Text messaging to gather crowds

Enrique Sacau
viernes, 24 de abril de 2009
0,0013613 Elaine Padmore has had a dream career for someone passionate about music. She has been a performer (both a pianist and singer), an editor at Oxford University Press, a radio broadcaster, director of opera for the BBC and then artistic director of the Wexford Opera Festival before becoming Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House. Having made her way to the top with stopovers everywhere else she comes across as a very seasoned, solid, down-to-earth professional. Indeed, when I met Padmore at her office during the Easter break I was confronted with a strong personality, but not an impossible ego. A welcome difference between her and some of her continental colleagues of the Mortier, Lissner breed, one might say. The conversation flowed naturally and was particularly focused upon the need both for high artistic standards and for general audience approval. The gossip-hungry opera world, however, was our first stop.

Mundoclasico: People are not that gossipy when it comes to conductors; it’s singers they want to know about. Opera buffs, always the same ones into which you bump at every major theatre in the world, trade this information like gold.

Elaine Padmore: Indeed. Everyone’s favourite part of Opera Magazine is the section “We hear that…”. And yes, it’s always the same people. I was in Berlin on Saturday and they were all there! There was a new Lohengrin by Stephan Herheim, very good actually.

MC: You go to Berlin, amongst other places, to see these new productions. But it’s not only you choosing and picking. We have Peter Katona, casting director, Antonio Pappano, artistic director. And yet there is Tony Hall, who runs the Royal Opera House. Who does what at the Royal Opera?

EP: The Royal Opera House is home to the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera. Tony Hall sits on top of both groups. At the Royal Opera, Peter, Antonio and I do everything together and it’s difficult to say who chooses what. Antonio, as music director, has of course the last word and gets to choose which new productions he is going to conduct. [Padmore shows me a piece of paper] This is the planning sheet for 2013-14 and the first thing we get in there is the list of operas Antonio is going to do himself. He gets his slots in there first. In all we work very, very closely together.

MC: And after his slots, what happens next? Do you choose the titles or the singers?

EP: We are very much an artist-led house. Of course we balance the season as well as we possibly can with a range of baroque and modern operas and all the steps in between. Just as we start with the music director then we discuss which big artists we want to get here. If we want Plácido Domingo, Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu or Bryn Terfel we get the times of those artists and the projects we want to do with them. Some of the titles get chosen because we want, let’s say, Bryn to sing Wotan. Then we do partnering with other opera houses, since we do a lot of co-producing. We talk to producers and we agree on what she or he would like to do and whether we can persuade other opera houses to work together with us. And thus the puzzle is pieced together.

MC: I imagine this activity involves a fair amount of travelling.

EP: Indeed. Antonio travels less, as he spends here six months a year; he has his orchestra in Rome, of course. And that’s the way he hears a lot of artists. Peter and I do travel a lot, go to many festivals and see new productions. We also have auditions here every fortnight.

MC: Not a terrible job to do…

EP: Not terrible, no! This season’s Die Tote Stadt was borrowed from Salzburg. We do a bit cherry-picking here and there.

MC: How does it work with new productions? How do you make your choices? Covent Garden seems to have found the balance between being audience-friendly and yet putting on aesthetically modern shows, half-way between the traditional American and the avant-garde German approaches.

EP: There’s a particular range of directors that we have been working with quite a lot. David McVicar is an obvious example. He made his debut with Rigoletto and then has come back several times. His is the kind of thing we like best because he is very aware of musical values and has a fantastic dramatic intelligence and ability to shock slightly without deviating too much from the text. He is also capable of getting opera singers to act (as he’s himself an actor). We are not too keen on “Konceptual” opera productions with capital K, although we have a few. Christoph Loy for example is doing a number of things: he did Ariadne auf Naxos and is about to do new productions of Lulu and Tristan und Isolde. We like to have a broad portfolio of productions: some will be more traditional than others. In fact, we still have a few of our older productions by people who were cutting edge in their time, like Elijah Moshinsky. Right now we have his Trovatore, Lohengrin, Simon Boccanegra… We are doing Boccanegra with Domingo next season! These are classic productions: old style but not boring. Moshinsky comes every time for the revivals and introduces new elements. We don’t have a house style that firmly plumps people down and we don’t want this place to become a museum.

MC: It is obvious to the audience that the house tries to find the balance I referred to before. In that sense, Jonathan Kent’s new production of Tosca in 2005 was a surprise as it seemed to look as old as the one by Franco Zeffirelli that it wanted to replace.

