(2) // opera vs the commodity form //

In my previous post, I discussed a recent conference for new opera creators, hosted by Sound and Music with the Royal Opera House. I attempted to outline what I perceived as a particular set of assumptions about how new opera creation should be approached, which I termed ‘the ideology of opera creation’. Along with an emphasis on the ‘collaborative’ nature of opera, one of the key aspects of this ideology was a location of a  new production’s success and value within its creative process, rather than in the critical/revolutionary potential of the work itself, or in its ‘truth’ (however that may be understood). In this post I will unpack this idea further, particularly in relation to Sound and Music itself, to ‘official’ culture, and to the question of whether or not opera is a commodity . . . . . .

I do understand why the Stage Notes conference focused on process rather than product. Sound and Music is a public-funded organisations that does a lot of work within a kind of ‘apprenticeship’ model, encouraging young and emerging ‘cultural’ or ‘creative’ workers, creating performance and collaboration opportunities, and helping to expand their ‘skill sets’ and networks at the start of their careers. This is particularly apparent in its ‘Sounding Out’ series of discussions ‘providing insights into professional practice across new music and sound’.

As part of the Sounding Out series, the conference aimed to dispense the creative equivalent of practical vocational guidance; it certainly isn’t the intention of Sound and Music to prescribe what kind of opera needs to be made (even though in practice, as an important funding body, that is exactly what they do). Instead, the focus of initiatives like the Stage Notes conference is to hone the skills of a new generation of producers, so that whatever happens, new work continues to be made (and ‘good-quality’, successful new work which continues to attract audiences, sell tickets, maybe get more people interested in the art form, and thereby optimise conditions for its future reproduction (for economic, social or spiritual reasons, depending on whom you ask)).

Against Opera as Creative Process

Foregrounding the importance of ‘making new opera’ – of ameliorating the process of opera creation – has its obvious benefits for all sorts of societies. It creates an arena for cooperation, for individual creative expression, for the formulation of common aesthetic languages which might come to symbolise communities. Opening up access to these activities might give a greater number of people the chance to feel part of a communal project, to explore the limits of their own subjectivities in dialogue and performance, and to engage with a shared historic narrative or shared structures of empathy through commonly recognised affective archetypes.

But this process also creates value for the culture and tourist industries, it helps sell the ‘creativity’ of cities or countries to investors, it stockpiles and safeguards cultural capital, and it bolsters divisive and dominating mythologies of ‘high vs. low art’, of creative genius and masterworks. This process establishes opera and performative arts as an invitation to jouissance, in which audiences and artists alike escape into the endless creative possibilities prescribed by the fully-rationalised artform-as-industry. We hear these arguments rehearsed constantly in the papers and in parliament, as our last, sad, rationalised excuses for funding the arts. Ironically we rely on these hypocritical, reductionist arguments to maintain access to any resources for our work, especially resources that come from ostensibly ‘neutral’ state funding.

The ‘creative industries’, especially when combined with the mollifying practice of ‘access and outreach’, serve a vital purpose in giving us the impression that we live in a free society in which everyone is free to express themselves creatively, and that this doesn’t contradict capitalism (but, if anything, is enabled through capitalism). Many would argue that, nevertheless, individual and collective agency allows such creative practice to be resistant, but very often this very resistance is taken as proof of our fundamental freedom, and therefore our satisfaction with the present system (because, if we were really free and weren’t satisfied, then we would easily be able to change things). Moreover, the kinds of skills and abilities that are developed in this creative process, and are cultivated in ‘creative apprenticeship’ initiatives (designed to develop the skills of creative workers), are currently being co-opted by capitalism at an incredible rate and used to design new products, conceive new marketing campaigns, and innovate new technological ‘fixes’ by which profits can be maximised.

[THIS ARTICLE on ‘creative capitalism’ describes this phenomenon flawlessly.]

