Académie Published on 28/06/2021
Shirley Apthorp — Willem Bruls
© DR

In June and July 2021, the Festival d’Aix wakes up after a season transformed into a digital event due to the global pandemic that forced the cancellation of summer festivals. However, it seems that this awakening is also the one of a critical look on the art form that is opera and its role in the cultural landscape in France, abroad, and in society. In this post-pandemic world, art and artists seem to be essential again, but at the cost of a wounded pride, whose recovery will find its virtues only in the reconstruction of a common narrative within the society. Today, the world of opera is still there: it inspires dreams and helps us turn the page of sixteen months of a crisis that has gone through us all; but it is also, and perhaps most importantly, a world which has everything to be challenged. So, in this context, the journalistic word about opera finds itself caught in this ambivalence.

The Académie du Festival d’Aix offers since 2019, and for the second time, a workshop dedicated to Cultural Journalism that takes opera as an object. South-African journalist Shirley Apthorp and Dutch dramaturge lead this workshop together.

— How would you describe opera journalism today? How does it differ from journalism that focus on other forms of performing arts?

Shirley Apthorp: A colleague of mine once achieved a record number of clicks on an arts round-up for Berlin which managed to bring together lesbians, Nazis and hedge funds in the headlines. In a society where value is increasingly measured in terms of numbers of clicks, opera journalism is a doomed  profession. Opera is an expensive art-form; serious opera journalism also demands an ability to travel and time to reflect. Who can afford that these days? Certainly not newspapers. Specialist publications are run on diminishing budgets and depend increasingly on ill-paid or free journalism. That makes them even harder to read. Instead, like football clubs who run their own media channels, opera houses are beginning to produce their own “content”. By its nature, this is promotion, and not objective commentary. Theatre and dance journalism face similar challenges; visual arts journalism has carved its own corner though the perceived “big market” aspect - visual art is viewed as a commodity and therefore tends to generate a little more paid media space than the performing arts.

Willem Bruls: Opera criticism and cultural journalism in general are in a state of crisis. This crisis is double: first of all the media are changing drastically. Fewer en fewer people read paper newspapers, newspaper editors have less space and smaller budgets for reviews, criticism and reflection. New sorts of media emerge: online magazines, blogs, podcasts, etcetera. These media do not automatically attain the quality of the previous printed press. Secondly, together with the above mentioned development, an erosion of authority and connoisseurship took place in the last decades. The judgment of the critic is not being taken for granted anymore. Everyone seems to be an expert online. With the consequence that the way editors filtered and adapted content on the basis of quality, fairness, truth and facts, is completely absent online: “My opinions are facts, with or without alternative truths…” These developments also created a flipside. Opera criticism is now very often an extension of marketing strategies of companies and institutions, because of the lack of media attention and the vulnerability of public judgments. I do not think that there is a big difference with the other performing arts. The main difference is something else: opera is complex and expensive and requires big institutional organizations. The art form and its institutions are, in the currents of contemporary populisms, not being taken for granted anymore. Many consider opera as an elitist art, more than the other performing arts.

— Considering the situation of opera journalism today and the stakes of opera as an artistic form, what leads you to make it a subject for a residency that address young journalists?

W.B: As said above, young generation of journalists has to be aware of all these changes of the position of art, opera, criticism and all the new ways and media to express their opinions. They have to understand the context of it. It is a bit the same for the opera as an art form. There used to be a conventional approach of classical stagings. But after decades of opening up the art for renewal on every level – staging, style of singing, orchestral interpretation and use of period instruments, broadening of the repertoire – the question is: how to move on in a new era? In a post-pandemic, economically and socially fragile environment. Sheer avant-garde and superior quality won’t answer our questions anymore.

S.A: Sometimes it feels like re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. What is the point of training young people for a professional that is already almost dead? But the entire world of media is shifting dramatically, as social media, livestreams, blogs and podcasts move increasingly into the foreground. The Pandemic has catapulted the world of live performance into a similarly liminal, fragile state. None of the old certainties hold. Zoom and Amazon get richer, software companies rake in money, and artists have to get jobs stacking shelves in supermarkets to survive. Can we move fast enough to catch the changing world? A young generation will re-invent its own media for the future. It is essential to equip them with the tools they will need to approach this in an informed way.

— What are the objectives of this residency?