EP: Look, we were doing that around a particular artist. The old Tosca was sold to Chicago; it had been sung by all the greatest divas. Then you reach a point when no one who has ever worked on it is working or even alive. It had been reproduced by many talented house assistants, of course, but then you decide to make a particular production for a particular singer and it was going to be Antonio conducting Angela [Gheorghiu] and Bryn [Terfel]. Certain artists almost dictate what they want. And if you want those artists you know you cannot stage the opera in 1930s Italy with Mussolini, etc. Our desire to replace Zeffirelli’s production did not stem from us wanting to do something radically different, although it looks very different. It’s still a classic Tosca.

Quite frankly, there are some titles with which you need to be bankable, you need to know that you will have them for many years because the audience wants them and because singers will be willing to sing that production. You cannot afford to put on too many productions that singers will not be willing to do. Together with Brussels, for example, we put on a new production of Aida by Robert Wilson. Olga Borodina was meant to sing: she arrived, she lasted half-an-hour and then she said goodbye. We can’t afford that.

MC: Wilson’s Aida was done in Rome last month and the booing was unbelievable.

EP: And yet, it has been done three times in Brussels to great success. They think it’s wonderful. It’s a terrible amount of money when you really can’t revive it. For certain operas we want something traditional, not boring. Let’s say classic. Richard Eyre’s La traviata is one example. People adore it. We have plenty of opportunities to experiment a bit more, with Wozzecks and Lulus and in general new titles where we can push the boundaries stylistically.

MC: And on the subject of Aida, there’s a new one next year by David McVicar.

EP: There is a new Aida. It’s not going to be particularly Egyptian, but it will be mythic. We are going to feel that it is a story of ancient civilization, but not a story of mummies and pharaohs and elephants. It will be what the drama is really about: conquering, defeating people, suffering, jealousy…

MC: It’s a famously difficult opera because very little happens.

EP: That’s right. We felt we needed a new one, instead of reviving Wilson’s which had some very good things. The lighting was absolutely exquisite. And he is wonderful to work with.

MC: The same audience who didn’t like Wilson’s Aida liked Keith Warner’s Wozzeck very much.

EP: Yes. Keith, who did also our Ring, put together a dramatically powerful Wozzeck. It was absolutely brilliant and very different from Wilson’s Aida, which didn’t go down well with the London audience.

MC: Pleasing that audience, filling the House, is a priority, of course. What happens when you have a double bill like Willy Decker’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung and tickets have to be given away for free or reduced dramatically?

EP: These are priced differently, like Lulu or Pelleas et Melisande. You know they are not going to sell out the way Tosca does. Perhaps part of our traditional audience might not be interested in coming to those. Often a younger audience comes to these things. When I was younger I wasn’t interested in Trovatore or Aida! First thing I saw here was Moses und Aaron and I loved it! It was just amazing. And there’s a whole layer of people who starts from that and become opera goers.

We have done a lot of research on who is the audience, what they want and there are lots of different audiences. We try to have different segments of the repertoire for different people. I would defend our right to do things that will not make money, but we have to put together a carefully balanced season. If you like doing Lulu or Die Tote Stadt the ‘penance’, if you like, is to do sixteen Turandots.

Since the time of the double bill we have become tremendously efficient at getting a last-minute audience. We text students, for example. Many are signed up to get information on last-minute price reductions and then they text their friends. We also send emails, of course, so you no longer find large numbers of empty seats.

Text messaging to gather crowds? It’s very modern!

EP: It’s not only the last-minute texting. It’s also that we know which performances our audiences have attended in the past and therefore we can specifically target them without spamming. This way we can plan for those performances that sell slowly. Instead of sending long emails to everyone, we know which emails we send to which member of the audience.

MC: You do like Amazon, then. The website knows what you bought in the past and comes up with recommendations for you.

EP: It is exactly that. We email specifically people who will like this or that opera.

MC: You feel doing these more modern operas as a right, as you said before, or as a duty?

EP: We absolutely should carry on doing these less popular operas as they offer us great artistic enrichment. We want to go beyond the great masterpieces of all times. And we enjoy commissioning new works too and are trying to do a new opera every other year.

MC: Operas like Thomas Ades’s The Tempest have been a hit.

EP: And Sir Harrison Birthwhistle’s The Minotaur as well. We’re doing it again in 2012. And The Tempest, which has already been revived, will come back as well at some point.

MC: It seems almost natural now that we’ve discussed the box office and the audience to talk about the current crisis. How is it affecting the Royal Opera House with many new productions next season?

EP: In general we feel we have to be a little more careful with our expenses. But the box office is holding up remarkably well. People might be booking a bit later, but in the end it’s always full. We must always have at least 90% of the theatre full; we can’t afford to have less than that. And we make it work by targeting audiences, getting new sponsors, etc. We’re lucky to live in London and to have a fantastic development department which is very good at finding sponsors and bringing in new possibilities. We seem to be attractive enough. So far, so good.