All this is to say that, when talking about the process of making new opera vs. the product – qualities of the new operas themselves – it is the process which is most at risk of co-option, of feeding capitalism and thereby smothering opera’s overall critical function. In a perfect world – which, for me, would be a world without property or money, a world in which resources are distributed equally and in which the power of technology and automation is harnessed in order to maximise the comfort and freedom of the whole world – there would be no need for critical, revolutionary art. We’d be free to jouir to our hearts’ content, to make works which investigate the beauty of nature, science and love, and to just enjoy the satisfaction of creating, individually and together. All children would  play in orchestras or steel drum bands or gamelans, and we’d spend our evenings teaching each other dance, filmmaking and poetry.

However, in an imperfect world, it is art’s privilege, freedom and responsibility to critique, to make visible or audible those terrible or urgent truths which may have remained hidden, and to unite people through the shared recognition of messages and ideas inexpressible in the rationalised language of ‘official’ discourse. Obviously, in the ‘official’ government arts policy’s focus on process over product, we can perceive their standard line that there is no need to change anything. The UK is a ‘developed’ country, while the ‘end of history’ proved capitalism right. The only possible things for official art to ‘say’ now are things that our ruling liberal-democratic ideology already acknowledges: that racism and homophobia are bad, that recycling is good, that it’s good when foreign peoples topple dictators (especially if they then introduce secular democracies and free trade), that new technologies mean new markets, and that we all need to be creative to pull ourselves out of the recession. With everyone on pretty much the same page, there are no great causes to fight. And this extends onto the battleground of aesthetics as well. Everything is valid now, everything is ‘art’ and everyone is getting on with their own thing. There’s no accounting for taste, of course, but still, to attack another style is to be insufficiently relativist and empathetic to aesthetic Others.

As Alain Badiou writes:

Convinced of controlling the entire extent of the visible and of the audible through commercial laws of marketing and the democratic laws of communication, contemporary power no longer needs censorship. It says: “Everything is possible.” Which also might mean that nothing is.

This is – and must be – the official ideology of contemporary arts policy in the UK. It is all rubbish, of course, but while process is elevated over product, it will be hard to challenge.

Ask not what you can do for opera – ask what opera can do for you

To escape from this rationalised apparatus of artistic creation – what Herbert Marcuse might have called ‘one-dimensional culture’ – we need to change the way we think about the work we create. In my opinion, what we should be moving away from is any creative process that starts with the following statements:

a) ‘x would make a great opera!’

b) ‘I/We really want to make an opera – what should it be about?’

These statements are couched in the idea that there is already ‘an opera’ or ‘a great opera’ to be made, which somehow precedes, or is separable from, its content and meaning.

More constructive initial approaches might include:

a) ‘I want to make a statement/capture an experience/tell a story that can only be done through opera’

b) ‘My/Our interpretation of this text/story/concept/situation would be best communicated through the combination of music, text and movement (and spectacle) onstage’

c) ‘Why aren’t there any operas about x?/How would one go about making an opera about x?’.

These are subtly but, I believe, fundamentally different approaches. In the first examples, the ideal result is pre-assumed – ‘an opera’ or even ‘a great/good/successful opera’ (by which we mean: something we’d all recognise as an opera, comparable to all the older operas which are very ‘operatic’ in their undeniable opera-ness) – and the interest is in how we get there, how we fill in the blanks in the template, customise it to make it seem new, etc. The latter examples understand ‘opera’ to mean the medium through which a new truth or perspective or idea is represented and communicated. The result is not ‘an opera’, assessable on its opera-ness, but a new artwork that requires the juxtaposition or interaction of text, music and theatre to reveal itself: something unique, distinct and new. And if the meaning of ‘opera’ or ‘great opera’ is changed or deconstructed along the way, so much the better.

In other words, the initial approach shouldn’t be:

would make a great opera!’

so much as:

‘Opera would make a great x!’

To commit to this approach would mean

to reaffirm the radical non-equivalency of the artistic ‘commodity’.

