The 30th of March 2014 the Monnaie theatre in Brussels presented the world creation of "Au Monde" (To the world), an opera by Boesmans based on a libretto by Joël Pommerat. This was the fifth opera the Belgian composer created at the Monnaie theatre over the last three decades. It was directed in alternation by three conductors: Gerard Mortier, Peter De Caluwe and myself. Ever since his first creation « Reigen » (1993), all his operas travelled widely across Europe, either as revivals of the initial production or as new productions. This collaboration between an opera house and a composer is rather exceptional, especially because it has been such a long-standing one. It has generated many benefits for both the artist and the opera house: the quality of the creations, the international travelling of the productions, the approval of a broad audience, the enhancing of the image of contemporary opera and a renewed artistic energy for the opera house.
The question I therefore want to ask is the following. Why do European opera institutions not have in-house residencies for composers? It is said that contemporary opera does not have an audience but that is an obvious misconception! The creations by Boesmans, Eötvös, Saariaho, Dusapin, Adès, Francesconi, Rihm or Benjamin, to quote only those, have all enjoyed considerable success well beyond the more restricted circles of contemporary opera lovers. In Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Frankfurt, London and Lyons, opera houses directed by enlightened administrators are proof that opera is far from dead and that opera creation is very much alive, a fact to be rejoiced over!
Let us imagine just for a moment what the European cultural scene would be like if most of the opera houses had residencies for creative artists. Not only would we have many more creations but more importantly these residencies would strengthen relations between institutions, their audiences and the artists, offering them both privileged work conditions and privileged routes into the profession. Costs of such residencies are marginal in comparison with the budgets invested in the opera sector while benefits are considerable in terms of creations, of diversifying the repertoire, opening up to younger audiences and renewing of the image of "classical" music.
What is more, a composer brings much more to an institution than just his own creations. He will also bring his own artistic perspective, his own imagination, his own discourse, and his own creativity, all of which will rejuvenate the institution itself and enable it to benefit from the professional network of the artist in residence.
Such opportunities seem particularly advantageous for young composers: direct and live contact with singers and musicians is invaluable experience and potentially much more beneficial than any composition class, especially when it comes to opera. Interdisciplinarity has hardly made its way into our European conservatoires so far and it is mostly backstage that artistic teams and projects are formed and that formative experience takes shape. It is therefore crucial to offer specific guidance to creative teams, to organize workshops allowing the team to find their own creative voice, to develop a shared vision and resolve issues that are specific to each new piece. In that respect, an artistic residency is a hugely beneficial set-up.
Since 2007, the European Academy of the Festival d'Aix organizes an « Opera creation » workshop designed for composers, writers, stage directors and visual artists. A number of artists have had their new creation programmed at the Festival; for others the workshop has been an opportunity to team up professionally and progress in their work; and for all, it allowed them to approach the world of opera which initially they were not familiar with. The Festival has now privileged relationships with this young generation of fascinating artists who are keen to encounter the new audiences of today and tomorrow.
Since 2011, enoa (European Network of Opera Academies) brings in a European dimension: thanks to support from the European Commission, the network fosters the travelling of young artists and their productions. Work sessions on opera creation have taken place at Aldeburgh, Verona, Lisbon, Ghent, and Aix-en-Provence. Teams of young artists are encouraged to develop their own personal projects while harnessing the culture specific to each partner institution. It is in this fashion that The House taken over, an opera by the young Portuguese composer Vasco Mendonça based on a libretto by Sam Holcroft, was the focus of a number of workshops before being programmed at the Festival in 2013 in a successful production directed by Katie Mitchell. The creation then toured across Europe where it was revived during the following months in Antwerp, Strasbourg, Luxembourg, Bruges and Lisbon.
The collaboration between an opera house and an artist does not exclude international travelling. There is no single format for the collaboration between artists and creators and different types of collaborations can be envisaged, whether they are short-term collaborations or long-term residencies. What is crucial, however, is to bring in conviction and determination. That is the price we have to pay to keep both music and opera alive.
Director of the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence
President of enoa