MC: Is state sponsorship not at risk?

EP: Who knows. But our agreement lasts until 2011. In any case, what we get from the state is less than a third of our budget so we have to work harder selling DVDs and generally pushing forward on all fronts to find new sources of income.

MC: If the time to tighten the opera houses belts came, who would foot the bill? Would there be fewer new productions?

EP: The thing we least want to touch is the art because that’s what people come here for and they don’t want to see an empty stage. At the National Theatre you can do a play with two men sitting at a table. Here people don’t want a bare stage; people come here for the big spectacle, the big event. We have to be really canny in the way we do it. Audiences generally don’t know whether things are co-produced or rented. I’m sure this cooperation will grow as most opera houses are feeling the pinch to work together. It’s terribly wasteful to create new shows just for yourself. Otherwise, every department is much more thoughtful about expenses, budgeting and re-budgeting to make sure that we don’t waste money. We don’t know what may happen but we’re trying to be prepared.

MC: Will this affect the singers who earn enormous salaries?

EP: I don’t know. I hear Peter Gelb is trying to pay singers less at the Met. Singers are not expecting any kind of big increase at the moment. It would be unrealistic. We have to be as frugal and sensible as we possibly can.

MC: Opera houses are registered charities and some I wonder how it is possible that singers and artists in general get such high salaries from them, salaries that cannot be paid for by meagre box-office returns.

EP: True, we are charities. But this is not just an opera problem. I hear Jose Tomás is not appearing at Las Ventas this spring because they refused to pay him what he wanted.

MC: Las Ventas is to bullfights what Covent Garden is to the opera world. Can you just say no to the artists’ requests? They will have to come anyway.

EP: I hope that’s true. They know they have to appear in London. As you know, opera houses very much talk to each other about fees and contracts and we will not pay anybody more than anybody else does. Otherwise it would be hopelessly competitive; it would be wrong to spend so much money. Already we have to charge a lot of money for certain opera tickets: there are five operas in the season for which we have premium tickets at over 200 pounds (€220); but we always leave 1,000 seats at 50 pounds or less.

MC: They all see the same show which means that somehow people paying over 200 pounds are subsidising the cheap tickets.

EP: Absolutely. We are tremendously grateful to those who are willing to spend so much on us and are helping us to cut back on the prices of cheap tickets.

MC: There are also restaurants, bars and a shop at the house.

EP: The catering is outsourced and that is a business relationship. They pay a percentage of what they make to the Royal Opera House. We own the shop, which is part of our commercial arm, like the DVD label.

MC: A DVD label that is selling very well.

EP: It is doing extremely well. We do four or five a year of our productions. We are also having considerable success not just showing live performances at the cinema, but also showing our DVDs. Our Carmen has been shown at a number of cinemas of the Odeon chain and scores of people attended.

MC: And next season’s highlights?

EP: Many highlights I think. Christoph Loy’s new production of Tristan und Isolde with Ben Heppner, Matti Salminen and Nina Stemme; Sergei Prokofiev’s The Gambler; the new Aida; the new Manon by Roland Pelly (who greatly succeeded with Donizetti’s La fille du regiment, which is to be revived) starring Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón; Domingo twice (once as Boccanegra and once as Tamerlano)…

MC: And no recitals…

EP: A few years ago we launched a Sunday night recital series together with IMG to get their big stars, but it didn’t work. We had Cecilia Bartoli, Terfel, Thomas Hampson… They were half full. There are many places in London where people go to recitals and the Royal Opera is not one of them. We have one recital in June with Villazón and Pappano, but as a series it doesn’t work. The big problem for us is also that we need every minute of stage time we get to rehearse. Adding extra activity is well and good but not if it’s digging into what we need. And what we need on a Sunday probably is to do technical work, as we do around 160 opera nights and 135 ballet nights. 300 altogether! It’s a busy stage.

MC: And to give in to the temptation of gossip before we finish, after 5 years Roberto Alagna is back.

EP: He is and in good voice for Trovatore.

MC: Why this absence since Faust in 2004?

EP: We had a number of projects that fell through, one of which was Francesca Zambello’s Carmen originally planned for Alagna and finally sung by Jonas Kaufmann. Alagna was then invited to sing Radames at La Scala. We are very pleased to have him back.

MC: Kauffman was a great Don Jose, as the DVD witnesses, and Alagna’s Radames at La Scala ended in catastrophe…

EP: That Carmen was terrific.
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