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Changing the Guard

Oliver Mears is the new director of opera at Covent Garden.
By Richard Fairman

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The Bow Street entrance to Covent Garden
© ROH/Luke Hayes
“Opera is not elitist but an art form for everybody.”
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Mears at the Royal Opera House
© Graemae Robertson/Eyevine/Redux Pictures

IT WAS ALL CHANGE for visitors to the Royal Opera House over the summer. After three years of refashioning the areas created during the 1990s redevelopment, the scaffolding is down. A large public balcony has appeared overlooking the former Bow Street police station. The new foyers and entrance to Covent Garden Piazza are accessible, and the reconfigured studio theater is due to open shortly.

There has been a big change on the artistic front, too. After six years, Kasper Holten, director of opera, stepped down in 2017, and his place has been taken by Oliver Mears, formerly artistic director of Northern Ireland Opera. The last year or two of Holten’s term had been marred by hostility to some of the productions he had instigated. My press seats were directly behind Holten’s, and I saw at close quarters how upset he had been by the booing that greeted a rape scene inserted into Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, an event that made international headlines.

How does Mears feel, stepping into such a potentially combustible post? “Obviously I was delighted,” he says, bypassing the issue of his predecessor’s experiences. “The Royal Opera House has an extraordinary history, going back to Handel’s time, and I am aware that the choices I make will form part of that tradition. It helps that I worked as a staff director for the Royal Opera a decade ago, so I knew the people a bit, especially Tony [Pappano], who is a great colleague and communicator.”

Taking charge of artistic policy at a top opera company is no easy ride these days, when the traditional models of presenting opera are facing challenges. In the U.S., the number of star singers who can sell out the large American opera houses seems to be dwindling. In Europe, the cult of the opera director has surely gone as far as it can in terms of extreme, and sometimes alienating, productions.

Many people view the Royal Opera as occupying a place between the two, somewhere in mid-Atlantic. Mears, though, is decisive in his outlook. “Going back to Handel’s day, this has always been a singers’ house,” he says. “Our data suggest it is rare for audiences to come for a particular director or even conductor. They want to see, firstly, an opera or composer of their choice, and then the very best singers, but what we also offer is something intangible, which is our history. The Royal Opera is the sum of all the great artists who have worked here in the past, the sum of all its experiences, and that creates a very special aura.”

Private philanthropy has grown considerably in recent years, but the state still provides a generous subsidy. Nonetheless, Mears points out, the Royal Opera is more dependent on box office than its European counterparts. “I think this mix of funding is beneficial,” he says, “because we are not beholden to any one of those sources. The freedom is there to create work which is risk-taking, but we also need to appeal to a broad audience. Provocation and challenge, yes—but we will also respect tradition.”

Mears’s strategy promises a clear path forward. “The Royal Opera’s own story will provide the thread,” he says. “Handel wrote so many of his operas and oratorios for London, albeit for a different theater, and his music is a perfect fit for this auditorium, offering just the right balance of scale and intimacy. We are planning a series of titles by Handel, all works first performed here, and that will also suit the many British singers who perform this repertoire so well. Another example is Britten. Next season we will have Billy Budd, which had its premiere at Covent Garden. What better place to perform his operas is there?”

Only a few minutes’ walk down the road is English National Opera, and however weakened the rival is, both companies benefit from having clearly defined characters. For example, ENO has enjoyed some of its biggest successes recently with Philip Glass and John Adams. While Mears says he has been looking at minimalist operas, he is quick to hold off any suggestion of going in that direction.  

His arrival coincides with the imminent reopening of the Linbury Theatre, which one hopes will be unrecognizable from the modernist dungeon it was before. Here an artistic director can realize his dreams without sinking the budget.

“We want the programming at the Linbury to form a coherent whole with the main stage, so there will be some lesser-known Handel, some Janáček and a lot more that is unpredictable and surprising. We will reopen the theater with the world premiere of a new opera for families [Gavin Higgins’s Monstrous Child, based on a “darkly humorous” young-adult novel by Francesca Simon], the first of what should be many family-friendly events. 

“We also have a new production of Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel on the main stage at Christmas, and”—adds Mears with a dig at German-style Regietheater—“it will not be set in a concentration camp. I have children of my own and know how transformational first encounters with the arts can be. Through my whole career I have wanted to create these opportunities for as many people as possible. The message we need to send out there is that opera is not elitist but an art form for everybody.” spacer

Richard Fairman has been a music critic for the Financial Times since 1988.



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