‘Opera can make us see, feel and hear the world differently’: the UK’s opera chiefs tell us why their art form matters

Opera North's La Bohème. Photograph: Robert Workman

Opera North’s La Bohème.
Photograph: Robert Workman

We asked the artistic directors of each of the UK’s seven main opera houses to tell us why opera is important today, to choose their favourite opera and suggest the best for beginners to see.

Richard Mantle, general director, Opera North

Why is opera important? Why is any art important? It offers us a reflection of who we are, how we relate to others, and what it means, collectively and individually, to be human. Opera performed live is a uniquely thrilling experience – at its best, it is hugely powerful and the most emotionally direct of all art forms. The combination of dramatic narrative, stagecraft and music, and especially the range and vulnerability of the human voice, make opera the art form that comes closest to expressing pure emotion. It is storytelling at its most vivid and manipulative. Opera seeps into popular consciousness and bleeds into other forms, sound-tracking TV shows, sports anthems, adverts and films – where its music is often used as a shortcut to create a heightened emotional tension at climactic moments. Those big moments in opera are usually the ones that deal most directly in the big human themes: life, love, death, loss, passion, joy, anger – but opera can be subtle as well as showy.

What is your favourite opera?
I’ve many favourites, but ultimately it is a close run thing between Verdi’s Don Carlos and Britten’s Peter Grimes.

And what would you take a first-timer to?
Almost any Janáček opera – real stories, real characters, great music. Or La Bohème is ideal – it’s subject is universal, emotionally powerful, visceral and it contains some of the most beautiful music ever written for the stage.

Kasper Holten, director of opera, Royal Opera House

When I meet people who say they don’t like opera, it turns out nine out of 10 haven’t ever actually seen one. “Isn’t opera where they sing ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’ or ‘I am dying, I am dying, I die now’ – and it takes them 10 minutes to do so?” I get asked. To express something about love or death in 10 minutes is fast! These are emotions we struggle with our whole lives. In opera we spend time on what matters in life: the big emotional peaks and abysses. Opera is the world’s first multimedia. Through the combination of music and theatre, we can identify with characters, but then – when they feel love, despair, loneliness, fear, hope, jealousy – stop time and explore these moments further through music and movement, finding a language for the emotions it can be difficult to talk about, although they define our lives. Opera can make us see, feel and hear the world differently, and remind us about being in touch with the things beneath the surface, the things that really matter.

Favourite opera
Impossible. But Don Giovanni.

Best for a first-timer?
Totally depends on who you are. Don Giovanni, La traviata, Die Walküre or Wozzeck.

Oliver Mears, artistic director, Northern Ireland Opera

Opera is important because it is totally unfeasible. In its lack of deference to economic realities, it signifies that at least not all art can be commodified or rationalised. In scale and cost it is the most excessive of all art forms, and in the totality of its artistic claims, is the most ambitious. The demands on its practitioners, too, are excessive. Music, singing, staging, design and acting must marry seemlessly with each other, it needs copious resources of talent and money, meticulous administrative planning and highly complex technical execution.

At least dozens and often hundreds of people play a critical role in delivering each live performance, so the stakes are high. Why do they do it, and why do people go to it? Because the combination of great music and great drama can move people to an almost physical extent. Because this combination has the potential to get under your skin more than any other art form. At its worst, opera can be alienating, boring and irrelevant. But when everything works, can there be anything more captivating or more thrilling?

Favourite opera
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

Best for a first-timer?

James Conway, general director, English Touring Opera

Good opera is important if it makes people feel something (other than indignation, or disappointment!). It is especially important if those feelings incline people to higher aspiration, greater sympathy, or more profound self-knowledge. It also has an historical voice and can be historically expressive. I think of Simon Boccanegra – a profound expression of Italian political history – or the opera I’ve worked on most recently, Tippett’s King Priam. Though apparently austere, the latter ravishes the willing spectator and involves them in a consideration of choice and violence, in a kind of history-forming that is particularly postwar in sensibility. I wish there was an English verb for the French “assister”. For someone who accepts the offer to “assist” (attend/witness/be present at) at an opera, in exchange for the price of admission, the rewards can be heady and transformative.

Favourite opera
Currently, Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride or Handel’s Tamerlano.

Best for a first-timer
A new, or at least a newish, opera. Every new opera represents a chance for a living art form.

David Pountney, artistic director, Welsh National Opera

Opera is the embodiment of an essential human instinct: telling stories through music. It links modern, liberal intellectual and artistic culture with our primitive ritualistic origins. Since the principal language of opera is music, and music is essentially an abstract language, it cannot be a tool for explicit political or even emotional ideas, but it does express emotional and imaginative truths that lie behind material realities. And because the experience of it is communal, it is one of the essential ways in which society can express the imaginative and emotional truths about itself which are frequently more important than the material realities. At the opera we experience emotional and imaginative truths not in private, as we may do with a poem, but in the company of strangers with whom we tacitly share these profound and transformative cultural experiences. That is an essential part of our civilised, democratic culture. Finally, opera as the most international of cultural genres is the art-form which most reminds us that even the British are part of a great European tradition of imaginative endeavour. It is in all these respects a vital tool and a barometer of our social civilisation.

Favourite opera
Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen.

Best for a first-timer
Any! A first-timer is by definition innocent of prejudice. It is people who think they know about opera who are sometimes affected by prejudice.

Alex Reedijk, general director, Scottish Opera

Quite simply, opera is the stuff of life. It is the ultimate expression through live performance of the human condition, of all that we feel, fear and care about. Storytelling is a fundamental human need, and there is nothing that can beat opera as a way of telling the stories that need telling, the stories that help us to understand what it is to be human. The combination of music, singing and drama creates a full experience with unparalleled power to move. At its best it is truly exhilarating. We all possess the means to enjoy it – the emotional equipment to appreciate it – but it does require concentration. It challenges you to engage but, as with all the good things in life, the more you immerse yourself the more rewarding it is. It can feel hard to get started on that journey, and that’s why it’s important that we who make opera take every opportunity to reduce barriers, demythologise, and demystify what it’s all about. We’re under no illusion that everyone will love it as we do, but we want everyone to feel welcome to come and try it.

Favourite opera
I am a huge fan of Janáček’s operas – the drama, musicality and sheer intensity of the experience.

Best for a first-timer
I think Madama Butterfly is a great place to start. The themes and the story of the opera are so real and universal that even if you don’t understand the words you can feel what’s happening through the emotion created by the music.

John Berry, artistic director, English National Opera

Of all art forms opera feels the most complete. The combination of music, words and drama can tell stories in such a powerful and extraordinary way that the most agnostic sceptic can feel excited and exhilarated. I’ve seen opera work its magic many, many times, not just with audiences but within my own organisation which is full of talented people from different walks of life working together under one roof. Opera seems to attract immensely gifted and extremely interesting people, everyone understands the challenges of working towards a first night to give a new production, or a completely new piece the chance to fly.

Favourite opera
Peter Grimes is, for me, perfection. Britten’s unique musical voice and incredible vocal writing has the potential to change people’s lives; I will never get tired of listening to his stage works.

Best for a first-timer
Janáček’sKatya Kabanovaor Jenůfa. Short, concise storytelling as brutal and impactful as the great 60s and 70s kitchen-sink television dramas. Music which touches the soul and pins you to your chair, characters we can feel for and build an emotional connection. It doesn’t get better than a brilliant production of Janáček. / May 9, 2014

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