spanish, Catalan, Czech and French, but also in different formats such as film, DVD and ciné-concerts, where the film is projected on a big screen and an orchestra performs the orchestra track live on stage.
The project was overseen by the Centre’s President Kent Nagano and has brought together many different partners throughout the world, such as the BBC, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Czech Radio and Television, Opéra de Lyon, and Los Angeles Opera, among others. It has achieved international recognition and prizes, being voted the best music or dance programme made for television at the International Television Festival Golden Prague and also winning a Diapason d’Or. The DVD is still on the market, 13 years after its first release. The project itself is estimated to have reached approximately 3 million people around the world. Knowledge developed through the years has led to ideas for the production of another animated opera film, with planning currently at an initial stage. The Vixen project was a pioneering project at its conception and development, bringing together a variety of professionals from a range of different fields, testing and developing animation techniques that were not standard processes at that time and using media and technology in innovative ways.
Through the years, partnerships and support have come through arts organisations, funding agencies at national and international levels, commercial sponsors, foundations and trusts, legacies and private individuals, some of them providing continuous and extensive support for a number of years. These have contributed in the Centre’s most effective and economic delivery of projects and the maintenance of the highest artistic and professional level in its activities. Contributions are not only financial – for example allowing artists to attend projects which they could not otherwise participate in – but also in type, such as providing venues for masterclasses or rehearsals, or providing expertise and services for free.
Questions for further discussion
- What are the benefits of creating synergies in the cultural sector, for cultural organisations but also for projects themselves?
- How can a different philosophy in the choice or repertoire be of advantage to an arts organisation?
- What do you think is the role of opera in outreach?
- What are the different approaches to audience development an organisation can engage in?
- How do you think cultural institutions can be involved in the life of the local community?
The European Opera Centre. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.operaeurope.eu/
The Cunning Little Vixen project. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.laurentpillot.com/vixen
The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. (n.d.). Retrieved from www.liverpoolphil.com
Laurent Pillot. (n.d.). Retrieved from www.laurentpillot.com
Dr. Olga Kolokytha is Assistant Professor at the Department of Communication of the University of Vienna. She holds a PhD in Kulturbetriebslehre (Cultural Institutions Studies) awarded with Distinction, an MA in Arts Management and a BA in Musicology and Music Education, and speaks English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. She has worked for more than a decade as cultural projects manager and consultant around Europe and is regularly invited as a guest lecturer from cultural organisations. Her research monograph Artistic Development of Young Professional Singers (2013) explores the notion of Artistic Development multiperspectively and focuses on issues of industry, career and professional development. She was one of the 35 representatives of the cultural sector invited by the European Commission to participate at the Audience Development via Digital Means structured dialogue in Amsterdam and Brussels in 2015. In December 2016 she received the Best Publication Award for the best published PhD for the years 2013-2015 from the University of Music and the Performing Arts of Vienna. In February 2018, she was invited by the European Commission to an expert meeting in Brussels on the future of the European Agenda for Culture.
Header image: Images courtesy of BBC © High Eagle Films