Opera is far and away the most ludicrous of art forms. Quite a large amount of disbelief must be suspended for it to bear only the most passing resemblance to real life; it is often wildly expensive to mount, requiring a range of people who have excelled in the most niche and varied strands of training, and it is something of a wonder that it hasn’t been ‘selected out’ by artistic evolution. It is a very strange moment as an opera conductor when (perhaps in a more nihilistic mood than usual) you realise that your job shakes down to asking a singer for ‘a bit more of a T on the end of that word’ and fretting about the relative merits and drawbacks of maybe taking a certain section of music a couple of beats-per-minute slower. Frankly, conducting opera is a very weird job.
So why do we do this? Why do we, performers and audience, gather together in rooms for this most peculiar of reasons? Why do conductors, directors, producers, designers, stage managers and countless more people agonise over these tensions between words and music, staging and drama? It seems to me that the answer lies in the fact that opera is capable of putting across our passions and our stories far more powerfully than any other medium. We are a storytelling animal, and what Pandora’s Box does is tell an urgent, compact and complex story.
An opera conductor’s role, therefore, is to help the richness of that drama land with an audience in the most potent way possible – taking decisions all in the service of clarity. And while we surely all enjoy being retold stories brought to life by European masters in bygone centuries (as comprises 90% of opera today), the creation and presentation of brand new stories is the lifeblood of this art form. The exploration of new ways in which to tell these stories is the way in which operatic art can keep evolving.
It is therefore because we find ourselves in a repurposed warehouse building in Peckham, with chairs enclosing a deliberately claustrophobic playing space, and wonderful storytellers to delight and challenge us with sung, spoken, scraped, hit and blown sounds, that opera as an art form remains wonderfully buoyant and vital. It continues to transform the lives of audiences emotionally and intellectually, and to express something of the human condition in a way that no other art form can.
Lee is the conductor of Pandora’s Box, The Opera Story’s fourth commission.
Note: The planned performances of Pandora’s Box were cancelled due to the health crisis, but we were able to produce a full video recording of the piece on the last day of rehearsals. This will be premiered on YouTube on Sunday April 26th at 8pm UK time. It is a pay-what-you-can event: please donate to the fund we set up to support the artists at https://theoperastory.com/support/ to receive the link.