Lego and Song

Stepping outside the ivory tower. A litmus test on where 21st century opera and art song is heading?

Things are changing fast. The book has been reinvented, enhanced humans (courtesy of Google glasses) will soon be sitting in our auditoriums, and how about a package holiday on the moon for those with oodles of money and a daring heart? As we run each day between our physical and virtual lives, where does the 21st century singer exist in all of this?

The more impersonal the world becomes, the more personal we want our experiences. As enhanced humans challenge the realities of storytelling, where does this take narrative frameworks, performance practice and song?

In the opera and song world, it seems we're still busy trying to make the past relevant. But as Simon McBurney points out, theatre is present. We're also living in austere times where privilege is deeply felt in all its many forms. Opera and Art Song tickets still remain, in terms of income, for those with deeper pockets. As our government continues to cut art funds, the divide will just get bigger as opera houses and concert rooms compete for a smaller stack of pennies.  

It's quite the ivory tower we're continuing to build. And the thing with ivory towers is that they end up crumbling in some shape or form leaving the captor buried under the rubble whilst the captive gallops off into the night to find their happy ever after.  Rather than Boulez's rallying cry of 'blow the opera houses up" [1967], perhaps we just have to sit and watch them self destruct as they continue to face 21st century challenges with 19th century models. 

What this means, is that institutionally, we have a problem. The 19th century models we are using are not producing the innovative thinking we need for futureproofing.  And at the moment, I don't think we know who our new audiences are because our understanding of today's everyman and everywoman is as suprious as Jamie Oliver's cooking on a budget where a £20 shoulder of lamb symbolises thrift.

The answer to the opera and art song conundrum isn't found in buildings. The answer isn't even in money or politics. The answer lies in us all: The artists, the creators, our current and future audiences, producers, promoters, broadcasters and educators,  Part of the solution is understanding our future focus so we can step outside the ivory tower and find our relevance. As Qui-Gon Jinn so wisely says in Star Wars - The Phantom Menace: "Your focus determines your reality".

In some ways, we have a Lego problem. In 2003, the micro plastic bricks nearly came tumbling down because Lego had lost touch with its audience, they hadn't adapted to the new digital world and they had no system in place that could monitor what or why they were producing. The new CEO, Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, turned the company around by some solid business principles. After much internal rebuilding, he started to put the icing on the cake by giving creative control to Lego's hardcore fans. The designers they hired were fans who loved the product and knew where they wanted to take Lego:

"they knew the customers as they had grown up playing with LEGO and they had ideas that had been restrained for years." [Feloni, How Lego came back from the brink of bankruptcy]

There's a call to action here. Art is rooted in life and nature, it's on the streets where we live and the lives that we lead. Schubert was one of the greatest expounders of this idea. The bigger the divide gets between our opera houses and concert halls to today's everyman and everywoman, we archive our art forms. Each time politics intervenes and manipulates the gap, more venues fall, more cuts are made, opportunities reduce and compromise becomes sacrifice. The current story playing out at ENO is a warning shot across our bowers..

To help opera and art song survive in the new digital age, we need to take a note from Lego's story and rip up the 19th century model we are working with and start again.  First steps are:

1. Giving more voice to the individual artists, creators and producers that shape these genres today.
2. Building a bridge between audience and creator.
3. Listening to our audiences and finding ways to go to them.

Because at the end of the day, after the politics, after the decisions, after the joy and the mourning, what remains, when everything else has been forgotten, is art.

When I first sat down to write this article, I was going to share Simon McBurney's top tips for aspiring actors and directors by signposting this article for singers. However, something else happened. So I went with it. The opinions shared are my own observations.  If you like, see them a grass roots point of view. 

Interested in Lego's story, go here 
Want to read Simon McBurney's top tips which apply to all creators, go here
Main blog image, by The Brickman, admire his work here

If this article got you hot under the collar, or got your goat, you could try this article for size.


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