Donizetti’s birthplace of Bergamo, basking in autumnal sunshine, with its vital and hospitable festival, provided the perfect setting for the joyful reunion of 240 colleagues after too long an isolation. The conference themes of Renewal and Responsibility were explored from several angles, with managerial expertise balanced by the voices of artists and the active participation of 21 young delegates from our new Opera Management Course. Members appreciated the value of direct in-person contact, which encouraged questioning and honest responses, which in turn nurtured trust and a sense of belonging to a common cause greater than any individual theatre’s survival.
The period after World War One was called the Age of Anxiety. Yet it also gave birth to a decade of extraordinary cultural creativity during the 1920s. The Salzburg Festival claimed a mission to offer harmony in a broken world. The opening production, and the festival’s abiding symbol, was Hofmannsthal’s version of Everyman.
After World War Two, W H Auden wrote a long poem The Age of Anxiety, which inspired Leonard Bernstein’s second symphony, to which the composer gave the same title. In the same year 1947 that Auden published his poem, the Aix-en-Provence and Edinburgh International Festivals were launched. They represented a peace dividend; art as a symbol of renewal. For many years the Edinburgh Festival’s logo was a Jean Cocteau drawing of white doves.
A century and half a century later we are reliving a pandemic-inspired age of anxiety. The fear this time is that art may see itself as the victim rather than the cure. The questioning of inherited, and in some cases discredited, models which we heard at our conference in Bergamo is healthy. It is overdue that we should seek to become more inclusive and sustainable and less hierarchical than in the past. Artists should voice their concerns about the future of their profession. They have good reason to be anxious.
But it is not enough to diagnose the ills of society and the culture that reflects it. The task of the next year or two is to initiate reforms which transform the opera sector. That is why we are working together with the philanthropic circle FEDORA on the three pillars of Next Stage; and why our extensive programme for the year 2022 will unravel and seek to find remedies for the concerns which beset both artists and managers. How may opera companies better relate to audiences, both old and new? How far should the business model evolve? How will a wider cross-section of society learn to like opera?
Anxiety is stressful, but it can make us creative.