Commodities are exchangeable because their value (which Marx formulates as ‘socially necessary labour time’) is both equivalent and relative. This allows us to know how much a thing is ‘worth’ in relation to any other thing, and, with money as a temporary placeholder to relieve the sheer irrationality of the situation, we can exchange one thing for any other thing that is ‘worth’ the same, even if those two things are completely different in every way. In the rationalised capitalist conception of the ‘creative industries’, artistic work is seen as equivalent to labour – as an idealised form of labour even, which is currently being aped in the so-called ‘creative capitalist’ industries of design, marketing, media and technology. The artwork then becomes the equivalent to the commodity. In this way, a model of opera creation which takes the nature of ‘opera’ (or ‘good opera’) as read, and instead focuses on creative and innovative ways of producing this thing called opera (which will give the impression of ‘newness’ or ‘quality’, without losing its prescribed operaness), is pretty much the same as that of product design or branding. Such an analysis understands opera as fulfilling a certain function – catharsis, edification, escapism, etc. – just like all shampoos or sofas or mobile phones or brands of orange juice fulfil a certain function (or ‘use value’, in Marxist terms). The function of design and branding is then to differentiate these commodities superficially, so that:

(in capitalist production), people can choose between them as if they were fundamentally different things, thereby creating a market, meaning that more of the same commodity type will be consumed at a faster rate,

and (in opera), the impression of newness and innovation can be maintained while audiences will continue to return to the opera house for fundamentally the same reason, to consume the same experiences from superficially different productions.

I think there is a fair amount of truth in this analysis, especially when it comes to explaining the essentialising of opera as a particular set of experiences and responses which an audience expect and require from all visits to the opera house, even from brand new productions. But this all works fundamentally against the way that opera (and art) should function, even the way that opera considers itself to function and, to some extent, does function. Differently-designed hair dryers, just like differently-branded colas and skateboards, have a fundamentally equivalent use value. While there may be small differences in quality, longevity and aesthetic appeal, they serve an equivalent social use (outside of their market differentiation function within capitalism itself) in a way that art ideally shouldn’t. Entertainment and escapism is one thing, but I don’t think it’s too controversial to argue that art should make some statement, materialise some idea or contain some truth value – in-and-of-itself, or in combination with other works/contextualised by other texts – that is not equivalent to the other ‘successful’ artworks within the genre. In other words, different instances of a particular artistic genre should not be reducible to the same ‘use value’ (if artistic ‘truth’ can even really be considered a ‘use value’), even if universally relative ‘star ratings’ and Time Out’s ‘editor’s pick of the week’ (or even lists of ’50 Great Symphonies’ in classical music magazines) suggest that they can be.

[This binary between process and product is, of course, far from an absolute one. The exact nature of this potential new ‘truth’ is by definition undefinable (and even inconceivable). Many would undoubtedly protest that there are new truths to be revealed about the process of making opera itself, new truths about the genre of opera or about its classic tropes, character types and formulas, new ways of looking at old stylistic conventions, etc. This follows the idea that if you create enough different works that are still identifiable as the same art form (with a shared criteria of value judgment), then you get closer to the true nature of that art form (and its value). Hence one hundred different tables will give you a better idea of ‘tableness’ than two tables, and seven billion different humans give a more nuanced, complex sense of ‘humanity’ or ‘human nature’ than five humans. And, following this idea, striving again and again to produce ‘great’ operas, like striving to make the perfect teapot, will tell us something about the nature of opera, the nature of what we perceive as greatness in opera, and then maybe also the nature of music, sound, theatre, humanity etc etc.

[This is, as far as I can tell, a fairly standard perspective on the value of new art. And I’m sure it has its own resistant (and maybe even revolutionary) potential. My contention is that we should at least be aware of the risks and the responsibilities that I’ve outlined in  this and the previous post…]

>>>In my next post in this saga, I propose some practical approaches to collaboration and the ‘problem of opera’, in order to move away from the rationalised ideology of creative process over innovative product… >>>READ ON>>>

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3 Responses to (2) // opera vs the commodity form //

  1. Pingback: (3) // Raising the Bar: Agonist Opera, Ensemble Opera, Auteur Opera // |

  2. Pingback: Two More Aphorisms for the Future of Opera |

  3. Pingback: (1) // The Ideology of Opera Creation // |

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