S.A: Of course, you cannot produce a fully formed cultural journalist in the space of one week. But you can flick a light-switch here and there, challenge preconceptions, provoke and plant seeds. Simply being in the rich environment of the Aix-en-Provence Festival is a fantastically enriching experience for any young writer. To then be able to exchange experiences and impressions with peers and tutors creates the possibility to reflect and learn. Willem Bruls, the dramaturg of our little team, brings precisely the inside professional experience of an informed opera-maker, along with his remarkable erudition, to the process of reflecting upon opera. This adds insight and structure to the process. Willem teaches people to think deeper and search more for an informed understanding. As a journalist, I share his passion for depth and nuance, but I also bring a keen focus on the art of story-telling to the task. In the end, it doesn’t matter how well-written your article is, if nobody wants to read it.

— Could we speak of a « dramaturgical approach to criticism”?

W.B: Generally, many current critics have a "niche" to judge a performance: voices, composers, staging, etc. Few see the complexity of the art form in its totality, the contemporary developments of staging and the socio-cultural context of inclusion, equality and emancipation. This, together with the new media, poses a lot of challenges. We have to re-invent ourselves as critics. And we have to reflect more carefully on three questions: why do we make opera, which opera do we make, and for whom? That’s the dramaturgical approach for me.

— What opportunities does the Festival d’Aix 2021 program offer to this residency?

W.B: First of all the interesting repertoire of the festival, with classical masterpieces and new compositions. Secondly, the interesting artistic teams - often from outside the world of opera - and interesting artists as singers and conductors. In a non-pandemic world the most beautiful element of the Festival d’Aix and Académie workshops is the encounter of all people involved in it and the exchange of ideas on all levels. Unfortunately, this will be much less possible this year because of the santary protocols that regulates the festival organization.

S.A: It’s a little bit like winning a ticket in the lottery. Our students get to attend all the major dress-rehearsals of the Festival’s major productions, which is in itself a potentially life-changing opportunity. Then the Académie supports the programme with a formidable infrastructure and touching attention to detail, providing interesting interview subjects and an ideal space to think, talk, and work. And did I mention that the weather is always superb?

— This residency brings together eight young journalists coming from seven different countries (Russia, Canada, Czech Republic, Netherlands, France, Poland and Germany): why is it interesting?

S.A: This question kind of answers itself. We expect our students to learn as much from each other as they do from us. They’ll see other ways of looking at the same production, and also other approaches to opera-making and journalism. They’ll establish contacts and form networks that will be part of creating an internationally -aware profession for the future. Opera is an international business, and the best way to learn about it is in an international context. In a perfect world we would all travel to each of these countries; in the mean time, having them all come together in Aix is a marvellous compromise.

W.B: Every continent and every country has its own personal cultural identity. Opera in Russia is on many levels different from opera in Canada. As is opera criticism. Europe is a cultural patchwork and that represents its richness. Only the encounter with people who approach the art of opera and the way of writing about it differently can enrich our own understanding.

—How will you approach the place of cultural journalism in a period of great media change?

W.B: As I said in the answer to the first question, the new media are one of the biggest challenges for the future of high level cultural journalism. The evolution is even triple: technical innovations with new media, social change through populism and economical uncertainty, and the post-pandemic world. This last element will change our habits of consuming performing arts. This has to be investigated and taken into account with any possible new cultural journalism. Only the can we proceed into an art form that does not exclude people but invites them to participate.

S.A: Think of finding an old piece of clothing that no longer fits you (some of us got a bit fatter during the pandemic!). Do you throw it out in the trash? Do you give it to someone who might be able to use it? Do you get creative and upcycle it into a funky new garment? Do you go shopping for something that fits you better? Do you start your own fashion label? There are so many ways to look at renewal. And the best way of looking is to find multi-generational, diverse perspectives. Our students are often one step ahead of us in the world of new media (Willem and I still use Facebook, and would probably go to the doctor if we thought we had been bitten by a Tik Tok, or got a finger stuck in a snapchat); but the combination of our experience with the knowledge and insights brought by digital natives is a fruitful context for renewal.  What we hope to communicate is that whatever the platform, there is no substitute for a profound and vibrant understanding of opera itself - who made it, where and when and how, and WHY do we do it today? What works and what doesn’t? Why? What, when we have discovered all these things, is the message? As the world around us changes, we believe it is possible to preserve excellence.

Remarks compiled by Paul Briottet in June 2021

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