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The life of any opera professional tends on the whole to be itinerant, and in my case it is probably more than most. My particular career journey took me to New Zealand Opera, where I was General Director for eight years, and as anyone who has been to that beautiful country knows, it is about as far as one can travel from the UK before one starts coming back again. Five years ago, I upped sticks and moved again, this time to Seattle Opera; and now I have come home, having effectively circumnavigated the globe in my operatic odyssey.
I say ‘home’ both in the sense of the UK, but more particularly to Welsh National Opera. In the past few weeks, mention has been made in various press interviews of how I was a Staff Director here in the eighties, and so it is a neat full-circle. But it was actually while I was still a student in Birmingham that I first came to know and love the Company’s work.
Call me odd, but I went to a lot of opera while I was still at school. Living in London, and taking advantage of Sir Robert Mayer’s extraordinary ‘Youth and Music’ programme, it was possible to go to ENO and Covent Garden at a ridiculously low ticket price, and so I did. I went to Birmingham to study English and Drama with a Londoner’s sense of operatic superiority – and then I encountered Harry Kupfer’s WNO production of Elektra, Joachim Herz’s Madam Butterfly, Göran Järvefelt’s The Magic Flute etc. The list of productions is long and it opened my eyes to a way of doing opera that I had not previously experienced.
Here suddenly was opera as compelling, potent and visceral drama, opera which made explicit statements about our society as well as our humanity. This ethos and view of opera was still present at the company when I joined full-time, and I can honestly say that I have carried them with me to all the various places around the world where I have worked, be it as a stage director, artistic director or, in more recent years, as General Director.
But if this is the bedrock of what I believe opera should be, it is also fair to say that my view of what an opera company should be has evolved as the years have passed and my career progressed. As a practitioner, my focus was more inward, concentrating on making the productions as compelling as I could; but as General Director, I consciously put myself in the shoes of the audience.
What is interesting to people today, what are they looking for in a performance, and how can WNO feed that curiosity? I hold the strong view that our core purpose, as an arts organisation, is to reflect the lives of our audiences, and to provide them with meaningful experiences that resonate with them long after the curtain has fallen. But even our definition of the word ’audience’ has subtly changed.
Today, it is not enough to think only of our large productions on the main stage; our Youth & Community department undertakes a huge range of work which serves many different communities, both young and old. Indeed, one of the many reasons and I was so thrilled and honoured to take up the helm as General Director is the way the Company now reaches such a wide-ranging audience. In the years to come, I look forward to expanding that reach, and sharing with you the unique joy and thrill that only a great opera performance can bring.