Opera and the future of Europe by Bernard Foccroulle

At Opera Europa’s spring conference in Vienna, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, addressed European opera directors thus: ‘Over the centuries opera has been a cement that bound Europe together; today Europe needs artists and intellectuals to help us write a new page of its ‘history’. This begs several questions: How to identify the great lines of a common project that will develop over the next decades? What will art, and in particular opera, contribute?

Nowadays festival and opera directors are preoccupied with the consequences of a crisis the scope of which is probably deeper than we want to acknowledge. In addition to the difficult economic climate, they have to deal with the rapid degradation of the environment, social tensions and wars, as well as a growing difficulty to master everything at once. Should we still think of the ‘crisis’ as one that could possibly resolve and subsequently return us to a state comparable to what we have known before? Or should we not rather think of it as a period of profound mutation that demands we take risks and grab the opportunities it throws at us.

In Italy and other European countries, opera houses are on the brink of bankruptcy. This is due not only to the drastic budgetary cuts of recent years but also more generally to a misunderstanding of the deep changes that are affecting us: To maintain a status quo does not make sense anymore today!

Only by changing our cultural institutions, by channelling their focus on creation (in the broadest sense of the word), by reaching out to new audiences and by developing new ways to involve them can we gather strength and face the new challenges of globalisation.

Europe is teeming with artists who actively take part in this mutation. From Palermo to Helsinki, Madrid to Riga, many opera houses display an impressive array of creativity. There are also examples of cultural institutions that transformed and regenerated over recent years: Tate Modern, the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, as well as festivals, theatre and dance companies. They show how it is possible to adopt strategies that overcome the crisis, explore new economic models and open new ways to combine high artistic ambition with healthy management.

Dialogue between cultures is one of the new challenges we have to take up, as too often our cultural institutions lack the means to address this issue, more than marginally. In a globalised world, is this form of isolation a viable solution? Is it not on the contrary our duty to invent new modes of relating between artists coming from different horizons and between cultural tradition and innovation? Should we not reconsider the relationship between Europe and the Mediterranean in terms of artistic creation, cultural exchange, training and the travelling of (young) artists and productions?

Opera, with its rich European heritage, will only continue to make sense if it opens up to new cultures. European opera, withdrawn and turned in on its pasts, would very quickly loose its impact. But input of artists coming from other horizons as well as cultural blending and circulation will make it all the more creative and relevant in the 21st century. Creations by George Benjamin and Pascal Dusapin, Patrice Chéreau and Michaël Hanneke, Katie Mitchell, Anne-Teresa De Keersmaeker, William Kentridge and many others invite us to rethink our relationship to nature, the other gender, other cultures, our own history, the everyday as well as faraway or virtual realities…. Exposure to these new forms of creation can change our relationship to the world.

More than ever, we need to open up boundaries. Schools and the education system for instance demand artistic presence and practices: an artist in residence in a school holds the promise of a more creative and efficient form of teaching. Cultural institutions can gain by working in partnership with educational organisations to devise innovative collaborations with business sponsors at large.

For years, I have been following the work of artists who, like Thierry Thieu Niang, have established new bonds with children, adolescents, the elderly, autistic people, prisoners, as well as women and children from immigrant communities. His projects are not only exemplary artistic creations in their own right; they also elicit a feeling of dignity regained. Opera and artistic practices have a role to play in enhancing citizenship and fighting against social exclusion.

The ‘crisis’ no doubt represents a threat to many cultural institutions across Europe. In France and in Europe we are fortunate to have a tradition of cultural heritage and innovation which should be seen as a long-term investment. In our cities, opera houses do contribute directly to the vitality of local business. A recent study of the economic impact of the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence has highlighted how one euro invested by public authorities yields a 10 euros return.

In his essay, ‘The deregulation of the world’, Amin Maalouf writes: ‘To consider culture as a domain like any other, as a means to enhance the quality of one’s life as it is for a certain category of people, is to live in the wrong century or in the wrong millenary even. Today the role of culture is to provide our contemporaries with the intellectual and moral tools that will allow them to survive, and nothing less than that’.

Too often, short-term vision prevails. Yet, is this short-term vision not the main cause for many of the ills that plague the planet today? Whether in the domain of finance, environment, education or culture, only long-term vision can bring the answers we need.


Bernard Foccroulle
Director of the Festival International d’Art lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence
2013 European Cultural Ambassador